The horizon is not so far as we can see, but as far as we can imagine

Why a Book On Economic Prosperity is still needed

A number of books have been written what makes societies rich over the centuries, and a fair number of them recently. It’s not a topic which hasn’t drawn plenty of attention.

So why write another one?

Most recent books on prosperity tend to focus on one or a few factors.  If people have clear legal title to their property there will be prosperity.  If people are free to make enforceable contracts of their choice, there will be prosperity.  If we print money and use it to give everyone a job, there will be prosperity.  If most of the population shares in economic gains, there will be prosperity. If we tax the rich and spread the money around, there will be prosperity.

It’s not that simple.  That’s not to say these answers aren’t necessarily correct, it’s that they are massively incomplete.  Freedom to make enforceable contracts will not make a society prosperous absent many other conditions.  Having everyone share in economic gains is almost half the answer: but it’s both an end and a condition—to get to a society where everyone shares requires a multitude of political, social, educational and economic conditions.  Taxing the hell out of the rich is one very important thing to do, but it’s not enough by itself, and the question isn’t just should we tax the rich, but under what conditions will a society tax the rich, under what conditions won’t it, and how do we get the first state and avoid the second?

Non fiction books today, as a rule, are either over-long magazine articles: topics which should have been a 10,000 word essay; or they are very long missives intended to prove an obvious point in the face of massive ideological pressure to keep it in doubt.

The first category can usually be recognized by the magazine style writing, “Ian was a curly haired man with a ruddy complexion and a sardonic smile.”

In the second category are books like the Spirit Level, which proves that inequality is bad, even if poor people have more stuff than rich people used to have is some historical period; and Piketty’s Capital, which proves that if returns on money (Piketty’s capital is just money in its various forms) are higher than income gains for the majority, the rich will get richer.  (Um, yes.  If car A goes faster than Car B it will pull ahead).  The book doesn’t even adequately deal with the fact that most of the new rich are rich because of positional advantage: they made their money off salaries and bonuses; nor does it deal adequately with the fact that the returns on money being so high is a deliberate legislative, executive and judicial choice backed by central bank policy to make it so no matter how much money they had to invest.

The result of these trends in books is that there is no recent book on prosperity which deals with anywhere near the complete range of issues:

  • what human nature is like and how it can be and is deliberately shaped in character;
  • political coalitions;
  • how private and public decision makers are selected;
  • how policies create the people and power necessary for their continuation or fail to do so;
  • what the effect of generational change on character and thus politics and policy is;
  • what human nature is like and how it can be and is deliberately shaped into character;
  • how oligopolies and monopolies form and endure; how technology changes the shape of possible economies;
  • how violence is related to politics and economics, both within countries and in the global economy;
  • what money actually does;
  • how permission is given to do new things in an economy;
  • the actual physical constraints on prosperity and their relation to character, environment and technology;
  • how very different economies have been in the past; how goods are actually distributed and how they could be distributed differently;
  • the circumstances under which trade increases or decreases prosperity;
  • Bottlenecks on growth, sinks and renewable resources;
  • the circumstances under which we can just give people resources allowing them to create myriad of new livelihoods, products and services;
  • how ideologies are created, maintained, changed and destroyed and their real world effects on policy;
  • a whole slew of practical power considerations,

and far more.

The problem most people have is that they have relatively incomplete alternative worldview.  There is no single, relatively recent book, which will give you one.  To have one you must create it.  Most people will not read the thousands of books of necessary to winnow out the hundreds that deal with one or two of the issues above and deal with them in a useful way which can be made part of a coherent whole.  They don’t have the inclination, time or character, nor should most of them be expected to: they live different lives.

Without such a coherent worldview, presented in a relatively small book, most people will pick up bits and pieces here and there and plug it into the prevailing ideological worldview: in our case, neo-liberal capitalism; or they will fall back on an older ideology like Marxism; some form of anarchism substantially created 80 years ago or longer; some right wing variant on fascist thought; or one of the many hybrid forms of capitalist thought.

I don’t think any of those ideologies have a coherent world-view which can be made to work today, though that’s not to say that almost all of them don’t have something useful in them which we can learn from.

The only other approach which could work in theory is the extremely high level provision of principles.  “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”  “Do as though will, so thou hurt none” (a far harder proposition than most people realize.)  I have suggested that if we simply do the kind thing, the vast majority of the time it will be the right thing, and we can afford the remaining times: it will produce far more correct policies than our current ideological regime, or indeed any of the ideological regimes in power anywhere in the world today.

But such proscriptions require a way to create and choose leaders who have the wisdom and character to follow them, and a people who will select those leaders.  So you come back to “how do we get those leaders?”  Most people do not have faith in goodness or kindness: they don’t actually believe that being benevolent works.  For such people you have to, in essence, prove that it does work: you have to show the cases; and you have to do in a pragmatic and hard-headed way, acknowledging the times when coercion, force and violence will be required: those times are few, but they do exist.

Our current system is not set up to provide such a book. Our academics are primarily specialists without the wide spread of learning required for it.  Our public intellectuals are selected primarily for obeisance to power, and cannot write such a radical volume.  And, I fear, by and large, most publishers are not interested in such a book: it does not fall into any of the neat categories they favor, and cannot be written by a member of the club.

Such a book also cannot be like Piketty’s book, it cannot prove every case in exhaustive detail: if it was, it would be between 25,000 50,000 pages and no one would actually read it.  But a small book will be easily criticized even if accurate.

Though more detailed that Machiavelli’s “The Prince”, the book must be similar in making its argument then moving on to the next point, because it must actually be read, and be read by many people.  The lack of detailed argument and exhaustive data is not entirely a flaw, however, for within all the holes such a book must have are entire lifetimes of work for more specialized academics and intellectuals and any ideology must create work for the ideological classes, or they will not adopt it.

This, then, is the book I’m trying to write.

If you enjoyed this article, and want me to write more, please DONATE or SUBSCRIBE.


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  1. Texas Nate

    I’m ready to contribute financially to support your efforts.

  2. John Measor

    Excellent project! Look forward to it; based on your writing here and in previous incarnations it should be concise and clear … Machiavelli’s ‘The Prince’ was ~32,000-words … it seems you will need to craft quite a bit to get under your self-imposed 50K … a lost art that it would be good to reinvigorate … having the full book (e.g. The Discourses) … a pamphlet (e.g. The Prince) … and something even more brief (e.g. a blog?) … the ability to synthesize such a wide array and then package it successfully is almost as challenging as finding readers willing to honestly engage these days.

    Can’t wait to hear of your updates …

  3. Ian Welsh

    It’ll be more than 50K. I doubt it’ll be more than 70K though.

  4. nihil obstet

    Looking forward to it. I hope you’ll give us periodic updates on your progress.

  5. pond

    Though one item on your list refers to it obliquely, the abundance of natural resources is or should be Item No. One on any list as the fundamental perquisite of prosperity. All the more so since most economics books ignore it.

    Also, population. The two are related in ways you will quickly intuit:

    – more natural resources = more total wealth
    – more people can process the natural resources available, adding value
    – but, more people for a given amount of natural resources = lower per-capita prosperity

  6. Ian Welsh

    Natural resources are important, though I don’t think it’s item #1 except in a theoretical sense: it’s not our primary problem today.

    I have about 30K written.

  7. Jessica

    I very much look forward to reading your book. I am rooting for you to get it done.
    “Our current system is not set up to provide such a book”
    Our current system is in many ways set up to try to prevent any such book. I believe that when we get to the other shore, we will have a value system that places a much higher emphasis on being truthful, that will heap calumny and shame on those who service falsehood and image (=not even false) for the sake of money.

    PS If you would refrain from writing about identity politics because you consider this book a more important use of your time, I agree and apologize for seeing other motivation.

  8. cripes

    “Heap calumny and shame on those who service falsehood” — what a novel and necessary condition, that is also in short supply. Paul Craig Roberts comments in recent interview that a generation or two past, would not have allowed such parading in public the misdeeds of sociopaths as virtue (my words) as we witness today. Frankly, there is little social expectation to do the right thing by those who wield power, merely slavish adulation and a bottomless apetite for “accountability” and consequences inflicted on the poor.

    This really is a salient feature of our time, strangely Dickensian in our age of material abundance–excess in fact. I can only interpret the phony scarcity meme as a proxy for the desire of power to enforce obediance on the mass. This does of course require a large number of the untermensch to adopt their worldview and act to enforce it on their peers.

    As my grandmother said: “Being simple, ain’t.”

    Anyway, looking forward to Ian’s manifesto. As my grandmother reminded me many times, “BE

  9. cripes

    Sorry, android word-processing.

    To Ian’s manifesto:

    “Being simple, ain’t.”

  10. Trixie

    May I suggest a title?

    Ian Welsh on Economic Prosperity: The Yelling.

    (runs away)

  11. Jeff W

    I’m eagerly awaiting your book also, Ian, and can easily see buying more than one copy to give to friends.

    I don’t view the lack of detailed argument and exhaustive data as a flaw at all. It’s simply not that kind of a book. It’s enough that it present a more complete, coherent worldview that actually explains the world around us than what is available and provides courses of action (at any level of abstraction) to follow or not follow. Its power is in its explanatory nature, not so much in the support of the argument.

  12. Ian Welsh

    Identity politics, for me, in economic terms (there are other terms) fall under the rubric of economic justice. It is simply not fair that blacks get half the callbacks on identical resumes, for example. It would also be, if we lived in anything resembling an actually meritocratic society, a horrible waste of people.

    In any case, I will speak to some of those issues in the book, though more directly to those related to the family than to racism.

  13. Vic78

    Why not a series of books with each book dealing with a given question? You have a fresh perspective. It was amusing watching people get excited about a decorated economist stating that water is wet. From reading your posts, chances are good that it’ll be high quality.

    I’ve been lurking for a few months now and had to drop a comment.

  14. scruff

    I’m also looking forward to this book.

    Non fiction books today, as a rule, are either over-long magazine articles: topics which should have been a 10,000 word essay

    So true, but I suppose this is the only way most writers can get any sort of a deal in an age of ubiquitous digital access… it’s just not financially viable to publish pamphlets anymore.

  15. stirling

    count me in, though not very much money.

  16. Bruce Wilder

    Very good.

    I’d like to contribute my two cents, though.

    Cent 1: Prosperity is something people do. The actual doing is closer to the desired end of prosperity, then whatever circuitous route is recommended for getting to the doing. Better to get immediately to the business end, and adjust means to output, as experience accumulates than jabber on about the size of government or some similar silliness. The “one or a few factors” you mention being written about in previous books are not just “too simple”, they are too far removed from the actual doing of prosperity.

    Cent 2: Cooperation and competition are the same thing. Oh, I know that one can make abstract distinctions between the concepts that will illuminate many issues; they are different concepts, different ideas. But, the concrete thing — human social and political organization — entails both. As soon people begin to cooperate to produce more with less effort, they have opposed interests in the terms by which output will be distributed. And, as soon as people start competing, in sports or politics or business (even in war), they begin cooperating.

    Cent 2 is the hard task for a philosophy or ideology of shared prosperity: people are strategic actors. Every rule you make will be gamed. Good intentions at the outset are not enough; to succeed, somehow, what is done has to produce good intentions as an output and an outcome. The mutually beneficial bargain has to become the goal, enlightened self-interest the means.

    OK, my narcissism is satisfied, now.

    What you doing is really important. Keep on.

  17. Ian Welsh

    People won’t read multiple books, and the connection between the issues matters. One of my great frustrations has been when I’ve given people action plans with X number of items and they figure “oh we can just pick and choose?”

    No, no you can’t. They’re interrelated and interdependent and if you pick and choose without understand the relationships the entire thing falls apart.

    Besides, I don’t want to write mutliple books. 🙂

  18. Spinoza

    You’ll change the world. Look forward to reading it. Can’t finance anything but I have a policy of not stealing books by living authors or from small shops. Haha. Never commented on blogs before this but this is truly amazing. So many thought provoking posts and spirited debate.

    I hope my foolishness hasn’t stunk up your comments!

    Go with God. And give the bastards Hell.

  19. Ian Welsh

    Oh, woops, that should have been “would be over 50,000 pages!”

    Not only would no one read it: no one could write it, either.

    (You might be able to get it down to 25K pages.)

  20. The only other approach which could work in theory is the extremely high level provision of principles. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” “Do as though will, so thou hurt none” (a far harder proposition than most people realize.) I have suggested that if we simply do the kind thing, the vast majority of the time it will be the right thing, and we can afford the remaining times: it will produce far more correct policies than our current ideological regime, or indeed any of the ideological regimes in power anywhere in the world today.

    “In theory” is the operative phrase. With cutting by the upcoming generation in vogue and drug abuse in Russia at epidemic levels, I’m not sure I want these people to do unto me what they’re doing unto themselves.

    Why are so many girls cutting themselves?

    How common is it? Much more common than it used to be. Studies from the 1990’s suggested rates of 3% or lower. But more recent studies suggest that as many as one in five girls between 10 and 18 years of age are now cutting themselves with razor blades or burning themselves with matches, etc. For example, researchers at Yale University recently reported that 56% of the 10- to 14-year-old girls they interviewed reported engaging in NSSI at some point in their lifetime, including 36% in the past year. I know of no community survey of boys in any age group which approaches that kind of prevalence.

    Krokodil Tears — Crimea River

  21. DupinTM

    I can’t wait!

  22. sniv

    Sounds like a fine (ambitious) project.
    I can’t wait to read it. I can guarantee
    the sale of at least one copy.

    Good fortune, godspeed, may your Muse
    get you in a figure-four necklock and
    enthusiastically encourage you, etc. … ;]

  23. The Tragically Flip

    You’re trying to create the coherent alternative to the current system the left has lacked since it broadly lost faith in socialism. The thing we can affirmatively drive to, rather than just saying “this part of neoliberalism doesn’t work, socialize it”, “this needs more regulation” – fighting 1000 battles, winning a few while losing the broader war.

    I approve.

  24. John

    I wish great success in your effort. We are in desperate need for a new economic paradigm on how “to manage the household” on earth. The current management methods are slowly and cruelly killing us. And short of the book, I greatly appreciate your essays. Thank you!

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