Taking a Stand

Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy

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Put into the TBR queue based on some recommendation of which I've lost track. Obtained by UNH's stellar Dimond Library via the Boston Library Consortium from the O'Neill Library at Boston College. Thanks to all involved.

Robert Higgs is an economist (Austrian variety), specializing in economic history. His politics are strict libertarian anarchist. He is associated with the Independent Institute and contributes to their blog, The Beacon. This book organizes 99 blog posts he made over the span of six years. Most are short, each a few minutes reading.

The chapters are organized into six sections. The first, "Politics and the State", demonstrates Higgs' uncompromising contempt for the blood-soaked modern state. He has little patience with even advocates of small government, contending that even the classical-liberal state has no justifiable moral authority.

He's not wrong. But I kept wishing that he had engaged with the argument made in (for example) Steven Pinker's The Better Angels of Our Nature: historically, the rise of the modern state has been accompanied with a drastic decline in violence, coercion, and misery. Accident? Coincidence?

Similarly, Higgs' views on American economic history are depressing: a descent into Leviathan, with no prospect of recovery. (Capitalism is "dead as a dodo since 1914, if not longer.") Here, I wish he'd taken a longer and broader view. Certainly it's theoretically possible for economic liberty to improve; it's done so in the past, and (in some places), it's done so in the recent past. I wish, for example, that Higgs could have explicitly discussed the work of Deirdre McCloskey, another economic historian concerned with how liberty and prosperity evolve.

After the libertarian red meat, Higgs considers (mostly) recent American economic history, especially issues revolving around the recent Great Recession. He is of course critical of government's role in causing and prolonging the crisis. A key thesis is "regime uncertainty": especially in the age of Obama, American government has few restraints guarding against sudden expropriation. How can private entrepreneurs proceed with confidence if the next (inevitable) crisis kicks off a wave of legal plunder?

It would be easy to conclude that Higgs is uniformly dour and cranky. Not true! There's a section of obituaries (including ones for his parents) that show his generous and compassionate side. There are also three economic-themed parodies, based on, respectively, "Monster Mash", "American Pie", and Poe's "The Raven". Funny! (But then I am easily amused.)

As you might expect from a book constructed out of blog posts, things can be both disjointed and a tad repetitive. I found it was best to take things leisurely, reading only a few chapters per sitting.

Last Modified 2016-04-25 5:57 AM EDT