Comments on Comments

My short, 1,500, word piece with “Comments on McCloskey and Weingast” was just published in Scandinavian Economic History Review. You can read it here.

Remarkable how this happened. Once I finally realized that McCloskey had discussed my work to some considerable extent in her original article, I contacted the editors of the journal and suggested that I’d write a short comment. They agreed but gave me a tight deadline. It was a Thursday and they wanted the final version the following Monday. Putting other work aside I happily obliged. The article was accepted the same day, and now only a month later it is actually published. I wish all articles I write were as quick to get into print.

While the piece was in draft form I put it up on Academia. edu where I got first-rate comments from Michael Schmitz, Astrid Nordin and Göran Sonesson among others. I’m much obliged. Deirdre McCloskey also commented in an email. Deirdre and I agree on many things, but we disagree on the role of institutions.

A newer, more radical, modernity

I just finished another article, “A Newer, More Radical, Modernity: A Prolegomena to a Politics of the Potential.” You can read it here.  The abstract goes like this:

Radical politics in modern society was premised on a constructivist ontology which now increasingly has been abandoned in favor of political solutions based on an ontology of self-organization. As a result, radical politics is in decline. Yet the self-organizing model is unable to explain the most salient feature of modern society — the relentlessness and automaticity of social change. Change can only be explained by an ontology which focuses on the self-actualization of the potential. This alternative ontology can also serve as the foundation for a new form of radical politics.

Truth be told, I originally wrote this a long time ago as a sort of summary of the best ideas from my Why Europe Was First book. I sent it to a journal, forget which, and the editor got back to me to say that although the article was very interesting it was really a summary of a book. He was right of course.  This version is entirely reworked and has a different focus. It’s all about the potential, man, and what only could happen if we took our imagination seriously and found a way of embedding it into the institutions that organize our lives.

Comments on McCloskey and Weingast

I wrote this brief, 5-page, article in response to the articles by Deirdre McCloskey and Barry Weingast in the Scandinavian Economic History Review.

A few quotes:

“McCloskey is provocative to be sure, passionate as always, but also perfectly persuasive. Yet something is still missing from the analysis.”

“Barry Weingast makes this point eloquently and he too is right. Indeed, there is no contradiction here only a dogmatic refusal, on McCloskey’s part, to expand the analysis to include the blatantly obvious.”

“Instead of rejecting institutions, we need to pay more attention to them. Weingast’s suggestions provide a first step, but his perspective is needlessly constrained to “incentives” and their permutations. In a self-actualizing social ontology three sets of institutions are relevant.”

McCloskey on Why Europe Was First

This is an excerpt from an article by Deirdre McCloskey where she discusses my book Why Europe Was First.

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The Swedish political scientist Erik Ringmar’s answer to the question Why was Europe first? begins from the simple and true triad of points that all change involves an initial reflection (namely, that change is possible), an entrepreneurial moment (putting the change into practice) and ‘pluralism’ or ‘toleration’ (I would call the toleration the ideology of the Bourgeois Era, namely, the Bourgeois Revaluation, some way of counteracting the annoyance with which the naturally conservative majority of humans will view any moving of their cheese). ‘Contemporary Britain, the United States or Japan’, Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 31) writes, ‘are not modern because they contain individuals who are uniquely reflective, entrepreneurial or tolerant’. That’s correct: the psychological hypothesis one finds in Weber or in the psychologist David McClelland or in the historian David Landes does not stand up to the evidence, as for example the success of the overseas Chinese, or indeed the astonishingly quick turn from Maoist starvation in mainland China to 9 or 10% rates of growth per year per person, or from the Hindu rate of growth and the License Raj in India after independence to growth rates per person since 1991 over 6%. Why would psychology change so quickly? And now could a rise of an entrepreneurial spirit from, say, 5% of the population to 10%, which could have also characterised earlier efflorescences such as fifth century Athens, cause after 1800 a uniquely Great Enrichment of a factor of 30?

But then unhappily Ringmar contends in Douglass-North style, ‘A modern society is a society in which change happens automatically and effortlessly because it is institutionalized’ (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 32). The trouble with the claim of ‘institutions’ is, as Ringmar himself noted earlier in another connection, that ‘it begs the question of the origin’ (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 24).99 Ringmar’s remarkable literacy in an English not his native tongue, by the way, shows in his accurate use of the phrase ‘begs the question’, which is widely used to mean ‘suggests the question’.View all notes It also begs the question of enforcement, which depends on ethics and opinion absent from the neo-institutional tale. ‘The joker in the pack’, writes the economic historian Jones (2010 Jones, E. L. (2010). Locating the industrial revolution: Inducement and response. London: World Scientific. [Google Scholar]) in speaking of the decline of guild restrictions in England, ‘was the national shift in elite opinion, which the courts partly shared’:

The judges often declined to support the restrictiveness that the guilds sought to impose … As early as the start of seventeenth century, towns had been losing cases they took to court with the aim of compelling new arrivals to join their craft guilds … A key case concerned Newbury and Ipswich in 1616. The ruling in this instance became a common law precedent, to the effect that ‘foreigners’, men from outside a borough, could not be compelled to enrol. (p. 102–103)

Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar]) devotes 150 lucid and learned and literate pages to exploring the origins of European science, humanism, newspapers, universities, academies, theatre, novels, corporations, property rights, insurance, Dutch finance, diversity, states, politeness, civil rights, political parties and economics. But he is a true comparativist (he taught for some years in China) – this in sharp contrast to some of the other Northians, and especially the good, much missed Douglass North himself. So Ringmar does not suppose that the European facts speak for themselves. In the following 100 pages, he takes back much of the implicit claim that Europe was anciently special, whether ‘institutionalized’ or not, by going through for China the same triad of reflection, entrepreneurship and pluralism/toleration, and finding them pretty good. ‘The Chinese were at least as intrepid [in the seas] as the Europeans’; ‘The [Chinese] imperial state constituted next to no threat to the property rights of merchants and investors’; ‘already by 400 BCE China produced as much cast iron as Europe would in 1750’; Confucianism was ‘a wonderfully flexible doctrine’; ‘China was far more thoroughly commercialized’; European ‘salons and coffee shops [were] … in some ways strikingly Chinese’ (Ringmar, 2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], pp. 250, 254, 274, 279, 280–282). He knows, as the Northians appear not to, that China had banks and canals and large firms and private property many centuries before the Northian date for the acquisition of such modernities in England, the end of the seventeenth century. (So too on many counts did England itself, for that matter.)

The economist and historian Ogilvie (2007 Ogilvie, S. (2007). ‘Whatever is, is right’? Economic institutions in pre-industrial Europe. Economic History Review, 60, 649684. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2007.00408.x[CrossRef], [Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]) criticizes the neo-institutionalists and their claims that efficiency ruled, arguing on the contrary for a ‘conflictual’ point of view, in which power is taken seriously:

Efficiency theorists do sometimes mention that institutions evoke conflict. But they seldom incorporate conflict into their explanations. Instead, conflict remains an incidental by-product of institutions portrayed as primarily existing to enhance efficiency … Although serfdom [for example] was profoundly ineffective at increasing the size of the economic pie, it was highly effective at distributing large slices to overlords, with fiscal and military side-benefits to rulers and economic privileges for serf elites. (pp. 662–663)

The same can be said for the new political and social ideas that at length broke down an ideology that had been highly effective at justifying in ethical terms the distribution of large slices to overlords.

Why, then, a change in a system so profitable for the elite? Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], pp. 72, 178, 286) gets it right when he speaks of public opinion, which was a late and contingent development in Europe, and to which he recurs frequently. The oldest newspaper still publishing in Europe is a Swedish one of 1645, Post- och Inrikes Tidningar (Foreign and Domestic Times), and the first daily one in England dates to 1702. Benjamin Franklin’s older brother James quickly imitated in Boston in 1721 the idea of a newspaper and became, with the active help of adolescent Ben, a thorn in the side of the authorities. That is, the institutions that mattered the most were not the ‘incentives’ beloved of the economists, such as patents (which have been shown to be insignificant, and anyway have been universal, as state-granted monopolies, from the first formation of states) or property rights (which were established in China and India and the Ottoman Empire, often much earlier than in Europe; and after all the Roman law was clear on property). The important ‘institutions’ were ideas, words, rhetoric and ideology. And these did change on the eve of the Great Enrichment. What changed circa 1700 was a climate of persuasion, which led promptly to the amazing reflection, entrepreneurship and pluralism called the modern world.

It is not always true, as Ringmar (2007 Ringmar, E. (2007). Why Europe was first: Social change and economic growth in Europe and East Asia 1500–2050. London: Anthem. [Google Scholar], p. 37) claims at one point that ‘institutions are best explained in terms of the path through which they developed’. He contradicts himself on the page previous and there speaks truth: often ‘the institutions develop first and the needs come only later’. It is not the case for example that the origins of English betterment, if not of individualism, are usefully traced to early medieval times. It is not the case that, say, English common law was essential for modernity. The historian David Le Bris (2013 Le Bris, D. (2013). Customary versus civil law within Old Regime France. Unpublished paper, KEDGE Business School. Retrieved from ) has shown that within France before the Revolution the French north was a common-law area, while the south was a civil-law area, but with little or no discernible differences in economic outcome during the next century. Places without such law, further, promptly developed alternatives, when the ideology turned, as it often did turn suddenly, in favour of betterment.

Why England? English rhetoric changed in favour of trade-tested progress. To illustrate the change in one of its aspects, it came out of the irritating successes of the Dutch. The successes of the Dutch Republic were startling to Europe. The Navigation Acts and the three Anglo-Dutch Wars by which in the middle of the seventeenth century England attempted in mercantilist, trade-is-war fashion to appropriate some Dutch success to itself were the beginning of a larger English project of emulating the burghers of Delft and Leiden. ‘The evidence for this widespread envy of Dutch enterprise’, wrote the historian Paul Kennedy (1976 Kennedy, P. M. (1976). The rise and fall of British naval mastery. New York: Scribner’s. [Google Scholar]), ‘is overwhelming’ (p. 59). Similarly, the historian Kadane (2008 Kadane, M. (2008). Success and self-loathing in the life of an eighteenth-century entrepreneur. In M. C. Jacob & C. Secretan (Eds.), The self-perception of early modern capitalists (pp. 253271). New York: Palgrave Macmillan.[CrossRef][Google Scholar]) recently accounted for the English shift toward bourgeois virtues by ‘various interactions with the Dutch’. The English at the time put it in doggerel: ‘Make war with Dutchmen, peace with Spain / Then we shall have money and trade again’. Yet it was not in fact warring against the Dutch that made England rich. Wars are expensive, and the Dutch admiraals Tromp and De Ruyter were no pushovers. It was imitating them that did the trick. It was ideas.

Thomas Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society of 1667, early in the project by some Englishmen of becoming Dutch, attacked such envy and interaction and imitation. He viewed it as commendable that ‘the merchants of England live honourably in foreign parts’ but ‘those of Holland meanly, minding their gain alone’. Shameful. ‘Ours … [have] in their behavior very much the gentility of the families from which so many of them are descended [note the sending of younger sons into trade]. The others when they are abroad show that they are only a race of plain citizens’, disgraceful cits. Perhaps it was, Sprat notes with annoyance, ‘one of the reasons they can so easily undersell us’ (1958 Sprat, T. (1958). The history of the Royal Society. J. Cope, & H. Jones (Eds.). St. Louis: Washington University Studies (original work published in 1667). [Google Scholar], p. 88). Possibly. John Dryden in 1672 took up Sprat’s complaint in similar words. In his play Amboyna; or, The Cruelties of the Dutch to the English Merchants the English merchant Beaumont addresses the Dutch: ‘For frugality in trading, we confess we cannot compare with you; for our merchants live like noblemen: your gentlemen, if you have any, live like boers’ (Dryden 1994 Dryden, J. (1994). The works of John Dryden: Vol. 12. In V. A. Dearing (Ed.). Berkeley, CA: University of California Press. (original work published in 1672). [Google Scholar], 2.1.391–393). Yet Josiah Child (1668/1698, arguing against guild regulation of cloth, admired the Dutch on non-aristocratic, prudential grounds: ‘if we intend to have the trade of the world we must imitate the Dutch’ (pp. 148, 68). Better boers we.1010 The Swedish historian Erik Thomson has shown that the English were not the only Europeans startled by the economic success of the United Provinces and ready, with some reluctance, to imitate them (Thomson, 2005 Thomson, E. (2005). Swedish variations on Dutch commercial institutions, 1605–1655. Scandinavian Studies, 77, 331346.[Web of Science ®][Google Scholar]).View all notes

Ideas, not capital or institutions, made the modern world.


The complete article is here;

Uncle Bob in Lund

Of all our family members, it is really only Uncle Bob who regularly comes to visit. He visited us when we lived in Shanghai, in north London and now in Lund. Yes, he was in Lund last night, our little medieval university town in southern Sweden. I brought Diane and two daughters. Blood is thicker than water.

Bob has once again reinvented himself. “Why change me now?” he asks in a borrowed Sinatra lyric, but it is not us trying to change him as much as he continuously changing himself.  At the age of 75 that’s pretty remarkable. Those who are not busy being born are a-busy dying.  And Bob Dylan is not dying.

He has, however, gotten quite a bit older since we saw him in Helsingborg three years ago. He moves more slowly on stage. He dances — yes, dances — but it’s all a bit awkward.  And he has to leave the keyboard and stand in the middle of the stage with his legs wide apart in order to be able to belt out the jazz standards which now feature as a regular part of his repertoire.

The jazz standards are not bad. Dylan’s raspy voice works well in combination with the silky smooth arrangements. And yet, I can’t help thinking that he is doing karaoke. Dylan karaoke is better than most kinds of karaoke, and I respect him deeply for doing what he wants to do, but it does sound to me like a hobby project rather than something to take with him around the world.

The real reinvention, however, concerns his transformation from a blues and rock ‘n roll artist into a sort of vaudeville performer. He and the band are playing circus music, in a Sergeant Pepper vein, or in the style of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. You fully expect acrobats, jugglers and bearded ladies to come on stage. Yet it is not festive as much as grimy — “After Midnight” — grim — “Paying in Blood” — and sad — “Long and Wasted Years.” The furrows in the face of the clown have grown deep, the make-up of the septuagenarian prostitute is running. It’s a remarkable world into which Bob inserts the songs from his 1960s song-book as well as the new Sinatra classics. Yes, they all fit, and thanks to the tight accompaniment of the band and the imaginative arrangements of the songs it’s always interesting.

But how good is it?  I like my blues rock and the Dylan who stopped by here in Sweden only a few years ago was a first-rate blues and rock man. I liked his harmonica playing, for one thing, but there was no harmonica in sight last night and he made no pretense at playing guitar. The clothes are the same as before — that riverboat gambler outfit — but the band members should really be wearing jester’s costumes. I must confess, the vaudeville musician Bob Dylan is all in all less interesting to me than the bluesman, but OMG, he remains endlessly creative, enigmatic and remarkable.  We are lucky that he still comes to visit. Come back soon uncle Bob, we already miss you.


More on internal exile

I’ve thought a lot about the internal exile which Brexit/Trump seems to have confined me to. It’s not good, it’s not responsible. As though I didn’t care anymore.  I was somewhat encouraged to read this from Tracy B. Strong, written in 2008 and relation to the Bush presidency, not Trump:

“In what does tyranny consist? For Nietzsche, it is the insistence that the world is and is only as I will it to be. Challenges should be ignored or eliminated. Similarly, in the Persian Letters, Montesquieu argued that it consists in requiring that others have no existence for oneself except that which one allows them. This seems to me exactly right: tyranny consists in speaking for oneself and having the power to impose that speech on others, to hear only one’s own words. I note with political distress that when Bush comes on the TV, I turn to the World Poker Tour. I did not do this with Nixon or Reagan, much as I disagreed with them. My distress is almost unpolitical, for my channel changing is a form of not being willing to share the world with G.W. Bush. I want, in other words, not to deal with the fact that he is our president, that is, not to accept that he and I share what Nietzsche called “the life of a people.” My avoidance strikes me as dangerous: it is as if I were pretending to myself that he is not our president, refusing to acknowledge the world of which he and I are a part. This is a consequence of tyranny.”

Strong, Tracy B. “Nietzsche and the Political: Tyranny, Tragedy, Cultural Revolution, and Democracy.” The Journal of Nietzsche Studies 35, no. 1 (November 28, 2008): 62-63.

Internal exile

I’ve gone into an external exile. I don’t follow the news anymore, don’t read things on-line and I don’t watch TV. It was Trump and Brexit that did it. I guess I’m in denial. I just don’t want to hear about any of it, I don’t want to follow the ins and outs of what someone said; who was appointed to what job; what some report is saying. Even the very intelligently argued and perfectly convincing critique is like poison. Even the jokes are concessions. I don’t want any of this in my head. This is no longer my world.

I’m reminded of the way some scholars and artists survived in Germany during the Nazis or in China during the Cultural Revolution. Disgusted with the turn events had taken, yet utterly powerless, they decided that the best thing they could do under the circumstances was to focus on maintaining their humanity.  When the world is going crazy, maintaining your humanity is the ultimate act of defiance.  There were for example these Chinese artists who took to the forest, far away from the Red Guards.   To mimic the official art was of course unthinkable, but so was lampooning it. Instead they spent their time painting beautiful things, landscapes, city streets and flowers.  See above.

This is of course not good for me professionally. I teach political science at a university after all; I’m supposed to know what’s in the news. The time has already come when my students refer to things I know nothing about. What did I make of Trump’s inauguration? “What inauguration?”

Basically I feel like it’s 1913 all over again. There is a hard rain a-gonna fall. Btw, the works of some of those Chinese artists was recently exhibited at the Asia Society in Hong Kong — “Light before Dawn.”


My web pages are back up again

These web pages have existed in various incarnations for some 15 years. During the last two years, however, they have been down more than up. I switched from WordPress to Joomla and it first it was a great choice. Joomla is powerful and I could do a lot of things that weren’t possible on WordPress. But increasingly Joomla became vulnerable to attacks by spammers and in the end it was too time consuming to defend the site. I just took it down. This past Christmas, however, I’ve moved all the material back to WordPress again. Coming back has been great. WordPress is in wonderful shape with lots of excellent features. And most important of all: it seems very secure against spammers.

I will not be blogging like I did in the heady days of 2006, but the pages are indispensable for the various projects I’m working on — I use them to collect primary sources, gather links, and develop textbook chapters. There is, and there will continue to be, a lot to read. Enjoy!

yours always,



In a recent post I made fun of Chinese English. I’m sorry. It wasn’t right. We are all struggling to speak different languages and I know only too well how stupid you end up sounding most of the time. Take my latest Chinese homework, for example (no, my teacher has not looked at it yet):