Book Corner 2023.10

by J. Bradford DeLong

I really enjoyed this. It’s a 500+-page economic history of the years 1870 – 2010. It got really exciting in the WWI chapter, nearly every sentence packing a punch. Here’s just one I bookmarked, about how just 80 years separated Croats & Serbs fighting together as blood brothers in WWI and the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 90s: “To fight one set of wars at the start of the twentieth century to unify Serbs and Croats, and another set of wars at the end of that century to ‘ethnically cleanse’ Serbs of Croats, and Croats of Serbs, seems among the sickest jokes history ever played on humanity, or, more causally accurate, humans ever played on history.”

The overall theme of this history is Hayek vs. Polyani. Friedrich Hayek, I was familiar with, but with Michael Polyani I was not. DeLong sums up Hayek (repeatedly – the book is not afraid to repeat its themes): “The market giveth, and the market taketh away; blessed be the name of the market.” Polyani, if I can summarize: nothing beats the free market for producing general prosperity, feeding technological progress, and allocating capital efficiently. However, people generally want more. They want some stability, some expectation they can keep their job, some fairness, etc. The market produces none of these things, which isn’t a bad thing or a good thing; it’s just not what the market does. Since people will persist in wanting these things, they will take action to make them happen, which is entirely reasonable. This struck me as one of those perspectives with a deep sense to it. Like when I turned away from libertarianism all those years ago. Freedom is great and important, but why should it trump other things that are also great and important? Like Haidt’s RIGHTEOUS MIND – empathy is great and important, but people have other pillars of morality. So, the market is great and important, but there are other things that maybe it doesn’t always trump.

Great food for thought, great history, great read.

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