[lbo-talk] some economists explain 10, 000 years of human history

Tim Francis-Wright tim at francis-wright.com
Fri May 25 16:39:36 PDT 2007

Doug Henwood wrote:
> [North, Wallis, and Weingast]
> ABSTRACT: Neither economics nor political science can explain the
> process of modern social development. The fact that developed
> societies always have developed economies and developed polities
> suggests that the connection between economics and politics must
> be a fundamental part of the development process. This paper
> develops an integrated theory of economics and politics. We show
> how, beginning 10,000 years ago, limited access social orders
> developed that were able to control violence, provide order, and
> allow greater production through specialization and exchange.
> Limited access orders provide order by using the political system
> to limit economic entry to create rents, and then using the rents
> to stabilize the political system and limit violence. We call
> this type of political economy arrangement a natural state. It
> appears to be the natural way that human societies are organized,
> even in most of the contemporary world. In contrast, a handful of
> developed societies have developed open access social orders. In
> these societies, open access and entry into economic and
> political organizations sustains economic and political
> competition. Social order is sustained by competition rather than
> rent-creation. The key to understanding modern social development
> is understanding the transition from limited to open access
> social orders, which only a handful of countries have managed
> since WWII.

Weingast is a political scientist, not an economist, but he managed to bring to the study of American politics the sort of thinking that has made neoclassical economics so methodologically rich.

The late 1980s and 1990s were the salad days of the rational choice crowd--everything in Congress was simplified to one- or two-dimensional models with perfect information and quadratic preference functions-- all the better to show that Arrow's impossibility theorem did not have dire implications for these institutions.

What was frustrating about reading this sort of thing at the time was how utterly unlike reality it was--what is abundantly clear is how far from a perfect-information game actual legislating really is, and how many dimensions are really in play. When I once pointed out to one of Weingast's frequent collaborators how complex the problem really was in terms of computational complexity, he explained that they might be decades away from being able to test their theories with actual data. (By contrast, string-theoretical physicists look like raving empiricists.)

Sciolists like these they should make anthropologists wary of ever being called social scientists.

--tim francis-wright

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