An Excellent Book!

Power and Prosperity.JPG

I just finished Mancur Olson’s last book, Power and Prosperity and I’m pleased to report that it’s a real page-turner. I learned almost as much from it as I did from his classic work The Logic of Collective Action. Among its many valuable features, Power and Prosperity provides a very helpful theoretical account of the functioning of the Soviety economic system and the difficulties of transitioning to free markets. The treatment of the role of “encompassing interests” and the transition from roving banditry to stationary banditry (autocracy) and from stationary banditry to democratic liberalism was also quite helpful and drew on his earlier work on collective action. (I may blog a longer essay on the topic, but…it’s late. So that will wait for a day or two. I’ll also add some critical remarks on his theory of collective action, which is rich with insights, but could use a dose of Anthony de Jasay’s insights from his book Social Contract, Free Ride.)

As usual, I’ve got a number of other books going. I just picked up and found quite engrossing Neal Ascherson’s Black Sea, through which I hope to become better informed about and better able to understand the politics of the region (e.g., the conflict between Georgia and Abkhazia, which is one among many conflicts that cannot be understood without a better grasp of the history of the region than I have at present).

(Note: Power and Prosperity has the unfortunate subtitle “Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships,” which doesn’t really make much sense. But don’t let that put you off the book.)

8 Responses to “An Excellent Book!”

  1. I haven’t read the book, though I plan to.

    But the biggest problem I have with the stationary bandit theory is that it presumes that there are no incentives for new bandits to get into the game. It assumes a point where the corrupt who’ve been taking advantage of the system simultaneously give up the game AND make it unappealing to those who may want to acheive a similar level of static comfort through the easiest means possible.

  2. Tom G. Palmer

    Not quite. It presupposes that the stationary bandit invests resources in keeping other bandits away. That’s then called “national defense.” It’s better than having a free-for-all of looting, but it doesn’t presupose that anyone gave up the game of looting, just that one got a monopoly on looting in one area. A number of known processes of state formation correspond precisely to that model (my favorite is the foundation of the Duchy of Normandy, when “Hrolf,” the Viking pirate, became “Rollo,” the Duke of Normandy in 911: )

  3. Ah, OK. That makes sense then. I guess I could find an answer if I read the book, but I’m thinking that it would be harder to move from a bandit’s monopoly to liberal democracy than from many bandits to a single bandit. It seems like the bandit could gain much more utility by strongarming than respecting the rule of law.

  4. Tom G. Palmer

    Ah, that’s why you should read the book! A smaller share of a much larger pie is generally preferable to a larger share of a tiny pie. The principle was that a rich people could support (or be looted by) a rich king, but a poor people could only support (or be looted by) a poor king. Olson makes the point with analytical clarity. I highly recommend the book.

  5. Juan Carlos Hidalgo

    Speaking about books, once you read it I’d like to hear your comments on Amartya Sen’s latest book: Identity and Power.

    I recently read an op-ed of his in the WSJ on how democracy is not a “Western” legacy. Apparently this is one of the major subjects of his book. Very compelling.

  6. Tom G. Palmer

    Another book I have to read! Yikes! (I will look at it. I have Appiah’s new book on “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers” to read, as well.)

  7. I haven’t read Sen’s new book either, but he briefly touches on the theme that democracy (he uses this interchangably with political freedom) isn’t just Western in “Development as Freedom,” where he tries to show that Confucianism, Buddhims, and Islam all have inherent ideas that support freedom.

    My own opinion is that individual liberty is something that comes naturally to humans, and hence all (or almost all) human worldviews have, in varying degres, some elements that support individual liberty.