A response to Alex Tabarrok

At Marginal Revolution, Alex Tabarrok has posted a fine review of No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart: I’ll be keeping this paragraph somewhere to cheer me up when I’m feeling gloomy:

Slee’s book is the best of the anti-market books: it is well written, serious, and knowledgeable about economics.  In fact, I regard Slee’s book as an excellent primer on asymmetric information, free riding, externalities, herding, coordination problems and identity – Economics 301 for all those budding young Ezra Klein’s of the world who think that Economics 101 isn’t quite right.

Very nice. But coming from his libertarian point of view, it’s not surprising he has some criticisms. Let’s skip right past the lesser ones to the Most Serious Of All:

The chapter on power is terrible, I did throw the book against the wall.  Perhaps in order to prepare us to welcome government as the deliverer of our true preferences, Slee wants to diminish the distinction between liberty and coercion.  But a true liberal should never write things like this:

…the formal structure of democracy and free markets is not enough to rule out exploitation and plunder – characteristics usually associated with repressive regimes.

If Tom visits GMU (I happen to know he reads MR) he should watch out because I shall kick him in the shins stating, "I refute you thus."

More seriously, repressive governments around the world threaten, rob, torture and murder with impunity.  Courageous individuals have died trying to escape such regimes while others have died fighting for their rights.  No matter how great are differences in wealth, it is morally wrong to equate what goes on in repressive regimes with capitalist acts between consenting adults.    

Strong stuff, and it hits home because I always thought that chapter to be the weakest in the book. But blogs are no place for mild-mannered agreement so let me try to return the kick in the shins.

Most of us see many problems of this world in shades of grey, but there are always a few issues that are starker and more elemental, which we see as black or white. The "shades of grey" issues are questions of nuance and detail – these are questions where reasonable people can reasonably disagree, where we look to modest reform to improve matters, and where we look for technical solutions. It’s the dichotomies where we stand our ground – these are the things that define our politics; they are matters of principle – it’s right vs. wrong and communication across these divides is difficult. So what are these fundamental, black vs white issues?

Karl Marx knew what he thought was fundamental:

The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles.

My brother once relayed to me a very short conversation he had in a pub with a radical feminist:

Brother: throughout history the fundamental oppression is that of one class by another.
Feminist: throughout history the fundamental oppression is that of women by men.
Imagined Next Line By Both: who else can I sit with?

Peter Singer (in "A Darwinian Left", page 8) sets out what he sees as "fundamental to the left": it is to be "on the side of the weak, not the powerful; of the oppressed, not the oppressor; of the ridden, not the rider."

Where do libertarians draw their line? It’s coercion versus liberty: the state versus markets, laws versus bargains.  That’s why a typical Cato Institute article is something like "Is the Minimum Wage Coercive?" Small wonder then, that it’s a chapter setting out to recast this dichotomy as shades of grey that makes Alex Tabarrok throw the book against the wall. You can see elsewhere in Alex’s review that this is the fundamental dichotomy he has in mind as he reads. When I talk about collective action he assumes I’m talking about government intervention in the economy because that’s where he sees me, as his ideological opposition, coming from.

It’s a mark of the success of the libertarian project that the left has bought into this false dichotomy of state versus markets. We (the left) are the victim of our own success – the post-war construction of the welfare state, the achievements of social democracy, the provision of public education, and of public healthcare. We’ve let ourselves be identified with these achievements, and so now stand as conservative defenders of the state against the market-favouring radicals. Yet things need not be so. I look on my bookshelves and see some books from the UK of the late ’70s and early ’80s: "In and Against the State", Ralph Miliband’s "The State in Capitalist Society" and so on. Those on the left have a long history of opposition to the state, and a recognition of its problems. The difference is, we on the left don’t see the state as the root of the problems. The state may be a hammer, but it’s the arm holding it we need to worry about. "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie" wasn’t it?.

The point of my chapter is to remind us that the state is not the sole source of coercion, and that libertarians have a blind spot to coercion in the non-state sector. In the comments section of a recent Marginal Revolution post about the Cato Institute Minimum Wage article I said "My employer requires that I follow instructions from my manager or I can be fired. Is that also coercive? Yes." and another commenter responded "No, refusing to buy future labor from you is not coercive." I can see what he or she means, but you can also see the false dichotomy here – the law is coercive, everything else is a matter of choice. Tell that to (among many many examples) workers locked-in overnight at Wal-Mart stores. Was slavery coercion? Yes, and it would surely be a stretch to see slavery as a problem rooted in the state.

Alex writes "If there were no asymmetric information, no herding, no coordination problems and so forth I guarantee that there would still be plenty of inequality." True enough, but if there were no state, no laws, no public health standards, and so forth I guarantee that there would still be plenty of coercion.

We are obviously speaking from very different points of view. Are there paths across the divide? I would suggest there are. Alex claims that I have "no appreciation that what some of us MarketThink people really advocate is civil society which includes non-profits and voluntary collective action of all kinds." Compare that assertion with Erik Olin Wright’s rather wordy but still worth reading "Taking the Social in Socialism Seriously" (PDF), which also focuses on civil society as a way out of the market/state dichotomy. Or the way in which both communitarian left and libertarian right took Jane Jacobs to their hearts. There is a phrase there (voluntary collective action) that we all seem to favour, even as some of us focus on the collective and others on the voluntary. Perhaps a focus on the possibilities of that phrase would be worth exploring.

Update: Brad DeLong links to AT’s review here (but credits the review to AT’s partner in marginal crime Tyler Cowen). The comment thread has quite a different set of sympathies!

Update 2: The other day I was pleased that my amazon.com Sales Rank was around 42,000. It is now 3634 – entirely due to the review.


That’s my book’s Amazon.com number right now. 

It’s the lowest (best) I’ve seen it in the year since publication, which is pretty encouraging. Usually it’s up in the 100,000 to 500,000 range, but a series of about three purchases this week knocked it down.

Yes, I still check it far too much.

Bad Reviews: What’s a Novice Author To Do?

Hooray! I thought all the book reviews were done some time ago, but one more appeared in the December 2006 edition of the Literary Review of Canada.

Boo! Not only is the review (not available online) almost entirely negative, but it also misrepresents the book entirely. I don’t mind the negative, but the misunderstanding and misrepresenting pisses me off something terrible.

I have a response forthcoming in the January/February 2007 edition, in which I do what you are supposed to do and take the high road. It seems to be common wisdom that it is Not The Done Thing to argue with reviewers, although Peter Woit does it all the time (that is, argues with reviews of his string theory book Not Even Wrong) regularly in his blog, and it comes over OK.

So should I post what I really think here on this little corner of the Internet or not? Do I descend into the gutter, biting and scratching and swearing and generally lowering the tone of the neighbourhood, or do I stay up here, tight-lipped and dignified on the lofty high ground, breathing the etherial air that we morally pure people breathe.

What’s the right thing for a novice author to do?

Best Seller!

Not quite the New York Times best seller list, but I am on the nearly-as-important Words Worth Books best seller list, appearing at number 5 on their paperback nonfiction list (ahead of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth but behind Stephen Lewis, Jane Jacobs and "Waterloo Trails and Bikeways").

Paperback Non Fiction

212 – Race Against Time 2/E – Stephen Lewis
116 – Waterloo Trails & Bikeways
87 – Fantastic Realities – Frank Wilczek
80 – Dark Age Ahead – Jane Jacobs
63 – No One Makes You Shop at Wal-Mart – Tom Slee
61 – Inconvenient Truth – Al Gore
61 – End of Food – Thomas Pawlick
50 – Guidebook to Woolwich Trails – Trails Group
49 – Manitoulin Rocks – Peter Russell
45 – Temperament – Stuart Isacoff
42 – Sophie’s World – Jostein Gaarder

I know that part of the reason is that the staff has been helping to sell the book (Dave, this means you), so many thanks to Words Worth Books for their support of No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart.

Link: Best Sellers.

Also see the Words Worth blog, called (I have no idea why) How To Furnish a Room.

On Doing My Homework

The Story So Far

Anthony Evans and I, as well as the Dorset Dipper,
got into a bit of argy-bargy in the comments following Chris Dillow’s
review of No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart. The story so far is this:
Chris Complained
that I didn’t address Hayek’s argument "that markets are a way of
processing countless dispersed pieces of information on people’s tastes
and technologies."
I Indicated
that "I’ve never read much of [Hayek]. The bits I have always seemed to
be talking about a reality I didn’t recognize. So I can’t really
address the point, and will go and read. Mea culpa." 
Anthony Asserted
that "To write a book on the subject of individualism and free markets
without reading Hayek is shocking", and on that basis he wouldn’t read
my book and I’m poorer by $2.
Now Anthony has followed up with a full-length post of his own, arguing — well, a whole bunch of things actually, which I am going to argue back at in…

This weeks episode.

Anthony says:

The focus of his book is individualism and competition, and you can’t understand either without knowing about Hayek’s Individualism and Economics Order, and The Use of Knowledge in Society.

Or, as he now puts it "you should read up on a topic if you’re writing a book on it"

I think this little dispute has its roots in the difference between an education in
the natural sciences and one in the social sciences. No one ever asked
me if I had "read Heisenberg" or "read Pauling" or even "read
Einstein". It’s just not a question that makes sense. Their discoveries
get absorbed into the subject; new terminology arises around their
work; new ways of expressing their insights are formulated. Pretty
quickly reading the original is redundant, and is something you do for
historical interest alone. Mathematics, of course, takes this tendency
to the extreme, consciously purging every ounce of historical context
from its theorems as it moves forward in the search for stark elegance.
So the idea that you need to "read Hayek" or "read Marx" or "read
Weber" is really a bit odd. The insights they had have either faded or
become part of the discipline — or at least, in the more fractious
world of economics, one strand of it. So yes, I’ve "read Friedman", and
yes I’ve "read Becker" and so on. And I’ve even read a bit of Hayek (I
did just say I haven’t read much).
But really, unless you are interested in the historical context of the
arguments at the time — the whole Lange-Lerner market socialism thing
for example, or where Margaret Thatcher got her inspiration — I should
not have missed a lot if economics as a discipline has done its job,
and I trust it has.
So I did go and read the essay on Knowledge in Society,
about the price system and how it captures and coordinates specialized
local knowledge and expertise, and why central planning is doomed to
fail. Fine. These are arguments that have indeed become part of the
mainstream of economics and yes, for the record, I’m familiar with
them. But let’s face it, a lot has become understood since 1945 when he
wrote this essay.
One reason I dislike Hayek’s writing in this essay, from a personal
point of view, is its consciously broad-brush approach. This is what I
meant when I said "The bits
I have [read] always seemed to be talking about a reality I didn’t recognize."
Journalists know there are two ways to tell a story: from the particular to
the general and from the general to the particular. Hayek starts big (look at that
title "The Use of Knowledge in Society"). Myself, I like to start small
and specific (which is why I called my book after an everyday happening
like shopping). When the devil is in the details, the "think big"
approach is likely to miss important things, and I think this is a
lesson that most economists have learned since Hayek.
George Akerlof, for example, wrote in his Nobel lecture that "In the
late 1960s there was a shift in the job description of economic
theorists… Since that time, both micro and macroeconomics have
developed a Scarry-ful book of models designed to incorporate into
economic theory a whole variety of realistic behaviors." To read Hayek
now is to read an essay that overreaches. It does not tell me what
happens in any one situation. Stiglitz gets it right when he says that
assuming away market failures is like leaving Hamlet out of the play.
Anthony disagrees I’m sure, and we are left with what Dipper described as "my assumptions against your assumptions".
To sum up, there is nothing in what I wrote that I would change having
read this essay. It is true that I don’t talk directly in the book
about the role of markets as a mechanism for processing information and
social knowledge, but hey, it’s only 240 pages, you can’t write about

Anthony says:

It’s ludicrous [for me] to say that a cover-to-cover reading of the book is a pre-requisite for any opinion to be formed.

Just for the record, what I actually wrote was

Well, I might say that dismissing a book without reading any of it is shocking too, if I hadn’t done it so many times myself.

So relax, we all have to choose what we pay attention to and what we
don’t. Go ahead, have opinions, I know I do.

But I still think it’s a
bit cheeky to accuse me of not doing my homework on the basis of what I
wrote about not reading much Hayek.

What about those toilets?

Anthony says I don’t know much about toilets.

Well, I’m not going to work too hard to defend a blog post. There are
indeed inconsistencies there – fair enough. But I actually don’t think
the biggest cause of water-wasting toilets is flat-rate water payment
(which has, I think, receded anyway over the years). The costs of
information are at least as significant. Quick, what portion of your
water bill is from toilet flushes? So I stand by my basic argument that
in this case neither state nor market succeeded until our individual
hero came along and solved the problem.

So that’s it for now. Thanks to Anthony for letting me know about his post and for the free publicity to his readers.

Radio Interview

I had a radio interview this morning courtesy of Phil Johnson, host of a daily morning show (6am to 9am) in Kelowna, BC.

He has apparently been running a series talking about consumer choices. One of his regular guests is Michael Neill, who (together with Michelle Neill) owns Mosaic Books in Kelowna, and who has apparently been referring to No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart from time to time. Clearly a man of intellect and perception.

Phil Johnson is an articulate host with strong opinions, and we seem to look at the world in a similar kind of way, so the interview was fun once it got started. I say "once it got started" because the phones went on the blink just before he called. Panic! Anyway, it got sorted thanks to a colleague with a mobile phone (thank you Roger). Fifteen minutes later we were all done. It seemed to go by very quickly.

So, my thanks to Phil Johnson and Michael Neill and to Kelowna Oldies 1150. I’ll have to celebrate with a glass of the Okanagan’s world beating 2004 Shiraz from Jackson-Triggs.

Book News: Review

The enigmatic Elephantstrunk has some good things to say about No One Makes You Shop At Wal-Mart. I hope he or she does not mind if I reproduce it here.

Tom Slee’s “No one makes you shop at Wal-Mart”
should be bundled with every copy of “The Wisdom of Crowds”. I like
“The Wisdom of Crowds” but it always seemed dangerously incomplete.
NOMYSAW is not exactly a counter argument but shows that life is a lot
more complicated than the TWoC might suggest.
Mr. Slee is clearly exercised by the free ride given to arguments
resting on offers of “choice”. Starting with the Prisoner’s Dilemma the
book shows ways that the seemingly obvious good of giving people the
opportunity to decide what is best for themselves can sometimes make
everyone worse off.

It’s not an original point but nor is it in fact a controversial
one. What is new is the articulation of what it means and what some
popular arguments don’t. The book uses the Prisoner’s Dilemma as a
simple example of individuals each seeking to maximise their personal
situation and suffering as a result but the most potent are at some
level examples of “The Tragedy of the Commons” but in places where the
Coasian solution of applying property rights is a less comfortable

Finding a whole book, especially one so articulate and clear, about
a persistent but only half formed idea is quite a thrill. I liked it a
lot. Whimsley mentioned on the right is the author’s occasional blog.

Thanks very much Mr/Ms Trunk.