A Screed in the Margins

Photo courtesy of David Holt

Lately I've been trying to read the collective works of Ian Bremmer. I will admit he's one of the relatively few individuals I really look up to on matters of international analysis and policy. I really like the guy and what he does, and I find his books to be good deep dives in areas he understands very well. Furthermore, they're short, focused, and to the point, and there isn't much extraneous material in them.

In any case, I've recently started reading a lot of his works, one of which was The End of the Free Market, a book discussing state capitalism. He's generally pro free market, but doesn't shy away from criticizing it. The book (which I have yet to finish) generally discusses the ways in which state-led capitalism threatens the free market. I think he's largely concerned that the things like Chinese-style state capitalism risk the gains from capitalism and free trade all go to ruling elites, and those who the system doesn't favor are explicitly marginalized. (but hey, I've yet to finish, or reach his conclusion) There are arguments that this applies to a lot of MNCs, but for part of the book he does his best to create a meaningful distinction between MNCs and state-capitalist enterprise.

In any case, I got this book from the library but when I reached this area of analysis the margins were absolutely full of a screed. It went along these lines:

Not only are MNCs evil and demonic, but they are worse than state run capitalism. In fact, there is no difference between MNCs and state-run enterprises, except state run enterprise is moral! Chinese state enterprise and Scandinavian state enterprise are the same thing and are ideally capitalist! The author misses the point! He's a simpleton! A phony expert!

I wouldn't say that I'm an expert on these matters, but the author was doing his best to lay out both sides of these arguments before he reached a conclusion.

This made me think of the (currently occurring in the UK) EU referendum. The leave campaign has largely relied upon feelings of nationalism and pride. At times resentment against EU bureaucrats. Occasionally easily debunkable numbers about how much money was being sent to the EU. Immigration took center stage over the past week or two. And when they needed a more nuanced argument, Boris Johnson trotted forth to talk about sovereignty. Not particularly nuanced arguments. To me the sovereignty arguments are the strongest, although they aren't the be all and end all. There is a pretty substantial body of literature and reason from experts on the matter that indicates Brexit would be bad for the economy, would lead to issues in the EU, and that issues in the EU would hurt the UK just by proximity. The arguments for Brexit are much more nationalistic and rely upon traditional arguments of sovereignty.

Then again, Remain did a similar thing, stoking tremendous fear about Brexit. Their affirmative argument would have relied upon people being nuanced, but they were more inclined to appeal to people's basic human nature, rather than logic. Both campaigns gravitated in this direction. Admittedly, fear about Brexit isn't unfounded per se, but their portrayal didn't allow for the admission that it wouldn't be the end of the world, just a fair bit worse.

The screed in the margins is many individuals discretely yelling against the academic and expert consensus. The experts don't know what they're talking about. THey don't have much evidence, if any to back up their claims but by pure strength of will and confidence, the "expert consensus" becomes the "expert" consensus. When everybody thinks they are an expert and is only willing to consider those experts they agree with, the weight of experience and reason is considerably lessened. At some point, the screed overtakes the book itself, at which point why should there be a book?

Ripping off the Incredibles, if everyone is an expert, nobody is.