Observations from Europe
By Bryan Caplan
Just got back from a month in Europe, where I was a visiting professor at the University of Münster, teaching a short course in Advanced Public Choice. Along the way, we drove to London for the Institute of Economic Affairs THINK conference, and to Heidelberg to address European Students from Liberty. Overall, a month of fantastic intellectual and aesthetic experiences, and I can’t thank all my gracious hosts enough.
1. I was based in Münster, near the Dutch border, the historic home of the original Khmer-Rouge-type communist revolution. From 1534-5, Anabaptist fanatics seized power and established a theocratic communist dictatorship, predictably drenched in blood. While 20th-century socialists minimized their crimes, Rothbard’s gruesome account seems right to me.
A crucial part of the Anabaptist reign of terror was their decision, again prefiguring that of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, to abolish all private ownership of money. With no money to purchase any good, the population became slavishly dependent on handouts or rations from the power elite. Accordingly, Matthys, Rothmann, and the rest launched a propaganda campaign that it was un-Christian to own money privately; and that all money should be held “in common,” which in practice meant that all money whatsoever must be handed over to Matthys and his ruling clique…
After two months of unremitting propaganda, combined with threats and terror against those who disobeyed, the private ownership of money was effectively abolished in Münster. The government seized all the money and used it to buy goods or hire workers from the outside world. Wages were doled out in kind by the only employer: the theocratic Anabaptist State.
Food was confiscated from private homes, and rationed according to the will of government deacons. Also, to accommodate the host of immigrants, all private homes were effectively communized, with everyone permitted to quarter themselves everywhere; it was now illegal to close, let alone lock, one’s doors. Compulsory communal dining halls were established, where people ate together to the readings from the Old Testament.
Totalitarianism in Münster was now complete. Death was now the punishment for virtually every independent act. Capital punishment was decreed for the high crimes of murder, theft, lying, avarice, and quarrelling. Death was also decreed for every conceivable kind of insubordination: the young against the parents, wives against their husbands, and, of course, anyone at all against the chosen representative of God on earth, the government of Münster. Bernt Knipperdollinck was appointed high executioner to enforce the decrees.
The only aspect of life previously left untouched was sex, and this deficiency was now made up. The only sexual relation now permitted by the Bockelson regime was marriage between two Anabaptists. Sex in any other form, including marriage with one of the “godless,” was a capital crime.
But soon Bockelson went beyond this rather old-fashioned credo, and decided to enforce compulsory polygamy in Münster. Since many of the expellees had left their wives and daughters behind, Münster now had three times as many marriageable women as men, so that polygamy had become technically feasible. Bockelson convinced the other, rather startled preachers by citing polygamy among the patriarchs of Israel, reinforcing this method of persuasion by threatening any dissenters with death.
Compulsory polygamy was a bit much for many of the Münsterites, who launched a rebellion in protest. The rebellion, however, was quickly crushed and most of the rebels put to death…
The rest of the male population also began to take enthusiastically to the new decree. Many of the women reacted differently, however, and so the Elders passed a law ordering compulsory marriage for every woman under (and presumably also over) a certain age, which usually meant becoming a compulsory third or fourth wife.
Since marriage among the godless was not only invalid but also illegal, the wives of the expellees became fair game, and they were forced to “marry” good Anabaptists. Refusal of the women to comply with the new law was punishable, of course, with death, and a number of women were actually executed as a result.
2. German Master’s students are even more reluctant to participate than American undergraduates. Eventually, however, I found a topic that drew them out: the political economy of environmentalism. In my lecture on expressive voting, I argued that popular environmental policies are often driven by expressive, not instrumental concerns, as evidenced by pronounced disinterest in trade-offs, cost-benefit analysis, and creative ways to “take the easy way out.” There are 663,000 square miles in Alaska, so why not use .1% of that area for an immensely valuable pipeline? My students’ favorite answer was the slippery-slope: After the first pipeline mars the virgin wilderness, further desecrations are likely to follow. I pointed out that Münster stably combines natural beauty with ample development, but I don’t think that convinced my class.
3. In contrast, my lecture on anarcho-capitalism sparked minimal pushback.
4. While my class largely drew on U.S. data and examples, I routinely asked students if my claims generalized well to Germany. They usually affirmed that they did. Voter motivation in Germany, as in the United States, seems driven by ideology and group identity rather than material self-interest. But for finer-grained details, the U.S. results are more contingent. Religious identity plays little role in modern German politics, the legacy of the Thirty Years War notwithstanding.
5. Brexit passed right before I went to London. I was aggravated but not surprised that many observers hastily claimed I had lost my 2008 EU bet. The original specified “official withdrawal” by January 1, 2020 to guard against this overreach. If the UK disappears from the list of EU members before January 1, 2020, I will happily pay. If it disappears on January 1, 2020 or later, I will declare victory and demand payment (assuming, of course, that no other EU member with 2007 population over 10M withdraws by that date).
6. Betting markets got Brexit very wrong, but they’re still the best forecasting institution in the world, and they imply a roughly 50/50 chance of Article 50 being invoked no sooner than 2018. Since Article 50 opens up to two years of negotiations, I’m still somewhat optimistic about winning – though I would not make the same bet again.
7. Socially, of course, what’s important is not whether I win my bet, but what happens to the British, European, and global economies. Many analysts treated the initial stock market crash as proof that Brexit is terrible; others treated the rebound as proof that Brexit is fine. I reject both views. I’ve long regarded financial markets as a poor measure of the goodness of policy. If X happens and stock markets hold steady, this could mean X is harmless. But it could also mean that the burden of X falls on consumers rather than capitalists. Does that ever happen? Probably yes – the standard view of trade agreements, for example, is that they make consumers better off, but leave the average domestic business earning its standard vanilla rate of return.
8. The important question, rather, is how British exit from the EU would change economic policy. Both sides seem overconfident here, but I lean toward those who think overall trade and especially migration openness would fall in Britain, Europe, and the world. Indeed, even if Britain never leaves the EU, its behavior marginally raises the probability the EU moves away from internal freedom of movement.
9. Students at the THINK conference in London leapt at every chance to participate. Why were they so different from my German students? Since Students for Liberty Heidelberg were similarly enthusiastic, I’d guess the gap was 20% cultural, 80% self-selection.
10. Accents in Germany were easier to understand than accents in England, strangely.
11. Due to a strong accent, I think I failed to properly answer one THINK attendee’s question. In my open borders talk, I addressed the political externalities of immigration. My claim: While immigrants are indeed more socially conservative and economically liberal than natives, the differences are marginal and immigrants don’t vote much anyway. When the attendee asked why my results were so atypical, I claimed they were standard. In hindsight, I should have acknowledged that immigrants are much more likely to vote for left-wing parties. But since this holds even for the richest, most socially conservative immigrants, the best explanation is that right-wing parties treat immigrants with great disrespect. Since parties are potent name brands, even pro-immigration right-wing politicians have trouble winning immigrant support.
12. Germany is much more multi-cultural and multi-racial than I remember it, even in a smaller city like Münster. And horrific headlines notwithstanding, it’s wonderful to behold. The people of the world can and should work side-by-side to Finally Make Mankind Great.
13. When I taught my German students Kuran and Sunstein’s availability cascades model, I used terrorism as a prime example. Over a thousand people are murdered on Earth on an average day. Every death is a tragedy, but there’s no good reason to treat the small minority of terrorist murders as disproportionately important or revealing, except in the trivial sense than countries overreact to terrorism. I know this is an unpopular view, especially after a major attack, but I love numeracy more than popularity.
14. This was my first trip to London. I’d heard it was remarkably multi-cultural, but I didn’t expect it to be the most multi-cultural place I’d ever seen. While I personally find big cities claustrophobic and inconvenient, if London doesn’t convince you that Western civilization is a hardy weed, nothing will.
15. The fact that Londoners showed little sympathy for Brexit is telling: People who experience true mass immigration first-hand tend to stop seeing it as a problem. “Backlash,” as Tyler Cowen calls it, is a symptom of insufficient migration – the zone where immigrants are noticeable but not ubiquitous. I know he disagrees, but I honestly can’t figure out why.
16. Averaging over my four days, the UK had the nicest people I’ve ever encountered. They were more than polite. Strangers literally handed me money for parking. Why did Americans want independence again?