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Alberto Mingardi

Alberto Mingardi

Mingardi, one of the rising stars of European libertarianism, is the founder and Director General of the Italian free-market think tank, Instituto Bruno Leoni. His areas of interest include the history of economic thought and antitrust and healthcare systems. He is particularly well known for popularizing the work of past scholars under-appreciated by today’s libertarians. Currently an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute, Mingardi has also worked with the Heritage Foundation, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Acton Institute, and the Centre for a New Europe.

Articles by Alberto Mingardi

A Straight Line from Friedman to the White House?

9 days ago

I’ve missed this article by Martin Wolf, hosted by Pro Market in the context of the debate over the 50th anniversary of Milton Friedman’s New York Times piece on corporate social responsibility. Wolf starts by saying that he “used to think Milton Friedman was right. But I have changed my mind.” That he changed his mind is no big surprise, as he moved from being a free trader in the early 2000s to being a staunch proponent of whatever kind of government interventionism in recent years.
What is interesting, however, is Wolf’s argument. He changed his mind, he writes, because he doesn’t “believe in the contractarian view of the firm” any more. Corporations, writes Wolf, “are powerful entities able to exercise immense influence within society. Since corporations have

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Cancelling David Hume

21 days ago

Daniel Johnson writes on our sister website, Law and Liberty, on David Hume and cancel culture. The University of Edinburgh “decided to rename the David Hume Tower, one of the best-known landmarks on its campus; it will henceforth be known as ‘40 George Square’.” The decision was taken because what Johnson calls “the fatal footnote – a brief sentence that to modern eyes seems unambiguously racist. His main argument is directed against Montesquieu’s claim that climate and other physical causes determine what we would call culture.”
The key argument by Johnson is at the end of his piece:
Was Hume more prejudiced than other thinkers of his day? Hardly: Voltaire and Kant, for example, were vicious anti-Semites. Or was he more complicit in the slave trade? No: Isaac

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Mazzucato and “Climate Lockdowns”

24 days ago

“In the near future, the world may need to resort to lockdowns again — this time to tackle a climate emergency.” Certainly, Mariana Mazzucato has a taste for striking words. In her latest column for Project Syndicate, Mazzucato argues that
Shifting Arctic ice, raging wildfires in western US states and elsewhere, and methane leaks in the North Sea are all warning signs that we are approaching a tipping point on climate change when protecting the future of civilization will require dramatic interventions.

This is the scenario Mazzucato works with. What are the odds it will come by? When could that happen? What are the events that may trigger it? Mazzucato seems to assume that this is almost inevitable if things “go on” as they did in the past, namely if we continue

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Enriques on Friedman

26 days ago

Fifty years have passed since Milton Friedman’s article in the New York Times Magazine on “The Social Responsibility of Business.” This anniversary has been widely remembered- though perhaps more vilified than celebrated ( David Henderson was among those celebrating it, here).

As Friedman is considered such a champion of “shareholder value”, I found very interesting that Luca Enriques, on Promarket, comments that ‘Friedman’s essay assigned a totally passive role to what he calls the corporation’s “owners” or “the employers”—that is, the shareholders. They are merely the beneficiaries of directors’ duty to increase profits, but they have no role to play in pursuing that very goal other than (as he notes in passing) when they elect the board.’Friedman’s article

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The chair and its enemies

September 14, 2020

This article won’t come as a surprise to those, among our readers, that are partisans of standing desks (quite a few of them, I suppose, in the US, not so many in Europe). This piece by Sara Hendren, abstracted from her book What Can a Body Do? How We Meet the Built World, presents interesting arguments against the chair. “Sitting for hours and hours can weaken your back and core muscles, pinch the nerves of your rear end and constrain the flow of blood that your body needs for peak energy and attention. Most people’s bodies are largely unsuited to extended periods in these structures”. If the chair is an old invention, the widespread use of it is a rather new thing, “for most of human history, a mix of postures was the norm for a body meeting the world”.
In

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Brexiters FOR State Aid?

September 11, 2020

Once upon a time, Newt Gingrich could say that Boris Johnson was “Margaret Thatcher with wild hair”. Now that would be difficult to argue.

Matthew Lesh, Head of Research at the Adam Smith Institute, reports on CapX that “the UK could sacrifice a deal with the EU — which would in the short run seriously disrupt trade in goods and services, undermine security service data sharing, and raise serious legal issues around the Northern Ireland Protocol — for the worst possible reason: an interventionist economic agenda.” Lesh adds: “For a supposedly conservative Government that just vanquished Corbynite socialism, that would be quite something.”
Lesh’s article is well worth reading.
As an outsider, I can see that a “No Deal” path would energize Brexiters and thus

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Two Cheers for Small Business

September 10, 2020

We live in societies where we see a “near-universal appreciation for the aesthetic benefits of a thriving small business community,” but almost no empathy for small business owners. This is an interesting point made by Will Collins in an article published by The American Conservative and that makes use of James C. Scott’s work.
Collins is thinking of the recent riots in the US which, as you would expect from riots, resulted in physical damages and looting at the expense of restaurants and shops. If many left-leaning commentators typically express enthusiasm for “neighborhood restaurants, locally-sourced produce, and independent bookstores”, “in the wake of the riots, however, condemnations of looting and arson have been strangely muted”.
Though you may detect in

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Skidelsky on Economics

September 8, 2020

On our sister website, Law and Liberty, I have a review of Robert Skidelsky’s last book, What’s Wrong With Economics. I was unimpressed by the book. It looks to me like an attempt to build a straw man out of modern economics, which is blamed by Skidelsky for, of course, “neoliberal” policies.
The book is strongly idoelogical but, leaving ideology aside for a minute, I was amazed by the view of the social sciences Lord Skidelsky proposes.
He
is apparently incapable of understanding the pursuit of social science as something different from policy punditry. It is revealing that Skidelsky is puzzled by a quote from Milton Friedman, who charmingly described himself as “somewhat of a schizophrenic”: “On the one hand, I was interested in science qua science, and I have

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Post-Pandemic Optimism from Joel Mokyr

September 7, 2020

These days optimism is rarer than before. So it is uplifting to read an historian such as Joel Mokyr writing that “at the end of the day, the post-pandemic economy may not be all that different from what we had in 2019, and insofar that it is different, not all changes will necessarily be bad”.
Mokyr’s reasons for optimism are rooted in the fact that modern economic growth is rooted more in advances in science and technology than on the engine of “Smithian growth”, which is, basically: commerce, though the two things are obviously connected (difficult to imagine technology advances to be independent from the knowledge and even the casual opportunities created by increased contact and thus specialization, as Matt Ridley explains in How Innovation Works).
The problem

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Shall We Care About Innovation?

August 24, 2020

The final post of a #ReadWithMe series on Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works

If Matt Ridley is right, and “most innovation consists of the non-random retention of variations in design”, shall we really care about innovation? If innovation comes out of a largely random process, how can we control, plan, help it?

There is a substantial industry of “fostering innovation”, both in government and its advisors and private consultants and private managers, too. They tend to frame innovation as something which is in the hands of producers, of makers. Producers, makers, inventors are certainly a big part of it: but so are customers, users who produce feedback and help in fine tuning ideas and applications. In other words, it is a mistake to consider innovation as the

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Who Invented the Computer?

August 21, 2020

Part 7 of a #ReadWithMe series on Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works

It looks like a question easy enough to answer. It is not.

“The origination of the computer is as mysterious and confusing as that of far more ancient and uncertain innovations. There is nobody who deserves the accolade of the inventor of the computer. There is instead a regiment of people who made crucial contributions to a process that was so incremental and gradual, cross-fertilized and networked, that there is no moment or place where it can be argued that the computer came into existence”.

For Matt Ridley, four are the features of the computer which make it different from a calculator: it must be digital, electronic, programmable, and capable of carrying out whatever logical task, at

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Who Invented the Dog?

August 20, 2020

6th in a #ReadWithMe series.
When you look at your dog, you seldom thing it is “a crucial innovation”. Yet dogs were. We have difficulties even conceiving that somebody, at a certain point, thought about domesticating them, as we are so used to having them on our side. Yet somebody, at some point, did.
 
The domestication of dogs happened between 20,000 and 40,00 years ago.

“The DNA from a wolf that died 35,000 years ago in northern Siberia … hinted that by then wolves were separate from dogs. Thus well before the last glacial maximum, but during a much colder period than today, people living on the Eurasian mainline somehow made friends with wild wolves and turned them into useful tools. Or was it the other way around?”

 
It is likely, writes Matt Ridley, “that

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Innovation Travels

August 18, 2020

5th in a #ReadWithMe series.

Henry Robinson Palmer was a trained engineer. As Matt Ridley writes:

“In 1826 he was appointed to oversee the extension to a dock in east London. Having finished the excavation and construction of the locks he turned his attention to the buildings. He seems to have hit upon the idea of using an iron sheet for the roof an open shed, but to make the sheet stronger, he passed the wrought iron through rollers to give it a sinusoidal wave. On 28 April 1829 he patented the use or application of fluted, indented or corrugated metallic sheets or plates to the roofs and other parts of buildings”. This “immensely strengthened the iron sheet, made it more rigid and capable of spanning a wide gap without extra support while supporting a load

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One of Civilization’s Greatest Accomplishments

August 14, 2020

One of the secrets of a good book is a curious author. Consider this from Matt Ridley:

“I walk a lot in London, and a few months ago I set myself a goal: somewhere in the vast city, while walking down a street, to catch the smell of sewage. I have yet to achieve this goal. Close to ten millions defecations occur in London every day, presumably, for most people it is daily occurrence. I hazard that I am rarely more than 100 feet from somebody actively at work on this task … Yet you never smell it. Why not? This is a new phenomenon, an innovation”.

 
How many people ever think about such things? The fact that a city as big as London doesn’t smell of sewage is now taken for granted, in spite of the fact the opposite was true for quite a long time. This is “one of

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The Marvel of Trains

August 12, 2020

Third in a #ReadWithMe series.*

“For all of human history until the 1820s, nobody went faster than the speed of a galloping horse”. I cannot think of another consideration equally telling, of the tremendous progress we made in a rather short time. The main engine, pardon the pun, of such progress was the locomotive. “The man who did most to make the breakthrough in speed” as a craftsman of humble origin, George Stephenson:

“The year is 1810 and a new coal mine has been sunk at Killingworth in Northumberland, with a brand-new Newcomen engine installed to pump out the water. But it does not work, and for a whole year the pit remains drowned, despite the best efforts of engine-men from all around … the humble brakesman in charge of the winding gear at a neighboring

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Serendipity and Innovation

August 10, 2020

Second in a #ReadWithMe series.

Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works is a treasure trove of examples which suggest that innovation is often serendipitous. Indeed, sometimes “use precedes understanding”. Writes Ridley that “throughout history, technologies and inventions have been deployed successfully without scientific understanding of why they work”. Later science catches up.
This is something to keep in mind, when confronted with the so called “linear model”, by which government funds pure science which leads to applied research which (purportedly) leads to economic progress.

One interesting case in point is variolation. Lady Mary Wortley witness to inoculation against smallpox in Constantinople, where her husband was an ambassador. She did “engraft” “her

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Why Matt Ridley Writes on Innovation

August 4, 2020

First in a #ReadWithMe Series

Matt Ridley’s How Innovation Works is a remarkable book. It is the third book in a row that Ridley, better known as a scientific journalist and, indeed, one of those rare people who makes highly complex scientific arguments understandable to the average educated reader, devoted to the _economic_ and _social_ realm. The first was The Rational Optimist, followed by The Evolution of Everything.

The book is masterful in two different ways. It is, of course, insightful. But it is also a pleasure to read. As a good journalist, Ridley knows that the human brain is a “stories processor” and not an “argument processor”. He showers the reader with anecdotes and stories, which make his points more cogent and clearer.
I will highlight some

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Italy’s Venezuelan Moment

July 27, 2020

You may remember that a bridge collapsed in Italy, near Genoa, in 2018. The bridge was managed by a private company, Autostrade per l’Italia. An investigation to ascertain who is responsible is now going on (the company clearly has its fair share of guilt, but managing such an infrastructure is a highly regulated and controlled business, so the controllers may have done wrong, too). Yet the Italian government, instead of waiting to find out who deserves blame for the bridge collapse, started a crusade against the controlling shareholder to oust them from the company.
In this piece for the Wall Street Journal, I argue that such a “campaign is reminiscent of Latin American eat-the-rich regimes”. Not so much for the goal, but for the method:
In January, Italy’s

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The European Union, Italy writ large

July 24, 2020

It has been called Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment.” It’s true that for the first time the EU has seen a common issuance of debt.
As the Wall Street Journal summarizes:
On Tuesday European Union leaders agreed to a recovery plan funded by the bloc’s first major issuance of common debt, and some are calling it a historic moment for the Continent’s political and fiscal integration. This is a significant development, but don’t hold your breath for a United States of Europe.
The EU announced €1.8 trillion in spending to address the pandemic-induced economic contraction, with more than €1 trillion going to the bloc’s seven-year budget. The European Commission also will borrow on capital markets for a €750 billion recovery package. Some €390 billion of that will come

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Will Italy get the “upside” of COVID?

July 8, 2020

In many assessments of the changes brought by COVID-19, I notice some classical liberal scholars are putting on the upside a certain degree of deregulation, which apparently governments are accepting in order to cope with the healthcare challenge and to ease the way towards recovery.
I am afraid that won’t happen in Italy. I have an article on the matter in Politico.eu.
As I recall in the piece,
The first time I heard an Italian politician promise to slash red tape, I was 13. It was 1994 and, with great fanfare, Silvio Berlusconi had injected the Reagan-esque language of bureaucratic reform into Italian politics.
It was a theme the four-time prime minister and his successors would return to over and over again. As the economist Nicola Rossi recently noted, over the

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Economic Affairs on COVID19

July 7, 2020

In the new issue of Economic Affairs there is a section on Coronavirus. Besides an article by Nicola Rossi and me on the Italian predicament (we are not very optimistic), it includes articles by Steve Davies, Julian Jessop (on the costs and benefits of the UK lockdown), and Brian Williamson. For a social science scholarly journal, to publish papers on the matter is quite a challenge, as the pandemic is unfolding before our very eyes. But it is a challenge worth taking on, particularly for those of us of a classical liberal persuasion, whose views are regularly questioned as impracticable in times of such an emergency or, even worse, as somewhat “responsible” for it, due to our support and defense of globalization.
In his essay, Steve Davies does an admirable job in

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The Anticapitalist Mentality

July 5, 2020

Not being a fan of the movie Titanic, I was unaware of this anecdote. I ran into it reading Franco Moretti’s The Bourgeois. Between History and Literature. It seems to me a clear example of that “anti-capitalist mentality” we often talk about, and particularly of its prominence among “second-hand dealers in ideas”, Hayek’s term for intellectuals.
On 14 April 1912, Benjamin Guggenheim, Solomon’s younger brother, found himself on board the Titanic, and, as the ship started sinking, he was one of those who helped women and children onto the lifeboats, withstanding the frenzy, and at times the brutality, of other male passengers. Then, when his steward was ordered to man one of the boats, Guggenheim took his leave, and asked him to tell his wife that ‘no woman was

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The Invention of Government, starring Mariana Mazzucato

July 3, 2020

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Mariana Mazzucato offers a summary of her last book, The Value of Everything. The book is both a polemic against marginalism, which she considers a cover-up for laissez-faire (as if Jevons, Marshall, Walras, or Menger were champions of unfettered competition), and a plea for more government intervention in the economy.
Mazzucato does not argue: she tells a story, sometimes very effectively. Here’s the story in a nutshell:
When the economy is in crisis, whom do we turn to for help? Not corporations — it’s governments. But when the economy is flourishing, we ignore governments and let corporations soak up the rewards. This was the story of the 2008 financial crisis. A similar story is unfolding today. Governments have spent

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Sowell on Writing

June 30, 2020

Today is Thomas Sowell’s 90th birthday. I am sure many celebrations of Sowell will be published. Not in Europe, I am afraid: in spite of his renown in America, Sowell is virtually unknown in Europe. I suspect this is at least partially due to his choice to concentrate on writing and to eschew conferences and public gatherings. He never got on the conference circuit, so to say.
It is a pity. Sowell is admirable for a number of reasons. His courage. His productivity. His work.

Knowledge and Decisions is my favorite book of his. F. A. Hayek’s insights on the role of knowledge in society are developed splendidly and presented in a scintillating and clear style.
Style is another thing to admire Sowell for. He strove for it and told his experience with writings in a

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The UK and Covid19

June 26, 2020

The Economist published a lead article on Britain and Covid19. By and large, the piece attempts to be an indictment of Boris Johnson’s leadership. For The Economist, England had “the wrong kind of prime minister”: “Mr Johnson got the top job because he is a brilliant campaigner and a charismatic entertainer with whom the Conservative Party fell in love”. The main criticism of Johnson is that he did not lock the country down earlier, therefore going in the direction some scientists (in particular, Professor Neil Ferguson of the Imperial College) thought was best.
Yet perhaps Johnson should be held accountable for lack of other measures that did not include a lockdown. For example, for a long time, people entering in England weren’t tested but just asked to go

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How “socialist” was national socialism?

June 22, 2020

How “socialist” was National Socialism? In The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek considers “The Socialist Roots of Nazism.” Bruce Caldwell has written extensively on the circumstances at the time Hayek was writing what today is his most renowned work. Hayek wanted to refute the view, which gained dominance in the Thirties, that German Nazism was in essence a kind of capitalist reaction against rising socialism. The “socialism” bit in “National socialism” was seldom considered relevant.
Hayek was wary that prominent British thinkers thought Nazism was simply “vile” and, thus, had little to do with a noble set of ideas such as socialism. Instead, he saw a radical reaction to the “old” liberal system and the rule of law.

Hayek’s contention remains controversial. See

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Keynes, Friedman and champagne

June 11, 2020

Zachary Carter has written a biography of John Maynard Keynes that has been widely reviewed.

He is not – as opposed to Robert Skidelsky, Keynes’s master biographer – an economist and a scholar- but a journalist (a senior reporter at HuffPost). His work has received positive reviews. In the Wall Street Journal, Benn Steil pointed out that Carter’s book is at the same time a biography of Keynes (and he liked it as such) and a rant against neoliberalism (with few if any original ideas). He writes: “Mr. Carter seems to believe that Keynes, were he alive today, would be advising Sen. Bernie Sanders.”
Carter has an interview in the Washington Post. The interview is dense and interesting, but I was particularly struck by this passage:

I think we lose track of the fact

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Will COVID-19 kill Europe’s state aid discipline?

June 10, 2020

My colleague Carlo Stagnaro and I reviewed Thomas Philippon’s The Great Reversal for Law & Liberty.

Philippon’s book is ingenious and thought-provoking. The main thesis is that the EU became, as it were, more pro-competitive than the US. One of the pieces of evidence Philippon produces is the European discipline on state aid. National government subsidies to businesses are disciplined by Brussels and that helped in fostering a more competitive environment European-wide.
Yet is that going to last? Carlo and I are skeptical. COVID-19 is jeopardizing the genuine pro-market elements in European competition policy.
It is not a surprise—and perhaps it may warrant a new chapter in the next edition of The Great Reversal—that member states seized the opportunity of the

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Fontana on Emergency COVID Measures

June 8, 2020

One day, hopefully, we’ll calmly reason about what our experiences with COVID-19 have brought us. Or maybe not: history’s lessons are sometimes very difficult to learn.
Biancamaria Fontana has a learned and insightful piece on the blog of the Centre Walras Pareto at the University of Lausanne. Fontana, an accomplished historian of ideas, writes on the French Decree of 1793 known as “loi des suspects” which she describes as a “forerunner of the contemporary Patriot Acts”.
She focuses on Merlin de Douai and Cambacérès, two French jurists who had the distinction of working to shape the Revolutionary Tribunal. They were moderate, and yet collaborated with the Jacobins, including in preparing the legal framework of the Terror regime. Was that only a matter of

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South Korea and the specter of industrial policy

May 28, 2020

A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of industrial policy. European institutions are shaping their financial response to the Covid19 crisis: the European Commission is boasting a €750 billion ($824 billion) coronavirus recovery plan. Though details are still unclear, the idea that has been floating around for weeks is that of selective injections of money aiming to produce a European industrial policy, beginning with a “Green New Deal”. Sometimes where government money is allocated is a matter of luck: plenty of “green” projects were sitting on our governors’ desks, with few resources to finance them, before Covid19. Now that a window of opportunity has opened for massive public spending, they’ll be smuggled in.
It is interesting to note that leaders, beginning

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