What I’m reading lately: Africa, liberty, economics

In December I reread Mike Resnick’s Galactic Comedy, a trilogy of histories of three sci-fi planets based on the 19th- and 20th-century histories of three different African nations. Paradise is based on Kenya (Selous, Jomo Kenyatta, Mau Mau); Purgatory on Zimbabwe (Cecil Rhodes, Kariba Dam, Second Matabele War, Great Zimbabwe); and Inferno on Uganda (Milton Obote, Idi Amin, expulsion of the Asians). I recommend basically everything Mike Resnick ever wrote.

For anyone tempted down this rabbit hole: The three-in-one Galactic Comedy printing (Amazon, archive.org) has an Appendix at the back with a clef to people and places. For example, Paradise’s “Bukwa Enclave” was based on the events of 1910–1912 in the Lado Enclave, and Catamount Greene was based on John Boyes.

Serendipitously, this month I also discovered Matt Lakeman’s engrossing not-so-capsule histories of some West African nations. I’m reading them in reverse chronological order and have only gotten through Ivory Coast and Guinea so far.

Unfathomably, in the Ivory Coast piece Lakeman tries to alienate typography wonks (perhaps a sizeable fraction of his target audience) right at the start with meta-comments like “Felix Houphouët-Boigny […] has an accent that I can’t figure out how to type on my computer. So I am usually going to refer to him as ‘FHB’.” By halfway through the piece, he’s forgotten this conceit and is tossing off names like Robert Guéï and Marie-Thérèse Brou with casual aplomb. So, wonks, my advice is to stick it out.

Last month I read Isaiah Berlin’s Two Concepts of Liberty (1958). Berlin distinguishes what he calls “negative liberty” (“liberty from”; “the preservation of an area within which human personality is to have the fullest possible play”) from what he calls “positive liberty” (“liberty in the positive sense of self-direction”). This latter is much harder to explain, let alone quantify:

I wish above all to be conscious of myself as a thinking, willing, active being whose choices are his own, bearing responsibility for his acts, and able to explain them by reference to his own ideas and purposes. I feel free in proportion as I know this to be true, and enslaved in proportion as the facts make me realise that it is not true.


The freedom that a man demands is as often as not the desire for recognition: I may be seeking not for what Mill would wish me to seek, namely freedom from coercion, from arrest, from tyranny […; but rather] from being taken for granted, from being ignored, patronised, despised; in short, from not being treated as a full human being, from having my existence unrecognised, from being classed as a member of some featureless amalgam, a statistical unit without identifiable unique human features of my own. This is the degradation that I am fighting against, not for equality of legal rights, not for the liberty to do as I wish (although I may want these too), but for a condition in which I can feel a responsible agent [and] a full human being, even if I am attacked and persecuted for being as I am.

Berlin seems to subdivide this “positive liberty” into at least two further categories, encompassing both individual Stoicism (“what I cannot have I must teach myself not to want […] in the end a sublime form of sour grapes”) and tribal autonomy (“recognition of myself (or my class or my nation, or my colour or my race) as an independent source of action, something entitled to direct itself as it wishes, and not to be ruled, educated, guided, with however light a hand”).

Berlin occasionally uses almost the same examples to illustrate both kinds of liberty, showing how easy it is to conflate them. Here’s negative liberty — freedom from external restraint:

The desire to be left alone, to live one’s life as one chooses, the very sense of privacy, of the area of personal relationships as sacred in its own right; the belief that it is more worthy of a human being to go to the bad in his own way than to the good under the control of a benevolent authority; this, which is almost a defining notion of a large element in Western civilisation, is scarcely older than the Renaissance and the Reformation.

And positive liberty — the freedom to self-determine:

I may prefer to be bullied and ordered about by another slave, or another member of my oppressed nation, to being well and wisely treated by someone who belongs to another class or another nation, because I prefer recognition by my brother human being, even if I am misgoverned by him, to non-recognition by someone whom I do not feel to be a brother, but a being from another sphere, even if he governs me well.

[…] It is this that leads the most authoritarian democracies to be preferred by their members to the most enlightened oligarchies, or causes a member of some newly liberated Asian or African State to complain less if he is unjustly imprisoned by members of his own race or nation than if he were ever so lightly displaced by some cautious, benevolent, infinitely well-meaning administrator from outside.

A sentiment we also see in Resnick’s pseudo-Africa:

“He’s utterly irresponsible!” I muttered.
“Why?” asked Maliachi. “Because he trusts his people to make their own decisions?”
“But if they decide wrong, they’ll die!”
“And if they die, it will be because of their own actions. It will be a pleasant change.”

In short, Berlin’s major thesis here is that “liberty” is a word with (at least) two fundamentally incompatible meanings (cf. “inclusivity”); keeping such distinctions explicitly in mind may improve the clarity of our thoughts.

Speaking of mixing up two fundamentally different theses into a single concept, the author of the Eryxias (generally recognized as not-actually-Plato) makes Socrates say:

In Sparta they put useless iron into circulation. The person who has a large weight of this kind of iron is considered wealthy, yet elsewhere such a possession is worthless. In Ethiopia they use engraved stones which a Lacedaemonian would find useless. And among the Scythian nomads anyone who possessed Pulytion’s house would be considered no wealthier than an owner of Mount Lycabettus would be considered by us.

Therefore, pseudo-Plato’s pseudo-Socrates concludes, “money” is a social construct; we value things only as they are useful; and thus the most useful thing — virtue — is the greatest form of wealth.

Now, Pulytion was one of Alcibiades’ prep-school rager buddies. Steppe nomads — why is it always steppe nomads? — wouldn’t consider his house to be “wealth” because they have no use for anything that’s not portable. But, contrariwise, the Spartans famously used iron money precisely because it was inutile: you couldn’t make anything out of it, and foreign merchants wouldn’t accept it as money either.

Clearly Plato should have read “The Origins of Money in Diablo II” (Solomon M. Stein, collected in The Invisible Hand in Virtual Worlds (2021): Amazon, Sci-Hub), in which Stein delivers the point of Carl Menger’s “On the Origins of Money” (1892) much more clearly, and in a more rollickingly readable style, than Menger ever did. Stein writes:

From a pure barter economy involving goods with differential salability, we will observe the emergence of a monetary commodity via the cumulative decisions made by self-interested market participants, without any of those choices having intended to create money. Individuals who enter the marketplace with goods of relatively low salability are, in comparison to vendors of more salable goods, less likely to find a desirable counterparty or any viable counterparty at all. (Obviously, there are commodities that are relatively unsalable because of the absence of demand for them, in which case even widespread adoption of a monetary unit is of little help.) […] Individual traders therefore have an incentive to hold the most salable assets possible, so as to maximize the number of potential exchange partners and more easily obtain the final commodities they desire.

Highly recommended!

Posted 2024-01-12