Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Company of Strangers

I'm a bit of a sucker for book recommendations, particularly from the man Blattman, and I've rarely been disappointed. Through his blog and recommendations I was introduced to the joys and intelligence of Jane Jacobs, James Ferguson, and James C Scott.

So I attacked Paul Seabright's "The Company of Strangers - A Natural History of Economic Life" with great enthusiasm. And at first I liked it - it was a kind of economist's version of Diamond's incredibly insightful (I thought) "Guns, Germs and Steel". The basic premise is that in order to the modern economy to work, we have to be willing to trust total strangers to some degree, whether in terms of direct exchange at the shops, or more complexly, in terms of shipping items, made to a specific standard around the world etc. And it's all very Hayekian about the emergent nature of this, nobody plans it, etc. The ideas are quite profound (even if I sense that I'm seeing more and more about this around) and the issue of trust is clearly very important for development - the limits of firm growth in developing countries  are likely to relate to the  reliability of contract enforcement mechanisms and dispute settlement etc (this goes back to North I believe). So it's all (as everything these days seems to be) about collective action and norms - formal and informal institutions....

Indeed, it;s interesting that humans are the only species to have developed this kind of indirect reciprocity, and willingness to "behave" even when there is no explicit threat of enforcement or even control. It's also amazing that without any planning, the complex processes and exchanges required even to produce a simple T-shirt (very well described in another book I was probably recommended and liked: "The Travels of a T-Shirt") actually come together and make sure that we have the things that we need and want. In the developed world at least.

But the thread begins to disappear as you go through the book - probably much like this post. It seems there are a lot of interesting chapters, with interesting factoids, but without that thread, by the end I was really forcing myself. Anyway, next on my list is Rodrik's latest which looks fairly readable from my glances up to now - we shall see how I'm feeling by the end (actually, if he takes his own reading preference into account I should be OK- he once wrote that he (like me) has started more than one Pamuk book but never made it to the end, despite the beginning being so damned good.....)

Anyway..... Enough.

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