The Wonders of the Wolani

Last night I saw a documentary on the Wolani, an isolated people that live in the uplands of West Papua (Indonesian New Guinea).  It was a fascinating documentary that chronicled the struggles of two bands to resolve a dispute between the two of them after a woman from one killed a man from another.  I was so interested that I googled Wolani, hoping to find some interesting information.

Instead, I came across The Wonders of the Wolani, a piece of absolute junk.  It was written by an “Austrian” economist who insists that the Wolani somehow reflect the beauty of a society without government.  Some background is probably necessary when it comes to Austrian economics.  Austrian economics the branch of economics that most forcefully insists that markets are as close to perfect as possible; or perhaps more subtlely, that government intervention in the economy is always and everywhere wrong.  It is identified most strongly with thinkers such as Hayek and Von Mises.  A long time ago it was influential and made some major contributions that are central to modern economics.  Today it is marginalized because it is more of a philosophy than a positive theory of economic man.  If you don’t believe me, see Bryan Caplan, who is about as sympathetic as you can get while still dismissing Austrian economics rather forcefully.  Austrians reject things like doing applied research, and the only reason I can figure out for why this would be is that they would be proven wrong.  By avoiding applied research, they can never be proven wrong in the real world.  Brilliant!

Now, the problems with The Wonders of Wolani are legion.  (1) The first one is what I call the “mercenary economist” problem, by which many economists believe that they can parachute into a developing country, sit in the Ministry of Economics for a week writing down numbers to be analyzed at home, and thereby “figure out” a society.  This is extra bad here, because it reveals the idea that one needs only watch a 48-minute television show to figure out the Wolani.  Note, for example, that the author thinks that New Guinea is in Africa.  (Ouch.)  I should note that the mercenary economist problem is not unique to the Austrians, it’s a problem common to most of the profession, and increasingly it is becoming a problem in political science.  But the Austrians have a big problem here, since they know that they are right already.  There’s no need to learn about a society, because they already know the answer, having uncovered the fundamental truths of mankind already through simply philosophizing.  Apparently, not so much.

(2) The first problem leads to the second problem, which is that the author is laughably ignorant about what life is like in West Papua.  The idea that West Papua’s normal state of nature is peaceful is simply ludicrous, and has been obvious to anyone with even a passing familiarity with the region.  There is a wonderful documentary called “Dead Birds” which shows the Dani people in the 1960s, before the arrival of anything close to government, Dutch, Indonesian, or otherwsie.  What we find is a near constant state of brutal intertribal war.  So yeah, government isn’t the problem here.

(3) More generally, there is the general problem of ideology trumping dispassionate analysis.  As the author writes,

Contra what I regard as popular perception about violence and warfare in such environments, the inter-clan conflict resolution process was remarkably peaceful, orderly, and deliberate.

I have no idea what documentary he was watching.  But in the documentary I was watching, mass killings were historically prevalent.  The ideology of Austrian economics has apparently led the author to conclude that the state of nature that the Wolani primarily find themselves in is something to be cherished.  (As the thinking runs, government is always bad, so if there is no government, it must be good.)  There’s an odd similarity here to common perception among insufferable relativists (sophomore anthropology majors) that primitive lives are wonderful.  The Noble Savage Myth, as it is called.  Only blind allegiance to ideology could make one believe that a part of Indonesia where people still starve to death has actually got it all figured out, and would be best suited by being left alone.

(4) Finally, the lessons the author wants us to draw from the Wolani simply reflect poor social science.  Stunning for economics, a discipline that normally prides itself on rigorous research.

1. The power of informal institutions in converting situations of potential conflict into situations of cooperation.

This is silly.  Informal institutions always arise absent formal ones.  The question is whether the informal institutions are better than the formal ones.  Since there *are* no formal institutions to observe here, there’s no basis for this claim.

2. The inability of state-made institutions that conflict with informal institutions to bring about their desired results.

Nearly the same problem.  We don’t know if there are state-made institutions, because we only saw informal ones.  We do know that the rest of Indonesia has functioning formal institutions, and doesn’t have the same problems that the Wolani face on a day-to-day basis.  The inference I’d make is that state-made formal institutions are crucial for mediating conflict.

3. The damage that can be inflicted (in this case, nearly war) when government imposes institutions at odds with the private practices of individuals.

Simple ignorance here combined with faulty research design.   He hasn’t looked at the abundant cases (in history, and elsewhere in the region today) where open intergroup warfare is present but where there are no government-imposed institutions.  People hardly needed Indonesian currency to find an excuse to kill each other.  He wants to claim that the government is the cause of the problem, but he simply doesn’t have the evidence to establish that claim.

(5) Finally, I think that the author’s viewpoint is remarkably internally inconsistent.  First we are told that government institutions are the problem, because they conflict with private demands.  Then we are told that when people create “informal” institutions that constrain their private demands, this is good.  In other words, when people organize politically to create institutions to constrain their demands, it’s good–but we’ve already been told that it’s bad to have these sorts of institutions.  You can’t have both.  It certainly can’t be the case that writing down a law makes it bad.

When pressed, the author would probably resort to some sort of claim that locally-based institutions are better than nationally-based institutions.  So when 1000 people create a law, it’s better than when 100,000,000 make a law.  Seems reasonable in a number of circumstances (and there’s certainly good argument that the Indonesian government has been awful to West Papuans–it’s essentially a foreign occupation).  I’d be much more sympathetic with this sort of argument.

Comments 18

  1. Josh January 9, 2008

    So it’s like an economic equivalent of ‘Cortes the Killer’ by Neil Young?

  2. Mom January 9, 2008

    Tom, dear…Don’t hold back. Tell us how you really feel!

  3. Matt G January 10, 2008

    Tom:
    While your theoretical point seems obviously correct, I don’t think you are using the best example by choosing “mass killings” and “brutal intertribal war” as the consequence of no government. Surely some measure of technological progress or economic efficiency through violence monopoly would have been better.
    “Mass killing” seems to be the natural state of the world, government or not. There’s no reason to believe that internal pacification through government doesn’t simply just move the killings to your nation vs. nation war.
    I do wonder how the documenter defined “government” in the negative. Is this absence of written law? Absence of leadership? Absence of coercion? Because even an austrian economist must believe in the enforcement of contracts, no? And if so, who enforces them?

  4. JeffW January 10, 2008

    (6) AND, his mother was a hamster and his father smelt of elderberries!

  5. Tom January 10, 2008

    >>>So it’s like an economic equivalent of ‘Cortes the Killer’ by Neil Young?
    Only if Neil Young were to claim that Incan society was peaceful. It can be the case both that the Indonesian government is terrible to West Papua (it is) and that government is not the problem that causes violence (it’s not).
    >>>”Mass killing” seems to be the natural state of the world, government or not.
    I totally disagree. I don’t see this in America, for example.
    >>>I do wonder how the documenter defined “government” in the negative.
    The problem is that he didn’t define it at all, the viewer inferred.

  6. Josh January 10, 2008

    >>> Only if Neil Young were to claim that Incan society was peaceful.
    Hate was just a legend /
    War was never known

  7. Josh January 10, 2008

    OH screw you, typepad. It cut out where I wrote “awesome guitar solo” in less-than-equal-thans, because it thought I was trying to enter some crazy Neil Young html tag.

  8. Matt G January 11, 2008

    >>>”Mass killing” seems to be the natural state of the world, government or not.
    >>>>>I totally disagree. I don’t see this in America, for example.
    Huh? Modern America is representative of “government”? C’mon, that’s not social science. For every modern America, there’s a Cambodia. And it’s an open question whether the pyramids of human skulls would have been higher or lower absent brutal government.
    And if you expand beyond the nation-state and across time to include tribes and feudal arrangements, i have a hard time believing that the pacification government can bring internally isn’t simply displaced into external conflict. Even the mighty old U.S., upon formation, made the War Department first.
    This isn’t to say government is bad in regards to killing: certainly internal pacification has many benefits, and shifting war internationally may indeed bunch the killing together in short spurts, also beneficial.
    But c’mon, i doubt the existence of government, writ large, affects the number of dead bodies at all.

  9. Tom January 11, 2008

    >>>Hate was just a legend /
    War was never known
    Well, that sure is wrong.

  10. Tom January 11, 2008

    >>>Huh? Modern America is representative of “government”? C’mon, that’s not social science. For every modern America, there’s a Cambodia.
    Ah, but the claim of the Austrian (in this case) isn’t that government is always and everywhere lollipops and daisies, but rather that government is always and everywhere suboptimal. The fact that Cambodia is terrible doesn’t impugn government in America. Just like the fact that the Wolani still kill each other doesn’t mean that it’s the government’s fault that this happens, which is essentially the author’s claim.
    >>>And it’s an open question whether the pyramids of human skulls would have been higher or lower absent brutal government.
    I don’t think that’s true. We’re pretty sure that the brutality of Pol Pot is at fault here. Plenty of other communist governments in the region didn’t kill a quarter of their population.
    >>>But c’mon, i doubt the existence of government, writ large, affects the number of dead bodies at all.
    The literature on state-formation (Tilly) argues that modern governments were formed in order to regularize the production of violence. So that would imply that violence continues. But the regularization of violence for extractive purposes is always the first step towards development and stability (Olson), and should lead to less violence. Once Genghis Khan had conquered people, he ceased wanting to kill and plunder quite so much, but rather wanted them working for him.

  11. Matt G January 11, 2008

    >>>>Ah, but the claim of the Austrian (in this case) isn’t that government is always and everywhere lollipops and daisies, but rather that government is always and everywhere suboptimal.
    This is clearly a key point that I have overlooked. I guess my real beef, then, is with Austrian economists, or perhaps just their definition of “government.” Like I said before, I assume they believe that some sovereign enforcing contracts is preferable to system based only on reputation (even Ebay has certain contract enforcement procedures, right?), but perhaps not. Maybe they are just kooky market-based anarchists.
    But I did think that Hayek’s main point was that government SHOULD exist, and it’s purpose should be to regulate activity such that market forces (as opposed to desired outcomes) worked properly. Perhaps I was reading his more mild works.
    Still, I think there’s a grain of truth to at least one aspect of this. My gut sense is that the best governments yet devised — liberal democracies and benevolent monarchies — seem to have restrictions on the sovereign (in the form of individual or natural rights) that do actual limit the scope and power of government in meaningful ways. In that sense, America is a good example of “less government” rather than a good example of “government.”
    Hope your trip went well. Safe travels.

  12. Josh January 11, 2008

    I think maybe Tom’s done a bad job of distinguishing Hayek from certain modern Austrians.
    In The Road To Serfdom, Hayek stresses that not only is government necessary for the general libertarian reasons of police, roads, national defense, but also for maintaining a competitive business environment.
    You won’t find many modern Austrians calling for the government to break up monopolies. In the world Hayek wrote in, though, the world was divided into collectivist nations like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia where a dictatorship directed central planning, and the democracies, where you got to elect the people in charge of central planning. Just the idea that a centrally planned economy wasn’t more efficient was radical.

  13. Tom January 12, 2008

    It figures that I’m arguing about Austrian economics with my two Paulistinian friends.
    >>>I assume they believe that some sovereign enforcing contracts is preferable to system based only on reputation (even Ebay has certain contract enforcement procedures, right?), but perhaps not. Maybe they are just kooky market-based anarchists.
    It’s closer to the latter, although when you put an Austrian in power, you get something more like the former pretty quickly.
    >>>Still, I think there’s a grain of truth to at least one aspect of this. My gut sense is that the best governments yet devised — liberal democracies and benevolent monarchies — seem to have restrictions on the sovereign (in the form of individual or natural rights) that do actual limit the scope and power of government in meaningful ways. In that sense, America is a good example of “less government” rather than a good example of “government.”
    First, benevolent monarchies are purely theoretical. They don’t exist, and never have. But more importantly, I take issue with the claim that America is “less government.” The vast majority of our life in the US is regulated in some fashion. Every bit of food you eat, everything you wear, everything you watch, etc. Try Indonesia for an example of more decentralized governance.
    >>>In the world Hayek wrote in, though, the world was divided into collectivist nations like Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia where a dictatorship directed central planning, and the democracies, where you got to elect the people in charge of central planning.
    That’s terribly simplistic. I don’t see how you could possibly make the case that the United States and Great Britain, outside of the war economies, had anything close to central planning. Halting corporatism at best.
    >>>Just the idea that a centrally planned economy wasn’t more efficient was radical.
    Oh please. Smith, Ricardo, and their ilk were writing 150 yeas before Hayek. Hayek was Thomas Friedman: summarizing one conventional wisdom with a good deal of elegance. The one true bit of insight that the Austrians “gave” us is derivative of a very old school of thought.
    And you’ll note that Hayek is the Austrian most closely linked with mainstream neoliberal thought (contract enforcement is good, for example). That’s because Hayek is the least Austrian of the Austrians on theoretical grounds, although he shares their methodological fallacies.

  14. Josh January 12, 2008

    >>> That’s terribly simplistic. I don’t see how you could possibly make the case that the United States and Great Britain, outside of the war economies, had anything close to central planning. Halting corporatism at best.
    Well, RtS was published during WWII, so I don’t think “outside of the war economies” applies. I think you also underestimate the amount of planning going on in New Deal-era US and Depression-era Britain. The UK was far worse– war rationing continued years past 1945, and currency restrictions made it nearly impossible for ordinary Britons to vacation outside the country. Hence, the exotic ‘Casino Royale,’ on the dreary north coast of France.
    Bond anecdotes aside…
    >>> Oh please. Smith, Ricardo, and their ilk were writing 150 yeas before Hayek. Hayek was Thomas Friedman: summarizing one conventional wisdom with a good deal of elegance.
    That’s lunacy. Smith and Ricardo might have written 150 years earlier, but nobody was paying attention to them in the 30s and 40s. And Hayek was personally responsible for distilling the theory of collective information processing by individuals. Just because we take it for granted today doesn’t mean it was conventional wisdom then.
    I would check out ‘Freedom Under Planning’ by Barbara Wootton for the contemporary left response to Road to Serfdom.
    Don’t forget — it was only under Tony Blair that the Labour Party abandoned nationalizing industries as a platform item.

  15. Tom January 13, 2008

    >>>I think you also underestimate the amount of planning going on in New Deal-era US and Depression-era Britain.
    I consider this more of a halting corporatism, rather than true central planning. There was no doubt a fad of “planning” happening here, and the socialist governments in Britain were seduced by it. Central planning of the Soviet/Fascist type is a different beast altogether. We never saw anything close to this in the US or even the UK.
    >>>That’s lunacy. Smith and Ricardo might have written 150 years earlier, but nobody was paying attention to them in the 30s and 40s.
    I say “pshaw” to that, given the fact that the entire New Deal was fiercely contested in the United States. The idea that NO ONE before Hayek thought that central planning was a bad idea, the idea that NO organized pro-business pressure groups existed that claimed the value of markets over planning, is simply false.
    >>>And Hayek was personally responsible for distilling the theory of collective information processing by individuals.
    This is his (and the Austrians) true contribution, but they didn’t solve the problem, they only proposed the theory. It took two Keynesians (Arrow and Debreu) to derive the conditions under which Hayek was right.
    >>>Just because we take it for granted today doesn’t mean it was conventional wisdom then.
    Not *the* conventional wisdom, but *a* conventional wisdom.

  16. Matt G January 15, 2008

    >>>>First, benevolent monarchies are purely theoretical. They don’t exist, and never have.
    No doubt. I was using the phrase to emphasize that very idea, the gap between theory and reality.
    >>>>I take issue with the claim that America is “less government.” The vast majority of our life in the US is regulated in some fashion. Every bit of food you eat, everything you wear, everything you watch, etc. Try Indonesia for an example of more decentralized governance.
    See, I fundamentally disagree with you here. Sure, within the spheres where regulation is legitimate, the U.S. has a regulated society. But it is precisely because of the U.S. Constitution that certain types of regulation — such as the placement of state-owned surveillance cameras in public, a la London — can’t exist in the U.S. There’s a sphere of life that isn’t open to government regulation, which makes the U.S. different from countries with omnipotent sovereigns.
    >>>>>And you’ll note that Hayek is the Austrian most closely linked with mainstream neoliberal thought (contract enforcement is good, for example). That’s because Hayek is the least Austrian of the Austrians on theoretical grounds, although he shares their methodological fallacies.
    I think your use of Hayek undermines your argument against the Austrians. I’ve read both Road to Serfdom and Constitution of Liberty, but I’ve never even thought about Austrian economists or what they believe. But from those two books, Hayek can’t possibly be anything like what you are describing as Austrian economics. His views wouldn’t even be characterized as outside of the conservative mainstream in modern America, and he’s probably to the left of plenty of elected Republicans on taxation, or what is and isn’t proper for government to spend money on.
    >>>>>The one true bit of insight that the Austrians “gave” us is derivative of a very old school of thought.
    I find this to be a silly argument. First off, we all know there’s nothing — or at least very, very little — that’s even possibly new in political theory. Most of it is derivative of Plato, or Hobbes, or whoever. The genius of modern theory writers is, IMO to 1)translate these things to modern conditions and 2)make it accesible to the masses. Hayek did both.
    What’s James Madison’s contribution? Most surely one might answer “separation of powers.” But he sure as hell didn’t invent it, and it surely isn’t necessarily a good thing.
    More important, though, is that I think Hayek did make a contribution, one that many people are only coming around to now, 50 years later. And it has nothing to do with Austrian economics. It’s this: If you empower a central government to do good things, you have to accept that you are elevating the risk of it doing bad things, because you are increasing its capacity for action. As simple as this sounds, I think most 20th century progressives had forgotten there were ANY downsides to central governance, and more than a few probably still forget.

  17. Tom January 15, 2008

    >>>See, I fundamentally disagree with you here. Sure, within the spheres where regulation is legitimate, the U.S. has a regulated society. But it is precisely because of the U.S. Constitution that certain types of regulation — such as the placement of state-owned surveillance cameras in public, a la London — can’t exist in the U.S. There’s a sphere of life that isn’t open to government regulation, which makes the U.S. different from countries with omnipotent sovereigns.
    I see this point for sure, but I think that we trade a lack of some regulations for an abundance others. For example, we can never have a law about surveillance cameras, but we can have 1.2 billion laws about taxation or consumer safety. Does that make sense?
    >>>I think your use of Hayek undermines your argument against the Austrians…
    You know, both you and Josh resist linking Hayek to the Austrians. In truth, I’m comfortable calling him something else if you like, because of all the people called Austrians (and for all the reasons you list) I find him much more reasonable than others. My inclusion of him as an Austrian is not something that I thought up myself, though. This is something that Austrians themselves say: ie., they claim him for themselves. I’m not the one doing the lumping.
    >>>Hayek did both.
    I agree with you on this as well. I do object to people considering the *ideas* to be landmarks. And I’d also add that lots of good economists can do good political theory by developing the rigorous theoretical propositions required for the arguments that theorists make. Like, what John Roemer did for socialism.
    >>>If you empower a central government to do good things, you have to accept that you are elevating the risk of it doing bad things, because you are increasing its capacity for action.
    Isn’t this just Madison? (HA!)

  18. c June 17, 2010

    >>>”Mass killing” seems to be the natural state of the world, government or not.
    I totally disagree. I don’t see this in America, for example. <<
    The USA is somewhere near the greatest agent of mass killing planet Earth has ever seen. It has developed the most powerful mass killing weapons on earth.
    Hiroshima.
    In the last eight years alone the USA has killed 100,000 people in west-central Asia and mangled 100s of 1000s more.
    Compare Dresden with the "brutal state of intertribal war" attributed to the Dani who resolve conflicts with a handfull of deaths or none.
    Internally the USA is not pacified. Check out the homicide statistics. Staggering.
    In the 20th century the UK was at war somewhere on the planet for 98 of the 100 years. Likewise America spent much of the 20th c enagaged in tribal war with Grenada, Germany, Laos etc
    The number of people who starved to death in Europe and America during the 20th C is enormous.
    Whoever made the point that internal pacification simply leads to nation to nation warfare is correct. Why?
    The bottom line is that We All Have The Same Brains whether living in New Guinea or America so we behave the same way. We form groups and fight outsiders.
    The flipside of the Noble Savage Myth is the Savage myth and it's bald racism.
    Humanity is an extrordinarily self-deceiving specie.

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