John Blundell, 1952—2014

The Institute has lost a talented and much valued friend, and those who work to spread economic and personal liberty have lost a staunch and effective campaigner. From the ASI’s foundation in 1977, we worked with John, who was then Press & Parliamentary Officer for Federation of Small Businesses. During his spell in that post from 1977 – 1982, he was also a Lambeth Councillor, and combined knowledge of what worked for business with deep insights into the workings of local government. He was a leading figure among the very small band who worked to restore free markets and opportunities to a nation worn down by years of centralism and state planning.

He engineered a joint publication between the ASI and the Federation of Small Businesses in 1979. Called “An Inspector at the Door,” it detailed the various powers of officials to enter premises and seize materials. It was a media sensation, with numerous articles about Britain’s “Society of Snoopers.” Margaret Thatcher expressed her concern in Parliament, and set up a commission to review and curtail some of those powers.

It was an early example of John’s effectiveness and his skills as an organizer and a communicator. Those skills saw him in good stead when he went to the US, where he became President of the Institute for Humane Studies, the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, the Charles G Koch Foundation, and the Claude R Lambe Foundation.

His appointment in 1993 as Director General of the Institute of Economic Affairs was an inspired one. He rapidly reinvigorated the IEA and restored it to its former glory and influence. Assiduously he built up its network of supporters and its range of influential publications. John’s own temperament, outgoing and enthusiastic, helped turn the IEA’s meetings into ones not to be missed. John’s benign presence not only left its stamp on the IEA, but on the numerous outside bodies that he generously helped to build up and support. Internationally he helped to establish other institutes, and was a stalwart of the Mont Pelerin Society, founded by F A Hayek to propagate liberal, free-market ideas.

John had many publications to his credit, including “Waging the War of Ideas” (2003), together with some important works he co-authored or edited. Under his leadership the IEA supported and publicized works by outside bodies, often hosting launches in the IEA’s premises. Those premises were transformed during John’s tenure, giving the IEA the space it needed for its extended tasks.

He was a good friend and a loyal one. We shall miss his huge personality and his wry humour. He made a major contribution to making the world into a better place, and will deservedly be remembered for that.

Inside the Adam Smith Institute

Now that the new Adam Smith website is up, with an exciting plethora of activities and reports scheduled, new readers might like to take stock of what the ASI does, and what motivates us.

If labels are used, they might be “free market” and “libertarian,” but these are big tents under which disparate people are grouped. The crucial thing is that our free market libertarianism is both consequentialist and empiricist, combining an essentially Hayekian economic outlook with a deep optimism about the world.

In our view actions that enable individuals to advance their happiness by pursuing their own goals are worthy of support, and those that restrict their ability to do that should be opposed. We are more concerned with what results from actions than with the intentions or attitudes of those who initiate those actions. And we are more concerned with changing the world for the better than with promoting theories about it.

As empiricists we make conjectures about the world and its future, and we test their value against experience of real world outcomes. Where the two conflict, it is the conjecture that has to be rejected or modified. We take the view that “an ounce of practice is worth a pound of theory.”

While economics and public policy are complex fields that make experiment and testing difficult to perform, we do attempt to test proposals by their results. Several times we have proposed small-scale trials of larger ideas in order to validate the ideas and ascertain any unforeseen drawbacks before they are rolled out more widely.

We recognize, of course, that poor people do not have access to the choices and chances accessible to the rich, and this is why many of our policy initiatives are directed to improving the lot of poorer people in society. We have advocated for many years that the income tax and national insurance thresholds should be set at the level of the minimum wage and indexed to it, so we would not be taxing people on the bottom income level.

Some of our research studies and policy suggestions derive from our recognition that poor people are hurt most by things such as restrictions on international trade and migration, planning controls that prevent cheap housing from being built, education policies that condemn poor children to bad schools and regulatory policies that protect established market players from new entrants.

We propose and back policies that give all parents choice over where their children go to school and which introduce competition into the school system, whether these be by education vouchers, or by allowing the allocation of state funds to schools be determined by the choices parents make. We tend to back the view that welfare is not just about providing the services the state thinks poor people should have, but about equipping people with the means to make their own choices about the mix of services they prefer. Ideas such as a negative income tax could remove the perverse incentives present in the current welfare system.

We recognize that states can cause a great deal of harm when they attempt to direct and micromanage the economy. Many regulations have damaging effects that were not anticipated, and this includes financial regulations that can make financial systems more unstable than they would be without them.

More broadly, we think that the ‘unknown unknowns’ of regulation should lead society to prefer decentralized trial and error to the risk of one big mistake that affects everyone in the same way.

We have argued that the central bank should follow the ‘Hayek rule’ – the stabilization of the level of nominal spending in times of booms and busts along a predictable path. Scott Sumner recently delivered our annual Adam Smith Lecture and explained how the failure of the world’s central banks to do this led to the Great Recession.

In the Adam Smith Institute we have always been very optimistic about technology and society. We see the world becoming increasingly open and tolerant in most (though not all) areas, with technology and entrepreneurship helping to drive that. To us, companies like Uber, Google and Airbnb deserve to be celebrated when they break down barriers to competition and disrupt the existing way of doing things in ways that give consumers a better product for a lower cost. It is this kind of innovative entrepreneurship that moves the world forward and allows today’s luxuries of the very rich to be tomorrow’s household commonplaces.

There is a dark side when new technologies are used by governments to spy on their citizens and control them. If technologies like Bitcoin and other blockchain-based innovations represent a long-term way of evading the worst excesses of government intrusion, they should be defended from government now while they are still in their infancy.

Of course the Institute is not a monolith. It consists of people who sometimes differ, but all of whom are brought together by a desire to give more power and liberty to individuals, so that their regard to their own interest can make them and us richer, freer and happier.

The new Adam Smith Institute website


If you’re a regular reader of the Adam Smith Institute, you’ll have noticed that we have a new website. I’m a big fan of the design – that and the rest of the site has been done by freelancer Rob Bell (who I strongly recommend for quality, value and ease-of-doing-business if you’re thinking of getting a site designed yourself).

But the changes have been a little more than cosmetic: moving to WordPress from Drupal means that we can manage the site at the back end more cheaply and easily than ever before, and if/when we want to redesign the site in the future it should be relatively simple.

Most importantly, the site is now fully responsive to mobile and table screen sizes, so reading on your phone should be a very pleasant experience from now on.

Naturally, there have been a few hiccups – we’ve imported all our old research and blogposts and maintained most URLs, but some old images have been lost and some posts with special characters in their URL may not be working. Thanks in part to Google’s caching of old pages and the Wayback Machine, all of these things can be fixed manually. If you spot anything amiss, just let us know in the comments here.

There are some other minor niggles that need to be sorted out – we have pages about (for instance) Adam Smith that were almost never visited on the old site and we haven’t found a good way to link to on the new site just yet. As is often the case, the balance is between style and function, and it will take a while to get everything working properly.

We’ll be experimenting with some other changes, like keeping the Research section for ASI reports only and putting longer think pieces (clearly labeled as such) on the blog. We’re also using tags for posts to make it easier to find what you want from our archives.

If you have any comments or suggestions, do please let us know!

Disqus or WordPress for comments? Let us know

We're going to be moving over to a new, WordPress-based site shortly. One of the things we're trying to decide is whether to keep Disqus for comments, or to use a native WordPress-based comments system.

As I see it, the issues are this:

  1. Wordpress is simpler, requiring no login or registration. Disqus does allow guest comments but it can be quite fiddly.
  2. Disqus allows users to upvote their favourite comments and downvote others.
  3. All our current comments are kept on Disqus, though I'm not sure if we'll be able to bring these over in any case.
  4. Some users find Disqus to be extremely annoying to use; whether this is a specific Disqus problem or a more general problem I don't know.

Since ASI writers very seldom comment on the site, preferring to allow readers to discus among themselves (maybe that should change?), I thought the best thing to do would be to open it up to you — do you like Disqus? Hate it? Which would make you happier — the status quo, or a WordPress-powered comment system? Let us know in the comments. Of course, the fact that those comments are currently powered by Disqus may skew the results…

Five intriguing papers I discovered this week

In what might become a recurring feature, I am going to summarise the findings of a few research papers, potentially of interest to ASI blog readers, that were either first released this week, first published this week, or first come upon by me this week.

1. Fernandes, D., Lynch, J. G., and Netemeyer, R. G., “Financial Literacy, Financial Education and Downstream Financial Behaviors” (Jan 2014)

This paper is a large meta-analysis of 168 other papers, which in turn refer to 201 different studies and experiments. They find that at least 99.9% of financial behaviour in life cannot be explained by differences in financial education, or conversely at most 0.1% of the difference in people’s financial decision-making and choices is down to education interventions designed to improve their financial literacy. In the words of their abstract: “even large interventions with many hours of instruction have negligible effects on behavior 20 months or more from the time of intervention”.

While other correlational studies appear to show some relationship between financial behaviour and educational schemes (i.e. one explaining more than 0.1% of the variance between individuals) they explain that this is only because those typically getting financial education already have various psychological traits associated with careful management of finances. They therefore suggest that big schemes designed to improve lifetime financial decisionmaking are futile and a waste of money; the best we can hope for is “just in time” interventions, perhaps at the point of financial transactions, that are more likely to be taken in and not forgotten.

2. Wang, M-T., Eccles, J. S., and Kenny, S., “Not Lack of Ability but More Choice: Individual and Gender Differences in Choice of Careers in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics” (May 2013)

In this paper the authors find that a substantial fraction of the male-female “gap” in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Medicine) fields can be explained by the fact that women who are talented at maths tend to also have high verbal skills, skills that mathematically talented men are much more likely to lack. This means they have a wider range of choices available to them, and also possibly identify less closely with maths as part of their personality, and it is this choice not to pursue STEM further that drives the gap, rather than, for example, discrimination in the area or a perceived unfriendly atmosphere.

3. Liu, S., Huang, J. L., and Wang, M., “Effectiveness of Job Search Interventions: A Meta-Analytic Review” (Mar 2014)

Liu, Huang and Wang found, reviewing 47 different experiments testing if schemes “teaching job search skills, improving self-presentation, boosting self-efficacy, encouraging proactivity, promoting goal setting, and enlisting social support” could boost the unemployed’s chances of getting a job. In fact, on average those in the treatment groups—i.e. those actually subject to the intervention, and not in the control group—were 2.67 times more likely to get a job. Since the studies all used randomness of quasi-randomness to assign treatment, this suggests, they say, that schemes that develop skills and self-motivation can be effective. However, the schemes were more likely to help the young than the old, the short-term unemployed than the long-term unemployed, and job-seekers with special needs, as compared to the population at large.

4. Karwowski, M., and Lebuda, I., “Digit ratio predicts eminence of Polish actor” (Jul 2014)

In a slightly surprising study, the two authors looked at 98 Polish actors, both male and female, and compared the ratio between their second and fourth digits on their hand (a measure of prenatal testosterone exposure) and their productivity and fame. For both men and women, even controlling for age, a higher ratio predicted more pre-eminence.

5. Aisen, A., and Veiga, F. J., “How Does Political Instability Affect Economic Growth?” (Jan 2011)

In a classic example where economists do extensive research to tell us what we already know, this IMF paper from 2011 shows us how bad political instability is for economic growth. Actually, the paper is a great one because it allows us to estimate the size of the impact of different political elements on instability and then the size of instability’s own impact on economic aggregates.

Their findings are highly interesting: whereas primary school enrolment has a pitifully small impact on economic growth, and the impact of investment, economic freedom and the security of property rights comes out quite small, violence, political instability and cabinet changes have substantial negative effects, as does, surprisingly, population growth. And while the most productive regions in Europe are the most ethnically diverse, in this study ethnic homogeneity is very strongly associated with growth. Of course, the conclusions of the paper—that countries should address the root causes of political instability—are much easier said than done!