Response to Noah Smith on Open Mind: "The Case of China"

This is a response to this critique of this essay.

First, thanks to Noah Smith for reading and analyzing my work. Discussions like these are important, especially in types of economic writing that are not peer reviewed. Now, let's look at the details of Noah's critique.

Noah contends that Japan did indeed catch up to the West in living standards. It caught up to some countries, but not to the leaders. Here's how a different version of his table of per capita GDP (in PPP) would look for 2012:

There are still big gaps between Japan and the leading large Western economies. Japan may be in the same league as some Western European countries, and my writing was too glib there. But I was trying to create a contrast with the conventional wisdom of the 1980s, when many analysts thought Japan would attain higher living standards than the United States and potentially become the world's biggest economy; these are not too different from the things some people say about China now. (By the way, Noah, you might want to use this link instead of Wikipedia for your International Monetary Fund data.)

Noah's second point is about Confucianism and convergence. He points out that other Confucianist countries - South Korea and Taiwan - have done just fine, attaining the same income levels as Japan and the poorer countries in the West. In fact, I start the discussion of convergence by talking not about Confucianism but about openness to trade, the ease of starting a business, and transparency. South Korea and Taiwan score better on all these indices (which I include for illustrative purposes; they all have some methodological issues) than China. The reason, I suggest, may have to do with how the Chinese government has used Confucianism:

According to Daniel Bell, a scholar of Chinese philosophy at Tsinghua University in Beijing, Confucianism was melded with Chinese authorities' legalistic inclinations to lend a legitimizing cultural resonance to their strict imposition of law and order. A second and related tenet of Confucianism could be termed propriety, or an adherence to ceremony or tradition; it encompasses the "respect for elders" that is a hallmark of many East Asian civilizations. In Confucianism, this deference belongs not just in family relationships but also between ruler and subject, master and servant, and employer and employee.

Together, these tenets of Confucianism - and the way they have been interpreted by the Chinese authorities in recent times - have helped to maintain rigid hierarchies in Chinese businesses.

I am not ascribing China's economic performance solely to Confucianism, but rather to the specific way that Beijing has exploited it. I think that the combination may be behind some of the other problems mentioned above. Confucianism may help the government to maintain strict hierarchies, such as the kind that allow the Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army to have a parallel power structure in large organizations. It may also increase trust in a government that enforces its laws in a less-than-transparent way. Despite the relatively small voice that Chinese people have in their politics, their trust in government is among the highest in the world.

No cross-country data offer an easy test of my hypothesis, as China is pretty much a unique case. The only other country I can think of that shares the Confucian tradition and may have exploited it to entrench state capitalism under a communist brand is Vietnam; a comparison may be possible there. If Noah can come up with an empirical strategy, I'll gladly help to produce the results.

Still, even without an empirical test, I think it's worth putting out hypotheses like this one. As Noah himself tweeted recently, "Data without theory tells [sic] you nothing." His corollary might be "Theory without data is derp," but we can't always have both at exactly the same time; just ask Peter Higgs. So yes, I've written a hypothesis based on theory - perhaps too assertively for Noah's taste - and I hope better data, not just expert opinions like Bell's, will someday support it.