In the past 20 years no libertarian thinker has shortened a broader or deeper intellectual part of American public policy and culture than Tyler Cowen.
The 56-year-old resident of New Jersey has the Holbert L. Harris Economics Chair at George Mason University and serves as chairman and general manager of the Mercatus Center, a think tank at the school. Cowen co-founder of the popular economy blog Marginal revolution and makes regular contributions Good Politic. He is the host of Conversations with Tyler, a podcast series with interviews with people as diverse as tennis pro Martina Navratilova, New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and comedian Dave Barry, and he is the author of a shelf full of books, including 1998 & # 39; s In Praise or Commercial Culture, 2007 & # 39; s Discover your inner economistand 2017 & # 39; s The Complacent Class.
His work encompasses everything from the literal and figurative prizes of fame to how globalization empowers Mexican folk artists whether public funding for the arts has been more successful than most free marketers would allow. A recurring theme in the past decade is the fear that the West may have entered a period that he & # 39; s big stagnation & # 39; mentions, where technological innovation and economic growth have slowed down, even if risk appetite and corn-buckle-like enterprises are completely demonized or ignored.
In October, Reason& # 39; s Nick Gillespie talked to Cowen about his latest book, Stubborn attachments: a vision for a society of free, prosperous and responsible individuals (Stripe Press). The work is an unapologetic libertarian argument for what he calls sustainable long-term economic growth and, more importantly, for intellectual and cultural attitudes dedicated to freedom and prosperity.
Reason: You write in your new book that we need to develop a harder, more dedicated and indeed a more stubborn attachment to prosperity and freedom. What do you mean?
Cowen: I regard this book as my attempt to defend a free society and to give it a philosophical foundation. The world deviates from classic liberal ideas, and that case must be made in a new, fresh and powerful and vital way.
How important is prosperity for the ideals of freedom?
Prosperity is central to most human values. A richer world helps you to be more creative. It helps you choose a job or partner that you may want to have instead of someone with whom you have to get married, say, the money. It helps us pay our bills. It helps us to provide for needy members of society. It simply keeps us on the right track and gives us some opportunity to control our environment and not be completely surrendered to nature. I think that prosperity, strangely enough, is still undervalued.
What are the most important things that drag prosperity? How do we shoot ourselves in the foot?
Bad [elementary school] education would be a big problem. Lack of freedom to build in the big cities of America would be another problem. Lack of fiscal responsibility – I do not think it has been a problem so far, but I think it will be the next 10 or 15 years. In general, just do not manage our resources properly or make good decisions about infrastructure or have sufficient interest in risk appetite and science and build a bigger, bolder and better future.
In the book you talk about pluralism and common sense morality. Let's start with pluralism – what do you mean by that?
The general meaning of pluralism is simply that there are many values, but I use it very specifically: it is the notion that a prosperous society does well with most of these values. For example art, or human care, or cooperation, or social society. Even if a person gives something other than just money or more than just saying libertarian rights, I think there is a strong argument for a society, a state, that will maximize the rate of economic growth subject to rights restrictions.
Do you feel that we have deviated from pluralism in this sense?
Most people will accept pluralism when presented to them. The idea that there is a fairly simple formula for serving pluralism – that is where the controversy lies. The idea that economic growth is better for everyone in sufficient time does not emphasize enough. Again, I think that when you present it to people, many of them agree. That is one of the main goals of my book. It is not the center of most of today's political discussions. It often involves redistribution or the feelings of this group are hurt or what are we going to do for a specific city in the Midwest? They are not about higher economic growth for the country and the world.
Talk about common sense morality.
That term comes from the British philosopher Henry Sidgwick. It is just what ordinary, smart, well-meaning people will tell you when you ask, "How am I to lead my life?" They will say: "Work hard, save some money, marry faithfully, be good for family, cultivate your friends." That is common sense. My book defends that and also tries to argue that if more people follow it more strictly, it would in fact coincide with this call to maximize sustainable economic growth.
Nobody really is against common sense, right? Where does it differ in American society?
Well, real actions are mixed. When you look at aggregated social indicators for important parts of America, they become worse. For highly educated people it is clear that they are getting better. That's a good thing. But too much of the nation seems to distance people from common sense morality.
"Even if someone cares more about just money … I think there is a strong argument for a society, a state that will maximize the pace of economic growth."
You also write about & wealth; plus & # 39 ;. What does that mean?
Economists usually focus on it [gross domestic product] as a measure of wealth. This is fine for many purposes. "Wealth plus" says that you have to think about the free time of people, which is not counted in the GDP. You have to think about the environment, which in some cases is not counted in GDP. See it as adjusted and improved GDP. For many purposes it will behave in the same way.
What else should we do to take care of the environment?
Wealthy societies generally perform better with the environment. This brings us back to pluralism. I am concerned about CO2 emissions and there is a problem with biodiversity. I'm not sure how concerned we should be about that, but I do not think we should just ignore it.
Many libertarians are shocked in everything that has to do with improving the environment or paying for it. You also talk about asset transfers as part of common sense morality. How do you allow economic freedom and prosperity and individual rights, but do you also have capital transfers to people who need help?
I have seen countless programs for public health all over the world that have, for example, remedied malnutrition in poor children. They help those societies grow faster, help them get closer to the rule of law and become more democratic, and they just make nicer places. I do not think we should condemn it. On the contrary, we must applaud them. I do not believe that rich people are simply taken away to give poor people more money, but it seems to me that a redistribution is a really good investment.
You say that we invest far too much in the elderly compared to young people. That's because old people vote. How can we turn the script over so that we do not talk about which class can make more money from other people?
I'm not sure if it will turn around until the money runs out, what will happen. If we are in it with better ideas and the time comes when we have to reverse that changeover, I think there is a chance that we will do that. No guarantees of course.
In Stubborn attachments you give a few shout-outs to Ayn Rand. You praise her for emphasizing the role of production in a good society, because many people take the productivity of modern society for granted.
In her book Capitalism: The Unknown Idealshe makes this point very clear: the idea that wealth is the basis for the creative individual human spirit. Wealth gives creative independence. Wealth enables us to communicate as freestanding, cooperative individuals. For many it seems trivial [people], but these are hugely underestimated points in contemporary intellectual discourse.
Why do you think that so many economists and philosophers take it for granted that we will always have a lot? [material] things around us?
If you are an academic, you are not involved in producing it in a direct way. You like to play games with the money of other people. I think it is a disease of American society that we have forgotten where it comes from. Part of it comes from the fact that we are now richer than we once were. But we have to learn that again.
We become rich. We take it for granted. Then we start to piss it off as a culture and as individuals.
Too many people are in skilled jobs and therefore they view the world as a big bureaucracy.
Besides Rand, who were your intellectual or cultural influences that grew up?
I have a lot of chess early. That was perhaps the biggest influence, because if you chess and you lose, you have no excuses. You are always looking for feedback and you tend to not blame others.
In chess, most of your movements are wrong. We learn this by playing computers. You can be a world champion and most of your moves are [still] wrong. That is a very surprising remark that we should take more seriously.
Cowen interviews investment strategist Cliff Asness in 2015. Donner PhotosI also played chess for money as a child. Not huge amounts, but the idea that no one earns me a living and that you can maintain yourself, I learned early on.
It is not only Donald Trump who rejects pluralism and gives a certainty about what is right or what is right. This also happens with his opponents. Are we in a particularly fragile moment in American society?
It is certainly possible. I mean, you can think of [Barack] Obama like John Quincy Adams. He was very intellectual, very pro-government, very cosmopolitan. Come 1828, the nation rejects that and chooses Andrew Jackson. I think that in 1828 few people really had an idea of what would happen in the next 30 or 40 years. I wonder if today is no other time in 1828.
Well, that is certainly not a happy thought.
Is there a stumbling block where we can keep an eye on where politics go so far as to actually reduce people's ability to live in America?
I suspect that my modal prediction, which I would be very careful about, is not a new era of totalitarianism or fascism, but that the center is not present in many governments. They dive into a lot of things in an inappropriate way, and most people go for the most volatility and political risk, and that makes our lives worse. The old Orwellian libertarian nightmare of this advancing Big Brother, I do not think this is what we see now.
The rhetoric does not correspond to reality in some respects. The reality is that governments spend most of their money on old people and can not perform many basic functions and are not functional. I do not think they will enslave us.
You are what Donald Trump pejoratively a & # 39; globalist & # 39; would call, in the sense that you believe in international order. You believe in the idea of open borders and a lot of transfer of goods and people and knowledge. What is the globalist answer for the nationalist or populist who says you care nothing about the people in your current community? And how do pluralism and common sense morality come into play?
I think globalism works better when more people pursue common sense. Just one example: look at Utah. The state is about half of Mormon. Utah has a fairly intact middle class and robust economic growth. It is pretty well managed. It is not that I think everyone should become a Mormon. I am not a Mormon myself. But it shows that there is a kind of moral cultural basis for capitalism. Not that I think everyone should live in a certain way, but you need a middle-class core in a society that does that, if only to support the people who really want to deviate.
There has been more poverty reduction than ever in the history of mankind in the last 20 years, with a large amount. It is true, some of the middle class in this country has been hurt or has ceased to see revenue growth. We must recognize that. I think that it was mainly an era of incredible triumphs, but now we see some resistance.
The world is getting richer. There is a global middle class that comes up in a way that was unimaginable 20 or 25 years ago. Is the problem just a decline in America's fortunes compared to the rest of the world? Are we in a position like England and France after World War II, where we do not really want to admit that we are not the only ones in the neighborhood?
America is still the number 1 in the world and still has a lot of soft power and a lot of influence. It is not like the British empire that went from a quarter of the world to this rather small place, which is now probably Brexiting from the European Union. We can still be the number 1 in the world for a long time, or in the worst case number 2 or 3.
This interview is condensed and edited for style and clarity. For an audio version, subscribe to the Reason Podcast.