The Progressive Case Against Tyler Cowen’s 'Stubborn Attachments'

Should sustainable economic growth be our first priority?

December 13, 2018

Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals by Tyler Cowen

Published in October of 2018.

If the best way to understand something is to teach it, is the second best way to argue against it? Given that I don’t have the opportunity to teach Tyler Cowen’s main arguments in Stubborn Attachments, I’m going to use this space to argue the other side.

I’m not sure that I disagree with Cowen. It may be more accurate to say that I’m not sure if I disagree with Cowen a great deal or only a little bit. Maybe you will read Cowen's book - it comes in at a concise 160 pages or 3.5 hours in audiobook format - and then share with us your counterarguments.

Cowen makes three arguments:

  • #1: Economic growth fuels social progress.
  • #2: The magic of compounding means that even small improvements in economic growth have large effects over time.
  • #3: Political choices around economic growth should be made with long time horizons.

The consequences of accepting Cowen’s arguments are that we should follow policies that privilege wealth creation over economic redistribution. Rather than being over-worried about rising rates of inequality, we should instead be grateful for even unequally distributed economic growth.

An oddity of Stubborn Attachments is that Cowen is reluctant to apply his pro-economic growth philosophy to real-world political choices.

Cowen, like many economists, is a bit hard to pin down politically.  He seems to be for investments in the environment (long-term thinking) and infrastructure.  He writes positively about immigration, pointing out that the most effective method to achieve economic mobility is to move from a poor to a rich country. He is silent on issues such as minimum wage laws, universal health insurance coverage, and public education funding. I suspect that Cowen is likely to be against all three, as these policies are broadly construed as redistributive.

Stubborn Attachments would have been more persuasive if Cowen was more willing to explore the implications of his philosophy on the political and policy choices before us. The question is, are progressive values are at odds with the belief that long-term economic growth is the engine of progress?

We are all the beneficiaries of 200 years of technologically driven economic expansion. Anyone who doubts that economic growth is good for everyone should be willing to live in a world without antibiotics, sewer systems, flush toilets, refrigerators, washing machines, central heating, cheap lighting, affordable air travel, and abundant food.  We don’t need to go too far back in our history (150 years or so) to when all of these things either did not exist or were reserved for the very few.

In my lifetime I’ve witnessed the positive impact that rapid economic growth has had on billions of people living in emerging economies.  Improvements in the material quality of life in China and India and other parts of Asia have not been the result of foreign aid or state welfare policies, but economic expansion.

Cowen fails to make the case that a focus on broad-based prosperity and well-being is incompatible with long-run economic progress. Will the grandkids of today’s Canadians and Swedes and Norwegians be worse off than our own?

Nor does Cowen answer the question of at what point a wealthy society should be able to provide a measure of economic security to all of its citizens? Does the guarantee that work should come with a living wage and that everyone deserves access to health care and education incompatible with a long-term focus on economic progress?

As is always the case with a Cowen book, his writing will make you think. Stubborn Attachments is too abstract for my tastes.  But I’m happy to have spent 3.5 hours arguing with Cowen.

What are you reading?


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