Tyler Cowen, one of our time's most noted libertarian economists, wants to make the world a better place -- and he has a plan to accomplish this. It is laid out in his latest book 'Stubborn Attachments,' which will be released on October 16. On this week's episode of 'Cotto/Gottfried,' Cowen explains how and why capitalism can be used as a rising tide to lift all boats -- whether they be anchored in a wealthy or poor locale. 'Stubborn Attachments' at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Stubborn-Attac... SEE more interviews HERE: http://www.sanfranciscoreviewofbooks....
COTTO: Making the world a better place — it’s one of those things that, at least you could hope, most people would get behind. But just exactly how might it be done? That’s where the disagreements set in. Tyler Cowen is one of our time’s most well-known economists and a strong defender of the capitalist system. He believes that the free enterprise system can be used to make people’s lives better, and through that make societies transform so their full potential is realized. Cowen feels so strongly about his beliefs that he wrote a book concerning them. It’s called Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals, and he joins us this week to discuss his perspective and why he believes it’s so important especially at a time like this. I’m your cohost Joseph Ford Cotto, editor in chief of the San Francisco Review of Books. My cohost Paul Gottfried, head of our editorial board will not be joining us this week. Nonetheless, this is Cotto/Gottfried.
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COTTO: Before really kicking this conversation off, it’s important to know what’s meant by “stubborn attachments” here. Obviously, a stubborn attachment is something that people latch onto — something that’s resilient. But the sort of attachments spoke of in the book are both negative and positive. There are some stubborn attachments that can be used to propel people such as reason, common sense — that one’s mentioned quite a bit. And then there are negative stubborn attachments, those that narrow people’s thinking and forces them to adapt a point of view which is ultimately detrimental. Needless to mention the point of Stubborn Attachments — the book I mean — is to encourage people to embrace those stubborn attachments which are productive, and to jettison those which are negative, and to really analyze what’s important to them in their lives.
The name Stubborn Attachments — it’s very interesting to me. When I learned about your new book it really got me because I think people when they consider what’s going on in their lives they really have some things they’d rather not be there, but they weigh them back. But your book, talking about economics as it does — where did you get the idea to call it Stubborn Attachments?
COWEN: A reader suggested the name to me, and I like idiosyncratic titles which are not too literal, to swim against the prevailing trend in bookselling. And I thought, well, that’s it — Stubborn Attachments.
COTTO: Do you think that the name of your book — well describes more — I wouldn’t say a minimalistic philosophy because you are an advocate of free enterprise which revolves around accruing assets and creating them for other people — but do you think it’s really a perspective of maybe self-reliance and through that focusing on the meaningful things so that you can sustain yourself for difficult times as well as being able to better enjoy productive ones?
COWEN: Yes, and it’s an argument that we should be stubbornly attached to those ideals.
COTTO: And do you think that your argument is something that will attract people from different sides of the political spectrum?
COWEN: I hope so. But again, the book comes out October sixteenth. That’s for the world to decide, right?
COTTO: Yes, it is. Speaking of the political spectrum, it’s no secret that lots of younger people in the western world, especially the United States, are quite sympathetic toward socialism at least relative to previous generations and a lot of that has to do, I think, with the student loan crisis.
A lot of young people have these student loans they’ll never be able to pay back. These loans eat at them day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year, and these people just don’t see a lot of promise in life. So, they believe that capitalism as-a-system has failed them. And that brings up a lot of interesting questions about how people more or less relate to the world around them, what they think the economy has in store for them or what they believe it should have in store for them — an attitude essentially of being owed something. And I think that the more people adopt this perspective the worse off society will get. It’s a point of view rooted in envy at the core — that seems obvious enough, but it’s also a very pessimistic view of the human condition, the idea that people aren’t capable of doing great things generally speaking and they always need to be guided, shepherded, managed that sort of thing. In the long run I can’t see this perspective doing anything good for any society which sees it permeate. Anyhow, time for me to get off my soapbox.
Getting back to student debt and people’s, I suppose, expectation of what life will be, if you have a college kid — and this I’m sure you’d be able to relate to seeing as you’re a professor — if you have a college kid who thinks that he’s doomed because of this awesome amount of money he has to pay back, and he then says “capitalism just isn’t going to make my life better,” even if you explain to him that what’s going on now is really a form of crony capitalism, even if you tell him that the reason his education is so expensive is because people within a government bureaucracy are milking the system to get more money for themselves at your expense, even if you tell him all of that, you still have a media, you still have an academia which is obviously doing this for self-perpetuating reasons, and you still have a sort of cultural milieu which says “no, capitalism is the problem.” How would you compete against that and tell him that it’s a stubborn attachment that he has to get rid of in order to have a higher quality of life for himself and create a higher quality of life in society?
COWEN: Well, American education is very far removed from capitalism. So, if people are blaming capitalism for that part of our society, I think that’s badly misguided. I do think there’s a legitimate role for government in education, but education does best when it’s got a lot of incentives and it’s highly competitive and you have autonomous competing units. So, I think the academy itself has bred a kind of obsession — like with safe spaces and political correctness that’s also been harmful, and sometimes I despair. I don’t think it’s easy to undo and unpack, and I wonder if we can reform from within or if in some ways parts of the system will collapse or become insolvent, and that we’ll first have a crisis and only then start reforming it. I suspect maybe the latter.
COTTO: Philosophically what would you encourage people to do in order to get rid of their stubborn attachments? We discussed what the stubborn attachments are, but how would you encourage them to — within their own minds — get to a place where they can start living a more productive life?
COWEN: Believe very strongly in yourself. Think what you can do to help others. Work harder, in some cases take more risks. And a lot of so-called traditional values, I called it in the book commonsense morality. Commonsense morality is mostly true. And if you’re trying to buck commonsense morality — like what your grandparents might have advised you to do, that’s probably a mistake. So, I think traditional morality — not so much enforced by law or coercion — but accepted by people voluntarily as a kind of personal mission, I’m a big advocate of that.
COTTO: And how would you say that people could become more optimistic about the future? Obviously if they’re going to have — as you describe — a vision for, or a society of free, prosperous, and responsible individuals it means that they have to look toward what’s ahead without dread. What is your means of inspiring them to be more optimistic, but inspiring them through a reasonable expectation rather than just puffery?
COWEN: I think it’s important to point out optimism is to some extent a self-fulfilling prophecy. So, if everyone’s pessimistic and doesn’t want to invest you are going to get a bad outcome. So, people who are willing to work hard or be more entrepreneurial, they will themselves — through those attitudes — help build a more optimistic future. Now, you need some degree of coordination. Again, no one person can do it, but if we look to the idea-shapers and influencers on our society to help in a task, we as America — there’s no country that has a stronger record of regenerating itself, rebuilding itself, reinventing itself. So, we absolutely can do this.
COTTO: And, second-to-last question. The book is dedicated to — or maybe “dedicated to” isn’t the right way to describe it — but you say that as a way of practicing the altruism that Stubborn Attachments argues for, you’re donating earnings from the book to a man you met in Ethiopia earlier in the year who has aspirations to open his own travel business. Explain this fellow, how you met him, and why you were so compelled by his story to donate proceeds from the book to him.
COWEN: I spent about ten days in Ethiopia over the summer. I had a wonderful time there. Of course, it’s a very poor country. One of my beliefs is that if the rich countries are richer overtime this will also help the poorer countries. But if you write something like that, you also have an obligation to live it. So, I thought “well, what can I do to continue to help people in poorer countries?”, and he struck me as maybe the smartest and hardest-working of the people I met in my time there, and he also spoke good English which he taught himself — very impressive. And I thought “well, I should try to help this fellow,” he’s supporting a family of ten on very limited means, and this can make a big difference for him, much bigger than for me. So, I thought I should practice what I preach, and actually do this.
COTTO: And do you think that if more people did that, if they used charity to inspire business, do you suppose that it would have any perceptible impact on the economy in the long run? I think you could say it would, but in the short term do you think there might be a real change in the developing world?
COWEN: Oh absolutely! And to some extent we already see this. But I think the potential for greater growth in Africa, Ethiopia in particular, is quite extreme. It is probably going to be one of mankind‘s biggest success stories of the twenty-first century. So, those of us who have the means, like why not be a part of this? Why not have that be one of the things you did with part of your life? I would encourage everyone to do something similar.
COTTO: And, before I get to the last question — I did mention altruism here. And a lot of people they don’t think of capitalism as being altruistic. As a matter fact the foremost, you could say defender of capitalism philosophically in American life, Ayn Rand, specifically argued against altruism as anti-capitalistic and more or less a gateway to collectivism. How do you promote capitalism as an altruistic matter? And I suppose in answering to that question, you’d also have to address the objectivist perspective there.
COWEN: Yes, well I’m a big fan of Ayn Rand — her works have influenced me a great deal. She stresses more than anyone the importance of capitalism and production, and kind of celebrating achievement and entrepreneurship. But that said, there are many needy people who are poor for no fault of their own. In Ethiopia they’ve had terrible, terrible governments there — sometimes communism or totalitarianism. And there are truly innocent people there who do need our help to get ahead, and if I voluntarily decide to help some of those people on the grounds of their merit, and belief in their initiative, and if they want to traverse this same path, I think that’s something meritorious.
COTTO: It’s interesting, people think about scholarships for school but not for economic ideas. It’s definitely a novel concept that could go a long way. I think it would be much more productive what you’re talking about then the US Federal government’s foreign aid policy is.
COWEN: I hope I can help to spread it!
COTTO: It’s definitely something that I think people should consider, and it’s unfortunate that it’s taken until now — with all the wealth that’s been generated not just in the United States, but the first world — that this idea hasn’t gotten more traction.
COTTO: Now, for the last question, your book it’s — I wouldn’t want to say self-help, that’s really not the point, but it definitely encourages people to open up their minds and to embrace free enterprise as a social good, not just something of economic productivity. Why would you encourage people to read your book in relation to other books out there which defend capitalism? What sets your book apart from the pack?
COWEN: Mine is deeply philosophical. It’s the result of twenty years of my own reflection. It celebrates the power of human reason, and the power of economic growth and capitalism. There are many other noteworthy books. I don’t want to steer people away from them, but those are just some of the reasons why this is an important book for me.
COTTO: And do you think that your book will encourage people to go out and start their own business essentially, or is it intended to be more just developing a philosophical appreciation for capitalism?
COWEN: It’s both. If a philosophy is powerful it will impel individuals to act. If your philosophy impels no one to act maybe there’s something wrong with it.
COTTO: It would be interesting if America — it’s known as an extremely entrepreneurial country, although I think that’s somewhat eased off in recent years.
COWEN: Definitely. Very tragic, yeah.
COTTO: It is, definitely. But if more people were to be innovative economically, you wouldn’t even then need to have such things as redistribution of wealth — at least not ideally. I think people who think of wealth as something of a public commodity — something to be thrown around in every which way that the government says it should be — it’s a pessimistic view of life itself. It’s one I think rooted in envy, but it also has a very negative perspective of what people are capable of if they put their minds to something.
COWEN: Redistribution is a one-off effect; sustainable economic growth elevates people basically forever. Just that contrast I think is one of the most important and neglected ideas.
COTTO: All you have to do is look at I suppose Jamaica and the Cayman Islands if you want to see something in real time to give you an example of what you’re talking about.
COWEN: Or compare Cuba and Singapore. In the 1950s Cuba maybe looked a lot more promising.
COTTO: It did, yes. It has political issues then but that’s a great example of how the redistributionist mindset really doesn’t solve anything in the long run. People were not across the board happy with the Cuba of the fifties, but at the same time they had a higher standard of living then than they do today, relative to the time. Obviously in the 1950s the standard of living I obviously then even in the first world is not equal to what most people would find acceptable now. But I think you get the point.
COWEN: Sure, absolutely.
COTTO: Great. Is there anything else you’d like to mention about your book, your philosophy, or capitalism as people perceive it in this day and age?
COWEN: Well, I would just say this is the most personal and individualistic book I have written. It’s the one I feel that gives people the most direct insight into what I Tyler Cowen truly believe about growth, prosperity, liberty, and capitalism. And I hope that finds an audience. I think those are the most important messages.
COTTO: That was a great discussion. Thank you for joining us — this week it’s joining me — thank you for joining me Tyler. Thank you for turning in everyone. See you next week.