As readers may know, Tyler Cowen is something of a “rock star” so far as economists go, as well as being a serial iconoclast. So, his recent extended essay, “Stubborn Attachments” A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous and Responsible Individuals has begun receiving critical attention.
At Awbury, we consider it dangerous to subscribe to a fixed economic dogma, being empiricists as well as pragmatists. We think it important to keep ourselves properly informed about the latest thinking on a broad range of subjects, including economics, or rather “political economy”, because of the impact on markets and behaviour, as well as being the potential source of opportunity
Professor Cowen’s essay posits that much of the world has lost its way in terms of creating prosperity and respecting the rights and liberties of individuals, and the reference to “stubborn attachments” in the essay’s title is to what achieving his goals may require.
In many ways, the essay is a philosophical tract rather than an economic prescription; but that does not lessen its relevance in terms of provoking the need for the reader to engage in a review of his or her own beliefs and values, and of “received wisdom”. Skepticism is a virtue; and even if the scientific method is now accepted as the main form of obtaining knowledge, paradoxically the outcome is often the realization that there is no simple or defensible answer- particularly in the realm of, say, macro-economics.
It was once thought possible for a human being to master the sum of human knowledge. Anyone who believes that now would be considered delusional, and no matter how learned or intelligent an individual is, his or her level of understanding of the world beyond a relatively narrow scope is going to be limited, and further hampered by the mind’s tendency to be irrational. We do not quite stumble around blindly, but believing that we clearly “know the answer” rarely ends well.
And, as Professor Cowen emphasizes, while being suitably skeptical, we also need to believe in something, because otherwise there is no order, and society cannot function in a way that improves the human condition; which, even if one is a libertarian, is rationally the goal of any civilized society. Selfish nihilism does not really have a good track record. Of course, economists do have a tendency to believe that “satisfying people’s preferences” is the fundamental value; but, again, that rather ignores the fact that individuals generally recognize that achieving their own goals requires the cooperation of others, unless one wishes to be the ascetic at the top of the pillar who deliberately rejects society and its constraints. A pluralistic, collaborative approach, while often messy, is, in reality, a necessary condition for most complex societies to function and develop.
Perhaps controversially (given recent experiences with neo-liberalism), Professor Cowen states that Ayn Rand best understood how the combination of capital, labour and natural resources, driven by the creative individual mind, underpin whatever our civilization has achieved. After all, for millennia before the first Industrial Revolution, the rate of economic growth in most societies was so slow (and unequally distributed”) that Hobbes’ characterization of most individual’s lives as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” was rather too accurate.
So, there is a constant tension between the fact that truly exceptional individuals do make a difference to the development and success of a society and the reality that robust societies are pluralistic, rather than monomaniacal. “Great Leaps Forward” have the habit of killing rather a lot of humanity. Value is only truly created by the complex interaction of, as Professor Cowen says “systems, networks, norms [and] policies, not the psychoses of one individual.
At Awbury, as well as always seeking to remain in the forefront of developing actionable intellectual property and creating value for our clients, partners and ourselves, we also recognize that cooperation and the proper alignment of interests are fundamental to our success.
We’re rather stubborn about that.
The Awbury Team