An Open and Enlightened Libertarianism

By Lemieux, Pierre | Regulation, Spring 2019 | Go to article overview

An Open and Enlightened Libertarianism


Lemieux, Pierre, Regulation


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

By Tyler Cowen

160 pp.; Stripe Press, 2018

Is it worth saving a person's life today at the cost of 39 billion deaths (or perhaps non-births) some five centuries later? What about killing a baby if it saves $5 billion of GDP, equivalent to a new $200,000 house for 25,000 poor families? Those are some of the questions Tyler Cowen considers in Stubborn Attachments, a book of political philosophy informed by economics.

Cowen is a creative thinker who teaches economics at George Mason University. The scope of his new book is indicated by its subtitle: "A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals." As for the title (not to mention the overall thesis), it is a subtle extraction from a sentence on the first page: "We need to develop a tougher, more dedicated, and indeed a more stubborn attachment to prosperity and freedom."

Distant future/ So what of that tradeoff of one life for 39 billion? Assume, as benefit-cost analysis does, that future lives must be discounted just like other benefits (e.g., money) are. Assume a discount rate of 5%. How many lives in 500 years are equivalent to one life today? Multiply 1 (one life) by 1.05 (1 plus the discount rate) raised to the 500th power (500 years). The result is 39,323,261,827 (lives). The magic of compound interest is always amazing. Cowen notes that, under this line of thinking, one life today "could even be worth the entire subsequent survival of the human race, if we use a long enough time horizon for the comparison." It is difficult not to agree that this result hurts "common-sense morality," which would seem to counsel that one life does not outweigh 39 billion or more.

It may thus be argued that, as far as human lives are concerned, the discount rate for the far future should be zero or at least much lower than what we usually assume. This means that if we have to choose between different paths of economic growth--what individuals will be able to consume in goods or leisure as time passes--the path that is consistently higher should always be chosen. It is moral to choose to have more today only if this choice also implies that individuals in the future will obtain more than they would have received otherwise. We must have a "deep concern for the distant future."

The practical implications are massive. One implication is that environmental problems, such as climate change, gain a heightened importance if they will retard economic growth long-term. More generally, we should be concerned with the long-term future of our civilization.

Need for economic growth / Like interest, economic growth is compounded--growth applies to the result of previous growth--and produces the magical inverse of discounting. Indeed, the same math underlies both processes. At a growth rate of 1%, income doubles every 69 years. At a growth rate of 10%, which we saw in China during its liberalizing spree, income doubles every seven years. What's great about the growth of income--or gross domestic product, which is the same thingis that "wealthier societies offer greater opportunities and freedoms to pursue one's preferred concepts of happiness." Life expectancy, diet quality, and leisure time grow. Since 1870, in developed countries a typical employee's working time outside the home has decreased by nearly half. No wonder that, as recent research confirms, economic growth makes people happier.

Money may not buy happiness, but it certainly makes life easier. Cowen would probably add that, in the long term--if, for example, incomes have been multiplied by 39 billion after five centuries--it does buy happiness ceteris paribus.

Sustainability/ It is true that standard income (GDP) figures don't provide a complete picture of how production contributes to happiness. To GDP, Cowen prefers a theoretical concept that he calls "Wealth Plus," a measure of well-being that incorporates leisure time, domestic production (goods and services produced in the home), and "sustainability," along with standard economic production. …

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