“We” didn’t want a lot of things

Matthew Yglesias reviews Average is Over, by Tyler Cowen.  And a day or two earlier, Robin Hanson asks, with respect to Average is Over,

[Pundits and wonks] seemed to hold fast to a simple moral principle: when a future change is framed as a problem which we might hope our political system to solve, then the only acceptable reason to talk about the consequences of failing to solve that problem is to scare folks into trying harder to solve it. If you instead assume that politics will fail to solve the problem, and analyze the consequences of that in more detail, not to scare people but to work out how to live in that scenario, you are seen as expressing disloyalty to the system and hostility toward those who will suffer from that failure.

Neatly supporting Hanson’s point, Yglesias’ review (which, in fairness, he says is not exactly a review) is basically dedicated to saying, “Instead of discussing anything of what Cowen is actually saying, we should just change the policy situation so his predictions don’t come true.”


So I would take the message to be something like “politics is really important just as it always has been and people ought to get more fired up about some ideas that aren’t at the current forefront of the congressional agenda.” Cowen’s actual message seems to be that we ought to make ourselves more complacent, and that these somewhat bleak trends he forecasts aren’t really all that bad if you look at them in the right light. But I don’t quite see why. If good public policy were easy, there wouldn’t be so much poverty and misery in the world. But if good public policy were impossible, there wouldn’t be any success stories and “growth miracles” and “trente glorieuses” and so forth.

Why not try? Average is only over if we want it to be over. And I don’t!

There are a lot of things going on here.  As Hanson implies, wonks want there to be political solutions to problems because, well, their job is to suggest political solutions to problems.  And the basic political dichotomy between a market-oriented liberal like Yglesias and a libertarian like Cowen is that Yglesias sees governmental solutions to problems as more viable than Cowen does.

But I wonder if another piece of the puzzle is that as a moderate liberal, Yglesias is accustomed to seeing his political views triumph a reasonable portion of the time, and he imagines that this is a universal experience.  His phrasing of the last paragraph struck me as someone who is unreasonably optimistic, as though what “we” want is terribly relevant in the world.  Things that I have recently wanted include, but are not limited to:

  • An end to indefinite detention without legal recourse.
  • The United States to stop assassination and drone strikes against civilian/criminal targets.
  • The NSA not to read every piece of communication I’ve ever produced.
  • The US to withdraw from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • The US to close the detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
  • The US not to bail out its auto manufacturers or banks.
  • The US to recognize a 4th Amendment right to digital “property.”

As a somewhat centrist person with fairly mainstream political views, Yglesias is probably in the top 25% or so people most likely to see his political agenda enacted, at least in part.  Considerably more liberal people are frustrated more often.  Considerably more conservative people are frustrated more often.   And people like me, who are off the political spectrum in important ways, see basically nothing but political frustration.

Which, I think, makes me a lot more receptive to someone saying, “Policy won’t do what you think it should.  Here’s how to cope with that,” than someone used to much more success.


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