Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals By Tyler Cowen Stripe Press, 2018

Economists are among the only people in our society who have a measure of influence on policy and who think about problems from a systemic perspective. So designers working on complex information environments should pay attention to them — especially when they set their sights on the long term, as Tyler Cowen does on Stubborn Attachments.

When thinking about policy, Mr. Cowen says, a little voice inside his head nudges him to consider only short-term, small improvements. In what amounts to a thesis statement, he explains:

I would … like to be more suspicious of our little voice in favor of supreme short-run pragmatism. I wish to suggest that it is a vice, the thinking man’s equivalent of the savage’s short-run gratification. It is our latest adaptive mechanism for feeling good about ourselves, at the expense of letting Rome burn. I suggest that we should instead turn our political energies to thinking about the long-run fortunes of our civilization. That means focusing on the future of freedom, wealth, science, and healthy, well-functioning institutions governed by rules and rights.

The book argues that securing a future for these things requires that we boost economic growth, make civilization more stable, and deal with environmental problems. To do so, Mr. Cowen proposes that we maximize the rate of sustainable growth and constrain the quest for higher economic growth in favor of “inviolable human rights.” The bulk of the (short) book justifies these positions with clear, rational arguments.

In our time of highly polarized civic discourse, Stubborn Attachments comes across as a refreshing, non-political take on complex (and pressing) problems. It does so by arguing lucidly from first principles. Even if you disagree with its conclusions, the book serves as a model of how to present difficult positions on complex issues to a non-technical audience in a non-partisan manner.

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