Book Summary: “Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals” by Tyler Cowen


Title: Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals
Author: Tyler Cowen
Scope: 4 stars
Readability: 5 stars
My personal rating: 5 stars
See more on my book rating system.

If you enjoy this summary, please support the author by buying the book.

Topic of Book

Cowen offers a practical vision for how individuals and institutions can promote progress.

If you would like to learn more about Progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

My Comments

While the main title may give you absolutely no idea what the book is about, I think this book is well worth reading. It is part philosophy, part economics, part common sense and part ideology. This book is short, well-written, full of interesting ideas and can easily be read in one afternoon.

I highly recommend this book!

Key Take-aways

  • Economic growth is good; long-term economic growth is even better.
  • A growing economy allows us to solve multiple problems and reduces the zero-sum competition between different individuals and groups. This makes future societies more stable and sustainable.
  • We should be willing to invest a bit more for future generations, particularly if it create long-term economic group.
  • We should embrace a common-sense morality over pure ideological visions.
  • We should work hard, take care of our families, and live virtuous but self-centered lives, while giving to charity as we are able and helping out others on a periodic basis.

Important Quotes from Book

“Growth is good. Through history, economic growth in particular has alleviated human misery, improved human happiness and opportunity, and lengthened human lives. Wealthier societies are more stable, offer better living standards, produce better medicines, and ensure greater autonomy, greater fulfillment, and more sources of fun. If we want to sustain our trends of growth, and the overwhelmingly positive outcomes for societies that come with it, every individual must become more concerned with the welfare of those around us.”

“When it comes to the future of our world, we have lost our way in a fundamental manner, and not just on a few details. We must return to principles, but we do not always have good principles to guide us. We have strayed from the ideals of a society based on prosperity and the rights and liberties of the individual, and we do not know how to return to those ideals.”

“It sounds so simple: prosperity and individual liberty. Who could be opposed to that? In the abstract, few people would speak out against those values. But in practice, we turn away from them all the time. We pursue many other ends, ones we should instead ignore or reject. We need to develop a tougher, more dedicated, and indeed a more stubborn attachment to prosperity and freedom”

“I treat questions of right and wrong as having correct answers, at least in principle. We should admit the existence of significant moral grey areas, but right and wrong are a kind of “natural fact,” as many philosophers would say. To put it bluntly: there exists an objective right and an objective wrong. Relativism is a nonstarter, and most people are not sincere in their relativist pronouncements anyway. At some gut level, relativists still they think they know right from wrong;”

“Next, I hold pluralism as a core moral intuition. What’s good about an individual human life can’t be boiled down to any single value.”

“I sometimes call myself a “two-thirds utilitarian,” since I look first to human well-being when analyzing policy choices. If a policy harms human well-being, on net, it has a high hurdle to overcome. If “doing the right thing” does not create a better world in terms of well-being on a repeated basis, we should begin to wonder whether our conception of “the right thing” makes sense. That said, human well-being is not always an absolute priority—thus the half-in-jest reference to my two-thirds weighting for utility. ”

“In short, my philosophical starting points are:

  1. “Right” and “wrong” are very real concepts which should possess great force.
  2. We should be skeptical about the powers of the individual human mind.
  3. Human life is complex and offers many different goods, not just one value that trumps all others.”

“To make progress on these queries, I will consider six critical issues, each of which can help us resolve clashes of value:

  1. Time: How should we weight the interests of the present against the more distant future?
  2. Aggregation: Aggregation refers to how we resolve disagreements and how we decide that the wishes of one individual should take precedence over the wishes of another.
  3. Rules: “I’m going to speak up for rules.”
  4. Radical uncertainty: I’m a skeptic, sure, but I’m a skeptic with a can-do temperament who realizes how paralyzing skepticism can be. It is, of course, extraordinarily difficult to predict the distant future.”
  5. How can we believe in rights?: I will put forward a doctrine of “rights without embarrassment.
  6. Common sense morality: Common sense morality holds that we should work hard, take care of our families, and live virtuous but self-centered lives, while giving to charity as we are able and helping out others on a periodic basis. Utilitarian philosophy, on the other hand, appears to suggest an extreme degree of self-sacrifice.”

“The fundamental philosophical moves I have in mind are twofold:

First, I do not take the productive powers of economies for granted… “This simple observation allows us to put the idea of production at the center of our moral theory, because without production, value is problematic… “It is the work of capital, labor, and natural resources, driven by the creative individual mind, which undergird the achievements of our civilization.”

“Second, I will seek to revise some of our intuitive assumptions about moral distance. Which individuals should exert more of an influence over our choices, and which should exert less? I will argue, for instance, that the individuals who will live in the future should be less distant from us, in moral terms, than many people currently believe. Their interests should hold greater sway over our calculations, and that means we should invest more in the future… “I will therefore be asking humans to have greater faith in the future.”

“ In this book, I suggest that we need a radical reawakening. ”

“The principle of Wealth Plus holds that we should maintain higher growth over time, and not just for a single year or for some other, shorter period of time.”

“The overwhelming benefits of economic growth help us resolve clashing preferences, and thus we are able to overcome what I have called aggregation problems”

“The main point is simply that if the gains to the future are significant and ongoing, those gains should eventually outweigh one-time costs by a significant degree, and they will likely carry along other plural values as well.”

“To sum this all up, if we make a broad enough and long enough comparison, we will find that for a lot of choices the aggregation problems are not all that serious, at least not cripplingly so. Given that somewhat cheering reality, I would like to define two principles for practical reasoning. First:”

“The Principle of Growth: We should maximize the rate of sustainable economic growth, defined in terms of a concept such as Wealth Plus.”

“The Principle of Growth Plus Rights: Inviolable human rights, where applicable, should constrain the quest for higher economic growth.”

“Individual time preference usually focuses on the immediate vs. the only somewhat distant. ”

“Rather than opting for a strictly zero discount rate, I suggest a more modest postulate, one to which I already have referred but will now label formally: Deep Concern for the Distant Future. In this view, we should not count catastrophic losses for much less simply because those losses are temporally distant.”

“We should be skeptical of ideologues who claim to know all of the relevant paths to making ours a better world.”

“As a general rule, we should not pat ourselves on the back and feel that we are on the correct side of an issue. We should choose the course that is most likely to be correct, keeping in mind that at the end of the day we are still more likely to be wrong than right. Our particular views, in politics and elsewhere, should be no more certain than our assessments of which team will win the World Series. With this attitude political posturing loses much of its fun, and indeed it ought to be viewed as disreputable or perhaps even as a sign of our own overconfident and delusional nature.”

“Here is my short, three-point summary of where these arguments have brought us:

First, believing in the overriding importance of sustained economic growth is more than philosophically tenable. Indeed, it may be philosophically imperative. We should pursue large rather than small benefits, and we should have a deep concern for the more distant future rather than discounting it exponentially.”

“Second, there is plenty of room for our morality, including our political morality, to be strict and based in the notion of rules and rights. We should subject ourselves to the constraint of respecting human rights, noting that only semi-absolute human rights will be strong enough to place any constraint on pursuing the benefits of a higher rate of sustainable economic growth.”

“Third, we should be very cautious in our attitudes about specific policies. Even if we succeed in taking true aim at what we think are the best courses of action, the chance that we are right on the specifics—even if the chance is as high as possible—is still not very high. It’s like trying to guess at the origin of the universe. The best you can do is to pick what you think is right at 1.05 percent certainty, rather than siding with what you think is right at 1.03 percent. Most likely you’re wrong, ”

“For some more concrete recommendations, I’ll suggest the following:

  • Policy should be more forward-looking and more concerned about the more distant future.
  • Governments should place a much higher priority on investment than is currently the case, in both the private sector and the public sector. ”
  • “Policy should be more concerned with economic growth, properly specified, and policy discussion should pay less heed to other values. And yes, that means your favorite value gets downgraded too. No exceptions, except of course for the semi-absolute human rights.
  • We should be more concerned with the fragility of our civilization.
  • We should be more charitable on the whole, but we are not obliged to give away all of our wealth. We do have an obligation to work hard, save, invest, and fulfill our human potential, and we should take these obligations very seriously.
  • We can embrace much of common sense morality with the knowledge that it is not inconsistent with a deeper ethical theory. Common sense morality can also be reconciled with many of the normative recommendations which emerge from a more impersonal and consequentialist framework.
  • When it comes to most “small” policies affecting the present and the near-present only, we should be agnostic, because we cannot overcome aggregation problems to render a defensible judgment. The main exceptions here are the small number of policies which benefit virtually everybody.”

 “My utopian political vision is a society that follows these principles. That means a society that lets individuality, happiness, and autonomy flower to their maximum extent. I don’t expect something so good to actually come about, but it is nonetheless a vision to live by and one to use when defining one’s personal and political philosophy.”

If you would like to learn more about Progress, read my book From Poverty to Progress: How Humans Invented Progress, and How We Can Keep It Going.

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