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Marginal Revolution: Small Steps Toward an Imperceptibly Better World

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Since its inception, the slogan of Marginal Revolution has been "Small steps toward a much better world." It turns out, however, that MR's prolific Tyler Cowen doesn't think that policy would improve much even if everyone knew as much economics as he does:

Building coalitions requires politics. That includes compromises, horse-trading, shading the truth, and so on. "Me as politician" is not an especially wonderful vision. If I acted like Tyler the blogger, I would lose power very quickly. Even if I stayed in office. Having some "me's" in the voting booth wouldn't much change this.

We might avoid a few total bonehead policies, if only by shifting the bargaining point. But government wouldn't become much more efficient, at least not as long as coalitions need to be built.

Tyler advocates a lot of unpopular policies. He recently told U.S. News and World Report his top five, including "Eliminate all farm subsidies, quotas, and price supports. Eliminate all tariffs. Eliminate all budget earmarks. Eliminate all corporate welfare." But somehow, it wouldn't make much difference if everyone agreed with his hugely unpopular proposals?

This is crazy talk. The plain fact about U.S. politics is that when almost everyone wants a policy, it almost always happens. Counter-examples are few and far between - check the GSS.

The real puzzle, for me, is why Tyler is so unreasonably fatalistic. He can already say "The world will never listen to me." Why must he implausibly add that "It wouldn't make much difference if everyone agreed with me"?

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
Eric Crampton writes:

One really must wonder why he spends time trying to convince people of things via classes, books, blogs and newspaper columns if he thinks it would make no difference if everyone agrees with him.

Kent Gatewood writes:

Wouldn't privatizing Social Security and Medicare be better than any of those five?

What is it with farm subsidies?

John T. Kennedy writes:

As I read his answer, Cowen declined to accept the hypothetical (for no good reason). He did not really entertain the case of everyone having his economic knowledge.

Robert Cote writes:

If everyone were as informed and educated who's to say they will agree with him? I support near all the proposals as goals but I'd never condone outright elimination versus phasing out and I'd certainly extort some concessions to influence external actors in the process if only just because I could. Then there's some things being glossed over such as the value of maintaining industrial or food capacity as "insurance." Any straight economic analysis would tell you insurance is a bad economic expense. Doesn't stop insurance from being a good idea.

Ronnie Horesh writes:

Tyler's pessimism is justified so long as political goals are expressed in terms of spending decisions, activities, institutional structures, or ideology. My suggestion is instead to subordinate policy to outcomes: outcomes that are meaningful to natural persons (as against corporations). This would change things.

RogerM writes:

Tyler may have succombed to the popular idea that politicians don't reflect the views of their voters. I disagree with that view completely. Politicians know how to survive politically, if they don't know anything else. Their survival depends on reading the minds of their constituents. That's difficult to do because voters are conflicted. They want smaller government and less taxes along with expanded social welfare and military spending. Politicians have to guess which of these is most important to his voters. If he guesses wrong, he's out of a job.

But if everyone knew econ like Taylor, the job of politicians would be much easier.

Don Robertson writes:

Small steps? Crazy? Not enough.

Let me tell you all a story. It's a story about philosophy. It's a story thousands of years old. It's a story that is true. It's a story that will be retold as long as there are humans.

Alexander the Great, the most powerful man in the world, more powerful than all the presidents who ever lived and who will ever lived, all of them combined; Alexander the Great, the son of Philip of Macedonia who conquered the Greeks and became their king; Alexander the Great who was tutored by Aristotle, Alexander who conquered the whole of the known world, Alexander the Great who killed several of his brothers to become Philip's successor, Alexander the Great had heard of a great philosopher whose name was Diogenes.

Alexander the Great sought out Diogenes, as an advisor, hoping to gain him for his own needs, and he and his men chased his kingdom to discover where he might be.

Alexander finally found Diogenes lying on a rock in the morning sun warming his body. Alexander and his men came upon Diogenes, and Alexander not sure if this was indeed the philosopher about whom he had heard, said, "I seek a philosopher named Diogenes, would you be such a man?"

Diogenes looked up, and responded, "Yes, I am such a man, and one who lies on the ground before you like a dog."

Alexander, shaken by this response re-asserted his stallion-like manliness, stating, "Oh Diogenes, I have searched my kingdom for you. I am Alexander, King of the Greeks, the Son of Philip of Macedonia who conquered the Greeks. Diogenes, there is little that is beyond my command as King. Is there any way I can pay tribute to you? Is there anything I can do for you, Diogenes? Tell me, Diogenes, what can Alexander do for you?"

To which Diogenes responded, "Yes, Alexander, son of Philip, there is something you can do for me... Step out of the sunlight that warms my body."

Small steps are too much. Being a conservative is something very few will ever understand.

Don Robertson, The American Philosopher
Limestone, Maine

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