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The Pessimistic Bias

Reading the comments on this post (which in many ways are very much like the comments on many other posts, both here at the Cafe and on other blogs) prompts me to make a couple of points that I’ve put off making for too long now.

In his indispensable book, The Myth of the Rational Voter, my GMU colleague (and EconLog‘s) Bryan Caplan finds powerful evidence that non-economists suffer from the “pessimistic bias,” which Bryan defines (on page 45 of his book) as

a tendency to overestimate the severity of economic problems and underestimate the (recent) past, present, and future performance of the economy.

Russ and myself (because we’re economists?) and many of the commentors here at the Cafe are not pessimistic about the long-run.  Problems come; problems are solved.  Inability to see the details of the future scare many people; this inability doesn’t scare me.  As long as individuals have a sufficient quantum of freedom, their self-interest and creativity and inevitable competition will “solve” almost any problem over the long-haul.  It’s a pattern repeated countless times over the past two-hundred years in capitalist countries.  (Please, please don’t trot out the Great Depression as a counter-example.  First, it was clearly worsened by the Federal Reserve’s catastrophically bad monetary policy, and by the worldwide spread of protectionism — helped along by the Smoot-Hawley tariff.  More importantly, there’s compelling evidence that the risks of full-throttle socialization of the economy were then real enough to scare investors away until the mid-1940s.  And even this greatest of all of America’s depressions lasted only ten or fifteen years, depending on how you define the end of the Depression.)

Being optimistic doesn’t mean being blindly insistent that the future will always be better than today.  Take away enough freedom and, kaboom!, the economy implodes.  (Or should I instead say “moobak!”?)  Fortunately, though, the capitalist economy is so remarkably robust that it can take lots of beatings — lots of interventions — lots of unnecessary taxation — lots of foolish dissing — and keep on keeping on at raising living standards.

I’m more optimistic today than I was ten or twenty years ago about just how much counterproductive regulation and taxation the capitalist economy can take before it really starts to fail.  But my sense is that the American economy still retains enough freedom — that property rights remain sufficiently secure — to ensure continued economic growth over the long run.

I remain bullish over the long run.  Very bullish indeed.
My second point is that it is a curious phenomenon that those who want more government control over the economy tend to be those who insist that the American economy has performed poorly over the past thirty-five years.  Again, as regular patrons of the Cafe know, Russ and I are quite sure that the economy has done very well during these years, even for poor and middle-class workers.

But if I were a pro-regulation and high-tax kinda guy, why would I dispute the claim that America’s economy has performed remarkably well for everyone even since 1973?  Why would I not say “See, the government programs enacted from the New Deal forward are working!”  At no time during the past 35 years has Uncle Sam’s budget been severely reduced.  During those years, some welfare programs have been scaled back, while others have been expanded and even newly created.  Trade is freer today, but the post-WWII trend toward freer trade began in the 1940s, long before those allegedly blissful years of the early 1970s.  Since the early 1970s, some regulations have been repealed, while others have been created at both the state and national levels.

In short, despite what some pundits mysteriously assert, America during the past twenty-five to thirty-five years has emphatically not been a laissez-faire society.  Not even close.  So why do so many persons on the political left see in the economic data of the past three decades a compelling case for even greater government control over our lives and pocketbooks?  And why don’t more of these same persons on the left respond to those of us who advocate less government by pointing to the evidence of continued and widespread growth in prosperity by saying proudly “See!  We’re right and you’re wrong: government intervention does work well!”

I believe that I know the answer to my (non-rhetorical) question, but this post is long enough, so I’ll end it here.


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