As we contemplate an impending federal government shutdown and the restriction of government activities to “essential” services, shouldn’t we be asking deeper questions like why we spend so much taxpayer money on “nonessential” services? Jacob Sullum asks that question in Reason and provides some arguments for reducing spending (and thereby the future deficit) on such nonessential services.
But even some services that we deem essential, such as air traffic control, are performed by private firms and employees in other countries (such as Canada). Demagoguery and posturing are cheap and easy, and have probably become reflexive for our federal politicians. By choosing the rhetorical path of least resistance, the members of Congress have given up a chance to enable a substantive conversation about how we provide and pay for essential services, and why we spend so many resources on nonessential services.
As if Mike and I haven’t given you enough nudges to go read Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity, here’s another one: Don Boudreaux has a lovely column in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review that introduces the work via the question of whether economic incentives are sufficient to understand and explain human behavior and economic growth. What role does culture play in that dynamic?
Our modern standard of living was sparked by a major cultural change that occurred only a few generations back.
That cultural change — happening first in the Netherlands and soon afterward in Britain — was a change in people’s attitude toward the bourgeoisie. Merchants, innovators and business people came to be, for the first time in human history, not only tolerated but respected. Profit-seeking production, trade and commerce became, for the first time in 70,000 years, widely regarded as worthwhile and productive not only for the profit-earning producers but for society writ large.
And very importantly, the way that people spoke about market activity and about the bourgeoisie who are so essential to it reflected this Earth-shifting change in attitude.
This change in rhetoric about what we today call capitalism and entrepreneurs and profit-seeking and risk-taking and arbitrage and creative destruction is the theme of the most important book I’ve read this millennium: economist Deirdre McCloskey’s magnificent new volume “Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can’t Explain the Modern World.”
Don’s excellent essay could also point at another book I’ve recommended here before, and will do again enthusiastically: Matt Ridley’s The Origins of Virtue