Tyler worked on his book Stubborn Attachments over 20 years, off and on. It’s his most philosophical book, a labor of love that was eventually published with Stripe Press.
Tyler’s graduate economics work influenced the book, focusing on welfare economics. How do we know that one policy is better than another? Economists typically invoke cost-benefit analysis, but this doesn’t create a grand picture of social systems, it more lends itself to static issues.
Another influence on the book was Derek Parfit’s Reasons and Persons, which Tyler considers one of the great books in philosophy. There is an appendix that argues that the rate of social discount should basically be zero.
In addition to these, he was reading bigger picture philosophers but found that his own views were not represented in the stuff he was reading. Way back in school, he’d read Wealth of Nations too.
Piecing all of this together with his own thinking, he worked on developing an argument where the primary good at the social level is to maximize what he calls the “rate of sustained economic growth.”
As a group, we can’t agree on how valuable all the different parts of life and the world are to each of us, there’s just too much.
But maybe, we could agree that a society as a whole, say current day America, is a better place than current day Albania or Congo: can we say this? What would we be agreeing on? Perhaps that a much wealthier society is probably going to be a better place to live.
If your view is like his that the future is as important as the present, this implies that economic growth is how we get to versions of the future in which there are much better places to live.
“If the future really matters, we can’t be doing things that are going to wreck the future.”
Another qualifier on the argument in the book: there are aboslute human rights that should be respected, and these should constrain what we can do to maximize economic grwoth.
Not a complex ontology of rights that a consultant might come up with, but more “don’t torture people” kinds of things, more straightforward decency.
The final caveat: the book thinks about wealth not just in terms of GDP. Leasure time and other such goods don’t show up in GDP. When he talks about maximizing economic growth, he takes into account non-market goods. Small differences in growth rates make huge differences over time.
This is a moral framework for thinking about politics: it puts productivity and economic growth and sustainability at the center of our thought.
We care about a lot of things: beautiful art, justice, fulfilling our duties. This complex mix, we’ll never totally figure this out for all people. What’s the closest thing we can agree on? Maybe that a rich society like the US is better than a poorer place like Albania.
Early editions of the book also discussed existential risk, but as more and more thinkers began to cover those topics he removed those sections.
Known issues with the argument (that Tyler steelmans in a presentation to Stanford available online):
- 1. The non-human world: how do we weight the interests of human beings vs. non-human animals? The interests of animals and humans do not co-move in simple ways. This framework is not good at handling this.
- 2. When you talk about sustainable economic growth, there are two values: the living standards and the risk that you might not get there. If you’re working on extremely long time scales, then existential risk will far outweigh economic growth in your calculations. Tyler is working on more modest timescales for the longevity of human civilization, and his model works best for those who are working on similar timescales.