The Harvard economist Edward Glaeser is one of the world’s leading experts on housing, urban development and economic mobility. In a compelling article recently published in City Journal, he sets out a “four freedoms” strategy to revive American capitalism by expanding opportunities for young people. It is a must for anyone interested in these topics:
A February 2019 Harris poll found that roughly half of younger Americans “would rather live in a socialist country.” Millennials may not fully grasp the consequences of the government that owns the means of production, but they certainly don’t like the way American capitalism works for them. You have a point. Over the past 40 years, insiders have increasingly taken over the American economy – from homeowners opposed to housing construction in their area, to established businesses profiting from overregulation of employment, to advocacy groups that the federal government is turning into the equivalent of one The pension system has transformed with a nuclear arsenal. The boys are usually outsiders; The bill for the insider’s triumph was placed in their lap….
What many young people fail to realize today is that socialism is a machine for empowering insiders. Few insiders have ever been as eagerly rewarded as the Soviet Union’s nomenklatura. Few governments were literally as gray as the Brezhnev regime. An enormous expansion of the American government, as envisioned by today’s democratic socialists, would create a privileged elite of its own.
Today, proponents of capitalism are often more focused on defending the status quo than on promoting opportunities for outsiders. If capitalism is to win over the youth, that has to change – and a new freedom agenda can help make this happen. In January 1941, Franklin Roosevelt announced his four freedoms (freedom of speech and worship, want, and fear) which helped set his goals for World War II, which the nation would enter before the end of that year. Our contemporary outsiders would benefit from a renewal of the four fundamental freedoms: build, work, sell and learn. The youth need fewer land use restrictions that make it difficult to provide affordable housing in productive areas. They need fewer employment rules that limit their ability to find work and fewer corporate rules that stifle entrepreneurial energies. And – before these other important things – they need new educational options that free them from below-average educational monopolies.
The rest of the article expands the four freedoms in more detail. In doing so, Glaeser builds on his earlier seminal work on the damage caused by measures such as exclusion zones that make it difficult or impossible to build in many new homes, causing millions of people (especially the young, the poor, and racial minorities) ) from valuable employment opportunities. Similarly, restrictions on professional permits protect insiders from competition and reduced mobility and make it difficult for young and poor people to start new careers.
As Glaeser notes, his criticism of public education is compounded by its horrific performance during the coronavirus pandemic, which saw numerous public schools shut down at the behest of politically powerful teacher unions long after evidence emerged that schools did not pose a significant risk of spread of the disease, even though most private schools have remained open and therefore continue to serve students with little or no additional spread of Covid. The obvious difference lies in one of the incentives: private school administrators and teachers are only paid for providing useful services to students and their families, while their public school colleagues can live on taxpayers’ money even if they offer grossly inadequate “virtual” education .
In addition to expanding opportunities for young people, the common theme of the reforms proposed by Glaeser is that they all empower people to “vote with their feet” rather than being hostage to the decisions of government officials, interest groups and political majorities. According to Glaeser’s “four freedoms” approach, many more people could choose their own housing, work and educational opportunities regardless of the legal provisions and the majority of public opinion. In this regard, his view agrees very well with what I advocate in my recent book on foot voting, Free to Move. In fact, I owe a considerable debt to Glaeser’s previous work on these subjects, particularly zoning.
I disagree with Glaeser on a number of points in his article. I fear it relies too heavily on an implicit model of politics in which most voters are motivated to further their own narrow economic self-interest. He argues that young people have shown more sympathy for socialism because they believe it will enable their own economic progress, while the elderly and suburbanites have voted for policies that harm the young mainly because it harms the old benefit. In reality, extensive social science evidence suggests that there is little correlation between the views of most voters and narrow economic self-interest. I summarize some of the relevant data in my book Democracy and Political Ignorance, and here is an earlier review by Bryan Caplan.
This also applies to many of the programs that Glaeser criticizes for helping the elderly at the expense of the youth. For example, public support for social security and medical care differs little by age. Similarly, it is by no means clear that support for measures such as professional permits and exclusion zones correlates with age or other indicators of self-interest. It is likely that the persistence of this policy is due to voter ignorance of its implications rather than self-serving calculations.
In general, I think Glaeser somewhat overestimates the role of selfish voters and nefarious insiders in promoting dysfunctional policies in these areas, and underestimates the role of well-meaning, but often ignorant, voters and activists. Ironically, Glaeser previously co-authorized important work on how political divisions in the United States often stem from cultural and religious conflict rather than economic self-interest.
In his warnings about the dangers of millennial sympathy for socialism, Glaeser similarly emphasizes the role of the insider preference of the elites as a disadvantage of socialist politics and underestimates the much greater risks of complete or almost complete state control of the economy, such as z -scale Poverty, oppression and mass murder. Today fashionable “democratic socialism” harbors many of the same dangers as earlier explicitly authoritarian versions.
Public ignorance could make it more difficult to carry out many of Glaeser’s preferred reforms. However, success in such efforts is by no means impossible, as demonstrated by recent successes in efforts to combat the exclusion zone and reform professional licensing in several states.
The cultural and religious dimensions of the current political conflict also suggest that Glaeser’s “four freedoms” may not dispel millennial sympathy for socialism as much as he hopes. However, it is hard to deny that economic stagnation adds to sympathy for socialism on the left and statistical nationalism on the right. Expanding opportunities and economic growth could help contain these two dangerous trends.
More importantly, Glaeser’s reforms are worth pursuing because they are right, whether or not they also have a positive impact on public opinion. Expanding freedom and opportunities for young and poor people is an essential moral imperative. A more dynamic and open economy will also bring important benefits to many who are neither young nor poor ourselves – including those of us who would like to see greater opportunities for our children.