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Why Progressive Institutions are Unsustainable (Encounter Broadsides) Paperback – November 29, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 11 customer reviews

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Product Details

  • Series: Encounter Broadsides (Book 26)
  • Paperback: 64 pages
  • Publisher: Encounter Books (November 29, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1594036268
  • ISBN-13: 978-1594036262
  • Product Dimensions: 7 x 4.8 x 0.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 3.2 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #258,014 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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This new book by Richard Epstein has a lot of potential. It explains why our current government institutions do not work, and describes a better system. Recent developments in public choice economics, however, suggest that the solution proposed in this book is ultimately unworkable.

A classical liberal, Epstein believes that well designed tax and regulatory structure by government promotes growth. Progressive institutions, however, are not well designed. Using high marginal tax rates and an ideology that supports redistribution will in fact promote an economic recession. Epstein suggests that we adopt a flat tax system and limit regulation to clear and simple laws governing commerce.

This is all well and good, so far as it goes. But one has to ask, why should we expect any governing institution to limit itself? If public choice economics has established anything in the last 20 years, it is that governing institutions are always expanding their size and reach. The incentives faced by public service employees work differently than those of private employees. The former have a strong incentive to expand their budgets and reach well past the marginal benefit gained by their actions. The latter do not. As a result, regulatory agencies grow over time, while providing less and less nominal benefit. Eventually they end up like the EPA, mandating enormous costs on industry, but offering little in the way of actual measureable benefits. But this growth also creates wealth inequalities by favoring existing industry over new start ups. And the result is a demand for "progressive" institutions that redistribute wealth and ultimately hurt society as a whole.

The bottom line then is that classical liberalism is a myth.
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The fundamental flaw in our modern life is that society has been superseded and smothered by the State. The State is of our own making. Books like this provide a small glimmer of hope - if only people will listen and change their values, and be willing to pay the hard consequences now or suffer unimaginable pain later.
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You can read this is a snap. It's only 60 pages and written briskly so you can zip right through it. It is an effective argument as long as you are content with its focus on principles and generalities. It is not a data-driven argument. Also, as I complained about in regard to another of his books "How Progressives Rewrite the Constitution", the title of this book is again misleading. There is actually very little as to "why" progressive institutions are unsustainable, which is mainly an economic claim in a book that contains little data. The argument is there but it occupies only a couple of pages (incentives matter and progressive policies diminish them to the point that the overall pie shrinks, necessitating more tax-and-transfer policies, which only reinforce the disincentives and a downward economic spiral ensues, although such policies concededly create a floor of sorts so that the ultimate equilibrium is not a crash but a massive stagnation well below the economy's full productive capability: see most of Western Europe). But it's something you will blow by if you aren't looking for it: "Oh, right, this is what the title of the book means to refer to". And of course it's not accompanied by a lot of data (compare Edmund Phelps' recent book for a better-supported, albeit longer, version of the argument). I haven't read his recent book on Classical Liberalism and perhaps he puts more in there, this book being more of a pamphlet or speech than a full-fledged book.
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...But won't. Sometimes it taskes a clear head, not pulled heart-strings to design public policy.

Dr Epstein brilliantly describes why so called progressive policies typically hurt the very people they are intended to help (well they are really intended to help the politicians not the poor, but that's a different conversation.

It's a "broadside" not a tome, which means it gives the high level argument, not the gory statistical analysis. Even so, the arguments are so lucid and clear that they are extremely difficult to ignore.
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Thus far in the twenty-first century the United States has seen stagnation in its economy, and Richard Epstein correctly asserts that our fate has not been due to bad luck, but bad policies. In "Why Progressive Institutions Are Unsustainable," Epstein critiques the policies that have brought us our current malaise.

Epstein contrasts the classical liberalism (referred to today as conservatism or libertarianism) that elevated the United States from infant nation in the late eighteenth century to leading world power a mere century and a half later with the progressive policies that came into vogue during the twentieth century and that lead to stagnation and decline whenever and wherever they are tried.

Property rights, freedom of contract, and open competition in free markets are some of the chief tenets of classical liberalism. Epstein explains that these pro-growth policies have to be defended constantly from rent-seekers and other factions, and how since the Great Depression free markets and pro-growth policies have not been defended vigorously enough but have instead eroded, with negative results for the economy and for society.

Epstein provides concrete advantages of classical liberalism and the concomitant disadvantages of progressivism, and explains the difference between constitutionally legitimate and illegitimate uses of taxation and government spending.

"Why Progressive Institutions Are Unsustainable" concentrates on economics, but astute readers will be able to realize how the ideas Epstein advances in this booklet that can be read in an hour also apply to certain areas in social issues and foreign policy.
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