Market Optimists’ Uphill Climb

Dear Capitolisters,

As folks around here surely know by now, I tend to be an optimist about the ability of relatively free markets and free people to produce society-wide abundance over the long term. I’ve written at length about how pervasive economic doomerism in Washington systematically ignores decades-long trends in American wages and inequality and living standards and growth and industry and so on and so on. One thing I haven’t discussed, however, is why many normal Americans—not the Beltway planners incentivized to find doom everywhere—share in this economic pessimism. And since it’s still August and a few commenters have asked about this very thing, now’s a perfect time to dig in.

Why We Worry

Surely, a lot of things—the obvious allure of quick, easy, tradeoff-free solutions to complex problems, widespread innumeracy and other educational challenges, our tendency to treat powerful-but-isolated anecdotes as national data, and quite real and often-scary disruptions to our daily lives (especially over the last two years)—contribute to pervasive American pessimism about markets and the economy. For my money, however, three others stand out:

First, market gains are typically slow, incremental, and messy—causing us to ignore or even mock new products and services when they first debut. Private companies in a competitive (mostly) global environment are always looking for tiny ways that they can improve the consumer experience and thus keep or win our business. This search leads to a ceaseless process of trial and error, with numerous failures and (less often) successes over time. Economist Diedre McCloskey notes in her new book, for example, “The stocking of US grocery stores evolves through the supplying and the demanding of 30,000 or 40,000 new packaged consumer goods every year, under one percent of which become regular items.” And we’re mostly oblivious to it all.

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