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If you flip through the pages or click on the website of any policy-minded publication these days, chances are you’ll come upon a discussion of the importance of fostering abundance in America. In January 2022, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic wrote an influential article on this theme—ambitiously titled “A Simple Plan to Solve All of America’s Problems.” Since then, many journalists and researchers, from “Rough Diamonds” Substacker Sarah Constantin to ecomodernist think tanker Alex Trembath, have embraced this perspective. Discourse contributor Will Rinehart, of course, gave an excellent recent summary in “We Need an Abundance Agenda,” and there’s also the recently released and aptly titled book “Superabundance” by Marian Tupy and Gale Pooley.
Indeed, the phrase “abundance agenda” has recently become shorthand for an approach to economic development and public policymaking that calls for raising living standards through increased production and innovation. Across an array of sectors and industries—from pharmaceuticals to housing to renewable energy and countless others—policies that emphasize maximizing production and supply have been described as the best way to move the country forward.
The idea of incentivizing abundance is certainly appealing—what’s not to like about more goods for more people? It’s so appealing, in fact, that it has some observers wondering who could actually be against it. If building more housing and green-lighting more medical therapies will have the massive societal benefits that their proponents claim, what’s the downside? For those who do oppose abundance, fear is superseding reason—and a successful abundance agenda must effectively assuage this fear.
Opposition to an Abundance Agenda is Formidable
On one level, the problem is easy to understand. The laws, regulations and procedures that serve as roadblocks to abundance were all put in place for a reason. The National Environmental Policy Act, which requires developers to navigate an expensive and time-consuming approval process for major new projects, satisfied demands in the early 1970s for documenting potential pollution sources and biodiversity threats. U.S. Food and Drug Administration rules for the approval of new drugs and devices were created because Americans were worried about snake oil salesmen selling untested and potentially harmful remedies. Restrictive zoning in residential areas was implemented because residents wanted to maintain neighborhoods with low density and minimal traffic and noise.
Each one of these had its own supporters and was the product of a specific set of cultural and political incentives. They were all lobbied for, enacted and, in many cases, amended and strengthened over the decades because highly motivated groups of Americans fought to put them in place. Unless all of those relevant incentives have entirely vanished since they were enacted, barriers to abundance will remain formidable. While repealing and amending them isn’t impossible, doing so will likely be at least as much of a fight as implementing them was in the first place.
Because it is based on the hopes and fears and ambitions (and self-interest) of multiple overlapping interest groups in American society—all of these being visceral and personal feelings—opposition to any sort of abundance agenda runs deep. Some see the means of achieving abundance, and even the end goal of abundance itself, as wrong. For others, greater restrictions on production make them feel safe and make society seem fairer and more orderly.
Some people, for example, assume that new development will only benefit the rich and well connected, leading to inequitable outcomes. They think zoning laws that restrict housing construction show care for the communities already there. Many people feel like any new project that harms the environment by cutting down trees or digging up hillsides would be an offense to the sanctity of mother earth. Some people have sentimental attachments, such as to old buildings, and don’t like seeing them changed or torn down. Critics raise moral and emotional concerns about abundance.
Opposition to Abundance Is Moral and Emotional
Let’s start with morality. A psychological approach to moral reasoning called “moral foundations theory” posits that just as we have five or six taste buds on our tongue—detecting sweet, savory and other flavors—we have at least six (and maybe more) “moral taste buds” on our hearts and minds to which we are sensitive to varying degrees. They are care, equity, proportionality (whereby rewards are based on merit or contribution), loyalty, purity and authority. (The next best candidate is freedom, which psychologist Jonathan Haidt argues in “The Righteous Mind” also belongs on the list.) These drive us to worry about things like unequal outcomes and subversive activity. People of different political ideologies tend to share sensitivity to particular moral taste buds. Leftists are more sensitive to care and equity (and freedom). Conservatives are more sensitive to proportionality, loyalty, purity and authority (but also freedom).
Far from simply choosing our moral tastes, to a surprising and significant degree, these moral taste buds are wired into us, psychologically speaking. From these morals, we make values-based judgments about what sorts of principles and policies are good or bad. And these judgments are grounded in emotions even more than in reason. Psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Haidt, and neuroscientists like Antonio Damasio, have shown that we emote or intuit before we reason. As Haidt writes, “intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second.”
These psychological realities have important implications for how we talk about the abundance agenda. Support for policies that limit goods like new apartments, pipelines, factories, space stations and laboratories didn’t come about primarily because of flawed technical arguments that can be refuted with data and analysis. They came about because they served the deep-seated emotional and moral needs of some of our fellow citizens. For example, some see the inequitable outcomes resulting from abundance as wrong. Others think that an abundance agenda harms the poor if they aren’t guaranteed an equitable share.
These emotional and moral concerns are more important to them than the specific merits of any individual proposal or project. In fact, most people never even examine the details of anti-development restrictions (proposed and enacted). They intuit a response and generally stop there. Unless we can address their moral and emotional concerns effectively, such people will continue to see a future of abundance as a threat to their values.
Addressing Americans’ Concerns
A successful abundance agenda will have to directly address the concerns critics have about the pathways to greater production and growth. We need to understand and address the worries—for example, over fairness and safety—that drove people to create the sclerotic burden of regulation we’re living with now. We have to understand the values that motivate most political (and personal) action and demonstrate to the people who want to say “not in my backyard” to everything—the NIMBYs—that they can still have a safe and fair society even without the regulations we have now.
That’s going to be difficult, but it’ll be a lot easier than trying to turn a NIMBY into an abundance activist with research studies and data tables. No layperson ever showed up to a zoning commission hearing because they found a fire code flaw in the blueprints of a proposed building. They showed up mad and ready to argue because they thought that the project in question threatened something about their home about which they cared deeply. Our job as abundance backers is to show those people that the things they love will survive and even flourish in a more abundant society.
The point is not that one economic or political system is good for only one set of values and we simply need each group to slug it out forever via partisan politics. Rather, it is incumbent on advocates of an abundance agenda to address the values of supporters and detractors alike. Are you skeptical that this is possible? Our Competitive Enterprise Institute colleague Iain Murray showed in his recent book “The Socialist Temptation” that both capitalism and socialism can potentially make arguments in line with all of these values. The same is true of the abundance agenda. We need to show how, far from giving up or changing what they value, a society with fewer regulations and restrictions can serve the values of the skeptics as well. While a free society is not going to be able to fully maximize every single value option, it can absolutely make the vast majority of people better off. At a minimum, it is the least bad compromise for everybody. You can form a voluntary commune in a capitalist country, after all, but you can’t start a for-profit corporation in a communist one.
To do this successfully, though, we have to understand that the things that motivate all of us most strongly are emotions and intuitions, not pure reason. If the people we’re conversing with see us and our ideas as a threat to their underlying moral concerns, any arguments we make about costs and benefits, or efficiency and practicality, will fall on deaf ears. No spreadsheet will cause someone who feels unsafe and out of control to nod in agreement with our brilliantly reasoned new ideas. They need to feel that the abundance agenda will make them better off. And it’s incumbent on us to advocate in a way that does that.