We all want to try our hardest, every time. But we canâ€™t. Tyler Cowen, the author of â€œAn Economist Gets Lunch,â€ argued recently that, out of the dozens of restaurants in Washington, D.C., that aspire to be first class, only five to ten really are at any given time. A restaurant can be great for its first three to six monthsâ€”as the chefs and the owners strive to make the best possible impression on diners and reviewers. But, â€œonce these places become popular, their obsession with quality slacks off,â€ Cowen writes. â€œThey become socializing scenes. . . . Their audiences become automatic.â€
The political economist Albert O. Hirschmanâ€™s â€œExit, Voice, and Loyaltyâ€ begins with the same premise. Hirschman was interested in the way consumers cope with the decline of institutionsâ€”comparing the strategy of â€œexitâ€ (if your local public school is lousy, you send your child to a private school) with that of â€œvoiceâ€ (if your local public school is lousy, you show up at school-board meetings and complain). Classical economists and libertarians, he observes, understand exit but are contemptuous of voice. Politics, by contrast, is overwhelmingly (sometimes to its detriment) focussed on voice, and regards exit as akin to â€œdesertion, defection and treason.â€ The book is one of the masterpieces of contemporary political thought. But Hirschman, like Cowen, spends little time saying why thereâ€™s a gap between how good institutions are and how good they could be. The book, as he writes in the opening chapter,
assumes not only that slack has somehow come into the world and exists in given amounts, but that it is continuously being generated as a result of some sort of entropy characteristic of human, surplus-producing societies. â€œThereâ€™s a slacker born every minuteâ€ could be its motto. Firms and other organizations are conceived to be permanently and randomly subject to decline and decay, that is, to a gradual loss of rationality, efficiency, and surplus-producing energy, no matter how well the institutional framework within which they function is designed.
This notion of slack is part of what we take as normal and natural about the world. Of the last generation of great Washington restaurants, Cowen writes, â€œThe Source, Zengo, Sei, Palena, Oyamel, Hook, Equinox and Central Michel Richard . . . all had their moments of glory.â€ Peaking at the moment, he says, are Little Serow, Rasika West, and Mintwood Place. A dedicated foodie like him, who thrives on the innovation and novelty of the restaurant scene, needs the Source, Zengo, and Sei to stop trying so hard, in order to give Little Serow, Rasika West, and Mintwood Place a chance to shine. Social and economic mobility, in any system, is essentially slack arbitrage: hard work is a successful strategy for those at the bottom because those at the top no longer work so hard. By custom, we disparage the idleness of the idle rich. We should encourage it. It is our best chance of taking their place.