Here is an interesting thought exercise that I have been seeing around the internet for some time now:

Think about libraries as a concept – the government builds a huge building, buys loads of books from many different authors and allows everyone to just go there and read the books for free or some small fee. Sometimes you can even take the books to your home! – Now imagine libraries didn’t exist and some politician came around proposing we create libraries exactly as they are. What would you expect to happen?

I can tell you what I would expect to happen: Nothing at all: What about the authors and publishers? What about the bookstores! People will just steal and/or destroy the books! People don’t even read anymore! I am quite confident they would never get built in any major western democracy today.

And yet, with the benefit of actually having libraries, it is pretty clear that they are a net positive for society. Even authors love them. Libraries are such an important institution in western culture that movies frequently make bad guys destroy books or libraries ensure the audience dislikes them.

So what changed between the west of some decades ago that could build libraries and the west of today that can’t even seem to build enough houses?

The underlying reason for most things the west is bad at

Think of some of the most pressing issues in western countries: Rising home prices, global warming and getting anti-vaxxers take vaccines. Complete solutions to these problems are not easy, but there are things that are known to work that are simply not happening or not happening fast enough: Building more houses, improving zoning regulations, using public transport and bikes, adopting clean energy sources, reducing meat consumption, taking a free vaccine, etc.

All of these things are not happening or happening too slowly for a similar reason: The status quo provides marginal individual benefit to the person making the decision while also causing marginal harm to society as a whole. Doing the right thing doesn’t really provide much tangible short term benefit.

When someone commutes everyday by car, they get some additional comfort, at the cost more carbon emissions. If they take the bus, however, the air quality around them does not get any better, but they lose quite a bit of comfort.

When a home owners association blocks the building of new housing projects, they benefit individually from their houses going up in value, but society as whole loses by straining younger generations financially, which in turns causes depression anxiety, less kids being born and so on. Yet, if they allow developments close to their houses, their houses will lose value and new generations will still be generally stressed out and depressed and houses will still be crazy expensive anyway.

When an anti-vaxxer doesn’t take a vaccine they individually enjoy some higher social standing with peer group and a higher but still not that big individual risk of death. But society as a whole is harmed because new variants will keep spreading making existing vaccines less effective over time.

Locally good but globally bad decisions are not a new problem, and they were generally dealt with through government action.

Western governments can’t build anymore

Think of the last century: A huge chunk of Europe being completely destroyed and rebuilt. Twice. Space programs. Cars. Highways. Public healthcare systems. Trains. Airplanes. Atomic bombs. Computers. Women rights. Drugs. Eradicating Polio. Things were quite hectic, but governments made things happen in the last century, for better or worse. Now it seems that the government ambition that made things happen in the last century is almost completely gone.

Chaos and change go hand in hand. The past century was full of wars and social unrest. Governments had no choice but to make change happen. The crises we face now are quite severe too, but they are longer term problems, so they don’t get the same kinds of response as, say, the pandemic. We got vaccines that actually work in two years. That is a massive feat and shouldn’t be understated. But it only goes to show that western governments can’t create meaningful change without a crisis.

It should also be mentioned that authoritarian governments have an unfair advantage when dealing with these kinds of problems. The chinese government could definitely build libraries if they didn’t exist. Their book catalog would probably be lacking but I digress.

I am obviously not arguing that more wars and social unrest are a desirable thing. They are most definitely not. But I think we will only see meaningful action against climate change when some major coastal city in some rich country gets flooded. Maybe some new housing bubble will shake the housing situation by making even more people homeless?

Hopefully, these problems can be solved without war, social unrest or authoritarianism. I don’t think they can, but I’d love to be wrong.