Ryan Yonk on the China Dilemma

international trade international relations public choice national interest methodological individualism

May 17, 2024


What IS the "China Dilemma," and how should the US formulate a policy for dealing with China? What advice would Adam Smith offer policy makers in today's interconnected world?
Ryan Yonk is a Senior Research Faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research where he is the director of the Public Choice and Public Policy Project. He is also a co-author of The China Dilemma: Rethinking US-China Relations Through Public Choice Theory, with Ethan Yang.

Today, we talk about the book and how to apply public choice thinking to a topic like international relations, and how it diverges and critiques the mainstream thought on this topic. He gives us examples and breaks down how this analysis can help US policy makers and citizens think about China. I ask him if he is optimistic or cynical about the future of US-China relations. His response might shock you, so tune in to find out! 
Never miss another AdamSmithWorks update.




Want to explore more?

Read the transcript.


Juliette Sellgren 
Science is the great antidote to the poison of enthusiasm and superstition. Hi, I'm Juliette Sellgren, and this is my podcast, the Great Antidote- named for Adam Smith, brought to you by Liberty Fund. To learn more, visit www Adam Smith works.org.

Welcome back on the podcast. We've talked about how economics can get a little complicated and we're talking about trade because there might be a national security concern or something happening on the global frontier is affecting the supply of a good, but we've never really talked about how to think about this sort of thing because scary, it's difficult. I don't know. I don't like it usually, so I try to avoid it, but it's something important that we do have to think about. So today on April 22nd, 2024, I'm excited to be talking to Ryan Yonk about his book co-authored with Ethan Yang called The China Dilemma, which uses public choice economics to understand the situation with China. He's a senior research faculty at the American Institute for Economic Research and the Director of Public Choice and Public Policy Project. Welcome to the podcast.

Ryan Yonk 
Great. It's nice to be with you, Juliette.

Juliette Sellgren 
So my first question, what is the most important thing that people my age or in my generation should know that we don't?

Ryan Yonk (1.37)
Well, so the first thing is there's no big mystery in anything. The basic rules of economics that we've all come to understand and sort of intuitively recognize still apply. And so when you start to think about these things- that even sort of the big hairy questions as you described them of international relations, we still get back to people who have incentives, self-interest, and then take action to achieve them. And as long as we start from there, we can really look at the world and understand it really pretty clearly.

Juliette Sellgren 
And this applies to everything.

Ryan Yonk 
Applies across most almost all of the human condition. You just have to try to understand what's motivating people and how people think about the world, and then you can proceed from there to try to understand what motivates their behavior and how they might act.

Juliette Sellgren 
This is a good piece of advice. I think we forget about this a lot, but then we also do things like try to apply it to animals and that doesn't quite work either because the assumptions of economics don't extend to animals a lot of the time.

Ryan Yonk (2.42)
Well, we start with an assumption that people have to be making choices based on something other than just pure instinct, and that's really where the world of economics gets interesting. What Adam Smith sort of focused on, especially his Theory of Moral Sentiments, is you had to have something really that was motivating people's behavior and then you could, there's that step between instinct and rational action that we have to recognize as unique to human beings. 

Juliette Sellgren 
I want to start with something kind of simple, but also kind of a loaded question. What is the China dilemma? Why is China an issue that we should be paying attention to, particularly as for the most part, classical liberals who probably tend towards isolationism instead of thinking about things like IR?

Ryan Yonk (3.35)
Well, so I'm going to address that last bit first and then I'll come back to your core question. I think you're asking an important question, but I don't find anything in classical liberalism that necessarily suggests isolationism or the notion that somehow we should be separate from the world in classical liberal ideas. But when we think about the way interactions are going to happen, as much as we might not love borders or we may have notions of how the world should look, what's really going on is people are going to interact inside a set of institutions. Those institutions are often called states or countries, and as a result, understanding how those interactions will occur and attempting to really look at them becomes something of importance because simply pretending it's not going to happen or we can somehow avoid it isn't reasonable. In today's sort of interconnected world, those connections have happened. They've grown, they've by and large made humanity so much better off. And so understanding them I think is a core question for classical liberals and others that are interested in the tradition of liberty and how do we make people better off both in their individual lives and economically. 

Juliette Sellgren 
I think it's a core issue for classical liberals, yet we really like to avoid it or maybe I like to avoid it, but there are people who talk about that sort of relationship and that's all they do, but they themselves are even kind of isolated from the rest of the policy conversations we have. Why do you think that's the case?

Ryan Yonk (5.13)
Yeah, so I think there's a couple of things that have created that. On the one hand, it's sticky and it's a little bit messy and it can be hard to try to understand some of that. And that's part of what I think drives it. And I think that's the complexity part that makes it sort of people are reluctant. And the other is much of what we call international relations today is rooted not in an understanding of methodological individualism and how individuals act within a system, but rather they're up at the systems level looking at how nation states interact without ever thinking about necessarily the leaders involved or what their motivations might be. They're bumping along thinking about how does this country interact with that country? And in its core, the China dilemma really is that- is how does the US formulate a policy for interacting with China?

What should it be? And for us when we say the China dilemma, we really mean the dilemma of really trying to understand what's happening in China and what's motivating them because absent that, it really does look like this big hairy mess that you can't easily find a way to think about or apply some of the standard approaches to when you back up and remember that thing we started with where individuals, people are people, they have interests and they'll take action to achieve them. You can start to apply to how countries interact. And that's really what we do in the book.

Juliette Sellgren (6.41)
And I want to get to that and how your approach differs from the standard. But first I want to kind of lay a groundwork for how the mainstream even thinks about this sort of issue. I live with two girls who study international relations, so I'll be sitting doing my math homework or my econ and I hear things like grand strategy, great power rivalry, nuclear fission and whatever, things like that. All the time they're just tossed around the table. What have been the main approaches to China and how satisfied are you with them?

Ryan Yonk (7.17)
So I'm not at all satisfied with them. In fact, if folks pick up the book and read it, we have some pretty harsh criticism for many of the major schools of international relations. Not that they don't have value to add or they can't be useful, but because they start from the wrong place, they start with this notion that somehow a country is a thing that has its own desires and actions and then has a strategy to achieve them. And that my deeply economist background and soul looks at it and says, I don't see how that can be possible because states are just collections of people bound together through institutions, and if we're going to understand that we've got to go somewhere deeper. But just the realist approach, that grand strategy style that you're talking about in some detail where the idea is that there's a competition between countries and if you can identify the country's preference, you can predict their behavior.

Sounds really good. Sounds a lot like parts of economics, but it assumes the country has an interest and that gets to be a little tough. On the other side, there's the liberalist approach or sort of modern liberalism in international relations that suggests somehow that trade is going to solve these things, that what's going to happen is you're going to end up connected to other countries and you're interconnected either culturally or through economic ties, and as a result that's going to dictate what's going on. There's a few other schools of thought as well, but they all share the core issue in common and that that countries are the level of analysis and there's usually very little, that's politics. That's really part of the big distinction about international relations.

Juliette Sellgren (9.05)
It felt really funny to ask you if you were satisfied with all of these given that you wrote a book about the subject, but it felt also like a valid question because there are millions and billions of books about China and a lot of them somewhat agree. So I don't know, maybe I'm just defending the past question. How is, go ahead.

Ryan Yonk (9.30)
No, I think it's an important question. It's actually a question that Ethan and I asked ourselves as we got into the project is, why on earth should a law student and a political economist that does public choice be the people to write the next book about China, right? There are a ton of books at China that often that go back and forth and arrive at different opinions, but the reason we thought we were the right people to write this book was because we didn't find a lot of examinations that did what we described with that piece that I saw was missing, didn't show up at a lot of those books. And so we hope we're adding something new to the discussion by saying, there's lots of value in what you do in international relations, but it's missing something and here's something public choice can give to you.

Juliette Sellgren (10.18)
So we've been throwing around public choice and I know what it means. I love public choice. You obviously know what it means and we've talked a lot about it on the podcast, but can you give us a reminder of what public choice is and how it stands apart and within the rest of economics?

Ryan Yonk (10.37)
Yeah, so public choice is a really simple sort of concept, and that is that you can take those lessons of economics, that individual self-interest, this notion that individuals have preferences and they take action to achieve them and you can apply them to the political world. And that's at its core what public choice did. Now it's built from that over time into something more substantive, but that core insight is what it is where it all began very famously, one of the major figures in the public choice literature, James Buchanan, who would win a Nobel Prize refers to public choice as “politics without romance”. And what he meant there was that we're going to look at politics the same way we look at actions in the marketplace. We're not going to have romantic notions that somehow you have lots of civic virtue and everybody goes in and is doing great things for all the right reasons, but rather that they have their own reasons that they're doing things. And that if we are going to understand and really figure out what's going on in politics, that same methodology can be used.

Juliette Sellgren (11.46)
So how does the public choice framework then challenge the way that the majority thinks about the issue, particularly, I'm guessing it has some alignment with the liberalism approach and with the realist approach, but in different ways. So is that the case and how does it differ from all these other approaches and how does it help us understand the China dilemma?

Ryan Yonk (12.14)
Yeah, so at its core, I think you get one of those major things. They get a couple of major things right in both of those schools. And that is that in fact, the end result may be that the way things play out could in fact be because of what's going on below the surface. And that's really what we're suggesting is that if you want to understand what motivates a country to cooperate more or cooperate less, it isn't just that they have some singular national interests, but there's something motivating the people involved in the politics of that country and in the leadership to be more or less cooperative. And as a result, then you can begin to predict, and there'll be times when that's going to be cooperation, and then there's going to be times when that's competition and for the US figuring out is this going to be a collaborative cooperative relationship with China or a competitive one or even a hostile one is grand strategy sometimes suggests really that's going to come down not to just whether or not the US wants X or China wants Y, but how the domestic politics play out because those national interests are in fact shaped by their domestic politics.

Juliette Sellgren (13.26)
So something that a lot of these approaches miss and you've been hitting on this, is that the decision making structure is what's really important, and it's something that we more easily, even though we don't talk about it a ton, understand when it comes to American political decision making, we talk about the decisions that are made but not the decision making, and that's the public choice element. Just because we live here and we think about this at least more regularly than we think about the structure within China. So what is the decision making structure and mechanism within China? Who are the major actors? What are the incentives that they're facing? What should we not, should we know? But this is a question that hasn't been spoken on. You don't read about this anywhere in the news, and so give us the lowdown, what should we know?

Ryan Yonk (14.19)
Yeah, so there's a couple of things you should know, and I think you've got, you're exactly right on that we live the US system every day. Very few international relations scholars would say, yeah, the US just has a single national interest. Almost no one believes that we don't have just a national interest. We have things that ebb and flow and administrations change. And so what the US does changes, when we think about China, we often don't know very much about the system. And so understanding that the Chinese system is what we would call Marxist Leninist system, meaning that it's organized under at least some Marxist principles, although those principles come out of Leninism, which is a series of interlocking bureaus or committees that form the leadership and that leadership comes from the communist party in China, the CCP. And as a result, the leadership moves up not through elections, not through a competition in the polls or through heredity if you were in an absolute monarchy, but instead, leadership comes about by advancement in the Communist Party and at virtually every level of governance in the us, the Chinese in the, sorry, pardon me.

Virtually every level of governance in China, the communist party is present and being run by one of these mini committees at the big level. They call it the politburo, the decision-making organ of the party that then directs the state. And so how those things actually operate, how people interact on them end up being so much of what derive. We sometimes listen to, especially some US politicians who talk about China as though the current chairman of the CCP has absolute power in China, and it's true he has a ton of power in China, but is actually the product of these interlocking bureaus and committees and ultimately is part of a pull-up pro that he has to maintain support in because in fact, purges do regularly happen. If you look at the Soviet Union, which is the model, this was based on communists know how to purge each other better than almost anyone else. They routinely had purges. And so the leadership in China is cognitive of these same things. And if you watch, you'll see purges happen with regularity. People are pushed out of government because of divisions for disagreements or she likes to talk about it being mostly about corruption, but that tends to be a pretense. But there's politics happening and that politics influences how things go. And so that structure becomes an important part to understand, and it's very foreign to us in the US because that's not the system we operate in.

Juliette Sellgren 
Do they really call it the politburo internally? Like seriously call it the politburo?

Ryan Yonk (17.16)
Obviously there's going to be a Chinese word equivalent, but that's the Leninist term for it. That's the common parlance that's used to talk about that central committee. It's often called, and that's what  politburo generally means, but the language moves around a little bit inside the communist party depending on where it's implemented. But that's the sort of standard approach that people you use to describe things.
Juliette Sellgren 

For whatever reason, I just can't get over the fact that that is seriously still a thing today, it sense, but we use it in my house as a joke. And so it's weird that that could be used very seriously and that it still is. It feels, I don't know why it's so striking.

Ryan Yonk (18.06)
Yeah, it is striking, especially for folks that have a sort of deep knowledge of the Cold War. I know your family does and the study of those sorts of things. And so as a result we often see that and there's a fair bit of questioning. Didn't the US win the Cold War? Well, with regard to the Soviet Union, yeah, the Soviet Union, I don't know that we won, but the Soviet Union certainly lost; it doesn't exist anymore, but there was also the Chinese version going on across most of the same period, and they played out a little bit differently than the Soviet Union did. Although they share this common characteristic. There are parts of China, Chinese leadership and governance that diverged a lot from the Soviets, and that's part of what's allowed them to continue to exist today.

Juliette Sellgren (18.58)
Can you give us an example of what the divergence is? Because I was just thinking maybe we can use, given the system is based on one that we've already seen and defeated, we could use that to better understand how to move forward. To me, public choice is really reflective compared to a lot of these other methods. And this is not really a criticism, I'm not super well versed, but it seems as though it's more, it outsources maybe the way that we can analyze. Because if we say, well, China and Russia are actually kind of similar, and even the US with a different system has people in it, so you can just analyze, it's the methodological individualism that lets us reflect on everything around us. How is that not the case? How can we not use Russia to analyze what's happening in China?

Ryan Yonk (19.57)
Well, so the Chinese would answer that question with, well, what they're doing is communism with Chinese characteristics. That's a term you'll hear a lot when the Chinese Communist party talks about what it is they're doing. And they responded to incentives in ways that have allowed them to continue one of those major ways market liberalization. So following Mao, leaving power and then dying, part of what happened Deng started to open China up to foreign investments and created a fairly robust, at least semi-market economy that was going on through most of the latter part of the 20th century, certainly through the 1990s when it really started to take off and they ceased to do this sort of planning that Mao had done in the great leap forward and other things that really caused major economic disaster. And as a result, it looks somewhat different. There is this dual sphere that created tension inside China that as wealth went up, it meant that people as a whole were doing better off, which stabilized the regime because people that are doing better this year than they were last year and when they expect they're going to do even better the next year when that's happening, people tend to be relatively satisfied with what's going on, or at least they're not actively pushing for a change in mass.

But that meant they were doing something other than just applying the institutions that they claim they believe are an ideology. They were responding to the political realities that they existed in. And that's I think really what public choice does is it says, well, when we take the individuals that are in working in the system and the institutions that make up that system and interact them and really look at them, we can start to have a better understanding of what might happen. And sometimes that's going to look a lot like a realist would say the world looks like, but it turns out it's not stable across time because it changes. And what public choice lets us do is understand what might be driving that change. And I think that's the interesting bit, at least for me and the part that I think is important if we're going to understand these interactions that we really start to drill down to.

Juliette Sellgren 
So could you give us an example of when public choice thinking has been more insightful into what's going on and why certain behaviors arise then either of the two other main approaches?

Ryan Yonk (22.27)
So I think there's a major one that's playing out in front of us all the time. So I'm very famously on the record- people think I'm nuts because I actually think the Taiwan situation is unlikely to change even in the medium term. And because on one side you have the standard approach that says China's going to try to take time while they're going to attack. And if you listen to lots of the dialogue among those that are working in this space in particular, that's what you hear. And then you hear others that talk about that it's going to be reintegrated like Hong Kong. Well, public choice lets us look at it and say, well, what's actually going on with this relationship with Taiwan? You have what the communist party and leadership have said, which is that Taiwan is a part of China, it's an errant province, is often how they refer to it and that it will become part of China again.

But they haven't attacked Taiwan. They haven't tried to take it. And so why not is one of the questions that often gets asked. And some people say they're just worried that the US will intervene. Others say that it's just inevitable that they will eventually. And my response to that is, well, I don't know if the Chinese are ever going to try to take Taiwan, but what I do know is that if you watch how the Chinese leadership talks about Taiwan, Taiwan is a province is very useful to folks like President Xi who is able to talk about the fact that Taiwan is this problem and use that to help build nationalist tendencies, this idea that there is a problem that must be solved. And so I look at that with my public choice glasses on and say, ah, he probably has an incentive to keep the status quo as opposed to try to take it in part because there's not a lot, there's only one good outcome for someone like Xi in attempting to take Taiwan and that's taking it and taking it with relative ease, all the other options taking it, but it's very costly and bloody is going to cause him political problems inside the system he operates in.

Probably build up some opposition in the borough trying to take it and failing is a huge problem because now you've lost all that nationalist fervor and it's going to be, again, hugely problematic. I think that's the scenario in which you probably see a leader get purged if they try and fail and as a result there's this benefit of the status quo, but that's not a prediction you'd get without looking at what's playing out for the individuals. Now there are lots of ways the dynamic can change, but you're looking at how individuals are interacting with the institutions and the actions on the other side. And so much of what's going on is being determined not by grand strategy but by decisions made by individuals who are trying to achieve their preferences. And in this case, she very clearly wants to stay in power and so he's going to figure out how to do that and as a result we end up with this relative stability. Now, as I said, that could change, the US could change that dynamic, something could change that suddenly makes it more attractive, but you don't really start to understand that stuff if you're just looking at this grand competition model that comes in.

Juliette Sellgren (25.57)
So you mentioned the things that were coming out of China, so official news, stances, statements, we have to look at that when we're kind of analyzing how to think about how different political decisions are being made within a country, but at the same time we need to look at behavior, right? Economics teaches us that revealed preferences. We have to look at how people act and not just what they say. So how are we supposed to go about thinking about and analyzing the things that are coming out of China in terms of political stances and talking about Taiwan for example? How does public choice kind of balance the behavior to speech, especially compared to how we usually go about it in an IR situation?

Ryan Yonk (26.55)
So it's not really that different than how we usually go about it in most of our everyday lives, like how we normally think about politics because we're looking to say, okay, is this politician just making a speech and claiming they're going to do X or are they going to really do it? We discount that all the time when we look at what politicians say here in the US and then we somehow assume that that temptations not going to exist in other systems. Turns out it is, there is this desire to stay in power and we want to understand that at the core however of the problem is how do we know when what we're hearing or seeing is actually what it was said or what was being done or when is it just propaganda? And that requires us to really take a deep dive in and that's ultimately one of the major things Ethan and I argue for is that we shouldn't be using surface level approaches to understand places like China, but we should be developing a deep understanding of what's going on internally, what's motivating leaders, who the players are, what the institutions look like and how they interact.

But to simply say this is China's interest leaves out so much that you may not actually be capturing how likely that interest is to stay the same or even if you've gotten it right.

Juliette Sellgren (28.17)
Many approaches to this situation rely on culture or nationalism as a way of understanding the actions of the state. Do these things still play a valid role in state decision making and the decision making of the individuals who are actually driving this behavior that we're seeing, or do they fall away as we analyze in a more individual way?

Ryan Yonk (28.45)
So they were made part of what the landscape looks like that individuals are operating in? I wouldn't say that culture doesn't matter, but it's not as though you can simply say, ah, this has a culture and therefore it's not going to be a capitalist system, which is one of the arguments that sometimes gets made or you can't do X or Y there, but rather culture becomes part of what influences individual decision making and it should be part of our understanding. But we've seen lots of new ideas and iterations based around either neocolonialist arguments or arguments that you have that culture overrides everything else. And I think those leave a lot unexplained partly because you have lots of similar cultures with a variety of different institutions and expectations, but it becomes part of what goes into those decision-making. But again, the public choice always takes us back.

You have to try to understand what's going on at the individual level and then you use that to build up to the system level and you're always checking your system level understanding with what's happening with individuals. And I think that's the major part. Culture's important, culture matters in the US, but I don't think you would say that it's determined in how our politics play out, and as a result how the US behaves internationally. It's there, you can see it, it's part of what's going on, but it's not the only thing. In fact, it's probably not even the major thing.

Juliette Sellgren 
It's something where maybe not at most, but most times we pay lip service to certain things like free speech, the Constitution, but then we move on is kind of the way I think about it. Would you agree with that?

Ryan Yonk (30.29)
Yeah, I think we see a lot of that, that we have what we expect. We have this notion of what we've commonly agreed to as the rules of the game, which we might call culture, that are not written down, but we often then have a hundred different ways we break against that. It's not that the culture isn't there, it's not real, it's just that it's not the only thing. It's not what on the margin the decision is being made on. It provides the landscape. And I think that's the way to think about culture and international relations.

Juliette Sellgren 
Something that really came through in the book, which really surprised me I think just because of the mainstream narrative about the US-China relationship is this idea that China does not want to dominate the world. How do you defend this idea against the prevailing narrative today?

Ryan Yonk (31.23)
Yeah, well I would respond to that in sort of two real ways. One that's a little bit flippant and probably a little overaggressive. And that is if you listen to the folks that are talking about that being China's goals and you look at what their incentive structures look like, they do better when more people believe that's what's going on with China. We have a lot of members of the US Senate, or at least some members of the Senate I should say, that they very much have built a reputation on tough China talk. In fact, we opened the book talking about one of those folks that Ethan went to listen to them talk about how the US should interact with China. They have clear incentives that getting people to view it in that way is key. Now I think the more nuanced response is to say, well, when we actually look at what China's doing, when you look at how they behave internationally, we don't love everything they do, certainly, in fact, most of it we're quite skeptical of because we think it's clearly largely self-interested and they have an agenda, but they're not looking.

When you look at what they've actually done, they're not looking to supplant the rest of the world. And in fact, if you look at the number one way China votes on things in the UN or in other national organizations, they abstain unless they can identify a clear Chinese interest, their response has been and is likely to continue to be that unless it directly affects Chinese interest in their mind, there's no reason why they should be telling the rest of the world how to operate. On top of that, everyone was all freaked out for years about the Belt and Road initiative. I'm sure folks have heard of that. This was where Chinese foreign direct investment was going in. There were lots of agreements that were being signed and there was a lot of sort of moral panic that China was going to take over the world by doing all this. Well, it turns out the Chinese have been utterly unwilling to use force to defend any of the contracts that have happened there. And in fact, what usually happens is they renegotiate, they do something else, and that looks a lot like looking for influence and participation in the global stage, not looking to be sort of a global hegemon. Their behavior just doesn't speak to that. And in fact, if you listen to both what they're saying and then what they do, you get a really consistent narrative in that regard.

Juliette Sellgren (33.54)
So I guess a response or something I've been thinking about this entire time that you really hit on in your first response to that question is that in the same way that we can use public choice to analyze what's coming out of China, we can use it in the US also and we do primarily, and that's kind of how public choice came about, even though maybe it was more abstracted, it definitely was based in the us. So I often think it's just US centric, which is not as your book has shown, but how does the public choice analysis of things make us maybe more skeptical or I don't want to say cynical, but cynical about the US' power to either do anything or our stake in this sort of relationship. How do we think about it when we have to analyze not only China but the us, what can we even do?

Ryan Yonk (34.48)
Yeah, so I don't view it as a cynical position because what public choice is saying is if you want to understand what's happening, you should look at it without the blinders that somehow there's a right and there's a wrong and we're right and they're wrong, but rather you're looking at the incentives and what people are attempting to do and public choice allows us to do that. I think actually there's a wide set of policies the US could be engaged in that would lead us down a path of even healthy competition with China. The US tends to be its best self, not when it's dictating to the rest of the world or when it's responding in fear, but when it's really unleashing its productive power to compete on the global stage. That's what the US does the best. It's what classical liberals argued for across the world.

It's what lots of the folks that are interested in free market economics suggests is that that sort of competition creates better opportunities and as a result, you start to be able to think about, well, if it's not just that they're out to destroy the other side, how can we engage them more productively? How can we interact in different ways? And at the same time, I would also tell the Chinese communist party, they should think about the US this way. They do the same thing and think about the US as a monolith. And so it's not as though this is, oh, they know everything about what's going on in the US and we know nothing about there. We got it all wrong and they're going to win. No, this is a problem that goes both directions and really it suggests again what the basics of public choice really had been for most of the 20th century and now into the 21st. And that is really taking off the rose colored glasses or sort of the dark, scary glasses when you look at politics and really just looking at them for what they are.

Juliette Sellgren 
So then what are some of these policies or institutions that make us be our best selves?

Ryan Yonk (36.52)
When it's competing in open markets, in markets where the US is producing and engaging and competing by providing value to consumers? It's one of the things we've always been best at. It's where we tend to win very well. Doesn't mean there aren't winners and losers in every system, but on average it's where lots of production has happened and where really the US built its wealth. On top of that us, you could call it US culture or us sort of pop culture is one of the major places where again, you can go anywhere around the world. And what do you see? Well, you see lots and lots of US focused things, Taylor Swift that have gone out. Taylor Swift is a great example. I have a good friend in China that flew to Singapore to go see Taylor Swift. He actually lives in Hong Kong. That's part of what's going on. And that's the sort of competition that really matters because that's, I think where things are best, where we're focused on trying to provide value and engagement rather than being convinced that somehow there is a zero sum competition that has to happen in the world. No, trade shows us positive sums are possible, and when we act as though those things are possible, we tend to be our best selves.

Juliette Sellgren (38.15)
I think this also resonates because there's this idea in econ that the optimal amount of something bad, say pollution or murder, all these things that we ideally don't want in society is never zero, right? Because the cost of preventing that thing is too high. Maybe I'll butcher it in trying to apply it in this situation, but not only is it positive, but even if it were fully negative winning out over China, the optimal amount of winning is not zero. And I'm wondering if you, I don't know, critique me, agree with me.

Ryan Yonk (38.59)
No, I think the logic is right. The example I think we'd have to play with for a while to get the wording exactly right, but the logic is there and really it's highlighted by something that Dr. Mike Munger likes to say a lot. And that is there are no answers that are only trade-offs. And that's at the core, I think of what you're describing, that in fact the questions are not, it's not about whether or not we win and they lose. It's about what's the trade-off happening all the way across these decisions. So if we get to zero pollution, what have we lost? What's the trade-off? If we get to zero murders, what have we lost? And in this case, if we completely beat China, well, what opportunities are we not able to take advantage of because we spent our time trying to win?

Juliette Sellgren 
Chinese food and that lose Chinese food for one.

Ryan Yonk (39.47)
We would certainly lose, we could lose Chinese food, but we also lose out on lots of opportunities for greater consumer value through manufacturing overseas. Now, there's some national conservatives that are really going to hate that, but it's true consumers are made better off when products cost less. It doesn't mean there's no cost associated with it, just that there's also this massive benefit. And those are the sort of things we lose out on if we focus only on that grand strategy competition view of the world. And I think that's one of the most unfortunate things that comes out of not really thinking about these things as anything other than that grand competition model.

Juliette Sellgren 
So has this method of analyzing this policy issue situation, has it made you more or less optimistic? And should we treat this just like any other policy issue where again, you have these trade-offs, but it's not this big scary thing. Are you hopeful that we're going to be fine, or is World War II going to start?

Ryan Yonk (40.54)
I mean, I don't know the answer to that last question. That's going to depend on a bunch of people interacting with a bunch of institutions. And I tend to view politicians as maybe I hope their interest is not starting World War III, but some of them would probably end up getting more of what they want by starting World War III. So I don't know the answer to that question, but I mostly walk away from this reminded, and really it's where we, in the process of writing the book, you start off with this grand optimism that you're going to explain something and then you write the book for a while and you're like, and then at the end coming back and circling back. Yeah, I think your point about it being much like any other policy area is exactly, and I think that's the big message I would give to readers is that that international relations or the China dilemma, as we call it, isn't some unique weird things where the standard ways we might think about policy don't apply, particularly the public choice ways, but rather it just needs to be applied because from that application, we can start to understand the trade-offs better, and then we can make decisions with more information.

Juliette Sellgren 
Are you hopeful that policymakers are going to tune into this way of thinking?

Ryan Yonk (42.08)
Well, I have to be hopeful that they're going to listen to me because Juliette, I'm super smart and wrote this great book, but I hope people will read it. I hope policymakers will read it. I hope folks will listen and think about these things, and Ethan and I aren’t going to stop talking about it or writing about it. So I hope so. But more importantly, I hope that we continue to think about these things in this way, that we actually look at what's going on beneath the surface and don't get caught up in just the surface level competition.

Juliette Sellgren (42.42)
And listeners, it truly is a great book. So if you're looking to learn something, a new application of economics, or if you're too scared to dip your toes in the pool of IR, this is where to start. And it's a really fruitful read. I enjoyed, I read it this weekend and it was fantastic. I have one last question for you, and that is, what is one thing that you believed at one time in your life that you later changed your position on and why?

Ryan Yonk (43.10)
Oh, so much of my story, Juliette, is that change. So I come into classical liberalism and I'm a hardcore libertarian. Anybody who knows me recognizes that. But I come in from really the progressive left. I believed that somehow government could solve all of our problems, and I don't believe that anymore. That all changed for me when I started to actually work in a nonprofit that was trying to do good in the world. And then I got to watch how the sausage was made. And we had been a nonprofit serving people, and then the group became a for-profit entity, and the quality went way, way, way up when the profit motive was linked. And so really, that's my major one. So I used to be a full believer that government could solve our problems, and then I watched it try and it doesn't, can't.

Juliette Sellgren 
Once again, I'd like to thank my guests for their time and insight. I'd also like to thank you for listening to The Great Antidote Podcast means a lot. The Great Antidote is sound engineered by Rich Goyette. If you have any questions, any guests or topic recommendations, please feel free to reach out to me at great antidote@libertyfund.org. Thank you.
Comments
Add a comment
Never shown anywhere
Or
Sign in