State Capacity Libertarianism

Tyler Cowen over at Marginal Revolution has a new approach to government, which he calls State Capacity Libertarianism. You should read his 11 points which define the phrase for yourself, but here are the first two:

1. Markets and capitalism are very powerful, give them their due.

2. Earlier in history, a strong state was necessary to back the formation of capitalism and also to protect individual rights (do read Koyama and Johnson on state capacity). Strong states remain necessary to maintain and extend capitalism and markets. This includes keeping China at bay abroad and keeping elections free from foreign interference, as well as developing effective laws and regulations for intangible capital, intellectual property, and the new world of the internet. (If you’ve read my other works, you will know this is not a call for massive regulation of Big Tech.)

Do not, under any circumstances, read the comments.  I’m sure there are some intelligent criticisms and defenses in there somewhere, but they are thin on the ground.

Other libertarians are weighing in immediately on the topic, so I think this argument may have legs.  Despite the clunky name.

Mises Institute’s Jeff Deist, from George Mason. (Disagrees)
 Reason Magazine’s Nick Gillespie. (Disagrees but think it is a good starting place for discussion)
John E. Cochrane from Hoover Institution (Agrees in part)
Cameron Harwick SUNY-Brockport (Competing theory)
Henry Olsen Washington Post (Rejoices in all anticonservative aspects, can’t see possible problems on the liberal side. Predictable.)

Cowen links to an interesting discussion from someone who used to work for a Member of Parliament whether Boris’s man Dominic Cummings is an example of a state capacity libertarian.  He also mentions the upcoming book of another George Mason economist, Garrett Jones, 10% Less Democracy.  Jones is the author of Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own, which I read a positive review of when  it came out in 2015.

I am not going to weigh in at present, mostly because Cowen is not only smarter than I am, but he writes for other economists, using terms that I understand only superficially. It’s going to take me a bit to even figure out what is going on here. I confess I have an initial worry, that the desire to relent slightly on the idea of smaller government could easily snowball.  But Tyler Cowen has good libertarian credentials, so he has likely already thought of that.

That should keep you all busy for a while, so I won’t put up my other posts tonight, and maybe not tomorrow either.

5 thoughts on “State Capacity Libertarianism”

  1. If Dominic Cummings is the example of a proponent of this new-style dirigisme by the Best & Brightest in central government — then, No Thank You.

    Cummings seems to have become an idol to frustrated “Conservatives” in the UK. Their belief is he masterminded the Tory Party win in the recent election. However, the numbers show that Tory Party in reality gained few votes; instead, the Labour Party lost millions of votes, for reasons which can have nothing to do with Cummings. The Tories impressive majority in parliament is a reflection of the peculiarities on the UK electoral system — they got only 44% of the votes cast this time, a very minor increase over the 42% they got in the previous election without Cummings.

    The UK Conservative Party is now functionally a left-wing party — banning fracing; increasing spending on an admittedly very inefficient socialized medical system; promising all kinds of regulations, taxes, & subsidies to make the UK “Carbon Neutral”; borrowing massively for ill-considered infrastructure spending.

    Cummings is most likely from the same mold as Robert McNamara during the Vietnam war, and will probably be similarly unsuccessful at great cost to his nation.

  2. I read this when he first posted it, and just read it again, and I don’t really see what he’s trying to accomplish. I guess it’s interesting that a fairly big name is more or less decreeing the death of Libertarianism, but that’s not exactly breaking news. It’s been a rotting corpse for years now, and politically it is banished entirely to the wasteland, with the current political re-sorting that Trump both recognized and has been accelerating. And good riddance.

    Mr Longmuir: The goal of a political party is to win elections. That’s it. I don’t know exactly how much Cummings had to do with anything, but the Conservative Party just had its most successful election in a long time, so SOMEONE did something right. I don’t know exactly how you’d categorize yourself, but it doesn’t sound like your views would have done nearly as well. On the fracking thing, do the areas where fracking might be done in the UK overlap at all with the old coal mining areas that just went Tory? Could that be a means to try to make their switch from Labor permanent? It seems like the suburbs that are green-by-convenience in the Western world are probably so scared of the loony Corbynistas in charge of Labor that they wouldn’t be lost by such a move.

  3. Brian — I agree with you about the death (or non-birth?) of libertarianism. And we agree that the goal of a political party is to win elections — although the goal of winning elections should be simply Step One towards the real goal of implementing their chosen policies. When winning for winning’s sake becomes the only goal of a political party, we end up with an abomination like the current Democrat Party.

    Where I take exception to Cummings (or rather to the people who treat Cummings like a Messiah) is that the facts show he was simply lucky — in the right place at the right time to be given credit for a success which owed nothing to his efforts.

    For all Cummings machinations, the UK Tory party hardly picked up any votes. The success of the Tories was merely a consequence of the implosion of the Labour Party, which in turn seems to have been mainly because of that Party’s very unwise choice of Corbyn as leader — an action that had absolutely zero to do with Cummings.

    Cummings did not lay out a new path to political success. And his utterances seem to be very much in the mode of the Best & Brightest in a powerful centralized state telling the mass of peons what to do. He appears to have little interest in free markets, individual choice, and limited government. If Cummings is the poster boy for “State Capacity Libertarianism”, his followers are going to learn the meaning of the expression “False Prophet”.

  4. I prefer the concept of the Minimal State

    a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection.

    As for Cummings, I was browsing through his blog a month or two ago, and it’s a jumbled mishmash of synthetic macro-visualizing. About what you would expect I guess. He likes John Boyd, so that’s a plus. They probably share similar personalities. What it will all add up to for the UK, I still don’t know.

  5. I think I would conclude Cowen is wrong if I looked him over carefully.

    Two of his big ‘we need government’ causes are climate change and education. On climate change, I figure that anyone unwilling to consider the murder of all foreigners as a response to climate change is unserious about addressing climate change, to a degree that the issue doe snot merit any addressing. Government is a means of committing mass murder, but I do not have the impression that he is talking about implementing mass murder. Education, I evaluate government spending proposals in comparison to a) forcing mass homeschooling and b) child labor. If either of those would work better than public funding, than the public funding proposal in bankrupt. On education, I feel we need some serious reprisal against the teachers for their support for the Democrats in the 2018 election, (which might have been a local issue), and for various other things. I certainly do not think that the theoretical underpinnings of ‘improving scientific education’ are sound enough to automatically merit funding.

    I think I would not be impressed by Cummings if I looked him over carefully.

    I think management is a theoretically hard problem. The impression I got was of someone who loved the theory, but had a weak grasp of the limitations of the theory. The metaphor in terms of structures would be a guy talking about the theory of elastic deformation, and building a lot on that foundation, but never mentioning the possibility of plastic deformation. That is bad in even so theoretically straightforward a situation as solid mechanics. Might simply be that I haven’t paid Cummings enough mind to fairly evaluate him.

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