State Capacity Libertarianism – an Update

I posted on this new topic of Tyler Cowan’s almost two week’s ago.  I have seen other commentary since then.  Law and Liberty had this mostly-negative take on the idea.

But my largest disagreement is that Tyler misses what is most problematic about modern libertarianism. In my view, modern libertarianism has too narrow a view of social harm and too limited a role for government in encouraging mediating institutions that help ameliorate such harms. Tyler underscores a certain obtuseness on this point by professing not to be able to understand the difference between classical liberalism and libertarianism, except that classical liberalism was a 19th-century philosophy suited to solving the problems of its times, but not ours.

It’s a thoughtful response. 

2 thoughts on “State Capacity Libertarianism – an Update”

  1. Good article for the most part. I would cautious about some of this. If the government concerned with encouraging certain kinds of virtuous associations were to grow too large and unaccountable, it could be steered for the purpose of encouraging certain kinds of unvirtuous associations. We start with the government trying to provide medical care of its people, and we end up with government agents forcing Catholic nuns to finance chemical abortions.

    It is not quite the case that the philosophy of classical liberalism isn’t suited to solve the problems of our times. The 19th century solutions themselves aren’t suited for our times. Their “energetic federal government” (or at least the appearance of it, I’m not convinced it was as prominent as that statement suggests) is not suited for our times.

    The philosophy, on the other hand, is still fine.

    The moral sentiments of classical liberalism are perfectly suitable for our times.

    Likewise, when we show concern for other people, we know that an impartial spectator would approve, and we take pleasure from it. The impartial spectator is only imaginary, but still guides us: and through experience we gradually build up a system of behavioural rules – morality.

    Punishments and rewards have an important social function. We approve and reward acts that benefit society, and disapprove and punish acts that harm it. Nature has equipped us with appetites and aversions that promote the continued existence of our species and our society. It is almost as if an invisible hand were guiding what we do.

    The exact nature of the invisible hand that is the basis of moral actions is and always will be a mystery to us, but we can be sure that it will never be duplicated here on earth by the state. The best we can hope to do is maintain the faith that it is indeed there, and live in reconciliation and accordance with the world that results from its guidance.

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