Religion & Liberty Online

Tyler Cowen’s “State Capacity Libertarianism”: A Straussian Reading

On a recent episode of the excellent podcast Conversations with Tyler the economist Tyler Cowen reflected on the direction his and co-author Alex Tabarrok’s blog Marginal Revolution has taken over the last ten years:

[I]n 2009 I was still experimenting in some fresh way with blogging as a new medium and what it meant. In some ways the blog was better then for that reason. Whereas now, Marginal Revolution, it’s a bit like, well, the Economist magazine plus a dose of me. And that’s a set formula. I don’t know that there’s that much more experimentation I can do or should be doing. Maybe that drains a little bit of energy out of it.

Since this podcast there has been a renewed vigor in the blog including impish post titles, invitations to collaboration with readers, and learned hot takes. What has gotten the most attention from readers was his first post of the New Year “What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism”.

There are many claims in the short essay with which I disagree. I agree with Bryan Caplan’s assessment that the term “State Capacity” is largely a tautological academic fad. I also find compelling both the major libertarian and conservative critiques of strong states summarized by Arnold Kling. I share with Richard Ebeling the conviction that the classical liberal ideal is still worth pursuing.

So why ring in the New Year with something Cowen himself readily admits he has been advocating for a long time? The key is in the opening paragraph where he argues that the “libertarian movement” is pretty much hollowed out. He believes this “hollowing out” has two principal causes:

For one thing, it doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.  For another, smart people are on the internet, and the internet seems to encourage synthetic and eclectic views, at least among the smart and curious.  Unlike the mass culture of the 1970s, it does not tend to breed “capital L Libertarianism.”

The first reason is one for which Cowen made an extended and subtle argument in his recent book Stubborn Attachments. These problems and Cowen’s arguments for government intervention to address them both deserve more serious attention than a blog post allows for. Government’s responsibility to promote the common good by maintaining the rule of law and preserving basic duties and rights is essential. Government intervention can be justified provided it is limited and respects the principle of subsidiarity and the roles, duties, and gifts of human persons and the various organic and institutional forms of our social life. In my estimation Cowen’s proposed “State Capacity Libertarianism” does this to a greater degree than our status quo public policy, socialism, or the various forms of right wing anti-liberalism on offer today.

Cowen’s actual public policy proposals are rather mild forms of center-right interventionism similar in scope although quite different in kind from Sen. Marco Rubio’s “Common Good Capitalism”. As Wilhelm Röpke reminds us, all interventionism is not created equal:

For although it is true that this system, when extensively applied, is dangerous and sometimes fatal, in small doses it is relatively harmless. We find it operative in an astonishingly large number of normal economic processes where it appears inopportune, for one reason or another, to use the price system in its pure form.

The reason for Cowen’s essay, this fresh presentation and branding, is to reach those smart eclectic people on the internet who seem disinterested in libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political ideology which people process the way they tend to process political issues. Cowen has in the past made the astute observation that,

…the real force behind a political ideology is the subconsciously held desire that a certain group of people should not be allowed to rise in relative status.

Might the same not be said of the force behind a group’s distaste for a political ideology? Are those smart eclectic people on the internet turned off by libertarianism not because of problems with libertarian policy proposals but rather because of a subconscious desire to lower the status of libertarians?

Might not the best reading of Cowen be the most Straussian? His case for “State Capacity Libertarianism” is actually a case for a politically pragmatic libertarianism tailor-made to a hostile audience.

Dan Hugger

Dan Hugger is Librarian and Research Associate at the Acton Institute.