Tyler Cowen used to be a libertarian. He still has a soft spot in his heart for the idea of liberty, but he no longer believes that universal freedom actually solves many real-world problems. But because of that soft spot, he wants to refer to his current political philosophy as ‘libertarian.’ So, in a recent and much-shared blog post, he prefixes to that old, beloved moniker a new modifier, ‘State Capacity’:

I believe the smart classical liberals and libertarians have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.  I define State Capacity Libertarianism in terms of a number of propositions:

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.)

3. A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state.  A good strong state should see the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties, in many cases its #1 duty.

4. Rapid increases in state capacity can be very dangerous (earlier Japan, Germany), but high levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical.  Denmark should in fact have a smaller government, but it is still one of the freer and more secure places in the world, at least for Danish citizens albeit not for everybody.

5. Many of the failures of today’s America are failures of excess regulation, but many others are failures of state capacity.  Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending.  Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality. 

Tyler Cowen, first five (or four and a half) of eleven listed points in “What libertarianism has become and will become — State Capacity Libertarianism,” Marginal Revolution, January 1, 2020.

Professor Cowen began his piece with this declaration: “Having tracked the libertarian ‘movement’ for much of my life, I believe it is now pretty much hollowed out, at least in terms of flow.  One branch split off into Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt right directions, and another, more establishment branch remains out there in force but not really commanding new adherents.” This is the old ‘plumb-line’/‘beltway libertarian’ split, often talked about, but with the ‘alt right’ aspersion cast in, as if its “unsavoriness” were obvious and obviously wrong, and somehow worse than the obviously non-libertarian technically limited statism Cowen is pushing from his beltway security at George Mason University. It is worth noting that Cowen addresses the apparent “alt right’ concern, in that he wants “much more immigration” but “nonetheless” thinks “our government needs clear standards for who cannot get in, who will be forced to leave, and a workable court system to back all that up and today we do not have that either.” I bet most unsavory libertarians would agree.

There is something rather sad about all this, and I am not talking about Cowen’s later-in-life drift from libertarianism — we have been seeing this coming for decades. The sadness is seeing him fall for idiocies like the anthropogenic global warming catastrophism. He laments that ‘it doesn’t seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.” A free society would easier address climate change by allowing people to adapt better. How so? They would not take it as a government mandate that every crop must be saved in every spot, every beachfront saved as it now is, and all peoples must stay put, unless subsidized to move.

Though I suppose he is really thinking that messianic thought; micromanage the macro-climate! Insane.

Actually, there may be evidence here that Cowen is most moved by the fact — which Mencken and Mises knew better — that liberty is losing in the marketplace of ideas. Cowen says that “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.”  On top of all that, the out-migration from narrowly libertarian views has been severe, most of all from educated women.” Another witless interpretation on Cowen’s — and one that he should understand, since he was part of the movement he is talking about. Way back when. The 1970s didn’t breed a large movement of “capital L libertarians,” it merely bred a vibrant tribe of extremely inquisitive and culturally daring individualists. Like Cowen — and, for that matter, me. But we were a small batch. The Net ‘is producing,’ today, far more of us. It is also ‘producing’ a lot more of non-libertarians.

And of course women tend not to be interested, because how our current transfer state policies affects women is very different from how it affects men. I see little indication that Cowen wishes to pull at that thread. I am sure he would see it as “unsavory.”

I am shaking my head, sadly. Especially so since no small part of the commentary on this piece has been so . . . inadequate.

Now, I do not mind a person thinking liberty irrelevant. We can argue. But libertarianism developed to place the State under the same chains as individuals, the ‘chains’ being a rule of law prohibiting the initiation of force. ‘State Capacity Libertarianism’ is conceivable only in the Meinongian sense of ‘round square’ and ‘golden mountain.’