The State Is a Predator. It Can’t Be Used to Achieve Libertarian Ends
Tyler Cowen, who is said to be “known as one of the libertarian world’s deepest thinkers,” recently wrote a blog post entitled “What Libertarianism Has Become and Will Become — State Capacity Libertarianism.” There, Cowen asserts that libertarianism “is now pretty much hollowed out,” because it has not been able to address an idiosyncratic list of problems ranging from climate change to improving K-12 education. Consequently, according to Cowen, “smart” classical liberals and libertarians “have evolved into a view, as if guided by an invisible hand.” This view Cowen dubs “State Capacity Libertarianism.“ (This name appears in bold font in the original post, seemingly belying Cowen’s claim that it is intended as an “entirely non-sticky name.”) According to Cowen those libertarians inexplicably passed over by the invisible hand of ideological enlightenment have drifted off into “Ron Paul-ism and less savory alt right directions.”
Cowen’s doctrine of State Capacity Libertarianism comprises eleven tenets encapsulated in a total of 719 words and, absent further elaboration, is surpassingly silly. The tenets are a hodgepodge of mundane facts, casual observations lacking supporting facts, and explicit or implicit value judgments postulated without argument. What State Capacity Libertarianism seems to boil down to in practice is the old-fashioned “mixed economy” as described by Paul Samuelson in a 1950s edition of his famous economics principles textbook. This is mixed with a heavy dose of nineteenth-century gunboat diplomacy to maintain the postwar Pax Americana, “extend capitalism and markets,” and “keep China at bay abroad.” Given Cowen’s prodigious intellectual reputation, this piece to me seems muddled and insubstantial and hardly warrants further discussion. (Jeff Deist has also provided a clear and concise refutation of Cowen’s main points.)
Cowen’s post, however, was clearly designed to provoke and boy, did it, with libertarians from every corner and outpost of the official movement and its borderlands weighing in (here, here, here, here, here, and here). Now these responses are very much worth discussing because they confirm Cowen’s contention that mainstream libertarianism has been “hollowed out”—although hardly in the sense that he intended. Let me offer just two examples, from individuals I greatly admire and respect as scholars, economists, and dedicated libertarians.
David Henderson, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, entitles his response “The Meaning of Libertarianism.” The title promises at least a brief elucidation of what in Henderson’s view are the core doctrines of libertarianism. Unfortunately, this is not forthcoming. Instead Henderson begins by embracing Cowen’s distinction between “smart libertarians” and unnamed others, presumably the dummies and the “unsavory.” However, contrary to Cowen, Henderson identifies smart libertarians with a few mainstream libertarian institutions. These comprise “three main organizations,” namely the Reason Foundation, the Cato Institute, and the Mercatus Center affiliated with George Mason University. Ironically, the director o
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