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. 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.” On top of all that, the out-migration from narrowly libertarian views has been severe, most of all from educated women.
There is also the word “classical liberal,” but what is “classical” supposed to mean that is not question-begging? The classical liberalism of its time focused on 19th century problems — appropriate for the 19th century of course — but from WWII onwards it has been a very different ballgame.
Along the way, 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. I favor much more immigration, nonetheless I think 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.
Those problems require state capacity — albeit to boost markets — in a way that classical libertarianism is poorly suited to deal with. Furthermore, libertarianism is parasitic upon State Capacity Libertarianism to some degree. For instance, even if you favor education privatization, in the shorter run we still need to make the current system much better. That would even make privatization easier, if that is your goal.
6. I will cite again the philosophical framework of my book Stubborn Attachments: A Vision for a Society of Free, Prosperous, and Responsible Individuals.
7. The fundamental growth experience of recent decades has been the rise of capitalism, markets, and high living standards in East Asia, and State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem or embarrassment in endorsing those developments. It remains the case that such progress (or better) could have been made with more markets and less government. Still, state capacity had to grow in those countries and indeed it did. Public health improvements are another major success story of our time, and those have relied heavily on state capacity — let’s just admit it.
8. The major problem areas of our time have been Africa and South Asia. They are both lacking in markets and also in state capacity.
9. State Capacity Libertarians are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats. Modern Democrats often claim to favor those items, and sincerely in my view, but de facto they are very willing to sacrifice them for redistribution, egalitarian and fairness concerns, mood affiliation, and serving traditional Democratic interest groups. For instance, modern Democrats have run New York for some time now, and they’ve done a terrible job building and fixing things. Nor are Democrats doing much to boost nuclear power as a partial solution to climate change, if anything the contrary.
10. State Capacity Libertarianism has no problem endorsing higher quality government and governance, whereas traditional libertarianism is more likely to embrace or at least be wishy-washy toward small, corrupt regimes, due to some of the residual liberties they leave behind.
11. State Capacity Libertarianism is not non-interventionist in foreign policy, as it believes in strong alliances with other relatively free nations, when feasible. That said, the usual libertarian “problems of intervention because government makes a lot of mistakes” bar still should be applied to specific military actions. But the alliances can be hugely beneficial, as illustrated by much of 20th century foreign policy and today much of Asia — which still relies on Pax Americana.
It is interesting to contrast State Capacity Libertarianism to liberaltarianism, another offshoot of libertarianism. On most substantive issues, the liberaltarians might be very close to State Capacity Libertarians. But emphasis and focus really matter, and I would offer this (partial) list of differences:
a. The liberaltarian starts by assuring “the left” that they favor lots of government transfer programs. The State Capacity Libertarian recognizes that demands of mercy are never ending, that economic growth can benefit people more than transfers, and, within the governmental sphere, it is willing to emphasize an analytical, “cold-hearted” comparison between government discretionary spending and transfer spending. Discretionary spending might well win out at many margins.
b. The “polarizing Left” is explicitly opposed to a lot of capitalism, and de facto standing in opposition to state capacity, due to the polarization, which tends to thwart problem-solving. The polarizing Left is thus a bigger villain for State Capacity Libertarianism than it is for liberaltarianism. For the liberaltarians, temporary alliances with the polarizing Left are possible because both oppose Trump and other bad elements of the right wing. It is easy — maybe too easy — to market liberaltarianism to the Left as a critique and revision of libertarians and conservatives.
c. Liberaltarian Will Wilkinson made the mistake of expressing enthusiasm for Elizabeth Warren. It is hard to imagine a State Capacity Libertarian making this same mistake, since so much of Warren’s energy is directed toward tearing down American business. Ban fracking? Really? Send money to Russia, Saudi Arabia, lose American jobs, and make climate change worse, all at the same time? Nope.
d. State Capacity Libertarianism is more likely to make a mistake of say endorsing high-speed rail from LA to Sf (if indeed that is a mistake), and decrying the ability of U.S. governments to get such a thing done. “Which mistakes they are most likely to commit” is an underrated way of assessing political philosophies.
You will note the influence of Peter Thiel on State Capacity Libertarianism, though I have never heard him frame the issues in this way.
Furthermore, “which ideas survive well in internet debate” has been an important filter on the evolution of the doctrine. That point is under-discussed, for all sorts of issues, and it may get a blog post of its own.
Here is my earlier essay on the paradox of libertarianism, relevant for background.
Happy New Year everyone!