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!
My picks and Trump and Greta Thunberg, in that order, as explained in my latest Bloomberg column. Excerpt:
My choice for second place is Greta Thunberg. In little more than a year, Thunberg has moved from being an unheard-of 16-year-old Swedish girl to Time’s Person of the Year. While she is now a social media phenomenon, her initial ascent was driven by her public speaking. Communication is quite simply what she does.
As a public speaker, Thunberg is memorable. The unusual prosody of autistic voices is sometimes considered a disadvantage, but she has turned her voice and her extreme directness into an unforgettably bracing style. She communicates urgency and moral seriousness on climate change at a time when the world is not taking decisive action. She mixes anger and condemnation with the look of a quite innocent young girl. Her Swedish version of a British accent is immediately recognizable. There is usually no one else in the room who looks or acts like her.
Her core speech she can give in about five minutes, perfect for an age of limited attention spans. She speaks in short, clipped phrases, each one perfect word-for-word. It is easy to excerpt discrete sentences on social media or on television.
As for memorable phrases, how about these: “I don’t want your hope.” “Did you hear what I just said?” “I want you to panic.” And of course: “How dare you? You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words.”
These days, you can simply say the name “Greta” in many parts of the world, and people will know who you are referring to.
You will note that under the formal DSM definition of autism, deficits in communication are a fundamental feature of the condition — perhaps that should be changed? Greta uses the term “selective mutism” in describing herself, but clearly the actual reality is more than just a simple deficit, rather an uneven pattern with very high peaks. As I wrote in the column, communicating is what she does.
One other point — I frequently hear or read people charge that Greta is being manipulated by her parents. I have no real knowledge of the Thunberg family, but in the research literature on prodigies it is clear that virtually all of those who have achieved something early had quite extreme self-motivation, a common feature of autism I might add.
The role that YouTube and its behind-the-scenes recommendation algorithm plays in encouraging online radicalization has been suggested by both journalists and academics alike. This study directly quantifies these claims by examining the role that YouTube’s algorithm plays in suggesting radicalized content. After categorizing nearly 800 political channels, we were able to differentiate between political schemas in order to analyze the algorithm traffic flows out and between each group. After conducting a detailed analysis of recommendations received by each channel type, we refute the popular radicalization claims. To the contrary, these data suggest that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm actively discourages viewers from visiting radicalizing or extremist content. Instead, the algorithm is shown to favor mainstream media and cable news content over independent YouTube channels with slant towards left-leaning or politically neutral channels. Our study thus suggests that YouTube’s recommendation algorithm fails to promote inflammatory or radicalized content, as previously claimed by several outlets.
That is from a new paper by Mark Ledwich and Anna Zaitsev. That hardly settles the matter, but you may recall the last serious papers on this topic also indicated that YouTube does not radicalize. So if you are still believing that YouTube radicalizes, you will need to come up with additional facts for your point of view.
Nearly 25 years later, the internet’s full power remains relatively unknown to many people on the island, but its evolution has made Tuvalu’s .tv domain one of its most valuable resources. Thanks to the rise of livestreamed programming and competitive video gaming, Tuvalu earns about 1/12th of its annual gross national income (GNI) from licensing its domain to tech giants like Amazon-owned streaming platform Twitch through the Virginia-based company Verisign. And in 2021, when Tuvalu’s contract with Verisign expires, that percentage figures to push significantly higher…
Here is the full story, there are about 11,000 Tuvaluns. For the pointer I thank Shaffin.
Via Bloomberg, here is one bit:
Consider the 10 best-selling books of the decade. All have female protagonists, and the top seven are authored by women. (“Fifty Shades of Grey” and its sequels take the top three spots, with three others having the word “Girl” in the title.)
The feminization of our culture is for me trend number one. Next in line is screens:
They simply convey more interesting narratives than most of the other spaces in our lives.
There is much more at the link.
The students who deviate from those day-to-day campus rhythms are flagged for anomalies, and the company then alerts school officials in case they want to pursue real-world intervention.
But don’t worry:
Carter said he doesn’t like to say the students are being “tracked,” because of its potentially negative connotations; he prefers the term “monitored” instead. “It’s about building that relationship,” he said, so students “know you care about them.”
Here is the full WaPo story by Drew Harwell.
Eric and his team describe it as follows:
In this episode, Eric sits down with Tyler Cowen to discuss how/why a Harvard educated chess prodigy would choose a commuter school to launch a stealth attack on the self-satisfied economic establishment, various forms of existential risk, tech/social stagnation and more. On first glance, Tyler Cowen is an unlikely candidate for America’s most influential economist. Since 2003, Cowen has grown his widely read and revered economics blog Marginal Revolutions with lively thought, insight and prose resulting in a successful war of attrition against traditional thinking. In fact, his well of heterodox thinking is so deep that there is an argument to be made that Tyler may be the living person with the most diverse set of original rigorous opinions to be found in any conversation. The conversation takes many turns and is thus hard to categorize. We hope you enjoy it.
The question, for me, is whether these repeated crises of authority at the national level represent a systemic failure. After all, the disorders of 2019 are the latest installment in a familiar tale. Governments long ago yielded control of the information sphere to the public, and the political landscape, ever since, has been in a state of constant perturbation. From the euphoria and subsequent horrors of the Arab Spring in 2011, through the improbable electoral victories of Brexit and Donald Trump in 2016, to last year’s violence by the Yellow Vests of France, we ought to have learned, by this late hour, to anticipate instability and uncertainty. We should expect to be surprised…
This would be a good time to bring up the pessimistic hypothesis. It holds that the loss of control over information must be fatal to modern government as a system: the universal spread of revolt can be explained as a failure cascade, driving that system inexorably toward disorganization and reconfiguration. Failure cascades can be thought of as negative virality. A local breakdown leads to the progressive loss of higher functions, until the system falls apart. This, in brief, is why airplanes crash and bridges collapse.
For systems that are dynamic and complex, like human societies, outcomes are a lot more mysterious. A failure cascade of revolts (the hypothesis) will knock the institutions of modern government ever further from equilibrium, until the entire structure topples into what Alicia Juarrero calls “phase change”: a “qualitative reconfiguration of the constraints” that gave the failed system its peculiar character. In plain language, the old regime is overthrown – but at this stage randomness takes charge, and what emerges on the far side is, in principle, impossible to predict. I can imagine a twenty-first century Congress of Vienna of the elites, in which Chinese methods of information control are adopted globally, and harsh punishment is meted out, for the best of reasons, to those who speak out of turn. But I can also envision a savage and chaotic Time of Troubles, caused by a public whose expectations have grown impossibly utopian. The way Juarrero tells it, “[T]here is no guarantee that any complex system will reorganize.”
Do read the whole thing.
John Perry Barlow, who passed away in 2018, penned two influential essays early in the web’s evolution A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace and Selling Wine Without Bottles: The Economy of Mind on the Global Net. It’s easy in retrospect to make fun of some of Barlow’s claims:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.
or how about this painfully wrong prediction?
We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.
But as Cindy Cohn notes in Inventing the Future: Barlow and Beyond:
In talking about the Declaration at Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) many years later, Barlow admitted that when he stepped out of a party at Davos to write it, he was both a little drunk and trying desperately to channel Thomas Jefferson. So maybe some of the sweeping rebukes are just trying to match his original bravado.
Moreover, Barlow was not nearly as utopian as one might imagine. He was, after all, one of the founders (in 1990!) of the Electronic Frontier Foundation which has worked to make the words true.
The symposium is of mixed quality. Cory Doctorow’s contribution is quarrelsome and weak. James Boyle’s overview and description of the WWW, however, is excellent:
Berners-Lee imagined a republic of ideas built on a vision of language.The whole thing had a whiff of Harry Potter magic.To click on the hyperlink was to summon its referent.The name was the magical command for the presence of the resource, as though every footnote animated itself, went to the library and brought you back the relevant book. To write a web page was to build a transporter of the mind. The link was a reference to the resource, a map to the place where the resource was held and a vehicle to take you there. Each new document wove the network a little wider and tighter. That’s why they called it the world wide web. And its architecture was “distributed.” Anyone could build the web—as if we could all wander outside our houses and build the Eisenhower freeways of the mind ourselves, draw the maps that chronicled those freeways, assemble the cars that traveled along them and then construct the libraries, bookstores, shops, coffee houses and red light districts to which they journeyed. All done through a decentralized process that required neither governmental permission, nor authentication of your content—for better or worse. Better and worse.
What the past quarter century has taught us is that there are five basic failure modes of commons-based strategies to construct more attractive forms of social relations.
- Companies and countries can usually sustain focused strategic efforts for longer and more actively than distributed networks of users…
- Distributed social relations can themselves develop internal hierarchies and inequities (the Iron Law of Oligarchy)…
- Distributed open communications have provided enormous play for genuinely hateful and harmful behavior, such that we find ourselves seeking some power to control the worst abuses—the power of the platforms we want to hold democratically accountable, or the power of countries to regulate those platforms for us…
- More fundamentally, as long as we live in a society where people have to make money to eat and keep a roof over their heads, markets produce stuff we really like and want. For all the broad complaints about Amazon, it has produced enormous consumer welfare. More directly, for all the romanticization of fan videos and remix, the emergence of subscription streaming services like Netflix and Amazon Prime has been a boon to professional video creators and underwritten a golden age of professional video entertainment and narrative, both fiction and non-fiction.
- States are still necessary to counter market power, provide public goods on a sustained and large-scale basis by using coercive taxing and spending powers, redistribute wealth,and provide basic social and economic security for the majority of the population.
The symposium is here.
That is the topic of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:
Focus on whether the merchandise contributes to further understanding, one way or another, rather than whether it might embody evil.
This principle runs counter to how the world of social media works, I realize. “Cancel culture” tends to issue decisions based on the worst aspects of a product, writer or public figure, because that is what is endlessly circulated and condemned. But there is another way of thinking about the problem — namely, by focusing on the positive.
It is still possible, for example, to buy Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” on Amazon, either through third-party merchants or Amazon itself. That book is more offensive than an Auschwitz bottle opener, as it directly calls for the extermination of the Jews and the conquest of Europe, and it probably still inspires neo-Nazis today. Nonetheless, I hope “Mein Kampf” continues to be for sale.
For all of its evil, “Mein Kampf” is an essential document for understanding the rise of Nazism and Hitler. As such, it should be allowed in spite of its potential downside. There is both intrinsic and utilitarian value in maximizing public access to as much knowledge as possible.
In contrast, it is hard to argue that an Auschwitz-themed mouse pad has anything positive to offer, whether to our historical knowledge or otherwise. At best, it is an act of obnoxious trolling and thus it was appropriate for Amazon to take it down.
It is fine to watch Leni Riefenstahl and listen to Richard Strauss, for instance. But most private platforms — if they can — should ban sheer trolls.
From my new paper with Ben Southwood on whether the rate of progress in science is diminishing:
Similarly, the tech sector of the American economy still isn’t as big as many people think. The productivity gap has meant that measured GDP is about fifteen percent lower than it would have been under earlier rates of productivity growth. But if you look say about the tech sector in 2004, it is only about 7.7 percent of GDP (since the productivity slowdown is ongoing, picking a more recent and larger number is not actually appropriate here). A mismeasurement of that tech sector just doesn’t seem nearly large enough to fill in for the productivity gap. You might argue in response that “today the whole economy is incorporating tech,” but that doesn’t seem to work either. For one thing, recent tech incorporations typically involve goods and services that are counted in GDP. Furthermore, there is a problem of timing, namely that the U.S. productivity slowdown dates back to 1973, and that is perhaps the single biggest problem for trying to attribute this gap mainly to under-measured innovations in the tech sector.
Other research looks at “worst case” scenarios from the mismeasurement of welfare adjustments in consumer price deflators and finds a similar result: a significant effect that nonetheless does not reverse the judgement that innovation has been slowing.
The most general point of relevance here is simply that price deflator bias has been with productivity statistics since the beginning, and if anything the ability of those numbers to adjust for quality improvements may have increased with time. For instance, the research papers do not find that the mismeasurement has risen in the relevant period. You might think the introduction of the internet is still undervalued in measured GDP, but arguably the introduction of penicillin earlier in the 20th century was undervalued further yet. The market prices for those doses of penicillin probably did not reflect the value of the very large number of lives saved. So when we are comparing whether rates of progress have slowed down over time, and if we wish to salvage the performance of more recent times, we still need an argument that quality mismeasurement has increased over time. So far that case has not been made, and if you believe that the general science of statistics has made some advances, the opposite is more likely to be true, namely that mismeasurement biases are narrowing to some extent.
You will find citations and footnotes in the original. Here is my first post on whether the productivity gains from the internet are understated.
From my new paper with Ben Southwood on whether the rate of scientific progress is slowing down:
Third, we shouldn’t expect mismeasured GDP simply from the fact that the internet makes many goods and services cheaper. Spotify provides access to a huge range of music, and very cheaply, such that consumers can listen in a year to albums that would have cost them tens of thousands of dollars in the CD or vinyl eras. Yet this won’t lead to mismeasured GDP. For one thing, the gdp deflator already tries to capture these effects. But even if those efforts are imperfect, consider the broader economic interrelations. To the extent consumers save money on music, they have more to spend or invest elsewhere, and those alternative choices will indeed be captured by GDP. Another alternative (which does not seem to hold for music) is that the lower prices will increase the total amount of money spent on recorded music, which would mean a boost in recorded GDP for the music sector alone. Yet another alternative, more plausible, is that many artists give away their music on Spotify and YouTube to boost the demand for their live performances, and the increase in GDP shows up there. No matter how you slice the cake, cheaper goods and services should not in general lower measured GDP in a way that will generate significant mismeasurement.
Moving to the more formal studies, the Federal Reserve’s David Byrne, with Fed & IMF colleagues, finds a productivity adjustment worth only a few basis points when attempting to account for the gains from cheaper internet age and internet-enabled products. Work by Erik Brynjolfsson and Joo Hee Oh studies the allocation of time, and finds that people are valuing free Internet services at about $106 billion a year. That’s well under one percent of GDP, and it is not nearly large enough to close the measured productivity gap. A study by Nakamura, Samuels, and Soloveichik measures the value of free media on the internet, and concludes it is a small fraction of GDP, for instance 0.005% of measured nominal GDP growth between 1998 and 2012.
Economist Chad Syverson probably has done the most to deflate the idea of major unmeasured productivity gains through internet technologies. For instance, countries with much smaller tech sectors than the United States usually have had comparably sized productivity slowdowns. That suggests the problem is quite general, and not belied by unmeasured productivity gains. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, the productivity slowdown is quite large in scale, compared to the size of the tech sector. Using a conservative estimate, the productivity slowdown implies a cumulative loss of $2.7 trillion in GDP since the end of 2004; in other words, output would have been that much higher had the earlier rate of productivity growth been maintained. If unmeasured gains are to make up for that difference, that would have to be very large. For instance, consumer surplus would have to be five times higher in IT-related sectors than elsewhere in the economy, which seems implausibly large.
You can find footnotes and references in the original. Here is my earlier post on the paper.
I was 11 years old when I asked my mum for piano lessons, in 2010. We were in the fallout of the recession and she’d recently been made redundant. She said a polite “no”.
That didn’t deter me. I Googled the dimensions of a keyboard, drew the keys on to a piece of paper and stuck it on my desk. I would click notes on an online keyboard and “play” them back on my paper one – keeping the sound they made on the computer in my head. After a while I could hear the notes in my head while pressing the keys on the paper. I spent six months playing scales and chord sequences without touching a real piano. Once my mum saw it wasn’t a fad, she borrowed some money from family and friends, and bought me 10 lessons.
I still remember the first one. I was struck by how organic the sound of the piano was, as I had become familiar with the artificial electronic sound. The teacher tried to explain where middle C was but I could already play all the major and minor scales, as well as tonic and dominant functions, and the circle of fifths.
Here is the full story by Andrew Garrido. Via Ian Leslie.
The site may be down for a bit, or posts might not appear at the usual time, I am genuinely not sure. Or thing might just be totally normal. But apologies in advance for any service interruption.
It is the same material as already released by Facebook, here is our audio and transcript, you will find our transcript easier to read. Self-recommending!