State Capacity and State Humility, 12/10
avoiding tyranny in a pandemic
the most draconian policy responses resulted from the failure of the state and national governments to prepare for a pandemic that had been predicted for decades prior to 2020. Secondly, the extraordinary power delegated to public health authorities during health emergencies makes the checks and balances provided by democratically elected, non-expert public officials more critical, not less. Third, when “radical uncertainty” exists—that is, when underlying probability distributions are unknown—the short-run temptation for public officials and public health experts to bluster is high. Yet blustering comes at the high cost of loss of public trust.
Tyler Cowen’s phrase “state-capacity libertarianism” seems offensive when you first look at it. But it has a basis in human nature.
The general public wants leaders to try to solve problems. And elites in positions of power want to be respected and admired. The net result is that when leaders do not have the solution to a problem, their incentive is to flail around, destroying liberty in the process.
As libertarians, we want to see leaders do less flailing. The more effective that leaders are at actually addressing problems, the less they will flail and the more liberty we will retain. That is the case for state capacity.
But there is also a case for state humility. We can have more liberty if leaders admit that there are limits to what they can accomplish. But this will only work if the public accepts such admissions. If instead the response to a humble leader is to turn to someone else who makes promises more, then we will get the tyrants that we ask for.