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.
Your post could be condensed down to "we will get the tyrants that we ask for." The general public asks for tyrants, and you and I will get them, willy-nilly.
Good timing, I was listening to your Econtalk on state capacity libertarianism, and I had a few more burrs to work out.
1: What's the answer when the state simply cannot do something well, but people want the state to do it anyway? If the only answer is "Do it as least bad as possible" then getting back to the simple "Just keep the state out of things" seems to be a better road. Simply giving up on convincing people that the government should be limited is going to be a losing position.
2: How does a COO or other government official in charge of things know if the agency in question is doing things as well as they could? How can they prove how much better the CDC should have done?
State Capacity Libertarianism falls prey to the knowledge problem inherent when you don't have competition. In your interview you skipped over the important step in why competition works in markets: competitors show up, find better ways of doing X, then people move their business to them when they see there are better ways. A single agency or service provider (e.g. Comcast) can be truly awful and people put up with it because there is not only no alternative, but also because they don't realize it doesn't have to be that awful. Who does the Federal Reserve get compared to? How does one report on how much better the COVID business would have been if the CDC didn't fall down on the job? What competitor do you learn from?
3: If you can't convince the people to stop wanting the government to do stupid things, how do you convince the people to choose the right people to get the government to stop doing things stupidly? How do you get a government COO that isn't a party hack, another Faucci, someone who decides DIE is the most important thing the government can do, etc.? What's the mechanism for that?