The Libertarian Movement Needs a Kick in the Pants

Tyler Cowen is wrong to champion "State Capacity Libertarianism," but he's right that advocates of free minds and free markets need to up our game.


In a provocative yet thoughtful manifesto, economist Tyler Cowen, a major figure in libertarian circles, offers a harsh assessment of his ideological confreres:

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.

As an antidote, Cowen champions what he calls "State Capacity Libertarianism," which holds that a large, growing government does not necessarily come at the expense of fundamental individual rights, pluralism, and the sort of economic growth that leads to continuously improved living standards. Most contemporary libertarians, he avers, believe that big government and freedom are fundamentally incompatible, to which he basically answers, Look upon Denmark and despair: "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."

In many ways, Cowen's post condenses his recent book Stubborn Attachments, in which he argues politics should be organized around respect for individual rights and limited government; policies that encourage long-term, sustainable economic growth; and an acknowledgement that some problems (particularly climate change) need to be addressed at the state rather than individual level. You can listen to a podcast I did with him here or read a condensed interview with him here. It's an excellent book that will challenge readers of all ideological persuasions. There's a ton to disagree with in it, but it's a bold, contrarian challenge to conventional libertarian attitudes, especially the idea that growth in government necessarily diminishes living standards.

I don't intend this post as a point-by-point critique of Cowen's manifesto, whose spirit is on-target but whose specifics are fundamentally mistaken. I think he's right that the internet and the broader diffusion of knowledge encourages ideological eclecticism and the creation of something like mass personalization when it comes to ideology. But this doesn't just work against "capital L Libertarianism." It affects all ideological movements, and it helps explain why the divisions within groups all over the political spectrum (including the Democratic and Republican parties) are becoming ever sharper and harsher. Everywhere around us, coalitions are becoming more tenuous and smaller. (This is not a bad thing, by the way, any more than the creation of new Christian sects in 17th-century England was a bad thing.) Nancy Pelosi's sharpest critics aren't from across the aisle but on her own side of it. Such a flowering of niches is itself libertarian.

Cowen is also misguided in his call for increasing the size, scope, and spending of government. "Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion," he writes, attributing such outcomes to "failures of state capacity"—both in terms of what the state can dictate and in terms of what it can spend. This is rather imprecise. Whatever your beliefs and preferences might be on a given issue, the scale (and cost) of addressing, say, climate change is massive compared to delivering basic education, and with the latter at least, there's no reason to believe that more state control or dollars will create positive outcomes. More fundamentally, Cowen conflates libertarianism with political and partisan identities, affiliations, and outcomes. I think a better way is to define libertarian less as a noun or even a fixed, rigid political philosophy and more as an adjective or "an outlook that privileges things such as autonomy, open-mindedness, pluralism, tolerance, innovation, and voluntary cooperation over forced participation in as many parts of life as possible." I'd argue that the libertarian movement is far more effective and appealing when it is cast in pre-political and certainly pre-partisan terms.

Be all that as it may, I agree that the libertarian movement is stalled in some profound ways. A strong sense of forward momentum—what Cowen calls flow—among self-described libertarians has definitely gone missing in the past few years, especially when it comes to national politics (despite the strongest showing ever by a Libertarian presidential nominee in 2016). From the 1990s up through a good chunk of the '00s, there was a general sense that libertarian attitudes, ideas, and policies were, if not ascendant, at least gaining mindshare, a reality that both energized libertarians and worried folks on the right and left. In late 2008, during the depths of the financial crisis and a massive growth of the federal government, Matt Welch and I announced the beginning of the "Libertarian Moment." This, we said, was

an early rough draft version of the libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick's glimmering "utopia of utopias." Due to exponential advances in technology, broad-based increases in wealth, the ongoing networking of the world via trade and culture, and the decline of both state and private institutions of repression, never before has it been easier for more individuals to chart their own course and steer their lives by the stars as they see the sky.

Our polemic, later expanded into the book The Declaration of Independents, was as much aspirational as descriptive, but it captured a sense that even as Washington was about to embark on a phenomenal growth spurt—continued and expanded by the Obama administration in all sorts of ways, from the creation of new entitlements to increases in regulation to expansions of surveillance—many aspects of our lives were improving. As conservatives and liberals went dark and apocalyptic in the face of the economic crisis and stalled-out wars and called for ever greater control over how we live and do business, libertarians brought an optimism, openness, and confidence about the future that suggested a different way forward. By the middle of 2014, The New York Times was even asking on the cover of its weekly magazine, "Has the 'Libertarian Moment Finally Arrived?"

That question was loudly answered in the negative as the bizarre 2016 presidential season got underway and Donald Trump appeared on the horizon like Thanos, blocking out the sun and destroying all that lay before him. By early 2016, George Will was looking upon the race between Trump and Hillary Clinton and declaring that we were in fact not in a libertarian moment but an authoritarian one, regardless of which of those monsters ended up in the White House. In front of 2,000 people gathered for the Students for Liberty's annual international conference, Will told Matt and me:

[Donald Trump] believes that government we have today is not big enough and that particularly the concentration of power not just in Washington but Washington power in the executive branch has not gone far enough….Today, 67 percent of the federal budget is transfer payments….The sky is dark with money going back and forth between client groups served by an administrative state that exists to do very little else but regulate the private sector and distribute income. Where's the libertarian moment fit in here?

With the 2020 election season kicking into high gear, apocalypticism on all sides will only become more intense than it already is. Presidential campaigns especially engender the short-term, elections-are-everything partisan thinking that typically gets in the way of selling libertarian ideas, attitudes, and policies.

Cowen is, I think, mostly right that the libertarian movement is not "really commanding new adherents," including among "educated women." He might add ethnic and racial minorities, too, who have never been particularly strongly represented in the libertarian movement. And, increasingly, younger Americans, who are as likely to have a positive view of socialism as they are of capitalism.

Of course, as I write this, I can think of all sorts of ways that libertarian ideas, policies, and organizations actually speak directly to groups not traditionally thought of libertarian (I recently gave $100 to Feminists for Liberty, a group that bills itself as "anti-sexism & anti-statism, pro-markets & pro-choice.") School choice, drug legalization, criminal justice reform, marriage equality, ending occupational licensing, liberalizing immigration, questioning military intervention, defending free expression—so much of what defines libertarian thinking has a natural constituency among audiences that we have yet to engage as successfully as we should. That sort of outreach, along with constant consideration of how libertarian ideas fit into an ever-changing world, is of course what Reason does on a daily basis.

All of us within the broadly defined libertarian movement need to do better. And in that sense at least, Cowen's manifesto is a welcome spur to redoubling efforts.