Tyler Cowen on "State Capacity Libertarianism" II: Is it the Right Path for Libertarians to Follow?

In the second of two posts on Tyler Cowen's idea, I assess whether state capacity libertarianism is the right path for libertarians to follow.


In my last post on economist Tyler Cowen's case for "state capacity libertarianism" (SCL), I took issue with Tyler's claim that SCL is the wave of the future among "smart" libertarians. In this one, I focus on the more important issue of whether SCL is actually a good idea. Regardless of whether SCL is popular among libertarians now, should they adopt it? Here's why my answer is a qualified "no."

Before going into greater detail, it's worth asking exactly what Tyler means by "state capacity." He does not provide a very clear definition. But it seems to me that his SCL theory differs from more conventional libertarianism in so far as it focuses on increasing and improving the capabilities of government, including in at least some substantial areas that most other libertarians would argue should simply be left to the private sector. To the extent that SCL simply means improving government's ability to perform those functions that even traditional libertarians (with the notable exception of anarchists) believe government should carry out, there is little difference between Tyler's theory and other types of libertarianism.

Unfortunately, Tyler fails to specify how we measure the type of "capacity" he considers important, and also how we draw the line between issues where the right approach is improving state capacity and those where we should still aim to keep the state out (which might actually require reducing capacity, or at least keeping it more limited).

This lack of clarity is part of a more general problem with state capacity theory that goes well beyond Tyler's piece. As critics like Bryan Caplan and Vincent Geloso and Alex Salter, point out, state capacity theorists have not done a good job of differentiating cases where state capacity is the cause of good outcomes from those where it is a result of them (e.g.—a state in a wealthier society has more capacity than one in a poor society, even if the state did little to create that wealth). In addition, greater capacity means an increased ability to do evil as well as good, which is a highly relevant consideration when we are talking about institutions that can regulate, imprison, and kill people.

Until state capacity theorists do a better job of sorting out these baseline issues, we should be wary of making state capacity a central element of libertarianism—or, indeed, any other liberal political theory. These problems may not be insuperable. But they do require better answers than state capacity advocates have given us so far.

While Tyler does not give us a general definition of SCL, he does present a number of specific propositions he associates with it. Some are criticisms of conventional libertarianism, while others present more of an affirmative agenda. Here, I consider several that seem distinctive to SCL. Thus, I pass over some that are likely to be endorsed by libertarians of any stripe (e.g.—"Markets and capitalism are very powerful, give them their due").

[I]t doesn't seem that old-style libertarianism can solve or even very well address a number of major problems, most significantly climate change.

I don't claim libertarianism can solve all the world's ills, or even come close to doing so. But, looking at some of the greatest evils and injustices out there, I see many that libertarianism is very well-equipped to handle. Consider such issues as immigration restrictions that inflict massive injustices on both immigrants and natives (and make the whole world far poorer than it could be), zoning rules that bar millions of Americans from housing and job opportunities, looming fiscal crises that afflict many Western democracies (including the US), the War on Drugs that blights the lives of many thousands every year, a government too large and complicated for effective democratic accountability, and the undermining of the rule of law by the expansion of criminal law and regulation to the point where almost everyone can be charged with something.

In each of these areas, there are enormous gains to be had simply by having government engage in less of the activity that is causing the problem to begin with. Moreover, none requires the achievement of any kind of libertarian Utopia. Incremental reforms in a more libertarian direction can still achieve a lot. Even if we can't get to open borders, we can radically transform the lives of hundreds of thousands of people for the better simply by increasing the amount of legal immigration into the US by, say, 10%. Even if we cannot abolish the entire War on Drugs, we can greatly reduce the amount of suffering it causes through legalizing just some of those drugs that are currently banned. Even if we cannot follow the example of Houston and have no zoning at all, we can liberalize zoning at the margin and thereby provide new housing and job opportunities for many thousands of people. And so on.

And none of these incremental reforms require much, if any, state capacity that doesn't already exist. A government that can zone, restrict immigration, and wage a War on Drugs at current levels, is fully capable of doing, say, 10 or 20 percent less of each of these things. Admittedly, there are some situations where a kind of state capacity can be useful in mitigating transition problems through "keyhole solutions." But these, too, rarely require capabilities Western democracies currently lack.

Tyler is right to highlight climate change as a problem for libertarians, one that too many of us have preferred to deny or ignore. However, libertarian environmental law experts, such as the VC's own Jonathan Adler, have in fact developed solid proposals to address the issue, such as a revenue neutral carbon tax, prizes for relevant technological innovations, and expanding the use of nuclear power. These ideas are not fool-proof. But they have fewer risks than the command-and-control approaches favored by many more conventional environmentalists, which threaten to massively expand government control over the economy and create grave risks for freedom and prosperity. I don't know if libertarian approaches to climate change can "fix" the problem at an acceptable cost. But the same is even more true of the solutions offered by adherents of other ideologies. For example, it isn't clear that anyone has proposed an effective way to incentivize large developing nations like China and India to greatly reduce their projected carbon emissions. The issue is indeed a difficult challenge for libertarians—but also for everyone else.

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.

I don't especially like the term "classical liberal" and it may indeed be question-begging. But Tyler is wrong to think that 19th century liberalism was only "appropriate for the 19th century." To the contrary, there is much that modern libertarians can learn from our forbears. Among other things, nineteenth-century liberals fought against protectionism, ethnic nationalism, slavery and other forms of forced labor, and government intervention that rewards favored interest groups and suppresses competition. All of these remain among our most serious challenges today. That includes even forced labor, which is still widely practiced by authoritarian regimes, and which some even in the US seek to revive through mandatory "national service." The French government recently imposed mandatory national service on all citizens when they turn 16.

Nineteenth century liberals also created successful mass movements in opposition to slavery and protectionism. It seems to me that modern libertarians (who have been far less effective in reaching the general public) could learn a great deal from these movements and apply some of the lessons to the present day (I give one example here).

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….

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….

Rapid increases in state capacity can be very dangerous (earlier Japan, Germany), but high levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical.

Much here depends on exactly what is meant by a "strong state." If it means a state effective within some range of functions, then few libertarians (anarchists, again, excepted) would deny its value. If it means a generally "strong" state with the ability to control most aspects of society, that's a very different proposition. Moreover, most of these points are subject to the problems with the concept of "state capacity" already discussed above, particularly the point that state capacity is often the result of positive social developments rather than their cause. I would add that even if "[a] good strong state" should see "the maintenance and extension of capitalism as one of its primary duties," it doesn't follow that it actually will. To the contrary, the more power the state has, the greater the temptation for politicians to misuse it, especially in a context where they are appealing to poorly informed voters. Moreover, the more areas a strong state can control, the harder it is for voters to keep track of all of its activities and monitor and punish potential abuses of power.

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….. 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.

Most of this strikes me as wrong. The problems with education, traffic congestion, and discretionary spending are not a lack of "capacity" but a combination of inherent flaws of government and poor incentives. If the libertarian diagnosis of the problems with public education is correct, the way to improvement is not trying to "make the current system much better," but increasing competition and choice through privatization. Indeed, the failures of the status quo are one of the main driving forces behind the school choice movement. If we really could make the system much better without privatization and choice, there would be far less reason to do the latter.

Similarly, the best way to make the immigration system much better is to simply reduce restrictions and let more people in. Even if "standards" are no clearer than they are now, and even if the quality of immigration courts doesn't improve, that would still give large numbers of people (both immigrants and natives) greater freedom and opportunity than they have now. Moreover, making legal immigration easier is actually the simplest way to alleviate pressure on courts and other state institutions at the border. Privatization is also a good strategy for alleviating traffic congestion through peak toll pricing, since the main obstacle to this simple reform is public ignorance.

There is a kernel of truth to Tyler's claim that "libertarianism is parasitic upon State Capacity Libertarianism to some degree."

If government is completely incapable of doing anything right, then it cannot fulfill even the basic functions that most libertarians want it to do. But, at this point in history, it doesn't seem like the US and other Western democracies lack the capacity to do such things as provide a modicum of security and public goods. Rather, the problem is that our governments are engaging in way too many other functions, many of which are both harmful in themselves and divert resources away from the things that government should do. For example, the War on Drugs and immigration enforcement massively divert law enforcement personnel away from combating violent and property crime.

I don't deny that there are cases where harmful government policies can be made less so without libertarian reforms (even if abolition or reduction of government intervention in these fields would be better still). But I'm not convinced that focusing on such reforms is a productive activity for libertarians. There is no shortage of non-libertarian policy experts working on incremental improvements to state institutions. The comparative advantage of libertarians (at least in most cases) is identifying ways to make improvements by reducing government intervention. Where the best available solution lies elsewhere, we can usually rely on non-libertarians to find it on their own.

Things might be different in a world where libertarians are much more numerous and influential than we are today. In that world, it would make sense for a substantial proportion of libertarian resources to be devoted to finding improvements in policy that do not involve shrinking government power. Indeed, in that world, a much higher percentage of government activities would be ones that can be justified even on libertarian grounds, so it would be harder to find improvements by cutting back the role of the state. But we are very far from that point today.

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.

I actually agree with most of what Tyler says in this passage. For reasons I spelled out here, I am not as dovish as most other libertarians are. And we do need strong alliances with other relatively liberal nations to counter the dangerous illiberal forces in the world.

That said, the US and other liberal democracies would have more resources available for these purposes if they weren't doing so many other things. If, as Tyler puts it, conventional libertarianism is parasitic on "state capacity," then state capacity to do good is also parasitic on libertarianism, in the sense that it needs tight limits on government power to prevent the state from squandering public resources on wasteful and harmful projects. Tyler's stricture about the need for a relatively high bar for military intervention is also well-taken.

In sum, I remain largely unpersuaded by Tyler's normative case for SCL. But I do want to commend him for kicking off a valuable discussion, which has already attracted multiple thoughtful responses to his original post (I linked to several here). Very few blog posts stimulate high-quality public discussion as as much as Tyler did with this one. While he may not have persuaded me of the merits of "state capacity," he has effectively demonstrated the blogosphere's capacity to produce valuable discourse, even in an era when blogs sometimes seem obsolete, due to the rise of crude and superficial social media.

UPDATE: As before, I am happy to commit to posting any response Tyler cares to make to either this post or my previous one on this subject.

NEXT: Today in Supreme Court History: January 19, 1990

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  1. That government is best which governs least. Full stop.

    1. In general yes. The two things that make government so dangerous are the printing press and criminal laws. So in general we should want as few criminal laws as necessary—I’m looking at you drugs laws. Next is the printing press—so state governments did a great job with public universities and then around 2000 the federal government allowed student loans to get out of control by just printing away!?!

      1. Governments were dangerous long before the invention of the printing press. From what I can tell, they have not become significantly more (or less) dangerous since.

        Based on your comment about student loans, I think you are really saying that, in addition to it’s powers over criminal laws, government is dangerous because it controls (and can adulterate) the money supply. And that I would agree with.

        1. Would you prefer a system of private currencies, created by banks, say?

          That’s hardly risk-free.

          1. Seems to me to be less risk because if one bank tries to inflate its currency, it will be regulated by all the other banks when they settle payments every night. Right now the government can inflate the money supply pretty much at will.

    2. CD, that’s a perfectly fine cliche, but I’m not sure the facts on the ground bear it out. There really is less elder poverty thanks to social security. There really are fewer children going to bed hungry thanks to AFDC. Personally, I like requiring that food be properly labeled so I know what I’m ingesting and also know that it won’t be adulterated, and I’m also fine with child labor laws.

      That does not mean that everything government does is good; I agree with you that the war on drugs is evil incarnate. But to just knee-jerk “Big gummint bad, free markets good” puts in mind a comment from JFK: “For every complex problem, there is a simple solution that’s wrong.”

      1. Social Security’s regressive tax hurts the poor more than it helps. If what you mean to say is “Forced saving results in more savings than no saving”, say so, but don’t forget to add “Voluntary saving results in more savings than forced saving.”

        You personally like incompetent food labels; great, now what gives you the right to delegate to a coercive government the authority to force crappy labels and prevent better labels for everybody else?

        Oh for two. Try some more.

        1. I’d really like to see a citation for the contention that voluntary savings results in more savings that forced savings. And what specifically do you find crappy about the current food labels? More to the point, what makes you think food manufacturers would voluntarily use better labels?

          1. I would argue that government enforced nutrition labels coupled with federally mandated nutrition standards are the main reason for the massive increase in diabetes over the past 20 years. I was taught in government schools in the ’70’s and ’80’s that carbs were good and fats were bad.

            1. Corn subsidies deserve some blame.

            2. Dyzalot, you can argue that, but I’d like to see some actual evidence for it. Intuitively, it doesn’t even make sense. Federally mandated labels do not say that carbs are good and fats are bad; they merely state the content of each and allow consumers to decide for themselves. How is it the government’s fault that many consumers seem to choose badly, even with the information in front of them?

              1. He’d be more on target if he blamed the “food pyramid” and associated nutritional propaganda. Though the food labels do have recommended daily amounts crafted to enforce a high carb, low fats regime.

                1. Well I thought my “federally mandated nutrition standards” included the pyramid, especially since I also referenced what was taught in public schools. I expect the jump in obesity and diabetes can at least be partially blamed on the government falsely blaming fats and red meat for many things that are actually caused by sugar and carbs and mandating food labeling as well as official nutritional standards on those false findings.

                  1. And by the way, here’s the real value in requiring labels: There’s an ice cream place near me. I used to love their double chocolate malteds, right up until I learned that they contain 2500 calories and 68 grams of saturated fat, at which point, I stopped drinking them.

                    Before I saw the actual numbers, I already knew they weren’t good for me, but I had no idea just how bad they were. Being given actual data provided me with the necessary incentive to make better choices.

                    1. Malteds were my nemesis in college, at least after I had an accident that forced me to drop my involvement in sports. (I could get away with them while I was doing gymnastics.) I, too, had no idea just how absurdly high the calorie count was.

                    2. What an idiot.

                      The highest fat ice cream is the healthiest ice cream.

                      It just shows how idiotic food labels are.

                    3. That’s as may be, Kazinski, but it’s still important to know that you’re drinking your entire day’s calorie allotment at one sitting unless you’re working yourself like a horse.

                    4. Kazinski, assume that to be true. The point still is that consumers should have full and complete information. The label doesn’t tell you what to drink and what not to drink; it merely provides you with facts so you can make your own informed choices.

                2. Is there any evidence that anyone actually pays attention to recommended daily amounts? And do you honestly think, government propaganda notwithstanding, that people who live on a diet of sugar and saturated fat honestly don’t know it’s bad for them?

                  1. Well I did see some random dude say this once… “Being given actual data provided me with the necessary incentive to make better choices.” As for people that live on that stuff now? No. People that did in the years before 2K? Yes if by “sugar” you really mean “carbs”.

          2. “I’d really like to see a citation for the contention that voluntary savings results in more savings that forced savings.”

            It’s pretty straightforward: Social security doesn’t SAVE anything. It never has. From the very beginning the program has operated on a cash as you go basis, with the “trust fund” never more than the sort of accounting fiction that would get you prison time in the private sector.

            You take money away from somebody, tell them that you’re investing it for their retirement, and then spend it, how could you not reduce the amount that actually gets saved?

            Then you add that SS’s nominal rate of return is pathetic compared to normal savings, and of course that SS diverts that money away from genuine investments.

            1. Brett, you do understand what “I’d like to see a citation” means, don’t you?

              In my experience, libertarianism suffers from having wonderful theories that rarely, if ever, seem to work in actual practice. Which is why I’d like to see some hard data. The hard data I’ve looked at indicates that elder poverty is not just down, but substantially down, since the advent of social security. Also, if people would save more without social security, why didn’t they before social security? Social security wasn’t enacted because Congress had nothing better to do; it was enacted because elder poverty was a real problem.

              1. ” Also, if people would save more without social security, why didn’t they before social security?”

                A fair question. Prior to Social Security, people typically worked until they died, unless they were wealthy, or had children willing to support them in their old age. (Children were the original old age pension…) SS’s retirement age was deliberately set above the average life expectancy, it was billed as helping those rare folks who survived past their capacity to work, mostly elderly widows. It was essentially meant to work as a state enforced tontine, where everybody paid in, and most people never got a real payout.

                So, as a matter of history, you’re not going to be able to do an A-B comparison, because SS appeared before extended retirements became a thing.

                What we do know is that SS didn’t increase savings, because it isn’t savings. And that it took from people the discretionary income they might have saved.

                1. The point is, though, that a lot of people *didn’t* save and found themselves in poverty in old age. Granted, it’s harder to save if you’re living in the libertarian utopia of being paid in scrip redeemable at the company store, at ten cents an hour. But again, social security was passed in response to a real problem.

                  I will agree with you that times have changed, and so have demographics, and a system that worked in 1950 does not work as well today. But the solution is to make those changes, not go back to the days in which some elders really did starve to death.

                  1. Heaven forbid you do something about this yourself without forcing other people at gunpoint to care about your statist causes.

                    It’s people like you that illustrate how much statism is actually just another religion.

              2. Here is an article by the liberal Brookings Institute, that admits that people would make more if SS was priviatized due to increased investment returns :

                They don’t advocate for it due to other trade-offs.

                SS was enacted as a reelection ploy for FDR, even if the elderly in poverty was/is a problem, like it was/is since time immemorial.

                SS works to limit poverty amongst the elderly, who can’t work as much, only because it is a wealth transfer from the young. But it was never meant to be enough to live on. Had the elderly saved when they were young and invested they equivalent amount as the FICA tax, they would be way better off. The problem is human nature, we deny that we will grow old and die and deny how quickly we age.

                1. The really, really serious problem with SS, and all government old age pension schemes, (Basically every developed nation in the West has one at this point.) is that the original old age pension was having kids, and seeing to it that they were both productive and inclined to support their elderly parents.

                  SS and similar programs still rely on people having enough productive children! But they break the link between your personally seeing to it that this happens, and your own personal welfare. They make the next generation into a commons!

                  So, people see having kids as a cost now, and not an investment. Children get under produced. They’re still every bit as necessary, but the incentives are screwed up.

                  This, IMO, is the reason for the “birth dearth” in all Western developed nations, which dearth is directly impacting the viability of these programs.

                  1. Again, I agree with you that demographics have changed, and that what worked well at one time no longer does. Since this conversation started out as a discussion of libertarianism generally, though, let me shift back to that broader point.

                    Suppose I had cold, hard data (I don’t; this is just for sake of discussion) showing conclusively that social security is the best, most cost effective way to take care of the elderly, and that abolishing it would kill thousands of elders annually from starvation. One of my standing objections to libertarianism is that most libertarians would consider such data wholly irrelevant. They are opposed — on principle — to the government doing anything to solve social problems. Even if government inaction kills people. “Big gummint bad, free markets good”. Or, the government governs best that governs least.

                    I just find that appalling. And a good answer to the question of why libertarians don’t win elections, though I detect a lot of the same attitude in modern Republicans.

                    By the way, I happened the other day across Richard Nixon’s 1972 State of the Union address on Youtube. It was quite informative. He talked at length about government’s role in making life better for people. My how times have changed.

                    1. You do a great job arguing against the libertarians in your head. Too bad they don’t actually look anything like the real libertarians who vote, publish articles or post here.

                      Yes, there are a few with views as extreme as your strawmen. It is a logical fallacy to paint all who call themselves libertarian with the views of those few.

                    2. To your hypothetical above, if you had such data about the effectiveness of Social Security, it would most definitely be relevant. It would not, however, be determinative. Other values could conceivably outweigh the advantages and lead you to a choice of whatever program was second-best.

                      However, you don’t have such data and what data exists tends to suggest the exact opposite – that Social Security not only displaces private savings but that it reduces net savings and counter-intuitively increases poverty among the elderly.

                      You find it appalling that other people have values that differ from yours. I find it appalling that other people don’t think clearly and don’t pay proper attention to data but instead make decisions based on their feelings.

                  2. Nixon was operating as a president still within the FDR New Deal Era, he had to triangulate. Once Reagan was elected by a landslide, you saw the GOP take a different track. An interesting point of debate, is whether Trump, without a landslide election to shift paradigms, has turned the GOP into a worker’s party.

                    There are lots of reasons for the collapse of births in the West & Japan & Korea, a short list includes: Feminism, women in the workplace, contraception, two-income trap, increased college attendance by women & men, ubiquitous free online pr0n, delay in age of marriage, decline in marriage rates, sexual revolution in general, and social media/online dating leading women to overestimate their sexual marketplace value, female hypergamy, (and what you’re getting at Brett) decreasing levels of religiosity.

                    1. Nixon was lying about his true conservativism?

            2. Then you add that SS’s nominal rate of return is pathetic compared to normal savings, and of course that SS diverts that money away from genuine investments.

              No it doesn’t.

              If there were no Social Security the government would have to go to the financial markets to borrow what it now borrows from the trust fund. It’s issuing bonds either way, and the borrowed money, whether it comes from Social Security or from the bond market, is not available for other investment.

              You take money away from somebody, tell them that you’re investing it for their retirement, and then spend it, how could you not reduce the amount that actually gets saved?

              And yet below we are told that it is all terrible because it takes money away that workers would otherwise be able to spend. So maybe they wouldn’t save more? Besides, like it or not, it is, from the POV of the worker, money saved.

        2. Social Security’s regressive tax hurts the poor more than it helps.

          Dude, really? How so? Seriously, how does SS tax ‘hurt’ the poor more than it helps? I am not being a smartass. Here is what I see: SS is basically their (the poor) primary income at retirement. That is what they have and not much else. Most of them (the poor) are at or below the first bend point anyway.

          Personally, I would like to privatize SS and get it out of the hands of politicians, who cannot be trusted.

          1. Having to pay social security when you are poor makes it that much harder to not be poor. You have less money for education, less money to invest and less money to start a business with. The poor are basically forced to live even poorer than they otherwise would have to in the hopes of living long enough to be glad that they aren’t old and poor, assuming of course that they didn’t scrimp on their health due to being poor and die at age 60.

            1. And not having social security when you’re elderly makes it that much easier to live in poverty then.

              Look, we’ve got before and after data on elder poverty and social security. The basic fact that social security sharply reduced elder poverty should settle the issue of whether it’s good for people in the long term.

              1. No it shouldn’t since it doesn’t prove that it is better than the counter-factual. You are also just taking it as a given that preventing poverty in old age is more important than preventing it when you are a young adult and have children to care for. So sure, you might not be as poor when you are older but you were poorer when you were younger and your children lived a poorer life because of it, possibly exacerbating intergenerational poverty as an “unintended consequence”.

                1. Well, people in old age frequently have fewer options than do young people, so if my choices really are limited to only looking after the needs of one of them, I’ll go with the elderly.

                  1. That’s nice but I think making sure children aren’t in poverty is more important than making sure that the wealthiest part of our population isn’t in poverty. In fact, if you do a good job in investing in your children then your poverty status at old age is less important since you have set up an insurance system in your children.

    3. Let’s repeal all the laws against murder. That will reduce the extent of government, surely.

      1. Implicit in your comment is you support drug laws.

        1. Depends on the drug. The opioid crisis rather speaks to the tole of everything is left up to individuals.

          1. Then you fundamentally misunderstand the opioid crisis. That’s not a criticism of you, both government and media paint the same false narrative.

            The first problem is that there is not “an” opioid crisis, but rather there are several widespread public health issues where opiates play a roll. Parts of those health issues are in my field of expertise, but there are quite a few so I’m only going to gloss over the more prominent ones (inherently a subjective description)

            1) CHILDREN ARE DYING!!! (I love that Remy video). A primary problem, and the one most often misdescribed, is unintended deaths from opiate use (usually called opiate abuse, but they’re not the same thing). The most common cause of this is not opiate use itself, but rather the regulatory prohibition on controlled supply chains funneling consumers to black markets where instead of their drug of choice they get something else. The classic example of this is the heroin junkie who buys “heroin” but gets fentanyl (or carfentanyl) instead, at about 100 times the potency by weight and then takes their regular dose of “heroin” and overdoses on fentanyl. The problem here is not the heroin use – many people regularly use heroin for decades without issue, but that they cannot get what they want and instead get a substituted product. Remove the regulatory ban on illicit drugs and this literally disappears as a problem.

            2) Overprescribed Opiates are rare (pill mills totally exist, but they’re a tiny fraction of usage), and to the extent it exists as a problem is often a result of the regulatory market. Over prescription falls into two categories: unneeded prescriptions (you get a 30 day supply after a root canal) and prescriptions that in effect aren’t for pain but for addiction. The first class isn’t a material problem: millions of American households have unused opiates in their medicine cabinets from prior procedures without any abuse, largely because most people don’t really like being on opiates. Many doctors are also aware how useful it is to have a drug that’s significantly stronger than Tylenol without any risk of chronic organ damage and so historically intentionally wrote larger prescriptions so patients would have some at home “just in case.” This was particularly common among combat veterans for many years, especially post Vietnam after we started issuing morphine autoinjectors to the field – you get shot or blown up by an ied and having each soldier able to self administer fluids and low dose morphine is a literal life saver. The second class, however, is a problem: people taking opiates because they want them, rather than because they’re in pain (ignoring withdrawal pain for a moment here). These people are actually addicted to opiates, so at face value it seems like a good idea to restrict their access. But we’ve done enough studies to know that’s not how addiction works – a person addicted to morphine who is weaned off will almost invariably switch to alcohol instead. The problem isn’t that they’re addicted to opiates, it’s that they have a genetic predisposition to addiction – be it opiates, amphetamines, alcohol, or sugar, they’ll be addicted to something without either help or luck. So attempting to help them by restricting opiates is exactly backwards – we need to help them, not stop the devil drug.

            3) But how is there that much pain? The number of opiate prescriptions has dramatically increased over the past few decades, while physically dangerous occupations have decreased, so how is that valid treatment? A large part of the problem is that we hadn’t understood how the transition from field work to office work functioned biomechanically and so assumed that since we sweated less it was easier work to do. What we now know is that the human body is really anti-designed for almost every type of office work, while actually reasonably well adapted to most types of field work. This is what’s been driving the ergonomics trends the last few decades, but the easiest example I can give you is this, which most (maybe even every) readers will recognize in themselves: your upper back hurts right between your shoulder blades, and just below that too. What’s happening is when you raise your arms in front of you – as when typing at a typical keyboard – you’re contracting your pectoral muscles and stretching your back muscles, which then have to hold that position often for hours at a time. This results in atrophied back muscles which are no longer able to pull your shoulders back causing them to slump forward, exacerbating the problem in a continuous cycle. Contrast this to our evolutionary environment where you use those muscles to pull things up from the ground constantly and you see the problem: our modern office setting is exactly the opposite of what we need, which has led to millions of people with severe back pain. Compound that by sitting all day with pronates hips and you cause lower back dislocations adding yet more paths for this. In short, we’ve been so successful that we’re destroying our bodies, and haven’t yet adjusted out workplaces to match the human physiology.

            4) But we have depression too! Which is yet another illness that opiates can treat (but is a terrible long term solution), in part because of our lack of strife. The modern American world for most of us is so comfortable that we haven’t adapted to either the global or historical norms for struggle and so are unprepared when we have to deal with it. It’s even worse in Japan, but this is another channel where people who are onto borderline likely to have problem with substance abuse (of any kind, see above) find a temporary respite in opiates – because they really do work, especially in the short run. Combine an opiate naive person (meaning: they don’t have tolerances) with a single Percocet who then buys more on the black market and gets something many times stronger and you get instant overdose and respiratory failure. The regulatory system makes this even worse: naloxone is a reliable antidote, yet requires a doctors prescription to obtain, is very expensive, and in many jurisdictions is prima facie evidence of drug trafficking. If we were serious about opiate misuse all of these would be the opposite.

            There’s a lot more, and I’m sure you can see this is a topic that annoys me a lot, so I’ll leave it there 🙂

            1. None of this seems to be a confounding factor in the clear uptick of deaths due to prescription opioids. Even if it’s correlated to lifestyle changes, I don’t see how that means lets stop regulating it given the clear increase in overdose deaths.

              Also: Overprescribed Opiates are rare?!

        2. No. The only thing implicit in my statement is that CD’s slogan is silly.

      2. The comment you’re replying to said: “That government is best which governs least.” It didn’t say: “All government is evil and should be dismantled.” The trick is to distinguish between essential government functions (such as preventing / punishing murder) and others.

        1. Yes, that’s what the comment said, and that comment clearly implies that any reduction in government functions is desirable.

          It doesn’t imply that we should use our brains and our values to figure out what government should or should not be doing.

          The trick is to distinguish between essential government functions (such as preventing / punishing murder) and others.

          No. the trick is figuring out what people want the government to do, subject to specific constraints on government actions. Talking about “essential” functions is begging the question. There is no general agreement on what “essential” means. Nor is there any particular reason why government shouldn’t undertake “non-essential” but valuable activities.

        2. Naturally “governs least” means no laws against murder.

          Oh wait, that would be no government at all.

          1. No, Bob.

            Take three governments that all have the same laws, including one against murder.

            Now one of these repeals the anti-murder law and all else stays the same. Obviously, out of the three this is the government that “governs least.”

        3. Q: How do you distinguish between essential government functions and others?
          A: You check the Democratic Party platform. If Democrats are against it (e.g., the police, the military, border protection) — it’s an essential government function. If Democrats are for it — it isn’t.

          1. OK. You’re an idiot.

  2. “Voluntary saving results in more savings than forced saving.”


  3. hanks for the informative and helpful post, obviously in your blog everything is good. Six Nations Rugby

  4. I think you’re a bit gullible here about the global warming movement; It is largely a movement of “watermelons”, green on the outside and red on the inside. Global warming is just the latest excuse to take over control.

    1. Why do you think you find a hidden liberal conspiracy behind vastly more things than anyone else?

      1. Because they’re rarely very hidden. You just demand that we not notice them.

        I’m supposed to take seriously people who claim that burning fossil fuels is threatening the very viability of the planet, and then fly to distant conventions instead of teleconferencing? Who mostly oppose nuclear power, and even refuse to admit that it’s low carbon? I’m supposed to think that people who buy ocean front mansions think sea levels are rising?

        There are plenty of indications that it’s a fraud at the top, even if the movement has lots of useful idiots at the bottom.

        1. There are educated environmentalists who refuse to admit nuclear power is low carbon?

          1. See, for instance: False solution: Nuclear power is not ‘low carbon’

            But the point isn’t so much what the “educated environmentalists” do, as what the people running the movement do.

            1. I agree, if you really think GH gasses are an existential threat than you should be rabidly pro-nuclear. But a large sect of the existential threat crowd also lobby to shutdown operating nuclear plants. Which is really insane.

              See Diablo Canyon in California.

              This link below shows real time carbon emissions, Note that excluding the few countries that have abundant hydro resources the only power systems that are actually low carbon emitters are heavily nuclear, e.g. France, Ontario.

              Germany is actually going in the wrong direction because they are closing operating nuclear plants. If you are not pro-nuclear you are not making a serious argument


              1. Note that, even if you take some of the claims about the CO2 load of nuclear plants seriously, once they’re built and fueled, it’s carbon free to leave them running.

                But the watermelons don’t just oppose building more, they want to shut down the existing plants, where the carbon has already been emitted!

                I think their real objection to nuclear power is that it allows an industrial society to be sustained, and what the watermelons actually oppose is modernity.

        2. You’re assuming that “people who claim that burning fossil fuels is threatening the very existence of the planet” have a different human nature than the rest of us. Human nature is to be hypocritical, and human nature is to act non-rationally. Right, so they don’t practice what they preach and do irrational things; that tells us nothing about whether they are right on the underlying facts.

          That plus the practical reality is that me not flying is not going to save the planet. This is the tragedy of the commons on steroids. The only solution is a collective one, and until we have it, my paltry individual self-sacrifice won’t do much.

      2. One possible reason:

        It allows Brett to generalize about “the Left.” If we’re all in some giant conspiracy – funded, maybe, by George Soros, to turn the US into the Soviet Union redux then any lunacy supported or perpetrated by anyone to the left of Mitt Romney can be ascribed to “the Left.”

        Note that this does not apply to “the Right.” The guy who shot Steve Scalise is representative of “the Left.” The guy who drove his car into the crowd in Charlottesville, killing someone, is not representative of “the Right.”

        1. No, I wouldn’t say the guy who shot Scalise, or even Bernie’s campaign coordinator who just got outed by Veritas, are “representative”; And in Nazi Germany, most Nazis weren’t on the SS payroll, either.

          Every group has some nutcases.

          But it IS rather conspicuous that they don’t do global warming conferences by teleconference. It’s conspicuous when people who claim the sea level is rising at a dangerous rate, and could suddenly shoot up, decide to invest large sums on ocean front property. It’s conspicuous when you’ve got a proven low carbon technology, and they rig their standards to avoid acknowledging using it. At some point you have to ask, “If they think it’s an emergency, why don’t they act like it’s an emergency?”

          1. I wouldn’t say the guy who shot Scalise, or even Bernie’s campaign coordinator who just got outed by Veritas, are “representative”

            You bring the Scalise shooting up often enough. It’s one of your favorite points.

          2. IS rather conspicuous that they don’t do global warming conferences by teleconference. It’s conspicuous when people who claim the sea level is rising at a dangerous rate, and could suddenly shoot up, decide to invest large sums on ocean front property. It’s conspicuous when you’ve got a proven low carbon technology, and they rig their standards to avoid acknowledging using it. At some point you have to ask, “If they think it’s an emergency, why don’t they act like it’s an emergency?”

            Congratulations, Brett. You’ve discovered that there are lots of people in the world whose behavior isn’t totally consistent with their beliefs. That doesn’t mean they don’t hold those beliefs, or that those beliefs are invalid. It just means people are good at rationalizing inconsistent behavior.

            It’s a pretty common phenomenon, hardly restricted to those you dislike.

  5. I kind of gloss over these type of articles which are really just arguments about definitions.

    In the end, political power comes down to only a handful of entities REGARDLESS OF POLITICAL SYSTEM: NIMBYists (how many new oil refineries or nuclear power plants have been built in the past 30 – 40 years), special interests, political parties, and recently SJWs.

    The reason these groups are successful is because they are able to laser-focus on their particular issue – and do not foray into other issues.

    Look at the ACLU.

    They got away from their focus on civil liberties for all and have started to lean towards the left, thereby diluting their credibility of protecting civil liberties for all.

  6. These problems may not be insuperable. But they do require better answers than state capacity advocates have given us so far.

    Here is a problem which requires a better answer than libertarians of any stripe have given so far: Where is the libertarian theory of sovereignty? Under libertarianism, which calls for more limited government than any other system, what actual power exists to limit government? Will it be limited by theory? By rhetoric? By the courts? By gods?

    With regard to state capacity libertarianism, does it propose to acknowledge libertarianism may work best as a critique of other systems of government—including other systems which do use a theory of sovereignty to limit government? If so, then state capacity libertarianism makes vastly more sense than libertarian alternatives which do not.

    1. I’ve already explained this to you: Libertarianism has no real theory of state sovereignty, because libertarianism identifies the individual as the sovereign unit.

      It’s a fair criticism to say that libertarianism is inherently anarchistic, and is a poor fit to any style of government.

      1. It is also a fair criticism to say that if the individual is the “sovereign unit,” then the problem of how an individual vindicates rights goes entirely unaddressed. It is the weakness of the individual in the face of government power which creates the enforcement problem for rights in the first place. Rhetorically turning a beleaguered individual into a “sovereign unit,” adds not a bit to the individual’s power to constrain government.

        But at least you did answer my question. Among the methods to limit state power I listed, you chose, “rhetoric.” Good luck.

    2. The people are the limit to government.
      “The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time by the blood of patriots and tyrants.”

  7. If the libertarian diagnosis of the problems with public education is correct, the way to improvement is not trying to “make the current system much better,” but increasing competition and choice through privatization.

    Given that governments right now put essentially zero roadblocks in the way of private education, if that quote above were true, private methods would have long since solved the educational crisis. Somin’s quote above is mistaken as a matter of fact.

    Where it resonates, of course, is as a matter of libertarian ideology. Count on this. If government ever does come up with a fix for public education which proves effective, fair, and popular, libertarians will oppose it vociferously, because they will hate and fear the popularity. Libertarians tolerate no evidence which undermines their purely ideological premise that government can never solve problems as well as the private sector can.

    1. I would say that there are many roadblocks to private education, not least of them being taxes and public education.

    2. Which jurisdictions are you able to not pay property taxes if you choose not to use the local public schools?

      Everywhere I’ve seen if a parent chooses to use a private education system, whether it be home schooling or some form of private school, they’re still required to pay additional funds to the local public school. In many states they not only have to pay additional funds, but have to pay the entirety of both tuition bills, on a variation of a model where all of their property tax goes to the public school regardless of use while they must fund a private education entirely from their own funds.

      How is a many thousand dollars a year tax not a significant roadblock? Setting aside the other regulatory hurdles (you must teach this, you mustn’t teach that, etc – while we can debate those on their own merits they’re still roadblocks to private education), in addition to tax structures – public schools regularly raise tax bonds, ive never heard of a private school having the state power to levy a tax.

      1. These are complaints about taxation, not serious arguments about the ability of the private sector to fix or replace school systems. Treat them as different problems, show that the private sector can do it, and we can discuss lowering taxes after the problem is solved.

        1. Right, because businesses in every other sector have no problems competing against ones that offer their services for free due to full government subsidization. Can you name a company that successfully competes in a market such as that? Have you ever heard of farmers in African countries complaining that when free food is sent from wealthier nations, it then destroys their business? You can’t say the taxes are a different issue when taxes are fully funding the competition.

          1. Can you name a company that successfully competes in a market such as that?

            Every tax preparation service in the United States.

          1. Charter schools bear no relation to what the free market might produce as they are publicly funded with taxpayer money.

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