For a while now, I’ve been meaning to comment on Tyler Cowen‘s recent contribution to the Cato Unbound discussion (Libertarianism: Past and Prospects, a discussion prompted by a lead essay by Brian Doherty, author of the recently published Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement). I recommend that you read the whole discussion. In fact, I recommend that you regularly read Cato Unbound.
Cowen is a brilliant guy who knows a lot more than I do about many things. I appreciate his unconventional, contrarian takes on a lot of issues. Perhaps I, and others, are over-reacting to his provocative points, but I do think that what he has said deserves criticism.
Basically, his main point seems to be that libertarian influences have improved government (by making the more outrageous economic interventions out-of-bounds) and have helped to make many of us more wealthy. Paradoxically, he says, these changes make people demand more from government, not less, and further libertarian advances become more difficult.
So far, so good.
But, then he seems to argue that libertarians should stop resisting big government and accept that growing wealth and growing government is a package deal. He repeats this, but never makes a real argument that it is so.
The closest he comes is this:
…No, we should not be extreme fatalists, but the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not.
The bottom line is this: human beings have deeply rooted impulses to take newly acquired wealth and spend some of it on more government and especially on transfer payments. Let’s deal with that.
It’s hard to argue that this isn’t true, but it’s easy to argue that it isn’t an eternal truth that will always control the institutions of government.
I think that human beings have deeply rooted impulses to control the communication of others, but we’ve managed to spread respect for the freedoms protected by the First Amendment enough that we have a consensus that it’s valuable to protect speech, even if we don’t like the speech. I don’t see why economic liberty needs to be different.
Cowen may be right that we shouldn’t be disappointed if we don’t make dramatic progress in the near future, but I think it’s bad advice (if that’s what this is) that we should stop advocating it.
Cowen then goes on to list some potential global issues that may require big government to address. Whether he’s right about these things or not, it doesn’t actually support his arguments against resisting the growing welfare state.
There has been quite a bit of libertarian reaction to the essay, including Arnold Kling and Bryan Caplan and Tom G. Palmer. But, the best reaction I’ve seen so far comes from Gene Healy. Among other good points, he writes:
If the welfare state impedes human flourishing, if the drug war is an abomination, if the New Deal constitutional revolution was an intellectual fraud from top to bottom, then libertarians ought to say those things. Because they’re true. Because they’re not said often enough. And because describing the world accurately is the first step towards changing it.
What sort of changes are possible? Who knows? But even if you think the best we can hope for is a less-awful welfare state, don’t underestimate the clarifying effect of bold, uncompromising ideas. Such ideas can help make positive, incremental reforms possible. The welfare reform we got in 1996 — generally a good thing — looks more like Robert Rector’s program than Charles Murray’s “end welfare” thought experiment in Losing Ground. But would we have gotten that sort of reform if Murray had decided that imagining a world without welfare wasn’t worth the effort?