Tyler Cowen has said he thinks libertarians and classical liberals ‘have, as if guided by an invisible hand, evolved into a view that I dub with the entirely non-sticky name of State Capacity Libertarianism.’
When I worked in Parliament I was very tangentially involved with the libertarian movement. I used to blog for the ASI and I knew a few people in think tanks like the IEA, and I think there’s a lot of truth here. It’s part of a broader movement whereby more liberal/libertarian policies are becoming part of the new centre ground at the same time as more state-led policies do as well.
Importantly, I think Boris Johnson’s advisor, Dominic Cummings, qualifies as a State Capacity Libertarian.
He often quotes Peter Thiel on his blog, who Tyler Cowen notes as one of the main influences on this school of thought, and is primarily concerned with making things work better rather than ideological positions, hence his reading recommendation to SpAds of Andrew Grove’s book High Output Management. He has a view of modern politics that is essentially non-partisan. I will show further down that he has beliefs in line with some of Cowen’s key points.
This trade-off between a strong state and a preference for deregulation, seen in the marriage between favouring low-ish taxes and supporting the NHS, between being a Capitalist without being a Europhile, is the essential insight of Dominic Cummings and, by extension, Boris Johnson that was used in Vote Leave and the last election.
Johnson was much more of a textbook libertarian when he was a backbench MP, as his visit to Glastonbury shows. These days he’s known for his love of grand projects and promises of cash for the NHS. This mirrors Cummings’ view that the public is neither right wing nor left wing but holds what Cowen would call ‘synthetic or eclectic views’.
My reading of Cowen gives us this rough definition of State Capacity Libertarianism:
A strong state is distinct from a very large or tyrannical state. High levels of state capacity are not inherently tyrannical. Sometimes the problem is too much government, sometimes the problem is not enough government. Most often, the problem is the wrong sort of government.
There’s much more to it, but that seems to be the bedrock. Here’s an example of what that means, which I think we can show Cummings would agree with, especially immigration. If this were written more stridently, it could be written by Cummings.
Our governments cannot address climate change, much improve K-12 education, fix traffic congestion, or improve the quality of their discretionary spending. Much of our physical infrastructure is stagnant or declining in quality. 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.
Let’s look at three core issues.
Cummings is not of the right of left, but takes a blended view based on his research. He once ran a focus group and realised that, due to participants’ views on immigration, the research company had categorised them as Labour not Conservative. As Cummings said, this shows up the silliness of the conventional view of ‘centre ground’ voters:
About 80% of the country including almost all swing voters agreed with UKIP that immigration was out of control and something like an Australian points system was a good idea. This was true across party lines… Most UKIP and Tory voters (rather than MPs/insiders) agreed with us on the NHS and executive pay while also agreeing with us on the need to take back control of immigration policy from a system that has obviously failed. Our campaign was neither Left nor Right in the eyes of the crucial audience.
He said this before the general election:
If you go with Corbyn and free movement for the whole world, then immigration will be all over the news and extremism will grow. A system like Australia’s will be fairer, good for the economy and take the heat out of the issue.
Like Cowen, he is advocating clear standards and a workable system.
Cowen said, ‘even if you favor education privatization, in the shorter run we still need to make the current system much better.’ The Gove education agenda was a moral mission to improve the education of every child in the country by protecting standards from the centre while deregulating schools to make their own decisions. This is an almost textbook example of State Capacity Libertarianism and Cummings was the SpAd involved. Without him the project would probably have failed. It is often claimed that nearly two million extra children are in good or outstanding schools as a result of this work. His aim again here was to ‘make the system much better’.
Another key part of State Capacity Libertarians is that they ‘are more likely to have positive views of infrastructure, science subsidies, nuclear power (requires state support!), and space programs than are mainstream libertarians or modern Democrats.’
One of Cummings’ core beliefs, which sits behind much of the reform agenda being reported in the press, is that governments are no longer designed to deal with modern problems. He believes in radical reform of Whitehall because state capacity simply isn’t good enough. There is, he says,
a mismatch between a) the growing reach of technology and the fragility of our civilisation, and b) the quality of elite decision makers and their institutions’ capacity to cope with these technologies and fragilities.
Cummings has said, ‘Few in SW1 take basic science research seriously.’ And Vote Leave, the campaign he ran during the Brexit referendum, advocated making it easier for scientists to enter the country, contrary to the May/Cameron policy. There are news reports about his engagement with scientists and radical plans to reduce the bureaucracy they have to deal with to get funding. He has recently advocated boosting the Northern economy with nuclear power stations. And he was very angry when a former Brexit Secretary wanted to leave Euratom.
I don’t want this post to get any longer, but it seems clear that this sort of thinking is now at the centre of Tory policy and thinking. There are others interested in the same sort of State Capacity Libertarianism, such as former Tory advisor to science ministers Stian Westlake who has co-authored an essay (highly recommended) with the former Head of the ASI Sam Bowman about how to revive the economic thinking on the centre-right. Their four priority areas include Technology and Infrastructure.
If I’m right about Cummings, and he does in fact stay in his job, this may be the biggest advance for the libertarian agenda in the UK since Margaret Thatcher.