State Capacity and Liberalism

 State Capacity and Liberalism

Tyler Cowen has a post up on State Capacity Libertarianism.  I’m not so interested in the “libertarian” part of his argument, which is mostly aimed at persuading libertarians to accept some role for government beyond enforcing contracts and protecting property rights.  But liberals (as in progressives) have good reason to think hard about state capacity.  A few thoughts on liberalism and state capacity:

Recognition of limited state capacity should affect how liberals set policy priorities and rank policy tools:

Many promising active labor market policies and economic development policies require a degree of state capacity that we currently lack.

A federal jobs guarantee would require a big increase in state capacity.  I’m not a fan in general, but any effort to implement a jobs guarantee would have to start slowly and concentrate on building capacity.

Carbon taxes require less state capacity than regulation, which requires less state capacity than direct government ownership of power plants.

State capacity is not fixed, but developing it will take time:

Like Cowen, I don’t believe that state capacity is etched in stone.  But I don’t think it’s easy to strengthen state capacity.  Lack of state capacity reflects deeply rooted attitudes towards government, and a widespread lack of understanding of the importance of management, oversight, and professionalization.  The lack of public concern with the way the Trump administration is destroying critical executive branch agencies is exhibit A.

The credibility revolution, big data, etc. will help us build state capacity:

At least I hope so.  State capacity is about management, and you can’t manage what you can’t measure.  Outcome measurement can also keep pressure on legislators, executive branch policy makers, and the organizations they oversee to discover and maintain good practices.

More credible policy data may also help to build a constituency for a better-run government, and for efforts to figure out how to implement promising ideas effectively at scale.

State capacity is easier to destroy than to build:

State capacity requires attention to management, oversight, and professionalization.  This means that state capacity will always be easy to destroy – by putting hacks in charge of agencies, replacing experienced managers, firing professionals, etc.  (Heckuva job, Brownie!)  It will be safest when it involves functions that have wide support and that have well-defined best practices and high degrees of professionalization.  A serious expansion of state capacity will probably have to wait until the current era of polarization and Republican extremism is over and a bipartisan consensus on an expanded role for government exists.

Strengthening the welfare state is a critical goal for progressives:

We know how to implement progressive taxation and social insurance.  It doesn’t take a lot of state capacity.

Congress needs to improve its oversight capacity:

It needs staff.  It needs stronger committees.  It needs to move beyond reacting to scandals.




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