He doesn’t come out and say it baldly, but the essential political problem with this type of libertarianism is that people do think public entities should address public problems. Old-style, “big L” libertarianism rejects this view, contending that any form of government action is inherently unjust and creates more problems than it solves. Few libertarians or classical liberals acknowledge the full import of this position, preferring to take a deus ex machina approach to public policy whereby their preferred solutions (school vouchers, for example) are just and can work while their non-preferred ones (like subsidized health insurance) aren’t and won’t. But the underlying metaphysical assumption — government always bad, private action always good — pervades the thinking of most libertarians and libertarian-influenced people. And this means they are congenitally unable to present plausible answers to challenges that people want addressed.
Cowen’s approach is liberty-friendly but abandons the doctrinaire belief that the exercise of government power is inherently illegitimate, unconstitutional or unproductive. He calls for “State Capacity Libertarianism,” a philosophy that acknowledges government is necessary for the securing of basic rights (something even most big-L libertarians concede) and for the provision of a host of beneficial services. Thus, Cowen is for a big military to combat China, for government public-health programs, for government action to combat climate change (including subsidizing nuclear energy) and for big government infrastructure programs.
I applaud Cowen’s general approach even as I might disagree with him on particulars. But it is not libertarianism in any sense in which the word is used by the movement’s adherents. It has more in common with traditional conservative approaches to public power and is essentially similar to the “One Nation” conservatism advocated by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the “common good capitalism” advanced by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.).
These approaches take the essential insight of economic liberalism — free exchange between individuals, democratic self-governance and the rule of law are moral and produce enormous material wealth — and temper it with a sense of the public good. Their specific policies can differ depending upon the specific challenges a nation has. For Johnson, it is the massive gap between Britain’s depressed north and its economically vibrant south. For Rubio, it is the way that global trade with China has hollowed out large sections of U.S. manufacturing, leading to the popular anger that contributed to President Trump’s rise and risking our future national security. The challenges are different, but both leaders start with the premise that democratic governments can legitimately define a problem and then use tax, spending and regulatory policy to try to accomplish a specific, publicly defined goal.
This premise is common sense to most readers but remains anathema to libertarians and their Republican fellow travelers. Encumbered by the belief that these people must be kowtowed to, most Republican officeholders remain unable to voice any significant alternative to progressive visions for health-care policy, climate change or the modern economy’s impulse to value formal education and devalue common labor. That requires saying that government can do some good, and in the GOP, that is the love that dare not speak its name. Those such as Rubio who do speak are uniformly — and often stupidly — castigated as “statists” or even “fascists.”
Cowen’s essay could thus be the thing that moves the GOP’s Overton window. Cowen has impeccable libertarian credentials: He teaches at George Mason University, a bastion of libertarian thinking, and is known as one of the libertarian world’s deepest thinkers. If even he thinks government can and should act to solve problems, then advocates of that view have to stand up and pay attention. That, in turn, lends intellectual respectability to conservatives such as Rubio who are slowly breaking the ice that has frozen conservative thinking for too long.
The holiday season marks the time in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun is farthest from the Earth and daylight is at a premium. Cowen’s essay is thus aptly timed, bringing a ray of sunshine into a long-darkened movement and raising the prospect of more light to come. The hard core will try keep the rest of us in the shadows, but the days will lengthen as more and more conservatives break free from their frozen slumber. Summer is coming, and it’s about time.