Tyler Cowen writes,

Overall libertarians should embrace these developments. We should embrace a world with growing wealth, growing positive liberty, and yes, growing government. We don’t have to favor the growth in government per se, but we do need to recognize that sometimes it is a package deal.

I will comment at length below on this interesting essay.What Tyler says in the first part is that as people accept libertarian critiques of command and control, government gets better. This in turn allows government to get bigger, but in softer forms, such as transfer payments.

This may be right. But let me offer a cynical alternative. Government got off of the “commanding heights” of nationalized steel, coal, and railroads not because it rejected command-and-control, but because those no longer represent the heights. The commanding heights of the economy today are education, health care, and leisure, and government is doing everything it can to take over those sectors.

Tyler then argues that pandemics and natural disasters pose a bigger threat today than they did 50 years ago. One reason is more population–we provide a much more inviting target for viruses. That is an interesting observation, and I can see that we may need new social institutions to deal with pandemics, but I hate to see us rely on government to provide those institutions.

On climate change, Tyler writes,

Yes, I know some of you are climate skeptics. But if the chance of mainstream science being right is only 20% (and assuredly it is much higher than that), we still have, in expected value terms, a massive tort.

What does he mean by mainstream science? Is it Al Gore’s scenario of oceans rising by 20 feet? Or is it the “consensus” forecast of an eventual rise of 20 centimeters over the next century? I still think of climate change as something that calls for a just in case approach.

Speaking of pharmaceuticals, Tyler writes,

No matter what our views, I don’t see any uniquely libertarian approach to the resulting questions of intellectual property.

I agree. Libertarians tend to gravitate toward the extremes–either very strong intellectual property rights or no intellectual property rights. I think that the problem is more nuanced.

Tyler asks,

What will the world look like when small and possibly non-traceable groups can afford their own nuclear weapons, or other weapons of mass destruction?

I have been thinking about this problem since Bill Joy’s Wired piece over seven years ago. I had a clear picture of the problem as early as this essay, when I wrote,

Surveillance is not necessarily a bad thing.
Friendly surveillance is a good thing. Certainly, it is less expensive and dehumanizing than hostile surveillance.

However, since then, my thinking on solutions has evolved in the direction of The Constitution of Surveillance.

What excites me about Tyler’s essay is that he is exhorting libertarians to join the 21st century, which means paying less attention to the debate with the early-20th-century Progressive movement over government vs. the industrial economy.

What concerns me is that although we have pushed Progressives off of the Commanding Heights of steel and coal, the forces of statism stopped us on Social Security, and they are moving forward on education and health care. Would Tyler say that there is not much point in fighting these trends, because they are inevitable and not terribly harmful? I think I would disagree, certainly on the latter.

Tyler strongly suggests that we need a new libertarian movement, but he is quite modest about what that movement might look like. I have the same sense, and I find my reaction to reading Brian Doherty’s book to be similar to Tyler’s reaction.