The Pretense of Intuition

By: Peter G. Klein

Joe’s excellent critique of “state capacity libertarianism” picks up on something I also noticed when reading Tyler Cowen’s piece. As Joe puts it, Cowen’s ideal state is “a nonmarginal actor whose task is to achieve certain collective outcomes intuited by Cowen or some other political philosopher.” Cowen provides a laundry list of societal challenges he claims only a highly capable state can solve — traffic congestion, secondary education, climate change, etc. — without discussing any in detail. Of course, each issue has been analyzed many times in the libertarian literature, using the standard concepts, theories, and frameworks such as marginal analysis, demonstrated preference, opportunity costs, Austrian price theory, comparative institutional analysis, and so on, and no evidence for “market failure” has surfaced. But Cowen’s intuition tells him markets aren’t good enough in one area or another. 

This is actually Cowen’s long-held view. You may remember his 2014 article, “The Lack of  Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth,” which echoed the Mariana Mazzucato position that government spending is the main source of technological progress  I remember a friendly argument with Cowen some 20 years ago about NASA, which he insisted was an example of benevolent government intervention. I brought up the standard counterarguments — theoretical (how do you measure benefits and costs, including opportunity costs?), empirical (lots of case-study evidence suggesting widespread waste, fraud, and long-term negative effects on the direction of science and technology), and deontological (OK to coerce people to support transfer payments that they see as against their self interest?). He wasn’t buying it. Space exploration is just so cool that the usual arguments don’t apply.

Many influential writers and thinkers are like this, relying on intuition over analysis and evidence. “I can’t explain exactly why this case is different [e.g., immune from public choice considerations], it just is.” It’s a common problem among academics, elite media, government officials, etc. “People are biased and highly irrational, except for me and my friends.” “Inequality is wrong and should be addressed through redistribution, except in the case of academic positions at elite universities or slots in the top journals.” “Powerful special interests have too much influence on policy, except for antitrust which is apolitical.” Watch for this.

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