21 Oct 2009

I Stand Corrected: Tyler Cowen Does Support the Warfare State

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A while back I had a tantrum because there were back-to-back posts in which both contributors to the ostensibly libertarian, free market blog “Marginal Revolution” supported the bank bailout and government health care. (Of course Tyler and Alex’s posts were nuanced; I’m not saying they quoted Chairman Mao. But follow the links if you don’t believe me.)

To illustrate what I thought was horribly wrong with Tyler and Alex’s rhetorical approach, I satirically started my post by saying they supported the use of torture, under certain conditions, and mimicked their arguments on the bailout and health care to “prove” that government torture–done properly, with an economist setting up the proper incentives–was just dandy. Since Tyler especially is a compassionate, open-minded, small-l libertarian, I thought this was a pretty good move.

Yet somebody either in the comments or in email said to me something like, “Bob, I’m not so sure Tyler opposes torture. It seems he has no problem with Big Government in principle.” I told the guy he was wrong, that Tyler seemed to be anti-militaristic and had even written posts saying it would be OK to let Guantanamo prisoners free even if we thought there was an x% chance of them going back to fight. (Don’t repeat that without finding the original Tyler post, which I can’t do right now; I don’t want to put words in his mouth, but he was definitely dismissive when Republicans were warning that the Gitmo detainees would kill more Americans if released. I.e. Tyler wasn’t challenging the premise that they were guilty, he was saying even if they were, blah blah blah.)

Well I stand corrected. In response to a reader who asked Tyler to list some successful government bureaucracies, Tyler writes:

Wars aside, here is a short and very incomplete list: the NIH, the Manhattan Project, U.C. Berkeley, the University of Michigan, Fairfax County, the World Trade Organization, the urban planners of postwar Germany, some of the Victorian public works and public health commissions, most of what goes on in Singapore, anywhere that J.S. Bach worked.

I am astounded. According to the official version of events, the multi-hundred-billion-dollar-per-year US defense apparatus let 19 guys with box cutters take out the Twin Towers and hit the Pentagon. Then our intelligence agencies gave totally wrong information, and moreover were so confident in their false info that the US military conquered another country because of it. It’s now been x years since President Bush declared “Mission Accomplished” in Iraq. The CIA has been caught engaged in a worldwide network of torture and coverup. And in this environment, the voracious reader Tyler Cowen, who is up to speed on Public Choice and libertarian writings, still subscribes to the typical view that, “Say what you will about government inefficiency, but the military gets the job done!”

Here’s what I wrote in two separate comments:

In what sense are war bureaucracies successful? In major wars it is two government bureaucracies fighting each other, so the fact that one side wins doesn’t prove anything. A coalition of the world’s most powerful militaries hasn’t been able to catch one guy (Osama bin Laden). (And for those who want to chastise my naivete and say he’s never existed or been dead for 5 years, OK, but then that just underscores my point that Tyler shouldn’t be citing wars as examples of government efficiency in achieving stated public aims.)


Another thing, how is the Manhattan Project an example? Yes, they ended up creating an atomic weapon. But did they do it for less money than it would have taken a private company to do, if that had been legal and the company could reap the profits from selling A-bombs?

Tyler, have you read Richard Feynman’s autobiographical books? If so you know how absurdly bad the security was on the atomic secrets, right?

To say the Manhattan Project is a government success is like saying Amtrak is a success. After all, I just took it the other day and the train didn’t break down; I got from point A to point B.

OK now I’ve calmed down. Time to go to work. Fortunately the government was kind enough to pave me a road. High five!

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