HCER Writer Aden Barton conducted an interview with Arnold Kling, a Scholar at George Mason’s Mercatus Center and an Adjunct Scholar at the Cato Institute. Dr. Kling runs a popular economics blog, “In My Tribe,” where he frequently writes about the administrative state and political discourse.
You’ve described yourself as a state capacity libertarian. Most of our audience will probably be on the left. First, can you describe what a state capacity libertarian is and what appeal it may have to someone coming from a more liberal or progressive stance?
That’s a tough one. First of all, I believe that you should look at the dynamics of any system, not just what might look better today versus tomorrow. The dynamics are how well does the system learn and how well does it evolve. You need experimentation, evaluation, and evolution. So, you need to try a lot of things; you need to evaluate how they work (and in some sense society as a whole needs to do this), and evolution. You need to throw out the things that don’t work and keep the things that do.
If you look at processes for doing that, for doing those three things, the government, in general, is worse at all of them. It can’t run as many experiments. It doesn’t throw out failures and keep the things that work. That’s the reason for my libertarianism. I just think market processes correct themselves much better than do government processes
The state capacity part is recognizing that we impinge on one another quite a bit so that there’s a lot of need to resolve conflicts of various sorts. You’re going to need government. Given that you’re going to need it, you’re better off with a competent government, my argument being that an incompetent government will actually tend to be more authoritarian and worse than a competent one.
My fear is that if you’re making the argument that state capacity libertarianism prevents worse infringements on liberty, that logic can be taken to justify a lot of government intervention, like taxing more to create a strong military to prevent intrusion from a foreign power. Where would you draw the line on state intervention that maximizes liberty?
That’s a very difficult question. Probably, it has to be answered more on a case-by-case basis than with some pure theory. In general, the bias should be towards less intervention because, again, a lot of times a market process will fix itself better than any government process. It’s not just sufficient to say, ‘the market’s not working, market failure; jump in with government.’ That is not right. You really have to identify situations in which the market is quite incapable of fixing itself and where government, conversely, could be very effective at fixing things. Those cases are a lot fewer than the cases when you say, ‘ah, the market’s not working. I’m not getting the result I want.’
On the theme of the government fixing itself, you’ve written about how to reform the administrative state to be more accountable and more efficient. Do you have thoughts about how to reform the courts or congress in a similar way to make them more adept mechanisms of change?
I don't have any confidence that you can really reform congress. There are people who look at it who are more knowledgeable than I am. What I was dealing with in an essay in National Affairs is the problem that there seem to be two polar views about the administrative view—that is, the arms of government that are independent of congress that seem to make legislative, executive, and judicial decisions all at once and outside of any democratic control. One view is, ‘that’s great, experts will do a great job. We love experts; we should have more of it.’ Another view is ‘that’s awful. It’s unconstitutional. It’s undemocratic.’ I'm trying to take an in-between view: we do need experts making decisions in certain areas but need to ask how to put in checks and balances, because you don't have a market, where the checks and balances come from competition.
The idea that I proposed there is that there be a more formal recognition of the administrative state. I talk about having a chief operating officer to be a management oversight over the various agencies. But, more importantly, to have a chief auditor who challenges the assumptions and the behavior of the experts.
It seems like a lot of the principles, though, you’re identifying in the administrative state would apply, for example, to the Supreme Court. There’s no mechanism for accountability, for internalizing the costs of decisions. It’s not very flexible as an institution for recognizing when it made a wrong decision. I understand the administrative state is making very complex decisions, but it seems like congress and the courts are also making very, very complex decisions with a lot of variables. So, directionally, would you be in favor of applying more market principles to those branches as well?
First of all, my modified administrative state doesn’t necessarily apply market principles. It applies principles of some degree of accountability—like you say, accountability for possible mistakes. Honestly, I haven't really thought about how to do that with other institutions of government. I always grew up with the checks and balances story, that they provided checks and balances against each other. The challenge with the administrative state is you get rid of the checks and balances, so I'm trying to substitute for that.
I want to turn to fantasy intellectual teams. You’ve spoken about how we need to focus on the selection process of experts. At an individual level, if you’re speaking to an undergraduate, how can we individually change how we select for experts that are more epistemically humble? Is it as simple as seeking out more people like Scott Alexander or are there some greater changes I should make when I’m reading and seeking out material?
My idea is that you can systematically look for styles of discourse that are sort of more epistemically sound. You can look for people who recognize the possibility that they’re wrong by giving caveats to their point of view or by giving probabilities to a statement, and things like that. The opposite of being epistemically sound is using a lot of ad hominem arguments and snappy put-downs which is what you see on Twitter.
On Twitter, like you said, you accrue benefits from likes and retweets and those disproportionately go to people who aren’t necessarily the most humble or charitable to their opponent’s views. Applying that to campus politics, for example, or discussions between people, how can we take away status as a benefit from more tribal discourse?
First of all, you should adopt a skeptical stance whenever you see a mob forming or people being very, very smug about their beliefs, and, sort of, treating the other side as really stupid or immoral, name-calling, canceling, that kind of thing. Whenever you see that, try to go in the other direction.
As a principle, you give charity to your opponents’ arguments. You just named a couple of heuristics you use. Are there others you could share with us when you encounter somebody whose views you initially disagree with?
Try to make the strongest argument for their point of view. People call that steelmanning. Also, challenge your own side. If you’re talking to someone who’s on your side, take the devil’s advocate point of view. That’s another heuristic. Also, state conditions under which you would change your mind. If you’ve got a strong point of view but other people disagree, see if you can articulate exactly what would have to happen for you to change your mind and take the other point of view.
Who are people on the left that you disagree with who you see consistently follow those principles?
I wouldn’t point to someone who does it every time but people who often do are people like Cass Sunstein, Matt Yglesias, and technically Scott Alexander is on the left, and he’s one of the best at exhibiting the right qualities. There are plenty.
I ask that question because when you’re reading a Slow Boring Yglesias piece, for example, or a Cass Sunstein piece, both of these writers are very empirical or data-based. When you read something you disagree with, for example, Yglesias arguing for child tax credit expansion, do you find yourself mostly disagreeing with either a) the data or empirical basis of the article or b) the values or worldview the piece is written from?
When I’m skeptical of the left, it’s mostly the presumption that there will be a lot of wisdom embedded in a government policy when the government is not a unitary actor, and it doesn’t have good feedback mechanisms when it goes wrong.
When I read those articles, they write so well and so persuasively that it’s hard for me to ever disagree with their piece.
Yes, the key thing that animates my libertarianism is this sense that we have these two processes: government process and market process. One of them learns really well and evolves really effectively, and the other doesn’t.
Turning now to writing itself, what do you see as the benefits to blogging, and would you advise undergraduates to start a blog?
I’ve always expressed myself a lot in writing, and I can’t really picture somebody being a great intellect without it, even though there clearly can be people like that. I would encourage anyone who wants to be intellectually active to write. There’s a claim that good writers write every day, and I think good bloggers tend to blog every day. People who don’t write every day, I think, end up dropping out of blogging, so I think it’s consistent with good writing practice to do it. Brad DeLong thought of it as almost a form of notetaking, and I think that’s a good way to think about it. If you write a post, think, ‘is this going to be of any value a few years from now, am I going to refer back to this?’ I think that’s a useful discipline, and it can end up being a basis for writing longer pieces. Bryan Caplan generated some of his books out of starting with blog posts.
I want to dig in a little deeper there. I do notice a lot of DeLong’s pieces and yours are summarizing or keeping up with other people’s writing, like the fantasy intellectual teams. Do you do that because it gives you content to write every day or to be able to look back on something?
It’s both. I also think it’s a good style to always start off citing someone else because you’re sort of stimulated by what someone else does. It’s a useful style.
The inputs of that dialogue—where do you get most of your news from?
These days, a lot of it I get from my subscriptions to people on Substack. Some of it I get from following people on Feedly, especially if they’re not on Substack. I get a little bit from mainstream news sources.
I find myself reading a lot of short-form writing, mostly Substack. Do you have thoughts on when and why to read longer-form pieces? I have almost entirely cut books out of my information consumption.
I have not done that. I have gotten very used to clicking on something else all the time, and that makes reading books harder than it used to be, and it could be that the book format eventually will die out. It seems like a strange format in that you read 250-300 pages, and in the end, you come away with, at best, three or four pages worth of notes and results out of it. It’s a strange format, but I think, in subtle ways that I don’t understand, it still works. But, maybe not.
One hundred percent. I want to read more long-form work but it’s difficult given how information-rich, like you said, Substack posts or blog posts can be. My question is, when do you choose to diverge from more short-form reading?
I feel almost a duty to try to read books. If I don’t have a book that I’m currently reading, I really feel guilty and off, and I’ll keep checking for new releases or other people’s recommendations to find something. But the opportunity cost of spending a lot of time reading a book is very high, so I won’t just read any book. It’s an interesting question.
One thing that’s definitely happened is that I don’t read at all for flowery—what used to be called—good writing. People who craft great sentences and amusing ways of putting things just don’t do anything for me. It used to. I used to be able to quote great passages from books, and now, I’m not looking for a quotable passage in that sense, for something that uses language well. The days of Saul Bellow, who was a popular writer in the 50s and 60s, who clearly crafted every sentence—those days are over.
Do you have thoughts on—when you’re approaching a subject—how to read about it? I know, for example, some people have advocated for “clustering,” reading five to ten books on a subject, rather than just one and moving on. So, when you’re trying to learn about something, how best should you approach that?
I haven't ever consciously said, ‘Now, here’s a subject, now I want to learn a lot about it.’ Somehow, I do it more by accident.
Do you have thoughts on the state of the journalism industry and what you would do to improve it?
There is something—I really wish something like my fantasy intellectual teams were at work, where people were being judged by different criteria, but the criteria they’re being judged by—by most people—is, ‘does what they report make me angry about the other side or reinforce my hatred of the other side?’ People aren’t consciously saying that, but that’s what they click on. I mean, that’s my temptation too. Until people rate what they read based on different criteria like seeking truth and having a wide lens, journalists are going to do what they do. The market is selecting for very strong partisanship and scaring the daylights about the other side.
I want to finish by talking about your theory of social change. You’ve said that nudging young people in the right direction can have an outsized impact. What advice do you have for young undergraduates overall and especially to those who have an eye towards studying economics?
I would say don’t underrate business as an opportunity to do good and to learn. If you have an academic inclination or you like learning for its own sake, it is interesting to me how many people in business are also very interested in learning and, in some ways, more interested in learning than academics, where the pressure isn’t so much to learn after you leave school—the pressure is to publish (especially if you get a Ph.D.). I would say also, don’t overestimate the academic lifestyle. It’s one thing to be at Harvard in a vibrant Boston community, teaching often very bright and interesting students. It’s quite another to be at the modal institution, teaching students who aren’t as bright, aren’t as curious, and perhaps you’re located in a small Midwestern community. Unless you really, really would love the academic lifestyle in a much less attractive format than teaching at Harvard, just be very wary of going into that.
Thank you for that. Do you have thoughts about people who are academically minding going into think tanks?
I think that think tanks and government agencies give a lot of people a feeling of, ‘what am I really accomplishing here?’ So, morale could be not so good. You can get a lot of pettiness. A few years back, there was this petty thing at the Niskanen Center involving Will Wilkinson and Jerry Taylor, and I think both of them eventually got hurt by it. That happens in academia too. I guess people land on their feet after these little internal soap opera issues, but it’s not an attractive look. You think you’re there to change the world, but you end up involved in some petty, internal political dispute. It can be disappointing. I wouldn’t count on that as a great lifestyle.
Thank you so much for taking the time to meet. It was very enlightening. I’m sure people will enjoy reading it.
You asked very interesting questions, some of which I would need to think about to give better answers.
I really enjoyed your thoughts. Thank you for your writing and for everything you put out into the world.