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The Problem with "The Tamerlane Principle"
Noah Smith's critique of libertarians falls flat
I was on spring break so I did not publish last week or the week before, but I’m back.
In response to the invasion of Ukraine, Noah Smith republished a blogpost of his from 2011 titled "The Tamerlane Principle” because of its relevance to the current situation. In the post, Noah Smith explains “an economically interventionist state is necessary for the preservation of human liberty.” Smith explains that his fundamental critique of libertarianism is based on “The Tamerlane Principle.”
This principle is based on the conquests of Timur the Lane, a conquerer in Asia who lived during the fourteenth century known as “Tamerlane.” He conquered any weaker power with brutality and force, and stands as an archetypal tyrant. As Smith’s article explains, “City after city, fortress after fortress, fell into the hands of the conquerors, ‘until there were no more enemies left in these provinces, and no one who did not obey Tamerlane.’”
This is where the central point of “The Tamerlane Principle” comes in:
The only thing that can protect people against the Tamerlanes of the world is a strong, economically prosperous, well-organized nation state. And the only way you get a strong, economically prosperous, well-organized nation state is to have a strong, centralized government that provides lots of public goods. Roads, ports, schools, technological R&D. You need these things because everything we know about economic development says that these things are absolutely essential for a nation to have a high GDP. And a high GDP is necessary for a nation to win wars with hypothetical Tamerlanes.
There is a valid point here. Public goods are necessary in the development of societies, such as the goods that Noah Smith mentions. State capacity is strongly associated with high GDP, which together are necessary and sufficient for high levels of human wellbeing. This fact is recognized by economists. Libertarian economists Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen identify as state capacity libertarians. This means they believe the scope of government should be limited, but governments should be effective and capable in the specific tasks they do carry out.
Despite this, the principle is flawed on a practical level. While public goods are essential for America’s high GDP, most of our government’s spending is not on public goods at all. The vast majority is spent on welfare programs, social security, and healthcare. When examining federal spending for 2021, most of the public goods Noah Smith mentions get barely funded compared with transfer payments and healthcare. For example, income security (welfare) is 24% of the federal budget, Social Security is 17%, health (mostly medicaid money to states) is 12%, and medicare is an additional 10%. In total, 63% of federal spending goes to transfer payments and various health programs. Combined, this spending totals to $4.2 trillion. Now, this includes around $600 billion of temporary stimulus payments as part of COVID relief, but without those the total comes to $3.6 trillion. What is striking is that this equals roughly 18% of GDP, which is more than what the federal government collects in individual, corporate, and social security/medicare taxes combined.
The public goods that are so heavily emphasized in “The Tamerlane Principle” are much smaller portions of government spending. The US shells out roughly $450 billion on infrastructure across all levels of government, roughly 2.5% of GDP. The federal government spends just $35 billion on space science and technology (NASA), a number that could and probably should be much higher. Spending on k-12 education—another essential public good—comes in at just 3.1% of GDP (and is mainly funded by states). National defense is roughly 3% of GDP.
This is why I view “The Tamerlane Principle” as somewhat incompatible to the way the current US government runs. Near the end of the post, Noah Smith writes:
If you think this is a silly, alarmist statement, just observe how our recent neglect of public goods, along with our refusal to tax ourselves, is forcing us to make defense cuts(and will soon force us to make many more).
The reality is it is not our unwillingness to tax, but the federal government’s willingness to maintain sizable mandatory spending commitments, brought about by the general public’s sacrosanct treatment of certain transfer payment systems.
I am not in favor of completely eliminating the welfare programs I have mentioned for a few reasons I won’t get into here, but no matter your view it’s a moot point because of the argument “The Tamerlane Principle” attempts to make.
The reason “The Tamerlane Principle” is a poor argument is that government provision of significant and robust public goods can be maintained while taxing and spending can be significantly diminished. Paring back federal spending to a significant degree (over 50%, for example) could be done without damaging public goods because of the majority of government spending is associated with social programs not targeted to, necessary, or directly effective in raising GDP.
“The Tamerlane Principle” is indeed a solid argument against libertarians who believe in such a diminished state role that the government should only provide things like national defense and police. But this extreme libertarian view—that basic public goods such as roads should be privatized—is fringe, making arguing against ‘libertarianism’ with “The Tamerlane Principle” a straw man argument.