The government is a bureaucratic and slow institution. It is too easily captured by special interests. It is often unable to act at the speed and scale that our problems require. And when he does, he can make things worse. Look no further than the Food and Drug Administration’s slow approval of rapid coronavirus tests or the way local zoning laws restrict housing construction in dense cities or the failure of Congress to pass legislation to based on the right to vote.
This critique is usually weaponized as an argument to shrink government and outsource its responsibilities to the market. But the past two years have revealed the emptiness of this approach. A pandemic is a problem that the private sector simply cannot solve. The same goes for other major challenges of the 21st century, such as climate change and technological inequalities. We live in a time when government needs to be able to do big things, solve big problems, and deliver where the market can’t or won’t.
Alex Tabarrok is an economist at George Mason University, a blogger at Marginal Revolution, and for years was one of the most outspoken libertarian critics of big government. But the experience of the pandemic has changed his way of thinking in essential ways. “Ninety-nine out of 100, I’m a libertarian,” he told me last year. “But there is this year out of 100.”
So this conversation is about the central tension that Tabarrok and I are grappling with right now: The failure of government has never been more apparent—and yet, we need government now more than ever.
We discuss (and debate) the public choice theory of government failure, why it’s so hard to build things in America, how reforms designed to weaken special interests often strengthen them, why the American right is responsible of much of the dysfunctional government she criticizes, the arguments for state capacity libertarianism, the appropriate size of the welfare state, the political significance of massive economic inequality, and how the crypto world’s pursuit of decentralization could backfire.
(A full transcript of the episode will be available at noon on the Times website.)
“The Ezra Klein Show” is produced by Annie Galvin, Jeff Geld and Rogé Karma; fact-checking by Michelle Harris; original music by Isaac Jones; mixing by Jeff Geld; audience strategy by Shannon Busta. Our executive producer is Irene Noguchi. Special thanks to Kristin Lin.