Family Capacity

5 min readFeb 16, 2020


Not long ago the economist Tyler Cowen wrote an article about what he called State Capacity Libertarianism. The concept has become the center of quite a bit of discussion and research, and I think it is an advancement in the direction of the libertarian movement.

The main idea is that State Capacity Libertarians prefer a strong capable government that is capable of doing certain things that governments ought to be doing. Cowen cites thing like infrastructure, science subsidy, nuclear power, a space program in addition to the basics like rule of law, etc.

I feel pretty sympathetic to this version of libertarianism, and I would like to extend the concept of institutional “capacity” to a more local level. Consider the distinction between macro institutions and micro institutions. I will broadly define a macro institution (like a national government) as an organization that represents a society that is much bigger than the Dunbar limit of about 150 people. A micro institution is one that represents a group of people less than this limit.

One of the arguments of State Capacity Libertarianism is that a strong state capacity makes room for individual freedom. In The Rule of the Clan, it is argued that one way it does this is by mitigating the power of a particular micro institution: the clan. In many cases, what we see in the world is a trade off between micro and macro capacity. In other words, a strong state is associated with weak families, and vice versa.

I do think there is a correlation, but I propose that strong states (the archetypal macro institution)and strong families (specifically, extended families, which I use as the archetypal micro institution) are not mutually exclusive. And while both strong states and strong families have the ability to oppress individuals, weakness on either level can be seriously problematic for individual development.

First, a little more about what strong states and strong families look like. Consider two different kinds of poverty. Rural West Africa can be taken as an example of what life looks in a region with relatively weak states, but (sometimes) a pretty strong family life. As discussed here, West Africans don’t tend to rate very highly on happiness surveys. Poverty isn’t great in any form. But it is not clear to me that they are any worse off than people living in, say, the urban slums of Baltimore, an example of a place with a relatively high level of state capacity, but low levels of family capacity.

The concept of “capacity” is linked to the idea of “entitlement.” What are you entitled to as a member of this institution. For example, my in-laws are from Alberta, Canada. And although they are fairly conservative in many ways, they (like most Canadians) are very proud of the fact that as Canadians they are entitled to a fairly efficient health care system. Many Americans are proud of our nation’s military capacity, which entitles us (and much of the world, really) to protection from foreign invasion.

But even outside of areas like Baltimore where micro institutions are in disarray, neither American nor Canadian families tend to think they are explicitly entitled to anything as a result of membership in a particular family. In fact, this idea is even a bit repugnant. Even though Americans and Canadians both clearly enjoy a lot of benefits by virtue of where we were born, we often think it is somehow wrong to benefit by virtue of the family we are born into.

In other words, firs ask yourself “what kinds of things have we, as a nation, taken collective responsibility for?” You can probably think of quite a few things. Now ask yourself, what kinds of things have we, as a family, taken collective responsibility for?” In the context of a nuclear family you can probably think of quite a few things. But what about in your extended family, or in other micro institutions (i.e., your neighborhood or congregation)?

In my view, taking collective responsibility for something and then coming together to provide the means of accomplishing that thing is what is meant by institutional capacity. It is both cultural (i.e., the taking responsibility part) and structural (i.e., the organizational and economic means). If you don’t have any significant institutional capacity, the institution is either broken or nonexistent.

So what kind of “capacity” can/should an extended family have? There isn’t just one answer. Just like the US and Canada focus their state capacity on different things, so can families (or other micro institutions). Families can take collective responsibility for anything from providing each other housing security, child care, insurance of various kinds, financial services (e.g., loans), education, or career opportunities.

The role of micro institutions needs to respond to the role played by macro institutions. In the US, the family might need to provide some form of health insurance guarantee, but that might not be relevant in Canada. In some places, families must still provide services like justice and protection from violence. But even in Canada, the state doesn’t provide anything. Nor should it. Were it to do so, there would be no room for micro institutions. And the value of micro institutions is not just in the services they provide.

One of the most important reasons for developing family capacity is that families also play an important role in helping people develop a secure sense of identity. My hypothesis is that institutions with stronger capacity are better at providing people with a sense of identity. In order to create a sense of belonging, the institution should provide some kind of entitlement.

As I read more and more about the co-development of culture and psychology, it is clear to me that strong states (i.e., macro institutions) are important for the development of individual consciousness. A strong nation lays open the possibilities for human development. But sometimes this freedom can also lead to problems.

When people have to choose their own identity among so many possibilities, they can be left with a sense of insecurity and unworthiness. My hope and belief is that society can simultaneously promote both individual freedom and psychological security by developing macro and micro institutional capacity.




Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters