On State Capacity

A student of mine and I have been sending each other papers, books and articles on state capacity, and it has been a very enjoyable exchange, with lots of interesting stuff to read and ponder upon.

What is state capacity, you ask?

Here’s a definition that I came across recently, and I think it does a very good job:

“State capacity is the ability to design and execute policy effectively”


That quote/definition is by Brink Lindsey, and he’s got a recently published paper on the topic that is worth reading.

That paper’s executive summary has another definition of state capacity, with an explanation for why it matters so much in the rest of the paragraph that follows:

State capacity refers to the government’s ability to do its job effectively: to raise taxes, maintain order, and provide public goods. A series of calamities during the 21st century—the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina,
the financial crisis, and most recently the COVID-19 pandemic—have made it painfully clear that American state capacity is not what it once was. This deficit not only undermines effective public policy in a wide variety of important domains; with our republic now so deeply polarized, it threatens the legitimacy and continued vitality of liberal democracy as well.


Matters so much, that is, in an American context, although my argument is that state capacity matters in all countries, at all points of time.

Consider China, for example:

State capacity is a difficult concept to make concrete: a government’s ability to do stuff is obviously important, but how to tell if it is high or low? As a useful overview over at the Broadstreet blog shows, the most common way to measure state capacity in general is to measure fiscal capacity: the government’s ability to extract revenue from the economy. This makes sense historically, as the growth over the last few centuries of governments’ ability to do things like wage wars and provide social benefits went hand-in-hand with the development of tax systems and debt markets.
For the 20th century onward, the authors suggest a more precise metric: “To measure the fiscal capacity of the modern state, we use the share of income tax revenue in total tax revenue, as the collection of the income tax calls for high administrative capacity to ensure compliance.” This is an interesting choice, as on this measure China is a real edge case.


Read the rest of the blog post to understand why China is an edge case, and reflect on how difficult it is to define and measure state capacity. But that being said, never, ever underestimate its importance.

But why, you might wonder, is state capacity so important? Why can’t we rely on markets to get the job done? Well, this is where things get really tricky. But let’s begin with a simple question, and one that you’ve been asked before on these pages:

What are you optimizing for?

That is, when you say that one should rely on markets to get the job done, you need to be clear about what the job is, and you need to be clear about your metrics for considering said job to be one that is well done.

Say you, as part of the leadership in your country, would like to have a well functioning steel industry. You would like this industry to be robust, resilient, competitive, with a large presence (at least eventually) of domestic producers – and you would like it to be profitable. How do you make that happen?

Or, if you would like to be very specific, how did a country like South Korea get its steel industry up and running?

It was not easy getting the Pohang plant financed and built. The Korean government tried three times in the 1960s to move the project ahead, presenting different, detailed plans. But equipment suppliers would not advance credit and financiers – including the World Bank – would not lend to the kind of large-scale, integrated operation that the Koreans wanted. A World Bank report published in November 1968 cited the failures of major integrated steel projects in Brazil, Mexico, Turkey and Venezuela. In the end, Park financed Pohang by using Japanese war reparations. He put his favourite student from his teaching days at the Korean Military Academy, a 43-year-old general called Park Tae Joon, in charge. The younger Park had already turned around a state mining company. Each day workers at Pohang were lined up in front of the main, corrugated-iron site office and told that Japanese reparations money was being used for the project and that it was preferable to die rather than suffer the humiliation of wasting the money.

Studwell, Joe. How Asia Works: Success and Failure In the World’s Most Dynamic Region (pp. 116-117). Grove Atlantic. Kindle Edition.

This is a book I have recommended before, and will recommend again. It just is that good a read. In the paragraphs that follow, Studwell goes on to explain the factors that made POSCO such a huge success.

  1. A focus on scale from the get-go, but married to a step-by-step approach
  2. Being open to technical advice from abroad, but never being reliant on only one source
  3. A gargantuan appetite to learn more about the industry
  4. A relentless focus on exporting the steel that was produced
  5. Subsidies for the plant – they only had to ask, and they got (subject to the fourth point above being met!)

POSCO, the South Korean steel producer, is now a globally recognized brand name, and is a behemoth on the global stage, let alone South Korea. The South Korean steel industry may not be very competitive (there are only three players), but it is robust, it is resilient, has domestic producers, and is profitable.

And as Studwell’s book makes clear, this needed the presence of the state. Left to its own devices, there would likely have been no domestic steel industry in South Korea.

Was the approach adopted by the South Korean government perfect? Nope. Did it tick all the boxes? Nope. Could a different approach by either the South Korean government itself, or by South Korean industry have done a better job?

That’s the devil of it where economics is concerned, because we will never know. We can’t go back in time, try a different approach and compare the results – all we can do is hypothesize, or compare South Korea’s experience with that of other countries, all the while keeping in mind that it will never be an apples to apples comparison.

But I will say this much and I think there is a broad consensus on this: state led industrial policy matters. What shape it should take, to what extent and for how long, and whether different countries should have different industrial policies are topics that will provide employment and educative opportunities (of an excellent kind!) for years to come.

But industrial policy? It really, really matters.

Ezra Klein’s point in his essay is about American state capacity (and naturally so, of course). This is how he ends his essay:

Democrats spend too much time and energy imagining the policies that a capable government could execute and not nearly enough time imagining how to make a government capable of executing them. It is not only markets that have failed.


My point, if you are a student of economics anywhere in the world is this: it is not only America that needs to think deeply about this topic.