State Capacity

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 – has made painfully clear that American state capacity is not what it once was. This deficit not only undermines the prospect for 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.

The Niskanen Center is launching its new Project on State Capacity, an initiative dedicated to building state capacity, to confront these challenges. Much of our existing work for building state capacity – on immigration, social policy, regulation, criminal justice reform, and climate – already demonstrates a commitment to a vibrant and dynamic public sector as a necessary complement to a vibrant and dynamic private sector. Now, we are reinforcing that commitment by taking on five new issues that we see as critical arenas for the struggle to rebuild state capacity: (1) expanding and upgrading the federal workforce; (2) improving tax collection and closing the tax gap; (3) overhauling how the federal government acquires and uses information technology; (4) streamlining environmental review to reduce delays and cost overruns in infrastructure projects; and (5) revitalizing the country’s sclerotic public health institutions to be better prepared for the next pandemic. Learn more about the State Capacity Project and building state capacity in the U.S. through our articles below.

Lessons from the pandemic: a video interview series

Suspicion of state power is embedded in our Constitution and our political culture; accordingly, work to produce a stronger, more capable state will never be the path of least resistance. But it’s the only path that leads where we need to go, and there is growing recognition across the political spectrum that this is the direction we need to take.

- Brink Lindsey

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