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Don’t Smash the State

Steven Horwitz

In an essay published in 1981, and apparently not available online, Sheldon Richman argued that if the state is like an onion, the proper strategy for liberty was not to peel back intervention layer by layer, but instead to, in the words of the article’s title, “Smash the Onion.”

I remember reading and loving that piece as a radical young libertarian, as did many of my radical young libertarians friends at the time. Even today, I still am sympathetic to the impulse behind that argument, coming as it does from a place that sees the injustice of the state as something that should not be tolerated for one more second. It echoes Martin Luther King’s line that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

However, like most political slogans, the rhetorical appeal and simplicity of “smash the onion” can easily divert us from thinking about the reality of rolling back the state.

Rather than an onion, let’s think about the state as a ticking time bomb. Libertarians are the bomb squad called in to defuse it before it goes off. We could argue for simply yanking out all the wires, or even “smashing the bomb,” but either option is likely to cause the bomb to explode. Defusing a bomb often requires careful thinking about how the bomb was constructed, which parts are linked, and what all those wires do. In other words, safely defusing the bomb requires snipping those wires in the right order.

Let me first address two other issues. One difference between the world of 2015 and that of 1981 is that we have a much greater ability now to work around the onion of the state rather than debating whether peeling it or smashing it is a better strategy. As Jeffrey Tucker and Max Borders argued in “Fifty Ways to Leave Leviathan,” there are all kinds of ways we can live freer and better lives by taking advantage of the opportunities that technology, in combination with existing markets, has given us. Don’t like the state’s taxicab monopoly? Use Uber. I think this is a great way to think about advancing liberty.

Second, my argument should not be read as suggesting that libertarians shouldn’t be committed to a long-term, principled goal of maximizing liberty and minimizing coercion by the state or by private actors. We can all agree that the goal is a free society while differing on the best path toward that end. There is broad scope for good faith disagreement among libertarians about the best way to achieve our common vision of a free society.

We can all agree that the goal is a free society while differing on the best path toward that end.

With that said, I want to argue that “smashing the onion” is not likely to be a successful way to achieve liberty for a mixture of strategic and principled reasons.

From a strategic perspective, it is much harder to persuade people to adopt libertarian positions if those ideas are presented to them as an all-or-nothing deal. If libertarians always speak in terms of leaping right from the status quo to the minimal state or a stateless society, we will raise the hackles of the doubters, and that might cost us allies on many issues.

The reality of intellectual and political change is that coalitions have to be built by persuading people of the ideas in question. Working on areas where we can find agreement with a broad group of people who aren’t already libertarians is one way to do that. As an example, libertarian arguments for the Mises-Hayek critique of economic planning persuaded many nonlibertarian academics that “Mises was right” (as the socialist economist Robert Heilbroner said in a 1990 New Yorker article). Does that mean they all became libertarians? Nope, but it does mean that socialist ideas were that much more discredited, and Mises and Hayek, and arguments for the market, gained legitimacy. That was an important step forward.

Persuading nonlibertarian groups to support steps in a libertarian direction (such as expanding school choice, eliminating occupational licensing, reducing the military-industrial-espionage complex, reforming criminal justice, or the ending of the drug war) is also a necessary part of rolling back the state. None of them wants to smash the onion, but if we libertarians can present our ideas in the right way and change the intellectual context — and then build coalitions to push for such changes — we may well peel back a lot of layers. The reality is that we are not going to succeed with purist libertarians yelling about the nonaggression axiom.

Strategy aside, I think there is a principled argument for a step-by-step approach. Let me illustrate.

When we fully comprehend how much the state has distorted and damaged people’s ability to earn a living, especially among those with limited skills, we should be careful in how we talk about which government activities to eliminate first. It’s easy to say, “End the welfare state,” but if we do that without removing the barriers to employment and upward mobility among those who rely on welfare, we are taking away crutches from the very people whose legs the state has broken.

It makes much more sense, and is far more humane and consistent with libertarian values, to remove state-created barriers such as minimum wage and occupational licensure laws first, and thereby allow people to find employment and start to climb the income ladder before we end the programs that may well provide the margin of survival for the people the state has economically crippled.

Yes, I’m aware that welfare programs do not always achieve their intended goals, and yes, I agree that alternative forms of assistance would work better, but given the way in which government policies have harmed lower-skilled workers and are responsible for their poverty, the right sequence of reform is to open up opportunities to heal their legs before we take away whatever crutches they might have, even if said crutches aren’t very effective.

Plus, approaching these issues in this way is far more likely to gain libertarians support from other groups than is dogmatically insisting on eliminating the welfare state in one stroke, and doing it before we remove the barriers to upward mobility.

Similarly, it’s a great slogan to say, “End Social Security now,” but for poor Americans who have had their ability to save destroyed by government policies, or who have planned for the future based on the expectation of Social Security, it’s cruel to take away that crutch without thinking through why they might need it or what an effective transition plan might look like.

In the fight for liberty, we cannot avoid thinking about how to get from here to there. We can achieve some freedom by working around the state, but eventually we will have to roll it back. Those of us who argue for what Tom W. Bell calls “revolution at the margin” want to ensure that the process happens in a way that builds coalitions and recognizes that it matters what order we cut the wires in.

Our analysis of the all the damage the state does should carry with it a deep concern about the victims of that damage. Our intellectual and political strategies depend on it, but so also does our humanity.

Find a Portuguese translation of this article here.

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