Button Pushers and Apologists

push_buttonIn his recent article “Don’t Smash the StateSteven Horwitz warns that thinking about government as something that should be wiped out of existence is a diversion, and libertarians could better spend their time and effort with a more appropriate mental model.

Specifically, he views the state as a bomb that must be defused carefully or bad things will happen. He urges libertarians to reconsider radical notions like, “smash the state” and gives both a moral argument and a practical argument for picking it apart in an orderly manner.

The moral argument is that getting rid of state activities in the wrong order could cause unnecessary problems for innocent people who are dependent on the state. The practical argument is that trying to get rid of government all at once will not work. Both of these points are superficially compelling, so it is important to show their shortcomings before libertarians get the wrong idea about the state.

The moral argument says that if someone is dependent on the government and that dependence is solely due to government action, for example the minimum wage, then it would be good to remove the minimum wage laws before removing the wealth transfers that support these people. Here Horwitz says that, “Our analysis of the all the damage the state does should carry with it a deep concern about the victims of that damage.” However, there are an even greater number of victims who are totally discounted in his analysis, namely victims of taxation. This shows why the time bomb analogy is inappropriate, namely, the state is already doing unimaginable harm every day. Any restraint or delay merely perpetuates that aggression. As Mises says in Human Action:

“It is important to remember that government interference always means either violent action or the threat of such action. The funds that a government spends for whatever purposes are levied by taxation. And taxes are paid because the taxpayers are afraid of offering resistance to the tax gatherers. They know that any disobedience or resistance is hopeless. As long as this is the state of affairs, the government is able to collect the money that it wants to spend. Government is in the last resort the employment of armed men, of policemen, gendarmes, soldiers, prison guards, and hangmen. The essential feature of government is the enforcement of its decrees by beating, killing, and imprisoning. Those who are asking for more government interference are asking ultimately for more compulsion and less freedom.”

Horowitz is right that if one had to choose between stopping two government activities and the only difference is that the removal of one would cause additional pain and suffering, then it is obviously better to choose the other. However, it is myopic that Horowitz discourages libertarians from thinking about whether the state should be completely vaporized, but then advocates the equally academic notion that one can pick and choose between easily comparable government crimes. This is a dangerous misrepresentation of government that leads people to waste energy on things like political activism.

From a moral perspective, the mistake is focusing on the visible pain while discounting the out-of-sight suffering caused by the state. This is the fundamental error that Hazlitt warns about in Economics in One Lesson. One may think they are taking the moral high ground by defending the innocent, but not by sacrificing others who are equally innocent. Action cannot be truly moral unless it is first ethical and, in the real world, one does not do something ethical by perpetuating any government activity.

If that were not enough, this reliance on the state to solve one problem, any problem, speaks to a fundamental mistrust of the free market. It cedes ground to those who argue, against all historical precedent, that government is necessary because people will not help each other. It lends credence to the notion that libertarians do not care about people, when in reality they are the only ones magnanimous enough to look out for everyone. Horwitz is essentially parroting the statist idea government may be bad, but life without it would be worse.

So the moral argument fails, but what about the practical argument?

The practical argument assumes that it is impossible to defeat the state in a single blow. In other words, there is no magic button that will make it go away. Instead, in order to get rid of government it will be necessary to slowly build support by advocating incremental changes. This certainly makes sense from a strategic perspective. Libertarians should work together with groups who are fighting the state in limited ways in order to make progress in those areas. If there are enough small victories, perhaps the battle will be won.

On an individual level, it makes sense that when trying to spread the ideas of libertarianism one should not start with the conclusions. A person is less likely to take the time to learn about libertarianism if they are not first exposed to the fundamental principles that lead to radical ideas like anarchy. So if libertarians are intransigent, they run the risk of missing opportunities to diminish state power, and if they are too impatient, they may ruin chances to educate others.

However, Horwitz goes beyond this sound practical advice when he suggests that it should change the way libertarians think about the state. This unnecessarily turns away from theoretical correctness for supposed tactical gains. It also runs the risk of misleading people that the compromise is the ideal. If a libertarian is not convinced that the state is a constant source of aggression, he will be less vigorous in tearing it down. Rothbard explains correct way of thinking in, “Do You Hate the State?“:

“Taking the concept of radical vs. conservative in our new sense, let us analyze the now famous “abolitionism” vs. “gradualism” debate… Friedman takes the opportunity of denouncing the “intellectual cowardice” of failing to set forth “feasible” methods of getting “from here to there.” Poole and Friedman have between them managed to obfuscate the true issues. There is not a single abolitionist who would not grab a feasible method, or a gradual gain, if it came his way. The difference is that the abolitionist always holds high the banner of his ultimate goal, never hides his basic principles, and wishes to get to his goal as fast as humanly possible. Hence, while the abolitionist will accept a gradual step in the right direction if that is all that he can achieve, he always accepts it grudgingly, as merely a first step toward a goal which he always keeps blazingly clear. The abolitionist is a “button pusher” who would blister his thumb pushing a button that would abolish the State immediately, if such a button existed. But the abolitionist also knows that alas, such a button does not exist, and that he will take a bit of the loaf if necessary — while always preferring the whole loaf if he can achieve it.”

Gradualism should always be a reluctant compromise from radical first principles. Idealogical purity and practical action are not mutually exclusive, nor are they something that one must make trade offs between. Those who are focused on the end game will be more motivated to pursue realistic strategies because they understand the real prize. Horwitz himself admits how inspirational it was to him in his younger days to consider liberating humanity from government in one fell swoop. Those with a radical viewpoint are also less likely to be satisfied with incomplete solutions. It is therefore critical to pursue ideological correctness in parallel with short term strategy. One should never advocate for half measures like lower taxes per se. Instead, one should always advocate for no taxes but work for lower taxes when such opportunities arise. Strategic progress and ethical clarity should never come at the expense of one another.

So the practical argument fails as well, but what is a more appropriate libertarian stance on button pushing? It is instructive to first rephrase the question. Suppose the state is going to vanish, and the only way to save it is to push a button. Should a libertarian push the button? The answer is that a libertarian does not even have a choice: he must not do so. He cannot push the button without increasing the amount of crime in the world. He would be indirectly causing conflict, which is a violation of the non-aggression principle.

Now to the original formulation: a libertarian has the option to push a button that will smash the state. This may sound equivalent to the previous situation, but there is a crucial difference. In this case, a libertarian is not compelled by the non-aggression principle to push the button, just as he is not required to stop the various crimes that occur in the world. However, he may push the button if he so desires.

So, why do many libertarians go beyond ethics and advocate button pushing in the second scenario? It is because as soon as they recognize the enormity of the state they cannot help but want to destroy it. They are willing to dedicate their lives to fighting the great enemy of humanity. Choosing to oppose the greatest evil in the world makes them more than libertarian. It makes them heroes.

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