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The following article was written by Jim Henley and published on Unqualified Offerings, February 21st, 2008.

Tom Knapp’s proposed World’s Smallest Political Platform:

The Libertarian Party supports reducing the size, scope and power of government at all levels and on all issues, and opposes increasing the size, scope or power of government at any level or for any purpose.

In addition to Wirkman’s objections, I have a sequencing objection. Figure the state as Annie Wilkes in Stephen King’s novel, Misery. She wants to help the patient so much she’ll never willingly let him go. To a libertarian, much of what the state does looks like providing crutches or shackles. To an anarchist, I suppose everything the state does looks like that. Crutches are actually important for the injured. If you’re to completely heal, though, you have to give them up at the right time. And some badly injured people are never going to be able to do without them – e.g. my mother with her walker.

But the crazy nurse wants you to keep your crutches whether you need them or not, and she’ll chain you to the bed, if necessary, to keep you in her “care.” If she has to, she’ll cut off your foot, for your own goodRadley Balko specializes in investigating how this kind of “caregiving” perverts the legal system. Robert De Niro’s repairman in Brazil tries to get around shackles the state in that movie has put on free exchange.

So we want to remove most or all crutches and shed most or all shackles, depending on how, for lack of a better term, anarchistic we are. But which shackles and which crutches when? The “liberal” “libertarian” answer is: first take the crutches from those best able to bear their own weight, and remove the shackles from the weak before the strong. So: corporate welfare before Social Security before Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Drug prohibition before marginal income tax rates.

Most libertarians would agree that it’s a messed-up state that:

  • Creates a massive crime problem in poor minority neighborhoods with a futile, vicious and every more far-reaching attempt to prevent commerce in popular, highly portable intoxicants that leaves absurd numbers of young men with felony records, making them marginally employable.
  • Fails to provide adequate policing for such neighborhoods.
  • Fails to provide effective education in such neighborhoods after installing itself as the educator of first resort.
  • Uses regulatory power to sharply curtail entry into lines of business from hair-care to ride provision, further limiting the employment options of people in such neighborhoods.
  • Has in the past actively fostered the oppression of said minority, up to and including spending state money and time in keeping its members in bondage.
  • To make up for all of the above, provides a nominal amount of tax-financed welfare for the afflicted.

But it’s a messed-up libertarianism that looks at that situation and says, “Man, first thing we gotta do is get rid of that welfare!

People have diverse interests and priorities, and we don’t all have to work on my issue of the moment. But given finite political energy, we can for instance agitate to stop paying Big Sugar tax dollars to foul the Everglades with runoff or end the inheritance tax. We can pressure the government to curtail torture or Medicaid These are not close calls.

Libertarian institutions that walk this walk include Radley Balko (he’s an institution, as far as I’m concerned), the Institute for Justice and . . . well, help me out here.

Now, I’m pretty sure Tom Knapp wouldn’t disagree with me, and has said similar things himself. If I were to guess at a defense, it would be that, practically speaking, political temperaments differ. It’s better to have instinctive “right-wingers” agitating to curtail state power than to expand it. Even if they’re trying to remove shackles from the strong, that’s better than loading more on the weak. Better that “conservatives” oppose net neutrality than support war with Iran, as it were.

There may be something to that. The other big defense is that government action tends to crowd out private and communal action. On this theory, we may not be able to predict what will replace state schools or Medicare, but human ingenuity is vast and, like the song goes, “There’s no telling what we’ll do when we’re free.” This is an appealing, romantic vision. It even speaks to me. But I disagree that we can always be so sure that the short to medium-term results of ending a subsidy for the marginal will be benign. It seems to me that it might take us “millions of intricate moves” to live humanely without government, or with very little government, and kicking the props out from under the poor is more likely to be a late move than an early one.

NB: I realize that non-libertarians reject the simile of the State as crazy Annie Wilkes, and disagree that crutches-and-shackles fairly describes the whole of state action. Like Mortitia Addams, “I can respect that.”