We Can’t Tweak Our Way to Freedom

The fight over “right to work” in Michigan — culminating last week in the adoption of a law to prohibit freedom of contract between employers and unions, and to conscript labor unions as the unpaid representatives of non-member workers — occasioned yet another round of the kind of specious argument that demonstrates why “limited government” conservatism and libertarianism can never produce their advertised results.

The form of argument in question runs a fairly short gamut, starting at “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” and ending with “the path to freedom isn’t a straight line.” While there’s probably some wisdom in both of those cliches, they’re often used to defend proposals that aren’t good and that cut a path directly away from, rather than even indirectly toward, freedom.

“Right to work” (sic, sic, sic! It’s no such thing!) is the obvious immediate example. Here are a couple of others (not nearly all of them, of course):

“Until we can get rid of the welfare state, we have to increase and enforce restrictions on immigration so that the welfare state isn’t over-burdened.”

“Until we can end the war on drugs, let’s just pile on medicalization schemes and alternative sentencing regimes to cut the costs of waging it.”

These arguments and the courses of action they’re used to defend are traps which inevitably slam shut around those who stumble into them.

If I find a pile of something that smells bad on my front porch, I sweep it up and throw it away.

I don’t go find some of my wife’s perfume and spray it on the malodorous mound. Making the situation temporarily more tolerable doesn’t solve the problem. In fact, it perpetuates the problem.

And I certainly don’t go find another pile of the stinking stuff and put it on top of the first pile. That just makes the pile smell worse, not better. And it makes my eventual cleanup job harder, not easier.

The “limited government” excuse for spraying perfume on the pile of poop, or putting another pile of poop atop the first one, is that finding a broom is just too difficult. But that’s not much of an excuse.

I understand the impulses involved here. I really do. Sweeping change is difficult to achieve, in part because the political class works overtime to condition Americans to a “moderate” or “centrist” mind-set that favors inertia (which in turn strengthens the status quo). Those who want to accomplish something, anything, to make things better therefore feel constrained to limit themselves to timid policy tweaks.

But again, it’s a trap.

Making the existing system “work better” doesn’t weaken that system, it strengthens that system. So you made the pile of stuff smell a little better, or at least you were able to tell yourself you “did something.” But you’re now farther away from your goal than you were before, not closer. The path of least resistance always leads away from, not toward, freedom.

As Karl von Clausewitz pointed out many years ago, politics and war are two points on the same continuum. And as he also pointed out, “Everything in war is simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”

If “limited government” advocates can’t be troubled to do the difficult work of making things better, they should at least refrain from making things worse.

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