Baseball bats, not crutches

Prominent libertarian and finance author Harry Browne once said, “The government is good at one thing. It knows how to break your legs, and then hand you a crutch and say, ‘See, if it weren’t for the government, you wouldn’t be able to walk.'” Brown illustrated a useful concept to understand about government policies: how some policies hurt people (“break your legs”) and some help people (“hand you a crutch”).

Too often, if political representatives are able to end or reduce spending on any government policies at all, they go after the “crutch” policies — welfare, education, libraries, public parks, social services, and other programs that people actually rely on to get by, calling it “austerity”. And supporters of smaller government will often cheer this on as a victory.

I think this approach to taking away the crutch policies is ignorant at best and cruel at worst, just as taking away real crutches from a physically crippled person would be. While yes, one day these programs should end and possibly be replaced with voluntary alternatives, the crutch policies should be among the last government policies to be ended.

Supporters of smaller government (or no government) should realize that prioritizing taking away crutches, without first taking away the baseball bats that the state has been using to break people’s legs, makes them look like bullies. A shift in priorities — from taking away crutches to taking away baseball bats — could do a lot to help repair the image of libertarians and other supporters of smaller government and ultimately win support for the change we want to see in the political world. Currently, we tend to be seen (or at least publicly characterized) by others as inhumane, selfish, greedy, etc, for wanting to end government policies that actually do help people in the short term. And when smaller government supporters take away people’s crutches before their legs have healed, these negative characterizations are not without merit.

C4SS senior fellow Kevin Carson makes a similar point in his essay Dialectical Libertarianism:

It doesn’t make much sense to consider particular proposals for deregulating or cutting taxes, without regard to the role the taxes and regulations play in the overall structure of state capitalism. That’s especially true, considering that most mainstream proposals from “free market reform” are generated by the very class interests that benefit from the corporate state.

A shift in priorities that focuses on first taking away the figurative baseball bats used by the government to break the legs of poor and working class people — the various prohibitions on consensual adult activities such as drugs and sex, occupational licensing laws that raise barriers to entry in blue collar industries such as hair styling and food vending, “intellectual property” laws that stifle competition in creative and inventive industries, wars that devastate poor and working class populations in foreign countries, as just a few examples — is both a morally and strategically superior path to dismantling state power compared to what seems to be the current dominant strategy of people who claim support for smaller government, which in practice amounts to “enrich shareholders, screw the poor“.

Morally, this reordering of priorities is superior because taking crutches away from crippled people is kind of a jerk move. It’s punching down. It’s bullying. Taking away baseball bats from the jackboots going around breaking people’s legs, that’s noble. That’s punching up. That’s speaking truth to power. Strategically, this reordering of priorities to focus on taking away baseball bats instead of crutches is superior because there are a lot of people whose legs have been broken and who are currently being held up by the government’s crutches. By focusing on taking away the baseball bats from the government, leaving the crutches there for people who need them until they have had time to heal from generations of government leg-breaking, a whole new political market opens up to supporters of smaller government: people who generally distrust the government (or simply like freedom and keeping more of their own money) but are terrified of having their crutches taken away from them.

And here’s the wonderful thing: this is not a compromise. It’s not like we’re giving the state more power by taking away its baseball bats and leaving the crutches alone. In fact, we’re dismantling state power double-time by first taking away its bats and then making it less likely for people to need the government’s crutches in the future — a kind of two-for-one special that only focusing on taking away the crutches can never offer.

And so I propose to minarchists and abolitionists: let’s prioritize taking away baseball bats, not crutches.

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