Don’t Smash the State

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…