Thursday, August 03, 2006

Slopes, Ratchets, and the Death Spiral of Liberty

In describing the baneful influence of state action on the general welfare, I sometimes invoke the slippery slope, which is

an argument for the likelihood of one event or trend given another. Invoking the "slippery slope" means arguing that one action will initiate a chain of events that will lead to a (generally undesirable) event later. The argument is sometimes referred to as the thin end of the wedge or the camel's nose.

That is to say, once a polity becomes accustomed to relying on the state for a particular thing that could be done better through private action, it becomes easier for that polity to ask the state to do other things that could be done better through private action.

Another metaphor for the rising path of state power is the ratchet effect,

the commonly observed phenomenon that some processes cannot go backwards once certain things have happened, by analogy with the mechanical ratchet that holds the spring tight as a clock is wound up.

As people become accustomed to a certain level of state action, they take that level as a given. Those who question it are labeled "radical thinkers" and "out of the mainstream." The "mainstream" -- having taken it for granted that the state should "do something" -- argues mainly about how much more it should do and how it should do it, with cost as an afterthought.

Perhaps the best metaphor for the phenomenon I've been discussing is the death spiral. Reliance on the state creates more problems than it solves. But, having become accustomed to relying on the state, we then rely on the state to deal with the problems caused by our previous decisions to rely on the state. That only makes matters worse, which causes us to rely further on the state, etc., etc. etc.

More specifically, unleashing the power of the state to deal with matters best left to private action has diminished the ability of private actors to deal with problems and to make progress, thereby fostering the false perception that state action is inherently superior. At the same time, the accretion of power by the state has created dependencies and constituencies, leading to support for state action in the service of particular interests. Coalitions of such interests resist efforts to diminish state action, while supporting efforts to increase it. Thus the death spiral.

Can we pull out of the spiral? Not unless and until resistance to state action -- especially in the domestic sphere -- becomes much stronger than it is. It cannot be merely intellectual; it must be conjoined to political power. Which brings me back to my advice to the Libertarian Party:

Don't run LP candidates for office -- especially not for the presidency. Throw the LP's support to candidates who -- on balance -- come closest to espousing libertarian positions. Third parties -- no matter how they're packaged -- just don't have staying power, given the American electoral system. The LP's only hope of making progress toward libertarian ideals is to "sell" its influence to the highest bidder.

Cato Institute's Bill Niskanen has offered similar advice. Libertarians must heed it.

We will not pull liberty out of its death spiral simply by shouting "halt." This is no time for fastidiousness. The "best" cannot be attained until we pass through "better," "much better," and "very good." The time to start is now, before the death spiral becomes irreversible. If it's not already too late.