Wanted: A Thoughtful Pause

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Americans continue to react to the attacks on New York and Washington. And the reactions, including the official reaction of the President and the Congress, speak volumes about the American mind.

First, one of the Big Three news networks ran a story this week on the financial crisis facing state and local governments. The worry? Ah, but what else does any government worry about: decreasing tax revenues. “Consumers” (i.e., people) staying home to watch the news, or to be with their families in the wake of the traumatic events of September 11, are not spending money.

Big shock. There may be a war on, with the potential for casualties not seen since Vietnam. There may be more attacks yet to come on American soil.

And the tax man worries about keeping his pockets stuffed.

Here’s a suggestion: cut the government, at all levels, back to those “essential services” that stay running during good old partisan budget fights. Remember when Bill Clinton “shut down the government” during his feud with the Republican Congress? The world did not end. We did not need the closed agencies, and we do not need them now.

A further suggestion: eliminate the “non-essential” government programs. Permanently. If they’re non-essential, they are not properly part of government’s job description.

Now, then, is a good time to eliminate the following: the sugar subsidy, the honey subsidy, rural electrification subsidies, farm subsidies, the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce, and the many forms of corporate welfare (for example, helping corporations advertise overseas; that’s why advertising agencies exist). States can get rid of their own agencies which copy the federal model.

For that matter, it may be time (it is, in fact, long past time) to implement Bob Murphy’s ten steps to a freer country.

Second, the press is filled with discussions of the stock market. There are those Americans who wonder why the stock market continues to go down.

For starters, the now-ended market boom was been sustained by an unsustainable credit expansion, engineered by the fed. Investments that were not really so hot (dot com sector, anyone?) were made to look hot by the availability of easy money. As the economy tightened, the darling little dot coms were dumped in favor of actually profitable companies. In this regard, see two timeless classics by Murray Rothbard, The Case Against the Fed, and America’s Great Depression.

As these malinvestments were being corrected by the normal operation of the market, the terrorists struck at New York and Washington. It should come as no surprise that the stock market has since fallen even further.

When you buy a stock, you buy a share of a company, a slice of their earnings and assets. When there are terror attacks, to put it mildly, there is uncertainty. The United States has declared that it is in a war against “global terrorism,” and the shooting is likely to start quite soon. Many companies will see their profits suffer. We cannot pursue peaceful commerce and massive military operations at the same time, despite the fact that President Bush, in his speech to the Congress on September 20, asked Americans to do exactly that.

The money spent by the government comes from taxes, which means it comes from working men and women, and the companies that employ them. More money taken in taxes means less money to invest for greater productivity, less money to spend on research and development, and less money on hand when business slows down. Marginal firms, like Midway Airlines, will go out of business.

Forbes magazine recently ran a quote from the inaugural address of Calvin Coolidge, given in 1925. Coolidge put it like this:

I favor the policy of economy, not because I wish to save money, but because I wish to save people. The men and women of this country who toil are the ones who bear the cost of the Government. Every dollar that we carelessly waste means that their life will be so much the more meager. Every dollar that we prudently save means that their life will be so much the more abundant. Economy is idealism in its most practical form.

We cannot enjoy prosperity and grant ever-increasing powers to government, whether local, state or national.

Even where this does not risk prosperity (by seizing property through taxation), it risks liberty. Despite the utter failure of government to fulfill its most basic role — the protection of its citizens and their property — the government now demands more powers.

Given the track record of the FBI under Janet Reno, this is disturbing. Has anyone been held accountable for the FBI files of Republicans which “mysteriously” turned up in Hillary Clinton’s office? (By the way, didn’t Hillary look happy to be listening to Dubya last night? Was she tranquilized?) As Paul Craig Roberts wonders,

What is the point of the FBI’s “Carnivore” e-mail snooping program, as the terrorists already have our eavesdrop-proof technology? It will be American civil liberties, not terrorists, that suffer. If this is the kind of thinking that governs our response, we are going to lose the war on terrorism.

In short, the tail is now wagging the dog.

Third, there is nothing new under the sun. The current mess is hardly new in the history of democracy. As Peter Jones details in the Spectator (UK), the Athenians faced much the same problem, and had exactly the same public policy debate:

In 427 B.C., Mytilene had revolted against Athens. The ruling Athenian assembly (all Athenian male citizens over 18) decided to slaughter the entire male population of the town and enslave its women and children. Next day they changed their mind and the assembly met again…

Diodotus [argued that] “haste and anger are the two greatest obstacles to wise counsel”, and that the big issue now facing them is not the present, but the future, especially “how Mytilene can be most useful to us”. He then points out that a universal, as opposed to exactly targeted, death-penalty will get nowhere: “Fear of death is no deterrent; no law or intimidation will stop a people once seriously set on their course from pursuing it, especially when they have the irrational view that their power is greater than in fact it is; …the right way to deal with free people is not to inflict random punishments after they have revolted, but so to deal with them that that point is never reached.”

Jones, by the way, makes the connection clear enough even for the typical American establishment type, who very likely has never heard of, let alone read, Thucydides:

The example of high-tech Israel versus no-tech Palestine should warn America what it might be getting into if it blindly follows the advice of the Cleons, and does not also consider why it is so hated.

American education is so bad that American elites think themselves the first to have ever confronted such situations before. This is where the Left-wing control of the universities has gotten us. Rather than read the classics, or even American history, students are taught that nothing is right and wrong, and that Western culture is evil, racist, homophobic, sexist, and so on, ad nauseum. Westerners do not even know what it means to be Westerners, and so they allow the West to be destroyed from within and without. In short, they repeat the mistakes of empires and democracies past, like a bunch of ignoramuses. “Those who do forget history are doomed to repeat it,” and all that.

Worse, there are those such as Washington Times editorial page editor Helle Bering, whose piece “They always blame America first” is an unthinking reaction to the events of the day all-too-typical of the American elite.

Burying her head in the sand, Bering writes as follows:

Or listen to this poisonous report, which ran in the Guardian — a respectable, if fairly liberal British newspaper — under the headline “They can’t see why they are hated.” It goes through a litany of supposed U.S. offenses against the world, including rewriting the world financial and trading system in the U.S. interest, “murderous” embargoes against recalcitrant regimes and the bombing of Iraq, Yugoslavia, Sudan and Afghanistan without U.N. permission.

Memo to Helle Bering: the Vatican has condemned the bombing and embargo of Iraq, precisely because it is murderous. Are Americans, even Roman Catholics, supposed to simply ignore the moral views of Pope John Paul II, whose work for peace and reconciliation around the globe is known to all? Even if you are not Catholic, the fact that such a peaceful man as the Pope speaks out against American policies ought to be cause for concern.

People in Iraq, including children, die for lack of food and medicine, while Saddam Hussein stays in power. Count on one thing: the last man in Iraq to die for lack of food or medicine will be Hussein. As far as the bombing of civilian targets in Yugoslavia, an aspirin factory in the Sudan, and targets in Afghanistan, does Bering contend that such acts of war are calculated to make the United States loved?

If it can occur to British journalists that Americans are not universally loved and admired, it ought to occur to Americans as well. Rather than belittle such accounts, Americans ought to give serious reflection to the fact that the policies of their government are making them unpopular around the globe.

In short, America is taking a wrong turn at nearly every opportunity. As Paul Craig Roberts writes in his praiseworthy piece in the Washington Times, quoted above,

it was the U.S. government that ignored recent warnings from both Israeli and Russian intelligence and assumed there would be no consequences at home of our continual bombing of Iraq and support for Israel.

The United States continues to miscalculate. Indeed, Americans might be so politically correct and racially sensitive as to be unable to deal with the problem at all. According to news reports, the Federal Aviation Administration and airport authorities have given assurances that racial profiling will play no role in beefing up security against an obvious enemy.

Officials at San Jose International Airport, for example, sincerely believe they are giving the country assurances by announcing on Sept. 14 that “our security measures have been and will be the same for any human being.”

What a waste of resources in a war against terrorism. Dr. James Smith, a physician from Dothan, Ala., is going to be given the same scrutiny as Mohamed Atta and Marwan Ashehri. Can you imagine any greater nonsense than this?

By the way, once again, I have a nomination for Bill Clinton’s legacy: he was one of the worst presidents we have ever had. That is a legacy. As Roberts reminds us,

It was the Clinton administration and U.S. corporations that sold military communications equipment that cannot be monitored to the terrorists, making the National Security Agency deaf to terrorist plans.

To say nothing of the fact that it was the Clinton administration who failed to retaliate against Osama bin Laden for the Army Rangers killed in Somalia, the embassy bombings, or the attack on the USS Cole. Too busy entertaining Monica Lewinsky, or Chinese and Indonesians with bags of money, perhaps. Like Al Gore said, the Clintons ran “the most moral administration in history.”

In closing, the American response to terrorism on American soil has been mixed at best, and downright worrying at worst. Note to those with poor reading comprehension: this is not to criticize those men and women who are struggling to find bodies and clean the wreckage after the terror attacks. This is strictly a statement about public policy. My cousin, a New York city cop, is working on the rescue effort. The men and women who have been working round the clock, who have donated blood, goods, and money, are heroes. They are showing the world everything that is good about America.

That being said, war fever has gripped the nation. What is needed now is for Americans to think critically about their place in the world. Rather than foolishly lapping up the words of the various talking heads, we would do better to turn to Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates and reflect on the meaning of justice. We would do better to sit down and study the history of other empires, and other democratic republics, rather than continue to believe that we are, where history is concerned, akin to the first man on the moon.

If we wish to continue to enjoy liberty and property, freedom and prosperity, then we must actively work toward such goals. The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, discussing another war brought on by political machinations and entangling alliances (World War One), put it this way back in 1919:

It is altogether absurd to hold the armaments industry responsible for the outbreak of the war. The armaments industry has arisen and grown to a considerable size because governments and peoples bent on war demanded weapons. It would be really preposterous to suppose that the nations turned to imperialistic policies as a favor to the ordnance manufacturers. The armaments industry, like every other, arose in order to satisfy a demand. If the nations had preferred other things to bullets and explosives, then the factory-owners would have produced the former instead of the materials of war.

What is it that Americans prefer? Liberty and property? Or war without end, and the total government control of social life and the redistribution of income?

Conservatives and libertarians have labored for many years to return the American nation to its Jeffersonian roots. They have struggled to restore freedom, and fought the growth of the Nanny State. War is the health of the state, and conservatives and libertarians would do well to think more critically about the long-term changes being wrought in the heat of the moment, lest we move from the Nanny State to something worse.

Grief and anger, unguided by reason, will lead only to ruin.

Mr. Dieteman [send him mail] is an attorney in Erie, Pennsylvania, and a PhD candidate in philosophy at The Catholic University of America.

© 2001 David Dieteman

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