Suddenly, after the attack, all of our wealth and all of our freedoms are up for grabs, and not only by foreign terrorists, but by our own government and its uncritical cheerleaders. Is there a limit to how much liberty can be compromised in the name of security? How much spending Congress should authorize? How much money and credit the Federal Reserve should create? How much business can be regulated?
Apparently not. But why not? A government unconstrained by law, tradition, or public opinion is nothing short of despotic. Not everything can be justified in the name of punishment, prevention, and safety: not conscription, not the elimination of privacy, not killing innocents, and not the use of nuclear weapons that necessarily violate the tenets of just war. Yet one US Senator, no less, has called for the death of innocents on grounds that terrorists don’t distinguish between military and civilian targets. In other words, we are being told to fight terrorism by becoming terrorists ourselves.
Robert Higgs, author of Crisis and Leviathan, has shown how government grows the most during times such as these. In a usual wartime situation, the government massively expands and then falls back only partially after it is over. This creates a ratchet effect that guarantees a relentless march of the state. Every new spending program creates a precedent said to apply in peace time. How often have we heard calls for a "Marshall Plan" to solve this or that social issue?
The present circumstances are even worse than wartime, where at least there is a starting point and an ending point (though Clinton’s wars have clouded even this). A war against terrorism, already begun in the 1980s and so far spectacularly unsuccessful, promises to be perpetual because of the endless number of conceivable threats. We’ll never know if we are winning or losing the war since something as monstrously huge as the recent attack could happen anytime.
It is proposed that we be on permanent war alert, which means that we must permanently trade our liberty for a promised (but undelivered) security. Bush’s requested $20 billion, make that $40 billion and rising, for antiterrorist measures is just the beginning.
The US already spends nearly $10 billion and employs nearly 1000 people to work on counterterrorism exclusively, and it has gained us nothing. Are we really supposed to believe that quadrupling this budget will somehow work to prevent future attacks? The money so far has done nothing but saddle the American people with more armed federal agents and invasions of privacy. It’s a sad commentary that many Americans, for now, say they are willing to shell out more in taxes and give up commercial freedoms. It is even sadder to note that the purchased security won’t actually be delivered.
So far we haven’t even been spared the commentator who pops his head up to observe, after a disaster, that at least the government-directed rebuilding effort will be good for the economy. One might think that the sheer scale of the losses would be too immense for that classic Keynesian fallacy. But no: writing in Slate Timothy Noah informs us that "we live in a very wealthy nation that responds to horrible disasters by spending large sums of money." This spending will, he predicts, "provide a meaningful Keynesian stimulus to a national economy."
Must we recount Frederic Bastiat’s parable of the broken window? The story goes that a boy throws a rock through a store window, and everyone is justly sad. Suddenly, Timothy Noah’s 19th-century equivalent shows up to say, hey, this is actually great! Now the glazer will be paid to fix it, and he in turn will buy a suit, and the process will multiply until everyone is actually made better off. What this forgets is the alternative uses of the resources that are spent in rebuilding: the unseen costs of property destruction.
And speaking of unseen costs, what about the alternative uses that might have been made of the $40 billion (for now) to be spent on counterterrorism that will go to hiring more government employees to boss everyone around? This kind of spending multiplies the damage already done by the terrorists, destroying more wealth and channeling more resources from social needs into political ones.
There have been many other equally absurd actions, all of which amount to compromising our personal and commercial liberty. The first impulse of the government in all times of crisis is control and coercion. So it was no surprise that all planes, private and commercial, were forcibly grounded, including those carrying overnight packages. But this action has already bankrupted Midway Airlines, and others will follow in the United States and Britain. If it gets worse, so will the pressure to subsidize them.
New regulations are being imposed that will dramatically increase the costs associated with air travel, some of them (like the elimination of curbside check-ins) making no sense whatsoever. The presumption is that the airline industry itself has no incentive in preventing hijacking. Well, perhaps if airline crews had not been barred (decades ago) from carrying weapons, this never would have happened. Perhaps if the airlines weren’t so busy obeying preposterous government demands (like asking every passenger if our bags have been with us the whole time) and otherwise doing things the federal way, they could have designed some serious anti-hijacking measures that didn’t also attack the paying customers. Leave it to the government to prohibit owners of airlines from defending their own property (and customers) when it is most necessary.
The coercion generated by the crisis first showed up in the harassment of gasoline retailers, who, trying to conserve resources in the face of a wildly gyrating spot-market price for gas, raised prices. To threaten them and investigate them gives us a clue into what government will do with its new powers: not go after difficult-to-find criminals, but the easy-to-find innocents who are just trying to make do.
Then there’s monetary policy, the means by which the government taxes when the legislative process seems too cumbersome. Thus the Federal Reserve injected $38 billion one day, another $70 billion the next, and established a $50 billion swap line with other central banks the next. Now that’s power. Not all of this new money will make its way into the economy; at least, that should be the hope. To destroy the purchasing power of the dollar in response to the destruction of the US financial district is a heck of "response" to terrorism.
As for the draft, someone please explain how conscripting America’s young men and women into the military — forcibly taking them away from their jobs and schools — is going to prevent more attacks like we saw September 11. It’s a power grab, of course. The government is using this occasion to do what it could only have dreamed of doing last week.
Civil liberties are already being curtailed. The government’s invasive "carnivore" software was already being shopped around the nation’s leading Internet Service Providers, to permit the feds to spy on all email. Until now, the ISPs had resisted. But in the aftermath of the new Bush "antiterrorism" act just passed by the Senate, they will not be allowed to say no.
As regards the mainstream print media, they are their usual selves: the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times are both whooping it up for bombing anything and everything, on the theory that yet another display of rampant imperialism will deter future attacks and not actually have the reverse effect. By pursuing this course, we are made less secure, of course.
What, then, should the government do in this time of crisis? Less, not more. It was the US foreign policy of unyielding empire that incited these attacks in the first place. It’s hard to say when the turning point was. It might have been 1990, when the US gave tacit approval to Iraq to invade Kuwait and then bombed Iraq back into the stone age for doing so. It might have been the war on Serbia, or the bombs in Sudan, or the destruction of the Chinese embassy, or any number of other foreign adventures.
Most likely, the turning point was May 12, 1996, when Madeleine Albright, then US ambassador to the UN, explained to Lesley Stahl of CBS that 500,000 dead Iraqi children, killed by US sanctions, was morally justified to get Saddam. "We think the price is worth it," were her exact words, words that were mostly unreported here but which rang out throughout the Arab world. She was then made Secretary of State. That was five years ago. We continue to bomb Iraq, often on a daily basis, and the sanctions are still on. We should not do unto others what we do not want them to do unto us.
There’s never a good time to give up liberty. But when everyone else is calling for despotism to fight despotism, it’s the best time to stand up and say: We will not be moved. We need more, not less, liberty.