Is the Defense of Liberty Unpatriotic? Wartime Fallacies Revisited

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On
October 12, Gallup issued a press release saying that,

One
effect of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 has been an extraordinary
increase in the faith and confidence that Americans have in
their federal government . . . Six out of 10 Americans now say
they trust their government, a level not seen since 1968, and
half want the government to do more to solve the country's problems.
This percentage is the highest it has been in the nine years
that Gallup has been asking the question.

According
to Frank Newport, the author of the press release, the reason for
this sharp increase in trust in government is "the phenomenon
in which the people of a society rally together behind their leaders
in a time of crisis." This explanation rings true: how many
times in the past few weeks have we heard: "Now is the time
for everyone to support our government"?

Yet
behind this explanation lies a preposterous irony. Just at the moment
when the federal government demonstrates in horrific fashion its
inability to perform even the most basic function proper to government,
that of protecting citizens from violent attack, people begin to
trust the government more to protect them. And this increase in
trust comes not due to other causes and in spite of this
incident, but precisely because the federal government failed
so spectacularly. Moreover, this increase in trust has persisted
even as the government has continued to display its inability to
protect us from biological terrorism.

It
is easy for us to point out the fallacy behind the "reasoning"
("visceral emotion" is probably nearer the mark) underlying
the new American sentiment. People believe they need to support
their government, and thus they also feel that they have to trust
their government more. But there is no necessary link between the
two. The situation between the American people and the American
government is like that of a friend or family member who makes a
bad match in marriage. We friends of liberty realize the American
people have made a bad match, but there's nothing for it now but
to hope that it works for the time being. We have to support the
government's efforts to protect us and punish terrorists — except
insofar as those efforts are futile, counterproductive, or dangerous
(as many of the current efforts in fact are). At the same time,
we should be under no illusions that the efforts will likely work.
The federal government will almost certainly continue to fail in
its duty to protect us, and may even make matters worse. But we
can always hope against hope that they will succeed.

Conservatives
seem to have fallen particularly hard for the support=trust fallacy.
Conservatives online (EnterStageRight.Com is one example) have singled
out for criticism websites such as Antiwar.Com and LewRockwell.Com
because they dare to regard current government efforts with a critical
eye. Now is not the time to critique government policy and cause
division, the conservatives charge. Over the last few weeks the
Left has been a greater friend of liberty than the Right; conservatives
seem to have forgotten the part of their philosophy that views individuals
and their voluntary associations as generally better able to solve
problems than the modern state. For just now, when the federal government
has been wallowing in impotence, is precisely the time when we need
to articulate alternatives.

Unfortunately,
even some libertarians have been falling for the fallacy. The Free
State Project I've helped to organize has seen a significant dropoff
in new registrants since September 11th. Some have even
written me to express that they think the idea of state autonomy
is not an appropriate one anymore; instead, they say, we need to
stand behind the federal government in all respects. But a Free
State could implement better solutions to security — resources no
longer swallowed by redistributive programs, regulatory agencies,
and other unneeded activities could be redirected toward law enforcement;
a Free State would have an armed and vigilant citizenry; eventually,
a Free State might even be able to have its own foreign policy.
(If New York had been an independent or semi-autonomous city-state
following a non-interventionist foreign policy, would it have been
targeted by terrorists? The risks would at least have been much
less great.) If anything, the events of the past few weeks demonstrate
that we need to think even more seriously about significant decentralization
of government functions. Some marriages that don't work need to
be . . . retooled.

October
20, 2001

Jason
Sorens (send him mail)
is a student at Yale.

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