What Would I Do?

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by Gene Callahan

One question I’m asked from time to time is, “OK, if you’re critical of current US policy in the war on terror, what would you do?”

It’s true that it’s always easier to be a critic than a performer. I don’t have any pretensions to being a foreign policy expert, so I’ve never attempted to put forward an exact course of action for the US government in response to 9/11. However, there are a few things I do know, that seem relevant, at least to me.

I know when you make a mistake you should apologize. If I bred pit bulls, and one escaped and ate my neighbor’s cat, at the very least I’d say I’m sorry.

The American government might try it. It would be nice to hear Bush say, “Jeez, it wasn’t really a very good idea to arm, train, and fund a bunch of loony, Western-hating Moslem terrorists back in the 80s. We’re sorry about that. Oh, and it probably wasn’t a good idea to help Saddam Hussein back then either, starting up his chemical and biological weapons programs, and all. And maybe we should have avoided siding with Al Qaida in the Balkans, even if Milosevic isn’t the nicest fellow in the world. (Although, of course, we had been siding with him just a few years before, and maybe that was a mistake as well.)”

I also know that when you make a promise, you should keep it. That is especially true when you make a big point of solemnly swearing a public oath to keep a promise. So it would be also nice to hear Bush say, “You know, I can’t imagine what I’ve been thinking, talking about attacking Iraq. It is, of course, the job of Congress to declare war, and a gross violation of my oath to uphold the Constitution for me to start wars on my own. And certainly, the fact that my predecessors have violated that oath doesn’t excuse me! Nor do I even have an ‘emergency excuse’ – after all, we’ve been gabbing about attacking Iraq for months, so it can’t be that much of an emergency.”

I’ve also learned that it’s not very nice to relieve your anger at one person by taking it out on someone else. It’s no doubt true that Saddam Hussein isn’t a pleasant fellow, either. Why, he’s thumbed his nose at American presidents any number of times! But it can’t be right to kill Iraqi children – at least 100,000, by a low-end estimate – because we’re mad at Hussein, can it? And it makes no sense to defend our sanctions by claiming that they aren’t hurting and impoverishing the Iraqi people: That is, after all, the whole point of sanctions!

Most of all, I know that being in the employ of a state does not elevate one to an alternate moral plane in which the rules that apply to the rest of us are void. The whole gamut of arguments to the contrary, from Machiavelli to Hobbes to the modern notion of total war against the entire populace of any country with which a government is upset, is a convenient series of excuses for the state to act however it wants. If you’ll notice, the Ten Commandments do not say, “Thou shalt not steal, unless you are an IRS agent.” Buddha did not prompt his followers to “right action, except when holding a government office.” Jesus did not say, “Love your enemy as you love yourself, unless your airforce is better.” Kant formulated a categorical imperative, not a conditional-on-government-employment imperative.

So it would be nice if every government employee, even the President, started acting like he was just another ordinary person. Because, you know, he is.

Gene Callahan [send him mail] has just finished a book, Economics for Real People, to be published this year by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.

2002, Gene Callahan

Gene Callahan/Stu Morgenstern Archives

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