One of many costs of war is the impression it gives that government is a savior, a glorious means by which social problems are solved and a mechanism for the righting of wrong. In all postwar times, we can count on interventionists to invoke the war analogy to address a huge range of problems. If the government can do such a great job in war, it is asked, why shouldn’t it also manage the economy, cure disease, abolish unemployment, end poverty, and 10,000 other things?
This is not just a rhetorical tactic; it represents grave ideological degeneracy that is encouraged and promoted by war. War prepares the public for the idea that government is the answer to problems, not a deadly machine that specializes in destruction and killing, something to be feared and restrained as the founding fathers believed, but a liberator, a bringer of high ideals, the means by which the greatest things are accomplished.
In praising the troops, President Bush implied as much: “Operation Iraqi Freedom was carried out with a combination of precision and speed and boldness the enemy did not expect and the world had not seen before…. You have shown the world the skill and the might of the American armed forces…. Wherever you go, you carry a message of hope.”
Hope! In the same speech, he mentioned faith and charity too, thus showing how all the virtues taught by God Incarnate are embodied in the act of blowing things up and killing people in distant lands. Now, this kind of language can be dismissed as boilerplate, but in fact it has repercussions in domestic policy. The advocates of big government seize on this to make the case for government to actively intervene in all aspects of life. If the armed forces really bring a message of hope wherever they go, maybe they should come to your town. If the world can be shown the might and skill of the American military, why shouldn’t it be shown to America as well?
The prize for being the first to invoke the war analogy goes to the Wall Street Journal, which, when commenting on the shabby state of public schools, offers the following: “If Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction were sufficient reason to invade Iraq, he should now send in the Marines to occupy and reconstruct the nation’s dysfunctional public schools.”
So there we have it! Forget all the debates, the careful thinking, the research, the details, the hard work, the experience of centuries. Just send in the Marines and be done with it! Such is the mentality of statism that war unleashes.
The data reported in the WSJ article itself is highly interesting. According to a new poll, 71% believe that public-school students do the bare minimum to get by. Some 43% of teachers say they spend more time keeping order than teaching, and 83% say the parents’ failure to discipline kids at home is a serious problem.
There’s more. Three-quarters of respondents say there is a serious discipline problem at public schools. Two-thirds of college professors say public schools are either fair or poor. Three-quarters of employers believe that public-school grads have only fair or poor writing skills, and they complain of the students’ lack of math and organization skills.
The conclusion the Journal draws is not unwarranted: Americans are terribly dissatisfied with public schools. While the article includes a perfunctory call for the usual combination of vouchers and charter schools (both government “solutions” too), the really notable rhetorical turn comes with the author’s suggestion that the Marines should occupy the schools and fix them up. Now, we might laugh at this as nothing but a flourish, but it illustrates the key problem in this country today: the belief that government is the answer and freedom is not.
Note that the ideological “right” is as much, or more today, entranced by this idea that violence works than the “left.” It is possible that the left might even learn a general lesson here. Perhaps it will occur to some of them that a government so lying and brutal to have pulled off this war should not be trusted to run the schools, the health system, or the economy. It’s doubtful that they will learn this, but there is the hope.
On the right, however, there is little hope. Having spent a lifetime following and participating in conservative intellectual circles, I can report that I’ve never seen more faith in government than is alive in these circles today. This war and the Bush presidency have caused a huge resurgence in the belief that power alone can accomplish great, transforming miracles.
Not 1 in 10,000 Republican conservatives has an inkling of the most basic insights of the old liberal faith in freedom, to say nothing of the founders’ fears of government power. For most of them, the proper political philosophy amounts to nothing more than power lust backed by chauvinism. They have become proud to behave exactly like leftwing caricatures of themselves: fascistic, anti-intellectual, longing to be led.
Left or right, statism is an intellectual disease that transcends party attachments. It stems from the false hope that men with guns can make an end run around all the problems in the world. It imagines great leaders riding in on white horses (or flying in on jets and landing on aircraft carriers) who can at last put an end to all debates and take decisive action. Courage and derring-do, backed by men with bombs, it is believed, can accomplish great deeds!
On the left, this ideology is called socialism and on the right it is called fascism, but it always amounts to the same principle: that dictatorship and regimentation is to be preferred to letting people alone.
To believe in statism requires a leap of faith, and once that leap is taken, it becomes ever easier to believe that the plan worked, even when all evidence points the other way. In the Iraqi case, as Bush spoke about liberation, US troops were firing more rounds at Iraqi citizens protesting the occupation. As Bush said that the troops were bringing hope to all, and avoiding civilian casualties, bullets were ripping through the flesh of innocent Iraqis who simply want the US to leave them alone. In fact, it is increasingly clear that the only political consensus in Iraq right now is that the US must go, an impulse the US is dedicated to stamping out.
Under the statist faith, to draw attention to such realities constitutes an act of apostasy. Let those who say there are costs to war be anathema! The downside must never be mentioned. In his speech, for example, Bush said the Iraq war was a good thing with two sentences, the first one false and the second one preposterously true by definition: “We have removed an ally of Al Qaeda, and cut off a source of terrorist funding. And this much is certain: no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime, because that regime is no more.”
What he did not say is more interesting. Before the war he said: “The goals of our coalition are clear and limited. We will end a brutal regime, whose aggression and weapons of mass destruction make it a unique threat to the world.” After, he said nothing about the failure to find WMD, the primary excuse for this invasion.
Moreover, he said nothing about the evident failure to kill Saddam. He didn’t say how many lives were lost. He said nothing about the looting, the chaos, the death, the destruction, the plagues, the hunger, the misery. He said nothing concerning the most obvious fact that Iraqis do not want Americans there. He said nothing about the possibility that Iraq will become either an Islamic dictatorship or a prison camp run by the US. In fact, every word of his speech was malignant fantasy.
The application of the same model applied to domestic policy partakes of the same tactics. The Bush administration is pushing for a nationalization of educational standards. The costs will be enormous and the failure evident to anyone who can stand to look. But the state never admits failure. To the state, freedom (genuine freedom, not the false freedom brought by bombs and invasions) is always failing and the government is always succeeding. The state’s propaganda turns reality itself upside down.
Returning to the topic of education, clear thinking on the question reveals that the answer to our woes requires not more of the thing that is failing (the state) but precisely the opposite. It is the exercise of freedom, not the use of military troops, that has given us homeschools and private schools that have performed so magnificently. But these exist despite every effort of government to crush them. They represent flowers that have sprung up through the pavement of the state. To suggest, even in jest, that the Marines be sent in to fix education amounts to calling for the cement truck.
The critics of libertarianism claim that in our hearts, we hope the state will fail. That’s not precisely true. What we know is that the state will fail. Its alleged victories are always a myth in the long run. It takes no leap of faith to see the mess that power has made of the world. The glories of peace and freedom, on the other hand, are evident for all those willing to take off the blinders of statism.