Debate Between Walter Block and Roger White On Harry Browne's Column on Hussein

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I am an avid, not to say addicted, reader of Whenever I see what I regard as a particularly good column, I send it off to friends of mine who I think would find it of interest.

I was particularly taken by Harry Browne’s recent column 8/8/03 on Iraq. Accordingly, as is my wont, I sent it to several colleagues, including a good friend of mine at Loyola University New Orleans, Professor Roger White, a political scientist. Roger and I had previously engaged in a public debate on the U.S. incursion into Iraq. Nevertheless, it was just about as friendly a discussion as I have ever partaken in, given our very different points of view on this issue, and he and I are amiably involved together in all sorts of projects. He is a frequent participant in the Austrian Economic Seminar I have started at Loyola, he regularly attends the meetings of the free market oriented student economic club and I am working with him on an attempt to bring about more diversity of opinion on campus. He is also a habitual lunch companion of mine. I have long been trying to convert him to the one true faith (libertarianism), but, as you can see from below, I still have a ways to go on this.

Roger wrote a blistering critique of the Browne column, which appears below as part I of the present debate between the two of us. Part II is my response to him. This series ends with part III, written by him. I thought it only fair to allow him the last word, as I, in effect, had the opening salvo first word, thanks to Harry.

Part I

Dear Walter,

A couple of points about this article. Mr. Browne asks the question of whether the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. Then, instead of answering the question, he changes the subject to an ad hominem attack on George Bush, to the effect that, ‘Well, we know George Bush is a liar, so why should be believe anything he says? If he says the world is better off without Saddam, he’s probably lying about that too.’

I would counter that we don’t need President Bush to tell us that the world is a better place without Saddam Hussein. We can answer that question for ourselves. Here, let me take a shot at it. Question: Is the world a better place without Saddam Hussein? Roger’s answer: Yes, it is.

Reasoning: Saddam was a tyrant. Tyrants are usually bad. Saddam was a bad tyrant. The world is better off without bad tyrants. Therefore, the world is better off without Saddam Hussein.

Next, I note that Mr. Browne uses a series of what can be referred to as train arguments, i.e., if the trains run more timely with a tyrant in charge, then things are better with the tyrant than without. Granted, the people of Iraq are having difficulties as a tyrannical regime is dissolved and a democratic one is founded. This, however, is not an argument for tyranny and against democracy. Rather, it suggests the rather obvious problem that Jefferson recognized in the Declaration of Independence, namely, that governments ought not to be changed for light and transient reasons, but rather in the wake of a long train of abuses. That would be Saddam’s government. If the mass graves don’t convince you, probably nothing will.

I anticipate that some of the more sophisticated among us will say that I’m advancing a badly over-simplified dichotomy between democracies and tyrannies. I, however, argue that the dichotomy is valid. Life is better generally under democracies than under tyrannies, not only materially, but politically. References are available upon request. Mr. Browne’s suggestion of some equivalency between President Bush and Saddam shows that even the most sophisticated among us need to be reminded of some admittedly simple points.

At the risk of unscientific partisanship, I think that President Bush is a much better leader than Saddam Hussein. Please feel free to quote me on that.

Mr. Browne’s point about our support of tyrannies in the past is a good one. It is, however, out of place. Even if we had wrongfully supported tyrannies in the past, we would not be wrong to oppose a tyranny in the present. As with his ad hominen argument, it is off the track.

More to the point, I submit that it is morally good to temporarily support a smaller tyranny for the purposes of undermining a larger one, or a less immediately dangerous one in order to oppose one that is more immediately dangerous. How and when these cases arise is certainly open to debate, as it is a matter of particular determination. That’s why good leadership matters in even the most stable democracies.

If Mr. Browne’s article was an argument for a third party, libertarian candidacy, I find its elements distressingly groundless.


Part II

Dear Rog:

Who do you think killed more Iraqis? Saddam, or the U.S. imposed decade long

sanctions against that country? According to U.S. sources, I think it was Madeline Albright, this strangle hold killed some half million Iraqis, a figure she found “acceptable,” according to my recollections. Surely, Saddam, vicious as he is, killed far fewer.

Sometimes, “cures” are worse than diseases.

According to the constitution, thought by some to be a contract between the U.S. government and the people, the role of the former is to protect the latter, nothing more. Where is the warrant for do-goodism around the world, even on the assumption, mistaken I believe, that U.S. foreign adventures, being the policeman of the world, actually does good?

What amazes me is that people on the left see clearly the evils of U.S. coercion abroad, e.g., military adventures, imperialism, and don’t see the same thing domestically. Yet, welfare, minimum wages, tariffs, rent controls, etc., are ALSO coercive acts. It equally amazes me is that people on the right, such as yourself, see clearly the evils and inefficiencies of domestic U.S. coercion, e.g., the post office, the motor vehicle bureau,

affirmative action, government caused unemployment, socialized medicine, etc., and yet rely on this clearly inept and evil institution to somehow do good in the foreign context.

Lefties and righties continually amaze me.

Best regards,

Part III

Dear Walter

I agree that the sanctions were a mistake. We should have finished the job in 1991, when we had the chance. The deaths that occurred under the sanctions, however, are more of a see-what-you-made-me-do alibi from Saddam’s government. A little comparative analysis proves the point.

The same sanctions were in place in the Kurdish North, and political and social life actually flowered there, for a reason that you would well understand, freedom. In the South, there was plenty of money for the police state, but not for making the trains run. Dictatorships are not only uncivil, they’re danged expensive.

If the world were a place where contract law prevailed, your point on the Constitution would hold more force. Alas, in order for such rules to operate conditions need to obtain, including international conditions. And may I say that I look forward to many hours you and I will spend debating what those conditions are and how they obtain?

I can’t speak for the Right in general, only for myself as a market liberal. You and I share a general agreement on the beneficial nature of free markets. We disagree on the political conditions within which those markets can best flourish. That’s why I’m looking forward to doing something with you on states and markets.

You may be amazed, not because of the Right and Left, which are usually pretty predictable, but because politics, like markets, can be full of surprises. Consider, if you will, California.


Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. See his Autobiography Archive.

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