In the Cold War, and now the War on Terror, the constant theme concerns the merits of our system and the failings of theirs. We are told to be grateful to our government for having granted us our system and protecting us from theirs, because our system is moral, godly, productive, and eternal, whereas theirs is immoral, hateful, unproductive, and passing. Our government gives us freedom; their government gives them tyranny. Our people are suited to live under freedom; their people are acculturated to despotism.
There is some superficial plausibility to this, but it is plausibility gone mad. If the US had preserved its founding vision of a society and economy that developed with no government oversight or management, of communities and families that governed themselves, of a foreign policy that consisted of trade with all and war with none, that truly would be a system that is more moral, godly, and productive. As to whether it is eternal, that would depend entirely on whether the people manage to keep the government from wrecking their society — the single greatest challenge of politics in our time and all times.
No government anywhere can be given credit for the existence of liberty. As Mises says, liberal government is a contradicto in adjecto: two ideas that cannot be combined, an oxymoron, an unthinkable phrase. “There is an inherent tendency in all governmental power,” he writes, “to recognize no restraints on its operation and to extend the sphere of its dominion as much as possible. To control everything, to leave no room for anything to happen of its own accord without the interference of the authorities — this is the goal for which every ruler secretly strives.”
Mises is pointing out something that wartime talk forgets. All states everywhere want to be total. The extent to which they are not is due to the inability of the state to get away with it, or to the unwillingness of people to tolerate it. To understand this, consider a criminal syndicate. It would like to enjoy the untrammeled right to loot, kill, and accumulate power, but it also knows that it takes risks with every crime it commits. If its activities anger too many, it risks losing what power it has. So too with states: they desire total power, but take only what they can get away with.
As for acculturation, it is a fact that people are more or less likely to tolerate despots. Americans, for example, would only recognize a tyrant in the White House if he had a mustache the width of his nose. Even the most cynical among us have been astounded at what the public has put up with since 9-11: a brazen attempt to seize control of the entire economy and culture in the name of protecting us, even though the main lesson of 9-11 is that the government cannot protect us but rather invites acts of vengeance through its imperial foreign policies.
There is such a thing as acculturation that tolerates no attempts to rob people of the right to self-government. It is on display in Najaf and in other parts of Iraq where people are giving their lives to throw out the invaders. But instead of recognizing this as bravery, the US government says that the resistance is showing itself unwilling to accept “freedom” because it represents a people predisposed to live under tyranny. How to respond to such nonsense? Observe their dedication and sacrifices for the sake of the land, family, tribe, and religion: this is a predisposition to tolerate no rule by conquerors. What’s more, this tendency has completely shocked the US civilian political elite, who have been uncomprehending as to why foreign peoples are so unwilling to be ruled by tanks and guns.
To the same extent that this wartime us vs. them scenario exaggerates the merits of the current-day American system, it caricatures (by necessity) the evils of the other system. Saddam was brutal but with the same tendencies of all governments everywhere: the overt violence was focused against enemies of the regime. Otherwise, Saddam cut deals to make Iraqi society work and to keep himself in power.
Like all stable governments everywhere, his rule was maintained by a complex balance of payoffs and propaganda, along with selected areas of liberality to give Iraq a comparative advantage over neighboring states: Christianity was legal and protected, women dressed in Western clothes and enjoyed full economic rights, gun ownership was widespread, and liquor stores and nightclubs operated freely. There were symphony orchestras playing Western music. This was a civilized country, even if the government was premodern in its methods.
Soviet Communism was dreadful beyond belief, but not nearly as expansionist as the US claimed, nor was the rule of the Politburo “total”; zones of free movement and trade had to exist as a matter of national preservation. Communism of the pure variety would lead to mass death in short order. The survivability of Soviet Communism alone proves that it was not and could not be a total system. Imagine the worst regime you can — Rome under Caligula, Germany under Hitler, China under Mao, Romania under Ceausescu — and you will still find a state that sought some modicum of public consensus to shore up its viability.
Of course there are differences between states, some more or less evil than others, but during wartime, these differences are widely exaggerated in order to make us think of the enemy as less than human, a beast to slaughter rather than a population of people striving to get by and working to keep power at bay, a people very much like our own.
Perhaps the most ghastly aspect of wartime is how, in the name of fighting tyranny abroad, the US takes such strides in imposing it at home. Before the US started fighting for freedom in other countries, it had no gigantic welfare state, no sprawling regulatory state, no fiat money system that the government can wholly control, no federal budget spending trillions and trillions, no secret police spying on the people, no nutty social planning that attempts to tell us with whom we can and cannot associate. All of these totalitarian measures were adopted while we were fighting, we were told, for foreign peace and liberty.
One wonders what institutions from radical Islam the US will absorb in the course of its war on terror? Its anti-intellectualism? Its failure to embrace liberalism and progress? Its suspicion of outsiders? Its fanaticism? The inability of its legal institutions to distinguish between vice and crime?
No amount of evil is considered out of bounds for those who hold power. All states everywhere want to be total. Remember that and you won’t be fooled by the US government’s attempt to distract you from its power grabs with scary tales of foreign tyrannies. What is to be truly dreaded is homegrown.