Republicans have long dabbled in socialism, and our current president is no exception. His Medicare bill, his farm subsidies, and his enormous expansion of federal education spending all amount to "third-way" economic programs that constitute the injection of socialism into a capitalist economy. Social democracy, as Hayek observed, will inevitably push society towards serfdom and totalitarianism, and Bush is guilty of horrendous domestic policies in that direction.
Bush’s most disastrous socialist policy has been the war in Iraq. It has all the makings of economic central planning, and all the ill symptoms as well. No general criticism of government intervention in the economy fails to apply to his adventure in Mesopotamia.
First off, this war, like almost all wars in history, has been funded through the coercive method of taxation — the forceful transfer of wealth to the tune of more than one hundred billion dollars from the private sector, from the hands that earned it, into the government sector. Libertarians and true free market advocates must oppose any such large coercive redistribution of wealth. Right at the beginning, only considering funding, the Iraq war is as immoral as any welfare program that steals from some to give to others. Furthermore, it suffers under the same economic incentive limitations: there is no reason for government to spend the money efficiently, because it can always use force to take more; there is no incentive for it to succeed in its ostensible goal, because then it loses its rationale for funding.
It is telling that Bush and Kerry can’t even agree on how much the Iraq war has cost the taxpayers. The true cost of government programs is often difficult to measure, almost impossible.
And yet, funding of the Iraq War is only the beginning of its socialist qualities. The entire endeavor has been an attempt by the US government to centrally plan an entire sector of economic activity. The shortages of body armor and weaponry, the misallocation of massive resources, the failure to protect oil refineries and to predict rising costs of occupation — these were all inevitable symptoms of an attempt to centrally plan such a large undertaking.
What’s more, "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was always meant to involve more than a simple military victory over a foreign regime. It was meant to replace it, and to substitute Saddam’s authoritarian regime with US central planning of an entire country’s political economy. Conservatives brag about schools being built, electricity being installed, and water running, while liberals point out, correctly, that such infrastructure is laughably far from completion. Basic features of any modern civilization such as lights and running water become hard enough for governments to manage on their own soil; when one government attempts to plan and carry out the construction and maintenance in a foreign land, with almost uniform local opposition to such paternalistic meddling, it is predictable that such projects will be riddled with failure, incompetence, corruption, and inefficiency. That so many conservatives think it is the proper role of the US government to plan the Iraqi economy, to build Iraqi schools and manage Iraqi utilities, alone demonstrates their failure to grasp the limitations of socialist central planning. That they are convinced the US government is doing such a laudable job abroad in these activities, which they often consider beyond the proper role of government at home, demonstrates how delusional and hypocritical they have become. Blinded by war glory and partisan loyalty, yesterday’s moderate advocates of domestic free markets have become today’s loudest sycophants for US socialism projected abroad.
The US military and its sponsored regime in Iraq have established numerous socialist goals and policies. They have censored the press, attempting to centrally manage the opinions and speech of the Iraqi people. They have instituted curfews and circumscribed towns in barbed wire, attempting to centrally plan the movement of the Iraqi people, as if the whole country were a prison. They have imposed an income tax and gone door-to-door confiscating guns, and have pursued numerous other policies with all the economic limitations and immorality of comparable policies in America, except without the tacit consent of the people being ruled. Without legitimacy in the minds of Iraqis, US socialism in Iraq is bound to fail even worse than at home, where there is at least pervasive acceptance, however passive, of that same government.
Look no further than the new Iraqi constitution to discover whether this war is socialism. Aside from some obvious contradictions and hypocrisy, as well as goals of central management far more ambitious than what the Ba-athist regime attempted in its rule of the country, the constitution contains numerous socialist tenets that any conservative who supported this war must face:
"The individual has the right to security, education, health care, and social security. The Iraqi State and its governmental units, including the federal government, the regions, governorates, municipalities, and local administrations, within the limits of their resources and with due regard to other vital needs, shall strive to provide prosperity and employment opportunities to the people."
Whereas in the United States, most conservatives recognize that the government can neither effectively nor legitimately be charged with providing employment and healthcare to the American people, that same government has established a puppet government in Iraq that aims to achieve those very same socialist goals, only this time many conservatives cheer. Of course, these are utopian aspirations, not only given the inability of socialist systems to allocate resources efficiently, but also considering the reality of Iraqi life right now. The country is in the throes of chaotic bloodshed and on the brink of civil war. It is a delusional fantasy to establish healthcare as a positive legal right where the rule of law is not even sufficient to protect the rights of life, liberty and property. Indeed, most Iraqis consider the US-backed regime in Iraq to be the gravest threat to their rights, and so long as it remains, its egalitarian constitution notwithstanding, the "Iraqi state and its governmental units" will probably find the "limits of their resources" tied up in combating insurrection. The only way the government can manage healthcare in Iraq, let alone the schools and utilities, would entail further massive transfers of wealth from Americans to Iraq. Again, what conservatives might find a distasteful use of their tax dollars in America, they defend in another country, probably because they can’t see firsthand the futility and damage done by such central planning.
Of course, the US military engagement in Iraq has had one symptom far more egregious than even the hundreds of billions of dollars wasted and copious property destroyed: the loss of thousands of priceless, irreplaceable human lives. More than a thousand Americans have so far died in this ludicrous war. Tens of thousands of Iraqis appear to have paid a similar price. Uncounted human beings on both sides have been mortally wounded.
These calculations are just statistics in the minds of the central planners — if even that. Wolfowitz was caught off guard months ago and didn’t even know how many of his countrymen and women had died for his great experiment in Iraq. The Pentagon doesn’t even attempt to keep accurate numbers for Iraqi fatalities. The loss of human life in a war, in numeric terms, is only of interest to the war makers in the crudest sense: for the weighing of strategic and tactical military successes and blunders. And yet, even in these crude terms, our rulers fail to keep up with the numbers.
Human life is the most precious thing on earth, at least as far as most humans regard their own lives. The value is immeasurable, and entirely subjective from the point of view of those living and dead. When someone dies in another country from natural causes, it has no bearing on a stranger living here, and yet for the dead it literally means losing everything; for his family it can mean the entire world. The many thousands dead in the Iraq war can mean a lot to those Americans sympathetic and interested in the news, US foreign policy, and the uses of their tax dollars. But even those of us who consider such tragedies financed by our taxes to be particularly horrifying cannot begin to imagine what it would be like to lose a loved one in a destructive war, unless we have lost one ourselves.
Government programs can’t take in account the importance of a single human life, let alone the significance of thousands of such lives. The same government programs that lose millions, billions and even trillions of dollars to waste — money that would have been infinitely more productive value in the private sector — can’t be expected to factor human lives into their operations in any meaningful way. The cruelty and disdain of socialist governments toward human life, most notably the full-blown socialist governments of Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Hitler and others, is something with which we are all familiar. And yet, even the smallest introduction of socialism into a relatively free economy is the difference between life and death for many human beings who are but faceless statistics, if even that, so far as the central planners are concerned. The Food and Drug Administration is one of the best examples of such antipathy toward human life in the American domestic sphere. As Robert Higgs points out, the FDA doesn’t even maintain estimates of how many people it kills or supposedly saves. The best example we have now of such bureaucratic apathy toward human life, in US foreign policy, is the war in Iraq.
The strategic missteps, tactical blunders, and misallocation of resources acquired through the coercive mechanism of taxation — these are all predictable problems that come with the territory of socialist central planning, and war is no exception. The disregard for human life is the most immeasurable disaster involved in socialist systems, and the Iraq war is the best modern example the US state has to offer.
It must also be remembered that the Iraq war is part of a larger socialist scheme to use US government force to remake the entire Middle East and all "terrorist-sponsoring" states into a friendlier mold. As the occupation yields more American casualties every month, the war advocates insist that the problem is not enough funding, and that the neighboring countries sponsor terrorism, allowing insurgents to cross the border into occupied Iraq. The answer, of course, is more funding and to spread the same type of war and occupation to adjacent locations. More funding is the same answer we always hear from the left when we point out the dilapidated public schools and defunct government healthcare programs. Extending the program to neighboring places is the same answer we hear when we point out the failures of rent control and gun control. It is no coincidence that the conservatives insist their own pet socialist project will work, once it’s expanded and extended. Thankfully, the government can only do so much.
The silver lining, as every libertarian thinker from Mises to Rand has understood, is that, in the long term, the inherent incompetence and inefficiency of central planning limit the scope of socialist disaster. Centrally planned systems are bound to fail, eventually. Without these economic limitations, nothing would stop governmental apathy or even outright contempt toward innocent human life from translating into infinite suffering on the part of the victims of socialist central planning. How many more millions would have fallen victim to the Soviet Union if communism worked? How many more thousands would die in the Middle East if the US government could effectively manage the affairs of other countries? The black market was all that kept many people alive in the USSR, and the same was probably true for Iraq during the 1990s when the US-UN sanctions deprived so many of food and medicine. It is a bright side that government’s evils will always be restrained by its own incompetence.
We have some reason to hope when we see that, just as all socialist programs eventually collapse under the weight of their own lack of sustainability, the war in Iraq is steadily heading towards its conclusive failure. How tragic that so much was lost to see the same inevitable lesson that other wars, and other socialist programs, should have taught us all by now.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research assistant at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.