"Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations — entangling alliances with none."
~ Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address
"The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible . . . . It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world."
~ George Washington's Farewell Address
Of all the Republican presidential candidates, only Ron Paul believes in and adheres to the American foreign policy philosophy of Washington and Jefferson. For this he, and all other like-minded statesmen over the past seven decades, have been misleadingly smeared as "isolationists." In this context, "isolationist" is truly Orwellian. By advocating peace and free trade, and only supporting just and defensive war, Ron Paul is advocating the maximum possible interaction between the peoples of the world.
It is the international division of labor and freedom of commerce that is in fact the very source of human civilization. All of the goods and services that we enjoy and utilize in our daily lives are the result of the efforts of hundreds, or thousands of people from all over the world who all specialize in something and, motivated by self interest, see to it that we get our bread, our beef, our beer, and everything else. It is restrictions on trade that are truly "isolationist," and nothing restricts mutually-advantageous trade among the people of the world more than war does. War leads to isolationism. People interact peacefully and beneficially in the free market; they kill each other when they are at war.
The core principle of economics is that as long as there is private property and reasonably free markets, individuals, in pursuing their own self interests, will specialize in whatever they are best at, selling those things to others, and using the proceeds to purchase things which they are not very good at producing. This is how the poorest of the poor can still survive and improve their lives. There is no "survival of the fittest" mentality attached to the free market. The poorest of the poor do not need to produce their own food, build their own houses, and manufacture their own clothing (nor does anyone else): the international division of labor allows them to rely on others to provide such things so that their lives are sustainable.
War, on the other hand, "bursts asunder" the international division of labor, as Ludwig von Mises wrote in his masterpiece, Human Action. For example, during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the industrial revolution enhanced the standard of living of the average person more than the previous generations could ever have imagined. Wherever capitalism was allowed to flourish the common man enjoyed the fruits of the international division of labor as his standard of living rose while his hours of work per week declined (also thanks to the increased productivity of labor caused by capital investment under capitalism). World War I destroyed all of this, throwing country after country into an isolationist abyss by all but destroying the international division of labor. The people of the world who had benefited in countless ways from the efforts of strangers were isolated from those benefits as their living standards declined. Countries became isolated from the benefits of international trade while forming political alliances to wage war with. War being the opposite of capitalism, the end result was the death of millions and the destruction of capital on a massive scale.
Of course, there are always those who benefit from war: the monarchs, dictators, and "statesmen" who enjoy wallowing in "imperial glory," as Alexander Hamilton described it; the politically connected who enrich themselves through defense contracts; the academics and "journalists" who operate a pro-war propaganda machine for the state in return for notoriety, position, and money; and the state in general. War is the health of the state; nothing aggrandizes the state and all its functionaries more than war does. As a corollary, nothing destroys freedom and prosperity more than non-defensive war does, either. And as Murray Rothbard remarked in his essay entitled "Just War," the only truly just and defensive wars in American history have been the American Revolution and the South's defense against the invasion launched against it by the Republican Party in 1861-1865.
The real "isolationists" who seek to destroy the peaceful cooperation among the people of the world are a group of people who might be called "instigationists." These are the egomaniacs and rent seekers mentioned above who instigate wars with their lying, conniving, and manipulating behavior. They typically have never participated in a war, or even the peacetime military, themselves, and are deservedly labeled as "chickenhawks" by many commentators.
Abraham Lincoln made the strongest defense of Southern slavery that was ever made in his first inaugural address, even pledging to support its explicit enshrinement in the Constitution, while threatening war over tax collection in the same speech. Since he had no intention of freeing any slaves, and waging war over tax collection would have made him an international war criminal, he needed to invent an excuse for invading his own country (the very definition of treason under Article 3, Section 3 of the U.S. Constitution, by the way). So he fabricated the notion of a "perpetual union." The founding fathers, Lincoln implied, would have agreed with him that if any group of people ever attempted to leave the "voluntary" union that the founders created, the central government would have the "right" to invade those states, murder their citizens by the hundreds of thousands, bomb their cities, burn some of them to the ground, and plunder their wealth. This of course is what Lincoln's army did, all in the name preserving a seventy-year old political bargain. As for Fort Sumter, it is revealing that Lincoln wrote his naval commander, Gustavus Fox, after the incident (in which no one was injured, let alone killed) thanking him for his assistance in goading the South Carolinians into firing the first shot and instigating a war.
The Spanish-American war was purely a war of imperialism and never had any prospect of providing any benefit whatsoever to the average American. That is why the great late nineteenth-century libertarian scholar William Graham Sumner penned his famous essay, "The Conquest of the United States by Spain." The Spanish-American War turned America into an empire, just like the Spanish empire, instead of the constitutional republic of the founders. But egomaniacal blowhards like Teddy Roosevelt were able to build their political careers out of this deranged adventure.
Nor did Americans have any business intervening in World War I, the most colossal disaster of the twentieth century, if not of all centuries. All that was "accomplished," as Jim Powell writes in Wilson's War, was the strengthening of the power of the communists in the Soviet Union and the rise of the Nazis in Germany. But there was plenty of power, glory, and riches for the political class and all of its supporters. Defense contractors became rich beyond their wildest dreams; lowly government bureaucrats became powerful economic dictators; and the statist intellectual class began to think of itself as a class of grand social engineers. The so-called progressives were almost unanimously pro-war, for instance, because of their twin beliefs that: 1) government can and should be used to create heaven on earth, in the U.S. and in Europe; and 2) wartime central planning, Soviet style, could be a demonstration project for Soviet-style central planning of the peacetime American economy after the war.
After eight years of complete failure in ending the Great Depression, with has massive interventionist policies only making things worse, FDR manipulated the Japanese into invading Pearl Harbor, as Robert Stinnett documents with great care in his book, Day of Deceit: The Truth about FDR and Pearl Harbor. Entering the European war, in FDR's mind, would be the Mother of all Government Spending Programs which would surely end the depression and at least divert the public's attention away from his abysmal failures. After all, the reputation and legacy of Franklin Roosevelt was at stake. (The war did not end the depression; it only ended unemployment because of the conscription of more than ten million men when only some five million Americans were unemployed in the late 1930s).
The Instigationist cabal was responsible for lying America into the disastrous Vietnam War, which caused the senseless and needless death of 55,000 Americans and hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese. Then of course there is the latest "victory" of the instigationists, the War in Iraq, which even the CIA admits was based on a lie — that Saddam Hussein had "weapons of mass destruction" that threatened the U.S. Thousands of American soldiers have died in vain there, while hundreds of thousands more were maimed for life and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis have been killed. It was all for nothing as far as the average American taxpayer is concerned.
Think about the sick history of instigationism the next time you see a smirking and smarmy William Kristol, Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney, Herman Cain, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, or any other political hack urging the invasion of Iran, Syria, North Korea, or any other faraway place where they believe American bombs should be dropping.
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland and the author of The Real Lincoln; Lincoln Unmasked: What You're Not Supposed To Know about Dishonest Abe and How Capitalism Saved America. His latest book is Hamilton's Curse: How Jefferson's Archenemy Betrayed the American Revolution — And What It Means for America Today.