was recently discussing Iraq with a friend of mine. He was angry
because he felt the Bush Administration had lied to the public
about the reasons for the war, and had planned poorly for its
aftermath. Nevertheless, he said, "I would argue in the short-run,
our national interest was best served by removing the Saddam regime,
given that we were prepared to dedicate the time and resources
to post-war Iraq…"
I see it, there are two problems with his take here. The first
is that the idea of "national interest" is incoherent. Now, it's
not entirely his fault that he's bought into such an idea: much
of his education (in foreign policy and so forth) probably consisted
in attempts to convince him that "the national interest" was
a coherent concept, and, furthermore, something that could be
clearly seen by certain far-sighted leaders.
nations are not the sorts of entities that have interests, just
like they don't have crushes or daydreams or urges to go out for
a beer. It is individuals who have those things. All thoughts,
of which interests are a sub species, occur in the minds of particular
people, and do not float around in some sort of "national consciousness."
groups are formed based on a specific interest, so that we generally
may assume that members of the group share that interest. When
we say, "The New York Yankees are interested in winning the World
Series" our statement is unproblematic, because the purpose of
the team is to win ballgames and championships, and we don't suspect
any team members of being a double agent for the Red Sox or something
of the sort. Nevertheless, "The Yankees are interested in winning
the World Series" is still just shorthand for, "Each member of
the Yankees organization is interested in winning the World Series."
are different with a civil government. A civil government does
not exist to achieve some substantive purpose; it exists in order
to establish the framework of rules in which different people
go about attempting to achieve their own purposes. Of course,
the US state functions less and less as a civil government everyday,
and more and more as a struggle among warring interest groups,
each trying to grab the reins of power in order to carry out its
plans for society. But, as someone who is basically a classical
liberal, my friend should recognize that this represents a corruption
of the American government, and is a trend to be resisted if we
care for liberty.
an informal way of talking, there is nothing wrong with saying
that "America is interested in baseball," when what we
more precisely mean is: "Many Americans are interested
in baseball." But to move from that to the proposition, "It is
in America's national interest to promote the sport of baseball,"
is fallacious. It is in the interest of the Americans who like
baseball to promote baseball. What someone forwarding this proposal
really means is that he would like to be able to force Americans
not interested in baseball to pony up some dough for the
sake of those who are.
is no sort of calculus by which one could tally up the "net interest"
of all the people in a nation and arrive at some coherent meaning
for "the national interest" conceived of as a device to be employed
by utilitarian judgments. "Being interested" is not available
for quantitative measure. There is no means but the arbitrary
judgment of the person doing the tallying to decide how one person's
interests should stack up against those of another.
would-be planners promote the idea that some scheme is in the
"national interest," what they mean is that it is in their
interest. That doesn't imply that they simply are trying to line
their own pockets although, of course, sometimes they are.
Their interest need not mean only their own career advancement
or their personal material gain: it could be their interest in
what the future of America should be, or their interest in playing
a giant game of Risk with the world as their board.
whatever the character of his interest, every social planner would
like to replace other people's interests and other people's plans
with his own interests and plans. Of course, he can't put it like
that, as it would be a bit of a hard sell to those whose plans
were being cancelled. It is better for him to claim to have a
pipeline to some higher voice, for which he is the prophet: the
forces of material production, geist, the Second Coming,
the "end of history," or the spirit of the Aryan people. Only
through the planner can ordinary people hear this higher voice.
in the remarkable case that the interest in question is shared,
and shared to the same extent, by every person in a nation, the
national interest does not exist. However, even in the highly
improbable event that the interest of every person in America
did coincide with the fixation of Rumsfeld, Perle, Wolfowitz,
Ledeen, and others on generating "creative
destruction" in the Middle East, the "national interest" argument
for war still falls short. All that has been determined
at that point is that it's not unjust to Americans for
the US to go to war with Iraq, since none of them are being coerced
into supporting it. Now, the issue becomes: Is it unjust to Iraqis?
say I have some neighbors who are a real nuisance. They have screaming
matches all the time, leave unsightly garbage around in their
yard, and, what's more, their house blocks my view! I decide it's
in my "family interest" to get them out of there. (And my family
is bigger than theirs, so we've got a majority on our side. Furthermore,
since we generally behave better than they do, we can claim to
be "a force for good" in the neighborhood.)
night when they are out of town, I creep over to their house,
pour gasoline around it, and light it on fire. Sound criminal
to you? But look, by waiting until they were gone, I was minimizing
casualties, wasn't I? Later, I discover that their cat had
been home and was barbecued as a result of my efforts. Well, that's
just collateral damage, isn't it? After all, I wasn't deliberately
targeting the cat. I even help them find an apartment and a new
cat: we could call it family building!
you excuse my actions based on these justifications? I doubt it.
But when ordinary men and women, inherently no more virtuous or
infallible than you or I, take on the mantle of state power, they
are excused on such bases again and again. This is the great illusion
of our age, the idea that a certain class of people is exempt from the moral
judgments that apply to the rest of us.