War and Freedom

Concerning the Bush foreign policy, I’m not sure that most libertarians — to say nothing of most Americans — have considered the full extent of what we are dealing with here. The other night on television Bush promised war against Iraq, and war-crimes trials for any Iraqi military leader who follows orders, if Iraq failed to meet a series of demands. One of them is as follows: Iraq “must stop all illicit trade outside the oil-for-food program.”

Consider what this means. The US is threatening total war against a country if it permits its citizens to exercise their natural right to trade and improve their lot in life. This is not just contrary to free-trade principles. It is contrary to all standards of human decency. Quite frankly, a more despotic demand is hard to imagine.

Bush says there “can be no peace if our security depends on the will and whims of a ruthless and aggressive dictator.” If others take that statement differently from the way he intended it, they might be forgiven.

Before Bush gave his speech, the Bush administration had issued a National Security Strategy for the United State” — a blueprint for domestic and global conquest by the US government — in the name of free markets and free trade. It asserts the right of the US to deliver a preemptive strike against any country anywhere that gets on Washington’s nerves, and lays out a blueprint for permanent military occupation of the entire world by the US.

In the 1990s, when the US was busy looking for war rationales and throwing itself into every conflict it was fortunate enough to discover or create, Murray N. Rothbard wrote a satirical piece called: “Invade the World.”

He wrote: “We must face the fact that there is not a single country in the world that measures up to the lofty moral and social standards that are the hallmark of the U.S.A…. There is not a single country in the world which, like the US, reeks of democracy and ‘human rights,’ and is free of crime and murder and hate thoughts and undemocratic deeds. Very few other countries are as Politically Correct as the US, or have the wit to impose a massively statist program in the name of ‘freedom,’ ‘free trade,’ ‘multiculturalism,’ and ‘expanding democracy.’ And so, since no other countries shape up to US standards in a world of Sole Superpower they must be severely chastised by the US, I make a Modest Proposal for the only possible consistent and coherent foreign policy: the US must, very soon, Invade the Entire World!”

It would seem that the Bush administration received a copy of this article and used it as a working model for its own foreign policy. Just as Rothbard suggested, the invade-the-world strategy is taking place in the name of freedom. It is therefore incumbent on those of us who love free markets and free trade to speak out, not only against the despotic ambitions of this document itself, but also on behalf of the real meaning of economic freedom. We must fight our way through the thicket of rhetoric, political grandstanding, and moral hypocrisy to preserve some sense of the meaning of freedom itself.

This is not usually a problem when a president of the Democratic Party is in control. Given their constituents and rhetorical apparatus, the Democrats will not usually promote global empire while singing the praises of free markets, entrepreneurship, private property, and low taxes. What we get instead, as we did under Carter and Clinton, is talk of welfare rights, the urgency of redistribution, public education, labor rights, and the like.

And there is a certain honesty to this approach, for big government abroad and big government at home are a suitable match. There is no strict line of political demarcation between a government that minds its business at home or abroad. Internationally expansionistic states are not usually humble at home, and, as a matter of history, international and national socialist states have tended to be expansionist beyond their borders insofar as they have had the resources to do so. All this stands to reason.

What is more troubling, and far more difficult to unravel, is the situation we currently face, in which a regime knows and embraces a partisan language of economic liberty while promoting the opposite. Though the Republicans have been generally derided as the Stupid Party, in fact this approach of doublespeak is far shrewder than the approach of the other party. When Republicans promote big government as liberty, it is intimidating to the opposition, which finds itself robbed of its only opposition tactic, even as it is rhetorically compelling to those generally disposed to support the ideals of freedom.

Here is one example of what I mean. The Bush document says: “The concept of ‘free trade’ arose as a moral principle even before it became a pillar of economics. If you can make something that others value, you should be able to sell it to them. If others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it. This is real freedom, the freedom for a person, or a nation, to make a living.”

Now, it is hard to disagree with that. In fact, it might be seen as a summary of the libertarian economic credo. And yet, the United States imposes trade sanctions on half the countries of the world, and the sanctions against Iraq in particular have resulted in mass human suffering. The very administration that preaches the libertarian line on trade has imposed high tariffs on steel and timber, and pushed massive agricultural subsidies that blatantly violate all international trade treaties to which the US has become party. What we have here are actions that are the very opposite of the rhetoric, and yet the rhetoric plays the role of distracting people from what is really going on.

There are many other examples. The document preaches fiscal prudence, from an administration that has expanded government spending more dramatically and on more fronts than even LBJ. It preaches free markets but endorses the internationalization of US labor and environmental controls. It rails against centralized economic planning, but embraces global efforts to cut “greenhouse gasses,” even going so far as to brag of spending the largest sum ever spent to stop alleged climate change. The document calls for free enterprise but also a 50 percent increase in foreign aid slated for development assistance. It decries World Bank subsidies of the past but calls for the World Bank to spend more on public schools and promises a 20 percent increase in the money contributed by the US toward that end.

In sum, we have here something worse than a wolf in sheep’s clothing. We have a wolf that has also learned to b-a-a-a.

Even aside from partisan considerations, the permanent governing regime always needs an ideological rationale for maintaining control over the population and a continuing supply of resources to feed all the pressure groups that live off the taxpayer.

Even apart from elections, which change the flavor of government control but not its underlying reality, this permanent regime, which we can call the state, always seeks to expand.

For all the partisan bickering in Washington, all groups are pleased to cooperate in the overall mission of insuring the health of the state, and the best way is what they call bipartisanship: each votes the other’s priorities in exchange for having its own met. Thus does the welfare-warfare state thrive.

It is no surprise that today the great rationale of the proposed expansion of the state is the fight against terrorism, which doesn’t only mean stopping those who seek to harm US citizens on American soil but encompasses some sort of blueprint for complete global domination. The war on terrorism is not just about stopping real threats, if it involves that at all. It is about securing the authority of the US government against anything and everything that might threaten its interests. That threat could be swarthy teams of violent criminals hailing from far-flung parts of the world. But also, from the point of view of the state, the threat also comes from any political activist or even intellectual apparatus that does not unquestioningly yield to the power of the state.

This is most clear in an offhanded comment the document has on Colombia. It reads: “In Colombia, we recognize the link between terrorist and extremist groups that challenge the security of the state and drug trafficking activities that help finance the operations of such groups.” Thus we see here that the mere production of goods that people want to buy, combined with a political stance the US opposes, can get you branded a terrorist. If this is true in Colombia, where the document promises that the US government will provide “basic security to the Colombian people,” it is far more true right here at home.

The Bush document lays out a variety of criteria for distinguishing good states from the bad states that the US now swears it can destroy on a whim. The document decries any state that tramples on what it calls the “nonnegotiable demands of human dignity,” among which are the rule of law, limits on the absolute power of the state, free speech, freedom of worship, equal justice, respect for women, religious and ethnic tolerance, and respect for private property.

It is not an objectionable list, though only the hopelessly naïve could possibly believe that the US has any intention of sticking by this list. US allies in the Near East and North Africa stand in constant violation of these principles. For that matter, the United States itself has a less than stellar record in defense of private property — after all this is a country that takes up to 40 percent of your income. And you may notice that while the US decries those who have no limit on the absolute power of the state, there is no call for what the American colonists favored: a strictly limited state power.

In fact, a new doctrine has developed in Washington that says, in the words of this document, “weak states…can pose as great a danger to our national interests as strong states.” And with all the foreign aid, military assistance, multilateral lending support, and military mandates that the US is imposing around the world, you can be sure that America is doing everything possible to prevent the formation of weak states around the world. It is quite a transition from the 18th century, when we went about creating a state that was deliberately weak, while warning against foreign entanglements, to the current situation in which a strong state at home goes on an imperial rampage to create subservient copies of itself around the world.

September 11 represented a horrible loss of life and property, but it also represented what many in the United States government considered to be a new lease on life. The name Osama Bin Laden having long left the public eye, even though he was blamed for the attacks and remains at large, the government is using the event as an excuse to trample on rights and liberties and vastly expand itself.

In every event, even the most calamitous, there are certain people and institutions that end up benefiting, so let us think about what institution has benefited the most from the events. What institution has accumulated more power and money and public respect? The answer is obvious: it is the state itself. One might think that this would be a problem for the Bush doctrine.

After all, if some other major institution, such as a church or company, uses a disaster it is responsible for, to claim that it should be given more money and power, we suspect its motives and certainly do not grant automatic deference.

Why are so many willing to do this with the state? In part it comes down to the magic plural pronoun: “we.” In page after page, the Bush administration document uses this word to imply that the interests of the state are identical to the interests of the American people. It follows that whatever the government decides to do, whatever it deems to be in the public interest, must be the right thing. If you disagree, then you are opposing the public interest and you might just be a threat to public order itself. At the very least, the burden of proof is on you to explain why you might oppose the idea of a permanent wartime economy.

There is a revealing passage about half-way through the Bush administration’s manifesto. It reads as follows: “It has taken almost a decade for us to comprehend the true nature of this new threat.” What happened ten years ago? The Cold War had vanished because of the sudden and unexpected dissolution of the Soviet Union, and so too the main ideological rationale for the build up the biggest, richest, most powerful state apparatus the world had ever seen. The history of the last ten years can be read as a struggle between citizens to regain control of their lives and property against an immense governmental structure that seemed to lack a believable reason for its existence.

Then came September 11, 2001. The document describes this event as has become customary: a hinge of history that forced the United States to rethink its place in the world and the meaning of freedom itself. It is not described as what it was: a wholly preventable hijacking by Saudi nationals trained in the US and motivated by revenge at US foreign policy.

Had the pilots of the planes been armed, as they would have had federal regulations not prevented it, the hijackers would have been dealt with long before they could have wrecked the buildings.

Before this happened, the post-Cold War welfare-warfare state had many rationales to justify its continuation. Clinton attempted to merge a British-style paternalism with a US-style focus on international human rights. The great threat at home and abroad that had to be defeated was abstract and ideological: concerns like unfairness and injustice. This did not gain many converts, especially since it meant converting the US armed forces into a glorified corps of international social workers. There were a series of invasions and operations to stop alleged ethnic cleansing, to impose democracy, to end warlordism, and the like. There were the inevitable worries about China becoming too big for its britches.

None of these served as a replacement for the communist menace as a viable excuse for the permanent war economy. The military-industrial elites that live off the war threat were very worried about their long-term status, especially because internal polling continued to reveal a systematic and growing loss in confidence in government as an institution. Panic over the pace of private-sector technological development further worked to alarm the government, which still populated its office with IBM Selectrics as Windows 98 was being shipped to customers. As Social Security became a laughing stock, and Clinton’s Monica problem did the same for the chief executive, US foreign policy came to be subject to withering critiques by a diverse group of intellectuals from the left and right.

To the government, September 11 meant an end to all of this. It held out the hope that something could be seen as a scarier threat to the public than government itself. It worked to transform public opinion about the government itself, from a menace to a savior. To be sure, this step was wholly unwarranted. It was the government that banned guns on planes, the government that ran airport security, the government that antagonized the hijackers, the government that created and sustained what became al-Qaeda, the government that received the advance warnings and did nothing, and the government that had promised and failed in every way to deliver security. September 11 was a spectacular government failure.

In order to distract us from this conclusion, the government has created the illusion that the greatest threat we face is somewhere out there, and we must trust the government to tell us from day to day what that threat is. Among them is what has come to be known as the rogue state.

The document includes a fascinating definition of what constitutes a rogue state.

  • A rogue state, it says, brutalizes its own people and squanders its national resources for the personal gain of its rulers. Check.
  • It displays no regard for international law, threatens its neighbors, and callously violates international treaties to which it is party. Check.
  • It is determined to acquire weapons of mass destruction, along with other advanced military technology. Check.
  • It sponsors terrorism around the globe. Given that Osama and his men were once on the CIA payroll, and given what most of the Arab world believes about the US role in the Middle East, we have to say, check.
  • Finally, the document says, almost in anticipation of this manner of critique, a rogue state hates the United States and everything for which it stands.

And in this last sentence we find the real definition: a rogue state is a state that our state hates and visa versa. We are back to the age-old problem of which true libertarians are all too aware: the state itself is the greatest source of conflict ever known to man.

The right response to September 11 would have been for government’s entire security apparatus to be dismantled, and to allow the airlines and other firms to provide their own security. But, of course, it had all the earmarks of a crisis, and history shows that crises are great opportunities for the state. The voices of clarity on this issue have been overwhelmed by those who have belligerently asserted that the government must do something, anything, in retaliation for 9-11.

Most tragically, the need for war was asserted by people who called themselves libertarians, people who otherwise claimed to understand the nature of government. The slogan of one famous organization used to be “free markets, limited government, and peace.” After the war on Afghanistan, the word peace had to go, and, inevitably, limited government and free markets were taken down too.

Without naming the guilty here, let me just say that only four institutions — to my knowledge — were willing to take a principled stand after 9-11: the Independent Institute, the Foundation for the Future of Freedom, the Center for Libertarian Studies, and the Mises Institute — four of the least well-connected among the hundreds of free-market organizations in this country. Once having signed up for the war on terrorism, mainstream libertarian organizations find themselves in an intellectual bind, fearing to criticize the foundations of the policy and enjoying the newfound access to power that the initial endorsement of the war gave them.

And yet, we should not be surprised at the failure of the mainstream libertarian movement to provide a voice of sanity in these times. For too long, they have seen the problem of government power not as a moral or principled concern but as something to be worked out among policy elites, among which they have wanted to include themselves. They have promoted the view that the means of achieving our ends is through joining the governing elites in their salons of DC, and impressing power holders with your intellectual agility. What could possibly beat cocktails with DeLay, Greenspan, and von Rumsfeld.

The moral courage that motivated the American colonists, Cobden and Bright, the war resistors, the tax protestors, the anti-New Deal writers, the anti-communist and anti-Nazi intellectuals — none of this experience has informed the dominant libertarian strategy of our age, so, of course, the libertarians have been largely and tragically co-opted.

There is a further intellectual problem at work among the mainstream of libertarians, and it is captured in the chart that purports to summarize all political ideology according to one’s opinion concerning the balance of civil and economic liberty. Nowhere on the chart is there anything about foreign policy or war — the murder end of the state. Quite frankly, libertarians just haven’t cared that much about the issue, even though war is the health of the state.

After a lifetime of activism in libertarian circles, Murray Rothbard came to observe that most people in the libertarian movement have no real interest in the issue, even though it can be said that war is by far the gravest threat to liberty mankind has ever known. There are many reasons for this oversight, among which is that we all tend to take the path of least resistance, and it is far easier to analyze a telecommunications bill than to denounce the CIA and the war power.

But, as Mises argued, if we hate socialism, we must also hate war. “Military Socialism is the Socialism of a state in which all institutions are designed for the prosecution of war,” he wrote. “The military state, that is the state of the fighting man in which everything is subordinated to war purposes, cannot admit private ownership in the means of production. Standing preparedness for war is impossible if aims other than war influence the life of individuals…. The military state is a state of bandits. It prefers to live on booty and tribute.” Mises is right: if we libertarians tolerate war, we tolerate tyranny.

But if the libertarians have shown a lack of courage stemming from intellectual failure, the American conservatives have been far worse. From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to National Review, there is one thing we can count on: bone-chilling calls for international bloodshed at the hands of the US state. It was bad enough during the Cold War, when American conservatives cheered on the warfare state — the emergence of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores — as a supposedly temporary measure to fight a particular enemy.

But nowadays, American conservatives have come to define themselves as the people least wary of using nuclear weapons and the most ready to cheer the death of innocents. The moral hypocrisy of these people — who think nothing of running an article calling for an end to abortion next to a piece defending the deaths of hundreds of thousands of foreigners, unborn and born — takes one’s breath away.

We have dealt here with three groups — the Bush administration, the libertarian mainstream, and American conservatives — that use the language of liberty to promote or defend its opposite. What about those of us who remain, those whose commitment to the free society is implacable, even in these times? I know this. There are more of us than the media take account of. The Bush document includes a passage that strikes me as true: “no people on earth yearn to be oppressed, aspire to servitude, or eagerly await the midnight knock of the secret police.” I would only add that this includes the American people.

Beneath all the hoopla of this past September 11, beneath the sickening displays of celebration for the government and the complete absence of commentary on most victims of 9-11, who, after all, were engaged in the peaceful, civilizing business of commerce, I did detect growing public frustration with the direction the warfare state is going. Apart from all the bombs, billions, and baloney, the only thing the federal government seems to have done to protect us from terrorism is make our airports even more inconvenient, and institute a perfectly ridiculous color-coded chart to tell us just how close the next terrorist threat allegedly is.

We are far from the time when a majority of public opinion will come to understand the real nature of the threat we face, and the real ideological foundations of the struggle in which our epoch has plunged us. But just as the partisans of the welfare-warfare state say that their reign must last the duration of our lifetimes, let us all commit to making sure that the resistance lasts just as long. Even if we do not achieve victory in our lifetimes, we might slow down the advance of tyranny and therefore have done good. If we do not even manage that, we can know that we have done the right thing, the moral thing, the courageous thing.

But is final victory really so unthinkable? In the 18th century, had the opponents of British imperial rule given up in 1750, there would have been no 1776. Had the anti-communists in Russia thrown in the towel in 1950, when Soviet rule seemed implacably secure, there would have been no 1989. Neither will we be intimidated and neither will we despair, because we are fighting the biggest of all big lies, the idea that the state is a means of security and salvation. In addition, we have on our side the greatest forces for good in human history: the ideas of liberty and the demand for freedom. From these principles, we will not be moved.

In the meantime, Bush threatens war. For my part, I favor the proposal of the Iraqi vice president that Bush and Saddam have a private duel. Choose your weapons, fellas, and leave the rest of us out of it.

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