Is the Defense of Liberty Unpatriotic? Wartime Fallacies Revisited

On October 12, Gallup issued a press release saying that,

One effect of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 has been an extraordinary increase in the faith and confidence that Americans have in their federal government . . . Six out of 10 Americans now say they trust their government, a level not seen since 1968, and half want the government to do more to solve the country's problems. This percentage is the highest it has been in the nine years that Gallup has been asking the question.

According to Frank Newport, the author of the press release, the reason for this sharp increase in trust in government is "the phenomenon in which the people of a society rally together behind their leaders in a time of crisis." This explanation rings true: how many times in the past few weeks have we heard: "Now is the time for everyone to support our government"?

Yet behind this explanation lies a preposterous irony. Just at the moment when the federal government demonstrates in horrific fashion its inability to perform even the most basic function proper to government, that of protecting citizens from violent attack, people begin to trust the government more to protect them. And this increase in trust comes not due to other causes and in spite of this incident, but precisely because the federal government failed so spectacularly. Moreover, this increase in trust has persisted even as the government has continued to display its inability to protect us from biological terrorism.

It is easy for us to point out the fallacy behind the "reasoning" ("visceral emotion" is probably nearer the mark) underlying the new American sentiment. People believe they need to support their government, and thus they also feel that they have to trust their government more. But there is no necessary link between the two. The situation between the American people and the American government is like that of a friend or family member who makes a bad match in marriage. We friends of liberty realize the American people have made a bad match, but there's nothing for it now but to hope that it works for the time being. We have to support the government's efforts to protect us and punish terrorists – except insofar as those efforts are futile, counterproductive, or dangerous (as many of the current efforts in fact are). At the same time, we should be under no illusions that the efforts will likely work. The federal government will almost certainly continue to fail in its duty to protect us, and may even make matters worse. But we can always hope against hope that they will succeed.

Conservatives seem to have fallen particularly hard for the support=trust fallacy. Conservatives online (EnterStageRight.Com is one example) have singled out for criticism websites such as Antiwar.Com and LewRockwell.Com because they dare to regard current government efforts with a critical eye. Now is not the time to critique government policy and cause division, the conservatives charge. Over the last few weeks the Left has been a greater friend of liberty than the Right; conservatives seem to have forgotten the part of their philosophy that views individuals and their voluntary associations as generally better able to solve problems than the modern state. For just now, when the federal government has been wallowing in impotence, is precisely the time when we need to articulate alternatives.

Unfortunately, even some libertarians have been falling for the fallacy. The Free State Project I've helped to organize has seen a significant dropoff in new registrants since September 11th. Some have even written me to express that they think the idea of state autonomy is not an appropriate one anymore; instead, they say, we need to stand behind the federal government in all respects. But a Free State could implement better solutions to security – resources no longer swallowed by redistributive programs, regulatory agencies, and other unneeded activities could be redirected toward law enforcement; a Free State would have an armed and vigilant citizenry; eventually, a Free State might even be able to have its own foreign policy. (If New York had been an independent or semi-autonomous city-state following a non-interventionist foreign policy, would it have been targeted by terrorists? The risks would at least have been much less great.) If anything, the events of the past few weeks demonstrate that we need to think even more seriously about significant decentralization of government functions. Some marriages that don't work need to be . . . retooled.

October 20, 2001