Is it Worth it?

Let’s reexamine the infamous 1996 60 Minutes interview with [former] Secretary of State Madeline Albright. When Albright was asked whether the U.S. sanctions on Iraq following the Gulf War were worth the cost, given that they were responsible for the deaths of roughly half a million children, Albright answered, "It was a difficult decision . . .but yes . . .I think it was worth it."

Albright's statements were naturally controversial. Like many others from all sides of the political spectrum, I take issue with Albright's willingness to enact policies that harm innocent people. But to reiterate this is just to blow hot air. After all, we know what harm was wrought by the sanctions, and to condemn such blatantly insensitive statements does not bring anything particularly new to our analysis. Instead of objecting to Albright's answer, I'd like to take issue with the legitimacy of the question itself.

Implicit in the question of whether a particular policy is "worth it" is the notion that we, either the government officials or the populace that elects them, are able to assess the costs and benefits. To make this point more clear, I believe that the exact wording of the question posed to Albright was "Do you feel that the sanctions were worth the cost?" While the question was one posed to a high level U.S. official for a television interview, it is one that we often ask ourselves as we continue to assess the efficacy of our current war in Iraq.

How do we go about assessing whether or not the war (or the sanctions) were worth the cost? My speculation is that most people do a mental calculation wherein some number of innocent deaths is an acceptable cost to pay, while some other number becomes "too many." To paraphrase the statements of Victor Davis Hanson, author of Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Culture, if we knew, let's say, that a million people would die in the liberation of Iraq, most Americans would oppose it. A couple thousand, though? That's more reasonable. If only a couple hundred were to die, by all means, send in the troops. A few, (or a few thousand), innocent deaths is just an unfortunate but necessary by-product of war.

Such thinking is, for lack of a better word, evil.

Let's be honest: we can't know the cost. We can't even begin to conceive of the cost. It's easy to support the murders of several thousand people many thousands of miles away who you will never be forced to look in the eye. It is quite another thing to envision just one innocent death, and make it your own parent, spouse, or child. You will never be the father who is forced to explain to his daughter why the death of her mother was "worth it" in the name of making the world safe for democracy. Or to be the one to explain to the hospital-ridden boy who will never see his limbs again that he should rejoice in the fact that at least now his country is liberated. Or the 500,000 victims who starved to death as a result of Albright's sanctions that their deaths were for the "greater good." How dare we even ask the question of whether it is worth it when we are forced to bear little of the cost ourselves? We ought to feel deeply ashamed.

I'd like to think we know that we hold a vast double standard, since our leaders and citizens would never excuse the death of several thousand of our own countrymen. The tragedy of 9/11 made this perfectly clear. Even though many Americans saw legitimate sources for the terrorists' anger against our government, we maintained that this did not in any way legitimize the murder of three thousand innocent people. We were outraged at the terrorists' disregard for the sanctity of human life, particularly given that many of the 9/11 victims had spouses to care for and children to raise.

The irony is also well illustrated by Timothy McVeigh's comments prior to his execution for blowing up the Oklahoma Federal Building. When questioned for an interview, McVeigh said that he had not known that there were innocent children in the building. He chalked it up to "collateral damage." I would venture to say that McVeigh was being ironic. He was playing on the fact that we call murder evil, but believe that government-sanctioned murder somehow becomes acceptable.

It is on these grounds that I dismiss the question itself. I do not believe that I have the right to sit here in the comfort of my room, my own life and well-being perfectly secure, and assess the expediency of the murder of several thousand people who I will never meet. Murder is murder. It is not collateral damage, even when sanctioned by a government and its people.

And this brings me to a pitfall of our beloved system of democracy. While particular political issues are hotly debated in this country, the system of democracy itself is held sacrosanct. It is seen as synonymous with a free society, as an effective means for reconciling disparate interests, and as a system that has generally sustained this country for over two hundred years. We regard voting, the process of democracy, as a civic virtue, as the very embodiment of our freedom.

Once again, the question posed to Albright – coupled with an account of American history – leads me to challenge this orthodoxy. Democracy allows for us to make all manner of decisions about other people's lives while bearing none of the costs. We feel perfectly justified in pushing down a lever or punching in a ballot that quite literally determines the fate of those we will never meet. And while we might agitate when an administration that we did not prefer comes into power, we accept the acts of this administration as legitimate under the democratic electoral process.

But of course a mere glimpse into reality shows that Democracy is hardly a safeguard against tremendous abuse. If we start with Iraq, we see a population that is 60% Shiite Muslim. If a democratically elected government is an expression of the will of the people, I reckon that our government isn't going to be too pleased with the result of a democratically elected Iraqi government, if such a thing ever comes about. Another example of a democratically elected government that we don't hold much fondness for is Hitler's Nazi regime, which started out with promises to socialize industry and champion the working class.

But let's now move a little closer to home. I have already mentioned the sanctions that resulted in half a million deaths, as well as our War on Terror that has resulted in many thousands more in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Let's look at a few other incidents in U.S. history during this century. Our occupation of the Philippines, which began in 1898 (and lasted for 48 years), resulted in over 200,000 deaths of Filipino insurgents. We remain the only country in the world that has used nuclear bombs, and we've done it twice, devastating two large cities and their civilian populations. We joined the other Allies during World War II in the firebombing of Dresden which killed at least 35,000 people. We drafted many of our least wealthy citizens to fight and die in Vietnam, a power that posed no real threat to us.

Moving away from the arena of war, we currently subsidize our farmers so heavily that African farmers are unable to compete and are starving to death in the millions. We have forced Japanese Americans into internment camps. We continue to force otherwise crimeless drug users into prisons. In the 1920's, over 30 states passed laws forcibly sterilizing those deemed to be mentally deficient. One of our most beloved presidents, Franklin Roosevelt, refused the entry of Jews into the country during the Holocaust, despite a very clear knowledge of their predicament. We still don't let homosexual couples get married, and until recently, sodomy was a crime.

What's interesting about most of these cases is that they were/are justified as being "for the common good." They were given sanction by the democratic process, because once again, enough people were given the opportunity to answer the question "Is it worth it?" and answered affirmatively. Quite a few people still believe that the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were worth it. Despite a WTO meeting last month in Cancun in which many African governments walked out in anger because of what our farm subsidies are doing to their populations, our powers-that-be and the interests that support them have apparently decided that it is worth it. So to answer a question that was recently posed to me by an anti-gun lobbyist: yes, I believe that this country is capable of committing genocide. It is simply a matter of framing it in terms that are politically expedient.

Such are the pitfalls of democracy. These are not just flukes, but are inherent to a system in which we get to make decisions for other people while bearing little or none of the costs ourselves. In practice, there can be no justice when democracy amounts to voting away the wealth, the autonomy, and in many cases the lives of others.

In an era where Social Democracy reigns supreme, where the welfare interventionist state has triumphed, where government continues to ever-increase its scope over the lives of individuals, it is important to ask two salient questions. One is a question of principle: Does a government (democratically elected or otherwise) have legitimate authority over the lives of citizens simply by virtue of it being endorsed by a majority?

Philosophers have been trying to come up with justifications for government for thousands of years. I've read a lot of the pertinent works on this subject – from Rousseau's Social Contract to Rawles' Veil of Ignorance (also add Plato, Aristotle, Waldron, Hobbes, Locke, and Marx into the mix). I've read the pages of my college newspaper explaining to me that I owe my "social rent" to society. (I prefer to think of my life and property as inalienable rights rather than social debts, but maybe I'm old fashioned). In all my reading, I have not come upon a justification for some form of state that was not easily refuted. Therefore, I'm convinced that the task of legitimizing government is difficult, if not impossible. But there's one thing that cannot be contested, and that is that the burden of proof is on those who wish to vote away the wealth and lives of others to explain how their actions are justifiable, rather than being akin to the acts of a thief or murderer (these are the analogous terms we use to describe taking somebody else's property or life when committed by a private individual). The question of how to justify government must be surmounted before asking any other.

The second question, a more practical one, is, well, is it worth it? I've put forth some evidence of the harm wrought by our own government during just this past century. As we continue to lose the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, and the War on Poverty, all at the cost of billions of taxpayer dollars, ask yourself whether or not it is worth it, or whether we would be better off in a society where government's role was significantly limited. Ask yourself whether it is worth it in light of the atrocities, the theft, the murder committed under the guise of this benevolent God we call democratic government.

But please, ask with humility. Plead your undeniable ignorance. Show some restraint as you punch in a ballot that will dictate the fate of others. After all, your vote has victims.

November 7, 2003


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