Machiavelli and U.S. Politics

Pattern and Perception

During a much-quoted radio broadcast in October 1939, Winston Churchill commented on the surprise Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland – an invasion that closely followed the German attack from the west, which triggered World War II. In his radio broadcast, Churchill said of Russia that it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Of course, it was only a mystery to Churchill because, until the invasion, he did not understand why the Soviets and Nazis had signed a pact that made partners of Stalin and Hitler. Using Churchill’s own words as a springboard, however, we can devise a parallel aphorism by blending in the advice given by Niccolò Machiavelli in his political treatise, The Prince. In our new Machiavellian aphorism, we may say that “the practice of politics in the United States is a lie wrapped in hypocrisy inside a half-truth.” As we shall see, this neatly characterizes the behavior of most U.S. politicians for the past century.

Before further exploration of The Prince and its relevance to contemporary politics, it is necessary to understand a thing or two about Renaissance Florence, the city where Machiavelli lived most of his life. Chief among the ironies of that city was the stark contrast between its artistic triumphs and its political achievements. In contrast to its brilliant legacy in literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture, the political story of this Italian city-state was one of constant devolution – from spirited republicanism into one-man rule, or despotism. For nearly the last 60 years of the 15th century, the city was controlled by the Medici family – first by Cosimo the Elder and finally by Lorenzo the Magnificent, who transformed Florence into the cultural capital of Europe while simultaneously devastating his family’s fortune by the time he passed from the scene in 1492.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, and he held a number of legal-diplomatic posts in the Florentine chancery before his death in 1527. He wrote The Prince in 1513, dedicating it to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, grandson of Lorenzo the Magnificent. It is not surprising that The Prince both reflects and reinforces the Florentine trend toward despotism. It is an essay on how to maintain political power at all costs. It is considered infamous because in it Machiavelli argued that politics writes its own rules and must not be limited by other standards of behavior or morality.

The infamous reputation of The Prince is puzzling, however, because it appears to be a source of perpetual inspiration in Washington, D.C. It defines the actions, if not the rhetoric, of that city’s politicians and their army of supporters, dependents, and fawning sycophants. To illustrate the widespread influence of The Prince, we shall explore a few of the topics that Machiavelli addressed in his treatise. In each case, we shall also observe the following three-part pattern. In the very core, nestling at the root of our current policies, we shall find an unsavory lie. In turn, this will be shrouded by embarrassing hypocrisy as politicians shamelessly evade the implications of their lies so that they can achieve their goals. Finally, acting as an outer hard-candy shell that never seems to melt away under the heat of close scrutiny, the hypocrisy itself will be cloaked in a plausible half-truth. This last element is trotted out for public consumption and promptly absorbed in preparation for the next series of lies, hypocrisies, and half-truths. Together we shall discover that – much more than God, country, and apple pie – the unsavory trinity of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth has become synonymous with the American Way, at least as far as politics is concerned.

People as Animals  One cannot read The Prince without coming to the following realization: Machiavelli believed that most people are craven and invariably behave like animals in an almost Pavlovian sense. In chapter 12, for example, he sums up human nature:

It is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one of the two. For one can say this generally of men: that they are ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger, eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering you their blood, property, lives, and children … when the need for them is far away; but, when it is close to you, they revolt.

As a man who spent his life surrounded by the leading politicians of his day, we should not be surprised by Machiavelli’s dismal assessment. Similarly, it should not surprise us that his subsequent advice reflects this overall perception – regardless of the topic under discussion. This holds true for advice about when and how to deceive people, how to take advantage of religious beliefs, how to betray a trust, how to play off one group against another, how to determine when one should spend money liberally and when the purse strings should be pulled tight, when to instill fear, and when to be merciful. Consequently, Machiavelli is hailed as an early practitioner of modern political science – or at least someone who openly stated how politics really worked. In other words, he caused the scales to fall from our eyes. He showed us the world as it really is instead of telling us what it should be or what we would like it to be. For this, readers sometimes consider Machiavelli to be a beneficent spirit – one who made it more difficult for dishonest politicians to ply their trade. On the other hand, in writing The Prince Machiavelli did not wring his hands too much about their bad habits, so the jury is still out on whether he was a prophet or a political panderer.

Modern politicians adopt Machiavelli’s assessment of humanity when they remove decision-making power from the hands of individuals and place it in the hands of government. This applies equally to laws governing personal behavior and those governing economic activity. As a result, in nearly every facet of our lives, we are told what to do and when to do it by local, state, and federal officials. Of course, this is for our own good, since, as brute animals, we are unable to fathom what is best for ourselves. Political leaders – whether elected democratically or holding office as the result of a less participatory form of coercion, such as a coup – assume that they are made of better stuff than we. Consequently, they not only claim the right to decide for themselves what is best, but they go further – telling us what to do in order to deliver us from the consequences of our profound ignorance.

It is easy to see – at this most fundamental level of politics – the workings of the lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth. The lie is that politicians have our interests at heart. Their real intention is the monopolization of power. The hypocrisy is that they – most undeniably human – give themselves permission to do precisely what is forbidden to the rest of us as they act on their own behalf and ours. Finally, the half-truth is that people do indeed make mistakes – some more than others. This is something about which politicians remind us incessantly when we try to act on our own account. They ignore it, however, when they are the actors. Consequently, our own self-awareness of personal imperfections gives politicians the leverage they need to impose their will.

Great Men Versus the People

Politicians, however, do not overplay their knowledge of our ignorance and tendency to err. Describing our vast limitations too frequently or too loudly would be impolitic. After all, who elected them if not these same dunces? Instead, they claim that they are assisting us, that without their help the great mass of people would become victims of wealthy, powerful people who are ruthless in their greed. Machiavelli provides inspiration for this rationalization. In chapter 9, he identifies two sorts of people – “great” men and “the people” – and he informs us of their respective vices and virtues:

I say that one ascends to this principality either with the support of the people or with the support of the great. For in every city these two diverse humors are found, which arises from this: that the [little] people desire neither to be commanded nor oppressed by the great, and the great [men] desire to command and oppress the people.

Perhaps this is one source of modern demagoguery. By exploiting envy and fear, politicians can portray themselves as the saviors and protectors of the public – doing and saying whatever is necessary to gain the support needed to remain in power. If it so happens that a leader seizes the reins of authority with the assistance of other great and powerful people, Machiavelli recommends that he immediately sever those ties to win the support of the general populace – bolstering the illusion that he is on the side of the little people:

One who becomes prince against the people with the support of the great must before everything else seek to gain the people to himself, which should be easy for him when he takes up their protection. And since men who receive good from someone from whom they believed they would receive evil are more obligated to their benefactor, the people immediately wish him well more than if he had been brought to the principality with their support.

Once again, we can observe the use of the lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth. The lie is that powerful people are more likely than the average person to seek control over others. The hypocrisy is that although political leaders are, by definition, “great” men and thus – according to Machiavelli’s theory – something to be feared, somehow they seem to escape the evil predilections of other great men. Finally, the half-truth is that yes, great people often do seek power, but are holders of political office somehow different from other great men and thus immune from temptation?

Machiavelli and U.S. Politics

Once we understand Machiavelli’s dismal view of humanity, it is easier to understand the ethical universe in which he operates. Machiavelli opens his discussion of princely virtues by immediately discarding them. His explanation is that virtues lack utility and are merely a product of the imagination (chapter 15):

Since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation. For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according to necessity.

     … And furthermore one should not care about incurring the fame [i.e., infamy] of those vices without which it is difficult to save one’s state; for if one considers everything well, one will find something appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin, and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results in one’s security and well-being.

Note that for Machiavelli, truth is defined by the effect, or outcome, of an action from the point of view of a dictator – not by any intrinsic, unchanging standards of value. Certainly liberty is not one of them. That is the meaning of the words “effectual truth” in the preceding quotation. We can see, therefore, that Machiavelli has defined himself as a situational relativist with a soft spot for tyranny. And where have we heard this kind of talk before? From liberals and Democrats? Yes, but it is equally true of self-proclaimed conservatives and Republicans. In particular, this viewpoint bears an eerie resemblance to a statement made to reporter Ron Suskind by a neoconservative senior advisor of President George W. Bush. In “Without a Doubt,” an article that appeared in the New York Times on October 17, 2004, Suskind relates the contents of an interview that took place with the senior advisor in the summer of 2002 – months before the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom [sic]. According to Suskind,

The aide said that guys like me [i.e., Suskind] were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I [Suskind] nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He [the aide] cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” [Emphasis added.]

This advisor is suggesting that the only “reality” guiding right-thinking politicians is the current situation and the goals of the moment, which can change as frequently as the weather. It is a statement of pure relativism; expediency is the measure of all things. Certainly this approach contains no values lofty enough to merit the constant appeals to ethical concepts such as good and evil, which our current president uses with great frequency.

With this in mind, it should not surprise us that President Bush – contrary to claims that he was misled by the intelligence community – was fully aware that Iraq’s WMDs were a pile of half-truths and tailor-made lies as early as July 2002. This becomes clear in an article entitled “The Secret Downing Street Memo,” published in London’s Sunday Times on May 1, 2005. The article reprints a leaked secret memo that summarizes the contents of a briefing received by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 23, 2002. The key part of the memo reveals information gathered by Richard Dearlove, director of MI-6 (Britain’s CIA). Dearlove had just returned from a trip to the United States and was reporting what he had learned about the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq. According to Dearlove,

It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. [Emphasis added.]

Furthermore, the Bush administration was aware that a pre-emptive war was both unjustified and illegal. According to the memo,

The Attorney-General [John Ashcroft] said that the desire for regime change was not a legal base for military action. There were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention, or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would be difficult. [Emphasis added.]

In a critical revelation, the memo also revealed that the Bush administration planned to juggle the facts to build a case for its illegal war. In other words, the neoconservatives planned to “create reality” in the same manner that was recommended by the senior Bush advisor quoted in the New York Times article. The secret Downing Street memo sets out the agenda of the war faction as follows:

Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing material on the Iraqi regime’s record…. [Emphasis added.]

Note how easy it was for the Bush administration to “fix” the intelligence and facts so that they would justify the predetermined policy of war. Britain’s MI-6, however, was not the only intelligence agency that was able to ferret out the truth about the Bush administration’s tendency to play fast and loose with the facts. During the build-up to the war against Iraq, the CIA warned that the much-publicized “evidence” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was deeply flawed. These warnings were published in several newspapers and were available through broadcast media as well. Unfortunately, they did not receive the attention they deserved.

Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel and information specialist posted in the Pentagon’s Near East South Asia (NESA) office, supplied strong corroboration. She provided the world with an insider’s view of how the Bush administration was able to create the facts that “supported” its predetermined policy to go to war. While posted at the NESA office in the spring of 2002, she personally witnessed the unholy creation of the Office of Special Plans (OSP), a project that was close to the hearts of Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

A lifelong conservative, Kwiatkowski was appalled by the neoconservative agenda that was being constructed within the OSP. She watched as bona fide information specialists at the Pentagon were replaced by politically appointed information magicians in the OSP. The chief task of these magicians was to toe the White House party line, bury the objections of lifelong Pentagon professionals, twist the facts, and orchestrate the flow of information to build a case that supported the administration’s decision to launch a war. As her frustration mounted in the months before the invasion, she decided to tell the world the truth about what was happening inside the Pentagon; she wrote a series of anonymous dissenting newspaper “columns” that were posted on the Internet by recently deceased decorated Vietnam War veteran Col. David Hackworth. Finally, during the week of the invasion in March 2003, she left the military and went public with her columns – placing her name on her web postings and accepting speaking invitations.

Although the administration attempted to blame its decision to go to war on intelligence errors, the secret Downing Street memo and Kwiatkowski’s reports have exposed how these “errors” were created by the White House to obtain the desired results. Consequently, the House of Representatives published Iraq on the Record: The Bush Administration’s Public Statements on Iraq. This report has received little attention, but it kept a running tab on the lies manufactured by the White House. A key paragraph reads as follows:

The Iraq on the Record database contains 237 misleading statements about the threat posed by Iraq that were made by President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell, and National Security Advisor Rice. These statements were made in 125 separate appearances, consisting of 40 speeches, 26 press conferences and briefings, 53 interviews, 4 written statements, and 2 congressional testimonies. Most of the statements in the database were misleading because they expressed certainty where none existed or failed to acknowledge the doubts of intelligence officials. Ten of the statements were simply false.

The Downing Street memo also made it clear that the war planners gave no thought to the vast damage and upheaval that the invasion would create in Iraq and how it would be remedied. According to the memo, “There was little discussion in Washington of the aftermath after military action.” Is it possible that the lack of discussion about the aftermath of the war explains why Iraq has become a blood-soaked basket-case of a country and a recruitment center for terrorists as a result of the U.S. invasion? Meanwhile, how many Americans are concerned about the origins of the war as well as its long-term effects?

It is easy to see how the three-part pattern leaps from the words of the president and his officials. The lie was the “constructed” reality, namely the claim that war against Iraq was justified by the threat of a smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud. The hypocrisy was that the United States, not Iraq, posed a significant threat to world peace – possessing more WMDs than the rest of the world combined. The plausible half-truth subsequently trotted out for public consumption to cover up the lack of WMDs was the old story that Saddam Hussein was, indeed, a bad man.

Lies and Appearances

In words that are echoed in the mendacity of today’s political class, Machiavelli enthusiastically endorsed lying. In chapter 18 he summed up his reasons:

How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his faith, and to live with honesty and not by astuteness, everyone understands. Nonetheless one sees by experience in our times that the princes who have done great things are those who have taken little account of faith and have known how to get around men’s brains with their astuteness; and in the end they have overcome those who have founded themselves on loyalty.

     … A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith, nor should he, when such observance turns against him, and the causes that made him promise have been eliminated…. Nor does a prince ever lack legitimate causes to color his failure to observe faith…. But it is necessary to know well how to … be a great pretender and dissembler; and men are so simple and so obedient to present necessities that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself be deceived.

These paragraphs are rich with information and misinformation. As to the latter, Machiavelli is incorrect in assuming a conflict between “astuteness” and “keeping faith.” Every voluntary transaction between men requires both. As to the former, it is important to note that only the goals of dictators are important for Machiavelli. Consequently, “princes who have done great things” must be interpreted carefully. Great things do not include the widespread attainment of freedom or prosperity. These are too mundane for Machiavelli and his prince. Instead, great things are limited to highly visible instances of projected power: combat, conquest, and control. Nobody can accuse Machiavelli of being subtle.

There is more truth, however, in Machiavelli’s appraisal of the “true believers” and sycophants who surround every power-hungry politician. Judging by the performance, not the promise, of today’s welfare-warfare state and its failed social programs and costly military ventures, the category of “simple” must include the following groups: citizens who believe governments can keep them safe from terrorists by stirring up hatred with interventionist foreign policies; parents who rely on public schools to educate children and on the insane war on drugs to keep them sober; citizens who believe that dependency on government handouts is a steppingstone to self-reliance; churchgoers who confuse political poses and outward shows of piety with genuine religious devotion; and, of course, soldiers who believe they are “fighting for freedom” as they destroy cities, dismiss innocent victims as “collateral damage,” and bankrupt their own country for a disgraceful bunch of politicians playing a bloody game of global hegemony with other people’s lives and treasure.

Unfortunately, Machiavelli’s advice about lying creates a sticky problem that he is unable to escape. For example, the following statement falls between the two paragraphs cited above:

Thus, you must know that there are two kinds of combat: one with laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second to beasts; but because the first is often not enough, one must have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince to know well how to use the beast and the man….

Without truth-telling, how can there be a law-abiding society? Are citizens expected to faithfully obey laws or ignore them? Good laws are a kind of standard against which we measure behavior. Surely citizens will be able to measure their leaders by the laws they promulgate and the degree to which they abide by them. But if lies are the common currency of politicians, how can laws not expose to public view the empty chasm beneath these leaders’ feet? We must conclude, then, that Machiavelli’s advice about lying virtually guarantees that the “combat” of laws, which is proper to humans, must give way to the “combat” of force, which he has judged proper to beasts. Consequently, Machiavelli’s is a universe fit only for beasts. Animal Farm, anyone?

With these observations in mind, we can move on to the topic of virtues that Machiavelli finds inconvenient – even objectionable – for successful rulers (chapter 18):

     … It is not necessary for a prince to have all the above-mentioned qualities [being merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious] in fact, but it is indeed necessary to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, and it is [useful] to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with the spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary…. And nothing is more necessary to appear to have than this last quality [religious devotion]. Men in general judge more by their eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone, touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them.

Having endorsed lies and violence while condemning virtues, Machiavelli at last states the guiding principle of his political program: the end justifies the means:

So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing, and in the world there is no one but the vulgar…. A certain prince of present times, whom it is not well to name, never preaches anything but peace and faith, and is very hostile to both….

Today’s politicians speak from both sides of their mouths – one side cutting deals with their peers in Congress and the other creating a public fiction for constituents. Business owners, however, are held to a different standard. The recent conviction of Martha Stewart illustrates this. Ms. Stewart was convicted of lying to a federal official – even though she was not under oath at the time. Meanwhile, federal officials are free to tell as many whoppers as they wish without fear of prosecution – whether they are politicians, prosecutors, or FBI agents.

Understanding as we do that lies are the chief language of federal officials – one forbidden to the rest of us – let us trace the three-fold pattern of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth for the last four presidents. Didn’t President Reagan tell his supporters that overgrown government was itself the problem, not the solution? Didn’t he vow to eliminate draft registration, the Department of Education, and the Department of Energy? Didn’t President George H.W. Bush say, “Read my lips” as he campaigned against raising taxes? Didn’t President Clinton once promise that his would be the most moral presidency in history and say that the era of big government was over? Didn’t candidate George W. Bush specifically condemn nation-building and government overspending while promising a more humble foreign policy?

The previous citations represent only a tiny fraction of the lies uttered by these men, and the hypocrisy surrounding each statement requires no further mention. But what are the half-truths that were used to cover them up and serve as red herrings to distract the public from the real legacies of these men? Let us examine them, one by one.

Reagan is remembered for opening the curtains on “morning in America” despite saddling taxpayers with massive debt and profligate spending, trade protectionism, expanding bureaucracies, and an extension of criminal law that has stuffed our prisons with nonviolent offenders. Even his tiny cut in marginal tax rates in 1981 was offset by tax hikes later that year – not to mention bracket creep from inflation. His words – not his actions – are remembered by the faithful – just as Machiavelli suggested. The half-truth may be that he believed his own words, but his actions belied them.

George H.W. Bush was not held accountable – at least not by Americans – for the deadly consequences of his interventionist foreign policy. He was not held accountable for meddling in the 1991 dispute between Iraq and Kuwait over the Kuwaiti practice of slant-drilling to siphon off Iraqi oil. He was not held accountable for backing the sanctions that caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in the 1990s. This, in addition to his continued support for Israel and placement of American armed forces in Islamic holy places led to the attack on the World Trade Center in 1993 and its destruction in 2001. Americans still do not connect these incidents with his presidency. Instead, his supporters chided him only for “failing to complete” the war with Iraq – a half-truth that ignores the results of that war. Meanwhile, his enemies in the Democratic Party quibbled only about details in this assessment, knowing that they participated in and continued the same policies themselves.

Clinton is remembered primarily for lying about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky – a comparatively innocent foible that his supporters happily contrast with the devastating lies of George W. Bush. This is the “true” aspect of the half-truth that hides the reality. Clinton’s supporters, however, say nothing about the Waco conflagration and subsequent whitewash investigation. They also fail to mention the deadly results of intervening in the Serbian-Albanian dispute. Similarly, they do not mention the vast increase in surveillance against American citizens that he authorized or his continuation of Middle East interventions that contributed to the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Meanwhile, the excuse mongers are busy portraying George W. Bush as a verbally bumbling but nonetheless sincere president who fought valiantly to rein in domestic spending. Both Democrats and Republicans find it useful to galvanize their respective constituencies by pretending that Bush is fiscally tough. The Democrats do it to goose the party faithful with scary talk of horrendous cuts in much-beloved but ineffective boondoggles. Likewise, Republicans have found they can hypnotize their not-too-observant poodles by claiming that the Democrats would be spending us into the 30th century if not for the true-blue budget-cutting derring-do of Bush and company. Of course, the opposite is true. The president has a bad habit of approving bailouts for failed airlines, throwing money into the bottomless pit of medical-benefit entitlements, signing lard-filled highway bills, and stuffing the coffers of public schools that regularly churn out bumper crops of criminals and nitwits in roughly equal proportion. At the same time, his military expenditures have set new standards in Pentagon waste. The Democrats are waiting only for their chance to do the same.

War

On the subject of war, Machiavelli offers simple advice (chapter 14):

Thus a prince should have no other object, nor any other thought, nor take anything else as his art but that of war and its orders and discipline; for that is the only art which is of concern to one who commands.

Again it is important to remember that Machiavelli’s chief concern is not the freedom or well-being of citizens. His sole interest is a ruler’s ability to acquire and maintain power. In contrast, James Madison, fourth president of the United States and author of the U.S. Constitution, enumerated the many evils caused by war:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people…. [There are also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare….

In taking this stance, Madison echoed the sentiments of John Quincy Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and George Washington. Moreover, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787, Madison warned us against the dangers of a standing army:

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.

When uniformed armies are not used to enslave people directly, politicians use other techniques to control them. They invent enemies that appear to threaten the nation. In his book Crisis and Leviathan, Robert Higgs showed how wars and economic crises help to expand the power of government and diminish individual liberties. In one example, he showed how the Wilson administration overcame the opposition of Americans to involvement in World War I by hiding its true costs. Instead of relying on free-market purchases to acquire needed resources (and reveal all costs), the government resorted to command-and-control measures and propaganda to head off opposition:

In early 1917, when the government committed the nation to waging full-scale warfare, it became obvious that raising taxes enough to cover the full market costs of the resources the administration proposed to employ for war purposes would generate immense resistance. For the mobilization to proceed and the government to remain in power the costs had to be at least partially concealed. Accordingly the Wilson administration, with the cooperation of Congress and the Supreme Court, undertook conscription of soldiers, establishment of priorities for the use of transportation, fuel, and manufacturing facilities, price fixing, extensive commandeering, and even outright nationalization of entire industries. To divert attention from the real costs of these actions the government mounted an enormous propaganda campaign to stir up patriotic emotion and encourage citizens to act as monitors and enforcers to suppress those who dared to object or resist. To divide and conquer at the grass-roots level proved an effective tactic to diffuse resistance and insulate the highest authorities from public opposition: witness the thousands of local draft boards, the legion of volunteer food administrators, and the far-flung corps of fuel authorities.

Wartime measures also served as springboards to reduce other liberties. In one example, Higgs outlined an argument used during World War II to justify centralized economic controls:

If the military draft provided the crucial link in the creation of the legislative and administrative chain that the government wrapped around individual rights during the war, it served an even more fundamental purpose in giving legitimacy to the suppression of economic liberties. Virtually everyone who considered the matter, from influential economists, bureaucrats, and congressmen right up to Supreme Court justices and the President himself, used and accepted the validity of the moral argument: if A is all right, then X is certainly all right; where A was military conscription and X was any governmental suppression of individual rights whatsoever, especially any denial of private property rights…. Most astonishing is the almost universal acceptance of the argument’s premise that military conscription, a transparent example of involuntary servitude, is morally untarnished.

Higgs then summarized the 20th-century trend of crisis-based government growth:

After the ideological transformation that took place during the Progressive Era, each genuine crisis has been the occasion for another ratchet toward Bigger Government. The Progressive ideological imperative that government must “do something,” must take responsibility for resolving any perceived crisis, insures new actions. The actions have unavoidable costs, which governments have an incentive to conceal by substituting coercive command-and-control devices for pecuniary fiscal-and-market means of carrying out their chosen policies. Military conscription, wage-price controls, assignment of official priorities and physical allocation of selected commodities, countless economic and social regulations, import quotas and export controls – all confirm the hypothesis. Knowing how much a crisis facilitates Bigger Government, special interests always use such propitious occasions to seek whatever governmental assistance they think will promote their own ends. Once undertaken, governmental programs are hard to terminate. Interests become vested, bureaucracies entrenched, constituencies solidified. More fundamentally, each time the government expands its effective authority over economic decision-making, it sets in motion a variety of economic, institutional, and ideological adjustments whose common denominator is a diminished resistance to Bigger Government. Among the most significant of such adjustments is the Supreme Court’s consistent refusal to protect individual rights from invasion by governmental officials during national emergencies. Precedents established during extraordinary times tilt the constitutional balance even during ensuing normal times.

Finally, Higgs, who published Crisis and Leviathan in 1987, issued the following warning to his readers:

We do know something about the future. We know that other great crises will come. Whether they will be occasioned by foreign wars, economic collapse, or rampant terrorism, no one can predict with assurance. Yet in one form or another, great crises will surely come again, as they have from time to time throughout all human history. When they do, governments almost certainly will gain new powers over economic and social affairs.

With these words in mind, let us trace some of the effects of the U.S. policy of interventionism and the so-called war on terror.

Petroleum markets. Just as wartime measures concealed the true cost of U.S. involvement in World War I and II, the current interventionist foreign policy conceals the true cost of petroleum-based products. U.S. soldiers, for example, currently are posted in 135 countries around the world – many in or near oil-producing countries. Consequently, the price consumers pay for heating oil, gasoline, and other petroleum-based products does not reflect the high cost of maintaining this military presence or of sending foreign aid to the leaders of these nations. In other words, the true cost of petroleum products is unknown because U.S. taxpayers subsidize their supply – distorting energy markets and other sectors that rely on petroleum.

Economic and social regulations. The next time you send money to your favorite charity, make sure that the U.S. government has not placed it on the hit-list of charities that are suspected of assisting terrorists. Of course, the U.S. government determines the definition of “terrorism” as well as what constitutes a friendly rather than an enemy nation – which can change from moment to moment.

Nationalization of industries. In many ways, the travel industry has been nationalized to accommodate our interventionist foreign policy. Using the phrase “nationalized industry,” however, would tend to undercut the freedom that our administration claims to hold dear to its heart. Nonetheless, airport searches, pat-downs, long lines, and the seizure of “threatening” objects such as nail clippers are not typical of free-market transactions. Similarly, the taxpayer-subsidized TSA employees loitering in huge, but easily duped numbers have been imposed by the government. Finally, the taxpayer bailouts of failing airlines and their bloated pension plans are the most obvious example of airline nationalization.

War-time profiteering. Many companies that hold contracts to “reconstruct” Iraq (they will do this several times by the look of things) have been criticized for failing to document invoices and for bidding on noncompetitive contracts. Furthermore, the market for “security experts” and “security technologies” has mushroomed. Consequently, resources are being drained from other areas of the economy into this new growth industry.

Propaganda. From the pages of the New York Times to the broadcasts of the Fox news channel, the drumbeat for war was incessant in the run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom [sic]. Americans have been told by government officials “to watch what we say” and that “if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.” Fearing criticism from the administration’s true believers, one company withdrew advertising from a late-night talk show because the host simply pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers could not honestly be called cowards. Furthermore, we are constantly reminded that the terrorists “hate us for our freedom and values.” With no consistent commitment to liberty, much of the press remains uncritical of constitutional violations. Instead, their chief concern is being cut off from inside sources of political gossip in retaliation for covering news stories that are critical of the administration. The specter of being frozen out of the loop is as frightening as having the government shut them down or arrest them, as Lincoln did to hundreds of newspapers and thousands of editors, legislators, and businessmen who disagreed with his policies. Then again, has anyone seen an al-Jazeera broadcast from Iraq lately? The U.S. military blew up its Baghdad office and killed a reporter there despite repeated reminders about its exact location. In addition, the U.S.-backed provisional government shut down al-Jazeera’s offices in August 2004 “for one month,” citing national-security concerns. The offices have remained closed.

Gullibility. Even more important than the willingness of the press to play “follow the leader,” the uncritical populace – “educated” in government-controlled schools – eats up a steady stream of propaganda. The willingness to believe lies (even after they have been exploded) and to trust government authorities is a testimony to the true product of government-controlled schooling: blind obedience.

Once again we can trace the pattern of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth. We’ve already addressed the administration’s 237 lies about WMDs and links to terrorism. When it turned out that there were no WMDs and no links between Iraq and the attack on the World Trade Center, the deception was exposed for all to see. Even Bush could not bear the charge of being called a liar – not to mention a hypocrite – since he frequently voiced his faith in God and warned of evil-doers lurking in every nook and cranny. Consequently, the president concocted a plausible half-truth to cover his tracks. He claimed he had been misinformed by intelligence experts. The half-truth, of course, is that U.S. intelligence agencies are notoriously inaccurate, and the president knew it. After all, his father was director of the CIA from 1976 to 1977 – so he likely had a closer look than most of us. Among other examples, the CIA is infamous for vastly overestimating Soviet strength just before the USSR fell to pieces all by itself in 1991. More recently, the CIA was part of a massive government failure to prevent the September 11 attacks. Still, the president knew that “incompetence in government” would provide a safe harbor in which he could wait out the storm of limp criticism once the war against Iraq was exposed for what it was – another government-sponsored tragedy that will haunt us for decades by generating anti-U.S. terrorism. Even worse, the writings of Karen Kwiatkowski and the contents of the Downing Street memo already demonstrated that the Bush administration orchestrated the flow of misinformation that was used to build a false case for war.

Unfortunately, this Bush administration – much as the Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton administrations – failed to take into account the resentment generated when invaders embark on wars of aggression in the homelands of other people. The writer Gore Vidal, however, has made up for this oversight. In his book Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace Vidal lists 201 U.S. military operations that took place between the victory over Japan in 1945 and the attacks of September 11. The list was compiled by the Federation of American Scientists. Think of it: 201 conflicts since 1945. This is what generated the blowback that Americans still refuse to acknowledge – preferring instead to repeat nonsense such as “they hate us for our freedom.”

War Crimes and Atrocities

For Machiavelli, there is no deed too ruthless for rulers on the fast track to dictatorship. A prince who wishes to remain in power must not blink at opportunities for cruelty when they can advance his position. Consequently, in chapter 5, Machiavelli advises would-be princes to follow the example set by the ancient Romans in dealing with the Greek cities conquered by Rome as it gobbled up the Mediterranean world:

[The Romans] were compelled to destroy many cities in that province so as to hold it. For in truth there is no secure mode to possess them other than to ruin them. And whoever becomes patron of a city accustomed to living free and does not destroy it, should expect to be destroyed by it; for it always has a refuge in rebellion in the name of liberty….

These same sentiments seemed to govern U.S. policy during the wars waged against Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, the United States dropped more than 7 million tons of bombs – three and one half times as much as were dropped in World War II. It is not surprising that in both North and South Vietnam, 2 million innocent civilians were killed in addition to 1 million Vietnamese soldiers.

In Iraq, the sanctions following Operation Desert Storm – backed by the United States and UN – led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children during the 1990s. This horrifying total continued to grow until Operation Iraqi Freedom [sic] and its aftermath finished off tens of thousands of additional noncombatants. Cities such as Fallujah have been leveled and turned into ghost towns.

Since the Middle Ages, efforts have been made to protect noncombatants from the ravages of war. The United States appears to be turning the clock back on that effort. In both wars of aggression just cited, U.S. soldiers were following the orders of politicians. Neither politicians nor soldiers were acting on the conviction that liberty and free enterprise ultimately triumph over communism and tyranny. Instead, they acted on the shameful presumption that freedom requires the mass murder of people who pose absolutely no threat and are located on the other side of the world.

Aggressive War as a Crime During the proceedings of the War Crimes Tribunal held in Nuremberg after World War II, it was established that wars of aggression are in themselves war crimes. Wars of aggression were defined as invasions launched by nations that have not been attacked – even if the aggressors call the invasions “pre-emptive attacks” or “wars of liberation.” Consequently, both the Vietnam War and the invasion of Iraq were war crimes. As such, they betrayed the founding principles of our nation. Furthermore, the politicians who launched these wars were never brought up on charges – even when the events that triggered them were shown to be fabrications. In Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin incident; in Iraq, it has been the nonexistent WMDs.

But Machiavelli has soothing words for leaders who are fearful of bad reputations. In chapter 8, he described how the king of Syracuse, Agathocles (ca. 300 B.C.), once assembled the senate of that city. He then proceeded to have its members murdered along with the richest people in the city. Once they were dead, said Machiavelli, “he [Agathocles] seized and held the principate of that city without any civil controversy.” The lack of outrage among American citizens about the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq may be an indicator of a similar absence of ethical standards in America. Even during the Vietnam War, anti-war sentiments were more often triggered by the deaths of U.S. soldiers than by outrage directed against the immorality of creating so many civilian Vietnamese casualties or awareness that wars of aggression are intrinsically war crimes.

In another example, Machiavelli described how the dictator Oliverotto took control of the city of Fermo in A.D. 1501. Oliverotto asked his uncle, Giovanni, to hold a banquet in his behalf, during which Oliverotto’s soldiers slaughtered Giovanni and all the other guests – enabling Oliverotto to take control of the city. Machiavelli’s assessment of this crime and the slaughter committed by Agathocles was matter-of-fact. He drew a distinction only between the ineffective versus effective use of atrocities – labeling them respectively as badly used and well used:

Someone could question how it happened that Agathocles and anyone like him, after infinite betrayals and cruelties, could live for a long time secure in his fatherland, defend himself against external enemies, and never be conspired against by his citizens, inasmuch as many other have not been able to maintain their states through cruelty even in peaceful times, not to mention uncertain times of war. I believe that this comes from cruelties badly used or well used. Those can be called well used (if it is permissible to speak well of evil) that are done at a stroke, out of the necessity to secure oneself, and then are not persisted in but are turned to as much utility for the subjects as one can. Those cruelties are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow with time…. Hence it should be noted that in taking hold of a state, he who seizes it should review all the offenses necessary for him to commit, and do them all at a stroke…. For injuries must be done all together, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; and benefits should be done little by little so that they may be tasted better [by the people].

Knowing this, should we assume that the shock-and-awe tactics pursued in March 2003 in Iraq were intended as an “evil deed well used” (to use a Machiavellian expression) because they ended swiftly? If so, what about the indefinite “detention” and torture of suspects at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo – not to mention the deportation of prisoners to countries where torture is practiced? Unfortunately for those who wish to adhere to the advice of Machiavelli, these abuses are taking place over an extended period of time. They are not being “done at a stroke” as Machiavelli recommended. Consequently, the Renaissance master would categorize these abuses as “cruelties badly used.”

Just Following Orders

Amid the fog of lies and emotions whipped-up by politicians interested in transforming our free republic into a despotic empire, have atrocities and cruelty become acceptable to once-civilized Americans? Aren’t we being just a wee bit precious in guarding the airwaves from dirty words here at home while our soldiers force defenseless captives to strip naked and simulate sexual acts before beating them to death during interrogation, attacking them with dogs, shaving their beards and leering at them in degrading postures, smearing them with fake menstrual blood, and kicking their genitals in the name of freedom?

If so, it is not the first time it has happened. Before World War II, Germany had been considered one of the most civilized nations in Europe. Nonetheless, in the politically orchestrated frenzy of fear and empire building, some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century – a century virtually awash in atrocities – were committed within its borders and conquered territories. Furthermore, these atrocities were committed with the cooperation of the churchgoing citizens and soldiers who, after all, were just following orders.

Returning to the War Crimes Tribunal held in Nuremberg after World War II, the excuse that “I was just following orders” was not deemed acceptable when offered by Nazi soldiers accused of war crimes. That excuse is now known as the infamous “Nuremberg Defense.” We’ve been hearing the same justification for events taking place at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and at prisons located in countries where torture is allowed – as in the case of Maher Arar, who was deported to Syria, where he was tortured at the behest of the CIA. The new attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, has proven to be just as unethical as John Ashcroft on the subject of torture. Gonzalez said the provisions of the Geneva Convention were outdated and ill-suited for dealing with captured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters. He added that laws prohibiting torture do “not apply to the president’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants.” He also complained that the pain caused by interrogation must include “injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions in order to constitute torture.” He even characterized the small acts of human kindness recommended in provisions of the Geneva Convention as “quaint.”

As in previous examples cited in this essay, the pattern of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth applies to the way U.S. politicians have framed the discussion of war crimes perpetrated by the military forces of the U.S. against both civilian populations and detainees. The lie used to justify these atrocities was that they were intended to bring down evil leaders. Americans have had plenty of time to become accustomed to this rationalization. President Truman’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a prime example. Those nuclear explosions yielded approximately 200,000 innocent civilian victims. Their real purpose was to “send a message” to America’s World War II ally, the Soviet Union, informing its leaders that the United States indeed possessed a formidable weapon. President Truman, however, misled Americans by claiming that the nuclear weapons were used to prompt a faster surrender and save the lives of 500,000 American soldiers (the correct figure, supplied by the military, was actually 46,000 soldiers). Americans were not told that the Japanese leadership already had sued for peace before the bombings – seeking virtually the same terms that were obtained after the bombings. Using Truman’s falsehood as its touchstone, U.S. politicians claimed that the napalm and Agent Orange used in Vietnam, the sanctions against Iraq, and Operation Iraqi Freedom itself were designed to topple the leaders of evil regimes. These tactics, however, have failed. Nothing was gained, and only the bodies are left to count.

When accused of encouraging these crimes and other acts of torture, politicians resort to “damage control.” To avoid the charge of hypocrisy, they create a plausible half-truth as a cover story. They tell us the crimes were “isolated acts” and were confined to a few “bad apples.” Then they sponsor sham investigations that – it is not surprising – discover wrongdoing only among the lowest ranks of soldiers. This protects the reputations of high military and administrative officials from being blemished. While it is indeed true that soldiers of low rank carried out the atrocities, the question that must be asked is whether they were really acting without the implicit assent of their commanding officers as well as such political higher-ups as former Attorney General John Ashcroft, his successor Alberto Gonzalez, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, and President Bush himself.

Administration officials, however, should not worry too much about their reputations. America seems to be developing a thick callus around its conscience. Each new revelation of cruelty or deception – such as the lies and many-layered cover-up surrounding Pat Tillman’s death – is quickly absorbed by the public and forgotten. This indicates a woeful decline in the kind of behavior deemed “acceptable” in the United States. The hearts of some Americans have grown so hard that callers to one nationwide talk-radio show have proudly described barbeque parties celebrating the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. These on-air descriptions were accompanied by laughter and encouragement from the talk-show host.

As in the case of Machiavelli’s prince, in today’s political arena, deeds are neither intrinsically evil nor good – merely ineffective or effective. They require only the proper calculation to determine their advisability. The end justifies the means – or as the French proverb goes (much quoted by tyrants): “You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

Public Choice and Spending

Machiavelli would take great comfort in the “public choice” theory as outlined by economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Public-choice theory tells us that politicians cannot legislate or spend taxpayer dollars wisely. Why? Because there simply is no incentive to fight powerful interests on behalf of the majority of taxpayers.

This is how it works. On the one hand, the general public remains intentionally unaware of most legislation because keeping informed requires too great an investment of time in proportion to the benefit gained from the information. Even if individuals become aware of harmful legislation, they are unwilling to do anything about it. Why? Because the negative financial impact of the legislation on each person is small (but it adds up), and the cost is divided among all taxpayers.

While the effort required to successfully block one bit of legislation is huge for a single taxpayer to assume, special-interest groups receive rich rewards from legislation designed expressly for their benefit. The benefit, which is taken in very small amounts from millions of taxpayers, is highly concentrated in a much smaller group – whether it is a business group, a labor union, the local PTA, or government employees. Consequently, the recipients are willing to invest the resources needed to influence the legislators. Like crime, living off the public dole can pay off handsomely. Public-choice theory goes a long way toward explaining the redistributionist flavor of the legislation that dominates U.S. politics: the victims are many, dispersed, and silent, and the beneficiaries are few, organized, and vocal.

In much the same spirit, Machiavelli delivers the following insight in chapter 3, where he describes how a new ruler can seize the belongings of newly conquered enemies and divide them among his supporters:

One offends only those from whom one takes fields and houses in order to give them to new inhabitants – who are a very small part of that state. And those whom he offends, since they remain dispersed and poor, can never harm him, while all the others remain on the one hand unhurt, and for this they should be quiet; on the other, they are afraid to err from fear that what happened to the despoiled might happen to them.

Divide and conquer. That’s the message. Otherwise, politicians would have to face up to Frédéric Bastiat’s succinct – and frightfully accurate – definition of the state: “the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”

Once again, we can perceive the workings of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth. The lie is that, when someone seizes the belongings of another, the slate somehow is wiped clean and the new property holder will be secure in the newfound wealth. The truth is that seized property is stolen property. In general, people tend to retaliate against thieves – whether they are freelance street thieves or well-armed, uniformed soldiers acting on behalf of politicians. The hypocrisy is that the new owners believe they have a bona fide claim to the stolen property. Is it likely, however, that a ruler who does not respect property rights will respect their bogus claim? The recipients of the stolen booty are likely to be victimized, in turn, the moment it becomes convenient – whether their booty is “awarded” to someone else or confiscated more slowly by taxation. This hypocrisy is covered up, in turn, by whatever slogan or excuse can be manufactured to galvanize the new recipients of the booty into assisting their leader. In foreign policy (Iraq, anyone?), the excuse can be far-fetched: an enemy is about to attack, so we’d better attack first (and use their oil money to pay for our attack). In domestic politics, it can be a claim of unfair advantage, unequal distribution of wealth, monopoly control, or greed – a malady that never seems to infect those who wield the accusation. No matter how tenuous this half-truth, people accept it if it is convenient.

Government Spending: Parsimony or Liberality?

Machiavelli devotes an entire chapter to the question of liberality versus parsimony in spending. His advice, however, has been disregarded by contemporary politicians. They understand in their bones that Machiavelli was advising rulers who had long-term plans – plans defined by decades and dynasties, not by this week’s polls. He did not anticipate the short-term thinking that has been engendered by two-, four-, and six-year election cycles. Consequently, his instructions about fiscal responsibility (chapter 15) sound quaint and out of date:

If one wants to maintain a name for liberality among men, it is necessary not to leave out any kind of lavish display, so that a prince who has done this will always consume all his resources in such deeds. In the end it will be necessary, if he wants to maintain a name for liberality, to burden the people extraordinarily, to be rigorous with taxes, and do all those things that can be done to get money. This will begin to make him hated by his subjects, and little esteemed by anyone as he becomes poor…. When he recognizes this, and wants to draw back from it, he immediately incurs the infamy of meanness.

Thus, since a prince cannot, without damage to himself, use the virtue of liberality so that it is recognized, he should not, if he is prudent, care about a name for meanness. For with time he will always be held more and more liberal when it is seen that with his parsimony his income is enough for him….

In response to Machiavelli’s concern that “in the end it will be necessary … to burden the people extraordinarily,” today’s politicians are guided by a quip of economist John Maynard Keynes in his Tract on Monetary Reform: “Long run is a misleading guide to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Keynes demonstrated the short-term bias that underlies democracy as a political system. In contrast to today’s politicians, who constantly praise democracy instead of individual rights and constitutional limits on government power, one of the nation’s founders, John Adams, condemned democracy in his writings. In one instance, he pointed out that democracy would ultimately evolve into despotism. In a letter to Jefferson, he added that “democracy will envy all, contend with all, endeavor to pull down all, and when by chance it happens to get the upper hand for a short time, it will be revengeful, bloody, and cruel.”

Using John Adams as a springboard, we can appreciate the observations of Austrian-school economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe. In his book Democracy: The God That Failed, Hoppe observed that even monarchy is preferable as an alternative to democracy:

It is worth remembering that any prince who failed in his primary duty of preserving the dynasty – who wrecked or ruined the country, caused civil unrest, turmoil and strife, or otherwise endangered the position of the dynasty – faced the immediate risk of either being [sic] neutralized or assassinated by another member of his own family. In any case, however, even if the accident of birth and his upbringing could not preclude that a prince might be bad and dangerous, at the same time the accident of a noble birth and a princely education also did not preclude that he might be a harmless dilettante or even a good and moral person. In contrast, the selection of government rulers by means of popular elections makes it practically impossible that any good or harmless person could ever rise to the top. Prime ministers and presidents are selected for their proven efficiency as morally uninhibited demagogues. Thus, democracy virtually assures that only bad and dangerous men will ever rise to the top of government; indeed as the result of free political competition and selection, those who rise will become increasingly bad and dangerous individuals, yet as temporary and interchangeable caretakers they will only rarely be assassinated.

It appears that only gridlock in Washington will prevent each successive president from outdoing his predecessors in the arena of profligate spending. In John Denson’s book Reassessing the Presidency, economists Richard Vedder and Lowell Gallaway offered tacit proof of Hoppe’s theory in an essay entitled “Rating Presidential Performance.” In the essay, Vedder and Gallaway used various criteria to rank U.S. presidents in terms of the economic damage they unleashed while in office. They presented their rankings in a series of five charts – taking into account the following criteria for each president’s term in office: the government’s share of the nation’s total output, change in the size of government, the “inherited” size of government, and the presence of inflation.

Viewing the data in the charts, one cannot help but notice that there has been an increasingly depressing trend toward fiscal irresponsibility since the founding of the republic. As a remarkably ironic surprise, however, President Clinton was ranked as fiscally more responsible than all of the following presidents: Richard Nixon, Ronald, Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Consequently, we should sing the praises of gridlock. While their reputed enemy President Clinton held office in the 1990s, it seems that Republican congressmen were able to achieve the slight victory of curbing government spending by a minuscule amount. Once they possessed control of the White House and Congress, however, Republicans opened wide the sluice gates of government spending. By every measure of spending, domestic or military, Republican-controlled government has become so saturated by pork that pigs are squealing everywhere. This ensures that the current president, George W. Bush, will have the honor of bumping along on the murky bottom of the fiscal cesspool. He will be in the company of the most fiscally irresponsible presidents in U.S. history; Presidents Hoover, Wilson, Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt all managed to appear in the bottom six slots in every one of the Vedder-Gallaway charts, with only one small exception in the case of Herbert Hoover.

Here as elsewhere, we can see the pattern of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth. All of these presidents have claimed to hold the financial interests of Americans close to their hearts. Each of them, however, has used taxpayer dollars to subsidize some special interests over others – never cutting spending across the board in any significant amount. When their opponents in another political party point this out, they deliver a series of half-truths to rationalize their willingness to spend other people’s money – each one, in turn, rhapsodizing about the merits of the special interests they serve. These interests include poorly run businesses in need of tax-fed subsidies; spoiled union members who refuse to compete honorably by offering products of value to consumers; middle-class families seeking subsidies for college tuition or secondary schools; government employees who oppose cuts in spending programs they administer; law-enforcement agencies whose members gain job security by persecuting persons who commit crimes that have no victims; and members of the military-industrial complex who lick their chops at every multi-billion defense system and refuse to pull back from the overextended network of ineffective, war-provoking bases spread like a gill-net around the world.

August 29, 2005

Political Theatre

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