Sweet Land of Militarism

Resurgence of the Warfare State delivers a ferocious punch to those who prefer their states massive and their wars, as Mr. Bush might say, catastrophically successful.

The rest of us, preferring our state small, our leviathan caged, and our wars as a last resort rather than feel-good fixes, will savor Dr. Robert Higgs’ latest contribution to modern history and politics. Resurgence is a carefully selected set of powerful essays, organized into eight parts, each focusing on a unique aspect of the modern, post 9-11 American warfare state.

The book begins with an important post-9/11 interview conducted by Michael Lynch of Reason. Dr. Higgs, an economic historian who is Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute and editor of their superb journal, The Independent Review, briefly explains the themes of his earlier books, Crisis and Leviathan (1987) and Against Leviathan (2004). What we know, thanks to Higgs’ lucid presentation and analysis, is that national crises in American lead to bigger, more invasive, and more hubristic government, the kind that doesn’t go away after the crisis fades.

In Resurgence, it becomes clear that some national crises are more equal than others in delivering the government goods of more centralization, more spending, more interference in and control over the private life of American citizens. 9/11 was invaluable and has shown itself to be an unsurpassed opportunity for government growth. Just as after the Japanese attack on the sleepy naval base at Pearl Harbor, America is again a super-animated warfare state.

Shortly after 9-11, Dr. Higgs predicted "an overwhelming public demand for government to act." He saw clearly that new agencies would form and old agencies would find creative new missions. He forecasted that government would graciously bail out major domestic industries of airlines and insurance, call up reservists, make war abroad, and clamp down on civil liberties at home. "Bombs and missiles" would be dropped, he warned.

Of course, he was right in every case. The first set of chapters in Resurgence draws on the wisdom of James Madison, who said, "…of all the enemies of liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded.…No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare." Of course, preserving universal "freedom" is repeatedly voiced by the White House.

Yet Vice President Cheney is also quoted by Higgs, with this terrifying gem, "[The present war] may never end….It’s a new normalcy." This new normalcy is the warfare state, and Madison’s grave insight becomes Cheney’s glee. Where Madison’s Congress may have been contentious and worried about excess executive power, Cheney’s Congress after 9-11 was generous and genuflecting toward the White House, filled with admiration for the architects of war on liberty at home and on various sets of unfortunate villains abroad.

Is Washington entirely to blame? Higgs also explains, sometimes humorously, how business and the corporate world in American has adapted to Washington and enjoined the leviathan over the past 100 years. Woodrow Wilson, a war promoter abroad and freedom fighter at home, helped create the modern American economic landscape, a vista that brings the eye inexorably to Halliburton’s 9-11 boosted billion dollar no-bid contracts to help out the "war" effort. American defense, and to a lesser extent, energy and banking industries are fourth-generation heirs of what General Smedley Butler called "the racket." 9-11 may have been a surprise to many, but in many ways it represents just one more on-ramp to the government till, and one more hull-crushing iceberg for the ship of state’s financial and constitutional accountability.

Higgs shows how our corporate and political culture confuses free market competition with lobbying a greedy Congress and wooing an obese federal bureaucracy for programs, legal favors and contracts. But beyond economics, he presents an alarmingly clear picture of the very real costs to American values and the so-called American way of life. Included in the collection is "The Pretense of Airport Security," where he writes,

The TSA’s program serves one political purpose above all others. It routinely abases and humiliates the entire population, rendering us docile and compliant…[T]he entire population without exception is treated as suspected criminals and made to feel like inmates in a concentration camp.

Certainly, the recent deadly shooting of an unarmed man trying desperately to depart an airplane just before takeoff reminds us of our correct role as sheepizens. The robust and repeated federal defense of the TSA was that the marshals were "just doing what they were trained to do" to keep the rest of us safe. Safe and docile, like inmates in a national concentration camp.

Dr. Higgs provides some helpful information for taxpayers, not just on the nature of government accretion after 9-11, but the degree. Did you actually believe that the defense budget was around $430 billion last year? Actually, Higgs provides the real numbers, and it was nearly twice that. Just like every year after 9-11.

Higgs has not written a book suitable for bedtime reading with the children. This stuff is downright frightening, and as the book progresses from the programmatic and systemic realities that serve as pylons for the warfare state, he explores the philosophy and attitudes that inform the current warfare state administration, and the tragic and deadly spawn of these philosophies and attitudes. He explores President Bush’s "Faith-Based Foreign Policy" and "Crackpot Realism." In another era, this might be just good fun at the expense of a hapless president. But Higgs carefully builds a bridge to the dark side of our present and past foreign policies, to the lie-based invasion of Iraq. Incidentally, the crackpot realist himself, Mr. Bush, recently admitted publicly that it was indeed a lie-based invasion. True to Higgs’ characterization, Bush claimed he would do it all just the same, lies or no lies. Well, of course he would! America is a warfare state, and as Resurgence of the Warfare State shows in a myriad of ways, that’s exactly how the current administration and its political and industrial enablers like it.

Perhaps the most painful part of the book is the last two sections that focus on the invasion of Iraq, and the aftermath. The attacks of 9-11 transformed the long held neoconservative dream of a US-controlled Iraq into reality. Although the justifications for the conquering of Iraq were lies, the American media, the Congress, and the people at home were at their most intellectually and emotionally vulnerable after 9-11. Those who had long planned the invasion and the power shift in the Middle East had their "new Pearl Harbor" and they used it. Higgs writes poignantly here about the crimes in Iraq that go unreported in the American media, and in a few invaluable pages the reader is left with a striking sense of the magnitude of pain and agony we have inflicted on average Iraqis.

The book concludes with an assessment on the success of the Iraq war for America, an evaluation of this particular post 9-11 foreign policy. The message throughout Resurgence is that post 9-11 trends and anti-Constitutional tendencies aren’t giving us more safety, security, prosperity or freedom. However, Higgs explains that in logical and practical terms, the war in Iraq has been extremely successful and profitable in every way, for the warfare state.

How does Robert Higgs add to the growing cacophony of critiques of government growth in general and the Bush administration specifically? There are three key reasons to read this book, send a few to your dearest friends, and buy one for your favorite teenager. First, it is easy to read, in whole or in parts. His explanations make sense, his historical research is relevant, and his style is to frequently punctuate with a memorable phrase or blazingly insightful observation. Second, while Resurgence is fuel for the libertarian activist, it also works for the conservative aiming to rein in the neoconservative hijack of the Republican Party, or the liberal who is frustrated with the lack of a moral spine in the Democratic Party. For the humanitarian, there is emotional outrage tempered by logic, and for the statistician and economist, there are facts and numbers, presented in a thematically connected and eye-opening way. Third, this book has staying power. Robert Higgs has been infuriatingly accurate in his predictions of just about everything that happened in this country after 9-11. Resurgence, more than anything else I’ve read, also helps provide the conceptual framework of the current and coming phase of the American experiment — a full-fledged warfare state. While Higgs, as in previous books, offers little in the way of solutions to the problems, or a roadmap for reversal of the warfare state, he has built a house on a rock, and there is a sense that understanding how the warfare state works will be the key to breaking it down, or at least surviving its future collapse.

In an extraordinary way, by gripping the reader in the drama and new governmental directions of the post 9-11 period, Resurgence of the Warfare State is almost a novella. There is a Goliath-like villain with an unavoidable, inevitable, seemingly unstoppable agenda. There is a heroic but lonely protagonist, David-like in his honesty and clear-eyed courage. As with a worthy novella, afterwards we enjoy a bittersweet moment of time-suspended reflection on what we have read, what we have discovered, and the unanswered questions that remain. In Resurgence of the Warfare State, Robert Higgs has provided something very special that is well worth buying, reading, sharing, and re-reading, and talking about with your friends, your neighbors, and your children.