Author's note: The following is from a talk I gave at a Libertarian Party
of California convention in Fresno on Jan. 28. Although it is 90-percent faithful
to the talk, I rewrote it to reflect further thoughts I had after the speech.
As well as being a research fellow at the Hoover
Institution, I'm an economics professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in
Monterey. My students are military officers. After 15 years of teaching there,
it occurred to me that I should actually think about what my students do – in
other words, think about war. What wars should our government get into, what
should U.S. foreign policy be, etc.?
I'm sure that many of you are familiar with the libertarian-designed "World's
Smallest Political Quiz." Let me ask you a question: How many questions does
that quiz have on foreign policy? [Someone in the audience answered, correctly,
"Zero."] We libertarians have honed our principles and applied them
to literally hundreds of domestic policy issues. We've done a great job. The
depth of our understanding of how to apply our principles to these issues and
of the importance of peace in the domestic realm is truly something for us to
be proud of. But we haven't given nearly the same care to examining foreign
Even our language reflects the relatively primitive state of libertarian thinking
about war and foreign policy. I don't know many libertarians who, in talking
about the 1993 Clinton tax increase, say, "We raised taxes." They're
much more likely to say, "Clinton and Congress raised taxes." In other
words, they put the responsibility on the people who acted. But I frequently
run into libertarians who will say, without the slightest hint of irony, "We
bombed Nagasaki" or "We went to war with Iraq." In other words,
they switch from the clear, clean language of individualism that they use in
discussing domestic policy to the dark, obfuscatory language of collectivism
in discussing foreign policy.
But certain principles apply to government action, and those principles don't
become irrelevant in the government's dealings with the people of other countries.
It's important, for example, that a government not kill innocent people, whether
they are in the country that that government governs or in another country.
I would say more, but I want to move on to other issues.
Let's look at the economics of foreign policy and analyze foreign policy the
same way economists analyze domestic policy. Consider how we economists analyze
price controls on gasoline. We point out that even if the governments that impose
price controls on gasoline don't want to cause a shortage of gasoline, the result
of a price control that is below the free-market price is a shortage
that leads to lines for gasoline. In figuring out the effect of the price
control, we don't look at the government officials' intentions – their
intentions are irrelevant to understanding the effects of a price control. Indeed,
so often do economists find that various policies cause negative unintended
consequences that in my "Ten
Pillars of Economic Wisdom" that I hand out to students the first day
of class, pillar number six is "Every action has unintended consequences."
Similarly, in foreign policy, governments do things that have unintended consequences.
Take the Middle East. Please. The takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran by
a number of Iranians in November 1979 came as a total surprise to most Americans,
including me. But that's because neither they nor I had paid much attention
to what the U.S. government had been doing in that part of the world. Indeed,
the U.S. president at the time, Jimmy Carter, actively discouraged Americans
from thinking about past government policy toward Iran, referring to it as "ancient
history." But the history wasn't ancient, unless Carter had a young child's
view of time. In 1953, the CIA's Kermit Roosevelt and Norman Schwartzkopf Sr.
helped overthrow the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh.
[See Sheldon Richman, "'Ancient
History': U.S. Conduct in the Middle East Since World War Il and the Folly Of
Intervention," Cato Institute, August 1991.] Now, Mossadegh was no
good guy: he had nationalized some oil companies. But does a government's theft
of property justify its overthrow? While few Americans ever knew about the CIA's
role in overthrowing a democratic government, many Iranians did, just as if
an Iranian government agency had overthrown our government, many Americans would
remember. So the takeover of the U.S. embassy was an unintended consequence
of the CIA's action in 1953.
That's not the end. Because of the U.S. government's upset at Iran, it allied
more closely with Saddam Hussein. Saddam Hussein, incidentally, was part of
two coups against Iraqi governments, and the U.S. government helped with both
coups. Because Saddam Hussein made war on Iran, the U.S. government's enemy,
the U.S. government helped him in his 1980s war against Iran. The unintended
consequence – although maybe this was intended – was to make Saddam Hussein
more of a power in the Middle East. Intended or not, it was a nasty consequence.
One can tell similar stories about many of the other major wars of the 20th
century. President Woodrow Wilson inserted the U.S. government in World War
I to, in his words, "make the world safe for democracy." The Germans
contacted Wilson in early November 1918 to ask whether he really meant it when
he listed his Fourteen
Points. One of the most important was Wilson's point five, which assured,
"A free, open-minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial
claims, based upon a strict observance of the principle that in determining
all such questions of sovereignty the interests of the populations concerned
must have equal weight with the equitable claims of the government whose title
is to be determined." Wilson assured the German government that he did
mean it. So the German government surrendered, even though, at the time, the
Allies did not occupy a single square inch of German soil. But Wilson didn't
keep his word, partly because he was only one of many players at the Versailles
conference and partly because of his illness. Wilson was unable to hold off
the vengeful Georges Clemenceau, the prime minister of France. The result was
the punitive Versailles
Treaty, which helped make Germany ripe for Hitler. So Hitler and the European
part of World War II were an unintended consequence of Wilson's intervention
in World War I. This was not a world safe for democracy.
Even if you want to have a U.S. government that goes around the world making
countries free, as I believe George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld sincerely do want,
wishing does not make it so. We have to ask whether the U.S. government is competent
to do so. Why do some of us think that the U.S. government would be particularly
competent at figuring out, in a foreign government, which faction, often which
tribe, to support? We don't hesitate to point out that government does a lousy
job of running schools, providing health care, and providing housing to poor
people. Why does it suddenly become competent when it tries to run things in
a foreign country? Indeed, the odds are that it will be less competent because
the people whose lives the government affects do not get to vote, and, therefore,
the U.S. government doesn't face the same minimal democratic constraints in
those countries that it faces here from us voters.
Finally, if we truly want liberty, we should notice the effect of war on liberty.
As Robert Higgs points out in Crisis
and Leviathan, every time the U.S. government has gotten into a war,
it has taken on powers and reduced freedom, and when a war ends, not all of
the powers end and not all of the freedom returns. Thus, for example, before
the U.S. entered World War I, the top income tax rate was 15 percent. By 1918,
the last year of the war, it had reached 77 percent. By the end of the 1920s,
even after Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon's cuts in tax rates, the top rate
was 24 percent and it never went lower. Similarly, an early form of Prohibition
started in World War I, paving the way for a more complete Prohibition in 1920.
And although the idea of a national police force, with its ominous implications
for liberty, was anathema to the Founding Fathers, one outgrowth of World War
I was an increase in the size and duties of a national police force called the
of Investigation. For decades, it was run by a power-hungry man, J. Edgar
Hoover, whom the Wall Street Journal recently attacked for running roughshod
over people's civil liberties. Also during World War I, Wilson
nationalized railroads, and when they were denationalized after the war,
they never had the same freedom of action they had had before.
World War II gave us a top tax rate of 94 percent, and it wasn't until 1964
that the top rate fell to 70 percent. We also got income-tax
withholding. Also, price
controls were imposed nationally, and New York city's rent controls, imposed
as a temporary measure, are still with us today, with all the destruction they
have wrought. The current Bush war has also brought its share of freedom reduction,
especially in the area of civil liberties, with the USA PATRIOT Act and NSA
wiretaps of American citizens.
Those who advocate liberty must take a serious look at the wars the U.S. government
gets into and should cast just as skeptical an eye on those wars as they do
on other government interventions.
Copyright © 2006 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to
reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.