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Conservatives Flunk Logic


“Hello. I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

Conservatives love to use this line to mock the idea that government can do constructive things for you. Nothing gets a bigger laugh at conservative gatherings. The sentence has two meanings. First, it makes fun of the notion that politicians have your interests at heart and truly wish to serve them. Not so, according to the subtext; politicians are self-serving meddlers.

Second, it implies that even when politicians are well-intended, they aren’t to be trusted. Why? Because (1) they can’t really know our best interests as individuals, and (2) even if they knew them, they wouldn’t have enough information to serve them. Good intentions aren’t enough.

It’s a double-whammy against government solutions. It gets a laugh because we can picture the scene: a pushy politician insisting on helping someone, and that person hurriedly shutting and locking his door to keep the interloper out.

That’s a good attitude to have about government, so why do conservatives refuse to apply it consistently? They see through the state’s propaganda only selectively, say, on the minimum wage or welfare or gun control. But:

They’re happy when politicians tell recreational drug manufacturers, distributors, and consumers, “Hello. I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
They’re very happy when politicians tell viewers of movies and television programs they find too risqué, “Hello. I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”
They’re very happy when politicians send the military to tell foreigners, “Hello. I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

This last case is particularly striking. The Bush administration is trying to force a “democratic” welfare state on Iraq and Afghanistan, and most conservatives couldn’t be more enthusiastic. Imperialism always entails using military might to lift up a foreign population — at least in the eyes of the imperialists. It’s “Hello. I’m from the government and I’m here to help you” writ large.

When conservatives criticize domestic political meddling, they rightly demand that the policy be looked at not from the politicians’ point of view, but rather from the receiving end. Good advice. Why don’t they see this principle in foreign affairs?

Executors and aficionados of America’s imperial actions say they have only good intentions. They just want to bring freedom and democracy to the Iraqis and the Afghans and, perhaps soon, the Iranians. When the intended beneficiaries resist — conduct an “insurgency” — they are called ingrates and terrorists. MSNBC’s Tucker Carlson provides a good example of this sort of shoddy thinking. In commenting on Oliver Stone’s anti-war ad, which features an American soldier saying that the Iraqi people don’t want U.S. troops in their country, Carlson said that that was the weakest reason for withdrawing the troops. Those are the people who are killing our troops; why should we listen to them? he asked.

That’s a rational argument? U.S. troops are occupying Iraqis’ country and killing innocents in the process. Many Iraqis don’t like it so they resist the occupation violently, or support those who do. For Carlson, that very resistance is the reason we shouldn’t take the Iraqis’ wishes seriously.

That makes as much sense as saying that the complaints of a victim of eminent domain are not relevant to whether his land should be taken without his consent.

Contrary to Carlson, that the Iraqi and Afghan people object to the occupation is a persuasive reason for withdrawing the U.S. troops. But another reason would apply even if they did want the troops there: the U.S. intervention can’t be carried on without coercing the American taxpayers. Who would pay voluntarily? You don’t create freedom (even if that were the true intention) by violating freedom. Logic 101.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.