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An Empire for America


Shortly before his death in 1902, the great classical-liberal social philosopher Herbert Spencer penned an essay entitled “Imperialism and Slavery” that was included in a collection of his writings under the title Facts and Comments (1902). The theme of the essay was that, as Great Britain was proceeding to expand its empire around the world, it was not only enslaving the peoples brought under British imperial control, it was also enslaving the British people in the process.

Spencer asked his readers to picture a man literally enslaved with his hands tied and with a collar round his neck to which was attached a rope held at the other end by his slave-master. Most people, seeing this, would say that clearly one was the captor and the other the captive.

But Spencer suggested that, in fact, the slave-master is as much enslaved as his prisoner. Unless he holds on to the rope and watches his prisoner, the slave will run away and reclaim his freedom. In this sense, the captor is as much tied to the captive as the captive is to his master.

With an empire, especially one that was still expanding, the British government was not only extending its enslavement over more subject peoples in other parts of the world but also increasing its enslavement of the British people, who would be required to supply and hold the ropes that would keep the conquered nations under British control.

Taxes would have to be raised to pay for the armies and the materials of conquest and occupation. Powers and authorities of control would have to be delegated to more government ministries to man and maintain the colonial regions added to the empire. Freedom would be lost also, because of the increased hazards of resistance and opposition by the occupied peoples, which would require greater security measures infringing on the liberties of the British people.

Spencer also used the example of the Russian Empire under the tsars, with its control of many captive peoples within its boundaries:

We have its vast army, to service in which every one is actually or potentially liable; we have an enormous bureaucracy ramifying everywhere and rigidly controlling individual lives; we have expenditures ever outrunning resources and calling for loans. As a result of the pressure felt personally and pecuniarily, we have revolutionary societies, perpetual plots, chronic dread of social explosions; and while everyone is in danger of Siberia, we have the all-powerful head of this enslaved nation in constant fear for his life. Even when he goes to review his troops, rigorous precautions have to be taken by a supplementary army of soldiers, policemen, and spies, some forming an accompanying guard, some lying in wait here and there to prevent possible attacks; while similar precautions, which from time to time fail, have ever to be taken against assassination by explosion, during drives and railway-journeys. What proportion of life is not absorbed in government-business and religious observances is taken up in self-preservation.

Spencer feared that as long as men believed in and supported the rationales for empire, the complementary enslavement of the conquering people would continue.

So long as the passion for mastery overrides all others the slavery that goes along with Imperialism will be tolerated…. So long as they continue to conquer other peoples and to hold them in subjection, they will readily merge their personal liberties in the power of State, and hereafter as heretofore accept the slavery that goes along with Imperialism.

Herbert Spencer’s words, written just over one century ago, ring with renewed relevance in the face of the call for the conscious adoption of an American empire, and especially with the conquests of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The rhetoric of the Bush administration would suggest that America launched a noble crusade to liberate millions from oppression and tyrannical rule. And in its place will arise free societies thankful and willingly responsive to U.S. admonishments and tutorials on the designing and implementation of American-style political institutions and social arrangements.
Afghanistan and Iraq

Instead, of course, what has been seen after almost two years of “liberation” in Afghanistan is a return of the tribal warlords, political corruption, factional violence, and political plots and assassination attempts on those put into power by the U.S. government as well as a revival of the very terrorist groups the American invasion was meant to permanently destroy. American and other international military forces patrol various parts of the country and numerous search-and-destroy missions must be constantly undertaken in an attempt to rid the country of the opponents of foreign occupation.

In Iraq a population that may have been happy to see the downfall of their domestic tyrant seethes under an American occupying force that is determined to dictate their political, cultural, and economic future.

The American social engineers intend to reshape the Iraqi people into a form considered by the government in Washington fitting and appropriate for the new world order that the Bush administration wants to impose on the world.

The general Iraqi civilian population fears and distrusts the motives and intentions of their “liberators,” while the country wallows in confusion and disorder. And American soldiers face deadly ambush and attack from an angry resistance force.

The U.S. government has now tied the American people to the actions and responses of the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Part of the fate of the people of America will now be determined by those who live in the occupied countries of the American empire.
Empire and occupation

This resistance to American political and military control and dictate will pull and indeed drag the American citizenry in directions not of their own choosing. Armed opposition will require parents and spouses to see their loved ones sent off and stationed in these countries to “pacify” and restrain those who dare to defy their American masters.

And some among these American occupation forces will come home in body bags or with permanent injuries that will affect them and their families for the rest of their lives.

The occupied peoples will determine a portion of the tax burden that will have to be borne by the American taxpayers. The more the armed and passive resistance, the longer and the greater the budgetary cost to the U.S. government; and the less the American people will have in their pockets to spend as they see fit on their personal preferences to improve the quality of their own lives as they peacefully go about their private activities here at home. The “enslaved” therefore proceed to loot the wealth of the “enslavers.”

The resistance of the occupied peoples will continue to raise fears and concerns among the occupying authorities concerning safety and security. But what if those who resist try to extend their violent opposition to American forces and civilian citizens beyond the borders of the “liberated” lands?

Those actual or potential acts of resistance will then require Americans to give up personal freedoms in self-defense. Already, crossing borders into or out of the United States or boarding planes at airports imposes new inconveniences, more infringements on privacy, and greater losses of individual liberty to not be molested by security forces, as Americans peacefully go about their ordinary affairs of everyday life. Telecommunications must be monitored, email messages must be intercepted, and homes and places of business must be surveilled and broken into. Private property loses even more of its greatly reduced sanctity and security from prying eyes and political violation.

Whatever still remains of limited and divided powers under America’s constitutional order is further weakened and abridged as government must concentrate power and decision-making to manage and administer the problems associated with global empire.

“National security” in defense of the empire cannot allow congressional public hearings and unclassified information about the actions and expenditures of all of the empire’s civilian and military administrative affairs and goings-on. Some seemingly inconsequential political or military fact or financial figure on a budgetary spreadsheet might serve the malevolent ends and actions of the enemies of the empire in the occupied areas of the world.
Prisoners of empire

It is far better if the American people merely trust in the good and noble intentions of their political leaders and the bureaucratic personnel who oversee the agencies and administrative departments of empire. And those same political leaders and bureaucrats will share with the American people what they think is both good and safe for them to know and be kept informed about.

After all, if the imperial masters and administrators in Washington can be trusted to dictate the fate of foreign countries, then how is it any less logical to trust them to control and determine what the American public is told about what they do and why?

Thus, Americans find themselves the prisoners of the nations occupied by the empire. Americans find themselves increasingly bound and shackled by their own government in the name of advancing “freedom” for selected “unfree” portions of the rest of the world.

Americans become the victims of George Orwell’s famous “newspeak” in his novel1984, in which slavery means freedom, secrecy means openness, political propaganda means unbiased truth, conquest means liberation, occupation means independence, foreign dictate means self-determination, and government spying and surveillance means safety and security.

Spencer also lamented that the British people seemed not to sense or understand how their own freedom was being eroded by the imperial enslavement of others.

They went to the voting booth to elect parliamentary representatives and they considered themselves politically free men.

Their incomes had not yet been fully absorbed by taxes to fund the costs of empire and they viewed themselves as still having economic control over their own lives.

They were not as yet forcefully conscripted into the military to man the outposts of empire and they therefore still considered themselves unmolested free individuals.

The needs of national security had not yet completely intruded into their private affairs and as a result they still viewed themselves as safe in their persons and property.

How similar the American people in our own time! The television news shows flicker with the pictures of bright and clean-cut young soldiers standing guard in Afghanistan and Iraq, and Americans became self-glorious with pride and respect for the greatness and superiority of the “American way of life.”

They hear their president and his cabinet members speak with the confidence of men who are masters of the world bringing civilization to ignorant heathens, and many Americans feel unbounded trust in the goodness and trustworthiness of those who rule over them.

They see the Stars and Stripes flutter in the breeze over mighty battleships cruising foreign waters off the coasts of occupied or as-yet-unoccupied “evil” nations, and they consider these great machines of war and destruction harbingers of peace and tranquility for mankind.

And they will vote in party primaries and a national election in 2004 and they will think that they, and not those in government, determine their fate and future as free citizens.

In other words, too many of our fellow citizens seem to have no insight into the degree to which they have lost their liberty or how much more they may very well lose if the path of empire is followed and persisted in over the coming years and decades.

Maybe the new imperial current will have to play itself out. Maybe Americans will have to feel more of the burden of empire in terms of taxes and human life before they appreciate that it does not come without a high cost. Maybe Americans will have to see the loss of far more freedoms before they realize that empire diminishes liberty and does not preserve or enhance it. Maybe Americans will have to experience a disastrous episode of imperial failure and defeat before they are awakened to the impracticability of trying to socially engineer, centrally plan, and globally police the mass of mankind.

But however history plays itself out in these matters, this fate is not preordained. Men and societies have sometimes changed or modified their directions and courses of action before they fall into the abyss. Precisely because this fate is not “written in the stars,” it falls upon every friend of freedom to speak out against this path of empire. Each of us must take upon his shoulders the determination and courage to reason, argue, and explain to our fellow citizens the implications and consequences of an American empire.

In the face of accusations of anti-patriotism and anti-Americanism, every advocate of individual liberty, the free-market economy, and limited constitutional government must explain to others that the way of empire is opposed to the principles, traditions, and institutions of the free society originally fostered and created by the Founding Fathers.

We friends of freedom may fail in this task, even with the best of our efforts and determination. But it will certainly have no chance of success if too few of us even try. The future of freedom is now in the hands of each individual.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).