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Foreign Policy in One Lesson


“The art of economics,” Henry Hazlitt wrote in his classic, Economics in One Lesson, “consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”

This sensible principle has attained the status of Great Truth among libertarians — and for good reason. Its logic is unassailable. Judging actions only by their immediate, visible consequences is foolhardy, no matter how good those consequences may seem.

What is widely unappreciated, however, is that the principle is fully applicable to the art of foreign policy as well. Yet many people who swear by Hazlitt’s principle in the realm of economic policy forget it entirely in the realm of foreign policy. It should be obvious that it is just as crucial to look at the secondary effects of government intervention abroad as it is to look at the secondary effects of government intervention at home.

Let’s apply the lesson to the late U.S. war in Iraq. It is easy to see the immediate effects, particularly the uprooting of an odious regime that had little respect for individual rights and the rule of law. What freedom lover would not have been enthralled with a popular uprising against Saddam Hussein’s government? Who would not have been cheered by the imposition of justice by Hussein’s surviving victims?

But that does not mean that such things are to be wished for regardless of the other consequences. Switch back to domestic policy for a moment. No libertarian wants to see people lacking economic security, decent housing, proper medical care, or good education. But it does not follow that libertarians want government to attempt to provide those things. Why? Because even if we assume that government could provide them, it would also have to do other things that are unacceptable to advocates of freedom.

The same consideration must be brought to any discussion of foreign policy and warmaking. Before supporting the U.S. government’s move to bring down the government of Saddam Hussein, one must look at the full context. There are many aspects to this.

To be capable of fighting such a war (more than one at a time actually, according to the Pentagon), the U.S. government first had to spend trillions of dollars over many years. The powerful fighting force and high-tech arsenal it assembled requires more men and hardware than mere defense of American territory would have required. Militarily, the U.S. government outspends all the major countries of the world combined. Every dollar the government taxes (under threat of force) for military purposes is a dollar unavailable to the taxpayers for consumption or investment. Less money is left for entrepreneurs to produce the goods and services that would have made us healthier and more comfortable. To take someone’s money against his will is to curtail his freedom. Thus a U.S. interventionist foreign policy deprives the American people of the economic freedom needed to make their lives better.

When that policy provokes attacks against American civilians, as it has in the past, the cost of the policy climbs considerably higher in many ways. Let’s not forget that U.S. intervention during and after the first Gulf War was a major motive for the murder of thousands of civilians on September 11.
War and government power

But that’s just the beginning. As we know from Robert Higgs’s indispensable book,Crisis and Leviathan, government grows during war and preparation for war. It consumes more resources. It borrows. It either raises taxes or shelves tax cuts. It violates privacy. It regiments. And when the war ends, the government never returns to its pre-war dimensions. This is what Higgs calls the “ratchet effect.”

In the buildup to war, the master-servant relationship between state and individual is accentuated. The government demands total support and suggests that dissenters are aiding the declared enemy. Questioning the war policy is suspect, not only by the policymakers, but by the multitude of people who faithfully accept the word of their (mis)leaders and by the cheerleaders in much of the news media. Disagreement is branded disloyalty.

Also during the buildup, the government often finds it convenient to withhold the truth from the people paying the bills. Again, most people will believe the government and cast aspersions on those who will not. This reinforces the power of government and paves the way for more deception.

As a result, government grows and the individual shrinks. With each war the distinctive American view of the relationship between person and state was changed to the detriment of freedom. This is no less true in the Iraqi war.

When the war actually comes, new costs are incurred. Most obviously, civilians in the invaded land inevitably are killed, as they were in Iraq. Government officials will routinely express their regrets, excuse themselves on the grounds that this is what happens in war, and move on. Most of the news media will aid this misdirection. In this regard, we can note that the Bush administration says it will make no effort to count the Iraqi dead; too difficult, they say. (According to Iraqbodycount.net, which bases its count on media reports, as of mid April some 1,400 to 1,800 Iraqi civilians were killed during the war. It’s unclear how many were maimed.)

The war apologists are right, of course, No matter how smart the bombs, war always kills and injures civilians. But rather than excusing those responsible for the war, it further indicts them. As Rousseau said, “He who wills the end wills the means.” Because war always inflicts civilian casualties, no government should start or enter one unless it is in strict defense of “its” population.

It is unseemly for U.S. officials to argue that those casualties served the cause of freeing other Iraqis from Hussein’s tyranny. Even if no new tyranny follows in the wake of the conflict, that argument is unacceptable. No government official has the right to set in motion a process that will sacrifice innocents on the grounds that a larger number of Iraqis will benefit.
Perpetual war

A further inescapable consequence of the Bush foreign policy is that it will most likely lead to other conflicts. President Bush argues — implausibly — that Americans are safer now that Saddam Hussein’s regime can be talked about in the past tense.

The incongruity is that the U.S. government’s defeat of that regime will only encourage the president to continue what he sees as a successful policy.

This administration has enunciated a strategic doctrine claiming the authority to launch preventive wars whenever it believes a foreign government might become a threat at some unspecified time in the future.

If Hussein’s Iraq met that vague criterion, then surely so do other governments. The administration’s bellicose words about Syria are ominously familiar — they are nearly identical to what was said about Iraq. We also know that Bush advisors inside and outside the administration have talked about regime changes in Iran, Libya, and elsewhere.

It is hard to imagine that the swift defeat of Iraq will dampen enthusiasm for Bush’s aggressive policy. The currents all run the other way. Bush and his aides may believe that the recent show of force will persuade “rogue nations” to acquiesce in U.S. demands. Perhaps they might — on the surface. But it is unlikely that those regimes will roll over. It’s more probable that they will continue to pursue their interests, and when they do, the Bush administration will have its casus belli.

In the administration’s eyes, the “success” in Iraq has confirmed the efficacy of the policy. Thus we are more likely to see it carried out again.

The upshot is that the recent war has done more than overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government. That was one of the immediate, visible effects, but the secondary effects were and will continue to be many and serious: the foreseeable killing and maiming of innocents, greater government consumption of resources, increased intrusion into private affairs, a heightened master-servant relationship between government and individual, and emboldened foreign-policy makers. In other words, the price of overthrowing Saddam Hussein is a U.S. empire and the abolition of the republic.

In that light, the policy doesn’t look so good.

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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.