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Noninterventionism: Cornerstone of a Free Society


A free society is impossible under an empire. Even the most just war you can imagine is a disaster for liberty and prosperity, as Ludwig von Mises pointed out. An unjust war amounts to murder, mayhem, and mass destruction. And a perpetual state of war guarantees that liberty will never be achieved. James Madison said it very well:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. [There is also an] inequality of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals…. No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Indeed, from a purely consequentialist point of view, America has lost most of its freedom during its wars. Even the American Revolution itself had negative effects — martial law, massive debt that ushered in Hamiltonian control of the new republic, and consolidation of power in the national capital.

The War of 1812 resulted in martial law in Louisiana, where people were jailed without habeas corpus simply for criticizing military law. A judge was jailed for issuing a habeas corpus writ.

During the Mexican War the executive branch unilaterally adopted taxing powers over U.S.-controlled ports in Mexico.

The Civil War brought with it mass conscription, corporate welfare, the death of real federalism, the suspension of habeas corpus, the jailing of thousands of dissenters, the censoring of hundreds of newspapers, the creation of a national leviathan with such new agencies as the Department of Agriculture, military commissions, and the use of the army against civilian draft rioters in New York.

With World War I, thousands of new agencies were created, millions were enslaved to fight in a royal European family feud, American citizens were jailed for saying things I say every day, income-tax rates skyrocketed into the 70s, and the federal government implemented economic controls that were later brought back in peacetime during the New Deal. In fact, the New Deal was basically the revitalization of the wartime economy from World War I.

World War II saw the conscription of 11 million Americans, the detention of hundreds of thousands of “enemy aliens” without due process, Japanese internment, martial law in Hawaii, a quasi-fascist command economy complete with comprehensive price controls, tax rates above 90 percent, censorship, and the prolonging of Herbert Hoover’s and Franklin Roosevelt’s Great Depression, which didn’t end until the U.S. government stopped consuming 40 percent of America’s income to wage the war.

The Cold War gave us drafts, especially during the hot wars with Korea and Vietnam, and surveillance and psy-ops directed against peaceful activists by U.S. intelligence agencies. With the war on terror we have lost the last remnants of the Fourth Amendment, habeas corpus has taken another beating, we are treated like prison inmates every time we fly, peaceful activists have been spied on, media have been manipulated by Washington, torture has become normalized, soldiers are not allowed to quit after completing their first or even third tour of duty, and Americans’ telecommunications have been exposed to surveillance by the military.

War gave us the welfare state — first for veterans then for the rest of us. It gave us Prohibition — it was during World War I that beer was targeted, both for its German origin and its popularity on military bases — and Prohibition led to gun control and the continued destruction of the Bill of Rights. War, under Lincoln and Wilson, gave us the corporate state, which is now a permanent feature of American life. War gave us federal meddling in education. It created virtually every precedent by which our liberty is robbed.

It is no exaggeration to say that had America not found itself in those wars, we would be much, much freer — even if a New Deal were passed every decade, even if the Progressive Era had never ended, even if the Great Society were three times as grandiose, even if Obama had been president for the last century. There are many threats to liberty, and all are worth taking seriously. But nothing has approached war when it comes to destroying American liberty. And abroad, war has created conditions that almost always lead to less freedom and security, not more, for most people involved.

The CIA talks about “blow-back” — the idea that U.S. intervention leads to unanticipated and unpredictable results that harm America and its interests. Few people take it far enough.

If it were not for the Mexican War, the question of the expansion of slavery into the new territories might never have exploded into the political conflicts that culminated in the Civil War. If it were not for the Civil War, the U.S. nation-state would have not had the manufacturing power and mercantilist interests of the North combined with the expansionist sentiments of the South, which became united, by force, in the national project of imperialism. If it were not for the Spanish-American War, the colonies seized by America at the time would not have been targets for a Japanese attack in World War II.

World War I and beyond

But World War I was the true starting point of all the trouble we’ve seen since. If not for U.S. intervention in World War I, the Germans would not have lost so decisively, the Allies would never had been able to impose such crushing conditions on Germany, and Hitler would have probably never come to power. Meanwhile, the United States also pressured the Russian democrats who had overthrown the tsars to stay in the conflict, leading to the conditions that allowed Lenin to take power. The Nazi and Soviet states — two of the most infamous totalitarian regimes of modern times — were born at least in good part because of U.S. meddling in World War I. At the same time, the Allies carved up the Middle East, messing up that region in ways that affect us to this day.

World War II was simply a consequence of World War I, although it too could probably have been avoided had Britain not declared war to save Poland — which it never did save. But given the line between World War I and World War II, many assume the latter, the “Good War,” was a clear victory for peace and democracy.

It’s hardly that simple. World War II resulted in the amassing of far more territory under Stalin, who was certainly not much of an improvement over Hitler. Indeed, Hitler’s greatest crime of all — the Final Solution — was a wartime measure. War was bad for the freedom of everyone ruled by Hitler, just as with any other government.

Moreover, in addition to Stalin’s territorial grabs, the defeat of imperialist Japan opened the door to communist domination of Asia. Aside from the socialist takeover of China, it was during World War II that the United States supported Ho Chi Minh, who would later take over the communist government of Vietnam. World War II simply paved the way to communist control of almost half the planet, as well as the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the United States supported any regime poised against communism. That included the Ba’athists in Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein; the shah in Iran, which led to the textbook blowback of the Islamic Revolution; and, in the late 70s and early 80s, the mujahideen in Afghanistan, whose successors still plague most of that poor country. Eventually, the United States would side with Saddam against Iran (while sending Iran weapons illegally) and then turn on its ally, waging war with Iraq under George H.W. Bush. All of this meddling, of course, led to 9/11 and the resulting war on terrorism.

World War I led to World War II, which led to the Cold War, which led to the war on terror. It is a vicious cycle, and it needs to end, or else we will always be in a state of war, all sides believing they didn’t start it, and peace and the freedom that depends on it will always be a dream.

The immorality of America’s wars

But there is an even more fundamental reason to oppose wars as a general principle. Wars are almost always unambiguously immoral. War is, after all, mass killing conducted by government.

The great 13th-century Catholic theologian St. Thomas Aquinas and the Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius of the 17th century etched out a Just War Theory to determine the moral status of a given war. For a war to be just, it has to be defensive. It has to eschew the targeting of innocents. It has to protect wartime prisoners. It has to be declared by a properly constituted authority. It has to be winnable — a state can’t just devote the population to a suicide mission with no chance of victory. It cannot result in more evils than it eliminates. Only those directly responsible for aggression can be punished. It has to have good intentions — revenge itself will not do. It has to spare civilians. It has to be publicly declared. It has to be a last resort. Both the cause in the war and the conduct in executing it have to be just.

America has waged virtually no just wars. Some wars might have been in retaliation for a direct act of aggression — such as World War II in the wake of Pearl Harbor, but even that did not justify the firebombing or nuclear destruction of Japan’s civilian centers, or the firebombing of Dresden and more than a hundred other German cities. Most American wars fail the Just War test on almost every count. And the morality of a nation that embraces immoral wars is more threatened than by all the social deviancies one could imagine combined.

It is for all those reasons that the classical liberal movement — the movement of liberty — has always had a particular abhorrence for war. The Levellers hated war. Jefferson and Madison wrote about it passionately. Lysander Spooner, although a radical abolitionist, opposed the Civil War. Most prominent pro–free market and pro-liberty Americans — from Mark Twain and Edward Atkinson to Grover Cleveland and Andrew Carnegie — opposed U.S. intervention against Spain in Cuba and the Philippines (where hundreds of thousands of civilians were killed by U.S. forces), and later in World War I. The Old Right coalition in the era of Franklin Roosevelt was concerned with the New Deal, but despite their disagreements one thing united them more than anything else: opposition to foreign war. The modern libertarian movement grew, not only in opposition to regulation and socialism, but also in opposition to the conservatives’ embrace of the draft and the Vietnam War. And of course, if one issue unified and energized the Ron Paul revolution starting in 2007 it was opposition to George W. Bush’s criminal foreign policy and war on terrorism.

Many issues are very important and cut right to the nub of what it means to be free. Such issues as censorship, gun control, drug prohibition, income taxation, fiat money and central economic planning are all crucial, and we should never flinch in opposing such depredations on liberty. But if there’s any one issue on which all of liberty hinges, any one policy whose moral implications warrant the greatest urgency at all times, any one political question that determines whether you live in a semi-free country or a nation that is categorically preempted from becoming free, it is, as James Madison and many others before and after him have said, war. A noninterventionist foreign policy is the cornerstone of a free society. It is certainly not sufficient to allow for freedom, but without it, freedom is but a dream.

This article originally appeared in the December 2011 edition of Freedom Daily.

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    Anthony Gregory is the author of The Power of Habeas Corpus in America (Cambridge University Press, 2013), and American Surveillance (University of Wisconsin Press, 2016). He is a former policy adviser for The Future of Freedom Foundation.