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A Republic, Not an Empire


Predictably, the key lesson of the recent China incident has not been learned. That lesson is this: America was designed as a republic and should not act like an empire. When it does act that way, the American people, not to mention the people in other countries, suffer.

Why does the U.S. government need to send spy planes near China? It is hard to believe that this is related to the actual security of the American people. China wants to sell products here, not conquer or bomb us. If the Chinese government is trying to assemble a nuclear missile force, it might have something to do with the fact that the U.S. government has an awesome military and a threatening nuclear capability combined with a globe-girdling policy. It is no secret that American officials, having enjoyed the status as heads of the chief Pacific power for some time, are not eager to see someone else take their place.

In other words, what look like aggressive moves by China may be purely defensive in the eyes of the Chinese. It is characteristic of an arrogant empire that it never thinks of how its own actions look to others. It strikes a pose of innocence, then takes umbrage at anything anyone does in response to its imperial conduct.

We can see this attitude in people of various political stripes. In effect, they have said, “How dare China behave that way!” Even if the American plane was in international airspace and the Chinese pilot tried recklessly to intimidate the American pilot, there is no gainsaying that the United States was keeping tabs on China in a way that had to be humiliating. The U.S. government wouldn’t have been pleased had the tables been turned.

As for the Bush administration’s high dudgeon at the Chinese’s boarding the plane, what could be more hypocritical? The American government would have done the same thing, and has done it in the past.

To keep all this in perspective, we should bear in mind that the government every day plays a dangerous game called espionage. It can’t play the game without expecting to lose a round now and then. That will include losing planes and personnel. Considering that the crew returned home and probably scuttled the sensitive equipment in the aircraft before the Chinese got to it, the U.S. government can chalk it up as a minor loss.

A mistake often made is to think that since the United States is a democracy and China is a communist dictatorship, the United States must be in the right. Things are not so simple. A government can be brutal to its own people without threatening its neighbors, much less the dominant power many thousand miles away. (China is less communist and authoritarian than it was ten years ago.) And a government that recognizes some of its citizens’ freedoms (though a shrinking number) can nonetheless attempt to impose its will in every region of the world.

The fact is, it is the United States, not China, that has exerted global power continuously for more than 50 years. In just the last few years it has dropped bombs in the Middle East and in the Balkans. It has scattered troops far and wide. It has inserted itself into civil wars. It has imposed starvation embargoes. No wonder other countries see the United States as an intruder.

But what about Taiwan? Surely “we” must keep “our” ally safe from the designs of the Chinese communists. We can sympathize with the Taiwanese people for not wanting to live under the regime in Beijing. But that is not our affair. They will have to sort that problem out between themselves.

The United States was meant to be a constitutional republic; that is, a country in which the government is limited and the people are free. The natural outgrowth of such an arrangement is free-market capitalism, where people, secure in their property, engage in production and trade for mutual benefit. If we follow that path, we will be at peace with the world. But if we continue our present course, in which government usurps our liberties and pursues global “national greatness” ambitions, we will be in continuous conflict and see our prosperity wither.

The choice is clear.

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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.