In March 2020, America was put on a “war footing,” according to the president of the United States and other governmental officials. The enemy was declared to be the coronavirus, and to meet this “invader” many if not most politicians at all local, state, and federal levels called for government-directed command and control of social and economic affairs. Welcome to the conquest of the United States by China.
I mean this not only in the sense that it is generally said that the coronavirus began in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, and then spread throughout the world, and into the United States. I mean it in the sense that American sociologist and economist William Graham Sumner (1840–1910) meant when he penned an essay in 1899 titled, “The Conquest of the United States by Spain.”
America’s victory over Spain was an ideological defeat
In the immediate aftermath of the short Spanish-American War of 1898, Sumner argued that while the United States had come out of the war victorious, after having successfully invaded Cuba and routed the Spanish forces in the Philippine Islands, America was now on the road to become more like the country it had defeated.
For the century from the establishment of the United States under the Constitution in 1789 up to the Spanish-American War, America may have swept across the North American continent by purchasing the Louisiana Territory from France in 1803, annexing a huge swath of Mexican Territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean following its war with Mexico in 1846-1848, and buying Alaska from Russia in 1867. But it had resisted entering the great game of global imperialism by crossing oceans and seizing foreign lands and imposing American political rule on the people in those faraway places.
But now, following the Spanish-American War, the United States was embarking on a path that would lead to its becoming more like the Spanish, Sumner said. The peace treaty of 1898 had resulted in Cuba’s becoming an American protectorate, along with annexing Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in the Caribbean, Wake Island in the Pacific Ocean, and in transferring the Philippine Islands to U.S. jurisdiction as its colonial and imperial toehold off the Asian mainland.
Sumner argued that this war and the treaty that ended it, required the United States to give up its principle of self-government, since the conquered lands would now be ruled from Washington, D.C., rather than by the peoples in those places. America would now have budgetary burdens of financing the costs of managing an empire that would include an increased military to police its overseas territories. The United States government would no longer be the constitutionally limited servant securing the rights and liberties of the American people.
American adoption of Spanish imperialism
Imperial paternalism would be a new presumptuous principle guiding America’s lordship over its global empire. It would contradict the founding principle of liberty upon which the United States had been established. Said Sumner,
Now, the great reason why all these enterprises which begin by saying to somebody else, We know what is good for you better than you know yourself and we are going to make you do it, are false and wrong is that they violate liberty; or, to turn the same statement into other words, the reason why liberty, of which we Americans talk so much, is a good thing is that it means leaving people to live out their own lives in their own way, while we do the same. If we believe in liberty, as an American principle, why do we not stand for it? Why are we going to throw it away to enter upon a Spanish policy of dominion and regulation?
Yet that is exactly what we set ourselves to do, “if this nation in its turn attempts to be school-mistress to others,” Sumner feared. But then if those whom we are determined to make over in our image for their own good, of course, forcibly resist this imposed transformation, “we must send fleets and armies to kill them if they do it.” Which is precisely what was done in crushing the Philippine Insurrection of 1899-1902, with more than 200,000 Filipinos killed, along with 4,200 American soldiers.
Where did that leave the United States, with this mutation into a form of Spanish imperialism and compulsory paternalism as part of America’s price of victory? Sumner sadly opined,
I submit that it is a strange incongruity to utter grand platitudes about the blessings of liberty, etc., which we are going to impart to these people, and to begin by refusing to extend the Constitution to them [in the form of the same individual rights and political participation], and still more by throwing the Constitution into the gutter here at home. If you take away the Constitution, what is American liberty, and all the rest? Nothing but a lot of phrases.
Free enterprise versus central planning
Slightly more than one hundred years after Sumner warned of the conquest of the United States by Spain, I would like to suggest that today we see China’s conquest of America. No, we have not, as yet, gone to war with China (the last time that happened was during the Korean War). I mean that the Chinese way of facing a social and economic crisis in dealing with the coronavirus has been copied and followed in its political essentials by the United States.
It represents an adaptation of the central-directing mindset and policy perspective that in its implied comprehensiveness has not been fully presumed in America in any recent memory. I say “recent memory” because during the Second World War the U.S. government did commandeer and direct most of the American economy in the name of the war effort through systems of price and production controls that imposed on the American people a centrally planned economy that included rationing of virtually all everyday goods and services.
America retreated from its comprehensive war-mobilization system of central planning soon after the end of the Second World War in 1945 to a freer market economy, though one burdened and beset by a significant overlay of government regulations and a growing welfare state. But in principle, both Republicans and Democrats said that however extensive the interventionist system may become, the premise was a private-enterprise economy within the United States.
It was taken to be one of the stark comparisons between the “free world” led by the United States and the communist-bloc countries dominated by the Soviet Union. In America, private property, personal initiative, and competitive free enterprise were said to be essential to the free society (however much that was contradicted in practice with the interventionist-welfare state), while on the other side of the Iron Curtain was the totalitarian state with the central commanding control of everyone’s personal and economic life through the planned economy.
With the end to the Cold War following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it was widely cheered that America and the competitive market economy had triumphed over the socialist planned society. Democratic capitalism had won over dictatorial communism.
Central planning in China
Except for communist countries such as Cuba and North Korea, virtually all the other socialist centrally planned economies moved in the direction of reestablishing private property rights and greater or smaller degrees of competitive markets. That was the case in China as well.
After more than a quarter of a century under the tyrannical rule of Chairman Mao Zedong until his death in 1976, the communist government of China decided to move in the direction of forms of market freedom with private farming, small and medium-size private businesses, and, over time, private corporate giants that gained international stature and market shares.
And there is no doubt about the fact that a little bit of market freedom goes a very long way. Tens of millions of Chinese have been lifted out of age-old poverty and famine by the opportunities of individual initiative through the profit motive and market prices to serve as guides and incentives.
But the fact is that the Chinese economy has remained closely tied to and dominated by the Communist Party for direction and corrupt control. Party officials and their relatives sit on the boards of leading Chinese companies; nothing gets financed or invested in unless it serves the political or personal purposes of those in the various layers of governmental and Party power. Government planning agencies dictate interest rates as well as where investment funds will be employed in the various sectors of the Chinese economy.
China’s totalitarian response to the coronavirus
The government of Chinese President Xi Jinping first attempted to cover up and deny the existence of the coronavirus. Chinese doctors and medical specialists were muzzled and were threatened to keep silent. Only in January 2020 could the Chinese authorities no longer hide the truth. The world stood amazed by the top-down commands for entire cities and provinces to be locked down. Overnight, it seemed that by government decree hospitals appeared that had not been there before.
The government propaganda agencies worked overtime to control “the story.” The Chinese government had not hidden the truth and had not delayed in swiftly acting. President Xi was not a culprit to blame for illnesses and deaths that might have been prevented from earlier action. No, he was the great leader who guided and directed the needed actions and resources to save China from an even worse catastrophe by central control of everything, everywhere, as well as everyone. Thanks be to the memory of Chairman Mao and the brilliant leadership of President Xi for still having in place the necessary and needed policy tools of the command and planned economy!
The premise was the socialist one, that “society” can deal with dangers and ensure its well-being and betterment only through political paternalism. Command and control, under which the individual is subservient and obedient to the government, ensures the speed and efficiency to meet the needs of a crisis such as the coronavirus.
Following China’s road
As the coronavirus seemed to be stopped in its tracks through the Chinese draconian methods, versions of this model were rapidly followed and implemented in Italy, Spain, France, Great Britain, and a growing number of other countries all around the world. The United States, at the federal, state, and municipal levels of government soon followed the Chinese example.
In the process of ordering retail establishments to shut down or curtail their services, of commanding entire populations of cities and states to stay at home and off the streets, and instructing multitudes of people to not go to work, the American economy went into a government-created economic tailspin.
Freedom of movement, the right of free association, and the liberty of individual choice were all radically set aside in the name of stopping the spread of the coronavirus in the middle of a declared global pandemic, all with little or no legislative processes or constitutional authority. Mayors, governors, and the president of the United States arbitrarily took these powers into their own hands as crisis dictators-in-chief.
What was the response of most of the American public? Passive and even supportive obedience to the dictates of those in political authority. Advocates of civil liberties were muted in their criticisms of abridgments of fundamental individual rights. Conservative and even some libertarian writers all waffled in positively or grudgingly conceding that such a health crisis justified the assumption of exceptional powers by government, even if the forms and content of a few comments suggested that some of what was being done was a bit excessive or misdirected.
Those on the political Left were enthusiastic about the extension of the scope and reach of the government in the face of the coronavirus crisis. Their complaints mostly centered on government actions that were too little and not far-reaching enough in every conceivable direction. They only had one, well minor, hesitation and complaint: the implementation of the half-measures and wrongly arranged impositions of federal-level central planning were in the hands of Donald Trump, the person whom they have come to hate the most and trust the least in the arena of politics. Central planning is good! … as long as the politically correct and “progressive” hands that are in charge of the levers of social and economic policy are those they like and want.
An American consensus
Except for a handful of principled classical liberals and libertarians, virtually everyone has hailed with enthusiasm or pragmatic resignation the need for a budget-busting $2 trillion federal government giveaway in the name of propping up an economic system driven into rising unemployment, falling production, and growing scarcity of many needed goods and services due to the government’s own policy of bringing large segments of the U.S. economy to a halt.
In other words, all along the political spectrum, left, right, and center, it is presumed that only the command-and-control economy can navigate through the storms of pandemic misfortune. That is how the United States has been conquered by China. That is how America goes further down that road to serfdom about which Friedrich A. Hayek warned long ago.
Of course, this has not happened overnight. For decades, now, collectivist trends have been at work in America. The classical liberal writer Garet Garett (1874–1954) warned about it in his 1938 essay, “The Revolution Was,” in which he chronicled the extent to which the road away from traditional American liberty had begun during the Progressive Era and the presidency of Woodrow Wilson and accelerated with the coming of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s.
What can be said is that all that has been happening over these decades has been laying the groundwork for the ideological conquest of the United States by China. In all this, how very far we have moved from the ideas and ideals upon which the American Republic was founded!
Original American ideals
Its spirit was appreciated and understood by the many waves of immigrants who came to the United States, especially during its first 100 years as a new country. As one example, Morris Bickbeck (1764–1825) was an Englishman who decided to leave his native land and immigrate to the United States in 1817. In 1818, he published Notes on a Journey to America, in which he shared his adventures in and his observations about the new country he had decided to make his own, as he traveled from Virginia to what was then the “wild west” of Illinois, where he helped to found the town of Albion.
Here is how he described Americans and their values as free men:
The simple maxim, that a man has a right to do anything but injure his neighbor, is very broadly adopted into the practical as well as political code of this country. A good citizen is the common designation of respect, when a man speaks of his neighbor as a virtuous man — “he is a very good citizen.”…
The social compact here is not the confederacy of a few to reduce the many into subjection; but is indeed, and in truth among these simple republicans, a combination of talents, moral and physical, by which the good of all is promoted in perfect accordance with individual interest. It is, in fact, a better, because a more simple state than was ever portrayed by an Utopian theorist….
… There prevails so much good sense and useful knowledge, joined to a genuine warmth of friendly feeling, a disposition to promote the happiness of each other, that the man who is lonely among them is not formed for society. Such are the citizens of these new states, and my unaffected and well considered wish is to spend among them the remain- der of my days.
Each man was free to pursue his own ends in his own way as his interests and his conscience guided him, with the one stipulation that the following of his own purposes did not infringe on the equal individual rights of all other men to peacefully do the same. This is what made a “good citizen.”
Here was the basis of a “social compact” under which the government and the law were not to place some men in the position to oppress or plunder any others. The cumulative outcome of each individual’s pursuing his own personal interests in this arena of equal individual rights, with common respect for the other’s similar rights, created a cumulative improvement in the conditions of all in society. America was the practical demonstration of Adam Smith’s metaphor of the “invisible hand” of interacting individual self-interests improving the common good of all.
Bickbeck also emphasized the generosity and philanthropy of the early Americans, even in the midst of transforming a continent of wilderness into a developing and wealthy society of commerce, industry, and trade, as well as the achievement of multitudes of those waves of immigrants who cleared vast tracts of land and dotted America with farms and towns of prospering civil society.
The spirit of liberty and the corona-virus crisis
But does all of this still hold in a time of life-threatening crisis from a new strain of virus that seems to be easily transmitted from person to person across countries and continents, and which is particularly deadly for the older members of society with any preconditions that may weaken a person’s immunity system? Surely, extraordinary circumstances require out-of-the-ordinary actions from the government and demands upon the people.
I answer, “No.” It is precisely at a time of a crisis like this that we should realize more than ever that it is essential to respect the autonomy of the individual to guide what he considers to be the best action for himself and his family. At such a time, we want the market to be most adaptable, vibrant, and innovative to find ways to reduce the impact of disease and limit the deaths from such a viral “enemy.”
It is at such a time that we need to rededicate ourselves to the founding principles of liberty as an end in itself, and as the means to discover the best ways to overcome the dangers from a corona-virus. It is not the time to straitjacket society with a command-and-control system of a few in government. We need to not limit our capacity to handle such circumstances to the minds of a few who possess barely a fraction of all the relevant knowledge and ability existing in society but which is decentralized and divided up among all the members of the human race.
It is why in our thinking and in our actions we should not stand idly by and watch the ideological conquest of the United States by China.
This article was originally published in the June 2020 edition of Future of Freedom.