Last month I asked if the American people can afford a world-girdling foreign policy more befitting an empire than a republic. Look at it this way: War hawks make poor deficit hawks. Facing a $13 trillion national debt and trillion-dollar-plus annual budget deficits, we can’t afford to be complacent about foreign interventions costing $12 billion a month.
It’s not just that the budget numbers are daunting: The very institutions of small-government republicanism are suffocated by the quest for global hegemony. As James Madison said, “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. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
The soul of the American founding, Thomas Paine, noted in The Rights of Man that in British history “taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but . . . wars were raised to carry on taxes.”
This philosophy was heard throughout the nineteenth century.
Since the 1960s criticism of foreign intervention has come mostly from the political camp opposed to free markets and strict limits on government power. But a slightly longer historical perspective reveals that individualist, limited-government, free-market advocates who had fought the New Deal also opposed America’s budding empire. They were loosely associated in what has come to be called the Old Right. Among this group were FEE founder Leonard Read; early staffer F. A. Harper (who later founded the Institute for Humane Studies); Frank Chodorov, first editor of The Freeman after Read purchased it in 1954; Felix Morley, a founding editor of Human Events; Garet Garrett, the novelist and journalist; and John T. Flynn, the Progressive journalist-turned-FDR-critic and author of As We Go Marching, the definitive critique of fascism, militarism, and corporatism.
These men, writing mostly in the late 1940s and ’50s, when the Soviet Union loomed, understood that liberty was imperiled by the centralized power of the garrison state. We see this view expressed throughout the writings of the old individualists. For example, Morley wrote in the spring 1957 issue of the conservative journal Modern Age: “We are trying to make a federal republic do an imperial job without honestly confronting the fact that our traditional institutions are specifically designed to prevent centralization of power. . . . To make our policies conform to our institutions is to revert to isolationism [noninterventionism]. It would mean the termination of our alliances; withdrawal of all troops to our own shores; reduction of military expenditure to a truly defensive level. . . .”
Even earlier, in 1947, Chodorov sounded the alarm against centralized power through interventionist foreign policy: “If we will, we can still save ourselves from the cost of empire building. . . . How a people choose to order their lives is their own concern, and meddling by an outsider, even ‘for their own good,’ arouses resentment. Since the internal affairs of any nation are never beyond reproach, invasion of the privacy of another is as presumptuous as it is mischievous. Political isolationism—minding one’s own business—is an essential of peace.”
Flynn, a muckraking reporter who had exposed special-interest corporatism in the Hoover and Roosevelt administrations, had an unrivaled understanding of how domestic and foreign policies interact. In analyzing how federal policy makers are able to expand their power over the economy without inciting conservative opposition, he observed in 1944: “[M]ilitarism is the one great glamorous public-works project upon which a variety of elements in the community can be brought into agreement. This economic phase of the institution, however, is not always stressed, being smothered under the patriotic gases pumped out in its defense. Nevertheless, this economic aspect is never absent from the consciousness of most people who champion militarism.”
Summing up, Flynn wrote: “We have managed to accumulate a pretty sizable empire of our own already—far-spreading territories detached from our continental borders. . . . We have now managed to acquire bases all over the world. . . . There is no part of the world where trouble can break out where we do not have bases of some sort in which, if we wish to use the pretension, we cannot claim our interests are menaced. . . . Because always the most powerful argument for a huge army maintained for economic reasons is that we have enemies. We must have enemies. They will become an economic necessity for us.”
Harper added his voice to the critics of the garrison state in his 1951 essay “In Search of Peace,” when the most vocal militarists were big-government Democrats: “Charges of pacifism are likely to be hurled at anyone who in these troubled times raises any question about the race into war. If pacifism means embracing the objective of peace, I am willing to accept the charge. If it means opposing all aggression against others, I am willing to accept that charge also. It is now urgent in the interest of liberty that many persons become ‘peace-mongers.’”
He (like Ben Franklin) scoffed at the idea that we must give up liberty to gain security: “Relinquish liberty for the purposes of defense in an emergency? Why? It would seem that in an emergency, of all times, one needs his greatest strength. So if liberty is strength and slavery is weakness, liberty is a necessity rather than a luxury, and we can ill afford to be without it—least of all during an emergency.”
Finally, Read pressed his signature theme of personal responsibility when addressing issues of war and peace. He argued in “Conscience on the Battlefield” that the individual in battle cannot escape judgment for his own actions by seeking shelter in a collective, such as a nation: “[P]lease understand that I don’t care to discuss what you call your foreign policy. It is too late for that. The judgment which now concerns you must be rendered on you as an individual—not on parties or mobs or armies or policies or processes or governments.”
His admonition against foreign intervention was a matter of common sense: “In many instances, you recognize your incompetence to assign causation even to your own acts. It is, therefore, next to impossible for you to determine the just from the unjust in cases that are remote to your experience, between peoples whose habits and thoughts and ways of life are foreign to you. Thinking only of yourself you recognize your own scope and proper limits of your own actions. But interference in strange areas may make you the initiator of violence rather than the protector of rectitude.”
We can learn from these individualist prophets of peace.