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Thursday, May 23, 2013

Flaying the Emperor

Robert Higgs has made a career of showing that the emperor (i.e., the State) has no clothes. Delusions of Power, a collection of his essays over the last seven years, does much more than that—it flays him, too.

The 29 essays in this book are divided into four sections, the first of which revisits the themes of his justly celebrated Crisis and Leviathan: namely, that crises fuel the metastasis of the State. This section is followed by one of revisionist historical essays covering the period from 1912 to 1974. He next tackles economic issues of the general macroeconomic variety and the application of economic analysis to issues of war and peace. He finishes up with a section of reviews of books that touch on the issues discussed in the first three sections.

What makes Higgs’ treatment of these issues so refreshing and so necessary is the consistency with which he treats the domestic and international sides of the State’s nefarious activities—something that is rare indeed, not only among mainstream writers but also among some who consider themselves libertarians. The typical conservative decries the welfare state while cheering on the warfare state. The typical liberal does the opposite—with a distressing number of people more than willing to sanction both. The open-minded reader will come away from this book realizing that aggressive war is nothing if not a government program, and usually the biggest and most destructive of them all. Arguments in defense of the status quo stand little chance between his “follow-the-money” analysis; his assembly of facts that do not fit into the Manichean “us good, them bad” justifications that pass for analysis of U.S. foreign wars; and his dissection of the military-industrial-congressional complex.

Because of the State’s success at conflating patriotism with uncritical acceptance of current “defense” policy in the minds of many Americans, these articles have evoked vitriol to the point of hate mail, as the author personally told me. The more narrowly economic pieces generate much less heat but at least as much light. Thus, his demolition job on “vulgar Keynesianism” in chapter 16 was excerpted in the June 8, 2012, Wall Street Journal, a publication whose editorial stances are quite at odds with this author’s views on why States go to war. That chapter goes beyond mere demolition to actually giving as much of the correct understanding of these macroeconomic issues as one can humanly do in a mere 10 pages.

In the section where he applies theory to history, Higgs shows the immensity of the gap between the justifications for major policies and the real motivations behind them: They’re usually little more than corrupt payoffs to the well-connected. How Lyndon Johnson’s so-called War on Poverty was actually a subsidy to middle-class suppliers of certain politically favored goods and how Nixon’s “New Economic Policy” sacrificed the long-term prosperity of the nation to enhance his second-term election prospects, are but two of the examples he exposes.

Another sacred cow Higgs takes on is democracy. The widespread confusion of democracy with liberty makes this task most necessary. The most novel part of his critique is that by the time the opportunity comes along to “toss out the rascals,” often cited as democracy’s greatest virtue, whatever evils they have perpetrated become faits accomplis that cannot be undone. Moreover, as those policies are implemented, people become so inured to them that they come to consider undoing them unthinkable, in what Higgs calls “ideological learning.”

In his introduction, Higgs states that “the United States is a dreadfully unfree country, all things being considered, and is becoming less free all the time” (p. 4). While we in the United States are neither as free as we once were, nor as free as we should be, the fact that this book could be published is evidence that we still have some non-trivial freedoms left. Certainly, such recent expansions of State power as the Patriot Act, TARP, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, and the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act give the State the ability to make us as unfree as Higgs claims. We are about one crisis away from its putting them into full force, making “dreadfully unfree” a perfectly accurate description. What little hope we have to avoid this bleak future rests on people’s refusing to believe the State’s lies—something that the arguments and evidence in this book ought to go a long way toward bringing about.

  • Robert Batemarco teaches economics on an adjunct basis at Fordham University and Manhattan College. He was formerly book review editor of The Freeman. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.