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Wednesday, July 12, 2023

The Folly of America’s Empire: A Review of Christopher Coyne’s New Book ‘In Search of Monsters to Destroy’

The world cannot be made safe for freedom and flourishing by use of top down tyranny and destruction.

Image Credit Public Domain viaWikimedia

Earlier this year, I received a copy of Professor Chris Coyne’s new book, In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Folly of American Empire and Paths to Peace. In the book, Dr. Coyne, a professor of economics at George Mason University, seeks to answer a fundamental question—is the idea of a liberal empire coherent?

By liberal, here, Dr. Coyne is focusing on what is generally called “classic liberalism” which can be very well summarized by FEE Founder Leonard Read’s support for, “anything that’s peaceful.” So liberalism here does not refer to modern-day leftism or progressivism.

The question is basic, but has profound consequences. Can freedom and democracy be spread through centralized force?

For my entire lifetime, U.S. foreign policy elites have answered this question with a simple, “yes.” From the invasion of Afghanistan to recent provision of cluster munitions to be used against Russia, policy-makers in the United States believe the world can be made safe for freedom via top-down coercion.

Dr. Coyne, however, makes a strong case that the correct answer is no. In my reading, he makes two fundamental criticisms of the idea of liberal empire.

Empire Means Tyranny at Home

Dr. Coyne first makes the case that the pursuit of liberal empire contains the seeds of destruction for domestic liberalism. He provides several reasons why an empire is incompatible with domestic freedom.

First, drawing on arguments from Friedrich Hayek and Frank Knight, Coyne points out that when countries attempt to spread liberalism with illiberal means, the politicians and bureaucrats who rise to the top will be those most willing to utilize illiberal means. Thus, the pursuit of liberal empire will tend to weed liberals out of government.

But that isn’t all. In order to build an empire, the state must be empowered legally and financially. Attempts can be made to restrain this power, but several factors undermine these restraints. Because of changes in interpretations about rules, changing context, and increased centralization, imperialism will necessarily weaken these restraints.

Alarmingly, the skills and technology used to build an empire also undermine liberalism at home. Dr. Coyne illustrates this by documenting how one of the original architects of the domestic surveillance state, Ralph Van Deman, acquired his surveillance skills in the Philippine-American War.

Technologically, the “Stingray” system, which is used to capture private cell phone information discreetly, was utilized extensively in the war on terror, and now exists on domestic soil. Likewise, military equipment used in the war on terror has found homes in many US police departments.

Finally, Dr. Coyne highlights how the large financial outlays associated with militarism corrupt American democracy. His analysis of the types of cronyism and his documentation of examples are worth the purchase of the book in and of themselves. In one salient example, he points out how Lockheed Martin’s F-35 plane was strategically manufactured across 45 of 50 states. This made opposition to the aircraft expensive for politicians, as doing so would mean less jobs for citizens in almost every state.

Empire Means Tyranny Abroad

Attempts at liberal empire lead to illiberal results at home, but the problems don’t end there. Liberal empire also fails to establish freedom abroad. Dr. Coyne provides two clear reasons why.

First, those who support nation building abroad assume they have the knowledge necessary to do so successfully. But, in fact, central planners are constrained in how much knowledge they have. The conditions necessary for liberalism to thrive are not given. They likely vary based on cultural, geographic, and temporal factors.

You cannot export democracy or liberalism by using force to require a bunch of foreign politicians to write a document which sounds similar to the U.S. Constitution. Instead, conditions must be appropriate for a liberal government to arise.

Likewise, even if military experts knew the necessary conditions for democracy, they may not have the knowledge necessary to bring them about. Central planners are missing essential local knowledge which is necessary for understanding the situation on the ground in foreign countries.

Knowledge problems abound, and are only exacerbated by the second reason liberal empires fail to establish freedom abroad: incentive problems.

In implementing nation-building plans, it’s unrealistic to assume politicians will have the best interest of foreign citizens at heart. Instead, it’s likely politicians are driven by all sorts of special interests in determining policy. Likewise, bureaucrats face incentives to maximize their budget and growth by competing with and sometimes undermining other bureaucracies.

There are also incentive problems within the country being invaded/ liberalized. Dr. Coyne highlights extensive problems of corruption in the new Afghanistan government which undermined its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.

To highlight the twin problems of knowledge and incentives, Dr. Coyne analyzes two cases in detail. First he examines the War on Drugs in Afghanistan. His analysis shows that the U.S. attempt to curb opium production not only failed as opium production skyrocketed, but it also caused the opium industry to fall increasingly into Taliban control. Dr. Coyne does a brilliant job highlighting the knowledge and incentive problems at the root of the failure.

By trying to end opium production, the U.S. government increased costs of being in the opium industry. The producers who were best able to handle these costs were the large producers. Meanwhile small producers went under. To make this worse, local bureaucrats, for their part, had little incentive to target larger producers and instead played along with the U.S. government by picking off the smaller targets instead.

As the industry centralized under fewer large producers, these producers sought Taliban assistance in defying U.S. policy. Dr Coyne notes, “the Taliban began to offer protection in exchange for a portion of farmers’ crops or revenues. In fulfilling these roles, the Taliban became the most powerful and violent cartel in the region.”

Second, Dr. Coyne shows the counter-productivity of the use of drones in the war on terror, which I will leave you to read for yourself.

In lieu of successful establishment of liberalism, U.S. nation building leaves destruction and failed regimes in its wake—meanwhile poisoning many hearts and minds against liberalism.

Resisting the Siren Song of Empire

Above is only a small snippet of In Search of Monsters to Destroy. I excluded discussion of much of Dr. Coyne’s fantastic analysis, as well as his discussion about the history behind the creation of the American empire. I cannot recommend the book highly enough, and I firmly believe Dr. Coyne has one of the most important research programs of any economist today.

At the end of the book, Dr. Coyne offers a way forward, and a warning. The way forward is what he calls an appreciation for polycentric defense. Rather than accept the assumption that all security and protection in life rests in the hands of the government, we can recognize the power individuals have in their everyday interactions. A strong case is made that the polycentric approach is both more realistic and more effective than the monocentric approach.

Finally Dr. Coyne urges readers to resist the siren call of empire. At every turn, it seems like there is another crisis around the corner that warrants American intervention. The problem, however, is that this mindset, the empire mindset, merely assumes American intervention can and will improve things if applied.

In Search of Monsters to Destroy gives us good reason to think this is wrong. The world cannot be made safe for freedom and flourishing by use of top down tyranny and destruction. In the words of Dr. Coyne, “perpetual liberal war for perpetual liberal peace fails due to internal contradictions, intentionally or unintentionally eroding liberal values and creating enemies in the process.”

Proponents of perpetual war would have us believe “this time it’s different.” In hindsight, however, the failure to create liberal peace with liberal war seems much the same throughout our history.


  • Peter Jacobsen is a Writing Fellow at the Foundation for Economic Education.