Libertarians and conservatives who argue for economic freedom and against government control tend to make both principled and practical arguments for their positions. Take health insurance, for example. The principled argument against government regulation of health insurance is twofold: (1) No government has the right to dictate to someone what kind of insurance he should buy or whether he should buy it at all; and (2) no government has the right to dictate to an insurance company what kind of insurance it may sell and what it many charge. The practical arguments are many; for example, if government sets prices too low, it will cause shortages and rationing, which most people would find undesirable.
But when some of those same libertarians and many conservatives think about war, their critical thinking skills seem to go out the window. On the principle side, they rarely argue that the U.S. government doesn’t have the right to force U.S. taxpayers to support oppressive dictators in foreign countries such as Kuwait. Why? Because they seem to think the fact that an even more vicious dictator, Saddam Hussein, attacked Kuwait makes coerced funds from U.S. taxpayers morally obligatory. And on the practical side, they tend to drop their skepticism about the consequences of government action. Yet, even aside from any argument based on principle, if libertarians and conservatives were to be as skeptical of our own government abroad as they are of it at home, they would likely favor keeping the United States out of foreign wars. Indeed, as I shall show, there are two reasons we should be even more skeptical of our government’s actions overseas.
One of the strongest practical arguments against government intervention in the domestic economy comes from Ludwig von Mises: One intervention, by causing unintended consequences, leads to further intervention. At each point in the chain the government could back down and deregulate. But governments tend not to do that. Take an example I wrote about in this publication (“Unintended Consequences in Energy Policy,” March 2009, www.tinyurl.com/adv6gm). Richard Nixon’s price controls on gasoline caused a shortage that then led to fuel-economy standards for cars.
The same kind of reasoning applies to foreign policy. In 1963 the Central Intelligence Agency helped a young Iraqi ally who, along with other plotters, overthrew Gen. Abdel-Karim Kassem. His name: Saddam Hussein. Five years later, the CIA backed another coup that made Hussein deputy to the new military ruler. Then, in 1979, Hussein took his turn as dictator.
In 1980 Hussein proceeded to wage a long and costly war on Iran. Interestingly, the Reagan administration supported this invasion with billions of dollars in export credits and with satellite intelligence. Consider how this one intervention led to another.
Why did the U.S. government support Saddam Hussein in his war on Iran? The Iranian government had become an enemy of the U.S. government a year earlier, when Ayatollah Khomeini took over and some Iranians held Americans in the U.S. embassy hostage. Why did so many Iranians dislike the U.S. government? One reason was that in 1953 the CIA had helped depose the democratically elected premier, Mohammad Mossadegh, and reinstalled the shah of Iran. The shah created a secret terrorist police force, SAVAK, that tortured its own citizens and imprisoned political opponents. The CIA helped train SAVAK. The shah also undertook a highly inflationary monetary policy that caused the value of the Iranian currency to plummet. Inflation and torture: funny how that upsets people.
No Laughing Matter
Interestingly, when James Woolsey, former director of central intelligence in the Clinton administration, spoke at the Naval Postgraduate School in August 2003, he addressed the 1953 uprising in response to my question. During his speech Woolsey had stated that the war with militant Islam had begun in November 1979, when some Iranians took over the U.S. embassy. I asked him whether he didn’t think it might have begun in 1953, when the CIA helped depose Mossadegh. Laughing, Woolsey quoted Winston Churchill’s claim that Americans, after doing many wrong things, would always end up doing the right thing. In other words, Woolsey seemed to admit CIA complicity, but dismissed the idea that this mattered because the U.S. government, at some point (he didn’t specify when), had gotten it right.
But Woolsey’s answer evaded the issue: The consequences of the U.S. government’s intervention in 1953 have been horrendous and cannot be laughingly dismissed.
Or take the unintended consequences of U.S. government intervention in Afghanistan. Although the U.S. government now fiercely opposes the radical Muslims who until 2001 ran the Afghan government, it helped put them in that position in the first place. Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, bragged in an interview in Le Nouvel Observateur that in 1979 he had persuaded Carter to destabilize Afghanistan’s pro-Soviet government so that the Soviets would invade. In December 1979 Brzezinski got his wish: The Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The CIA proceeded to finance Afghan Muslim jihadis through Pakistan.
Just as the economy is a complex nexus of rights and exchanges with each participant having, as Adam Smith put it, his own “principle of motion,” so it is with whole countries. U.S. government officials—and there are many—who think they can plan another country to make it better clearly don’t recognize these principles of motion. They have what F. A. Hayek called, in his criticism of government intervention in the economy, a “fatal conceit.” And, as we’ve seen with the above-mentioned wars, the conceit is literally fatal.
There are two reasons to think that the consequences of government intervention abroad will be worse than the consequences of government intervention at home. First, the major victims of this foreign intervention will typically be foreigners. Foreigners don’t vote in U.S. elections. Therefore, U.S. politicians will never have to worry about the negative votes of foreigners and will therefore be more destructive than otherwise. Second, when people see the negative consequences of intervention, they, all else equal, tend to turn against it. That’s why people tend to oppose taxes more than regulation: Virtually everyone can observe the wealth lost to taxes. But because most of the obvious consequences of foreign intervention occur abroad, they are less visible to Americans. How many Americans are aware that the CIA helped overthrow a democratically elected prime minister?
War is a government program. Libertarians and conservatives should bring the same skepticism to war that they bring to other government programs.