Weapon of Mass Distraction

Minding Our Own Business Is the Best Foreign Policy

In 1795 James Madison wrote:

“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. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

Madison’s warning is worth thinking about one year into the war on terrorism. As government officials have repeatedly said, this is a war unlike any other. It is an open-ended campaign against an amorphous target that is a tactic not an adversary. At various times President Bush has said the campaign is against terrorist groups with a “global reach” and against “evil doers” everywhere. Thanks to cheap international air travel, “global reach” is not as restrictive a standard as it sounds. Thus the net is cast wide, including the Philippines, where civil strife is nothing new.

The upshot is that the government has embarked on a major operation with serious military, domestic civil-liberties, and fiscal implications–and there is no way of knowing even what will constitute success. What’s more, it is all too easy to stir up public fears whenever skepticism about the exercise of government power surfaces. The ominous announcement in June about an alleged dirty-bomb plot, which the White House quickly backed away from, is just one example.

Some will reply that the concerns voiced here might have had merit if terrorists hadn’t flown airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon one year ago. Those monstrous crimes were indeed committed by evil men. But maybe passions have cooled sufficiently that it can be noted that classical liberals have long warned that the U.S. government’s interventionist foreign policy–empire, as some of its advocates are no longer reluctant to call it–creates breeding grounds for anti-Americanism and terrorism. As a Department of Defense report put it in 1997, “historical data show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United States.”

The U.S. government has been trying to police the world for over half a century. It is incapable of protecting us from those who resent it. The Founders’ mind-our-own-business policy is now in order. To borrow a title from the Cato Institute’s Ivan Eland, the best defense against terrorism is to give no offense.

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Imagine government taking property from its owner in order to give it to someone whose use will provide more tax revenue. This surely couldn’t happen in the United States, right? Wrong, says Steven Greenhut.

America is a vast free-trade zone within which people and goods may cross borders unrestricted. But what if each state were a nation with the same trade barriers found in many other countries? Manuel Ayau Cordón paints the dismal picture.

An award-winning historian claims that early Americans rarely hunted or owned guns. Clayton Cramer has read the same sources as the author and finds a rather different America.

One thing government planners have not been able to do on a large scale is get Americans out of their cars and onto subways, trains, and buses. Stephen Browne tells why.

The first great robbery of the young century occurred in Argentina-and the money never left the bank. Guillermo Yeatts has the details.

Last January, Robert Nozick died. He was the Harvard philosopher who wrote a book, Anarchy, State, and Utopia, that put libertarianism on the academic map. Roderick Long discusses the importance of that achievement.

The people were against them, but the federal government connived with industry to have the states impose them anyway. Now you can be stopped, and maybe jailed, for not using them. What are they? Seat belts. William Holdorf tells the sordid story. And Ted Roberts relates a personal encounter.

The man who made sure the railroad fulfilled its potential and helped turn America into an economic powerhouse is more associated with refrigerators than trains. Charles Oliver has an account of a remarkable inventor and entrepreneur.

When the champions of government schools attack vouchers for violating the First Amendment, their arguments turn like a boomerang and strike those who make them. Barry Loberfeld carefully scrutinizes their case.

The general impression of the Third World is that it’s bad off and getting worse. The general impression is mistaken, writes Jim Peron.

In the columns department: Mark Skousen attends to the environment. Lawrence Reed is troubled by the prisons. Doug Bandow says too much is spent on the military. Thomas Szasz listens to the way people talk about suicide. Stephen Davies points out that government wasn’t always big. Donald Boudreaux denies that capitalism promotes wealth inequality. Russell Roberts can’t understand farmers. And Scott McPherson, reading the claim that government and business are much the same, replies, “It Just Ain’t So!”

Books coming under the microscope this month focus on the presidency, the significance of the growing investor class, the effect of labor legislation on black people, the failed drug laws, the crusade against the tobacco industry, and the corporation’s impact on America.