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Bob Dole Should Rediscover a Better Republican Tradition

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Bob Dole is playing the defense card.

He has undoubtedly calculated that President Clinton is vulnerable on defense and that Dole, a badly wounded World War II veteran, thus has the advantage. Well, maybe.

But if Dole really wants to demonstrate his bona fides as an advocate of small, unintrusive government, he would be advised to examine another, slightly older, Republican take on the defense issue. There was a time not long ago when Republicans understood that the systemic problems that undermine the good intentions of domestic policymakers also plague foreign policy. To put it bluntly, we can’t have a small government and big military.

The notion that the United States is the anointed hands-on leader of the free world has led its policymakers inexorably to rewire America’s republican institutions for empire. They had to do that because republican institutions cannot handle imperial tasks without overloading and blowing circuits. But that rewiring has cost us dearly: burdensome taxes, deceit, secrecy, violation of civil liberties, conscription, war, lives shattered and destroyed.

That was not lost on such Republican politicians and sympathetic writers as Sen. Robert Taft, Rep. Howard Buffett, Felix Morley of the Washington Post, John T. Flynn, and others. Those unfortunately forgotten men understood that matters of national security tend to inhibit debate, creating the danger that the foreign-policy wing of government would operate outside the sight of the American people to embroil them in dangerous foreign adventures. That was anathema to those perceptive figures, just as it was to the nation’s Founders.

The slogan “politics stops at the water’s edge” has worked to shut up people skeptical of an activist foreign policy, as though debate and criticism were dangerous to our society. Morley had the best answer to that slogan: “Politics stops at the water’s edge when policies stop at the water’s edge.” Unfortunately, policies do not stop there.

This is not merely a theoretical matter. In a book written several years ago, Crisis and Leviathan , Robert Higgs demonstrated beyond doubt that in the 20th century, the biggest boost to the growth of the federal government has been war and preparation for it. In each episode, government spending and regulation surged to new highs. And when the “emergency” ended, the scope of government never shrank back entirely to the previous level. The result has been a growing state that has its talons in more and more areas of life.

If we are to truly shrink our leviathan, we cannot leave the military out of the cutting. Bob Dole says it’s better to spend too much than too little on defense. The problem is that most of what the Defense Department does has nothing to do with defense. We spend so much more than other large nations that any reasonable person would be suspicious about what all that money is for. Must we really be a party to every quarrel in the world? Do we really think we can be the world’s peacemaker and peacekeeper? The world is messy and always will be. It is delusional for any U.S. policymaker to presume to create a New World Order or whatever euphemism is now employed to disguise what used to be more accurately called “globaloney.”

The best the American people can do is stay out of foreign quarrels and stop making enemies. Other than that, we should free up our society and become a beacon of liberty to the world. When John Quincy Adams was secretary of state, he proclaimed that the United States was the champion of liberty but the vindicator only of her own. America, Adams said, “goes not abroad searching for monsters to destroy.” She stays home and jealously protects her freedom. The Founders understood that the biggest potential monster is always one’s own government. Foreign adventures only serve to make the American people look in the wrong direction.

Bob Dole wants to put some excitement into his campaign. A refreshing, and neglected, idea could do that. He should rediscover the earlier Republican wisdom that liberty cannot thrive in a garrison state.

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    Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.