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Condolences Yes, Assistance No

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Thanks to the tremendous technological advances in communications that have taken place over the past few years, the whole world has now heard of and seen the destruction wrought by the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan. With thousands already confirmed dead, and many thousands more missing and presumed dead, the thoughts and prayers from people of every nation are with the Japanese people.

Although the focus of the world is on the tremendous amount of destruction and loss of life in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami, there are some important observations that can and should be made that relate to the situation in Japan, and they have nothing to do with seismology, building codes, nuclear power, insurance, disaster preparedness, or relief efforts.

These observations are of a philosophical nature. President Obama’s former chief of staff Rahm Emmanuel once infamously remarked that you shouldn’t let a serious crisis go to waste since it’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before. Although I don’t discount in any way the horrific destruction and loss of life that has just occurred in Japan, I don’t want this serious crisis to go to waste in the sense that it provides us with an opportunity to examine — on a philosophical level — some facets of U.S. foreign policy that would not get much attention otherwise.

Although much of what I want to say that relates to the catastrophic disaster in Japan can also be applied to other recent national disasters in other countries — the earthquake in 2010 in Haiti, the cyclone in Myanmar in 2008, the earthquake in China in 2008, the tsunami in Indonesia in 2004, and the very recent earthquake in New Zealand which has now been overshadowed by events in Japan — the case of Japan, because of the relationship that has existed between the United States and Japan since World War II, lends itself to even more observations than could be made about those other disasters.

U.S. offers condolences, assistance to Japan,” reads the headline in a CNN article. Let me first give some relevant information from the article, and then proceed to what I think are some important points of observation that can and should be made about U.S. foreign policy.

President Obama says he is offering “our Japanese friends whatever assistance is needed.” He also promised assistance to American citizens in Japan. The president spoke with his energy secretary, Steven Chu, “to make sure that if in fact there have any breaches in the safety of the nuclear plant, they are dealt with.” “The U.S. government is taking inventory of how many military personnel are in Japan to provide help,” Obama also said.

Vice President Biden chimed in that “the thoughts and prayers of the American people … are with our friends in Japan.” “We the United States stand ready to do anything we can to help our Japanese friends as they deal with the aftermath of this tragedy,” he also said.

Secretary of State Clinton spoke about the delivery to Japan, via U.S. Air Force planes, of coolant for its nuclear reactors. She also stated that “we’re really deeply involved in trying to do as much as we can on behalf of the Japanese and on behalf of U.S. citizens.” Clinton pledged “immediate disaster relief assistance” and further said that “we are working closely with the government of Japan to provide additional help.”

The Pentagon announced that “five U.S. Navy ships were heading to Japan, and two others were already docked in the country.” President Obama specifically mentioned an aircraft carrier already in Japan, another on the way, and “a ship en route to the Mariana Islands to assist as needed.” A spokesman from the Pentagon also mentioned that “among the 38,000 U.S. military personnel, 43,000 dependents and 5,000 Department of Defense civilians assigned to Japan, there are no reports of loss of life and no reports of major damage to U.S. warships, aircraft or facilities in Japan.”

First of all, when the president, vice president, or secretary of state talk about “I” or “we” pledging assistance to Japan, they mean the U.S. government. This does not, of course, mean that they personally will be doing anything to help anyone in Japan. It is easy to sound concerned and compassionate when you are pledging other people’s money.

Second, why does the U.S. government presume to speak for all Americans? And why is it just accepted when the U.S. government makes official pronouncements or issues official statements about affairs or events in the rest of the world? Why is it considered the business of the U.S. government to even say anything? This is what leads to the U.S. government taking sides in foreign disputes, trying to police the world, and forbidding Americans to travel to other countries or trade with their citizens. How much longer will the 1960 embargo against Cuba last? You know, the one that President Obama maintains “is in the national interest of the United States.”

Third, even when government officials say that the “U.S. government” or the “United States” will be providing aid, what that ultimately means is that Americans, involuntarily, through the taxes confiscated from them, are the ones that will be providing the assistance. But what if an American — for whatever reason — doesn’t want to help in the relief effort? Suppose someone is so xenophobic that he doesn’t care about what happens to the Japanese? Suppose someone is a descendant of an American POW from World War II who was tortured by the Japanese and, thus, doesn’t want to help the Japanese? Should these Americans be forced to provide aid to Japan? The fact that their beliefs might be irrational or mean-spirited is irrelevant when it comes to the question of whether we are to have a society based on freedom or a society based on coercion.

Fourth, the only case that could possibly be made for forced aid is that people would not send aid themselves. But it is a myth that there would not be sufficient aid to Japan without the U.S. government’s being involved in some way. Americans are generally very charitable, generous, compassionate, and genuinely concerned about those in foreign countries who are poor, oppressed, or suffering. Charitable organizations like Mercy Corps, Peace Winds, and the Red Cross are already soliciting donations. There is no doubt in my mind that Americans will give liberally to alleviate the suffering of the people of Japan. But whether they give or don’t give, it is still the case that it should be the decision of each individual American.

Fifth, disaster relief, humanitarian aid, and financial assistance are types of foreign aid. Since World War II, the U.S. government has dispensed hundreds of billions of dollars in foreign aid in a variety of forms to over 150 countries. Foreign aid is, of course, really foreign government aid. There is no telling what percentage of foreign aid actually makes it into the pockets of people in real need instead of lining the pockets of corrupt foreign regimes and their privileged contractors. But even if every dollar, every blanket, every bottle of water, every vial of medicine, and every morsel of food was handed directly to individual Japanese people in need, foreign aid is still nothing more than the forced looting of American taxpayers. The purpose, recipient, cost, and benefit of the aid are irrelevant. The U.S. government simply has no business providing disaster relief or humanitarian aid to Japan. The purpose of government is supposed to be to protect the lives, liberties, and properties of the people who form it, period. And besides, there is a calculation problem here. How much aid should the U.S. government provide? What type of aid should be given? What strings, if any, should be attached to the aid supplied? How long should the aid be maintained?

Sixth, the U.S. government shouldn’t even be providing assistance to American citizens in Japan. There was a time in this country when it was recognized to be improper for the federal government to provide humanitarian relief even within the United States. President Grover Cleveland vetoed a bill in 1887 that would have provided seed for farmers in drought-stricken Texas. In his veto message, he wrote that aid from Washington only “encourages the expectation of paternal care on the part of the Government and weakens the sturdiness of our national character.” The Texas farmers ended up getting ten times as much in private assistance as they would have received from Uncle Sam.

Seventh, it is not the job of the U.S. military to provide disaster relief, dispense humanitarian aid, conduct evacuations, rebuild infrastructure, or reestablish basic services in Japan or any other country. Although I would rather see all U.S. ships, planes, and troops involved in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to instead embark on a humanitarian mission in Japan — that is, to save life instead of take life — it would still be a perversion of the use of the military which, to be consistent, all believers in a government strictly limited to the powers delegated to it in the Constitution should oppose. The purpose of the U.S. military is to defend America from attack or invasion, period. Yes, it would be better if the U.S. military delivered bread and butter instead of bombs and bullets, but that is not the real issue.

And finally, what are “38,000 U.S. military personnel, 43,000 dependents and 5,000 Department of Defense civilians” doing in Japan 65 years after the end of World War II? This is perhaps the thing that is more readily accepted than anything else I have mentioned. Yet, it is the most dangerous and the least defendable. Not only does it likewise pervert the purpose of the U.S. military, it is completely unnecessary since Japan has the third highest GDP in the world.

The true amount of destruction, death, and suffering in Japan from the earthquake and tsunami is incalculable. The thoughts and prayers of the vast majority of Americans are with the Japanese people. Although every American is certainly welcome to contribute to the relief effort in Japan, no one should be forced to do so via his taxes or otherwise. A free society includes the freedom to be unconcerned, insensitive, or stingy. It all comes down to the purpose of government. If an exception can be made for a crisis in Japan, then an exception can be made for any other crisis — real or imagined. The case of Japan is an acid test of the consistency of one’s commitment to the philosophy of freedom and nonintervention.

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