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Imagining Freedom for the 21st Century: A Presidential Candidate’s Press Conference, Part 4

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The Washington Times: In your 10-point vision for America (See “Imagining Freedom for the 21st Century, Part 2,Freedom Daily, July 2000), you called for ending all political, military, and economic intervention by the U.S. government around the world. Even in this post-Cold War era, doesn’t the United States have certain vital national interests in various parts of the world? And as the strongest and most important democracy, don’t we have an obligation to assist, support, and defend those whose freedom is being challenged or threatened by external aggression or domestic forces that would lead to tyranny, war, and international instability?

The Candidate: In the 20th century, America has participated in two world wars, two other major wars in Asia — Korea and Vietnam — and undertaken numerous military engagements and interventions in Central and South America, the Middle East, and Europe. In just the last ten years, we have undertaken a huge military operation in the Persian Gulf area, and sent our armed forces into harm’s way in Panama, Somalia, Haiti, and Bosnia, Kosovo, and other parts of the former Yugoslavia. And in the last five years, we have undertaken aerial bombing attacks against Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, and Serbia. There are more than half a million American military personnel stationed in more than 120 foreign countries around the world today.

In the two world wars and in Korea and Vietnam, American combat deaths exceeded 425,000, and more than 26.5 million American military personnel participated in those wars. The American people have paid a high price during this century for our government’s interventions in international affairs.

Each of these foreign crusades, and all the smaller ones that our government has undertaken over the years, have been based on the idea that the United States has the duty and the responsibility to set right a world that fails to meet American policymakers’ conceptions of a good and just world. It has been the social engineer’s mentality applied to a global task. Let us recall that in spite of America’s participation in World War I to make the world safe for democracy, out of the war’’s ashes came communism, fascism, and Nazism.

Let’s also not forget that in spite of our participation in World War II to destroy totalitarian aggression, the greatest victor was Stalin’s Soviet Union and the major outcome the expansion of communist totalitarianism to Eastern Europe, China, and other countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. Let us remember that in spite of the almost 100,000 American lives lost in Korea and Vietnam, communism was not defeated in either country. Let us keep in mind that in spite of our recent military campaigns in the Middle East and the Balkans in Europe, tyrants still reign and ethnic animosities and killings still continue.

The fundamental problem is that many in the world do not want to be made over in America’s image. The do-gooder is a meddler and an irritant from the perspective of those on whom the do-gooding is imposed. Today’s “liberator” soon becomes the hated occupier and oppressor. He is the intervener imposing his values, ideology, and rules on people who often hold other values and ideologies and who give allegiance to different traditional or customary rules of social order.

It may be the case that these other values, ideologies, and societal rules of interpersonal conduct are the source and cause of their tyrannies, oppressions, conflicts, and ethnic hatreds. But neither American bombs nor bureaucrats can make people change unless they want and choose to. What these American bombs and bureaucrats often can do, however, is make bad situations even worse or simply create new problems of a different type.

America’s global role

The question now is, what should America’s global role in the 21st century be? In my view, the greatest contribution that our country can make to global peace and prosperity is to restore and improve on our own freedom and tranquillity at home. What the world needs, far more than anything else, is that shining example of successful limited government, individual freedom, and peaceful, free-market prosperity that others, in their agony and sufferings, will want to emulate of their own choice. What we should offer is an example of a free society that is interventionist neither at home nor abroad.

The Los Angeles Times: Does that mean that if you were elected president you would just stand by and watch while the People’s Republic of China bombed, invaded, and occupied Taiwan?

The Candidate: As an advocate of freedom, I believe that each individual should have the right of freedom of association, and if the people of Taiwan desire to remain independent of communist China, they have that right. Their democratically elected government has the responsibility to see to their defense from foreign aggression, including aggression from the government in Beijing, if the people of Taiwan do not want to surrender without a fight to retain their national freedom.

There should be no U.S. government restrictions on the Taiwan government’s purchasing from American armament manufacturers, for cash or with private-sector-acquired credit, whatever military armaments they deem most appropriate for their own national defense. Nor should the U.S. government prevent any Americans who choose to offer their military or other services — for free or for hire — to the government of Taiwan to defend that island from any possible military attack from mainland China.

But the foremost duty of the U.S. government is to protect the American people from aggression against our own territory. If the U.S. government announces or initiates political and military actions that place our country in the conflict between Beijing and Taipei, our own government would be making American territory and lives a target for conventional attack and even nuclear attack from the communist regime in China.

One rationale for calling for a commitment to come to the military defense of Taiwan is that such a pledge deters communist China from initiating an attack. But if Beijing either does not believe the pledge will be honored or considers that it is worth the risk and cost of war to unify Taiwan with the mainland, the U.S. government would be risking the lives of thousands, maybe millions, of Americans.

It would also mean expanding any conflict to include perhaps even more hundreds of thousands or millions of lives lost among the Chinese and Taiwanese and among people in other surrounding Asian countries, than if Beijing and Taipei were the only combatants involved in such a war. Both on the basis of the principle of nonintervention and the likely consequences of American participation in such an Asian war, I consider it wrong and undesirable for the United States to interfere in the tension across the Taiwan Strait.

Gun control and the Second Amendment

The Nation: If I may turn to a domestic problem that also threatens violence here at home, what is your position on gun control? Surely if you believe so strongly in the protection of people from aggression, you must consider it dangerous for there to be so many guns in private hands, particularly considering the widely publicized gun violence against the most innocent in our society, the children?

The Candidate: Without intending any insensitivity to the tragedy of both the children who have died from gun violence and the parents who have then had to live with the loss, I do think it is necessary to put gun violence in general and gun violence against children in some proper perspective. In 1997, the statistics for accidental deaths among children under the age of 14 show that the primary cause was automobile accidents (2,608 deaths), followed by drownings (1,010 deaths), pedestrian crossings (675 deaths), bicycle accidents (201 deaths) and then gun accidents (142 deaths). Homicides caused by the use of guns for the age group under 14 was 346. Adding up these categories of accidental children’s deaths, firearms account for only 3 percent. Even if we add the gun homicides against children under 14 to the total, gun violence accounts for less than 10 percent. Deaths due to drowning are more than twice the number caused by guns, and pedestrian accidents cause about one and a half times more deaths than firearms.

Among the top eight categories of accidental deaths in 1998, deaths from firearms were seventh, 900 deaths out of a total of these eight categories of 78,700, or approximately 1 percent. And the number of accidental deaths due to firearms has been steadily decreasing, from 2,406 in 1970, 1,955 in 1980, and 1,416 in 1990, to 900 in 1998. Accidental gun deaths have decreased by more than 60 percent since 1970 and by 36 percent during the first eight years of the present decade.

My purpose for reciting these statistics is merely to put the “gun crisis” issue into proper historical context, and to show that this “crisis” is really only a problem, and in terms of accidental deaths nationally, it is a problem that is decreasing in magnitude.

On the other hand, studies, such as John Lott’s More Guns, Less Crime, have shown that there have recently been on average per year 3.6 million uses of guns in acts of self-defense, with 760,000 of them being with handguns. These defensive uses of firearms by private citizens have helped to thwart various criminal acts including rape, burglaries, car theft, robbery and other physical assaults. Private gun ownership has been an important means of self-defense in private acts of violence and aggression; it has probably saved hundreds of lives and many hundreds more people from permanent or temporary physical injury.

But it is important to remember that it is not only the aggression from private individuals that makes the principle of gun ownership essential for the preservation of a free society. The potentially greatest threat to a people’s freedom comes from its own government. Ultimately, the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms is to offer a safe-guard for the American people to protect themselves from the violence and plunder of their own government.

In contemporary America, our right to our private property, our constitutional guarantees against unwarranted search and seizure by the police authority, our freedom to be safe and secure in our own home from violent invasion by government agents armed with lethal weaponry, have all been weakened, indeed in many cases have been brushed away, and are increasingly violated every day somewhere in the United States.

The right of private gun ownership may be the last resort the American people will have to defend themselves against a government that becomes the demanding master rather than the obedient servant that it is supposed to be in a free society.

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    Richard M. Ebeling is a professor of economics at Northwood University. He was formerly president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).