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Searching for Monsters Abroad

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In a major foreign policy address delivered recently in San Francisco, President Bill Clinton solemnly affirmed that everything everywhere is the business of the United States. If you ever entertained the thought that we Americans should be free just to live our lives, raise our families, and participate in our communities-forget it. The president of the United States has plans for you and your money.

“Today,” Mr. Clinton said, “we must embrace the inexorable logic of globalization-that everything, from the strength of our economy to the safety of our cities, to the health of our people, depends on events not only within our borders, but half a world away.” He quoted President William McKinley, who said in 1899, “Isolation is no longer possible. No nation can longer be indifferent to any other.”

I’m not sure McKinley is the best authority. It was he who put the American republic on the road to global empire with his splendid little war with Spain in 1898.

Why must everyone’s business be our business? What is this “inexorable logic of globalization” to which Clinton appeals?

It is certainly true that we live in a global economy. The division of labor, which makes ever higher living standards possible, spans nearly the entire world. We think nothing of using products made of components that come from a dozen countries. Trade is not nearly as free as it ought to be and Mr. Clinton sounds like a protectionist these days, but goods, services, and capital flow across borders helping to make everyone richer. In that sense, the people of the world are increasingly interdependent. We’d hate to lose access to Japanese autos and electronic goods, Swiss watches, French wines, and the rest of the things we take for granted.

But it is a mistake to turn trade into a justification for U.S. global political and military intervention. The great free-trade advocates of the 19th century knew better. They opposed trade barriers and intervention. In fact, they understood that trade barriers were a form of intervention. Government intervention of any kind was the enemy.

Both Bill Clinton and newly announced presidential contender Patrick Buchanan are trafficking in opposite but false package deals. Contrary to both, free trade and nonintervention go together. Individual freedom means freedom to trade and freedom from government impositions, whether of the domestic or foreign variety.

This gives the lie to Clinton’s position that nonintervention in foreign quarrels constitutes isolationism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Americans as private citizens should be free to be fully engaged with the rest of the world primarily through trade. But a variety of voluntary organizations with a worldwide focus also exist.

Mr. Clinton has something very different in mind. He, like his predecessors, wants access to the American people’s lives and fortunes for his grand plan to remake the world. Acknowledging that “there is no overriding threat to our survival or our freedom,” he nevertheless says the United States has “the opportunity and, I would argue, the solemn responsibility to shape a more peaceful, prosperous, democratic world in the 21st century.”

This is doubly fallacious. First, Americans have always helped shape the world, through their civil institutions, ingenuity, creativity, and entrepreneurship. Our earlier dedication to liberty has been a beacon to the world. Our culture has changed all parts of the globe. Our productivity has raised the living standards of everyone.

Second, what Mr. Clinton has in mind is impossible. He will be no more able to engineer a remake of the world than he’s been able to remake American society. Some things are actually beyond even this man’s control. The vastly complex societies the world comprises are not amenable to anyone’s attempt to “reshape” them. Americans can be a good example by maintaining their own freedom and prosperity. But that is all we can do. That is what John Quincy Adams, as secretary of state, meant when he said America wished others well but looked after only its own freedom.

Lumbering into other people’s ethnic and political conflicts is risky. The recent murders in Uganda are just the latest examples of how meddling can have deadly consequences.

George Washington’s advice is still sound: commercial relations with all, but few or no political connections. That’s the recipe for limited government, individual liberty, security, and prosperity.

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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.