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TGIF: The “Boomerang Effect”: How Foreign Policy Changes Domestic Policy

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The late Chalmers Johnson, the great analyst of the American empire, warned that if Americans didn’t give up the empire, they would come to live under it.

We’ve had many reasons to take his warning seriously; indeed, several important thinkers have furnished sound theoretical and empirical evidence for the proposition. Now come two scholars who advance our understanding of how an interventionist foreign policy eventually comes home. If libertarians needed further grounds for acknowledging that a distinctive libertarian foreign policy exists, here it is.

Christopher Coyne, an economics professor at George Mason University, and Abigail Hall, a Ph.D. candidate in economics there, have an important paper in the Fall 2014 issue of the Independent Review: “Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control.”

Their thesis is at once bold and well-defended: “Coercive government actions that target another country often act like a boomerang, turning around and knocking down freedoms and liberties in the ‘throwing’ nation.” This happens when the size and scope of government increases as a result of foreign intervention.

Advocates of foreign intervention—whether conservative or progressive—seem to believe that foreign and domestic policies can be isolated from each other and that illiberal methods used in foreign lands, such as bombing and military occupation, need not disturb domestic policy. In other words, freedom at home is consistent with empire abroad.

Coyne and Hall demonstrate that this is no more than wishful thinking that is contradicted by experience, both past and present; they present theoretical and empirical grounds for their conclusion that foreign policy is likely to have malign effects on domestic policy. After presenting their theoretical justification, they examine two contemporary examples of how methods perfected during foreign interventions were later applied inside the United States: surveillance and the militarization of the police. Of course the result in both cases has been a diminution of Americans’ freedom. The imperial chickens came home to roost, as Johnson warned they would.

Domestically, a government may be constrained by the people’s tacit ideology and their consequent interpretation of the country’s constitution. That ideology and interpretation may prohibit politicians from exercising social control to the extent they might prefer. That government’s conduct abroad, however, may face far weaker constraints. Under the right conditions—conditions such as those the U.S. government now finds itself in—the government may be in a position to exercise severe control over a foreign society, engaging in surveillance and repression as the armed forces take on the functions of police while maintaining their military posture as well.

Criticism of intervention abroad is often aimed at what the policy inflicts on foreign populations. “Often overlooked, however, is that a government’s projection of power beyond its borders can also impose significant costs on domestic citizens due to changes in the character of government-produced social control at home,” Coyne and Hall write.

They identify four “channels” through which “advancements in state-produced social control abroad may boomerang back to the intervening country.” First, an interventionist foreign policy tends to build up power in the central government. To the extent that the dispersion of power—“federalism”—limits centralized authority and protects zones of freedom, centralization is obviously a danger for liberty. They quote Bruce Porter, who wrote that “a government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of militarily vital resources. This centralizing tendency of war has made the rise of the state throughout much of history a disaster for human liberty and rights.”

“As this shift occurs,” Coyne and Hall add, “one result is that the political periphery becomes dependent on and subservient to the political center, which weakens the checks created by dispersed political decision making.”

The second way the boomerang effect operates is to put a premium on the skills required for social control. The interventionist state, the authors write, will need people willing and able to “implement the directives of the intervening government on an often unwilling foreign populace and the willingness to use various suppression techniques—monitoring, curfews, segregation, bribery, censorship, suppression, imprisonment, violence, and so on—to control those who are resistant to either foreign governments or their goals.” People who lack those skills or the enthusiasm for exercising them will be weeded out. As a result, intervention “shapes the human capital of those involved in intervention.”

In the third, related, channel, people with skills appropriate to social control will come home to find prominent positions in both the government and private sectors. In either realm such people are apt to lobby for or help transform public policy in the direction of greater control. “Specialists in state-produced social control are able to suggest and implement new techniques and organizational forms of state social control on the domestic population based on their experiences of doing the same to distant populations,” Coyne and Hall write. Their skills complement the other forces driving the centralization of power and the transfer of social-control techniques from foreign societies to the domestic scene.

In other cases, the skills acquired through coercive foreign interventions are implicit, meaning they shape the person’s view of government-produced social control.… [O]ne cannot help but be shaped by the organizational context within which one is embedded. In this scenario, activities that previously would have been thought of as unacceptable, extreme, or outright repugnant become normalized and natural. The way things were done abroad becomes standard operating procedure for how government activities are carried out. Domestic citizens begin to be treated as foreign populations were treated. Whether the skills accumulated through coercive foreign interventions are explicit or implicit, the result is that advances in state-produced social control developed abroad are imported back to the intervening country.

The last channel is the one through which physical capital, like social capital, changes under the influence of interventionist policies: “Technological innovations allow governments to utilize lower-cost methods of social control with a greater reach not only over foreign populations, but also over domestic citizens. Examples of such methods include but are not limited to surveillance and monitoring technologies, hardware and equipment for maintaining control of citizens, and weapons for killing enemies.”

Interventionist policies will require particular kinds of equipment and technologies, especially those that permit more efficient social control. Where there is (tax-financed) demand, there will be supply provided by the industrial side of the military-industrial complex.

In sum,

Together, the latter three channels cumulatively reinforce the initial centralization associated with coercive foreign intervention. The political center’s power is reinforced by the inflow of human and physical capital conducive to state-produced social control. The change in administrative dynamics leads to a shifting mentality whereby the expanded scope of activities undertaken by the center becomes standardized and normalized.

Coyne and Hall caution that none of these effects are automatic or instantaneous. Many factors can determine how and how fast the transformation of domestic policy may occur. Moreover, the changes are not necessarily irreversible, although they are likely to be costly and difficult to reverse. “The theory of the boomerang effect is one of stickiness and not necessarily of permanence,” Coyne and Hall write.

As I noted above, they apply these lessons to domestic surveillance, which they trace back to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines and the repression of the Filipino rebellion after the Spanish-American War, and the militarization of local police departments, which they trace back to the U.S. government’s conduct in World War II and the Vietnam War.

Coyne and Hall have performed a welcome service for all who value liberty and therefore distrust the state. Read their excellent work and deepen your knowledge of how foreign intervention threatens freedom at home.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at 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.