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TGIF: The People Say No to War

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The Constitution did not keep President Obama from attacking Syria. The people did. Think about that.

Obama, his top advisers, and many of his partisans and opponents in Congress insist that the president of the United States has the constitutional authority to attack another country without a declaration of war or so-called “authorization for the use of military force” even if that country poses no threat whatever to the United States, the American people, or what are vaguely called “our interests.” This seems wrong, especially in light of the 1973 War Powers Act. But Obama already asserted this alleged authority in Libya. Bill Clinton did it in Kosovo and Bosnia through NATO and the UN. George H.W. Bush did it in Panama. Ronald Reagan did it in Lebanon and Grenada. And so on back to Harry Truman in Korea. (I’m ignoring the many covert wars.)

Constitution, Shmonstitution. War Powers, Shmar Powers.

Nevertheless, Obama has not bombed Syria (yet). Two weeks ago he told us he had decided to do so, but then he decided to put the question to Congress. After Russia offered to help collect and destroy Syria’s chemical weapons and Bashar al-Assad agreed, Obama asked Congress to delay the vote.

What happened?

The people happened. Public-opinion polls showed at once that most of us do not want Obama to commit an act of war against Syria. Furthermore, the people inundated Congress with calls and emails. Because of this (and in some cases personal conviction), most members of Congress also do not want war with Syria. Obama got the message: he was heading for sure defeat in the House of Representatives and perhaps in the Senate. He couldn’t bear the prospect of rebuff.

Russian president Vladimir Putin gave him a graceful way out. Because the people didn’t want war, when a possible diplomatic solution arose, Obama had to go for it. The people gave him no choice.

It’s amusing to listen to the establishment pundits who are appalled that members of Congress are watching opinion polls rather than “exercising leadership” on Syria. Not long ago, many of these same pundits urged members of Congress to heed the polls and pass expanded background checks for gun purchases. I’m looking hard for the principle here, but for the life of me I can’t find it.

So the people — not the Constitution — stayed Obama’s hand.

There’s a lesson here. No paper constitution ever restrained a government. What ultimately restrains governments is a sufficiently large number of people with certain ideas — an ideology — about the limits to state power. If those ideas change, the power of government will expand or contract, depending on the case, even if no single word of the paper constitution changes. Constitutions don’t interpret or enforce themselves. Methodological individualists know that only persons do such things, and they do them on the basis of their ideology (explicit or implicit). It’s people all the way down. (See my “Where Is the Constitution?”)

This doesn’t mean that politicians slavishly obey the people. But politicians do care about elections and are aware that there are limits to state action set by the dominant (tacit) ideology that they cross at their peril. Moreover, government has immense power to shape what people want. It can also obscure what it’s doing, raising the cost of finding out what really goes on, as well as the cost of resisting if the people do find out. (See my review of Charlotte Twight’s book on this subject, Dependent on D.C., and my “Democracy of Dunces,” a review of Bryan Caplan’s The Myth of the Rational Voter.)

Étienne de La Boétie, the 16th-century French political philosopher, pointed out what should be obvious: the ruled always outnumber their rulers. In The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, he asked,

how it happens that so many men, so many villages, so many cities, so many nations, sometimes suffer under a single tyrant who has no other power than the power they give him; who is able to harm them only to the extent to which they have the willingness to bear with him; who could do them absolutely no injury unless they preferred to put up with him rather than contradict him. Surely a striking situation!…

Obviously there is no need of fighting to overcome this single tyrant, for he is automatically defeated if the country refuses consent to its own enslavement: it is not necessary to deprive him of anything, but simply to give him nothing; there is no need that the country make an effort to do anything for itself provided it does nothing against itself. It is therefore the inhabitants themselves who permit, or, rather, bring about, their own subjection, since by ceasing to submit they would put an end to their servitude.

A people enslaves itself, cuts its own throat, when, having a choice between being vassals and being free men, it deserts its liberties and takes on the yoke, gives consent to its own misery, or, rather, apparently welcomes it.

Americans have done a good bit of that over the years, so their stopping this proposed war with Syria is a breath of fresh air, or perhaps it is a small spark of libertarianism that can be fanned into a blaze. It’s worth a try. (See my “Subjugating Ourselves.” Also see Edward Stringham and Jeffrey Rogers Hummel’s “If a Pure Market Economy Is So Good, Why Doesn’t It Exist?”)

Yes, war with Syria is still possible. Obama could decide that Putin’s idea was a ploy (maybe it is) and proceed to scare Americans into changing their minds about war. We’ll have to be on guard against that. For the time being, the people say no.

The pundits blame “war-weariness” for the public’s opposition. I regard that as an insult. What they mean is that because of our fatigue, we don’t know what we’re saying when we say we don’t want another war. We’re talking nonsense because we aren’t thinking straight. So we should be ignored by the people who, unlike us, are thinking clearly. Apparently, favoring war is a sign of thinking clearly.

I don’t believe people are war-weary. Instead, as someone has said (I can’t remember who), they are war-wary. They’ve been burned too many times by their (mis)leaders and (mis)representatives. Ten years ago they were assured with “slam dunk” intelligence that Iraq was a threat because of its WMD. (A few noble reporters debunked these claims.) No WMD were found. Twelve years ago we were told we had to go to war against Afghanistan to protect ourselves from al-Qaeda. The war rages on, and al-Qaeda or its like has spread to Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and other places. Many people have been killed, maimed, and psychologically scarred; over a trillion dollars has been squandered with no end in sight — for what? The military-industrial complex grows fat, and the economy sputters.

Americans have had enough, and it’s about time. Their “no” to war is the best news we’ve had in a long time.

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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.