There has never been a just one, never an honorable one — on the part of the instigator of a war.
— Mark Twain, The Mysterious Stranger
War is a tried and true specific when a people’s moral values become stale and flat.
— Robert Nisbet, The Present Age
To restore liberty as well as fiscal sanity, the American warfare/welfare state must be dismantled. The pursuit of empire, both domestic and foreign, cannot be reconciled with the love of liberty.
Empire is a pricey, often amoral, business. It is something that many Americans apparently want to know little about as long as the government “gives” them more welfare programs, even though it means the gradual loss of both economic and political liberty.
Still, it is a temptation that has seduced millions of Americans as more and more of them see their livelihoods tied to the warfare/welfare state. An ever-expanding state bestowing more benefits becomes “a divine idea as it exists on earth,” writes Hegel in his Philosophy of Law.
This state idolatry corrupts the character of a people, withering away their independence. It progressed so far in Germany by the 1930s that there was no longer any need to speak of overt nationalization. “Why should I nationalize the industries? I will nationalize the people,” said Adolf Hitler, as recounted in John Lukacs’s Hitler of History.
Most Americans today would reject any similarity to National Socialist Germany. But F.A. Hayek warned in The Road to Serfdom that few believed such a thing could ever happen in Germany, which in the 18th and 19th centuries had a considerable classical-liberal tradition. The United States, too, is erasing the traditions of limited government as it seeks to impose its statist values on the world.
The United States has evolved into an empire with military interests in every part of the globe. However, empire is more expensive than most Americans want to pay. Often they don’t understand the human, economic, and moral costs. Nations historically have often evolved toward empires at the same time that they constructed welfare states at home.
War, warned Swiss economist Wilhelm Roepke, “was simply the rampant essence of the state, collectivity let loose.” And he warned that many leftist supporters of Leviathan don’t understand the consequences of their statist enthusiasm. Socialists, he said, must accept that “if socialism was to mean anything at all, it meant accepting the state as a leviathan not only for the emergency of war, but also for a long time to come.”
And war, American leftist Randolph Bourne correctly stated, “is the health of the state.” Wars inevitably destroy liberties at home, as Bourne and millions of other Americans who lived through World War I understood.
That was a war in which many Americans who dissented were sent to jail under the Sedition Act. The dissenters included the American socialist leader Eugene Victor Debs.
The warfare/welfare state also inevitably leads to fiscal irresponsibility, owing to the unpredictable nature of war. The problem, Machiavelli warned, is that “People may go to war when they will, but cannot always withdraw when they like.” Empires implode after myriad wars and, in the case of the United States, commitments to defend most of the world. The costs of wars are endless and inflicted on unborn generations in countless ways that go beyond economic costs.
Massive welfare programs combined with an always-at-war or always-on-the-verge-of-war mindset are at odds with any traditional conception of liberty. But a tradition of American liberty started to recede in the 20th century. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the godfathers of the American welfare/warfare state. He is the apotheosis of the “great” modern president: his face is carved on a mountain.
Theodore Roosevelt was a great enthusiast for war. According to a book on the Spanish-American War, The War Lovers, by Evan Thomas, Roosevelt bragged of shooting Spaniards during the battle of San Juan Hill. His view of war was of something glorious and not of something tragic, as depicted in novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front and Paths of Glory and movies such as The Best Years of Our Lives (based on the powerful MacKinley Kantor novel Glory for Me) and Saving Private Ryan.
Indeed, Mark Twain once said that Theodore Roosevelt “was mad for war.” So it is logical that Roosevelt was also arguing for various social-insurance programs in his third-party presidential effort of 1912. His efforts to begin an American welfare state came decades before the passage of the first Social Security Act of 1935. Such war and welfare-state policies have ruined many other nations in history, economically, militarily and, most important, spiritually. They are doing the same to the United States. Look around. The glorification of martial values has accompanied the demeaning of trade.
Yet it was the great economist Joseph Schumpeter, in his Imperialism and Social Classes, who noticed that commercial values were the opposite of militarism. “Wherever capitalism penetrated, peace parties of such strength arose that virtually every war meant a political struggle on the domestic scene,” he wrote. War glorification and the demeaning of commercial values have been going on for generations. They are transforming America.
The philosopher Robert Nisbet traced the beginning of this change to World War I. He said if the Founding Fathers came back today they would be “astounded” at how military values had overwhelmed the nation. “What would doubtless astonish the Framers most, though,” he wrote in The Present Age,gam “is that their precious republic had become an imperial power in the world, much like the Great Britain they had hated in the eighteenth century.”
But there is more than a philosophical objection to America as an imperial power. There is a factor that will inevitably harm even the supporters of the American world policeman role: the United States is on the road to bankruptcy.
“Leaving aside some of its more ambitious obligations, such as more than $5 trillion of mortgage debt it has recently guaranteed,” wrote Russ Koesterich in The Ten Trillion Dollar Gamble, “the U.S. federal government currently has approximately $14 trillion in outstanding debt, equal to more than 90 percent of the gross national product.”
But that $14 trillion number is bogus, Koesterich says. The government is using Enron accounting. It isn’t counting off-budget obligations such as Social Security, Medicare, and the costs of government-sponsored enterprises. Indeed, nearly two years ago I wrote in an article for the New York Post Sunday Business Section that several economists and former U.S. Comptroller General David Walker estimated the debt at upwards of $50 trillion to $60 trillion.
One economist, Laurence Kotlikoff, said that the United States is today “functionally bankrupt.” He said that if a significant number of creditors cash in their treasuries or a large number of people stop buying them, then the government would default.
Three years ago, Sen. Chuck Hagel, who regretted his yes vote on the Iraq war of 2003, warned about the welfare costs of America’s empire. “Over the next seventy-five years,” he wrote in America, Our Next Chapter, “our nation faces $47 trillion in unfunded liabilities on our entitlement programs.”
That is the same bread-and-circuses road travelled by Spain, France, and Britain. The latter, hobbled by the costs of empire and wars, had to beg money from the United States in 1945.
How could it happen to the United States?
In part it is because the United States has its military in dozens of countries. Those considerable commitments will inevitably drag it into wars from the South China Sea to Western Europe to the Persian Gulf.
The commitments to police the world are not only immoral and arrogant, they are expensive and reckless. They put U.S. troops in harm’s way. And people in many of those nations wish the United States would leave. That may be the easiest part of disentangling from the foreign policy of global interventionism.
Unfortunately, some other nations, knowing of the taste for war of a neo-con American elite, along with an American left wing that also likes or goes along with the imperial system, want to drag America into their disputes. And some nations that were once enemies, in an anomaly of history, actually want U.S. forces to stay and do their fighting for them.
One thinks of former enemy communist Vietnam, a nation that we have seen never needed to be America’s enemy in the 1960s. It recently asked that the U.S. Navy stay in the South China Sea. That eventually could lead the United States into another war, which could come between Vietnam and its historical enemy, China.
America must affirm a non-interventionist foreign policy as old as our nation.
One thinks of Georgia, which wants to join NATO so it will confront hated Russia. The Baltic republics and Poland, already members of NATO, have positioned the United States to be in the middle of their next dispute or war with Russia.
And let’s not forget Colombia’s traditional battles with Venezuela, which pre-date the Chavez regime. Again, Colombia would like to enlist America’s proclivity to blunder into useless wars.
One thinks also of the Kurds, the largest ethnic group on the planet without a nation and one tragically double-crossed several times by the West. They want to tempt the United States with access to abundant supplies of oil in exchange for yet another military alliance that would include the stationing of U.S. troops in one of the more dangerous spots on the planet. Here the potential disputes with the central government in Baghdad or with Turkey would be endless. American troops would be in the middle of them.
One thinks of the Israel lobby in Congress. Its success lessens the pressure on all parties in the Middle East to find a lasting peace, owing to the constant threat of U.S. force, as shown by two superfluous wars in Iraq and the potential for another tragic war, this time with Iran.
To avoid that, America must affirm a new “isolationism,” a noninterventionist foreign policy as old as our nation. It is one that recalls the wisdom of George Washington’s Farewell Address. It calls for America to stay out of other nation’s brawls, while maintaining intimate ties of trade with every nation. If Americans don’t rediscover this wisdom, there are many more wars on the horizon.
The final installment of this series will discuss that.
Gregory Bresiger is a business writer living in Kew Gardens, New York. Send him email.
This article originally appeared in the April 2012 edition of Future of Freedom. Subscribe to the print or email version of The Future of Freedom Foundation’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom (previously called Freedom Daily).