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Aftershocks of 9-11

Mises Daily: Monday, October 01, 2001 by

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If libertarian ideas were unpopular before September 11, they seem downright dismissed, scoffed at, kicked and spat upon after September 11—at least if America’s major media outlets are any indicator.  There seems to be a growing sense that government must do more and that freedom is not only an antiquated notion but also a dangerous one.

The nation is now faced with a powerful irony; we are seemingly on the path to a further increase of government power in order to protect freedom and our way of life.  Thus, we seek to further diminish our freedoms in order to protect them.  Such contradictions don’t seem to bother the pro-government set.

For one, Albert Hunt of The Wall Street Journal takes it for granted that more government is needed in the wake of the September 11 attacks.  In his op-ed piece ("Government to the Rescue," September 27, 2001), he proudly declares a "moratorium on government-bashing"—this after praising the bravery of police, fire, and rescue personnel, which he notes were all public employees.

It never occurs to Hunt and others like him, that these services, while public, don’t have to be.  Government and the services it provides are separate identities.  To Hunt, it is inconceivable that one could be a "government basher" and also support the idea of fire and rescue workers.  It never seems to occur to these types that private enterprise could perform these services with the same efficiency that private enterprise achieves in various other endeavors.

Hunt cheerfully asserts (one can almost sense a certain glee in his writing) that "America turns to government in [times of] crisis. . . . For the foreseeable future, the federal government is going to invest or spend more, regulate more, and exercise more control over our lives."  That the government has continually spent more, regulated more, and exercised more control before September 11 doesn’t seem to occur to Hunt either.  He forgets the proliferation of agencies and rules, perhaps because they have not proliferated at the pace that Hunt would like to see.  

Hunt provides a chart, titled "End of a trend," which shows declining government spending as a percentage of GDP through 2000, and leaves a question mark over the future.  Certainly the trend may end, but perhaps it would have ended anyway without the tragedies of September 11.  The economy is slowing, the stock market has been caught in the throes of a bear market, and the world economies are likewise slowing.  Did the rapidly expanding economy of the 1990s (as measured by GDP) outpace increases in government spending?  Will a shrinking economy reverse this trend even if government spending stayed the same (which government spending never does)?  These questions don’t ever seem to surface.

Hunt asserts that  ". . . there is no real debate over expansion [of government] in general.  September 11 has underscored the centrality of government in all of our lives."  There is no real debate because Hunt and others like him choose not to hear the other side.  A real debate takes more than one party.  September 11 has underscored the centrality of government in all our lives, but perhaps not in the way that Hunt would like to believe.  It underscores the potentially dangerous world in which we live and the need for security (which in Hunt’s mind can only be provided by government).  It also underscores the idea that government can take away liberties under a variety of popular pretenses.  We will soon see how fragile our liberties are.  It is easy to dismiss civil liberties when you are not the one illegally detained for six hours of questioning, or when you are not the one being searched and humiliated.

Patriotism and nationalism are powerful forces weighing on the public conscience in the aftermath of the attacks.  It makes it very unpopular to ask certain questions and to wonder certain things. Why do people in certain parts of the world hate America and Americans so much?  How much of what has happened is the culmination of America’s foreign policy?  Would it have been a better course to not be so interventionist on the world stage?  

In the writings of the Founding Fathers, America has some of the world’s great political wisdom, itself a sort of national treasure.  Though not without shortcomings, these thinkers thoughtfully probed the nature of liberty and its relations with government.  Their caution with regard to increasing government power probably strikes the modern reader as quaint, excessive and maybe even a little odd.  But as time goes on, we see the timelessness of their worries about the possibility of freedom in the face of government authority.  Thinkers such as Washington and Jefferson had warned future Americans against getting entangled in foreign alliances and advocated free trade instead.  How better off might we have been had we followed that course?

It is a very difficult for many people to imagine private enterprise dealing with the threat of terrorism.  They see private enterprise as being solely concerned with making a profit and therefore prone to cutting corners and endangering peoples lives.  Some people are smitten with simple causalities.  In their minds, the airlines were lax, so government should step in, and the problem will be solved.

Yet it is obviously absurd to think that it is in the interest of any airline to have its planes hijacked and crashed.  People forget that what happened on September 11 was unprecedented in our nation’s history.  It was something that no one had really planned for.  But the market, the great adaptive system that it is, would surely have adapted quickly to this threat.  

Safety, particularly against terrorism, may have become a point of competitive difference with each airline advertising to the public its own rigorous set of security measures.  After all, even free-market detractors admit that the market produces what consumers want and can pay for.  Who is to say that the airlines would not take advantage of consumers’ fears of flying?  And why is it assumed that bureaucrats will do a better job?  The bureaucratic mindset has its own incentives—much different from private enterprise, which is consumer-oriented.  Bureaucrats answer to a political process.

Of course the airlines themselves welcome the government’s involvement in security.  And why shouldn’t they?  They will be absolved of this responsibility themselves and will be free from criticism if any such terrible events should happen again.  

The airlines, it should be pointed out, are hardly operating in what anyone would call a free market.  The airlines were not so much deregulated as they were regulated differently.  Moreover, the prominence of labor unions (whose extra-legal powers were created and enforced by government agencies) denies the existence of a free market for labor in the industry.

The events on September 11 have made many people more reflective about the world around us.  For some, it becomes a rallying cry for more government intervention, more spending, more control—and less liberty.  It has also made the cause of liberty much more difficult.  If America chooses less liberty and more government, the terrorists have already won. 

Perhaps, instead of continuing down the same old failed path of more government, the horrors will spark a re-examination of the entire edifice that is the welfare-warfare state.  The government’s hyperinterventionist foreign policy, its heavy-handed treatment of industry, and the view that government is our source of security should be cast into doubt.  Then, our precious liberties will not only be expanded, but we also give America its best chance to defeat the ugly threat of terrorism and emerge ever stronger because of it.

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Christopher Mayer is a commercial lender for Provident Bank in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. Send him MAIL and see his Mises.org Archive.