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December 2001

Volume 19, Number 12

The Attack and its Aftermath

Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.

The terrorist attack in September did immense damage to life and property, damage which the federal government has compounded with its wartime response, which has come at the expense of the freedom of the American people. The very merit of freedom itself has been called into question. If the terrorists desired to do maximum damage, they would have hoped for just such a response.

The problem began with an immense consolidation of power in the presidency, which was given the power to use "all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the attacks. Such a sweeping transfer of power is contrary to the law and tradition of a free society, and we can only pray it won't be abused. But it was only the beginning of the problems.

In the days that followed, a short list of suggested responses included public works programs, national ID cards, conscription, much higher taxes, federalized airlines, tax-funded rail systems, travel permits, email spying, increased wiretaps, doubled military spending, exchange controls, price controls, national economic planning, martial law, nuclear war, rationing, massive debt accumulation, and censorship.

These proposals came from the left, right, and center. The advocacy of statism has known no partisan bounds. Some of these proposals went into effect, others are still in play, and some we will be spared thanks to public resistance and the wisdom of some people in the administration counseling prudence and restraint. It is a shame that a society of law should have to so heavily depend on the discretion of men to maintain its freedom. We need to remind ourselves of the nature of government. It is like fire, said George Washington, a dangerous servant and fearful master. Its only mode is coercion. And its edicts, even the most innocuous, are enforced at the point of a gun. Its power is used in unpredictable ways, and it brings unexpected and often disastrous results. Government destabilizes society, takes away freedom, shackles economic growth, and preys on prosperity.

The term "blowback" is used by the CIA to describe unwanted and unintended reactions to covert actions abroad, but it might as well refer to the potential for all government policies to spur unintended consequences and responses. There is no such thing as government planning. It is a slogan, not a description of reality. By interfering with the plans of private businesses and families, government introduces artificial uncertainty and brings chaos of large and small varieties.

It became taboo in the days after the attack to observe the ways in which it represented a government failure. Let us violate it. It was the Federal Aviation Administration that disarmed pilots and made them unable to defend their employers' property. It was domestic energy controls that sustained the OPEC cartel that has generated funding for terrorist networks. It was the EPA that banned flame-retardant asbestos from being used in the World Trade Center and thus made the building fall more quickly than it should have. It was a foreign policy of unrelenting interventions that stirred up violence from the Middle East, and it was government's promised security that so miserably failed to protect even the Pentagon from attack.

How does freedom stack up? It is freedom that makes authentic community, based on voluntarism and contract, possible in the first place. To provide for ourselves materially means to build family security, purchase the best education and medical care for our children, invest in new businesses that serve people with ever-better goods and services, give to charity and educational causes, fund the arts, and have time and space for the contemplative life--all these are made possible by free enterprise.

The social cooperation engendered in the market economy is not only local but international, and symbolized by the activities that went on in the World Trade Center towers. Here were people who, in pursuing their often-disparaged vocations as traders, managed to facilitate beneficial exchange among two hundred countries and just as many language groups and currencies, and also to make a profit by doing so. Government has nowhere accomplished any of the miracles that are the daily business of free enterprise.

Freedom is also the source of our security from crime. Imagine if we had to trust government to supply the locks on our doors, the guards at banks and jewelry stores, the alarm systems in buildings, the guns in our homes, to say nothing of the insurance agencies that daily work to calibrate risk with price and ferret out wrongdoers. It's bad enough that we are stuck with government police, whose only legal duty is to try to solve or punish a crime after it has been committed against your property or life, not to prevent it.

As with any other good, the market supplies what is demanded, and the market has responded to the risk of crime and violence in miraculous ways--no matter how large the threat. In sheer dollar terms, the private security industry in the US is larger than spending on public security--which reflects both the effectiveness of private enterprise and the distrust people have in the ability of government.

All of this is fundamental to the (classical) liberal view of politics and economics. It is never more important to remember this than in a crisis, when people are so easily persuaded to give up their remaining liberties. The institutions of freedom are necessary in times of peace and prosperity, but more so in war, just as the first amendment needs defending more against unpopular than popular speech.

The terror attacks have tested our resolve to stick to what is right and true, and not give in to what is evil. I've heard people say that these are hard times in which to do that. That's probably true. But as Mises said, "the intellectual guidance of humanity belongs to the very few who think for themselves."

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Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr., is president of the Mises Institute (rockwell@mises.org).

 

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