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Liberty and the Warfare State

September 5, 2006

Tags Free MarketsTaxes and SpendingWar and Foreign Policy

Robert Higgs has a well-deserved reputation as an eminent economic historian, but in this collection of essays and interviews, he shows himself an adept moral philosopher as well.

He subjects the "humanitarian" case for the Iraq War, unfortunately professed by some self-styled libertarians, to withering scrutiny.

According to the argument Higgs rejects, the justification of the Iraq War does not rest on the supposed presence of WMD. Humanitarian considerations supported the overthrow of the tyrannical regime of Saddam Hussein. True enough, the American invasion has killed innocent people. But their deaths have been accidental, and these must be weighed against those who would have suffered and died had Saddam's government continued in power.

Higgs rejects completely this sort of moral calculation.

In the present case, making such a judgment with anything approaching well-grounded assurance calls for powers that none of us possess.

How does anybody know, for example, what the future harms caused to innocent parties by Saddam or his henchmen would have been, or that those harms, somehow properly weighted and discounted, would be greater than the harms caused by the U.S. armed forces in the invasion of Iraq? (p. 167)

If these calculations cannot be carried out, how can we determine the morally proper course of action? One thing we can know is that we ourselves should not directly kill or injure the innocent; but this is just what the United States has done in Iraq.

Scattering cluster bomblets about areas inhabited by civilians … was inexcusable: doing so was in no sense necessary to oust Saddam's government. Nor was the use of very high-explosive bombs (two thousand pounds and bigger) in densely populated urban areas a means one can defend morally. (p. 168)

How can defenders of the Iraq War maintain that these deaths were accidental?

When U.S. forces employ aerial and artillery bombardment — with huge high-explosive bombs, large rockets and shells, including cluster munitions — as their principal technique of waging war, especially in densely inhabited areas, they know with absolute certainty that many innocent people will be killed. To proceed with such bombardment, therefore, is to choose to inflict these deaths. (p. 173)

Higgs's point here is a valuable riposte to the effusive praise of so-called "smart" weapons by some apologists for the Iraq War. James Turner Johnson, who views Bush as a latter-day St. Augustine in his grasp of the just war tradition, remarks:

PGMs [precision guided missiles] give the American military (and at this point only the American military) the ability to fight in the way moralists have long been saying they should fight: in a way that avoids harm to noncombatants and minimizes overall destruction to the society. (James Turner Johnson, The War to Oust Saddam Hussein, Rowman & Littlefield, 2005, pp. 20–21)

Johnson might with profit read Higgs on the bombing of Baghdad.

A last ditch supporter of the "humanitarian" argument might appeal to the doctrine of double effect. 1 In crude terms, the American forces did not aim to kill innocents: they just happened to be unavoidably in the way of targets that were proper objects of attack.

But Higgs has already given us the resources to answer this argument. According to the doctrine of double effect, the injury to the innocent must be proportionate: you cannot, e.g., blow up a crowded football stadium as a side effect of your justified response to someone in the stadium who is shooting at you.

We need not here consider the vexed question of how many innocent deaths qualify as a proportionate side effect. For this defense of killing even to be considered, it must first be shown that one's original purpose is a just one. The United States cannot plead in excuse, "We want to attack the Iraqi army, but this means that some civilians will suffer" unless the attack on the Iraqis was in the first place justifiable. And what Higgs has called to our attention is that there is no good "humanitarian" argument to justify the original assault: we cannot know the consequences of intervention.

If the humanitarian argument fails, the claim that Iraq threatened America fares even worse. Who can seriously believe that a nation long subjected to a devastating blockade and bombing posed a danger to America?

In the months that preceded the invasion, much was made of Saddam's supposed plans to obtain nuclear weapons. Of course we now know that the intelligence reports that alleged such plans were false. But even if they had been true, an Iraq with nuclear arms was a minor matter.

[N]otwithstanding the tens of thousands of Soviet nuclear warheads and their sophisticated delivery vehicles kept in constant readiness, the United States was not "blackmailed" by the USSR. Odd that the United States should quake at the prospect of a single Iraqi softball of fissionable material. (p. 138)

With the main arguments in favor of the war thus easily dispatched, Higgs asks a fundamental question: why should we believe that the Bush administration sincerely intended them? Not only the Iraq War but also the entire "war on terrorism" seems a made-up affair, designed to frighten the American public into support for a foreign policy of militant aggression.

Higgs deploys a simple and telling argument to show that the campaign against terror is bogus. If we really were in danger, is not the government doing far too little to protect us?

If semi-organized gangs of suicidal maniacs numbering in the thousands are out to kill us all, the government ought not to be fiddling with kindergarten subsidies and the preservation of the slightly spotted southeastern screech owl. It ought to get serious. (p. 70)

When writing about a book by Robert Higgs, a reviewer needs to resist the temptation to rely too much on quotations; his analysis is so convincing that one wants to reproduce as much of the book as possible. I shall once more follow Oscar Wilde's advice and give in to temptation. In a single sentence, Higgs destroys the rationale of our military budget:

A smarter and more resolute government would not fritter away scores of billions of dollars annually on producing, deploying, and maintaining an array of weapons systems fit only for fighting a USSR that no longer exists. (p. 70)

If American foreign policy is so manifestly unreasonable, how can the elites who control the government fail to see that it is? Higgs finds part of the answer in a concept of C. Wright Mills's. (Murray Rothbard, by the way, also thought highly of Mills's work, especially his The Sociological Imagination.) Mills maintained that a self-styled elite thinks itself superior to the masses, in that it is not deceived by idealistic rhetoric but can cope with the hard realities of Machtpolitik.

In fact, as Mills explained in The Causes of World War III, the elite is the prisoner of its own narrow assumptions. Mills called this inability to think beyond the ready resort to force "crackpot realism."

They know of no solutions to the problems of the Far East and Africa except the landing of marines. Being baffled, and also being very tired of being baffled, they have come to believe that there is no way out — except war — which would remove all the bewildering paradoxes of their tedious and now misguided attempts to construct peace. (p. 109, quoting Mills)

Higgs finds parallels between the crackpot realism of the Bush administration and the foreign policy of Kennedy's New Frontier.

The Kennedy people reeked of recklessness…. Above all, however, the mock-virile president resolved that he must demonstrate toughness. (p. 112)

Accordingly Kennedy and his cohorts, who imagined themselves men of surpassing intellect, "pushed the world to the brink of nuclear catastrophe in their management of the Cuban missile crisis" (p. 112). 2

Bush and his coterie likewise stress toughness and the use of military force to insure American dominance of the world.

No longer does the U.S. government … find satisfaction merely in a Monroe Doctrine that proclaims its hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. No, our rulers have declared in sufficiently plain language, in their new "National Security Strategy of the United States," that they intend to dominate the entire world. (p. 131)

Why have such inept and dangerous policies been adopted? A good part of the answer, Higgs argues, stems from the vast fortunes to be made in the defense industry. The Cold War, he trenchantly remarks, is "too good a deal to give up" (p. 49).

No longer is America locked in conflict with its Cold War adversary; but US military spending "during the six fiscal years from 1995 through 2000 was equal to what it had been during the baseline years … of the Cold War. Moreover, the Pentagon continued to spend its money for the same kinds of forces and weapons that had been developed for confrontation with the Red Army or a similar foe" (p. 49). We do not need these weapons for defense, but a "politically entrenched defense industry makes sure that spending continues at a high level, and pork-dispensing congressmen grease the wheels, buying a few votes in the process" (p. 51).

The cost of such massive militarism to the American people is far more than financial. Higgs is most famous as a historian for his classic Crisis and Leviathan, in which he showed the baleful effects of wars in extending the scope and power of the state and restricting individual freedom. 3 Even when the military crisis subsides, the state does not shrink to its prewar level; by a "ratchet effect," part of its wartime growth remains in place.

Unfortunately, events since 9/11 have conformed to this pattern of offenses against freedom. Most notable in this connection is the notorious Patriot Act, and Higgs is appropriately severe:

Our rulers declare that by nothing more substantial than the emperor's say-so, any person may be arrested and held incommunicado, without trial, and then punished, even put to death. Say good-bye to the writ of habeas corpus, the very bedrock of limited government…. Do I [Higgs] fear that the USA PATRIOT Act will be abused? No. I know that it has been already and will continue to be as its elastic language allows unscrupulous prosecutors to scratch a variety of itches unrelated to terrorism. (pp. 29–30)

Higgs writes with searing passion; readers will find his descriptions of the effects of US bombs on Iraqi children very hard to bear. He tells us that he has "made no attempt here to suppress or conceal my own values. Indeed, perhaps my greatest grievance during the past four years [2001–2005] has been that the values that I hold dearest — justice, peace, humanity, honesty, and basic decency — have been savaged most fiercely" (p. xiv). Higgs has made a major contribution to understanding and, one hopes, changing, America's warfare state.

  • 1. See the discussion of this in my review of G.E.M. Anscombe, "War and Murder," The Mises Review 7, no. 4, Winter 2001.
  • 2. I do not think that Dean Rusk was one of the "steel-trap" rational Cabinet officers of the Kennedy administration (p. 111). Did not the genuine New Frontiersmen view him as part of the State Department establishment, not one of their own?
  • 3. See also his Against Leviathan and my review of this in The Mises Review , Winter 2004.


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