Benefits and Costs of the U.S. Government's War Making


In 1795, James Madison observed that “of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.” All experience during the past two centuries has confirmed the continuing validity of Madison’s observation. Apart from all the sacrifices of life, liberty, and treasure that wars have entailed directly, they have also served as the prime occasions for the growth of the central state, and hence in the United States they have fostered the long-term diminution of civil and economic liberties and the ongoing subversion of civil society.

Every government recognizes that force alone is an inefficient means of propping up its position. At the margin, bamboozlement can be effectively substituted for the use of force, especially in so-called democratic systems, where many ordinary people have embraced the fable that they themselves “are” the government because they cast a ballot every few years. Hence, every government seeks to ease its retention of power by persuading people that it acts only in their interest. A government that goes to war promises its subjects that it is doing so only in defense of those persons’ security and freedom. “Yet,” as Bruce Porter has noted, “having borne the burden of the state for five hundred years, we find that it has rarely fulfilled its twin promises of security and freedom.”

Indeed, the government’s alluring claim is almost always false. In matters of war making, as elsewhere in their wielding of power, governments act in the interest of their own leaders, with as many concessions as necessary to retain the support of the coalition of special-interest groups that keeps them in power. Libertarians, of all people, understand that, in Randolph Bourne’s now-hackneyed phrase, “war is the health of the state.” This claim is not some wild-eyed ideological pronouncement; it is as well-established as any historical regularity can be. Entire books, such as Bruce D. Porter’s War and the Rise of the State (1994) and my own Crisis and Leviathan (1987) and Against Leviathan (2004), have documented it in excruciating detail.

Aware of this reality, libertarians instinctively resist any claim that war will promote either liberty or security; they do not expect that notwithstanding what has almost always happened before, nature will change its course on this particular occasion. Whereas many other people can be persuaded that the risks war poses to their own life, liberty, and property rights are justified—necessary and only temporary sacrifices in the service of their own long-term security and liberty—libertarians understand that those who embrace this logic are taking a gamble against very long odds.

In the United States, the government has been at war, more or less, since 1940, which is to say, in Madison’s phrase, engaged in “continual warfare” or in massive preparation for warfare. Can anyone seriously maintain that we are now freer or more secure than we were before the sainted Franklin D. Roosevelt and his spiritual descendants took command of the ship of state and steered it into the storm of perpetual war? The U.S. government, which once confined its foreign adventures to ad hoc interventions, most of them in small Caribbean and Central American countries, has acted ever since World War II as a globe-girdling empire, projecting U.S. military and political power here, there, and everywhere with reckless unconcern for a reasonable connection between overall cost and benefit. (Why should the rulers care, you may ask, when they themselves—and, as usual, their supporting cronies—reap whatever benefit is produced, whereas the costs of the interventions take the form of other people’s sacrifices of life, liberty, and property rights?)

Not least among these sacrifices has been that of the old constitutional structure—the government of checks and balances that once helped to restrain the rulers from launching foreign engagements and suppressing domestic liberties willy-nilly. Owing to the series of hot and cold military emergencies since 1940, the president has become, for all practical purposes, a Caesar. He now goes to war entirely at his own discretion. After all, as his spokesmen tirelessly reiterate, he is the commander in chief of the armed forces (as if this fact simply wiped out the rest of the Constitution).

Congress has become so pusillanimous that it provides no check whatever on the president’s war making. In “authorizing” the president to attack Iraq or not, entirely as he pleased, Congress not only abrogated its clear constitutional duty, but it did so with grotesquely cavalier disregard for the gravity of the matter at stake. It did not even bother to debate the issue, but simply handed over its power to the executive and returned to the workaday plundering that is its only remaining raison d’etre. The president and his chief underlings keep telling us that “we are at war,” but it’s just a turn of phrase for public-relations purposes, inasmuch as the constitutional requirement of a congressional declaration of war has gone unfulfilled. It provokes no great public outcry, however, so conditioned have the people become to this form of executive usurpation.

To the injury of all past attenuations of our rights under the Constitution, the government has now added the insult of shredding the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments. 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. Speedy trial? Forget about it. The government has to but whisper those two magic words, “unlawful combatant,” and you may be rendered as much a desaparecido as any unfortunate victim of Argentine tyranny. Surely this sort of “defense of our freedom” falls under the rubric of destroying the village in order to save it. As for due process of law, it’s obsolete. Your right to be secure “against unreasonable searches and seizures”? That’s ancient history, too, outmoded since September 11, 2001, when, the government insists, “everything changed,” including your right to be free of warrantless searches of your premises, Carnivore sweeps of your e-mail, and taps of your telephone calls.

A few things definitely did not change after 9/11, however, and chief among them is the government’s lust for greater power and control over every single person in the country, nay, over everyone on the entire earth. Do I 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 completely unrelated to terrorism. Apart from these egregious and wholly predictable prosecutorial shenanigans, freedom-loving people ought to recognize that—to borrow a phrase from Edmund Burke—the thing itself is an abuse, because it sweeps away fundamental due-process protections of our rights that required centuries to put in place.

In the face of all this, and too much else even to mention, some people, even some self-described libertarians, persist in arguing that the price we are paying is worthwhile and that we can trust the government to act responsibly and effectively in wielding its new powers. Neither element of that argument will bear scrutiny.

As for trusting the government, the fact, well established in history and in contemporary reality, is that, contrary to what conservatives all seem to believe, the government can be trusted to do the right thing and to do it well even less in foreign and defense policy than it can be trusted in matters of domestic policy. Because national-security matters lie outside the immediate experience of the great bulk of the citizens, the government can get away with waste, fraud, brutality, and idiocy far more easily in foreign affairs than it can when prescribing student exams, building houses for poor people, or relieving grandma’s aches and pains. The history of U.S. foreign and defense policy in the past sixty years is an unrelieved tale of mendacity, corruption, and criminal blundering. If the government can’t fix the potholes in Washington, D.C., it certainly can’t build a viable liberal democratic state in Iraq. No one of sound mind could have supposed that it would even try, much less that it would succeed. This adventure, like so much else that the government undertakes, is a gigantic hoax, and all too much of it verges on racketeering of the sort described by the legendary U.S. Marine General Smedley Butler.

But if the government were able and willing to carry out an effective global “war on terrorism” by means of its present policy of empire and naked aggression (politely called preventive war), would the benefits of that policy justify the costs being borne? Not for a moment. The costs are real and huge—hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of dead and wounded so far just for the invasion and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, not to mention again the grave injuries to civil and economic liberties here at home. The benefits, to the extent that any exist at all, accrue entirely to a small coterie of political leaders and their supporters among the power elite, for the most part their cronies in the military-industrial, financial, and petroleum sectors. Ideological zealots dedicated to serving the interests of Israel’s Likud Party and the members of certain Christian sects thrilled by the prospect of apocalyptic mayhem in the Holy Land go along for the sheer intoxication of the spree, the former serving as high-level conspirators and disinformation specialists and the latter forming a legion of useful idiots, a sort of ten-million-strong Karl Rove Brigade on election day. Can any libertarian react except with disgust to any aspect of this criminally lethal and massively destructive government fiasco?

Robert Higgs is a Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, the University of Economics, Prague, and George Mason University.

  New from Robert Higgs!
TAKING A STAND: Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy
Organized into 99 short, accessible chapters Taking a Stand offers the grand opportunity to make Robert Higgs’ vast insights available to general readers by combining his keen analysis with his engaging wit, humility and compassion.