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Interview

Enemy of the Warfare State
Interview with Robert Higgs


     
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Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy for The Independent Institute and editor of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics in Prague. He is the author or editor of fifteen books, and the author of hundreds of articles for professional and popular journals, magazines, and websites. Much of his scholarly work has focused on the political economy of the warfare state.


Lara-Murphy Report (LMR)
: How did you discover Austrian economics?

Bob Higgs (BH): I stumbled upon F. A. Hayek’s 1945 article “The Use of Knowledge in Society” soon after I began my career as an economics professor at the University of Washington in 1968. I liked it, used it in my teaching, and cited it in my writing. This article led me to read more articles and books by Hayek, which ultimately led me to read Ludwig von Mises’s great book Human Action. My thinking was never the same afterward. During the past several decades, I have deepened my understanding of Austrian economics and, perhaps, made small contributions to it.

LMR: A main theme of your work is encapsulated in one of your book titles, Crisis and Leviathan. Can you summarize your viewpoint?

BH: In polities where the rulers are somewhat responsive to popular clamor and where the dominant ideology is something like progressivism or social democracy, a real or perceived national emergency gives rise to demands that the government “do something” to allay the perceived threat(s). Politicians respond eagerly in ways that enhance their own official powers and enlarge the size and scope of government. When the crisis wanes or disappears, opportunists who seek to promote their own interests—both inside and outside the government—use their power or influence to retain some of the emergency powers and to prevent the size and scope of government from reverting to precrisis dimensions. So, given certain preconditions, crises give rise to a ratchet effect on the growth of the government’s size, scope, and power, shifting the state’s growth trajectory to a permanently higher path.

LMR: In a talk at the Mises Institute you once said that the view of war depicted in the dark comedy Dr. Strangelove was very close to, but not quite, how things worked in the real world. Can you elaborate?

BH: Dr. Strangelove gives us a cast of characters most of whom in various ways seem more or less mad. But if one removes the slapstick, the film’s portrayal of the characters, their thinking, and their demonstrated values (or lack thereof) bears a strong resemblance to what one finds in the actual national-security state. In particular, one finds real decisionmakers who toy with death and destruction on an unimaginably horrible scale, yet run through their paces as if they were doing nothing more significant than playing a game of chess in the park.

Prominent among them are the men and (much less frequently) women whom Derek Leebaert calls “emergency men”—“the clever, energetic, self-assured, well-schooled people who take advantage of the opportunities intrinsic to the American political system to trifle with enormous risk.”[1] “Emergency men,” as Leebaert shows, are “often synonymous with war hawks, [and] tend to prevail in policy arguments.”[2] Despite their impressive credentials, seemingly relevant backgrounds, and important connections, these emergency men tend to be fools and wishful thinkers, more inclined to toss around slogans than to understand in detail the people and places they seek to move here and there on the global chessboard.

It is therefore not surprising that U.S. foreign policy for the past century has been for the most part a saga of senseless wars and squandered opportunities to promote real peace and prosperity for the mass of Americans and others. If one doubts that Dr. Strangelove’s characters are anything like the real actors, one need only look into such top actors as General Thomas S. Power and General Curtis E. LeMay, or research what the war strategists at RAND were routinely cooking up, especially in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s.

LMR: Would you say that powerful people purposely cause wars for their own agendas, or do you think they simply steer events on the edges to enrich themselves when the opportunity presents itself?

BH: They do both, depending on their objectives and the current circumstances. In World War I, for example, powerful English and American parties, with critical help from Woodrow Wilson’s closest adviser Colonel Edward M. House, took advantage of Wilson’s delusions of grandeur to steer him toward plunging the United States into the European bloodbath. A generation later, Franklin D. Roosevelt worked relentlessly, along with a massive but covert British propaganda operation, to get the United States into the war against Germany. When the Germans declined to take the bait in the North Atlantic, the U.S. government undertook steadily strengthened economic warfare against Japan. This tactic eventually proved successful in provoking the Japanese to attack, thereby permitting Roosevelt to bring a united populace into the war against Germany through “the back door.” Of course, however the country goes to war, legions of opportunists—both inside and outside the government—invariably leap into the fray to feather their own nests with power and pelf they could not acquire in normal peacetime conditions.

LMR: We understand that you are moving to Mexico from your current home in Louisiana. Can you share the reasons for this decision, and what you’ve learned in the process?

BH: My wife and I have several motives for emigrating to a remote village in Mexico. We love the Caribbean coast and the adjacent waters; we enjoy Mexicans and many aspects of Mexican culture; and we relish the idea of living in a tropical paradise amid marvelous creatures on the land and in the sea. However, we are also moving because the United States is now a police state and becomes almost daily a more dreadful and intolerable police state. Even if we supposed that we might be lucky enough to avoid the worst that this vile state inflicts on its many victims, we abhor what the country has become and look forward to distancing ourselves from it. Americans have sold their souls to the devil as politicians have manipulated their fears. Many more of them ought to have seen through this shameless and evil manipulation.

In making our arrangements to move, we have learned that things happen more slowly in Mexico, especially when legal services, government permits, document recordings, and so forth are involved. One needs to have a great deal of patience. We have also learned more about the specific area where we will live, and we look forward to taking advantage of the opportunities that await us there for a stimulating yet relaxed style of life.

LMR: Your latest book is Delusions of Power. What will long-time fans discover in this book that isn’t in your earlier ones?

BH: Delusions of Power offers some new analyses of democracy and of the age-old problem of self-government. The point of view throughout the volume is more openly hostile to government as we know it—that is, government that lacks the explicit, voluntary, individual consent of every adult subject to it—and more openly supportive of genuine self-government. Also on display are closer analyses of how rulers make decisions about war and peace and about how the various factors associated with the “crisis and leviathan” phenomenon operate and relate to one another.

I also offer more detailed scrutiny of historical topics such as Colonel House’s role in bringing the United States into World War I and in making U.S. policies during the war and afterward, especially at the Versailles peace conference. I explain the importance of U.S. economic warfare against Japan during the two years before the attack on Pearl Harbor. I present new data about and more penetrating analyses of the economic boom-bust cycle than I have offered in previous books, as well as more detailed analyses of the military-industrial-congressional complex. The book is also more up to date, including a full examination of the so-called Great Recession from which the United States has yet to recover fully. Reviews of eight recently published books round out the volume and show how my views compare with recently published scholarship on some of the most important topics considered in the book.


Notes

1. Derek Leebaert, Magic and Mayhem, 2010, p. 5.
2. Ibid., p. 159.


Robert Higgs is 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, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


  New from Robert Higgs!
CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN (25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups.






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