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Center on Peace and Liberty

Everyone knows that government power has grown enormously in size, scope and intrusion into almost every aspect of civil society during this past century, but how and why has it done so? Is this growth inherent in the nature of government, because of some greater social needs, or other causes?

In his landmark books, Crisis and Leviathan (Oxford University Press), and the new Against Leviathan, Independent Institute Senior Fellow Robert Higgs (Editor, The Independent Review) shows that the main reason for this growth lies in government’s responses to national “crises” (real or imagined), including economic upheavals (e.g., the Great Depression) and especially wars (e.g., Spanish-American War, World Wars I and II, Cold War, etc.). The result is ever increasing government power which endures long after each crisis has passed, undermining both civil and economic liberties and economic growth, and fostering extensive corporate welfare and pork. Moreover, crises are usually the creation of earlier government interventions and abrogations of the U.S. Constitution, with each new “crisis of the month” used to justify even greater encroachments on civil society by expanding government power at the behest of special interest groups. As government power grows, writes Dr. Higgs, it creates dependent constituency groups and also achieves a form of autonomy, making it ever more difficult to decrease its size and scope, and to resist its further efforts to increase its reach, so long as the citizenry remain uninformed of its true effects.

In overcoming the new threat of terrorism, must freedom be restricted? Is freedom during wartime and economic decline as important as during peacetime and prosperity? And, could the tragedy of September 11th have set in motion a chain of events even more ominous than the attacks themselves?

James Madison, the principal architect of the U.S. Constitution, noted in 1795:

Of all the enemies of public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies. From these proceed debts and taxes. And armies, debts and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the dominion of the few.... No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.

Similarly in 1821, John Quincy Adams stated the following about America:

She has abstained from interference in the concerns of others, even when conflict has been for principles to which she clings, as to the last vital drop that visits the heart. She has seen that probably for centuries to come, all the contests of that Aceldama the European world, will be contests of inveterate power, and emerging right. Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will her heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.... She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.... [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty.

Unwilling to even discuss whether the U.S.’s interventionist foreign policies (particularly in the Middle East) might be factors in causing the new security threats, Washington has unilaterally declared that the new terrorist war must be a global war without end, with no clear objectives, no clearly identifiable enemy, no specified geographical area, and no clear strategy. The enemy is not on some front, does not have invading armies, navies and air forces, and since we are now all under government surveillance, apparently it could be any of us. In the fight against such a different kind of enemy, which may pose a more challenging threat for an open society, could the “best defense is a good offense” doctrine in the U.S. national security strategy be exactly the wrong policy to pursue?

After retaliating against the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and its Taliban enablers, the Bush Administration spoke of “bringing justice” to “axis-of-evil” countries not involved in the 9/11 attacks—all while Osama bin Laden and most of Al Qaeda’s leaders have escaped.

Meanwhile, the U.S. has pursued a pre-emptive war and military occupation in Iraq, and the Middle East is increasingly unstable. World leaders in Europe, Asia, Africa, and around the world view U.S. military intervention with increasing alarm, and international sentiment indicates that the U.S. is more hated than ever. Could U.S. policies be provoking much of this hatred and further threats to the safety of Americans and people around the world? If so, the broader war against the “axis of evil” has played right into bin Laden’s hands.

On the home front, the U.S. government has created new protectionism, corporate welfare, federalizations, and political pork as interest groups line up to cash in on the terrorist crisis. U.S. agencies have further acquired broad new police powers to systematically spy on and detain both American citizens and foreign nationals without due process. Will the Orwellian USA PATRIOT Act—legislation still being written when it was passed by Congress—really hinder terrorists or simply enable militant fundamentalists to destroy American liberty as the U.S. itself shreds the Bill of Rights? Are such policies really producing a safer, freer, and more peaceful world? If not, how can we do so?

To examine these and other serious questions, The Independent Institute’s Center on Peace & Liberty is an integrated program of research, publications, events, media, and Internet projects to boldly advance understanding of government “crises” and their impact on the institutions of a free society. No issue is more central to the debate over public policy and more crucial to peace, open markets, individual liberty, and the rule of law.

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