On Foreign Intervention

by Don Boudreaux on August 25, 2004

in Current Affairs

I don’t write much about foreign policy. One reason is that I, as an ordinary American citizen, cannot hope to know all that high-level government officials know about the details of what’s going on abroad. For that reason (and others) I realize that I’m even more ignorant of foreign-policy matters than I am of domestic matters.

But for this very reason – because I know that I am not privy to any important military, intelligence, and foreign-policy details, and because politicians know that I and my fellow citizens are unaware of these details – I trust the government to meddle in foreign countries even less than I trust it to meddle in bread-and-butter domestic issues here at home.

If government has a core legitimate role, it is to protect peaceful citizens from physical aggression against their persons and property. Reasonable people can and do disagree over just what powers are minimally necessary for government to carry out this task.

However, nothing about this task gives government the duty or the right to intervene militarily anywhere on earth for any purposes other than those that are reasonably related to protecting its citizens from violence.

It might well be true that some foreign tyrant is slaughtering innocent foreigners. (Alas, governments are champions at massacring innocent people.) And it might well also be true that the U.S. government has the military might to intervene to stop this slaughter.

But should it intervene militarily? No; not unless there is a reasonable and demonstrable and close connection between that tyrant’s slaughtering ways and a genuine risk to Americans at home.

Ask: should Microsoft intervene to thwart a violent foreign tyrant? Microsoft’s role is making and marketing computer software. Although it possesses vast amounts of resources – probably enough to wage an effective little war abroad – warmaking is not its role. No one thinks that Microsoft is derelict in its duties if it sticks to making software and avoids expanding into the business of thwarting foreign tyrants.

Why should the U.S. government act differently? Its core responsibility is to protect Americans from violence, not to pretend to play god for the globe.

Indeed, if Microsoft or General Motors choose to set sail on military interventions abroad, at least they’d do so with their own money – not with money forcibly extracted from many millions of taxpayers who disagree strongly with the objective.

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