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Skepticism, at Home & Abroad

Corey Robin has a nice essay in the Outlook section of the May 2nd edition of The Washington Post. In it, he takes issue with the neoconservative case for using the U.S. military on grand foreign adventures. Re-reading this thoughtful essay prompts many thoughts. Here’s one.

One distinction separating many American conservatives from many American (left) liberals is that many of the same conservatives who don’t trust government to deliver the mail or to run a national pension fund emphatically trust government to carry out foreign military adventures. For many left-liberals, the opposite is true.

This distinction is curious. Which group has the better argument?

Left-liberals might say that they have the better argument because it’s easier for voters to monitor events at home, compared to monitoring them abroad. Moreover, voters are less likely to abandon their critical faculties when evaluating domestic policies than when, filled with patriotic fervor, they’re called upon to evaluate foreign engagements of U.S. troops.

Conservatives can counter by arguing that most military engagements have relatively simple, easy-to-monitor goals, such as “force Hitler’s army to surrender” or “get Iraq out of Kuwait.” Success and failure of military engagements can be gauged relatively easily – or, at least more easily than gauging the success or failure of domestic programs aimed at creating a more just or equitable society.

My own position is that conservatives and left-liberals both are correct – and both are mistaken. The same knowledge problems, the same diffused and muted and distorted responsibilities, and the same special-interest-group pressures that should cause us to be very skeptical of the case for government intervention into the domestic economy should also cause us to be very skeptical of foreign intervention.