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Sometimes There Are No Good Options

Like many libertarians, I reject the notion that national defense is an arena that is somehow exempt from the rule that politicians and bureaucrats are untrustworthy stewards of the general welfare.  And like many libertarians, whenever I express opposition to, or even skepticism of, some U.S. military adventure, I get gushers of grief from people who insist that I’m “naive,” “childish,” and (my favorite, from a recent e-mail) “a stupid America hating dip shit hippie disguised as a free market blogger.”

Despite these compelling arguments against non-interventionism, I cannot escape the following realization: Whenever I hear politicians and their deputies discuss the subject that I know best, economics, they typically get it wrong.  And they get it wrong not in minor ways; they get it wrong in fundamental ways.  They frequently speak and write as if trade-offs don’t exist – as if the titles of statutes determine the outcomes of statutes – as if prices are arbitrary numbers that can be manipulated by government with no undesirable or unintended consequences – as if the benefits of international trade are “our” exports while the costs of such trade are our imports – as if nations “compete” against each other economically – as if the destruction wrought by natural disasters has an economic upside – as if government officials are immune to the knowledge constraints and self-interested motivations that affect actors in private markets.

In short, when the subject of discussion or the object of action is the economy, politicians and their deputies typically sound and act as if they are imbeciles (or as if the audiences they aim to please are made up largely of imbeciles).  So why should I trust that these same politicians and their deputies, when they discuss and act on matters about which I know far less than economics, are not imbeciles?  Why should I suppose them to be any more informed, reasonable, and wise – and less politically motivated – than they are when they discuss economics?

I admit it: I don’t know a great deal about foreign affairs and military matters.  But I do know that the same politicians and deputies who consistently act in ways that I am certain are ignorant and dangerous when they intrude into the economy are the same politicians and deputies who I am asked to trust when they intrude into foreign affairs.

That I would like that these politicians and their deputies be adequately knowledgeable and level-headed when they turn their attention to military matters is irrelevant.  The fact is, I have zero reason actually to suppose them to be adequately knowledgeable and level-headed about such matters.  I must judge their likelihood of being knowledgeable and wise about matters on which I am poorly informed on the basis of my assessment of the knowledge and wisdom that they regularly exhibit when they discuss and act on matters about which I am well-informed.  And on that basis, I conclude that they are untrustworthy, unwise, and, hence, much more likely than not to take steps that are harmful to the general welfare.

(My colleague Bryan Caplan has expressed a similar thought over at EconLog, but I’m pressed for time now and cannot find the particular link or links.)


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