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Freeman Essay #36: “Outside the Limits”

In this July 1999 Freeman essay I express my befuddlement at those who, while skeptical of the U.S. government’s willingness and ability to perform well domestically, are confident that Uncle Sam performs well whenever it deploys military force abroad.  The essay is here.

“Slobodan Milosevic is hideous. If tomorrow he is run over by a beer truck the world will be a better place.”

That was my response to the bright woman who was simultaneously cutting my hair and seeking my opinion of U.S. military involvement in Kosovo.

“So you agree that NATO’s bombing mission is justified?” she asked.

“Well, no. I think it’s atrocious. Milosevic is no threat to the United States. As I see it, if the U.S. military has a legitimate role it is to protect Americans from foreign coercion. That should be its only function.”

“How can you say that?! The Serbs are slaughtering the Kosovars and driving them from their homes by the hundreds of thousands! We have a moral obligation to help those poor people.”

“Who’s the ‘we’?” I asked. “You and I aren’t in Kosovo, and I have no plans to go there; I bet that you don’t either. You must mean that this obligation is owed by the U.S. government—not by ‘we’.”

“But our government IS us. Because it represents us, it is our tool for doing what we Americans feel is just and necessary.”

“I couldn’t disagree more. Despite elections to decide which particular people occupy various government offices, the government is not us. Don’t be deceived by the high-school-civics fantasy that a wide franchise and regular elections ensure that government does only what is willed by The People. In fact, even democratic governments are driven overwhelmingly by pressures from special-interest groups. These groups routinely get government to do their bidding at the expense of innocent citizens whose only political access is an occasional trip to the voting booth. And don’t forget that government itself is a special-interest group. Politicians and bureaucrats have potent incentives to stay in power even if this means doing things that aren’t in the best interest of the country as a whole. It happens all the time. The government isn’t us.”

“I really, really disagree with your cynical view of our political system. NATO’s current air strikes against Milosevic prove you wrong. America has nothing to gain by interfering in Kosovo. We’re there to right a wrong, not to help some special-interest group.”

I could tell she was worked up.

“And further, even if your cynical view is correct, what can be wrong with helping the Kosovars escape ethnic cleansing?”

“Look, it’s naïve to suppose that bureaucrats in the Department of Agriculture, H.U.D., the F.T.C., and other domestic agencies are pawns of interest groups while bureaucrats in the military and diplomatic corps are saintly patrons of the public interest. But even if I concede that government officials are forever selfless when it comes to diplomatic and military relations with foreign countries I would still oppose U.S. military involvement in Kosovo.”

On what basis?

“Institutional competence. The fact that the American military possesses vast firepower doesn’t mean that those in charge possess vast wisdom. Even if such people are immune to interest-group pressures, they can never be immune to vanity, ignorance, and error. They’re human. Given this fact, it’s unwise in the extreme to entrust military power to anyone for any purpose other than national defense.”

“Why just national defense?”

“Because it’s a relatively easy goal to define and one that enjoys nearly universal approval. It’s within the confines of what a government is institutionally able to do—protect its citizens from foreign military invasion.

“But Americans today suffer the dreadful misconception that because our country is wealthy and our government powerful, our government can right all wrongs—that our government can create an earthly paradise; that our government is superhuman; that our government should address every evil, big and small. Did the Mississippi River flood into your home? No problem. Uncle Sam will cover your losses and fix the river. Did crazed teenagers shoot and kill innocent children in a school library? Don’t worry. More gun-control legislation will ensure that such massacres never happen again. Did you get sick on some tainted turkey? Can your children access porn sites on the Internet? Did a waiter in some restaurant take too long to serve a Latino family? Is there a nasty ethnic conflict in the Balkans? Not to worry. Uncle Sam and his minions will solve all problems.”

I looked up to chart the progress of my cut, then continued: “But social engineering is impossible, no less so on the international than on the domestic front. Many of my conservative friends don’t grasp this fact. They generally agree that government isn’t to be trusted to interfere in economic matters because they recognize correctly that government is institutionally incapable of making things better. Politicians and government regulators are too ham-fisted and detached from the countless details and nuances of markets to do anything but make matters worse.

“But this good judgment about the institutional limitations of government disappears when it comes to military adventures. These same conservative friends innocently trust not only the motives of politicians who get us involved in foreign military campaigns, but also their abilities.

“I ask why? If we can’t trust Bill Clinton and his appointees to craft a worth-while statute to restrict access to guns or to reduce greenhouse gases, why can we trust him to deploy in another region of the world the most powerful military machine humankind has ever known? Why should such government actions be trusted not to breed larger problems than those that they are meant to solve? Are politicians wiser on the foreign front than on the domestic front? Hardly.”

My hairdresser thought for a moment. “But if you’re right, we shouldn’t trust government to use the military to defend even our own shores against aggressors.

“Entrusting anyone, for any reason, with the power to coerce others is inherently dangerous. But, again, if our armed forces are charged only with defending Americans from foreign aggression, it’s far easier for citizens to tell if the military is being used appropriately. All we need to ask is ‘Have we been attacked or are we on the verge of being attacked?’ If the answer is ‘yes,’ then—and only then—should our military swing into action. Of course, reasonable people can disagree about whether or not, in some instances, we are on the verge of being attacked. But at least the goal is clear and unambiguously just. That goal is national defense. By sticking to this goal, we mind our business, make far fewer enemies, and avoid unexpectedly opening cans of worms. Also, we citizens can better monitor the appropriateness of our government’s use of its most potent weapon, the military. In an imperfect world, these are stellar achievements.”

I don’t know if I persuaded my hairdresser. But I do know that NATO bombs and ground troops will not create a civil and peaceful society in Kosovo.


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