A Free Society Must Give Up Empire

If Americans want a free society at home, then they must convince the U.S. government to give up its global empire. The militarized police recently on display in Ferguson was no freak coincidence: Antiwar activists and other civil libertarians have been warning for decades that an aggressive US foreign policy would eventually destroy domestic liberties. Americans can’t ask their government to subjugate foreigners with bombs but bow to their own wishes at the ballot box.

As obvious as the above statements seem to me, according to a recent article Daniel McCarthy apparently would disagree. This surprised me, because McCarthy is editor of The American Conservative, a magazine that has tirelessly reminded US right-wingers that true conservatives don’t go abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and that nation-building is a progressive hobby. Moreover, McCarthy himself led the prosecution at this year’s FreedomFest "trial" of US foreign policy. Given this context, McCarthy’s recent magazine article both surprised and disturbed me. McCarthy makes the case that empire – first as provided by the British and now by the United States – has been necessary for the flourishing of a liberal (in the classical sense) democracy. As much as I generally respect McCarthy’s views, I find his qualified case for empire to be very weak. In the present piece I’ll outline some of the major problems with his argument.

McCarthy’s Qualified Case for Empire

McCarthy argues that we can draw the following lesson from history: "Successive British and American empires created and upheld the world order in which liberalism could flourish." This belief explains McCarthy’s ultimate thesis, which is that "America will not be anything other than broadly liberal and democratic for a long time to come, and liberal democracy requires a delicately balanced system of international security upheld by an empire or hegemon."

To be sure, McCarthy acknowledges severe limitations on what America the hegemon can hope to accomplish in the world; McCarthy is no starry-eyed neocon. Nonetheless, the purpose of his essay – which is titled "Why Liberalism Means Empire" – is to convince so-called "conservative realists" that America must continue to uphold its global empire since Great Britain obviously can no longer fulfill the role it served historically. If the US government foolishly caters to the anti-imperialists, it will remove the foundation holding up our liberal society.

Did Hitler and Stalin Prove the Need for an American Empire?

McCarthy’s essay is quite long, and I do not pretend to know the historical and military details as well as he does. But I do know enough about World War II and its aftermath to point out the glaring emptiness of his claims.

Specifically, McCarthy argues that US entry into World War II was crucial for maintaining a liberal society back home. He writes at length on the wishful thinking of those who wanted the US to stay out of the second great bloodbath. Yet to reiterate, McCarthy’s actual arguments here make no sense. He writes:

The old myths of natural peace and prosperity, which had taken root in America during a century of pax Britannica, died hard. In the decades between the wars, honorable men…argued that events in Europe posed little danger to America and were frankly none of our business.

Their argument doesn’t hold up. Although the two great anti-liberal powers, Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany, eventually turned on one another, a scenario in which they completely canceled one another out is implausible, to say the least. More likely one would have overcome the other, and the alacrity with which Soviet power did in fact fill the vacuum left by the defeated Nazis in Eastern Europe after World War II suggests what would have happened to all of Europe had one totalitarian juggernaut triumphed.

Notice what McCarthy has done in the above passage. He is pointing to how much a totalitarian regime managed to devastate Europe after the US helped it enormously, and then asks us to imagine how much more lopsided the domination would have been, had the US not picked a side and helped it.

No, it would actually make more sense to flip the argument the other way: Look at what the Soviets did to Eastern Europe after the Americans provided them with all sorts of aid and attacked Germany from the west. If we dislike that outcome – and McCarthy and I do both dislike it – then to have achieved a more balanced outcome, surely the US should not have jumped in on the side that ended up winning.

Back to McCarthy:

Just as the world order made possible by the British Empire had a liberalizing effect on the United States, a Soviet or Nazi world order would have profoundly influenced American development in the opposite direction. In such a world, the US would have faced both domestic and foreign pressures to assimilate to the Soviet or Nazi model, and resisting such pressure could itself have taken an illiberal turn…

A Cold War between an embattled, increasingly illiberal and security-conscious America and a burgeoning USSR or Nazi Germany is not at all hard to conceive of – because in fact, we got just such a thing even with American involvement in World War II. Had Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia fought one another to a standstill in the 1940s, the results would have been much the same: a Cold War, only one whose poles were Moscow and Berlin rather than Washington and Moscow.

Had we stayed out of World War II, there is every reason to think that all of the illiberal measures taken by the US in the Cold War that we actually did fight with the Soviets – in which the US held the upper hand from the start – would have been taken in a much worse strategic, economic, and cultural climate. America might still have prevailed against an inhuman and unsustainable Soviet or Nazi system, but the America that emerged would hardly have been likely to be more liberal or democratic than the one we have today.

Here McCarthy is using the same rhetorical trick that Keynesians such as Paul Krugman use when it comes to fiscal stimulus, whom we can paraphrase as arguing: "Sure, the economy tanked after the newly-sworn in President Obama enacted his massive package, but that just shows how urgently the stimulus was needed. The carnage that followed from half-heartedly implementing my policy advice just shows how awful things would have been in an alternate timeline in which policymakers did nothing."

Inasmuch as McCarthy is appealing to self-described conservatives, I’m sure most of his readers – and I imagine McCarthy himself – would chuckle along with me when seeing someone like Krugman deploy such a rhetorical move when it comes to Keynesian economics. Yet it’s the same trick that McCarthy uses in his historical analysis above. He points to all of the grossly illiberal consequences following his own desired intervention – US entry into World War II – and somehow tries to use them as evidence showing us how illiberal things would have been, had the US minded its own business.

In case any reader doesn’t see the big deal, I ask to go read the previous block quotation again: McCarthy is actually arguing that a victorious Soviet Union would have been a stronger opponent in the 1950s, had the US not helped it fight the Nazis in the 1940s.


When it comes to human affairs, there are no controlled experiments. Nobody can really say for sure what would have happened had the British never established their empire, or had the US government stayed out of European wars.

However, what we do know is that the (classical) liberal order that survived briefly under the heyday of the British Empire was snuffed out by World War I; the existence of a British empire did not guarantee the survival of liberalism. Further, we know that US entry into World War II brought the US itself to the brink of outright central planning during the war, and that the emerging Security State in the postwar era was the antithesis of a democratic Republic.

Although I generally respect his writings, I must sadly conclude that McCarthy’s recent article in support of US empire was woefully deficient. Indeed, I would argue the exact opposite of what McCarthy tried to demonstrate. Specifically, if you allow your government to maintain an empire abroad, then you can’t possibly expect a free and open society at home. This fact is staring us in the face as police departments across the country accept the surplus military equipment used in foreign occupations.

We no longer have classical liberalism of the kind that McCarthy and I both cherish. It died in Britain and the United States even though those two governments pursued empire, as McCarthy recommends. Perhaps he’s right that a more prudent administration of those empires would have preserved freedom, but then again that’s part of the danger of empire: It’s hard to get it "just right."

As in so many other areas, when it comes to international intrigue and geopolitical maneuvering, central planning by government officials always seems to go horribly wrong. The wise thing to do is admit we can’t control the world, and at least refrain from killing innocent foreigners.

Robert P. Murphy has a PhD in economics from New York University. He is the author of several books, including The Politically Incorrect Guide to Capitalism and Lessons for the Young Economist. He blogs at ConsultingByRPM.com.