Thank Government for the Mess We’re in

The first presidential election in the post–9/11 era has people thinking hitherto unthinkable thoughts: Should the election be postponed if a terrorist attack occurs before election day? What if there is an attack on election day? What happens if an attack takes the lives of the winner of the election and his running mate before inauguration day? It has even been asked if these matters should be discussed publicly.

Advocates of thoroughgoing individual liberty are entitled to say “I told you so” on at least two counts.

First, they long warned that U.S. government intervention in the world’s trouble spots is like batting a hornet’s nest. It can only bring trouble. The Middle East is the most troubled of trouble spots, and the U.S. government has been batting it in various ways at least since World War II. No wonder the region has been a constant source of stress, a sinkhole for the taxpayers’ dollars, and the breeding ground for people who want to kill Americans. Those who wish to avoid a reassessment of American intervention insist that the jihadists hate our way of life, not U.S. foreign policy, and therefore would be attacking us anyway. But all the evidence goes the other way. Every time the jihadist leaders explain their cause, they talk about U.S. policy, not American civilization. I don’t know why they would lie about their motives. Even some CIA personnel acknowledge this, for example, the anonymous author of the recent book Imperial Hubris. As this author told NBC News, “It’s not a hatred of us as a society; it’s a hatred of our policies.”

The insistence by the Bush administration and its supporters that U.S. policy has nothing to do with the terrorist threat is a little too fevered to be credible. Those who see in anti-Americanism a reaction to U.S. policy are maligned as excusing violence by trying to understand its perpetrators. But a moment’s thought discloses that excusing and understanding are vastly different activities. Moreover, proponents of the Bush interpretation can’t really be against trying to understand the terrorists, because these proponents themselves claim to understand them. So this is really a debate between competing interpretations. They are welcome to offer their theory of the terrorists’ true motivation, but a little evidence would be nice.

The second ground for “I told you so” is that libertarian critics of U.S. foreign policy are advocates of decentralization. By definition, decentralization makes a society harder to disrupt. One of the strongest arguments for a truly free market is that it produces the maximum number of decision-making centers. To those unschooled in classical-liberal social theory, this sounds like a blueprint for chaos. But those familiar with the ideas of undesigned order, spontaneous coordination, and social evolution understand that decentralized decision-making is the fountainhead of robust social order. The reason is simple: Errors will be highly localized only in a resilient decentralized setting, where entrepreneurs earn profits by anticipating problems. But when the central authority makes a mistake, everyone under its jurisdiction suffers. The more highly centralized the system, the greater the suffering.

A similar thing may be said about overt attacks on a society. The more highly centralized the governing authority, the easier it is to disrupt the society by disabling that authority. There is simply no way for a bureaucracy to know all that the entire society knows. This is as true for security issues as it is for the production of steel or wheat. “Society” is smarter than any legislature or bureau.

The upshot is that decades of the centralization of power in Washington have left the American people terribly vulnerable to the same violent people the government has systematically provoked by its intervention. So what are we urged to do? We’re urged to seek protection from the identical ignorant centralized bureaucracy that put us in this mess in the first place. There’s got to be a better way.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation, author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of The Freeman magazine. Send him email.