A Liberal Politician Libertarians Can Appreciate

Author’s note: I gave this talk at the Peace Feast in Seaside, Calif., on March 29.

This week the Monterey County Weekly ran an article in which it "outed" me as an antiwar professor at the Naval Postgraduate School. I’m not complaining: everything in that article was accurate, except for the part about my not listening to National Public Radio, and I cooperated fully in the story. This morning I ran into a friend who hadn’t been aware of my political views. He commented that my views were, in his word, "eclectic." He was referring to the combination of my antiwar, pro-civil liberties views and my belief in private property, economic freedom, and a very tiny government. I didn’t want to get on my soapbox so I just nodded. But for the next 10 minutes, this is my soapbox; so let me explain briefly why my views are not eclectic at all. And if you’re wondering what this has to do with Sam Farr, you’ll soon see.

I believe that, in the words of our sixth president, John Quincy Adams, the government should not go abroad "in search of monsters to destroy." There are a few reasons for this. First, since the world is full of monsters, it will never run out of wars, as Sen. John McCain seems to realize. In January he told supporters, "I’m sorry to tell you, there’s [sic] going to be other wars. We will never surrender but there will be other wars.” I wish I could convince myself that Sen. McCain was not relishing that prospect. Second, to destroy monsters abroad means taking resources from us at home; and since the government takes our resources by taxation, it becomes a monster, using the threat of prison to take our money. And the U.S. government is then a monster that we’re stuck with for a very long time. The budgetary cost of this war is now about $12 billion a month, or about 1 percent of gross domestic product. And the budgetary cost is not the only cost. We have subtly moved away from a volunteer army, one of only two major pro-freedom accomplishments of Richard Nixon. With its so-called stop-loss rules, the military can prevent someone from leaving when his time is up. Moreover, because we are at war, the government can get away more easily with spying on its own citizens and forcibly violating our privacy every time we board an airplane. Interestingly, the late William F. Buckley well understood that the cost of permanent war abroad is a substantial loss of liberty at home. In a famous article in 1952, during the Cold War, Buckley wrote:

"[W]e have got to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. … And if they deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all."

Although most people today are unaware of this, Buckley’s major "accomplishment" for conservatism was to get rid of the few remaining conservatives who wanted the United States not to become an imperialist power.

The third reason not to go abroad in search of monsters to destroy is that our government often backs monsters abroad or even gives them more power. That’s what the CIA did in 1953 when Kermit Roosevelt and Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. helped engineer a coup against the democratically elected premier of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, replacing him with the shah of Iran. Incidentally, when Iranian revolutionaries took over the U.S. embassy in 1979 and took 52 Americans hostage, President Jimmy Carter dismissed reminders of the 1953 coup as “ancient history.” Let me ask you: Have any of you ever taken a course on ancient history? Did it deal with events that happened just 26 years earlier? And the Iranian coup is only one of many. In 1963, the CIA helped a young Iraqi ally who, along with other plotters, overthrew Gen. Adbul Qassim. You may have heard of this young Iraqi ally; he was in the news a lot earlier in this decade. His name is Saddam Hussein. Five years later, the CIA backed another coup that made Hussein deputy to the new military ruler. Then, in 1979, Hussein took his turn as dictator. And just this week, the U.S. government took the side of the Iraqi government, bombing southern Iraq to get rid of Iraqis who are hostile to other Iraqis.

So I don’t think my views are eclectic at all. I want a government that does not interfere in people’s lives – whether those people happen to live in Iran or Indiana, in Korea or Kentucky. And a government that interferes with people’s lives abroad will mess with us plenty at home.

For most of my adult life, I’ve sought alliances with conservatives rather than liberals or leftists. That’s because the issues I was typically working on were ones involving domestic economic freedom. I had no trouble working with people who believed in the Cold War because I believed in the Cold War. But I shouldn’t have believed in the Cold War. There was plenty of evidence showing that the Soviets just were not much of a threat to Americans; it’s just that I wasn’t aware of that evidence. I am aware, though, of the evidence that Iraq under Saddam Hussein was not a threat to the United States, that Iran under the mullahs is not a threat to the United States, and that there really are few threats to the United States from other countries. Those two oceans come in awfully handy.

So what is the big threat we face? It’s our own government. In November 1981, President Ronald Reagan, in his Thanksgiving interview with Barbara Walters, said that governments in the United States were more of a threat to our freedom than the Soviets. I agree with him. Unfortunately, one of Ronald Reagan’s worst legacies is his revving up of the Drug War, which has destroyed many Americans’ lives, and which, if not reined in, will destroy many more.

When you become clear on what the major threats are, it makes sense to look around for people who are allies in helping fight those threats. And that brings us to our guest of honor tonight, Congressman Sam Farr.

Take the Drug War. Please. Sam has been a leader, along with my Republican congressman friend, Dana Rohrabacher, in the fight to get the federal government to stop interfering with people who want to use marijuana for medicinal purposes.

That’s not all. Sam also has been a strong defender of civil liberties. He showed a lot of courage, not just in voting against the extension of the USA PATRIOT Act, but also in voting, shortly after Sept. 11, against the original USA PATRIOT Act. He was one of only 66 members of the House of Representatives to do so. Not for him that mealy-mouthed line, "I voted against it before I voted for it." Sam was always against it, and, for that, bless you, Sam.

Had that been all Sam had done, we wouldn’t be here tonight. We are here because of a number of other things Sam has done, one in 2002 and a few in 2007, and some this year. In 2002, Sam showed a healthy skepticism about George Bush’s "I’m the president: trust me" approach to foreign policy. Sam voted against the blank check that Congress gave George Bush to make war on Iraqis.

And on Jan. 11, 2007, Sam did something even more important. He authored a bill, beautiful in its clarity and brevity, to remove George Bush’s authority to make war in Iraq.

Let me read you a section of the bill:

"Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,


"The Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002 (Public Law 107-243; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) is hereby repealed.


"The President of the United States shall provide for the withdrawal of units and members of the United States Armed Forces deployed in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom in a safe and orderly manner."

Guess what? I didn’t read you a section of Sam’s bill. I read the whole bill. I’ve read parts of congressmen’s bills before, but in my whole life I’ve read only a few all the way through and doing so took hours. How refreshing that Sam said so much with so little, in the best tradition of our Founding Fathers, whose First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, with only 45 words, protected religious freedom, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the right to peaceably assemble, and the right to petition. Sam’s bill was a better bill than any of the other bills on the war that Congress considered. Unfortunately, the bill didn’t pass. Although the Democrats now have a majority in both the House and the Senate, not enough of Sam’s Democratic colleagues were willing to vote for this, and very few of the Republicans were.

Fortunately, though, Sam has supported the pro-freedom position on a number of issues – both on foreign policy and on civil liberties. I’ll highlight a few, starting with foreign policy. And I thank Sam’s aide, Alec Arago, for getting this information to me.

On Iraq, Sam co-sponsored H.R. 2929, a bill "To limit the use of funds to establish any military installation or base for the purpose of providing for the permanent stationing of United States Armed Forces in Iraq or to exercise United States economic control of the oil resources of Iraq."

On Iran, Sam cosponsored H.R. 770, a bill "To prohibit the use of funds to carry out any covert action for the purpose of causing regime change in Iran or to carry out any military action against Iran in the absence of an imminent threat."

On civil liberties, Sam voted against H.R. 3773, the ironically named Protect America Act, which passed 227-183 on August 4, 2007.  This measure essentially extended by 180 days an existing law enacted in the previous Congress that allowed the administration to avoid FISA court review for most telecom and data surveillance.  

On torture, Sam voted for H.R. 2082, the Intelligence Authorization Act for FY 2008. That act would have barred the CIA and others from employing certain controversial interrogation techniques, such as waterboarding or sleep deprivation, that are barred by the Army Field Manual, regardless of whether the intelligence community had previously deemed such techniques as legally permissible. Unfortunately, although the bill passed, President Bush vetoed it.

Incidentally, when the Senate deliberated on whether to confirm Michael Mukasey as the new attorney general, he refused to say whether waterboarding was torture. Later, though, after Mukasey had been confirmed, Sen. Kennedy asked him, “[W]ould waterboarding be torture if it was done to you?” Mukasey answered, “I would feel that it was." I wonder if sometime before all his legal training Mr. Mukasey ever learned the golden rule.

Those are some of the highlights of Sam’s record on legislation. We haven’t won on these issues, but we need to support those who are on the right side – that is, the correct side – of those issues.

The cause of peace is the most important issue facing our nation today. One of the tragic results of World War I was that after that war, those who favored economic freedom pretty much quit talking to those on the Left who opposed economic freedom but also opposed U.S. imperialism. And vice-versa. It’s time we start talking again – and at the Peace Coalition of Monterey County and at Antiwar.com, which I write for regularly, that’s what we’re doing. We have so much in common, and we need to work together on those great issues of war and peace on which we agree.

We have far too many people, in Congress and out, who are willing to trust a powerful president. This issue will not go away even if a Democratic candidate becomes president next year. The Imperial Presidency is bipartisan. For your leadership on this issue, I say, "Thank you, Sam."

Copyright © 2008 by David R. Henderson. Requests for permission to reprint should be directed to the author or Antiwar.com.

Author: David R. Henderson

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution and an emeritus professor of economics in the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is author of The Joy of Freedom: An Economist’s Odyssey and co-author, with Charles L. Hooper, of Making Great Decisions in Business and Life(Chicago Park Press). His latest book is The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics (Liberty Fund, 2008). He has appeared on The O’Reilly Factor, the Jim Lehrer Newshour, CNN, MSNBC, RT, Fox Business Channel, and C-SPAN. He has had over 100 articles published in Fortune, the Wall Street Journal, Red Herring, Barron’s, National Review, Reason, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, The Hill, and the Christian Science Monitor. He has also testified before the House Ways and Means Committee, the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. He blogs at http://econlog.econlib.org