Richard Epstein’s Faulty Case for Intervention

My Hoover Institution colleague Richard Epstein recently argued ("Rand Paul’s Fatal Pacifism," Defining Ideas, September 2) for an interventionist foreign policy. Although his attack is on Senator Rand Paul, it is much broader than that. He claims that libertarians are “clueless on the ISIS threat” and that “libertarians often have the illusion of certainty.”

I’m a libertarian and I’m not clueless. I’m positive that I have no illusion of certainty. Indeed, the fact that we cannot have certainty argues, as I will show, against Professor Epstein’s proposed interventionist foreign policy and for a humble foreign policy.

I’ll start with where I agree with Professor Epstein. We both agree that one of the few legitimate functions of a federal government is to, in his words, "protect our nation against foreign aggression."

But how does he get from that view to the view – also expressed in his article – that "[a] nation that believes in the primacy of liberty has to defend it at home and abroad?" The "at home" part I agree with. But why the "abroad?" People abroad who attack other people abroad are not clearly engaged in "foreign aggression" against the United States. And recall that it is the protection of "our nation," not other nations, against foreign aggression that Professor Epstein thinks is a legitimate function of the U.S. government.

There’s a much older tradition in the United States that I would have thought Professor Epstein, a strong believer in and defender of the US Constitution, would harken to. George Washington expressed that tradition in his farewell address. Washington wrote:

Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

Note that Washington wanted not to be involved in conflicts in Europe, an area from which most Americans or their forefathers hailed. Imagine what his view would have been of getting involved in an even more remote region – namely, the Middle East.

Why did Washington think that way? Because he saw these entangling alliances as a threat to what he called "Republican Government." Obviously, he did not have in mind the Republican Party, which came along over half a century later. What Washington meant by "Republican Government" was a government that did not take away our freedoms. (I put aside here the shameful fact of slavery, an institution that denied virtually every freedom to a large percent of the American population – an institution that Washington supported.) And he worried that entangling alliances would lead to war, taxes to pay for that war and, thus, less freedom.

Washington’s worry was understated. The largest violations of freedom in the United States have tended to occur during wars. During the Civil War, both North and South used military conscription, and the United States had conscription throughout World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Short of slavery, military conscription is one of the most extreme violations of freedom, as I think Professor Epstein would agree.

Taxes also tend to rise during war. In 1915, the bottom marginal tax rate in the United States was 1 percent and the top rate was 7 percent. In 1916, when there was a threat that the United States would enter World War I, the bottom rate doubled and the top rate more than doubled to 15 percent. In 1917, with US participation in the war becoming more certain, the income threshold at which income taxes were imposed was reduced substantially, and the top tax rate was raised to 67 percent. With all-out war in 1918, the bottom tax rate was tripled to 6 percent, and the top rate was raised to a whopping 77 percent. In the 1920s, Treasury Secretary Andrew Mellon, to his credit, brought all tax rates down, but not close to their pre-1916 level.

Similarly, in World War II, the top tax rate, already at 81 percent, was raised to 94 percent and, by 1963, was down to a still-stunning 91 percent.

Civil liberties also suffer during war. President Wilson engaged in press censorship and spied on Americans. Wilson also signed amendments to the Espionage Act, under which his Postmaster General censored mail and which Wilson used to prosecute and imprison one of his political rivals, Socialist Party leader Eugene Debs. Franklin D. Roosevelt incarcerated over 100,000 Japanese people, even though FBI director J. Edgar Hoover believed that they were not a threat.

Professor Epstein could argue that all these reductions in freedom are worth it if we succeed in vanquishing someone who will take away even more of our freedom. He could argue that, but he doesn’t. It would be hard to argue, for example, that ISIS could succeed in taking more of our freedom than our own governments have. In his 1981 Thanksgiving interview with Barbara Walters, when the Cold War with the Soviets was on, President Ronald Reagan, himself a Cold Warrior, stated that the biggest threat to our freedoms was not the Soviets but our own governments.

When governments intervene in the domestic economy, they almost always do damage. One of the main reasons is that they don’t have – and can’t have – the information they would need to plan the economy well. As Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek argued in a classic 1945 article, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," the information that matters most for economics decisions is held in the minds of the hundreds of millions of market participants.

Similarly, when governments try to intervene in other countries, they are even more ignorant about those countries than they are about their own. This can have disastrous consequences. Consider the Middle East and ISIS. Where did ISIS come from? As President Reagan used to say, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

In 2003, President George W. Bush invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to “finish the job” that, 12 years earlier, his father had promised “would not be another Vietnam." Keep in mind that Saddam, as President George H.W. Bush liked to call him, was a Sunni. Kicked out of power by the invasion and the occupation government, Sunni tribal leaders and remnants of Hussein’s army launched an insurgency that turned the entire west and north of the country into a lawless territory. Al Qaeda used this territory to train a generation of bin Ladenite, Salafist jihadists, the same ones who helped to solidify the turn toward full-blown sectarian civil war in 2005-07, which killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more.

After the Sunni tribes finally marginalized their former jihadi allies in 2007, many of the foreign fighters went home – to, among other places, Libya and Syria, where, incredibly, the US government under Barack Obama sided with the mujahideen, helping groups like the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group and Ansar al-Sharia to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi in Libya in 2011. These are two groups that had earlier fought Americans in Iraq.

The US government then helped to ship fighters and guns off to Syria to overthrow the secular Baathist government there. Nevertheless, Syria’s Shia, Christians, Kurds, Druze, and other religious and ethnic minorities, along with a sizable number of Sunni Arabs, have backed Assad’s cruel regime, mainly because they perceive it as the only thing standing between them and a good beheading at the hands of the “rebels.”

The US government has supported various Sunni insurgent groups in Syria over the last three years, in cooperation with the Saudis, Qataris, Turks, and Jordanians. That support has created the opportunity for al Qaeda in Iraq to make a comeback, first as the al-Nusra Front and now in its most worrying form yet – the no-longer al Qaeda-loyal Islamic State (ISIS), which has declared itself no longer a group, but a place. Of course, the U.S. claims it has been helping only the good, “moderate” rebels this whole time. But there are no good moderate rebels. The kinds of people willing to put their lives on the line and engage in suicide bombings are rarely moderate. The “rebel” field has been dominated throughout by the more-committed jihadists. Even major newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post have conceded for years that the CIA’s efforts have benefited mainly the bin Ladenites. US TOW anti-tank missiles have even ended up in the hands of al Nusra.

Should the US government say, in effect, "Well, we’ve messed up many times in the past, but this time is different"? How likely is that to work?

Consider that our Army and Marines didn’t defeat the Iraqi Sunni insurgency in four years of trying. General Petraeus ended up bribing the insurgents to marginalize the worst of the jihadist types – the so-called “awakening” movement. Even a full-scale invasion would, at most, dislodge them from their capitals in Raqqa and Mosul. That would simply turn ISIS back into an insurgency. And the presence of Americans back on the ground – and in more open an alliance with Iran than ever – would only anger more Sunni Arabs and radicalize them to the Islamic State’s cause and against American civilians – the ones that both Professor Epstein and I think that the US government should protect.

Does this mean that we should look with equanimity on ISIS? Not at all. But the solution to the ISIS problem must be local. Due, in part, to their brutality and chauvinism, they have made enemies on all sides: the Shia Arab government in Baghdad and its army; the Shia militias such as the Mahdi Army, Badr Brigade, and Asa’ib al-Haq; the Iranian government and its Quds force, which is in Iraq helping the Baghdad government now; the Kurdish peshmerga and PKK communist guerrillas; Hezbollah; the Assad government coalition and army in what’s left of Syria; King Hussein’s army in Jordan; and the military government of Egypt. The Gulf states are probably starting to worry right about now.

But most important, the Sunni Arab people of northern and western Iraq, who, after all, are the ones who would have to put up with brutal ISIS rule, will have to be responsible for establishing whatever replaces it in the Sunni triangle.

The simple fact is that when a government thousands of miles away decides to intervene, it must figure out which faction to support and has little assurance that it will support the right one. Indeed, it has little assurance that there is a right one. Thus my point above: whatever else libertarian non-interventionists believe, few of us have what Professor Epstein calls an "illusion of certainty." It is the exact opposite: we are positive that there is great uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that should, in general, cause us to pressure our government to stay out of other countries’ affairs. There are many "monsters to destroy," to use John Quincy Adams’s famous phrase. It is generally a bad idea to go abroad to destroy them. It is even worse if one does so by allying with other monsters.

The U.S. government’s tendency to help create chaos by intervening in the Middle East – which then leads to further chaos – is not new. The CIA helped bring Saddam Hussein to power. Was that a good idea? In 1953, shortly after Dwight Eisenhower became US president, his CIA, together with Britain’s MI6, undertook Operation Ajax to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected prime minister of Iran. Mossadegh was overthrown. It took only 60 years for the CIA to formally admit its role in the coup. (However, in 2003, I did get former CIA director James Woolsey to admit the CIA’s role – he made a tasteless joke about it.) Would this coup have succeeded without the US government? We don’t know. We do know that one of the consequences was that Iranians blamed the US government and that this was one of the major upsets that led to their taking over the US embassy in November 1979. Of course, that led to frosty relations between Iran’s government and the US government. So the US government, looking for allies to counterbalance Iran, cozied up to Saddam Hussein. Was that a good idea?

Every action has unintended consequences, and sometimes those consequences can be very bad. That is just as true in foreign policy as in domestic policy.

Consider George H.W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. A week before Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, April Glaspie, the US Ambassador to Iraq, told Hussein that the US government had "no opinion on the Arab-Arab conflicts, like your border disagreement with Kuwait." It seems that – surprise, surprise – Hussein took that as a green light to invade. And whereas the US government’s war with Iraq looked successful in early 1991, it resulted in US troops being installed in Saudi Arabia and in U.N. sanctions against Iraq that were initially enforced by the French, British, and US governments. These troops and sanctions were two of three upsets that energized Osama bin Laden. The third was the US tilt to Israel over Palestinians, another example of US intervention abroad. We all know what bin Laden ended up doing.

Also, think how different – and how much freer – the United States would be now had the 9/11 attacks not occurred. We would experience that freedom every time we went through an American airport. And the intrusive TSA body searches are only one of the losses of freedom we have suffered from our government as a result of 9/11. Professor Epstein and I are both opponents of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, which substantially reduced our economic freedom. The security state that has emerged in the United States since 9/11 is a new "new deal" that has reduced our civil liberties. It represents a major shift in the way the US government treats its own citizens. Consider just one example: National Security Letters.

Under the USA PATRIOT Act, in cases of national security, the FBI may now issue subpoenas called National Security Letters and does not need a judge to approve them. Moreover, those to whom such letters are issued are legally forbidden from telling anyone about it. The FBI is, in effect, allowed to issue its own search warrants. Are these powers abused? You bet they are! In 2008, an internal FBI audit uncovered over one thousand abuses.

US intervention in the Middle East has caused two major problems that should matter, especially to defenders of freedom. First, intervention against evildoers has typically involved alliances with other evildoers and has rarely, if ever, solved the problem it was alleged to solve; instead, it has led to even bigger problems, as it has done with ISIS. Second, intervention has led to losses of freedom at home. This much is certain. There is no reason to believe that any future intervention will have better results.

Postscript: I wrote this piece on September 7. It was recently rejected by another publication, but not on the grounds that anything within it was incorrect. One issue I did not address was the issue of whether President Obama has the constitutional power to go after ISIS without Congressional consent. He does not. Professor Epstein has always, to his credit, been a strong defender of the US Constitution. I assumed that he would want to defend it in this case also. But, although he has written a few times on this issue in September, he still has not written a word about this serious Constitutional issue. Professor Epstein badly wants the US government to make war on ISIS. He seems not to care about whether such a war would be unconstitutional.


I wish to acknowledge the fact-heavy tutorial that Scott Horton gave me while I was writing this piece. Indeed, he is responsible for many of the sentences about the history of the Middle East after 2003.

David R. Henderson is a research fellow with the Hoover Institution. He is also an associate professor of economics at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California. He was previously a senior economist with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. He blogs at

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