Editorial Note: This is the text of a speech given at the Casey Research Summit, 2014, "Thriving in a Crisis Economy." Part I appears here today: Part II will be published here on Wednesday.
I’ve been a libertarian since I was a teenager, and so I’m quite used to the idea of the apocalypse – the crash that’s always imminent, the final implosion of the Federal Reserve and the fiat money system – the final revenge of the business cycle that is always upon us. I grew up reading that whole genre of what you might call libertarian survivalist books sprang up in the 1960s. A typical title: How You Can Profit From the Coming Monetary Meltdown!
Combining the key insights of Austrian economics, and the plot line of Atlas Shrugged, these prophets of doom are certain of the dark future that’s about to befall us: Atlas is shrugging, the system is set to failure, and the collapse could come any day – any minute!
I started reading this stuff in the 1960s, and as a typically dissatisfied rebellious teenager of the time, the idea of an imminent collapse of the System had a certain appeal. Indeed, I looked forward to the Day of Doom the way other kids looked forward to the prom, or the first day of summer. Because on the Day After we’d start building a new world, a free world, where money was gold, not paper, government was minimal, and Washington DC was just another city and not a very important one at that.
Half a century later, I look back on that callow youth with some embarrassment – and with a new understanding. Of course, youth are prone to mechanistic thinking. If that, then this – everything must happen in a straight line, like in a novel. Except a novel isn’t life.
All empires fall. None can escape the human reality, which is the certainty of their own mortality. But that doesn’t mean they all fall in the same way, for the same reasons, and at the same tempo. The Mayans, who – long before the conquistadors came – dominated territory stretching from Mexico to Honduras -simply disappeared almost overnight. The last signs of the Mayans were left in the ninth century, and after that – nothing.
On the other hand, there is the great Roman Empire, which lasted for thousands of years and continued to persist well into the early Middle Ages. Founded as a republic, heir to the classic tradition of ancient Greece, progenitor of a system of law that eventually came to embrace most of the civilized world, the mighty Roman imperium lasted for two thousand years – and its memory is still engraved in our collective imagination. In many ways we still live in its giant historical shadow.
The only rival to such longevity is the British empire, on which the sun was never supposed to set. Well, it did set, but not before the Anglo-Saxons had spread their rule and their progeny to the very ends of the earth, taking up the so-called White Man’s Burden and lifting half the world up on their broad shoulders – until the sheer effort eventually dragged them down.
The British passed the baton to us in the wake of World War II, and we have been holding it – somewhat unsteadily – ever since. How long we can continue to wield this imperial scepter is the subject of my talk today, but before I launch into that, let’s back up a bit and set the context, the background of how the world’s most improbable empire came to be.
Americans never meant to create an empire: indeed, their intention was quite the opposite. For empires eventually end in tyranny, and this the Founders knew: they knew that constant wars meant the depredations of government on the home front would inevitably increase. They dreaded the rise of empire so much that they warned against establishing a standing army, for fear it would morph into a permanent class of warriors who, like the Praetorian Guard of Roman times, would pose a direct threat to the free society.
The Founders envisioned a republic that was truly a new kind of system under the sun: free of old Europe’s obsessions with ancient blood feuds, and also bereft of any imperial ambitions of its own. The young country made its debut with its first President’s sage advice in mind: "Nothing is more essential," said George Washington in his Farewell Address, "than that permanent, inveterate antipathies against particular nations, and passionate attachments for others, should be excluded." He warned against "permanent alliances," and Jefferson agreed: "Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations," our second President advised us, "entangling alliances with none."
Every empire is a complex tapestry of such alliances – a system of client states, protectorates, and "special" relationships, in which the supposedly dominant country often finds itself enslaved to the whims and moods of its vassals. If Rhodes is endangered by the Parthians, then Rome must come to its rescue. If Israel is enduring one of its many "existential" crises, – emanating from the Palestinians, the Persians, or an invasion from Pluto – the Americans must be by their side, succoring them with billions in "foreign aid," and reassuring them that we will fight and die in defense of their dubious claim to the Holy Land.
We’ve set up tripwires all over the world, any one of which could set off a regional or even a world war, including the possibility of a nuclear exchange. The specter of a war with Russia has arisen on NATO’s eastern frontier: having pushed the alliance right up to the gates of Moscow, the NATO-crats have their claws on Ukraine, with Georgia next in line for full membership. For the first time since the implosion of the Soviet bloc and the restoration of capitalism throughout the region the threat of a military confrontation between Russia and the West is a real possibility.
These supra-national alliances mark the outer edges of the web of American global power, at the center of which stands the so-called Anglosphere, the core territories of the old British empire: the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and of course the Anglo homeland, the formerly Great Britain, yet unrivaled in its position as chief US vassal. Indeed, the British have often been more royalist than the King, taking the lead in urging the Americans onward in Libya and Syria. Tony Blair played this role in relation to George W. Bush during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, acting as Washington’s chief inciter in the court of international public opinion.
Our political class has always seen itself as the inheritors of the British imperial tradition, in part because of their insufferable snobbery and because they already consider themselves a kind of aristocracy. The neoconservatives in their heyday affected a phony British accent, with neocon grand strategist Max Boot making "The Case for an American Empire," a veritable paean to British imperialism and its White Man’s Burden mythology of cultural uplift and political "liberation." That was right about the time the political elites had convinced themselves they had "liberated" Afghanistan and Iraq.
The British empire would have fallen in any case, either from over-extension or what Gibbon considered the fatal poison that felled the Roman Caesars: the loss of civic virtue. The erosion of this essential element of a healthy liberal society is the primary cause of the disintegration of great nations, and surely socialism acted on the British body politic like a corrosive acid, not only scarring the delicate tissue of society but also injecting a cancer into its very marrow.
Indeed, the British "social democracy" – i.e. mercantilism, crony-capitalism, and, in foreign policy, brazen imperialism – is held up as a model by American progressives, but there is something distinctly British about New Labour (or the politically-correct Conservative Party of David Cameron) that could never be fully transplanted on American soil.
No, in style and in spirit the British and American empires could not be more different: the former was founded on the divine right of kings, while the latter imagines itself the guardian and spirit of Democracy. The Brits were simply out to plunder and exploit their colonies, but the Americans are a different lot altogether: they have to convince themselves that they’re doing it for the good of Humanity. That has as much to do with the history of our old republic, which was founded in struggle against an imperialist power, as it has to do with the hypocrisy embedded in the American character – which sees itself as so exceptional that the ordinary rules of morality and common sense do not apply. While the Brits were motivated by their gonads, and their greed, the Americans like to think they are motivated by ideology – an ideology based around their own alleged uniqueness as the "exceptional nation."
Fraught with all kinds of pseudo-religious overtones, and explicated by a cadre of intellectuals dedicated to the worship of the war god, the American ideology of "exceptionalism" justifies the empire in the name of destiny. It’s America’s destiny to show the world the way forward, according to this doctrine: we were meant to liberate mankind from its chains and lift up the teeming masses so they can learn to appreciate the wonders of capital-‘D’ Democracy.
In 19th century America, this ideology went by the name of "progressivism," and was the invention of those who saw themselves as "liberals." The New Republic magazine exemplified their ideas and their conceits, which were often the same thing: they saw themselves as on the cutting edge, the avatars of modernity: the idea of "progress" was their religion, and World War I was their holy war – the "war to end all wars."
This rising ideology of American imperialism had two aspects, one theological and the other secular.
In the early 1800s there arose in New England a new revivalism that augured the rise of evangelical Protestantism as the dominant religious doctrine in this country. It was centered around the idea of post-millennial pietism: that is, the idea that Christ would return to the world and receive his Kingdom only after the earth had been purified and swept clean of sin. In short, it was up to human beings to establish the Kingdom of God on earth – then and only then would Christ consent to return and mankind would be saved. Indeed, they came to believe they could hasten the coming of Christ by reforming the world.
Thus from the beginning the prohibitionist movement and the so-called Social Gospel – support for economic regulation, labor unions, and Big Government in general – were intertwined. Social improvement meant the abolition not only of drunkenness but also of poverty, child labor, sexual promiscuity, and inheritable diseases. The solution: Big Government, which would abolish poverty, outlaw child labor, crack down on promiscuity, and establish a program of eugenics that would sterilize the flawed, the weak, and the criminal element so that only "healthy" children would be born.
And not content to reform their own country, the messianic pietists, both religious and secular, soon set their sights on the rest of the world. Government was their chosen instrument of reform at home, and so it was abroad, where the US military was sent to Christianize and lift up the Cubans, the Puerto Ricans, and the Filipinos. Teddy Roosevelt was the perfect embodiment of their ambitions,: bombastic, moralistic, hectoring, and possessed of a seemingly inexhaustible energy which he utilized in the single-minded pursuit of power, Teddy was the War Party’s perfect leader and symbol.
World War I was the culmination of this trend in American intellectual life: a struggle in which all the strains of moralism, fanaticism, and bigotry swirling beneath the surface of society rose to the top and shot out, geyser-like, from the depths of the American soul. The campaign against alcohol took on patriotic colors as the beer-drinking Germans were demonized, isolated, and often lynched by furious crowds. Alcohol-free zones were declared around all army bases, and drunk soldiers were court-martialed. Alcohol was seen as a subversive substance, planted by German brewers – agents of the Kaiser! – in order to weaken the moral and martial spirit of the country.
The same pietist fervor that arose in the country at large with the burgeoning evangelical movement came to dominate the intellectuals, who took concepts based in religious experience and gave it secular form. The Social Gospel of the preachers was transformed, in their hands, into the socialism of the economic planners, and the fashionable doctrines of collectivism that promised the Kingdom of God on earth – without the inconvenient presence of God. The quintessential American philosopher of pragmatism and the new "social science," John Dewey, jumped on the war bandwagon when it came rolling along, triumphantly proclaiming the "end of business" as the government assumed control of production, prices, and distribution on goods in the name of the war effort. We cannot go back to the old system of production for profit, he gleefully proclaimed: from now on the State would take the lion’s share of the national wealth and redistribute it on a "scientific" basis.
The New Republic, owned by a prominent investment banker associated with the House of Morgan, took the lead as the Voice of the War Party. The first issue of that now august publication was devoted to extolling the political and economic effects of war collectivism, hailing the total mobilization of national resources in the service of the state, as a progressive development. Founded by Willard Straight, a partner in the investment banking firm of J. P. Morgan, and his heiress wife, Dorothy Whitney, the magazine has since that time been the veritable bellwether of the War Party’s latest projects.
The New Republic became a platform for the socialist Walter Lippmann, and Herbert Croly, the chief theoretician of Teddy Roosevelt’s "New Nationalism," the fountainhead of cutting edge progressive thought. Backed by Straight’s wife’s money, the new magazine soon became the chief cheerleader for Wilson’s war to make the world safe for democracy.
It was a crusade that married all the worst trends in American life: the rising evangelical fervor of the masses, the collectivist trends gaining traction among the intellectuals, and – behind the scenes, and yet playing a key role in all this – certain financial interests, namely the Morgan interests, who directly profited from the Great War, and bet on an Allied victory.
For the Morgan interests, which had been tied up in railroads, were suffering greatly until they acquired exclusive rights to market the war bonds of the British and French governments. The House of Morgan also had big investments in war materials supplied to the Allies. The future of the Morgan financial empire depended on an Allied victory and their extensive network of pet intellectuals were the spearhead of the War Party as the US entered World War I.
World War I dealt a devastating blow to our old republic: it not only marked the beginning of America’s entry onto the world stage but also the real beginning of our march down the road to a mixed economy. The two great instruments of centralized State power – the Federal Reserve system and the income tax – were imposed at this juncture, and US could not have entered or fought the war without them. For the first time in its modern history, the federal government could create funds out of thin air – and from that moment on the dogs of war were unleashed. No wonder the 20th century would turn out to be the bloodiest century in human history.
Each major war we have fought has resulted in a great leap forward in government power – wartime "emergency" regulations, put in place in the heat of battle, invariably stay in place, and so by a process of sheer accumulation the citizens are increasingly hemmed in by new restrictions and the power of government is exponentially increased.
It didn’t take long for the popular reaction to World War I to set in: the American people had been told they were fighting to make the world safe for democracy, but when they found out they had really been fighting to make the world safe for the European empires, and so that England and France could carve up the Middle East between them, they realized they had been lied to. Liberals and progressives were especially embittered: they, after all, had taken the lead in promoting and supporting the war as a valiant and necessary fight for the ideals of American democracy and against German militarism. To discover that it had all been for nothing – that the whole effort had been hijacked by the European powers, who took advantage of the Allied victory to seize territory and expand their colonial empires – came as an enormous shock to them.
A whole generation grew up embittered by this experience and determined that it would never happen again: this was the source of the infamous "isolationism" of the American people, which kept America out of foreign entanglements for the next two decades in spite of the strenuous efforts of some to drag us back into the maelstrom of European power politics.
With a defeated Germany humiliated and economically destroyed by war reparations, and the rise of radicalism on the left and the right, the stage was set for the second act.
Look at the factors that brought the world to this point – a point in time very much like our own. A time of economic turmoil, the rise of collectivism in politics and economics – and constant warfare or the threat of warfare.
The first factor is: preexisting ideas dominant in the culture – the postmillennial pietism that infected the entire country starting in the 1830s. In order to provoke the second coming of Christ, the pietists believed, sin had to be stamped out – and government, as the instrument of God, was the means to do it. This was the soil in which a militaristic messianism took root.
The second factor was the role of the intellectuals as the mobilizers of public opinion in wartime. They played a key role not only in ginning up the Great War, but of getting the public behind it once we got in. All the intellectual professions were conscripted into the war effort, with the American Historical Association taking a lead role in developing propaganda for government use. Their task was to not only prove German responsibility for starting the war, but also to demonstrate the inherent evil of the so-called "Hun," and to show why it was necessary in order to save human civilization that we exterminate as many as possible. Declarations were issued, manifestos published, lectures were delivered in movie theaters around the country: the historians who had formerly told their students that historians must stand above national prejudices and seek total objectivity were now whooping it up for war.
An alliance of Big Business interests, prohibitionists, and small time vigilantes set up the quasi-governmental "National Security League" which led the campaign to ban the German language, to banish Beethoven from the concert halls, and to check on the loyalty of politicians, college professors, and especially German-Americans, who had to face mobs of violent “patriots” on more than one occasion.
The third factor was the Money Factor, that is the economic interests who benefited from US entry into World War I – the Eastern financial establishment, primarily the Morgan empire and its satellites, who reaped enormous profits and who, in the process, succeeded in crushing their German competitors, the investment banking firm of Kuhn-Loeb.
The seeds of war had been planted long ago – by theologians who argued that the State is the hand of God, by intellectuals who found it easier to serve the State than question it, and by some very rich men who view governments the way an expert chess player see his pieces: as objects to be moved about on the board to one’s maximum advantage.
It had taken 140 years or so, but the exceptional character of the American nation, which today our court intellectuals and politicians never tire of extolling, was finally lost. Since George Washington’s time, except for a few early excursions into Central and South America, we had pretty much stayed out of the scramble for colonies and global influence that had sparked the First World War. With our entry into the war, and particularly our key role in framing the Versailles Treaty and the postwar settlement, we starting playing the game of empire for the first time.
Shall the Czechs and the Slovaks be forced into a shotgun marriage? Where exactly should the borders of Poland be? Shall we give in to the French who covet Germany’s industrial heartland?
These were now questions with which American statesmen had to contend, and whatever the answer might be, the effect was to drag us far deeper than we’d ever ventured into the affairs of nations we did not and could not know all that much about. American policymaking changed from the pursuit of American interests to the pursuit of "justice," "world peace," and other undefined concepts, which the liberal intellectuals wished to impose upon an indifferent world.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
You can check out my Twitter feed by going here. But please note that my tweets are sometimes deliberately provocative, often made in jest, and largely consist of me thinking out loud.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
You can buy An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard (Prometheus Books, 2000), my biography of the great libertarian thinker, here.