Foreign Policy Matters

In an extra special way, foreign policy matters crucially to champions of individual liberty. Not that it doesn’t matter to other people too – just not in all the same ways. Anyone who understands the importance of keeping government power strictly limited in domestic matters (if such power must exist at all) will also grasp the paramount importance of constraining government power abroad. They’re cut from the same cloth.

This is obvious to libertarians, but not necessarily to others. When Randolph Bourne wrote that “war is the health of the state,” he expected his readers to understand that this is a bad thing because the state is dangerous. But do most people know that? For neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists, war being the health of the state is a feature, not a bug.

I think it was Richard Cobden, the 19th-century British free trader, peace activist, anti-imperialist, and member of Parliament, who demanded, “No foreign politics.” He meant that the government should be too busy dismantling power at home to engage in deadly balance-of-power intrigue abroad. In America a century later, Felix Morley, the anti-interventionist and pro-market newspaper editor, said in opposing the advocates of war and central bureaucracy that politics will stop at the water’s edge only when policy stops at the water’s edge, which he favored.

War naturally repulses individuals because – obviously – it kills and disables people, most atrociously, noncombatants. It’s so obviously repulsive that many soldiers have to be turned into killers during training. Another count against war is that it encourages a self-destructive, indiscriminate, and collective hatred of foreigners and even local individuals who are invidiously identified with the designated “enemy.” (Russian athletes and even long-dead Russian composers are targets of hostility these days.)

But those who understand that full individual liberty is a necessity – and not a mere luxury – include another count in the indictment against war. It inevitably fosters the general growth of government power, which then infects all aspects of life and society. That doesn’t happen all at once, but it sets in motion a deadly process that menaces everything in its path unless it is stopped. Few things approach war fever in this regard. (A pandemic and a major economic crisis can have similar effects.)

War is a great way to instill the “governmental habit”: it powerfully encourages people to think that the state is indispensable for all sorts of problems – including the control of “disinformation.” F. A. Hayek wrote The Road to Serdom in 1944 because World War II had people thinking that if central planning worked in wartime, it ought to work in peacetime too. (The phrase governmental habit is from economic historian Jonathan R. T. Hughes. Hughes wasn’t writing about foreign policy; in that regard, see Robert Higgs’s Crisis and Leviathan.)

Just think about this century. Without the wars of the last 20 years, it would have been tougher for the government to have gotten away with its frightening surveillance powers, which have no doubt spread to matters other than terrorism. People will say it was a response to the horrific 9-11 attacks, but those must be seen out of context. While the attacks were atrocities, they did not come out of the blue. The U.S. government was hardly minding its own business before 2001. Rather, it had been fighting proxy, covert, and even overt wars in the Middle East killing thousands of people far from home.

Surveillance is not the only consequence of a belligerent foreign policy. Let’s not forget the huge monetary price tag, which has to be handled through taxation and, less visibly, borrowing, followed by inflationary monetization, an implicit form of taxation. Other burdens on people’s freedom include economic regulation, trade barriers through sanctions and tariffs, the militarization of local police departments, and the corruption of the news media. It’s said that the first casualty of war is truth. (Noninterventionist Sen. Hiram Johnson said that in 1917.) War and government lying go hand in hand.

An especially insidious thing about foreign policy is that critics can be silenced by the war party’s invoking of state secrets. The classified document is the ace up the sleeve. This doesn’t happen in domestic policy. But it happens all the time in foreign policy – which is why we should be grateful to Daniel Ellsberg (who died the other day, sad to say), Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Julian Assange, and other whistle-blowers. Naturally, the government treats them brutally.

War is also useful to politicians in taking people’s minds off other government-caused problems. Shakespeare showed that he understood this when, in Henry IV, Part II, he had the king tell his son, “Be it thy course to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels, that action, hence borne out, may waste the memory of the former days.”

Foreign intervention, covert war, and open war are poison to a society that aspires to be free. That’s another reason to say no to interventionism.

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute and a contributing editor at He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book is What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.