Don’t Police the World

“We” – to be precise, U.S. policymakers and their quasi-private-sector, tax-nourished enablers-beneficiaries – must not police the world, become directly involved in wars, covertly assist belligerents, or act as arms merchants and bankers.

The central government can’t be a benign policeman, even if its intentions were as stated (which they may be): international rules-based order and economic stability. But it can wreak havoc by trying. We know this because it already has. Pick your start date, but the last 30 years present evidence beyond a reasonable doubt of what U.S.-sponsored “order” really looks like, thanks to an unbroken bipartisan chain of presidents and a bunch of presumptuous bumblers who wear weighty political titles from the executive and legislative branches. (The judiciary isn’t off the hook either.)

The U.S. government’s inherent ineptness speaks volumes. “Ought” implies “can,” and the policy mavens cannot. Wishful thinking is no substitute for real thinking. Each new crisis is not so different from previous ones as to make it unique. We can and must learn from the past, even the past that is so recent it’s still the present.

Government “crisis management” is a contradiction in terms. War typically has calamitous results, however optimistic the prognostications and later assessments. Helping a belligerent bloodies the hands of the helper, even if only metaphorically. Fighting proxy wars, which the policymakers might prefer to direct war these days, or engaging in covert operations is no moral shield. The horrendous consequences are foreseeable. Pleading that “We didn’t intend the bad stuff” does not wash. Call it “collateral damage,” whatever the policymakers call it, they enable the ruin of innocent lives and entire societies. We should have no part of it.

We know what war brings. It brings the death and dismemberment of innocents, always including children. It brings the utter destruction of the things that make life possible, such as food, water, homes, hospitals, and infrastructure. The chance of killing only bad guys is zero. I think the government’s own war simulations would agree. Hypothetical rosy scenarios offered in somber tones from secure stateside arms chairs don’t count. Even moves intended as defensive may understandably be perceived as aggressive, bringing snowballing countermoves that threaten more innocents and risk turning a local conflict into a big-power confrontation. The danger of nuclear war always looms.

Before considering joining in a war, assume the worst. Then don’t join. It’s the safe bet.

On top of that misery, intervening in wars sets the stage for terrible events to follow: revolution, dictatorship, government control of everyday life, atrocious recriminations, and plain chaos. That’s the safe bet too.

Intervention also sets the stage for aggrieved foreigners who want revenge against the country that is seen to have enabled their adversaries. If that is not the lesson of at least the last 30 years, what is? Direct and indirect participation in wars can come home to roost traumatically. Policing the world or arming one part against another is no recipe for security. And let’s not forget the excuse the U.S. government seizes to spy on and censor Americans in the name of national security.

The likely human cost of an interventionist foreign policy is prohibitive, but that’s not the only cost. The money price tag is also gigantic, and the U.S. government doesn’t have the money. It has to borrow it – the debt is larger than the GDP and growing – and that means Federal Reserve monetary creation and the theft of our purchasing power. It’s a subtle form of taxation that politicians use when they believe that the taxpayers don’t want a tax increase.

Finally, there is the lack of consent. It would be bad enough if the arrogant policymakers sowed their destruction on their own dime and in their own name. But they don’t. They presume to speak for us and to make us pay for their adventures. I never signed that blank check, did you?

But they don’t need our consent. The game was rigged long ago. Hypothetical consent is good enough, and most people go along because they’re busy living and virtually powerless anyway. They also heard about it in the government’s schools.

Helping other governments fight wars is crazy. That’s not isolationism because the position embraces free trade with the world (unmanaged by governments) and the free movement of people. The word is nonintervention. When war breaks out, government personnel should be permitted to do only one thing: call for a cease-fire!

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 books are Coming to Palestine and What Social Animals Owe to Each Other.