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Thursday, March 30, 2006
 
Is Lew Rockwell Crazy?

Sorry, rhetorical question there; of course Lew Rockwell's crazy. The only question is how crazy. Discussing the central argument of most conservative books, Rockwell writes:

Here is the argument, in reduced form:

On domestic policy, the government is the enemy. We need to scale back government spending and regulations that tie up business in red tape. The public schools are failing and need an injection of competition. Too many welfare programs are out of control. Taxes are too high and too complex. Politicians and bureaucrats shouldn't run our lives, lest liberty be lost. Let's return to our founding principles and return government to the people.

On foreign policy, we are surrounded on all sides by enemies. Dangers lurk everywhere. We need to strike them before they strike us. We must not shirk our responsibilities to ourselves and the world. We need not fear the use of power, even war, even relentless global war. We cannot cut our defenses. Our allies need us. We need not listen to the cowards who would recoil from this struggle against evil because freedom isn't free. If anything, we need to beef up military spending.

Do you see the contradiction? Apparently it is not obvious to thousands of writers, activists, and thinkers, and not just today but dating back for decades. The problem is this: in the first paragraph, the government is rightly presumed to be the coercive enemy that takes from the people and saps their productivity. It cannot perform tasks as efficiently as property owners. It hurts rather than helps. Government does not know best. Our choice is government or liberty.

All that is fine as far as it goes. But when it comes to foreign policy, the analysis is entirely reversed. The presumption that the American people and the government are unified is integral to the analysis, as summed up in the plural pronouns "our" and "we," as if the people have direct control over the foreign-policy decisions of the political leadership.

Whereas the government is considered to be bubble-headed and ham-handed in domestic policy, in matters of foreign policy the government is suddenly imbued with virtuous traits such as courage. Taxes, in this case, are not a burden but the price we pay for civilization. The largest and most violent government program of all – namely war – is not an imposition with unintended consequences but an essential and praiseworthy effort at protection.


Of course, what Rockwell fails to see here (as do most libertarians) is that while there are alternatives to using government to handle domestic tasks, there are no real alternatives to government in the foreign policy and defense sphere. We can allow private companies to build toll roads; we cannot contract out the defense of the nation.
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