On August 30, 2018, the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University hosted a PPE Workshop Book Panel on Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall. The following symposium is comprised of edited versions of the commentary by Christopher J. Coyne (Economics, George Mason University), Miriam Cohen (Law, Université de Montréal), and John Tirman (Political Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology) from that book panel event.
The way I thought I’d proceed is to provide a very high-level overview of the central arguments in the book. My comments will follow the structure of the book, not going into too much detail into any one aspect with the aim of giving you a sense of what we’re trying to do. I want to start with three quotes which capture the essence of what we’re trying to do.
The first is James Madison’s famous quote about the role of war and the preservation of freedom. As Madison points out, there’s numerous negative potential effects of war, of militarism. One is the physical aspect — that’s the deaths, taxes and so on. But later on in this quote, he points out that war-making also expands the discretionary power of the executive. That is, it’s not just a scale issue that Madison notes but also an issue of scope — the range of activities that the state is able to undertake.
“In no part of the constitution is more wisdom to be found than in the clause which confides the question of war or peace to the legislature, and not to the executive department. Beside the objection to such a mixture of heterogeneous powers: the trust and the temptation would be too great for any one man: not such as nature may offer as the prodigy of many centuries, but such as may be expected in the ordinary successions of magistracy. War is in fact the true nurse of executive aggrandizement. In war a physical force is to be created, and it is the executive will which is to direct it. In war the public treasures are to be unlocked, and it is the executive hand which is to dispense them. In war the honors and emoluments of office are to be multiplied; and it is the executive patronage under which they are to be enjoyed. It is in war, finally, that laurels are to be gathered, and it is the executive brow they are to encircle. The strongest passions, and most dangerous weaknesses of the human breast; ambition, avarice, vanity, the honorable or venial love of fame, are all in conspiracy against the desire and duty of peace.” — James Madison, 1793
The second quote is from John Quincy Adams. People often quote Adams, saying, “America does not go in search of monsters to destroy.” But very rarely do they follow up with the next few lines. Adams argued that going abroad in search of monsters would cause America to lose her spirit. That spirit would shift from liberty to force. So, there’s real effects of war as Adams points out.
“Wherever the standard of freedom and Independence has been or shall be unfurled, there will [America’s] heart, her benedictions and her prayers be. But she goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will commend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example. She well knows that by once enlisting under other banners than her own, were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrication, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy, and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom. The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force… She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit… [America’s] glory is not dominion, but liberty. Her march is the march of the mind. She has a spear and a shield: but the motto upon her shield is, Freedom, Independence, Peace. This has been her Declaration: this has been, as far as her necessary intercourse with the rest of mankind would permit, her practice.” — John Quincy Adams, 1821
Finally, Alexis de Tocqueville, in Democracy in America, points out that war in democratic societies doesn’t often give over directly to military government, but it softens people. It allows for a form of soft despotism to emerge, whereby people become habituated into the militaristic mindset as things become centralized under the purview of the state.
The reason I start with these quotes is because each of these authors emphasizes that war-making, whether the preparation for war or engaging in war, has real effects on domestic life, effects that are typically overlooked.
People often look at the monetary outlays of war or the lives lost by the country carrying out the intervention. Of course, the deaths of people in the country, or countries, being intervened upon are often neglected. But nonetheless, people sometimes talk about those costs, the human costs, but what they often neglect is that warfare and militarism have real effects on domestic life in ways that are nuanced and often unseen. This is what Abigail R. Hall and I are trying to do in this book, to focus on this small, but important, slice of war-making and militarism.
Our focus in the book is on America. In principle, you can apply the framework we develop to other countries that engage in interventionism. But in the book, we present a case for focusing on America. The American government dominates the globe in terms of military and economic power. And the U.S. government has its various tentacles around the globe through its bases, through its aid provision, through special ops, and so on. The U.S. government has significant global influence for better or for worse.
The core argument we make is that foreign intervention often acts like a boomerang. A boomerang, properly thrown, returns to the sender. Many people, including many who consider themselves to be skeptical of government in other areas of life, will oftentimes argue that American needs a very strong and proactive military in order to defend and spread freedom and liberty. One of the central themes of our book is that you cannot neatly separate domestic life from proactive foreign interventions abroad. We argue that both preparing for and engaging in foreign interventions provide a testing ground for the members of the American government to experiment with methods and techniques of controlling other people and imposing their will upon other human beings.
When the American government goes abroad, it acts exactly as an unconstrained Leviathan would be expected to act. When there is a significant concentration of force and power in the hands of a small number of people facing very weak, if non-existent, constraints on that power, we expect that power to be used in ways which impose significant costs on others. That’s the underlying idea. Then Abby and I attempt to provide some insight into the conditions under which those innovations in social control may return home. They don’t always return home, but they often do. And when they do, they influence and shape domestic life oftentimes for the worse. To understand this dynamic, we start by considering what foreign intervention entails.
At its core, foreign intervention entails either direct force or the threat of force. A small group of people make the determination that they are unhappy with the current state of affairs in another society. Of course, if they weren’t unhappy with the status quo, the urge to intervene would be non-existent. In the face of this dissatisfaction, the members of the U.S. government can ask people in other societies to voluntarily change their behavior, but oftentimes, they are unwilling to do so. When this happens, the government agents dissatisfied with the status quo have the choice of either refraining from intervention, or using tools of social control to impose their will upon other people. Interveners can either force people to do what they want directly, or they can set the cost of defection high enough such that the threat of force makes those being intervened upon change their behavior to align with the preferences of the interveners. This is important because the nature of intervention is inherently illiberal. It is violent. It is coercive.
Since World War II, the U.S. government’s foreign policy has been one of constant preparation for permanent war. Prior to the World Wars the U.S. government had always meddled in various parts of the world to differing degrees, but there were ebbs and flows. In the wake of World War II, however, there was a shift to a permanent war economy to prepare for future wars. This involves constant investment on the part of the U.S. government in terms of monetary resources, human capital, and effort to convince citizens that it is necessary to make these investments to develop new tools to control other people in foreign societies.
“But during wartime, power tends to be centralized in the hands of the federal government at the expense of state governments. The political periphery, if you will, loses its power relative to the political center.”
Given the claim that the government’s tools of social control will be used abroad, how is it possible that they can boomerang back to America? We discuss two foundational conditions which lower the cost of government-produced social control returning home. The first is citizens’ fear. When citizens fear something, whether that fear is genuine or manufactured, they are more willing to turn over power to the government.
Related to this, there’s the consolidation of state power as foreign affairs and national security are carried out at the national level by the central government. In the United States, one of the checks on the power of the national government is the federalist system. This involves the separation of powers through different levels of government. But during wartime, power tends to be centralized in the hands of the federal government at the expense of state governments. The political periphery, if you will, loses its power relative to the political center.
To offer one example, consider the creation of the Joint Terrorism Task Force (JTTF) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. The JTTF were supposed to be partnerships between the federal government and state and local governments in the name of combating terrorism. But, these task forces are driven by the federal government, including funding, the policies that are adopted and enforced, and so on. In this case the political center (national government) gains power relative to the political periphery (state and local governments).
As another example, consider the War on Drugs and the associated militarization of police, which involves the flow of military resources from the federal government down to the local levels of government. In this scenario, local governments have become increasingly dependent on the national government in order to obtain resources and manpower. Together, fear and the consolidation of state power set the stage for the return of the tools of social control associated with foreign intervention.
Next, Abby and I consider how these tools of social control end up returning home. We identify three specific channels. The first is human capital. Recall that foreign intervention is the threat or use of force to impose one’s will upon other people. Just like in other areas of life, there are people who become specialists in designing and employing the tools of social control. In fact, there is an entire apparatus in the U.S. military to train members to effectively and efficiently use these tools.
We identify several mechanisms within the American government that work to select those who possess, or who are willing to develop, the human capital associated with social control. If you think about it, what type of people are going to be attracted to positions of controlling other people? People who are comfortable imposing their will upon other people or following the orders of people that are comfortable doing so. What else? People who are comfortable using force or the threat thereof to impose the desired end. There’s a process within the American national security state for advancement. And the way you advance is to be a good soldier, to be a contributor, not to go against the grain. There are selection mechanisms in the national security apparatus which tends to reward people that are effective innovators and specialists in social control.
When conflicts end, these skills don’t go away. These skills become part of the person. Some people come back, if they’re abroad or they leave their roles in the national security state, and they integrate into normal civilian life. Others cash in on their unique human capital. That is, they obtain a relatively higher wage by leveraging their unique human capital either in public organizations or private organizations associated with the national security state. Many private contractors are former members of the military who have certain skills and connections which make them effective in their jobs. Many security companies actively promote this fact. On their website, for example, L-3 Communications brags about how they employ over 7,700 military veterans.
The second channel we identify is organizational dynamics. Some of the people who possess unique skills associated with foreign intervention integrate into various organizations and agencies, whether private or public or some mix thereof. In doing so they have real influence on the fabric of these organizations and, more broadly, on domestic life. If you look at the examples we discuss in the book, such as the surveillance state, you will see that it started with someone who developed their surveillance-related skills in the Philippines in the late 1800s. When they returned home, they then took that unique human capital and attempted to replicate it domestically by influencing the mission and operations of domestic public organizations.
The final channel we discuss is physical capital. The U.S. government invests significant resources in the research and development of tools of social control. While these tools allow members of the U.S. government to effectively control people abroad, they can also be imported and used domestically. That is, things that make the state more efficient at controlling people abroad also allow them to control people domestically as well.
“As Tocqueville pointed out, the fear is not so much that a dictator will rise today or tomorrow, but rather that there is this creeping, slow process through which the power of the state increases in our daily lives in ways that are, in many instances, almost unobservable.”
That’s the broad framework. So why is America susceptible? Most people would say, “Look, America is a constitutional republic with strong checks against abuse.” A standard argument against civil libertarian types goes as follows — “When I look at America I don’t see a dictatorship taking over. You are overstating the domestic threat from government.” Consider, however, Tocqueville’s distinction between hard despotism and soft despotism. As Tocqueville pointed out, the fear is not so much that a dictator will rise today or tomorrow, but rather that there is this creeping, slow process through which the power of the state increases in our daily lives in ways that are, in many instances, almost unobservable.
And so why is America susceptible? Because of the facade that there are hard constraints in place which limit the state in matters of national security. The reality is that there are weak domestic, national and international constraints against abuses of power by those in the national security state.
First, consider the weakness of domestic constraints. Legal scholar Michael Glennon has written a wonderful book called National Security and Double Government where he makes the argument that there is a dual state in America. There is the “dignified state” that involves the pomp and circumstance that we see around elections — public rallies, people going to vote, elected officials swearing to uphold the Constitution, etc. These are the activities people have in mind when they think about democracy — when they think that they’re involved, their voice is being heard, that the political elite are looking out for them.
But then there’s what Glennon calls the “efficient state,” which refers to the underlying machinery of the government apparatus. Of course, there is overlap and interplay between the dual states — it’s not like the dignified state is just a passive player. However, the efficient state does a lot of things in an unchecked manner, especially when it comes to national security. Many people refer to this as the “deep state” and some dismiss this concept as conspiratorial. But if you have an appreciation for the industrial organization of bureaucracies and democratic politics, and the basic logic of special interests, you can understand how the system operates. The national security state is enormous. The idea that the executive branch or Congressional oversight committees can somehow understand what’s going on in its entirety and serve as an effective check against all abuse is impossible because of limits on human reason to fully grasp the complexity and nuances of the system.
In addition, the national security state is characterized by significant secrecy including the over-reliance on classified information. Information classification increased significantly during the Cold War with the idea of protecting national secrets. But, people in the national security state abuse classification all the time to protect information. This leads to the final point, which is that the national security state is typically the source of information available to the other branches of government. This allows members of the national security state to control and shape information that is supposedly being used to check their actions. That combination leads to significant slack in domestic constraints creating space for potential abuses of power.
Next consider the weakness of national constraints. The U.S. Constitution does not follow the flag. When the U.S. government goes abroad, the U.S. Constitution, and the constraints contained therein, does not follow. The precedent for this are the Insular Cases, which were a series of Supreme Court cases in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The term “insular” here comes from the Bureau of Insular Affairs, which oversaw the territories that were acquired by the U.S. government in the Spanish-American war — Cuba, Puerto Rico, The Philippines, and Guam.
Of the Insular Cases, Downes v. Bidwell (1901), is considered key. The background of this case is as follows. Samuel Downes, a merchant, imported oranges from Puerto Rico to New York. George Bidwell, the U.S. customs inspector, charged him duties on the oranges. Downes sued Bidwell claiming that the duty imposed violated the Uniformity Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which says that when Congress imposes taxes and duties, they have to be uniform across the states. And so what Downes argued was that since Puerto Rico was a U.S. territory, it should be treated equally meaning there should be no additional discretionary taxes and duties. In a 5–4 decision, the Supreme Court decided in favour of Bidwell.
Important insight behind the decision was offered by Supreme Court Justice Henry Brown, who cast the decisive vote against Downes. He argued that the future might “bring about conditions which would render the annexation of distant possessions desirable” and that a “false step at this time [on the part of the Supreme Court] might be fatal to the development of what Chief Justice Marshall called the ‘American empire.’” In other words, the very purpose of the decision against Downes was to leave slack in existing constraints so that future U.S. governments could intervene abroad and be unconstrained in how they treated other people.
Finally, consider the weakness of international constraints. The U.S. government violates international laws whenever it benefits those that are in control with little, to no, recourse. The result is that there is significant slack in the international system for the U.S. government to develop and refine tools to control people abroad.
Although I don’t have time to present them in detail, in the book we consider four detailed case studies to illustrate the dynamics of the boomerang effect. These include state surveillance, the militarization of police, drones, and the use of torture domestically.
Let me sum up a few key implications of our analysis.
First, the costs of interventions are understated. Many costs of a pro-active, militaristic foreign policy are unseen. These costs are hard to observe and quantify.
Second, when a society adopts the values of a militaristic empire, it runs the risk of adopting those characteristics at home via the logic of the boomerang effect.
Third, formal constraints are limited in protecting the liberties and rights of domestic persons. I have already discussed the weakness in formal domestic, national, and international constraints. And there is little reason to think there will be any meaningful reform. If you think about it, who would be the worst people to limit the security powers of the American government? The members of the American government! There is little incentive for those who possess power to give it up by tying their own hands.
Finally, ideology can potentially constrain foreign policy. This quote by Judge Learned Hand captures the essence of what Abby and I are trying to argue regarding the role of ideology. He notes that, “Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can save it; no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.” The key point is that in order to be effective, formal rules require an underlying belief system to serve as a foundation.
In closing, I would like to briefly discuss some of the main tenets of what we call the anti-militarist mindset in the concluding chapter.
Number one, the anti-militarist cares about freedom. When people don’t care about freedom, or when they’re indifferent to it, they’ll be much more likely to trade it off for promises of security from the state.
Second, the anti-militarist has a sense about the threat that government poses to domestic liberties and freedoms and recognizes that foreign intervention can undermine those liberties and freedoms.
Third, the anti-militarist acknowledges that the security-liberty trade-off presented by politicians — whereby citizens give up liberty for protection from the state — is too simplistic.
Forth, the anti-militarist recognizes that the true patriot is always and everywhere skeptical of their government. Randolph Bourne, differentiates between three categories — the State, Government, and Country. “Country” refers to your community, the people you choose to associate with. “State” refers to the apparatus of coercion and force. “Government” is the machinery that allows the State to operate. For Bourne, war is the health of the State meaning that war is the health of the apparatus of coercion and force. For Bourne, you can love your Country and simultaneously be skeptical of the State and Government. The good patriot, the person that truly loves their country is always skeptical of the State and Government precisely because they understand the risks posed by abuses of power. In doing so, they seek an understanding of the true risks they face from both external and internal threats.
Finally, the anti-militarist understands the price of living in a free society which involves not being overly reliant on a parental governmental apparatus even though undesirable events, including terrorism and murder, can and will occur.
The idea that government can insulate people from all risks in the world is patently absurd, and the anti-militarist recognizes that there’s a dual potentiality at work in promises by government to remove risks of harm. The government can potentially protect people from risks — I emphasize “potentially” because of the various pathologies of democratic politics which often makes government ineffective in achieving the stated ends. In addition, the risks are potential risks because they may never emerge as real threats.
The cost of potentially reducing these potential harms are real. Here’s what some of the known costs include — killing American citizens without due process, surveillance of citizens and non-citizens, secret watch lists, dragnets, military-style police raids, and the confiscation of private property without warrants for unproven crimes, all in the name of making people safer and protecting their liberties.
What Abby and I hope to highlight is that the costs of a proactive militaristic foreign policy are real and significant. It’s our goal to draw attention to this reality and an appreciation of the significant overlooked costs. Thank you very much.
To learn more about the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, visit hayek.mercatus.org.
About the Author
Christopher J. Coyneis associate professor of economics and director of graduate studies at George Mason University and associate director of the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics and the F. A. Harper Professor of Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.