In Time magazine this week, conservative pundit and blogger extraordinaire Andrew Sullivan penned an excellent column on the nanny-state policies of President Bush.
Sullivan rattled off a litany of domestic micro-government programs (search) supported and proposed by the president, which aim to use the power of federal purse strings to manipulate even the most mundane decisions we make about our lives.
Sullivan is a savvy writer and an astute political observer, and his observations about Bush are dead-on, save for one important point:
Sullivan claims in his essay that while President Bush’s foreign policy is decidedly pro-freedom, that same sense of liberty curiously stops at American shores, where the president endorses a conservative form of the big-government nanny state (search).
But according to University of Alabama Professor David Beito, the contrast between the Bush administation's domestic and foreign policies is is not unusual. Governments that go to war almost always flex muscle at home.
It should serve as a caution to conservatives, libertarians and limited government advocates that if history is any indicator, governments that pursue an aggressive, grandiose foreign policy have never held the limited government line at home.
This makes sense if you think about it. If one is to believe that the U.S. military or the U.S. State Department can construct free, dynamic societies from the rubble of nations with no history or tradition of liberal institutions, it isn’t such a leap to think that the U.S. government can likewise run an efficient prescription drug program, welfare system, or job training program here at home.
Early 20th century journalist and World War I protester Randolph Bourne famously wrote that “war is the health of the state.” The reason why politicians declare “war” on intangibles like drugs or poverty is because a “war” mentality implies that the problem in question is so serious that the traditional rules of interaction between the governing and the governed need to be suspended. The greatest periods of growth of federal power in American history have come in wartime, or in crises like the Great Depression. These expansions are nearly always justified under the premise that national crises require more state power. They’re always sold to the people on the promise that the power requested will only be temporary, or limited to certain circumstances (see the PATRIOT Act, for example).
Of course, the powers are almost never temporary or limited. Instead, government retains its new powers once we find peace, usually finds new ways to use them, then asks for more at the onset of the next war, a phenomenon historian Robert Higgs calls “the ratchet effect.”
Rent control, corporate welfare, the income tax and income tax withholding are just a few of the new powers the state assumed in a time of war or crisis on an allegedly temporary basis, but never gave back. The crisis of the Great Depression caused a massive expansion of supposedly temporary federal power that still drags on the economy today.
Getting back to the present, the very mindset that deems it appropriate for the United States to have troops in over 120 countries, as is currently the case, is a mindset wholly inconsistent with the notion of “limited government” -- at home or abroad. It’s simply not realistic to assume that the same government which feels the need to exert its influence all over the globe will, at the same time, voluntarily restrain its influence at home.
The nation-building efforts we’ve undertaken in Iraq and Afghanistan -- and could potentially undertake elsewhere -- also give rhetorical fuel to advocates of more socialist government at home. In the coming years, expect to hear questions like,”why are we building schools in Iraq when our city schools are so dilapidated,” or, “shouldn’t we make sure all Americans have health insurance before we start paying for health care for Iraqis?”
There are of course times when military action and the use of force are necessary to defend the sovereignty and security of the United States. Of course any act of war, necessary or otherwise, by definition requires a forfeiture of freedom from those of us in whose name the war is being waged.
But we should be wary and vigilant about keeping that forfeiture of liberty as limited in scope as possible. We should also choose our wars carefully and cautiously, with the understanding that every military endeavor means considerable sacrifice at home, a sacrifice that’s usually permanent. And we shouldn’t be surprised when wars abroad effect big government here in the States, even government not directly related to war.
History shows that’s always been the case.
Radley Balko is a freelance writer and publishes a weblog at TheAgitator.com.