Leithner Letter No. 33
26 September 2002

The notion that a radical is one who hates his country is naïve and usually idiotic. He is, more likely, one who likes his country more than the rest of us, and is thus more disturbed than the rest of us when he sees it debauched. He is not a bad citizen turning to crime; he is a good citizen driven to despair.

H.L. Mencken
(letter to Upton Sinclair, 14 October 1917)

Marx and Lenin were mistaken about the nature of imperialism. It is not the contradictions of capitalism that lead to imperialism but imperialism that breeds some of the more important contradictions of capitalism. When these contradictions ripen, as they must, they create devastating economic crises.

Chalmers Johnson
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (2001)

Four Unheralded Lessons on the First Anniversary of 11 September

Cardinal Newman, in a series of lectures delivered in Ireland in 1852, stated that a true gentlemen “carefully avoids whatever may cause a jar or a jolt in the minds of those with whom he is cast ... his great concern being to make every one at his ease and at home.” A good friend, on the other hand, is a person who knows you but likes you all the same. Aware of his own failings, and sometimes at the cost of temporary ructions, he also draws your shortcomings to your attention. Friendship, in other words, occasionally necessitates ungentlemanly behaviour.

With that point in mind, it is perhaps worth mentioning that during the past year Americans have been at war – not with another country or some wicked external force, but with themselves and the phantoms they have created in their own minds. Since 11 September 2001 their print and broadcast media have disseminated more than the usual amount of nonsense. This verbal and visual fog has obscured the fact that most Americans and their government have utterly misconceived and miscalculated what lies beyond their shores. They are thereby squandering staggering amounts of money and depleting further their already-meagre pool of funding.

This is a contemporary variant of an ancient American habit. Indeed, “the whole history of the [U.S.] has been a history of melodramatic pursuits of horrendous monsters, most of them imaginary: the red-coats, the Hessians, the monocrats, again the red-coats, the Bank, the Catholic, the slave power, Jeff Davis, Mormonism, Wall Street, the rum demon, John Bull, the hell hounds of plutocracy, the trusts, ... Pancho Villa, German spies, the Kaiser, Bolshevism. The list might be lengthened indefinitely: a complete chronicle of the Republic could be written in terms of it, without omitting a single important episode” (H.L. Mencken, Notes on Democracy, Octagon Books, 1926, 1976, ASIN: 0374955735). An Independent Institute Policy Forum (The U.S. War On Terrorism: Myths And Realities, 24 September 2002) goes further: “the recent behavior of the U.S. government is consistent with that of past administrations. Politicians have long fostered pork, corporate welfare, government surveillance and global interventionism that have created a more dangerous world.”

Lesson #4: Seek Hard Facts and Eschew Woolly Words

Journalists and prognosticators have sought, obsessively and in a veritable effusion of uncorroborated and contradictory conjecture and outright babble, to explain “how the world changed forever” on 11 September. Roy Rivenburg, in an outstanding article in The Los Angeles Times (“Sept. 11 Trend Analyses Suffer ‘Short Shelf Lives,’” 31 December 2001), reviewed the results of these efforts. Often within days of one another, major news outlets reported that in the wake of the attacks citizens’ sense of irony and cynicism was dead (Time, Newsday) and alive and well (The New York Times, Boston Globe); that national sales of guns and ammunition were booming (The Chicago Tribune) and that they were stagnant (The Daily Herald of suburban Chicago); that sales across the U.S. of luxury cars were accelerating (Dallas Morning News) and sputtering (USA Today, Canada’s The National Post); that Americans were experiencing a thoroughgoing spiritual revival (Pittsburgh Daily News) and suffering from major malaise (The New York Times, Associated Press).

In the aftermath of the attacks, several pontificators predicted that Americans would “pull up the drawbridges of [their] lives” and curtail activities away from home. “We’ll be doing the armoured cocoon – air filters, germ filters, viral filters, stocking up on antibiotics” said futurist Faith Popcorn on 7 October in The New York Daily News. “We’re staying home and it’s going to stick. When a trend is impacted by trauma, it bangs it in. ... I see a ten-year effect.” Among other things, attendance at concerts, cinemas, sporting events and the like were predicted to collapse; and rentals of videos were forecast to increase dramatically. Reality check: between mid-September and December 2001 American cinemas reported record attendances and video hire firms experienced solid but unexceptional levels of activity.

Trying to make sense of these contradictory assertions, Rivenburg noted “apparently, something in the genetic makeup of journalists compels them to transform every catchy quote or behavioural blip into a nationwide trend. Sometimes, these cultural yardsticks are accurate. But just as often they’re as prescient as Miss Cleo’s psychic hotline.” David Krajicek, formerly a Professor of Journalism at Columbia University, warns about the temptations and perils of “instant trend” reporting. In the immediate aftermath of a major and unexpected news event, “there’s a compulsion to analyse and tell viewers or readers what it means to them, even though the journalist can’t possibly know what it means to them.”

Rivenburg concludes: “the old journalism axiom of ‘better right than first’ has been replaced by ‘better to have analysed first and been wrong than not to have analysed at all.’ ... The only trend that’s certain is the trend to find more trends. It’s the nature of the journalism beast. Unfortunately, reporters habitually work the short end of the temporal scale, which leads to emphatic pronouncements with short shelf lives.”

Lesson #3: Odds Are, You Don’t Know What the True Odds Are

Individuals, businesses and governments who are able to estimate risk reasonably accurately can make justifiable decisions and respond calmly to new and unexpected developments. If one repeatedly takes “good” risks or undertakes “good” practices, then over time it is likely that desired results will be achieved and the losses borne along the way will be relatively small. Conversely, if one repeatedly takes “bad risks” (e.g., walks across the Nullabor without water in January or climbs Mt Kosciusko in shorts in June), plays unfavourable games (e.g., buys lottery tickets, bets at the races, plays in casinos, etc.) or undertakes unethical or illegal practices, then – although the result on any given occasion is uncertain and need not produce a loss – it is likely that a “bad” outcome will eventually be incurred. Indeed, the more often and longer these actions are undertaken, the greater the likelihood that a loss will eventually result.

Alas, homo sapiens tends to be a poor calculator of risk and often acts rashly and foolishly in the face of uncertainty. Accordingly, and as emphasised in the outstanding presentation entitled Munger on Human Misjudgments, human beings tend to err systematically. They routinely and drastically exaggerate new, exotic and visible but trivial risks, such as death from anthrax and the Ebola virus. At the same time, they significantly underestimate pre-existing, familiar and less salient yet far more profound risks such as smoking, overeating, injuries in the home, misusing alcohol, failing to control high blood pressure, exercising insufficiently and not wearing seat belts (which, by the way, are the gravest risks to premature death in Australia and other Western countries). Similarly, Melbourne’s Herald-Sun reported on 30 August that illegible prescriptions, poor packaging and other mistakes with drugs killed more Australians last year (at least 2,000) than car crashes (1,750).

Strong beliefs about particular risks (and risk more generally), once formed, change very slowly and are extraordinarily immutable in the face of contrary evidence. Readable books which document this point in great detail and in a variety of contexts (including business and investment) include James Walsh, True Odds: How Risk Affects Your Everyday Life (Silver Lake Publishing, 1996, ISBN: 1563431149); Barry Glassner, The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of the Wrong Things (Basic Books, 2000, ISBN: 0465014909); and Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes-And How to Correct Them: Lessons from the New Science of Behavioral Economics (Simon & Schuster, 1999 ISBN: 0684844931).

In this respect The Harvard Center for Risk Analysis is a must-inspect website. The tragic events of 11 September provide a textbook example. One week after attacks, President Bush ordered that a $US40 billion emergency fund be created and that half of its resources be devoted to anti-terrorism programs. This sum is significant: $US20 billion is equal to one-third of the total amount allocated annually in the U.S. to day-to-day police operations. Subsequently, other government agencies directed further billions towards various anti-terrorism programs.

According to Roger Congleton, an economist at George Mason University, given the actual risks faced by Americans this money is being squandered. “Even the terrible death toll of September 2001 implies a risk of death from terrorist attack that is well below that of death from ordinary murder or traffic accident in the United States. ... Indeed, even in that year, the probability of being killed by terrorism in the United States was less than that of being run over by a car while walking.”

Congleton notes that during the 1990s the average annual number of highway traffic deaths was 41,523 and that the average number of murders was 21,173. These numbers far surpass the total number of murders committed by terrorists in North America from the 1990s to the present. “My analysis suggests that the risk of terrorism is less than many other risks that we face in our ordinary lives and that we have no obvious reason to expect this risk to rise dramatically in the near term. Although minor improvements in security procedures may be called for in response to the September attacks, dramatic new domestic policies are not.”

Lesson #2: Know a Bit About Others

Some individuals and “neo-conservative” publications have portrayed the events and aftermath of 11 September as a confrontation between Islam and the West. Muslims, it has been alleged, are an inherently fanatical people because Islam is an intrinsically intolerant religion. Muslims, it is said, abhor liberty and therefore seek to extinguish others’ liberty. A thousand years ago, the Arab and Islamic world was far richer than Christendom. Not only was it militarily stronger: it was also far more advanced in science, mathematics and scholarship more generally. This innate hostility, plus the envy and resentment generated by the dramatic reversal of economic, military and technological fortunes during the last thousand years, say the neo-cons, underlie the dreadful events of a year ago.

There are at least two grounds to reject these conjectures. The first, as Charley Reese puts it, is that Muslims Are Good Folks. Reese notes that the longest-established Christian populations in the world, as well as some of oldest Jewish groups, reside in Muslim countries. Christians inhabit practically all Muslim lands and have done so for centuries without particular hindrance or oppression. There is no reason to believe that Muslims, qua Muslims, are less tolerant than Christians of neighbours who adhere to other faiths. Indeed, there is theological reason to believe that Muslims will be at least as tolerant as Christians. This is because, as Reese emphasises, Islam is not a monolith. Like Christians, some Muslims observe their faith strictly and others more pragmatically. Further, Islam is a religion but not a Church; unlike the Roman Catholic Church, in other words, there is no Islamic hierarchy. “In that respect, Muslims are much like Southern Baptists, only more so.” Any group of Muslims can build a mosque and hire a religious teacher. Because each group is independent of others, there is no Muslim pope or College of Cardinals. “When an imam (religious teacher) issues a fatwa, a kind of formal opinion on a subject, it is not binding. Like Protestant Christians, Muslims interpret their holy writings and consider themselves answerable directly to God – or, to use the Arabic word, Allah.”

The second reason to doubt the neo-con interpretation of 11 September is that, as Imad Ahmad shows, there exists a strong relationship, little appreciated (or even known) in the West, between Islam and Markets (see also the “free markets” link at the Minaret of Freedom Institute). Ahmad notes that the Qur’an, the Islamic scripture, “is filled with parables using the language of trade. It was merchants, not soldiers, who were mainly responsible for the spread of Islam throughout the world.”

The rise of Islamic civilisation contributed decisively to economic development and economic science. Indeed, “in his history of economics, Murray Rothbard noted the more advanced understanding of markets found among the Scholastics and in the 16th century school of Salamanca, compared to that of the ancient Greeks” (see also Islam and the Medieval Progenitors of Austrian Economics). Hence Ahmad advances a startling and thought-provoking (for Westerners) and exhilarating (for classical liberals) hypothesis: “the rising tide of Islam today is in part a reaction against the Arab socialism that has destroyed the markets of the Muslim world. That the rejection of secularism and of socialism should come hand-in-hand should not be surprising. One cannot be a Muslim and [also be] opposed to freedom of enterprise.”

Tom Bethell (The Noblest Triumph: Property and Prosperity Through the Ages, St. Martin’s Press, 1999, ISBN: 0312223374) provides corroborating evidence. “Property is [presently] held insecurely all over the Arab world. ... The problem is that there is no security against the depredations of the state. ... Ruthless autocrats, guarded by their own military, have been able to prevail for decades against impoverished masses.” The embrace of “Arab Socialism” in the 1950s, aided and abetted by Western governments, entailed widespread expropriation of property and the imposition of centralised state control. Bethell notes “economic decline has been just one consequence” and adds presciently that “this situation is potentially serious for the rest of the world. Young men growing up in large numbers with no material prospects have in the past posed a serious threat to civilisation.”

Ahmed concludes “like their cousins, the Jews, the early Arabs had a strong commitment to trade and bargaining. The rise of Islam did not change, nor did it seek to change, the centrality of trade and commerce to the Arab way of life. On the contrary, the establishment of commercial law, the expansion of property rights for women, the prohibition of fraud, the call for the establishment of clear standards of weights and measures, and the uncompromising defence of property rights (even while calling for a greater responsibility for alleviating the plight of the poor and needy) pushed the Islamic civilisation to the front of the world’s economic stage and made the Muslim world the defining force in international trade for over 800 years. The Islamic activists throughout the Muslim world can help to usher in a new Renaissance if they avoid the temptation to yield to political pragmatism and hold fast to the pro-market principles of Islam.”

Lesson #1: Know a Lot About Yourself

Labels, as Thomas Sowell teaches us in The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation As a Basis for Social Policy (Basic Books, 1996, ISBN: 046508995X), are both convenient and dangerous things. Carefully and dispassionately used, vocabulary helps to transmit complex ideas accurately and efficiently. Employed carelessly, however, terminology creates vagueness, ambiguity and misunderstanding; and utilised malevolently, it can obstruct reasoning, obscure corroborating evidence and thereby set the stage for mistakes – and sometimes catastrophes.

“American Isolationism” is a label that has long been used malevolently by its opponents. Non-interventionism, a less emotive phrase, denotes disapproval, ranging from scepticism to outright opposition, with respect to a cluster of related issues: war (particularly ideological wars and crusades) and other government interventions (alliances, “aid,” posting of military personnel, etc.) in foreign lands; the eclipse of the authority of the U.S. Congress to declare war, the concentration of authority and discretion in the Executive and the consequent ability of a President to execute war deceptively and secretly; America’s abandonment of republicanism and limited government and embrace of imperialism and a welfare-warfare state; the erosion of civil and political liberties for the sake of “security;” and the linkages between a large military establishment and permanent war economy, industry, government and bureaucracy (see, for example, Sheldon Richman, New Deal Nemesis: The “Old Right” Jeffersonians).

Congressman Howard H. Buffett, (R-Nebraska), the Midwestern campaign manager for “Mr Republican” Senator Robert Taft in 1952, was a leading opponent of America’s increasingly-interventionist policies, foreign and domestic, during the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s. Criticising the proposal of FDR’s Secretary of the Interior (whose bailiwick, one would have thought, could not extend beyond the then-forty-eight states) to build a $165m oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia, Mr Buffett stated on 24 March 1944 “it would terminate the inspiring period of America’s history as a great nation not resorting to intercontinental imperialism. This venture would end the influence exercised by the United States as a government not participating in the exploitation of small lands and countries. ... It may be that the American people would rather forego the use of a questionable amount of gasoline at some time in the remote future than follow a foreign policy practically guaranteed to send many of their sons ... to die in faraway places in defence of the trade of Standard Oil or the international dreams of our one-world planners.”

Congressman Buffett was a staunch anti-Communist who nevertheless questioned the morality as well as the efficacy of America’s Cold War crusade. He declared “our Christian ideals cannot be exported to other lands by dollars and guns. Persuasion and example are the methods taught by the Carpenter of Nazareth. ... We cannot practice might and force abroad and retain freedom at home. We cannot talk co-operation and practice power politics. ...” Patrick J. Buchanan uttered similar sentiments and outlined a stark choice during the 2000 U.S. Presidential campaign. “How can all our meddling not fail to spark some horrible retribution. ... Have we not suffered enough – from PanAm 103, to the World Trade Center [bombing of 1993], to the embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam – not to know that interventionism is the incubator of terrorism? Or will it take some cataclysmic atrocity on U.S. soil to awaken our global gamesmen to the going price of empire? America today faces a choice of destinies. We can choose to be a peacemaker of the world, or its policeman who goes about night-sticking troublemakers until we, too, find ourselves in some bloody brawl we cannot handle.”

Yet presently in America, as for most of the past half-century, few things provoke more indignation, ridicule and denunciation from political, academic and journalistic élites (as opposed to consumers and taxpayers) than scepticism towards America’s interventionist foreign policy. To be associated with isolationism is, in privileged quarters, to be cast outside the perimeter of serious conversation. American journalist Ted Koppel struck such a note on 2 November 2001. Introducing his Nightline audience to critics of the American bombing of Afghanistan, he said “some of you, many of you, are not going to like what you hear tonight. You don’t have to listen.”

During the past couple of years, leading politicians and commentators and prominent organs of mass communication have glorified “internationalism” and denigrated “isolationism.” In the first major interview after his election, on CBS’ 60 Minutes II, President George W. Bush stated that “the principal threat facing America is isolationism. ... America can’t go it alone.” Robert Kagan wrote in The Washington Post (29 January 2002) “Sept. 11th must spur us to launch a new era of American internationalism. Let’s not squander this opportunity.” Michael Hirsh, in an article entitled “The Death of a Founding Myth” (Newsweek/MSNBC January 2002), went further. “The terrorist attacks permanently altered America’s self-identity. We must now embrace the global community we ourselves built. ... While the isolationists – the Charles Lindberghs, Father Coughlins and Pat Buchanans – tempted millions with their siren’s appeal to nativism, the internationalists were always hard at work in quiet places making plans for a more perfect global community. In the end the internationalists have always dominated national policy. Even so, they haven’t bragged about their globe-building for fear of reawakening the other half of the American psyche, our berserker nativism.”

Hirsh is simply wrong: interventionism has not always prevailed; non-interventionism is not nativism; and it is arguable whether the consequences of interventionism have been positive (see, for example, Eric Nordlinger, Isolationism Reconfigured: American Foreign Policy For a New Century, Princeton University Press, 1995, ASIN: 0691043272). What is presently derided as “isolationism” was once as prominent as it was respected. Indeed, until the last quarter of the nineteenth century it was unshakeable orthodoxy. Thereafter, and for several reasons, it weakened. During the first half of the twentieth century, most American politicians, academics and journalists implicitly (and in the latter half explicitly) abandoned the embraced by “liberal” Democrats, “conservative” Republicans and the bureaucratic behemoth within the Beltway, is worldwide, open-ended interventionism. No matter the place and whatever the “problem,” America’s diplomacy, money or armed forces (or a combination of the three) will be brought to bear and find a “solution.”

This policy, as Garet Garrett warned from the 1920s to 1950s, has transformed the United States from a Republic to an Empire (see also his Salvos Against the New Deal: Selections from the Saturday Evening Post, 1933-1940, Caxton Printers, 2002, ISBN: 0870044257). As John Flynn prophesied from the 1930s to 1950s, and as former Congressman Ron Paul (Republican-Texas) now laments (see, for example, Why Initiate War on Iraq? and America’s Entangling Alliances in the Middle East), it has gravely weakened the Constitution and unleashed a Leviathan welfare-warfare state (see also Gregory Pavlik, ed., Forgotten Lessons: Selected Essays by John T. Flynn, Foundation for Economic Education, 1995, ASIN: 1572460156). And as Murray Rothbard demonstrated, it has oppressed American taxpayers and wasted the lives of its youth (see also Llewellen H. Rockwell, ed., The Irrepressible Rothbard: The Rothbard-Rockwell Report Essays of Murray N. Rothbard, Center for Libertarian Studies, 2000, ISBN: 1883959020).

It is embarrassing for the élites who coined the term “isolationism,” and hence rarely mentioned by them, that interventionism plays poorly in Peoria. Most Americans, in other words, historically were and today remain non-interventionists. Polls have shown consistently that Americans generally disdain foreign entanglements and overwhelmingly oppose foreign “aid.” As the events of 11 September illustrated, interventionist policies have also generated the hostility and enmity of people not predisposed to appreciate the peculiarities and finer points of American institutions and history.

Steve Bonta’s chronicle of America’s abandonment of non-interventionism and embrace of interventionism, entitled Minding Our Own Business, provides excellent reading for Americans and admirers of the United States. It emphasises that America’s Founders possessed an acute – and prescient – understanding of the dangers of governmental meddling in foreign lands. Bonta shows that the Founders espoused political non-interventionism. Far from being backward, xenophobic and the like, many possessed a keen interest in foreign languages, history, culture, technical and economic developments. Indeed, several ranked among the best literary, technical and commercial minds of the late-eighteenth century. On cultural, scientific and economic grounds, most (Hamiltonians were perhaps an exception) favoured extensive and unfettered private associations with foreigners. To say that non-interventionism proposes to “turn America’s back on the world” is therefore to proclaim one’s ignorance of America’s Founders, the principles upon which the Great Republic was based, the long success of those principles and the more recent trials, tribulations and catastrophes that have resulted from their overturn.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy in the wake of 11 September 2001, apart from the lives lost, children orphaned and adults widow(er)ed, is that the citizens of the very country that has one of the noblest histories of political non-interventionism are apparently ignorant of that history. For many Americans and their admirers, Bonta’s article and the writings of Garrett, Flynn, Rothbard and other non-interventionists may confirm a point that Harry Truman put best: “there is nothing new in the world but the history you do not know.”

Chris Leithner


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