Friday, January 25, 2008

Road to Serfdom Thought Two

I am not even done with the editor's Introduction and I found another gem by Bruce Caldwell discussing the continuing relevance of The Road to Serfdom.
Another theme, evident perhaps more explicitly in this introduction than in specific passages in Hayek's own text, but nonetheless very much a part of his underlying motivation in writing the book, is Hayek's warning concerning the dangers that times of war pose for established civil societies -- for it is during such times when hard-won civil liberties are most likely to be all-too-easily given up. Even more troubling, politicians instinctively recognize the seductive power of war. Times of national emergency permit the invocation of a common cause and a common purpose. War enables leaders to ask for sacrifices. It presents an enemy against which all segments of society may unite. This is true of real war, but because of its ability to unify disparate groups, saavy politicians from all parties find it effective to invoke war metaphors in a host of contexts. The war on drugs, the war on poverty, the war on terror are but three examples from recent times. What makes these examples even more worrisome than true wars is that none has a logical endpoint; each may be invoked forever.

Hayek's message was to be wary of such martial invocations. His specific fear was that, for a war to be fought effectively, the power and size of the state must grow. No matter what rhetoric they employ, politicians and the bureaucracies over which they preside love power, and power is never easily surrendered once the danger, if there ever was one, has passed. Though eternal vigilance is sage advice, surely "wartime" (or when politicians would try to convince us that it's such a time) is when those who value the preservation of individual liberty be most on guard.

This is enormously relevant today as Caldwell points out. In another post, I enumerated several recent examples of loss of civil liberties such as The Patriot Act, the suspension of habeas corpus, the repeal of posse comitatus, and spying on Americans without warrants. This is but a few.

In a great essay called War Is the Health of the State, Randolph Bourne provides a detailed explanation of the exact phenomenon Hayek and Caldwell referred to where the state uses war as the mechanism to gain power and control. I find this enormously frightening today. In the last century, the Democrats were generally the pro-war party and the Republicans were the anti-war party. This may seem strange to some of my liberal friends, but there's a lot of history. Woodrow Wilson brought America into World War I -- he was a Democrat. World War II is probably a bad example since we were attacked, but for the sake of completeness, I'll mention that FDR was a Democrat. Harry Truman, a Democrat, entered us into the Korean War and set the precedent for doing so without a declaration of war by Congress as the Constitution requires. Instead he went to war based on a mandate from the United Nations. John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson entered us into the Vietnam War, again without a declaration. Bill Clinton took us to war in Bosnia, also without a declaration.

On the Republican side, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush are the only Republicans since the 19th century to take us to war. So until recently, the Republican party was the anti-war party. Now the Republican party has been taken over by the neoconservatives. According to wikipedia, this movement has left-wing origins. This isn't surprising since war is only compatible with the idea that government should be large and in control and this is a philosophy of the left.

So basically, we have two parties that run the country. The Democrats have a long history for being the party of war. The Republicans have recently been taken over by warmongers. So it doesn't really matter who wins because the tendency of both parties now is for war. If things continue, we're likely to be in a perpetual state of war. This is a huge threat to our liberties. As James Madison so astutely observed, "No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare. "

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