We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

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Samizdata quote of the day

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.

War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honours, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.

– James Madison [Thanks to Sara Scarlett for reminding me]

14 comments to Samizdata quote of the day

  • Aetius

    I suspect that today the welfare state is probably ahead of war as an enemy of public liberty at the very least in Britain and Western Europe, quite possibly on the other side of the pond, in the US and Canada too.

  • guy herbert

    The welfare state is a great enemy of economic liberty. (Though recall that the US even the welfare state got properly entrenched as part of LBJ’s War on Poverty.) But welfare is very little threat to personal and civil liberty.

    The pretexts there are, always, in the words of the exceptions written into the European Convention on Human Rights:
    “… national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals…” War, as Madison knew it, includes “national security, territorial integrity or public safety”.

    Following Mussolini, who periodically declared national battles against or for things, modern governments delight in wars on abstracts: drugs, terror, organised crime… That’s when liberty is really under threat.

  • Antoine Clarke

    Defeat is worse.

    Avoid war, yes. But lose one because one is trying to avoid the unpleasantness of it? That’s what I have against pacifism.

  • Laird

    Fair enough, Antoine, but don’t start them either. That’s what I have against the US’s policy of roaming the world to destroy monsters and “bring democracy” to the benighted masses around the globe. I favor a purely defensive strategy.

  • Eric

    The welfare state is a great enemy of economic liberty. (Though recall that the US even the welfare state got properly entrenched as part of LBJ’s War on Poverty.) But welfare is very little threat to personal and civil liberty.

    I disagree. In California it’s against the law to drive without wearing a seat belt, or to ride a motorcycle without a helmet. These laws were sold to the legislature as a way to save money, because the state was going broke trying to keep emergency rooms open after forcing them to treat people.

    There’s no end to that road. Alcohol, cigarettes, salt, fatty food, dangerous hobbies (or even not so dangerous). Just you keep going back and forth to work, without doing anything that might cost the state money. Make sure you get your daily exercise, though, otherwise you’ll be a burden on society. You wouldn’t want that, would you?

  • Eric, disagreeing with [b]ut welfare is very little threat to personal and civil liberty makes a goodish point:

    [Safety belt and other] laws were sold to the legislature as a way to save money, because the state was going broke trying to keep emergency rooms open after forcing them to treat people. … There’s no end to that road.

    But I must put it to us all that this is what government is pretty much about nowadays; also that the amount of it is determined by the proportion of GDP that is government expenditure.

    It is so interesting to see the government insisting on spending so much more to force its citizens not to trouble it through increasing the cost of governing.

    Now, if government could only cut back itself (to say between one quarter and one third of GDP), just think how much less trouble would be the citizenry to its government.

    And happiness all round!

    Best regards

  • Returning to Guy’s substantive point: the view of James Madison on war and a standing army, I think things have changed rather a lot in the world since those days. Perhaps the arguments are balanced differently in modern times.

    Firstly, the interconnectedness of society and nations is much greater than it was; this means that trade is more important and hence foreign policy and defence policy too.

    Secondly, the technology of war (and associated intelligence gathering) is now vastly further beyond the usual means and practices of private citizens.

    Thirdly, modern speed of travel is such that an unknown enemy can be at and over one’s doorstep before there is time to call out and form up the local yeomanry.

    Perhaps we should also look at the alternatives that have been tried. The Swiss model of a citizen’s army, with compulsory national service and regular and quite frequent calls for training. The use of mercenary forces: still prevalent in Africa with the attendant difficulties of subsequent detachment.

    Of course, modern government is also none to keen on an armed citizenry, especially one proficient in the use of those arms. [Perhaps mercenaries are seen as less of a threat to some minds.]

    And modern citizenry is none too keen on the perhaps necessary ‘training’ required for useful military service.

    A small professional standing army strikes me as the modern need, costed at say 2.5% to 3% of GDP, including intelligence aspects of national security.

    Government wanting to go to war over-often is, of course, still a problem. Especially when objectives are unclear and beyond the obvious needs of national security and trade security.

    Best regards

  • PersonFromPorlock

    I favor a purely defensive strategy.

    Posted by Laird at November 12, 2011 10:53 PM

    Fair enough, but where and when does a reasonable defense start? Invading fleets crossing oceans and ‘private’ nuclear weapons in cargo containers impose very different conditions on ‘defense’.

  • PersonFromPorlock

    Regarding the original topic, war and welfare both involve government doing what it decrees to be ‘good’ for the public and then claiming that the public ‘owes’ it acquiescence for the good received (as a matter of fact, this is true of government actions generally).

    It’s an open-ended opportunity for the abuse of power and the only counter to it (that I can see) is for the public to insist that the further actions of government are voluntary on its part and impose no obligations on the public that are not already contracted for.

    So a contract – a constitution – that strictly defines the powers of government would seem to be essential to keeping government small. And as we have seen in the US, letting the government that’s limited by contract interpret that contract tends to vitiate it.

    Two things, then: a contract, and a means of enforcing that contract that’s outside of government. Britons had that for many years with their ‘unwritten constitution’, which was strong because it relied on popular sentiment, not government authority. Americans likewise had a (fairly) common understanding of the Constitution until the lawyers ate it.

    How we get back there I don’t know, but I suspect it involves the massive government failures we see today and a resulting scales-falling-from-the-eyes.

  • Laird

    That’s a fair question, PfP, and I don’t have a glib or simple answer to it. However, I am reasonably certain that a “purely defensive strategy” does not include bombing runs on Syria, or maintaining 140 separate military installations in Germany* (and something like 600 in Europe as a whole), or generally searching the world for monsters to slay and evildoers to subdue. Let’s start there, with the low-hanging fruit, and then work on a more refined answer to your question.

    * That number is from the DOD’s own report for 2009.

  • MlR

    Posted by Aetius at November 12, 2011 07:01 PM

    Much of the welfare state was imposed both for and during wartime, and is financed through funding/taxing measures pushed through for the same reason. I highly recommend the book War and the Rise of the State by Bruce Porter.

  • jdm

    It sort of reminds me of the all the great wars so beloved by progressives, liberals, and all the other Big Government types like the War on Poverty or the War on (certain) Drugs. Seems like the effects are the same, even if they don’t include the military as such.

  • Laird

    One should be deeply suspicious of anything denominated as a “war”.

    As Randolph Bourne once wrote, war is the health of the state. I don’t think it much matters whether it’s a war against a foreign nation or one against an intangible (poverty, terror, etc.). The end result is much the same.

  • Paul Marks

    Guy was not saying “never going to war” or “do not fight to win” if one is at war.

    What I believe him (and Madison) to be saying is that the burden of proof must be upon those who suggest a policy choice of war – because of its terrible consequences, direct and indirect.

    The choice to go to war in Iraq and Afghanistan were mistakes – kill OBL yes (if a missile strike or a kill team can do the job), try and remake the country (folly).

    However, the Welfare State is a threat to civil liberties – it undermines the social and moral basis of civil society creating a vast criminal underclass.

    This has an impact upon civil liberties – in terms of policeing and so on (in German thought, even in the 1700s, the idea of a “welfare state” was, quite correctly, considered part of an overall “police state”).

    Also government develops the habit of treating people as clients – not as independent citizens.