Will Joe Biden have the guts and/or the sense to recognize sunk costs?
There’s not a single person that has spent significant time on the ground in either of those conflicts that thinks either of them are winnable, but they just continue off of a sense of momentum. And getting back to that lack of accountability, not actually having anything be aligned to an objective, nobody could say what winning looked like when I was in Iraq. Our job was to run out the clock, turn off the lights, and close the door. In Afghanistan, same thing. The endless wars notion is just that these wars will continue to go on, because at the end of the day they’re not our wars to fight. We’ve inserted ourselves into the middle of civil wars; we’ve taken sides. Sometimes those sides switch. In Iraq, we’re backing the Sunnis one time, we’re backing the Shia the other. In Afghanistan, it becomes a shifting set of alliances.
Ultimately I think that erodes something at the core of our national soul that we kind of paper over. That’s something that I’ll have to sit on a therapist’s couch to better understand.
I received the following letter last week and the author gave me permission to quote without using his name.
Hi Dr. Henderson,
My name is X, I’m a fan of your writing, so I wanted to thank you for your work and insight that I’ve been able to enjoy…
I recently read your article “What should we fear most and what should we do about it” in the recent Regulation magazine, and while I generally agree with the policy prescriptions for the FDA I was somewhat confused about the discussion around people’s irrational reaction to different threats in life. I’ve also heard other economists discuss irrational threat response behavior and honestly it strikes me as a bit misguided. But I’m also not an economist or an academic so I may be missing something, and I’d be grateful to hear your thoughts on it..
One thing is that isn’t there a categorical mistake being made when comparing something like shark attacks to things like heart disease or cancer? The latter two seem to be more or less results of aging (or long-term behaviors like excessive eating or smoking, for example). In other words, aren’t illnesses or diseases that come with the territory of aging and dying categorically different than something like a shark attack? I feel the same reasoning could be used to tell people not to worry about walking in a bad part of the city because your chances of dying from cancer are higher than getting shot. It seems like a non-sequitur to me. One way is a gruesome and sudden end to (hypothetically) a younger person’s life while the other is something that is more or less accepted by people as a very possible ending to their lives when they are older–illness and death at the end of life are accepted as part of the tragedy of the human condition. This is not to say that I think people should be very worried about shark attacks, just that the statistical probability analysis comparing these events is missing something.
The second thing is the uncertainty of some risks as opposed to others. I’d agree with the proposition that we shouldn’t go too far in restricting freedoms in order to prevent terrorism, but comparing it to illness or automobile accidents again seems misguided to me. I think most people would have found it irrational to say, for example after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that people should be more worried about automobile safety and cancer than Japanese acts of war because their likelihood (at that point) of dying in an attack was much lower. People worried about it because there was uncertainty about further attacks, a time sensitivity to stop aggression as early as possible, and the possible defeat of the US in a war.
Am I missing something here? I appreciate your time and any thoughts you may have on this. I look forward to reading more of your writings!
Second, let’s consider the shark versus heart disease/cancer point. They are different categories, but I don’t think there’s a category mistake. You’re right that the heart disease and cancer risk come with age whereas the shark attack is pretty much unrelated to age. They do come with the territory, but there’s a lot you can do about the territory. Just as you can avoid the almost infinitesimal risk of being killed by a shark by staying out of the ocean, you can substantially reduce a risk that’s a few orders of magnitude greater by, say, not smoking cigarettes, getting exercise, and eating in moderation. As someone who just turned 70, I don’t passively say, “Oh, that risk comes with the territory. I want to make it to 100 and I’m doing a number things will help me.” And I haven’t even mentioned medications that will help me as I age.
Regarding the point about walking in certain parts of town, if the risk is high enough, then it easily could be the case that you’re more at risk from dying in an hour from walking in that part of town than you are at risk from dying from a heart attack or cancer in an hour. The sensible way to think about risk is per unit time, whether it be an hour, a day, or a year. As I’m sure you noticed in our article, we normalized by having it be risk in a year.
You said that comparing terrorism to illness or automobile accidents seems misguided, but you didn’t say why. Why do think that?
Re Pearl Harbor you wrote:
I think most people would have found it irrational to say, for example after the attack on Pearl Harbor, that people should be more worried about automobile safety and cancer than Japanese acts of war because their likelihood (at that point) of dying in an attack was much lower. People worried about it because there was uncertainty about further attacks, a time sensitivity to stop aggression as early as possible, and the possible defeat of the US in a war.
You make a good point. The way to compare risks there is not to see Pearl Harbor as a one-off event but to put it in context. What was the probability of further attacks? What was the chance the United States would have been defeated in war and what would have been the consequences of that?
What that basically says is that it makes sense to look at the whole thing, not just a piece. I would give you my views on the war with Japan because they are different from the views of almost everyone else I know, but that would take us too far away from the statistical issues you’ve raised.
I shared the letter with my co-author Charley Hooper, who answered as follows:
If we don’t want to die, or at least die at a young age, there are certain actions we can take. These actions have a cost and an expected benefit. That expected benefit is the probability times the benefit.
There’s a cost I incur if I avoid swimming in the ocean to reduce my risk of a shark attack. The expected benefit is minuscule because the probability is already so low that it’s difficult to lower it further. In other words, the expected benefit is negligible.
There’s a cost I incur if I exercise more, take a medication, practice meditation, or avoid eating certain foods. The expected benefit may be large because I only need to reduce the probability of dying from a heart attack or cancer a little bit to make a noticeable improvement. In other words, the expected benefit is large.
X is saying that we accept heart disease and cancer because they are a part of aging. If that’s the case, then why are so many drugs sold, so many procedures completed, and so much medical attention devoted to treating cancer and heart disease? Plus, if you could prevent a death from any source, you’ve still prevented a death. A heart attack can kill you just as certainly as can a shark.
We don’t act as if we accept heart attacks and cancer. And even if we did, we shouldn’t.
Regarding Pearl Harbor and WWII, again it comes to probabilities, actions, and outcomes. An individual might have a greater chance of dying in a car crash than dying in the war, but the risk of war is more than death: it’s having your house destroyed, your family killed, your government overthrown, your wealth destroyed, and your daughter raped. War is hell.
We shouldn’t worry about either car crashes or wars; we can worry about both and take the appropriate steps to reduce the risk of each.
This is a talk I gave to the local Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, sponsored by California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB). The local one is run by Michele Crompton and she does a great job. My topic was about things we should fear a lot and things we shouldn’t fear much. In the middle category was COVID-19. In the “not fear much” category were China (unless you live near China), terrorism, running out of land, genetically modified foods, getting shot by police, and global warming.
I’ll leave the “what we should fear a lot” to people who view the video.
If you ever get a chance to give an OLLI talk, I recommend it. The pay is low and, to do a good job, I usually put a fair amount of time into it. But I get articles and blog posts out of that work.
As important, I get a great audience. It tends to be older people and what I like about them is that they’re not a random pick. They tend to be quite curious and want to learn.
My take on the locals, after giving about 6 of these over the last approximately 8 years, is that they like me but don’t necessarily like my message, especially on this topic. But they ask good questions and it’s a highly civil discussion. Moreover, many of them know a lot.
My first OLLI talk was titled “The Cost of War.” My usual style with an audience is to ask questions as I go. It worked really well with that audience. Each time I asked a question of an audience of about 30 people, 5 or 6 hands would go up and I would call on someone randomly who would invariably get the answer right. (As I recall, my early questions were about World War I.) After about the third one, I paused and said, “I love talking to people who know things.”
This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 4. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here.
When M*A*S*H debuted, the U.S. armed forces still used conscription to fill out its ranks. The peacetime draft began in 1948, following the expiration of World War II conscription, and included a special “doctor’s draft” for medical personnel. Selective service was vital to staffing up the U.S. military for both the Korean and Vietnam wars and was particularly despised by Vietnam protesters. Partway through M*A*S*H’s first season, the Pentagon announced that it would shift to an all-volunteer force, with the last inductions occurring before the TV season ended.
Among government institutions, conscription is one of the most disturbing. People of a particular demographic group — young men — are taken from their private lives and forced to work and live under strict government direction, at great risk to life and limb. The draft is regularly derided on M*A*S*H; as Hawkeye explains about his draft board in “Yankee Doodle Doctor” (s. 1), “When they came for me, I was hiding, trying to puncture my eardrum with an ice pick.”
No element of the show better represents opposition to the draft than the character Klinger. The show’s first seven seasons depict his many schemes to get discharged from the Army: trying to hang-glide out of Korea (“The Trial of Henry Blake,” s. 2), preparing to raft across the Pacific to California (“Dear Peggy,” s. 4), threatening to immolate himself (“The Most Unforgettable Characters,” s. 5), attempting to eat a jeep (“38 Across,” s. 5), pretending to believe he’s back home in Toledo (“The Young and the Restless,” s. 7). In “Mail Call” (s. 2), he claims his father is near death, hoping for a hardship discharge. Blake then flips through Klinger’s file:
Father dying last year.
Mother dying last year.
Mother and father dying.
Mother, father and older sister dying.
Mother dying and older sister pregnant.
Older sister dying and mother pregnant.
Younger sister pregnant and older sister dying.
Here’s an oldie but a goody: half of the family dying, other half pregnant.
Klinger, aren’t you ashamed of yourself?
Yes, sir. I don’t deserve to be in the Army.
Klinger’s longest-running scheme is pretending to be a transvestite in the hope of earning a “Section 8” psychiatric discharge. Among the outfits from 20th Century Fox’s wardrobe shop that Farr wore (sometimes while puffing on a stogie) were Ginger Rogers’ Cleopatra costume (“April Fools,” s. 8) and a woolen coat of Betty Grable’s (“Major Ego,” s. 7), as well as reproductions of Dorothy’s pinafore dress from the Wizard of Oz and a Scarlett O’Hara gown from Gone With the Wind (“Major Ego,” s. 7), and a flare-torched Statue of Liberty get-up (“Big Mac,” s. 3).
Klinger usually provides comic relief, but in “War of Nerves” (s. 6) he delivers a serious condemnation of the draft. Confiding in Sidney, who previously knocked down several of Klinger’s Section 8 schemes, he says he really does fear he’s going crazy because of his attempts to get out of the Army. Sidney asks Klinger why he wants out:
Why? Well, there’s — there’s lots of reasons.
I guess death tops the list. I don’t want to die.
And I don’t want to look at other people while they do it.
And I don’t want to be told where to stand while it happens to me.
And I don’t want to be told how to do it to somebody else.
And I ain’t gonna. Period. That’s it. I’m gettin’ out.
You don’t like death.
Overall, I’d rather lay in a hammock with a couple of girls than be dead — yes.
Listen, Klinger. You’re not crazy.
I’m not? Really?
You’re a tribute to man’s endurance. A monument to hope in size-12 pumps.
I hope you do get out someday. There would be a battalion of men in hoopskirts right behind you.
This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 3. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here.
Though Hornberger’s book avoids judgment on war, both the film and TV series are unapologetically anti-war. The series regularly portrays war’s miseries, tugging at the heartstrings but not breaking them, respecting viewers instead of putting them off.
The greatest horror of war, death, was central to one of the series’ first ratings successes, the episode “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (s. 1). Hawkeye is visited by childhood friend Tommy Gillis, who has volunteered for service in order to write a book on his experiences. Later in the episode, a wounded Gillis is brought to the 4077, where he dies on Hawkeye’s operating table. Afterward, a tearful Hawkeye is consoled by the unit’s bumbling but kind-hearted first commander, Lt. Col. Henry Blake (McLean Stevenson):
I’ve watched guys die almost every day. Why didn’t I ever cry for them?
Because you’re a doctor.
What the hell does that mean?
I don’t know.
If I had the answer, I’d be at the Mayo Clinic. Does this place look like the Mayo Clinic?
All I know is what they taught me at command school. There are certain rules about a war.
And rule number one is: young men die.
And rule number two is: doctors can’t change rule number one.
The series’ pivotal episode, “Abyssinia, Henry” (s. 3), concluded with news that Blake, on his way home after an honorable discharge, was killed when his plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. The story shocked viewers, prompting an avalanche of angry letters to the network. But as show co-runner Gene Reynolds explained, “We didn’t want Henry Blake going back to Bloomington, IL and going back to the country club and the brown and white shoes, because a lot of guys didn’t get back to Bloomington.”
Death-centered episodes are among the series’ best. In “Old Soldiers” (s. 8), the 4077’s subsequent commander, the venerable Colonel Potter, reminisces tenderly about his now-deceased comrades from World War I. “Follies of the Living — Concerns of the Dead” (s. 10) depicts a deceased soldier’s soul lingering at the 4077, observing the big and small tribulations of the staff. In “Give and Take” (s. 11), an American G.I. and a North Korean soldier whom the G.I. wounded are both treated at the 4077 and become friendly, only for the North Korean to succumb to his wounds. “Who Knew?” (s. 11) shows Hawkeye, sobered by the tragic death of a unit nurse, finding the courage to express his love for his unit colleagues. And in “Death Takes a Holiday” (s. 9), Hawkeye, fellow surgeon B.J. Hunnicutt (Mike Farrell), and head nurse Margaret Houlihan (Loretta Swit) try to extend the life of a brain-dead soldier brought in on Christmas Day, hoping to not ruin future Christmases for his children. When the G.I. dies before the day is out, Margaret reflects: “Never fails to astonish me: you’re alive, you’re dead. No drums. No flashing lights. No fanfare. You’re just dead.” And in “The Life You Save” (s. 9), a philosophical surgeon Charles Emerson Winchester III (David Ogden Stiers) compares his profession’s limited abilities to those of the 4077’s company mechanic, Sgt. Luther Rizzo (G.W. Bailey):
Don’t you understand the power you have here?
You can take a Jeep apart and reduce it to an inert pile of junk.
And then, whenever you want to, at whim, you can fit it together again, and it will roar back to life.
If only we could do that with human beings.
They — they wouldn’t die.
Also among the series’ best episodes are several portraying the war’s devastating effects on the Korean people, few of whom cared—or even knew—about the ideologies and geopolitics of the Cold War. In “In Love and War” (s. 6), Hawkeye falls for a cultured, upper-class Korean woman who sells her possessions and uses her wealth to care for villagers dislocated by the war. The relationship ends when the woman decides to take the people in her care further south, away from the war zone. In “B.J. Papa San” (s. 7), B.J. devotes himself to a Korean family impoverished by the war. Just as he is about to reunite them with a long-missing son, he discovers they have disappeared, also fleeing south. And in “The Interview” (s. 4), “Radar” O’Reilly (Gary Burghoff), Klinger’s predecessor as company clerk, is asked by war correspondent Clete Roberts about the plight of Korean peasants:
Do you get to meet the South Koreans? Do you know them?
Yeah, they’re nice people. I worry about ’em though.
We got a girl here that was, you know, pregnant. She doesn’t have any money or anything.
I don’t know how these kids live. I mean, some of ‘em don’t. That’s the God’s honest truth. Some of ‘em don’t even live over here.
Do you help them?
We do the best we can, but we haven’t got— I mean, we got just— Sometimes we got just enough for ourself. Penicillin and stuff like that.
I mean, I really wish somebody would tell these people back home this.
When you have to look these kids in the face, that’s where it’s really at. I mean, that’s what the ball game really is. Is looking these kids in the face here.
Several episodes focus on war-orphaned children. In “The Kids” (s. 4) and “Old Soldiers,” orphans visit the 4077 for checkups, touching hearts and boosting morale. “Yessir, That’s Our Baby” (s. 8) has Hawkeye, B.J., and Charles finding an abandoned Amerasian baby and battling the xenophobia of Korean society and the nativism of America to secure the girl’s future. And in “Death Takes a Holiday,” an initially incensed Charles learns just how desperate the lives of the orphans are after he confronts orphanage master Choi Sung Ho (Keye Luke) for selling the gourmet chocolates that Winchester had left the children as a gift, in accordance with a Winchester family tradition:
Go on. Deny it. Deny it, if you can.
You took the Christmas candy I gave you, and you sold it on the black market.
Have you no shame?
May I explain?
No! What you may do is retrieve that candy immediately and have it in the children’s stockings by morning.
Otherwise, they’re gonna find you hanging by the chimney without care!
Major, I cannot. The money is gone.
Please. Your generous gift and insistence that it remain anonymous touched me deeply.
The candy would’ve brought great joy to the children for a few moments. But on the black market, it was worth enough rice and cabbage to feed them for a month.
Rice and cabbage?
I know. I have failed to carry out your family tradition, and I am very sorry.
On the contrary, it is I who should be sorry. It is sadly inappropriate to give dessert to a child who’s had no meal.
Just as moving are episodes in which members of the 4077 deal with their own terror in war. In “The Interview,” Hawkeye describes how sometimes, when he’s lying on his cot at night, he finds it shaking — not because of falling artillery, but because his heart is racing. “Heal Thyself” (s. 8) tells of visiting surgeon Steve Newsome (Edward Hermann) who had performed valiantly under fire on the Pusan Perimeter during the desperate early months of the war, succumbing to post-traumatic stress and fleeing the 4077’s operating room. In “Dreams” (s. 8), members of the principal cast suffer nightmares of how the war has changed their lives. The same device is used in “Hawk’s Nightmare” (s. 5): Hawkeye experiences sleepwalking and nightmares of childhood friends suffering horrific deaths. Exhausted and worried about his sanity, he turns to recurring character Sidney Freedman (Allan Arbus), a psychiatrist, for help:
I keep having these dreams about these kids I grew up with. And the dreams start out OK. The kids are fine. And then they end in disaster.
Like those kids who roll past you on that bloody assembly line. You dream to escape, but the war invades your dream, and you wake up screaming. The dream is peaceful. Reality is the nightmare.
Am I crazy, Sidney?
[Chuckling] No. A bit confused, a little fershimmeled is all. Actually, Hawkeye, you’re probably the sanest person I’ve ever known. The fact is, if you were crazy, you’d sleep like a baby.
So when do my nightmares end?
When this big one ends, most of the others should go away. But there’s a lot of suffering going on here, Hawkeye, and you can’t avoid it. You can’t even dream it away.
Life, Liberty, and M*A*S*H: From Anti-Authority to Government-Skeptical
This fall, LIFE magazine has published a special issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the movie M*A*S*H. Despite the hook, the issue focuses on the ensuing TV series, which ran from 1972 to 1983. Though the show has often been characterized as being politically left-wing, it actually is heavily classically liberal, celebrating the individual, civil liberties, and the market, and harshly criticizing anti-individualism, government compulsion, and government decision-making. In a series of essays, I examine the classical liberalism of M*A*S*H. This is Part 2. Part 1 is here.
The TV series evolved from a fictionalized war memoir, MASH: A Novel about Three Army Doctors, written by Korean War Army surgeon H. Richard Hornberger Jr., with help from sportswriter and one-time war correspondent W.C. Heinz, and published under the pen name “Richard Hooker” in 1968. The book inspired a 1970 movie, M*A*S*H, directed by Robert Altman and starring Donald Sutherland, Elliott Gould, and Robert Duvall. Hornberger was a conservative Republican with hawkish, nationalist leanings, and his book is frat-boy crude, funny, and largely untainted by the ugliness of war, though honest about the grim nature of “meatball surgery” at a field hospital. The 1970 movie is just as crude and even funnier, and it captures the grisliness of war and the madness of those who love it. Hornberger liked the movie despite its lefty politics, a testament to a time when personal judgments were not always made through a red–blue political lens. Altman wasn’t a fan of the book, though not for political reasons. Both Hornberger and Altman despised the TV series.
One theme common to all three versions of M*A*S*H was the comedic skewering of authority. Hornberger’s book makes clear his opinion that his conscripted, jokester doctors are superior to the military figures and protocols that try to control them. Altman’s movie luxuriates in contempt for authority. The TV series pokes plenty of fun at overpuffed authority figures, from hypocritical flag-waver Maj. Frank Burns (Larry Linville), to unhinged Maj. Gen. Bartford Hamilton Steele (Harry Morgan, who was later recast as the very-different Col. Sherman Potter), to sadistic Col. Sam Flagg (Edward Winter), to a parade of officers willing to trade troops’ lives for ground, glory, and promotion.
But where Hornberger’s skewering is limited to the career military and Altman’s to the military generally, TV’s M*A*S*H has plenty of skepticism for government broadly. The show is not outright anti-government — and neither are proper classical liberals, because government is important for accomplishing certain public goals. But classical liberals know, and M*A*S*H regularly shows, that there is plenty to criticize in what government does — or, more specifically, what the politicians and bureaucrats who animate it do.
Many government failures happen when it extends its reach beyond truly public problems, meddling in people’s private decisions and interactions. But failures also happen when government limits itself to its proper sphere, such as the conduct foreign and war policy. From the crooked U.S. senators mentioned in “For the Good of the Outfit” (season 2) and “The Winchester Tapes” (s. 6), to the Congressional investigator for the House Un-American Activities Committee in “Are You Now, Margaret?” (s. 8), to Hawkeye’s irreverent letters and telegrams to President Harry Truman (and wife Bess) in such episodes as “Dr. Pierce and Mr. Hyde” (s. 2), “The Interview” (s. 3), and “Give ‘Em Hell, Hawkeye (s. 10), the show depicts how foolish, hubristic, dangerous, hypocritical, uncaring, and dishonest government officials can be.
For instance, in “Depressing News” (s. 9), the unit receives an erroneous, enormous shipment of tongue depressors. Hawkeye realizes the shipment reflects the U.S. government’s blithe preparation for the war to continue for years, bitterly concluding, “We wouldn’t have this supply if [the Army] didn’t think there’d be a demand.” So, he embarks on a symbolic crafting project, getting the attention of company clerk Max Klinger (Jamie Farr):
Excuse my impertinence, but if all these sticks were laid end to end — and they are — what would they be?
They would be, and are, the foundation for the Washington Monument.
Don’t they already have one of those someplace?
It’s completely different.
That one commemorates Washington the man, who crossed the Delaware and gave us wooden teeth.
This one commemorates Washington the place, which sent us across the Pacific and gives us wooden legs.
Excuse me. My nose for news thinks it smells a story here.
They sent us half a million of these things, which is monumental stupidity.
So I’m building a monument to stupidity, made out of tongue depressors and dedicated to all the wounded who have passed through here.
Klinger writes about Hawkeye’s project for the camp newspaper, a copy of which finds its way to Army headquarters. Not understanding the meaning of the “monument,” HQ dispatches a public relations officer to the 4077, believing Hawkeye’s creation would be “great for enlistment.” But as the officer snaps a picture of the monument, Hawkeye and Klinger explode it. When the befuddled information officer asks why, Hawkeye explains: “Senseless destruction—that’s what it’s all about. Get the picture?”
There are two things I like consistently about being interviewed by Scott: (1) his energy and (2) the fact that I always learn something from him.
Here are the highlights with approximate times:
2:47: Gains from trade don’t stop at the border.
4:00: The asymmetry in the gains and losses from trade and what that means for the discussion on economic policy.
9:45: Tariffs fell gradually after the war.
10:15: The Box bought down costs of international trade across oceans more than small reductions in tariffs did.
11:30: The role of improvements in technology in losses of U.S. manufacturing jobs.
14:45: Obama economist Jason Furman’s comment about the gains for the average U.S. family from Walmart.
16:50: The role (or not) of regulation in moving jobs to China.
17:40: The Economic Report of the President under Trump and its analysis of where the U.S. stands in degree of regulation relative to Western Europe and other advanced economies.
19:50: China’s economy and why it has done so well. [HINT: It’s not mainly slave or prison labor.]
22:40: “You didn’t dance well?”
23:30: How the U.S. feds made it easier for the Chinese government to blackmail federal employees.
24:40: Much of intellectual property is handed over to Chinese firms contractually.
26:25: Are “we” in competition with “them?”
27:40: One thing that Trump is most sincere about and most wrong about.
28:30: Increase in size of Chinese military.
31:30: The Blob: They make a good living by stirring the pot.
32:30: Scott teaches me something about Colin Powell and his role in getting George W. Bush to respond moderately to China after the Chinese government forced a U.S. Navy EP-3 airplane to land on Hainan Island.
34:00: The report of one of my students who was on that airplane.
About 4 or 5 minutes in which we discuss nuclear war.
41:00: Are there interest groups in U.S. business that want the U.S. government to restrain its hawkish actions toward China?
The destruction that vandals and looters in Wisconsin (and in Minnesota and a number of other states) have carried out in the last few weeks is horrendous. The destruction has largely been wreaked on innocent people. I found very moving the video of the guy, posted the day after the destruction began, whose family business in Kenosha was destroyed even though he had done nothing to deserve it.
What heartens me is that a very large percent of Americans see what’s wrong with this.
What disheartens me is that many of those same people don’t have anywhere near the same amount of outrage when the U.S. government rains destruction on innocent people and businesses in other countries. In a typical U.S. bombing of people in another country, the bombing is not so targeted that it hits only criminals and terrorists. It hits a lot of innocent people too and, in some cases, mainly innocent people. If anything, our outrage at the U.S. government should be greater because the destruction is so much greater.
Certainly? Well, thank you for having us. My name is Chris Coyne. I’m a professor of economics at George Mason university, and I’m also the associate director of the FAA hike program for advanced study in philosophy, politics and economics at the Mercatus center.
Thanks Abby. My name is Abby hall. I’m an associate professor of economics at Bellarmine university in Louisville, Kentucky. Great, welcome. And thanks again for talking with us. As viewers may know, we recently conducted an online reading group based on your book. Tyranny comes home with domestic fate of U S military militarism. Unfortunately, as the three of us were discussing before we started recording this book is incredibly timely these days. We’re very grateful that you are willing to talk to us. And I have a couple of questions for you. So we’ll just launch right in the first question I have is you, you guys do a great job talking about your intellectual influences in the beginning of the book, Robert Higgs in particular comes to mind, but can you tell us a little bit more about how this particular project emerged? We know you’ve been doing work on this and we understand the context of your intellectual engagement, but why this particular this particular inquiry
I’ll start and then Abby, you can jump in you know, for, for me, you know, given, given that, you know, the, the overarching themes of foreign policy and foreign intervention have been something I’ve been interested in now for certainly my entire academic career. But even prior to that, but this particular topic really kind of emerged when Edward Snowden released information about the surveillance operations of the U S government and, you know, one day I was just sitting around reading about Snowden and, and, you know, you heard, heard about the NSA and the NSA, this Dana said that. And I said, I don’t know a lot about this. So I started looking it up, just Googling around reading Wikipedia articles and the NSA in its current iteration was formed in the early 1950s. But then I just started kind of clicking back and reading about the history and I realized that, that this stuff had gone all the way back to the, to the late 18 hundreds in the Philippines really in an organized form that that is the, the surveillance operations of the U S government. And that kind of just got me thinking about it. And then through a series of conversations with Abby we kinda came up with the idea behind the, what we call the boomerang effect and kind of everything just, just went from there. Abby, I don’t know if you have more to add beyond that, Any other places where we saw some of these effects of foreign intervention coming back to be use domestically.
So as Chris mentioned issues of surveillance, but also too, one of the very thing, actually, it was the very first project that we worked on together was on policing and police militarization. And so starting to see within that research, although what we ultimately found in writing the book was that the connections went back much, much further than what we had initially thought. But seeing the incorporation of tools of foreign intervention being used by police but then also in the process of doing research on unmanned aerial vehicles or drones, one of the things that popped up in several of these articles at the time of doing that research. So run like 2012, 2013 was that the us customs and border patrol were using the same drones that were being used abroad in the global war on terror. And it was something that we started to think about and discuss. So for me, in addition to what Chris talked about, there were these other things in just various projects that just kept popping up of like, here’s a domestic connection to something that’s going on abroad. And then as Chris said, just the broader discussion of, well let’s think about and look into more detail and exactly how this dynamic works.
So I want to ask a brief question with regard to the Philippines and that’s this, this is a great story of how you sort of started clicking backwards, right? So I suspect that you, a lot of readers concerns about the global war on terror, the war on drugs, these things were less surprising as having sort of a relationship between international and domestic policy, but the Philippines is a constant theme in your book. One that surprised me at least, and maybe this is a somewhat sort of curricular question, but that seems to be an incident in American history that we hear comparatively less about. Why do you think that is? And is there some relationship there to this boomerang effect?
II can take that one. So you’re right. That I think a large part of it is a curricular issue. And I know that when I’ve presented on this and for what it’s worth, I was also very surprised at how frequently and predominantly the U S occupation of the Philippines came in to this research. And so part of, part of my reading was, well, why don’t we know about this, because if you were educated, I think particularly in the American school system, if you know about the U S Philippine war, it’s mentioned kind of as a footnote to the Spanish American war, and then no one talks about it. So they leave it alone. My understanding and reading the history of that was that Teddy Roosevelt considered that conflict to be a pretty large embarrassment and took active steps to try to deter people from really talking about it or thinking about it and appears to have been largely successful in that endeavor and getting people to just kind of ignore it and, and forget about it. That makes me feel better too. Chris, did you want to add anything about that?
No, no. I mean, the only other thing to add is, you know what Abby said, and then of course, since then there’s been major conflicts. The United States has been involved in of course the, the world Wars and, and numerous others, which receive a lot more attention. And of course, you know, people oftentimes suffer from presentism, you know, what, what, what is going on now or in the, in the recent past is typically what they focus on. And so I think a combination of all these things together kind of explains the point you’re raising or, or helps to explain it. Yeah.
Okay. Next question. In my reading of your book I read a claim that interventionist foreign policy undermines democratic institutions domestically, but there’s also a lot of talk about the trade off between security and Liberty and what the citizenry is either willing to accept or in some cases even demand. So what if the citizen rate recognizes and actively chooses security over Liberty? In other words, if they’re willing to trade that off, even if it’s a somewhat false trade off, as you definitely point out in your book, does that really what does that mean about your claim with regard to democratic institutions? In other words, maybe are we getting what we deserve to some extent,
Certainly. I mean, you, you can make that argument. And so, you know, w where we fall down at the end of the book is one that ideology held by the populace is ultimately the driver of a lot of this for better or for worse. And so if, if people are willing to, to give up Liberty for for suppose it, or, or potential security, and I think that’s important, I’ll come back to that in a moment then, then they are getting what they’re asking for. But as a caveat, and let me just clarify the potential point, you know, just because government says, they’re giving you security doesn’t mean anything as we all know, political rhetoric is quite cheap and often fails to be delivered on in any kind of meaningful way. And more so than that, it’s not just that that political initiatives might fail, but they actually might do more harm than good. That is things that are undertaken in the name of making the populace safer might actually make them less safe, either from external threats or internal threats, the internal threats being various components of the state apparatus. And so one of the things that we want to point out is the nuance of this supposedly simple trade off. It’s not that simple, but also that even if citizens think they’re trading off security for Liberty, they might not get what they want because they might be being sold a, a, a false promise of what security entails. And of course, another aspect of this is that much of this place in secrecy. So, you know, we’re told we, the, the populous are told there’s threats, there’s threats around every corner, but, you know, we’re never provided much detail on, on what those threats entail, the likelihood of those threats coming to fruition, to the extent that they do exist and so on, and the name of national security and secrecy. And so it makes it extremely difficult for either citizens or watchdog groups, or even congressional representatives who are on oversight committees and what have you to, to oversee the security state apparatus. And so that’s just some of the nuances that, that are involved in unpacking that security Liberty trade off.
Just very briefly that one of the things that Chris and I try really hard to point out in the book is the potential constraining power of ideology. But just also to add on to everything that Chris said is that for people who are really concerned with issues of Liberty questions of ideology present yet another compounding factor and are another piece of this puzzle, because to the extent that people are willing and interested in trading off Liberty for safety, again, whether that’s a real trade-off or a false one that potentially really makes the job of those of us who are pushing back against that all that more difficult.
So I definitely want to talk about ideology, but a briefer question perhaps before that. And that’s that, so Abby, you just mentioned the group of people concerned about Liberty. To what extent do you think the same people are those that are concerned with foreign policy as with some of these domestic threats in particular, the issues you talked about, like drones and police, militarization and surveillance…
I’d be interested to know Chris’s perspective on this as well, but in, in my mind, and one of the things that we lay out earlier in the book is that typically people, I think, tend to try to divorce those two arenas. So for many people, there’s this idea that foreign policy is just that it occurs over there and domestic policy is domestic policy and that, you know, narrowed the two shall meet. But what we’re interested in pointing out is that those two arenas are by no means separated and in fact very much can and do influence each other with our focus, particularly being on how the foreign intervention or the foreign aspect influences the domestic component of that. I don’t think that’s to say that people who are concerned with domestic policy, aren’t concerned with foreign policy and vice versa, but I do think that there is a real tendency of people to overlook that idea that foreign policy can and have a very real implication on domestic institutions. And so I think that for people, even if you are 100% American centric need to, or it would benefit them to pay attention to what’s going on in a foreign capacity.
You know, I think this gets at a bigger question that is of interest to classical liberals, big tent, classical liberalism, which is that, you know, many classical liberals take is given to the extent they want. They refer to it as a limited state or a minimal state or nightwatchman state. What they typically mean by that is things like police and courts domestically. And then they’ll say things like a military or national defense, a defense against external threats, and they kind of stop there and that might work. And then of course, within that, they want to very limited government operating within, within that kind of infrastructure. And one of the things that I think is a gap in, in a lot of classical liberal thinking is applying the same things that are applied to other government programs, to police, to court, to military and national security, which is all of those things are government programs. And it’s not just that they’re normal government programs, that they are government programs, and that there are resources that are taken from taxpayers, filtered through a political process, then outputs are produced, but there’s something unique about them. And one of those things is that they entail the control of a significant amount of force or, or tools of force the, that, and I don’t mean just guns and tanks, even though there’s that as well, but a surveillance apparatus the ability to in prison people, the ability to murder people, human beings. And I, I think that’s important to remember this isn’t, you know, some the way I got a lot of people talk about foreign policy is almost like a chess board, and we need to balance the middle East or balanced China as if it’s kind of a game that, that, that intelligent people can play in design. So what if we take seriously hikes warning about the fatal conceit? What if we take seriously Buchanan and Tullock warnings about the pathologies of democratic politics, and we apply that same logic to national security to the military. What would that mean? Now? People might say in many do, okay, I get that, but we still need this in order to have Liberty and freedom. And that might very well be the case. I don’t, I don’t think, and, and we certainly are very careful to, to take our, our opponents, if you will. And I want it, that’s kind of a strong word. The people we are taking a different position from, we don’t view them as being malicious anti Liberty or, or, or, or anything of the sort what we, what we believe. And I feel comfortable speaking for Abby on this, because we’ve talked about it is that they underestimate the costs. So, so it’s, it’s a basic seen and unseen, and we’re trying to highlight one of the unseen costs that we think is quite significant. Other people might disagree on that, of course, but that’s where it really comes down. What, what waiting do you put on that? We put a, quite, quite a heavyweight on that cost but others won’t, but I think that’s kind of where it falls down to. And again, beyond this book for people interested in these topics in classical liberalism, this is certainly an area where you know, and, and our heroes you know, like Hayek, James Buchanan, Milton Friedman, and many others. They all take it in the background. What I referred to earlier is that the nightwatchman state as being necessarily, they never really delve into any of the details about how that will operate, what the costs will be, both the, the, the monetary outlays, but these other costs in terms of the unseen costs on democratic institutions as well. And so that’s a very fruitful area I would think for, for future inquiry.
Great. Yeah, that’s, there’s a lot of potential there. So let’s, let’s shift to ideology. And let me preface this a little you, the book does a tremendous job as Abby was talking about, about trying to sort of close that rift between the domestic and the foreign, but if there’s a critique to be made about the book that while, while masterful at diagnosing a problem, some might regard it as being short on solutions. And this is of course, where ideology comes in, you do assert that ideological change is needed to sort of tame the boomerang effect. And so this is where I think your book is a bit of a departure, particularly from some traditional public choice analysis, right? So Chris, you were just talking about the need to sort of think more about what actually constitutes this nightwatchman state, but you guys also say this is actually on page one 77, that the ability of formal rules to protect freedom is only as good as the ideology of the people living under the government. And you do go through and give a lot of suggestions about under, under the need for an anti militarist etiology, as you call it about understanding the paradox of government, recognizing that patriotism can require a critical attitude towards the government. And so on, you tell us in several places that citizens are not helpless pawns in this problem. Well, what are the action steps? How do we actually get to this anti militarist ideology beyond questions of understanding, tell us some concrete things that people could do to try to affect this change towards the anti militarist ideology.
How do you want me to go, or do you want to go if you want? Okay. Let me start by stepping back for a moment again, to situate this in, in a broader kind of puzzle and a difficult puzzle that many people before us have talked about, and it, and it’s a puzzle about the relationship between formal rules and ideology, or if you want to call it informal norms, whatever you want to call, whatever’s required to maintain those formal rules. And, and let me try to sum up a very complex topic in a few lines, which is this formal rules, the way that constitutional scholars, certainly scholars like James Buchanan, talked about them are meant to constrain people such that when there is variation in ideology or opinions, you’re still bound. That’s why Buchanan always used the imagery of Ulysses bound to the mass. It’s when, when you list these here’s the siren sing, he can’t get freed. So when, when, when the people are calling on government to do something, their hands are tied and they can’t get free. Okay, well, there’s two big questions there. Number one, how do you get Ulysses hands tied? And then number two, can they stay tied? And that’s the question. That’s the question that Tocqueville was wrestling with and at least part of a democracy in America. It’s it’s how do you maintain a democracy? Vincent Austra more recently what and his writings on democracy are taken from Tocqueville. What’s the burden on citizens in a free society. And one, again, one of the interesting puzzles is that number one, at the end of the day, all of these scholars in various ways, the ones I’ve mentioned come down on the importance of ideology towards the end of his career. You can, for instance, has a wonderful article called the soul of classical liberalism. He has another article called afraid to be free. What’s the summing up more complex, nuanced arguments and align. If people don’t want to be free, if people don’t believe in freedom or hold it as a relatively high end, then you’re going to lose those things. They’re there, you are basically going to turn to government and say, treat me like a child, give me stuff. And then the game’s over there, you know, because not only are you giving them the power now to give you stuff, assuming they can do that, but you have set the precedent and untied Ulysses hands, if you will, to do lots of things in the future. So then what’s the burden on citizens. Well, it’s quite high. And again, this is Tocqueville, Oh, strum. You can, and the burden on citizens in a free society is really, really high. You have to care about freedom. You have to recognize the threat posed by the state, and then you need to be willing to participate as a citizen. And that doesn’t mean watching the news posting on Facebook and going to the voting booth. There’s something deeper that they have involved there’s community engagement. There is what Tocqueville called self interest. Rightly understood recognizing that my self-interest is not some narrow atomistic self-interest, but it also relies on my neighbors. But then that requires me participating in a various set of collective action situations to assist my fellow human beings and vice versa, them assisting me and for Tocqueville. That’s what we today call civil society plays a role as a crucial check on government, because we are not turning to government to give us goodies. And so that’s a check. It’s not a formal check in a constitution, but it’s based on citizen action, grounded in their ideology. And so we put a list of what we call the anti militarist ideology at the end, and we list some of the characteristics. And so, you know, to my way of thinking in terms of action steps, not I’ll, I’ll, I’ll turn it over to Abby. If she has anything to add. Number one is, is understanding the nature of the state. And again, even classical liberals. And I, and I, I feel comfortable saying within the classical liberal big tent world, I think Abby and I are probably in the minority in our view of national security, which is we view national security as one of, if not the greatest threat to Liberty that is counterintuitive. Because again, most people think about national security as being crucial to Liberty. But what if it’s not, what if it is the greatest threat? Well, that’s important to think about and recognize then what can you expect from the state?
What do we give up when we say, well, it’s bad when government tries to provide education domestically, because government’s terrible at running the DMV. But then we say, well, government should be intervening abroad to build an entire education system, healthcare system and liberal institutions and other societies and thinking about those tensions. And so recognition is the first point. And then thinking about alternatives, thinking about alternative ways to provide security, because we don’t pretend that there’s, the world is a utopia. It’s not like there’s no threats or threats to EV there are threats to our person on our property to everyone. That’s just nature of the world in which we live. And so part of the classical liberal project, where there’s an interesting gap from my perspective is then to think about what those alternatives might be grounded again, in all of our intellectual heroes, who I think offer a sound framework for thinking through those issues.
Sure. I just add to that a little bit. I agree with Chris that I think as he mentioned, that we’re probably alone on our little Island, or maybe have like three other people who might be there with us. So it’s a, it’s, it’s not a, a common opinion, even among people who are generally skeptical of what it is that government can do. One of the things Amy that you had mentioned at the beginning is that it does feel like that maybe we’re a little bit short on solutions and when I’ve presented not only this, but, but presented some of the other work that Chris and I have done it’s something that we hear relatively frequently. Well, there’s a lot of problems being pointed out here, but what are the solutions? And one of the things that I think is also important to point out is that we don’t we don’t pretend as though we have a concrete set of steps or solutions to take to fix these problems unless we wind up running a foul of, as Chris mentioned already, some of our intellectual heroes who have pointed out correctly that there are real problems in terms of wealth, bringing to, to the forefront suppose that, you know, top down solutions first mentioned earlier, a Buchanan and tying us’ hands to the mast. And then of course, people like Hayek and Mises. Critiquing top-down planning with the idea of knowledge. So one of the things that we, we try not to do, or to fall into those traps of offering solutions that we necessarily necessarily just can’t can’t know, ex-ante what those look like.
Thank you. Well, and maybe rather than a critique, we might understand that as a request for further writing and another book. Right. So, all right. Last question. This is the question that, you know, we sort of have to close with and that’s the following. So you can, you can choose the extent to which you would like to reply to the two parts of this. And that’s the following since the publication of the book in 2018, lots of stuff has happened. Most of it not good, right. So one is, well, both are domestic issues, but I wonder the extent to which you would like to comment on the potential ramifications of the boom around the fact either as far as predictions that you might want to make or cautions that you might want to add. And those two events are of course first and foremost, the tragic case of George Floyd and the resulting protest against that. I mentioned to both of you earlier that this book was one of the easiest choices we’ve made for a reading group, given the current events that have been surrounding us. And the second we’re recording this still during the Kobe pandemic one of the themes that you talked about so eloquently in the book is fear on the part of citizenry. And certainly we are living in a time of great fear from both of those things. So I’ll leave it at that and let you decide again, to what extent you want to comment on that. Abby, do you want to go ahead?
Sure. Maybe I’ll take the the policing piece and then Chris, if you want to take the COVID piece, that might be a good division of labor. One of the things that we point out in the book when it comes to policing, and one of the things that we’ve discussed elsewhere in other works on policing is that those trends of militarization and the importation of tools of foreign intervention into domestic policing are likely to continue. And what we’ve seen with George Floyd, what we’ve seen with Breanna Taylor. And certainly there are lots and lots of other examples. I think these are all Examples of that. I don’t really see that trend rolling back at any point. And again, I think one of the issues that we can come back to our issues related to citizen ideology and also the constraints that are placed or not placed on law enforcement. So looking at the George Floyd incident in particular, you continue to see this I suppose, a stark dichotomy between different groups of people. That to be critical of police means that you hate the police and so on. People talking about, well, police need to have, you know, these weapons, this gear, these tactical operations that they use and so on. So I think the, the short answer is that I see that trend largely continuing. Although I, I do have some cautious optimism because this, this time and the, the, the protest and the attention that is being paid this time around compared to earlier seems to have a different fervor to it then than it did before. And so maybe there’s reason for optimism there that people are starting to push back on this. But I think in terms of the ideological component, that that’s a really tall order because you have to start changing the way that people feel about a lot of really big policy issues, including things like the war on drugs, which at this point is so embedded and so ingrained. I’m not necessarily optimistic that that is a arena in which a lot of people are going to reverse course and say, we need meaningful change, right?
Yeah. I think the overarching theme and prediction, it’s a very broad one, but then, you know, you unpack it or can unpack it the way Abby just did on the margin of policing is you cannot maintain it. If our, if you follow what we’re saying and agree with it, you cannot maintain a aggressive, proactive militaristic empire abroad and not have that spill over to domestic life. They are, they given the, the nature of the apparatus that is required both to build up, maintain and extend that empire and that proactive foreign policy can’t have it. They can’t keep them separate. And so to the extent that still exists, you, we should expect this stuff to come back home to vary in varying various ways. The other key point I want to highlight here is, you know, for the same reason, we proponents of markets point out that look in markets, entrepreneurs come up with new and better ways of doing things. They’re more efficient costs fall that applies to government as well when it comes to military technologies, which oftentimes of course there are partnered with private firms. So what do I mean by that? Well, just like some entrepreneur right now is coming up with a new and better phone or tablet or computer. Someone has a government contract that’s coming up with a new and better way of surveilling you. That’s harder for citizens recognize because that’s what makes for good surveillance, cheaper and so on. And so again, you need to understand the nature of the beast and what it means. The onus then to my way of thinking is not on Abby and I to come up with a list of solutions to solve the problem, but rather on those who make the grand proclamation the government can somehow overcome all of the ills that plague it and its normal day to day operations at a in relatively simple tasks and overcome those when you apply it to a much more grandiose government program that also includes awesome powers to, to in prison murder and main people at their will.
And that’s what, what the onus is on those who argue for the need for government to do these things now on COVID. And I can link these things together, hopefully, you know, that’s a complex topic, it’s, it’s a hard topic. And I think the challenge is this, you know, externalities or real, or, or, or what economic epidemiologists call infection externalities in the case of infectious disease, people have to deal with them. So how do you deal with any externality? One way is to turn to government. Another is to seek out alternative solutions that can be private market solutions, or they can be private solutions to collective action problems as demonstrated by Eleanor Ostrom and her work on the comments that people are able to come together under certain conditions and resolve collective action problems where you fall down on that. Of course it is a matter of, of individual analysis and the weighing of various costs and benefits. But one of the things I do want to point out, and this is how it links back to what we’ve been talking about into the book is that, you know, people, they, they miss the symmetry of assumptions point. And so a lot of people get mad. For instance, if the Trump administration and they say, you know, I don’t like the way the Trump administration’s handling this, that they’d done X, Y, and Z. It would have been different. And perhaps it would, but unfortunately that’s not the world we live in, whether it is because of Donald Trump, himself and his flaws or his cronies, or the structure of government itself. But more broadly, you can’t have your cake and eat it too. You can’t say Trump, there’s an authoritarian. Trump wants to start Wars with the world. Trump wants to do X, Y, and Z, and then say, I want to give Trump power to fight COVID well, there’s a tension there. The tension is, is that if, if you believe that, and the same, by the way, I’m going to pick on Trump. The same went for Obama. I remember many people, including many classical liberals got quite upset at his foreign policy. Well, which one is it? He’s either incompetent domestically, which means the last thing you want to do is give him a more control over nuclear weapons and, and, and the, the most powerful military apparatus in the history of mankind, or he’s not, he can’t, it can’t be both. And it’s the same with Trump. And so if you look at around the world, not just that the United States in response to COVID, what you see is what I’ve called with an, another cost or pandemic police States. And so what they’ve done is they have used the pandemic situation to unleash police, state technologies, methods, and techniques. So you look at Russia, you look at China and so on. And so certainly you can stop a, an infectious disease by locking people in their house by dragging them out of their house in the middle of the night and taking them away to quarantine camps by putting cameras outside their house and so on by making them carry papers around. But there’s a cost to that. And that cost is the one we’ve been talking about. You’re going to lose your Liberty. Now, people might be willing to give that up. But you know, once the toothpaste is out of the tube, it’s really hard to give up or excuse me to, to put back in the tube. And that’s really one of the many costs that people need to think about as it pertains to the pandemic and to COVID, it’s not the only cost, but it’s certainly one that that I would suggest is important to consider.
Thanks. Those were excellent answers to our questions. And I want to thank you both again for the book for a terrific conversation today, your willingness to engage with us and our readers. And I think that’s a good place for us to stop. And hopefully we’ll see another book from both of you following up on this one.