October 19, 2001

Commentary

War Misgivings

By Sheldon Richman

It shouldn't be necessary to point out that one can have serious misgivings about the U.S. government's war in Afghanistan without being in any way "anti-American." Unfortunately, a lot of pundits have difficulty grasping that fact.

There are indeed critics of the war who are in some fundamental way anti-American — in the sense that they harbor a hostility to what is distinctive about America. This country is unique in being founded on explicit principles, among them individual liberty and private property. Put them together (they are really one) and you get free-market capitalism. America has long had an intellectual class that hates capitalism and would love to see it abolished. That has been made clear in some of the commentary following the terrorism of September 11. For example, writers in the various socialist organs have blamed the attacks on free trade (globalization) or the wealth disparity between America and much of the world. Such critics still operate from the fallacious view that one man's prosperity is another man's poverty. They have yet to grasp that in the marketplace one gets rich only by enriching others. That's the nature of voluntary exchange.

It is true that with trade comes ideas, and when a traditional society opens itself to exchange with the West it also opens itself up to social change. That can create resentment and resistance, which is why economic exchange is best left to the voluntary sector rather than to heavy-handed government or to international political organizations, such as the IMF and World Bank.

Stale left-wing criticisms aside, there are good reasons to be worried about the war. War, as the World War I dissident Randolph Bourne said, is like riding a wild elephant. You can't count on it to go where you expect it to go. There are too many variables. Too many things can backfire. The hot term these days is "blowback," the CIA shorthand for bad unintended consequences. (When you help develop a radical Islamic resistance to the Soviet Union and it turns on America after the Russians are vanquished, that's blowback.)

There is a threat to the home front during war also, and I don't mean continued terrorism. The threat lies in the expansion of government in the guise of protecting the American people from terrorism. For example, it has been proposed that national identify cards, or internal passports, be issued to everyone. (So far, President Bush opposes this.) On its face, this idea should repel us all. It is the mark of despotism, as any movie watcher would know. The idea that government officials can stop anyone anywhere anytime with the words "Show me your papers" should give every American a cold shudder.

The establishment of such a system of identification would perforce be accompanied by a requirement that everyone carry his papers with him at all times. Failure to do so would be a punishable offense. Police and other law-enforcement personnel would be authorized to stop us without cause and demand to see our IDs. In other words, one purpose of a national ID would be to give the government a reason to detain people. But it is already easy enough — too easy — for the police to stop someone they find suspicious. The potential for abuse of our civil liberties is not something we should take lightly.

Besides the obvious abuses, there are more subtle ones. A national ID plus computers equals massive government databases on people who have committed no crimes. Inherent in the idea of liberty, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence, is the freedom to come and go and to possess information about oneself free of government surveillance. If the government wants to watch someone, it should at least have to make a case before a judge that the person in question poses a potential danger. Unfortunately, history tells us even that is no guarantee against abuse.

The chances that an ID card will thwart terrorism are slight. The president's underage daughter was able to get a fake ID so she could order a margarita. Do you think sophisticated criminals will have trouble faking a national ID? Let's not sacrifice our liberty for the chimera of 100 percent security.

Sheldon Richman is senior fellow at The Future of Freedom Foundation (www.fff.org) in Fairfax, Va., author of Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State, and editor of Ideas on Liberty magazine.

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