Shall We Listen to the Peacemakers?


photo of peace symbol and torn sheet of paper with word peace on itImage: “All we are saying is give peace a chance. John Lennon,” photo by Kate Ter Haar via Flicker, cropped, resized, and stretched a bit. Used under the Attribution 2.0 Generic Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Advocates of a less interventionist U.S. foreign policy, such as Ron Paul, have long argued that foreign hostility against the United States, and with it attempts by terrorists to attack the U.S., would be much more rare if America had not so long insisted on interfering in the affairs of sovereign foreign nations and their (often alien) cultures. I’ve long been skeptical of this viewpoint, in part because, as perhaps the world’s greatest exporter of corrupt and corrupting entertainment, the U.S. will always seem a prominent source of harm to foreign people who don’t grasp our libertarian “If you don’t like it, just don’t watch (or read or listen to) it” mantra, though I think the mantra both right in principle and sound advice.[1] Still, I wonder if Paul and others’ theory might not be worth testing. Why not try butting out of foreign nation’s affairs for a few decades and see what happens? Dare we risk responding only when attacked, with properly declared wars instead of endless police actions without exit plans, rather than trying to keep our military fingers inserted in the leaks of social, cultural, and military dams everywhere in the world? Can a degree of international order and peace survive without the U.S. government pretending that it is constitutionally authorized to do more than secure the rights of U.S. citizens?

On the subject of constitutional authorization, I should note that this is why a small number of us refuse to call the U.S. a “democracy,” though, of course, it is “democratic” in the sense that, rather than some special group like a hereditary nobility holding power, it is the people who hold the authority to make all political decisions that human authority is permitted to make. Missing from democracies (even representative ones), however, are strong protections against the transitory will of the masses, grounded in principles, codified in law, that certain things are not subject to the people’s will, no matter how large the majority that shares it. The typical mode of operation of democracies is that the masses, construed as a corporate “we” whose will is determined by the majority, hold power to do anything and everything they please. This is how America now functions in many respects, with politicians saying how “we,” the majority exercising its will through the federal government, “must” do various things that the Constitution does not authorize. Just yesterday I heard a new 2020 presidential hopeful assert how this “we” must ensure that all households in the U.S. get connected to the Internet. (And this is not the most outrageous example, since one can at least argue that Internet access is becoming as essential to life as roads, power lines, and phone lines. Even so, most would not say that someone who chooses to live very, very far off the grid should receive taxpayer-funded roads, power lines, and phone lines when he could just live closer to civilization. And many might wonder why their local taxes fund Internet-accessing computers at public libraries when home Internet access for all is a federal responsibility.) As a republic, not a democracy, the constitutional system our Founders created was meant to make this sort of nonsense impossible. If something was to be done by the federal government, it needed to be explicitly authorized in the Constitution. If the states or the people wanted to foolishly surrender more of their powers to the federal authority, they had to amend the Constitution to do so. Since fundamental rights, usually summarized in works of the time as “life, liberty, and property,” were seen as inalienable, no number of citizens, not even the super-majorities needed to amend the Constitution, should be able to surrender individuals’ power to exercise these rights to the federal government. In practice, however, these rights have been infringed on by amendments to the Constitution, as during Prohibition. (Correct though abstention from alcohol may be both morally and prudentially,[2] taking away individuals’ freedom to decide for themselves seems clearly out of bounds.) And, of course, by permitting slavery to continue, the original Constitution itself infringed (more precisely, perpetuated in-progress infringement) on the liberty of a great many people, though at least it limited the political power of slave states by reducing representation for populations including relatively more slaves. If only our nation functioned as a republic, we wouldn’t have to hear so much ridiculous rhetoric, and so many foolish promises, from our politicians. Alas, as seen during Prohibition and with the Founder’s failure to abolish slavery, our nation’s slouching toward democracy began almost from its inception.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Whenever anyone suggests the U.S. become a little less entangled in the affairs of other nations, as President Trump has done intermittently and inconsistently, interventionists everywhere start decrying the retreat from our “decades of global leadership.” They never explain from where in the U.S. Constitution they think our government receives its mandate to act as leader of the globe. I don’t see anything about this in the Constitution or in any of the words of the Founders. I often miss things, though, so if you know where this grand function of our federal government is authorized, please drop me note. Until I get that note, I’ll persist in believing that, in line with the principles outlined in the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. government was instituted to secure the rights of the governed, that is, of those party to the social contract establishing that government, U.S. citizens. All other functions our government has taken on, including that of leader and policeman of the globe, are illegitimate.

This brings us to the subject of letters to the editor. I think I’ve mastered the skill of writing letters that make my point while adhering to my local paper’s 150-word limit. As best I can determine, though, the paper seems to prefer to print letters I’d judge less cogent than my own (frequently ones aiming only to amuse), having so far only opted to print one of four letters I’ve sent recently. Surely I couldn’t just be biased in favor of my own letters. And surely I couldn’t just be too impatient (even if it hasn’t yet been a week since the first letter, and even if the most recent letter went out just yesterday). Okay, so maybe I am both biased and impatient, and maybe some of those letters will appear in the print or online edition of my local paper, the San Diego Union-Tribune [SDUT], at some point. (Since the letters editor is typically too busy to notify letter writers when their letters are used, I may not know if one is used online.) Aware of no rule against it, I’m going to quote those letters in this post anyway, since quotations of brief items from the paper (even if prior to their actual appearance in the paper) seems permissible. I’ll flesh out the references if one or more of them ends up getting printed or posted by the SDUT.

The most recent letter I emailed to the SDUT on 10 February 2019. Inspired by my draft of the post you are reading, this letter reads,

Re: “Trump’s Worldview” (Feb. 10), wherein columnist Trudy Rubin joins other interventionists in attacking an admittedly inconsistent President Trump.

My understanding is that our Founders thought governments were instituted solely to secure the rights of the governed. In our nation’s case, that means U.S. citizens and no one else.

It is also my understanding that our Constitution, which those Founders created, specifically enumerates the powers granted the federal government, reserving all other powers to the states or to the people. Those enumerated powers, so far as I’m aware, do not include acting as leader of the globe or world policeman.

Prior to that, on 08 February 2019, I emailed the following letter to the SDUT (at first with an incorrect date, “Feb. 6,” for “Great Nations Prevail,” then with the correct date, “Feb. 8”):

We should thank Marc Thiessen for making clear why interventionists think the answer to failures in U.S. intelligence, law enforcement, and immigration (terrorism on American soil) must be expensive and endless undeclared wars in foreign countries (“Great Nations Prevail,” Feb. 8).

With a little effort, Thiessen’s thinking can be applied to the opioid crisis and the scourge of illicit narcotics in general. Let us immediately authorize military action in Mexico, Columbia, China, and anywhere else today’s killer drugs originate. Yes, it will be very expensive and cost many lives, but surely it is better to fight these things over there where they originate than on the streets of our own cities and suburbs.

A few days earlier, on 05 February 2019, I emailed the following to the SDUT. (The letter has since been printed by the SDUT, appearing under the editor-assigned title “It is past time to bring U.S. troops back home” on page B7 of the 16 February issue. I’ve therefore modified my quotation to match the printed version and noted in brackets where my original differed. The changes are minor and do give the letter a more balanced look in print, so I call attention to them without any bias against them.)

Re “Senate breaks with president” (Feb. 5): [My original began with “Re two Feb. 5 articles:” followed by a paragraph break] I’d like to thank Senator Rand Paul for standing against his party’s call to prolong American entanglement in Syria and Afghanistan [my original provided the article’s title here and used title rather than sentence case, at variance with SDUT conventions]. The only GOP candidate in the last presidential primary to show serious concern about the debt, Paul has again shown himself better than his party.

I’d also like to thank Iraq’s President Barham Salih for pushing back against President Trump’s sop to interventionists (“Iraqis rebuff Trump over troops”). [My original lacked this paragraph break.]

It is strange that Trump, who has so emphasized how he opposed starting the war in Iraq, now supports prolonging the use of Iraq as a base for ongoing U.S. intervention in the region. Our debt-ridden government should be closing down foreign military bases (see the documentary “Standing Army”), not finding ways to keep newer ones open.

Prior to all these, on 25 January, I emailed the next item. This letter has been printed, appearing in the paper’s South+East section’s “Community Dialog” on 31 January 2018, under the editor-assigned title “Political leaders do not seem to understand economics.” It reads as follows. (I’ve removed a comma that became a typo when the paper removed page numbers I’d included, but I’ve otherwise matched my quotation to the printed version. The italicizing and non-capitalization of article titles in quotation marks is an SDUT convention that I did not follow in my original, never having paid close attention to it before now; and I used Ross’s rather than Ross’ for the possessive in the second paragraph.) This letter may at first seem unrelated to the others, since it has more to do with the pragmatic issue of insanely large debt, but costly and constant foreign intervention contributes a great deal to our nation’s debt, so I see the letter as appropriate to include.

Even the least astute private citizens acquire some financial wisdom after years of mistakes. [In my prior draft, I’d written, “Even we least astute private citizens acquire some financial wisdom after years of mistakes” (emphasis added), since my past financial behavior quite fit the “least astute” pattern.] Not so the parties running our government, Jan. 25’s articles show. [My original used “Jan. 25 articles show,” since only select articles were in view. I initially prefaced this with “three,” but then removed “three” when trimming to meet the word limit.]

Thinking it better to incur debt than accept charity is not a debt-reducing attitude, but Republicans seem untroubled by it (“Ross: Federal workers should take out loans” and “Try ‘Madam Speaker’”). Though they’ve criticized Ross’ assumption that unpaid workers could get easy-fast credit, I’ve not heard any emphasize that debt-free charity is better than debt.

Even if one considers the right to property unimportant and thinks it pragmatically sound to grant control of private wealth to a body with our government’s track record, surely one shouldn’t suggest, with Democrats, that a proposed new source of income be spent on big new “initiatives” (“Warren to push new taxes on rich”). This government falls daily into deeper debt: New sources of income have already been spent.

For most of history, few things have cost nations more than war, both money and liberty being lost. “Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God” (Matthew 5:9), and they might also save our nation’s wealth and restore its lost liberties—if we listen to them.

Elaborations

[1] While I do not endorse either secular libertarianism (like that of Ayn Rand and her disciples) or the Libertarian Party, I think that the fundamental spirit of America may rightly be described as “libertarian.” This spirit, of course, has been perversely twisted by secularization: note how often movies portray high moral values and discipline as the kin and accomplice of tyranny, and portray moral corruption and licentiousness as part and parcel of individual liberty (a movie I’ve never watched all the way through, V for Vendetta [2005, dir. James McTeigue], epitomizes this in portions that I’ve viewed). Our nation’s Founders would find these juxtapositions the most ridiculous nonsense; so it was that John Adams said that our republican system of ordered liberty was only suitable, and so could only survive and thrive, given “a moral and religious people” as its citizenry. Liberty constrained only by sparing laws against infringing upon the rights of others can only produce a well-ordered and properly functioning society if high standards of moral self-discipline prevail among the people. One reason that American liberties are today being eroded is that today’s Americans, to a great degree, are not suited for liberty.

[2] When my political principles and theory of government have been unclear or in flux, in fact, I’ve toyed with the idea of supporting alcohol prohibition, since some who’ve studied the issue can show positive effects of this past foray into widespread infringement of liberty (See Geisler and Turek’s Legislating Morality, for example, which also provides interesting thoughts on a number of other topics). Whether, pragmatically speaking, these positive effects compensated for the negative effects (such as creating a marketplace ripe for exploitation by organized crime), I leave readers to decide.


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So, what say you?