The Corner

Inactivists and Iraq

Over the last few months several readers have queried me on what they see as an inconsistency on my part. As longtime readers know, I am a champion of what I like to call “inactivism.” Inactivism can be summarized by Calvin Coolidge’s observation that “When you see ten problems rolling down the road, if you don’t do anything, nine of them will roll into a ditch before they get to you.”

These readers also note that I am in favor of an activist foreign policy when it comes to Iraq — and a few other places as well — and they accuse me of hypocrisy. It’s a fair point as far as it goes in that I’ve never made a distinction between foreign and domestic policy when it comes to inactivism. But there is an important distinction here. In a decent, democratic, society individuals and associations of individuals can be trusted to regulate themselves and each other with minimal governmental — especially minimal federal — interference. Businesses solve their own problems without Washington, property owners protect their own property, communities devise ways to protect their citizens. Etc.

In the international arena these rules do not apply. Here, a state of nature exists. Here, states, peoples, nations and faiths often vie in a zero-sum environment. And these actors must act on their interests to regulate the “global community.” In America, we can count on the fact that most individuals share common values, common understandings of self-interest and common agreement upon the rules of settling disputes. Such a regime doesn’t exist outside our borders, except perhaps among a few allies or on a few subjects like trade. Many regimes and movements would gladly destroy or at minimum harm America if they had the means. It is up to our government to make sure that doesn’t happen. There is no conflict with inactivism because the global arena is a libertarian environment and therefore we must take it upon ourselves to deal with criminal actors — not rely on some global superstate to fix problems.

Also, keep in mind that even the inactivist recognizes that 1 in 10 problems are real problems in need of our attention. We are not considering waging war on 10% of the bad actors in the world.


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