We are in a war, says the president, against a hidden enemy. That’s scary, and scarier still for what it may yield afterwards.
The great economist and historian Robert Higgs argued long ago that wars in the 20th century led regularly to permanent expansions of governments. There has to be a reason that all levels of government in a typical country spend now about 40 percent of GDP, whereas in 1910 worldwide they spent about 10 percent. In earlier centuries, war was seen as a hobby of kings. Consult the early scenes of Henry V. In 1815, after Britain had spent a century crushing France in war, from King-Queen William-and-Mary to King George III, sometimes appropriating startlingly large portions of private British GDP to do so, it stopped. The weight in the economy of governmental expenditure and supervision and press gangs declined instantly. In a few decades the British government was able to pay off its funded debt, which, as with the U.S. in 1945, had risen by 1815 to twice GDP. In the U.S. the ratio later did fall some, bumping up in Korea and each of our other undeclared wars. It was never within hailing distance of zero.
Something, that is, was strange about the 20th century. And war is always with us. I think the strangeness was in the realm of ideas, in particular the flourishing idea of socialism. J. M. Keynes, who contributed mightily to its flourishing even in free countries among sensible people of good will, and whose ideas of free lunches have recently been revived, said truly in 1936 that “madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back. I am sure that the power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.”
The wars, as in today’s war against the novel coronavirus, that is, were used as excuses to implement the bizarre ideas of European professors and their revolutionaries. Even in countries without many wars, such as those in Latin America, socialist ideas hitched to nationalism made their way and pumped up the size of government. Majority voting surely also contributed. The curmudgeon of Baltimore, H. L. Mencken, wrote a century ago that “democracy is the theory that the common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.” If you voted for socialism and nationalism in their up-to-date 20th-century forms, it was easy to vote for populism, Peronism, national socialism, and the regulatory state. Thus President Wilson’s sharp extension of governmental control of the economy in 1917–18, all the while using his propaganda machine, run by the brilliant George Creel, to suppress news of the “Spanish” influenza. (It started, you know, on a pig farm in Kansas. My grand-aunt Tillie from Illinois died of it.)
If we’re going to wander from the realm of ideas and focus on war, though, socialist countries of course are better at war than capitalist countries. Naturally. A war, especially under modern conditions of totality, unlike the hobby wars of earlier times, has a single, clear purpose for the nation, like a football team. A system of coercion directing given resources, which is what socialism is, will obviously be better at achieving the single purpose than a system of mutual agreements expanding the very meaning of resources, which is what capitalism is.
But I do so dislike the two words we use, the S-word and the C-word. They are misleading, coinages both of them by the enemies of liberty. Like “society” or “the nation” or “the general will” or “the balance of international trade,” they make us stupid. Capitalism should be called, rather, “innovism,” which is what it is. The original liberalism of people such as Adam Smith and Mary Wollstonecraft inspirited millions of ordinary people to have a go at innovating, such as Malcom McLean in 1956 inventing containerization, with the result that real income per head exploded, raising the roof. To a very, very tall roof. A roof 30 times as tall as the roofs of the earlier, pathetic hovels. It’s called the “Great Enrichment,” well beyond the more routine Industrial Revolution.
“Socialism,” to consider the other bad word, sounds sweet and collaborative. It charmed me as a folk-singing leftie in high school. Bernie Sanders and I are the same age. In 1960 we had the same opinion about capitalism. Since then I’ve listened and learned. Of course socialism is literally the use of the government’s monopoly of physical coercion to force people to do what they would not otherwise choose to do. If your sweetly socialist neighbor doesn’t think so, and balks at the word “coercion,” buy her a copy of the Soviet Jew Vasily Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows (unpublished and indeed suppressed after his death in 1964), about how life under socialism actually is. Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power over the economy corrupts absolutely.
Socialism should therefore be called “coercionism.” Sometimes, rarely, what the government coerces us to do is a swell idea, such as coercing parents to inoculate their children against measles. One measles case infects 20 others and the disease is regularly fatal for adults who haven’t had it as children. Ask the Aztecs and the Incas and the Mohicans on that score. The corresponding number for the novel coronavirus is two or three, which is quite bad enough. For influenza it is lower, between one and two, which is why in the normal seasonal influenzas, for some of which we have inoculations, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to coerce people. People, especially old people like me, have plenty of incentive to self-protect by getting their shots. And when the protection from the flu doesn’t work, as for many thousands annually it doesn’t, there isn’t actually anything more that either self-protection or an activist government can do about it.
But if the government has muffed the correctly coercive response to a plague with a high infection number — the correct response being to jump on it early and then test, test, test — then all that can be done sensibly is to quarantine. It’s the medieval technique. It has to be imposed on everyone if you are in the Middle Ages, or if the testing has been muffed for two months running. Everyone is suspect in the absence of testing. I don’t need to tell you that the president and his servants in the CDC and the FDA did not jump on the problem.
It’s like a shortstop fielding a hot grounder. The coaching advice is, “Play the ball. Don’t let it play you.” That is, step towards the ball, to master its bounce. The U.S. did not. Fellow democracies, such as South Korea, and Taiwan, did, and have not had to adopt the medieval coercion of mass quarantine. Tyrannies such as China and the Russian Federation tried early on to get away with suppressing the truth, natch, which is like pretending that the ground ball never came close to you. Or that the ground ball is fake news, or a conspiracy by CNN or other enemies of the people. Eventually China, as Russia will do soon, reverted to comprehensive coercion, as tyrannies do.
The president let the ball play him, and as a result our team is way behind. Come to think of it, if he can succeed in pushing the responsibility for going to get the ball, now resting in short left field, onto the governors and mayors, many of them Democrats, and if on the daily show with the VP and the compliant doctors he can go on getting free publicity to say how beautifully he in fact played the ball, maybe he’ll actually win the Fall Classic.
In other words, coercion is not all bad, no more than preventing your two-year-old from running in front of a bus is bad. Sometimes we need, in a war of survival (measles, Pearl Harbor), to reach over and coerce people. Compulsory elementary education is a case in point, properly financed by coerced taxes on you and me, though there’s no reason that the institution of coercion itself needs to run the schools. And there are a few other items. But in the age of electronic transponders, not roads, which could be privatized tomorrow, the way Chicago privatized street parking, and not “free” college, a massive subsidy to rich people whose kids are already better prepared for college.
In a society of free adults, it turns out, treating people like free adults works. Few readers of this magazine will disagree, although some of them, the real conservatives in the mold of Thomas Carlyle, will have doubts that most other people are suitably accorded the status of “adults.” Carlyle, a personal friend and political enemy of John Stuart Mill, originated the description of classical-liberal economics as “the dismal science.” Dismal how? Not because its conclusions were pessimistic, though they were, but because Mill and his liberal allies approved of the liberation in 1833 of all slaves in the British Empire. Carlyle reckoned that the slaves, like medieval serfs, needed sweet supervision by their masters. Oh, joy. Therefore, denying the sweet supervision was “dismal.” It was like bureaucrats in a regime of coercionism supervising the childlike citizens. Oh, joy. After all, it is so dismal to imagine that federal bureaucrats and their master might have their own motives unrelated to the public good, such as getting reelected and reappointed by means of underestimating the novel coronavirus. Surely they are our lovely and loving parents.
So another good name for the system that the non-conservatives and the non-socialists among us favor would be “adultism.” The Dutch defended very late their Indonesian empire by claiming that the childlike Indonesians needed a long apprenticeship to their masters before they were ready for independence. How long? Oh, another century or two.
Innovism and adultism, even aside from their intrinsic merit of raising up a people with dignity, have the extrinsic merit, I have noted, of making the people rich. The Great Enrichment, 1800 to the present, that factor of 30 in goods and services, was not caused by coercion but by liberty. Its magnitude was further multiplied by the free trade and free migration and free press that the president and his advisers Peter Navarro and Stephen Miller so disdain. Such riches make the distinctly second-best solution of social distancing less than disastrous. We will recover, of course, and do not have to sacrifice our liberties forever to do so. In 1984 George Orwell has the Party man O’Brien explain what a future of coercionism means: “But always — do not forget this, Winston — always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. . . . If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face — forever.”
Let’s not. Let’s keep a true liberalism supporting innovism and adultism. Let’s not fall back into the arms of an ignoramus Daddy with authoritarian tastes. Let’s not suppose that an occasionally necessary coercion justifies a future of coercionism.
This article appears as “The Immoral Equivalent of War” in the April 20, 2020, print edition of National Review.
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