The White House stated on Thursday that Syria crossed a "red line" with its use of chemical weapons, compelling the U.S. government to intensify the "scale and scope" of its support for the so-called Syrian opposition. Not unexpectedly, the eerily hawkish John McCain publicly advised president Obama to exploit every tool at his disposal short of sending battalions of troops overseas. But even though such conservatives are for once unwilling to -- as they so tritely say -- put American boots on the ground, they're foolhardily urging a course of action to ironically force freedom onto the tumultuous streets of Syria.
Contrary to what the the more conservative hawks appear to think, the ills plaguing Syria are kinds for which there isn't a known antidote, regardless of whether its formula is militaristic, humanitarian, or cloak-and-dagger. Indeed, the ills plaguing many of the areas in which conservatives wish to install a liberal democracy aren't at all curable by American hands. Nonetheless, that doesn't change the minds of the conservatives who believe we ought to be dying to deal with despotic madmen abroad.
Politicos and pundits on the right tend to support a fairly aggressive sort of foreign policy, generally wanting the federal government to involve itself around the globe with the intention of achieving particular goals. Incidentally, the noise exhorting action on Syria nicely exemplifies the conventionally conservative position. As a statement issued several weeks ago by Republican speaker John Boehner read, "The United States has vital national interests in Syria becoming a peaceful country with a stable, representative government...After two years of brutal conflict, it's past time for the President to have a robust conversation with the Congress and the American people about how best to bring Assad's tyranny to an end."
While conservatives can't seriously accuse their political opponents of longing for the survival of the last vestiges of tyranny, they will sometimes ridicule people who oppose mandating the government with overthrowing and rebuilding such regimes. In fact, it wasn't too long ago when the audience to a Republican presidential candidates debate scornfully booed Ron Paul for doing just that by preaching the innocuous and hardly disagreeable golden rule. But the opponents of foreign intervention -- being skeptical as to whether the government enjoys the competency to involve itself abroad without producing unintended consequences -- raise a concern in which conservatives ought to acquiesce. After all, conservatives routinely invoke the government's supposed incompetence, and thus its talent for producing unintended consequences, as a reason for uninvolving itself at home.
Thanks to economists like Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, many on the right see why high and mighty government intervention within one's borders isn't conducive to a healthy and prosperous citizenry.
In a paper the American Economic Review ranked one of the top 20 articles it ever published during its first 100 years in existence, Hayek wrote about why he thought markets bereft of the government's hands worked most effectively. The late Nobel Laureate argued that lawmakers couldn't possibly wield the knowledge necessary to regulate economic affairs so as to best achieve particular goals. Put another way, he believed the problem undermining the ability of policymakers was limited knowledge, and so markets that spontaneously evolved over time without top-down directives were best suited to further the human condition.
That being the case, policies tasked with realizing certain outcomes -- since the policies themselves, as it were, must be uninformed -- inevitably produce unintended consequences, about which the late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman spoke tirelessly. Friedman, who also greatly influenced the conservative movement, famously warned that government solutions normally give birth to new problems much worse than the initial problems the government intended to fix.
But that conservatives don't meaningfully apply to foreign affairs the economic insights of their intellectual forefathers, whose ideas spearhead the movement whether its apostles know it or not, makes the internationally hawkish yet economically conservative persona shamefully contradictory. While conservatives invariably refer to unintended consequences to bat away what they call sinister big-government at home, they turn away from the unintended consequences of what they think is irreproachable big-government overseas.
In doing so, however, they more embarrassingly turn away from the record of history, which nicely exhibits the fool's errand that is occupying foreign lands and trying to hammer into a society a working liberal democracy.
Between the years 1898 and 1923, the American government occupied Cuba three times with the hope of initially freeing it from its Spanish occupiers and stabilizing it. Regardless of the infrastructure the U.S. government built, the constitution the U.S. government drafted, and the education system the U.S. government instated, it failed to construct the system of governance it believed it could design. What's more, as economist Christopher Coyne documented in After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy, such failure to install liberal democracy abroad should be expected. Even twenty years after the American government occupied Nicaragua, Haiti, Mexico, South Korea, Lebanon, South Vietnam, and Somalia -- several of which it invaded multiple times for prolonged periods over the last century -- it failed to beget a political environment better than that of today's Iran. In the cases of Somalia and Haiti, Coyne points out that the American government actually made things worse.
The sort of planning needed to stabilize such unstable and effectively fractured territories like Syria and build systems of governance from the top-down precludes the spontaneity that Hayek thought was essential to a flourishing civilization. Indeed, the sort of planning necessary to manufacture a liberal democracy abroad is just as if not more complex than that which is necessary to design and steer the market, and is thereby bound to give rise to the harmful unintended consequences of which Friedman so persistently spoke.
Those on the right do indeed have insights to offer their brothers and sisters on the left, but by parroting contradictory and uncritical views they emit a stench of either chicanery or intellectual ineptitude. As a matter of fact, that there are conservatives who don't think it feasible to build markets but do think it feasible to meddle with the affairs of people abroad so as to build nations contaminates the very lifeblood of the conservative movement.
Alas, anybody on the left or right who thinks he has the proficiency to sell freedom by bundling it with a few hundred cruise missiles just isn't thinking.
This article was originally published in the Prince Arthur Herald.