Perfecting Tyranny

When discussing the costs of foreign intervention, it’s typical for scholars, elected officials, and the general public to focus on the international consequences. As the U.S. prepares for new offenses in Iraq and Syria, for example, many have called into question issues of civilian casualties, the impact on these countries’ political and economic systems, and how these policies will impact international relations.

But foreign interventions do not only impact people “over there.” In the most recent issue of The Independent Review, my co-author Chris Coyne and I examine how foreign interventions undertaken by the U.S. government have long-term domestic consequences. In the article, “Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control,” we explain how foreign interventions work to increase the scope of government activities domestically, resulting in a reduction of citizens’ liberties and freedoms.

We argue that foreign interventions serve as a sort of “testing ground” for the U.S. government to experiment with new forms of social control. Domestically, the government faces constraints on what it may and may not do to U.S. citizens. When intervening abroad, however, many of these constraints are either weakened or altogether absent. Without these restrictions, the government is able to develop and hone new methods of social control. We identify the channels through which these new methods are imported back into the U.S. and show how these changes allow the government to become more effective at controlling not only foreign populations, but the domestic population as well.

Through our theory of the “boomerang effect,” we demonstrate how foreign interventions generate changes in technology and professional skills (what economists call “physical” and “human capital”) which lowers the cost of using social control technologies domestically. We illustrate how foreign intervention changes the structure of the larger government, as well as private and public industry. These changes allow for social control methods to be more easily implemented domestically.

We apply our framework to two cases—the origins of national surveillance (NSA) and the creation and rapid increase in the use of police paramilitary units (PPU) or SWAT teams in the U.S.

The idea that foreign interventions have real domestic consequences has important implications. It implies that a government, though technically abiding by domestic laws, may nonetheless erode the liberties and freedom of its own citizens through foreign intervention. It also indicates that it is important to examine the scope of government activities, in addition to the scale. With the notable exception of Robert Higgs’ work, most scholars tend to focus on issues of scale. This work indicates that issues of scope are just as important for those of us concerned about individual liberties.

Lastly, this work illustrates another cost of engaging in foreign intervention. I discussed in my last post how the actions of the U.S. government abroad have unintended costs. Before advocating intervening abroad, we should consider that such actions may not only cost us monetarily, but we may pay with our freedoms.

Governments often utilize rhetoric of freedom and liberty to justify foreign interventions. This supposed commitment to higher ideals is indicated by the names the U.S. government has assigned to recent foreign military interventions—Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Falcon Freedom, and so on. Despite this rhetoric, it may be the case that foreign interventions do more harm to freedom than good. Foreign interventions change the fundamental structure of the system intended to protect us from government suppression. These changes are likely to erode, not protect, our liberties.

Abigail R. Hall is a Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and an Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.
Posts by Abigail R. Hall | Full Biography and Publications
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