TCS Daily


War vs. Freedom?

By Nick Gillespie - November 12, 2002 12:00 AM

"War is often the enemy of freedom."

Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman, an intellectual hero to both libertarians and conservatives, uttered those words at the recent meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society in London. Discussing potential threats to freedom at the dawn of the 21st century, Friedman registered his concerns that war poses a considerable threat to the project of advancing liberty for mankind.

As the Bush Administration continues pressing the war on terror at home and abroad, and as the Pentagon prepares for war with Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, TCS has asked Nick Gillespie, the editor of Reason magazine, and Jonah Goldberg, the editor of National Review Online to debate the idea of war as the enemy of freedom. Gillespie's opening thoughts appear below, with Goldberg's first response appearing Wednesday.


Even as the U.S. is threatening Saddam Hussein with the mother of all sequels to the Gulf War, the invaluable and hopefully immortal Milton Friedman has had the temerity to insist that "War is often the enemy of freedom."

Well, good for him.

His message is all the more important precisely because the U.S. is hunting down apparent Al Qaeda terrorists around the globe, occupying post-Taliban Afghanistan to who knows what end, and mobilizing for a large-scale invasion in the Middle East.

Friedman's message also resonates because of the myriad figurative wars we've been fighting for decades on the home front. For the past several decades, we've been so quick to wage "war" on poverty, pollution, drugs, tobacco, pornography, obesity, ad nauseam that I like to hope that even the most bellicose reformers dream of signing a Kellogg-Briand Pact for social uplift schemes.

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War - both literal and figurative - is indeed the enemy of the truly liberal society that Friedman has spent his life championing and that I would prefer to live in. War necessarily subordinates the individual's freedom to the state and replaces voluntary association with coercion. As such, it is inherently collectivist and illiberal. Even World War II - as "good" a war as can be imagined - helped concentrate power in fewer and fewer hands. As Friedman told C-SPAN's Booknotes on the 50th anniversary of F.A. Hayek's The Road to Serfdom, "The fact that in war you do have to have an enormous amount of government control greatly strengthened the idea that after the war what you needed was to have a rational, planned, organized, centralized society."

This isn't to say that war can't be justified. It is to say that even at its most justifiable, war is tragic and should only be waged whenever necessary and by the least objectionable and most limited means possible. (This latter point, incidentally, is why Friedman says his role in ending the draft remains his single greatest policy achievement.)

Which brings us to Iraq and the war on terrorism - two very different things, at least according to U.S. intelligence, which has not linked Bagdhad directly with the 9/11 attacks. It's likely we can continue to contain the despicable Hussein regime's threat to the U.S. with less than an all-out war.

I am convinced that we need to go after Al Qaeda. The question is, How do we do as much violence to the terrorists and as little harm to the Constitution and the American way of life?

The prosecutors of the war on terrorism have laid claim to special status that requires special cops, special courts, and special laws - or, more precisely, exemptions from standard laws. Congress has passed The USA Patriot Act, which gave the government new powers to surveil and prosecute. The upcoming Homeland Security bill will give the government even more. It's far from clear that such new powers are necessary or warranted. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation noted when the Patriot Act was introduced, "The government made no showing that the previous powers of law enforcement and intelligence agencies were insufficient... to allow them to investigate and prosecute acts of terrorism." Increasingly, it appears that 9/11 happened in spite of massive intelligence information and resources, not because of a lack of them.

It's also far from clear that the new powers will be used wisely. Indeed, the government's treatment of Jose Padilla, a citizen who has been classified as a "enemy combatant" and against whom no case has been made, and alleged hijacking conspirator Zacarias Moussaoui, who may be turned over to a military tribunal for no apparent reason other than the Justice Department's failure to make headway in federal court, don't inspire a lot of confidence.

Such instances are easy to brush aside, especially if you're not likely to be mistaken for a terrorist. But it's important to remember that the war on terrorism is in its infancy. As my colleague Jacob Sullum has written, President Bush "did not declare war on Al Qaeda or the Taliban; he declared war on terrorism, which will be with us in one form or another for the foreseeable future."

I'm reminded of another Friedman quote: "Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program."
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