TCS Daily

Truth Will Set You Free

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - April 23, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week, I wrote about the advantage that the United States possessed over Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and still possesses over just about all of its potential foes: an advantage bred of openness, individual initiative, and broad access to knowledge. This is a hard thing for our opponents to appreciate. It's even a hard thing for a lot of people who live in free societies to appreciate.

Dictatorships look like they ought to be powerful and efficient. There's not much visible debate or dissension: the Big Man makes a decision and lo! it happens. Stalin wants big dams, Stalin gets big dams. Mao wants "little steel," Mao gets little steel. And nobody complains! People march together in big flag-waving ceremonies, where they chant the dictator's name in unison. Usually there are lots of photographs of the dictator kissing babies, who are getting free health care through his beneficence.

It's all a crock, of course. Sure, if Stalin wants big dams, he'll get them. In fact, he'll get them even if they're a dumb idea, because everyone's afraid to tell him otherwise. Ditto with Mao's "little steel" program. Getting what you want isn't efficient, if what you want is a dumb idea to begin with. The free health care is usually only good while the cameras are rolling (look at Cuba, for example - or Mao again, whose sponsorship of acupuncture, often touted by alternative-medicine practitioners, had more to do with the fact that it was cheaper than drugs than any actual concern for efficacy.) Meanwhile people in free countries look sloppy and selfish and disorganized, lacking the selflessness and dedication of all those happy, flag-waving peasants. Instead they're busy playing in rock bands, or trying to make a killing in the stock market. And when they're not, they're complaining about the government.

Of course, the peasants are only waving those flags because somebody has (metaphorically or, often, literally) a gun to their heads (often shouting "and look happy while you wave that flag!"). The "lazy" free people, on the other hand, work pretty damned hard, because playing in the rock band is what they actually want to do. (You think it's easy to learn to play guitar? Try it.)

Napoleon famously derided the British as a nation of shopkeepers, only to discover what an aroused shopkeeper is capable of. Similarly, as Victor Davis Hanson notes, people are suddenly realizing that America's "slacker generation" isn't all that slack:

But the lethality of the military is not just organizational or a dividend of high-technology. Moral and group cohesion explain more still. The general critique of the 1990s was that we had raised a generation with peroxide hair and tongue rings, general illiterates who lounged at malls, occasionally muttering "like" and "you know" in Sean Penn or Valley Girl cadences. But somehow the military has married the familiarity and dynamism of crass popular culture to 19th-century notions of heroism, self-sacrifice, patriotism, and audacity. The result is that the energy of our soldiers arises from the ranks rather than is imposed from above. What, after all, is the world to make of Marines shooting their way into Baathist houses with Ray-Bans, or shaggy special forces who look like they are strolling in Greenwich Village with M-16s, or tankers with music blaring and logos like "Bad Moon Rising"? The troops look sometimes like cynical American teenagers but they fight and die like Leathernecks on Okinawa. The Arab street may put on shows of goose-stepping suicide bombers, noisy pajama-clad killers, and shrill, masked assassins, but in real battle against gum-chewing American adolescents with sunglasses these street toughs prove to be little more than toy soldiers.

That our opponents should forget this sort of thing is, I suppose, inevitable. But it's unfortunate that, sometimes, we do too. So far, calls for a change in American society in response to the war on terror have been fairly muted. But in talk of a "Patriot Act II" and in the Bush administration's efforts - both through legislation and through regulation - at reducing the open flow of in formation, I see worrisome signs that there are some, at least, who might want to abandon our open society, or parts of it, in favor of a
more "muscular" approach.

The trouble is that while clamping down on information may seem "muscular" it's actually dangerous if overdone. Taking lists of hazardous-waste locations offline is probably no threat to an open society. But the Justice Department's unwillingness to release information on how it is implementing the Patriot Act is deeply troubling. Sure, there are some tactical secrets that shouldn't be released. But it's been a year and a half since the Patriot Act was passed, and information on how the rather sweeping power that it granted has been used isn't being released. As Representative James Sensenbrenner recently complained, this sort of close-to-the-vest attitude makes it rather hard to trust them.

In Carnage and Culture, his history of Western warfare, Hanson notes that criticism and complaint have been hallmarks of Western war-making for millennia, and that though they have often been taken as signs of weakness, and frequently irritated the objects of the complaining, the result of all that criticism has generally been more effective war-making. Members of Congress need to remind the Administration that although keeping military secrets is an important part of warfare, so is the kind of discussion that, ultimately, makes us stronger rather than weaker.

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