When President Obama announced a new $50 billion stimulus plan Labor Day weekend, conservatives scoffed, and rightfully so. Who does this guy think he’s fooling? After a $700 billion dollar TARP bailout, the auto-manufacturer bailout, and an $800 billion dollar stimulus, does this president actually think a comparatively measly $50 billion is successfully going to turn around an economy where greater sums have failed? But the president and his party always have a ready reply for such naysayers–“imagine if we did nothing.” This open-ended question will undoubtedly continue to provide cover for stimulus-loving liberals, no matter how much conservatives insist that their constant government intervention simply doesn’t work.
When my commentary on the ninth anniversary of 9/11 was broadcast on WTMA talk radio last Friday, a number of callers were angry that I would suggest that our constant foreign intervention does not work. No matter how much I illustrated how our incompetent government does more damage than good abroad, my critics sounded pretty much like Obama–“but Jack, imagine if we did nothing?”
So yes, let’s imagine these scenarios. What if the Federal Reserve had never artificially lowered interest rates and created a housing bubble? What if the Fed had not printed literally countless dollars out of thin air, further weakening our currency? What if we never had borrowed money from China to pay for bailouts and stimulus? Would we be worse off financially if the government had never done any of these things? Any conservative worth his salt recognizes the absurdity of these arguments and also recognizes that such fearmongering is typically used as an excuse for more statism.
But such fearmongering is also used by those on the Right to support our equally statist foreign policy, particularly when they portray radical Islam as somehow a threat on par with the Soviet Union or talk radio’s favorite comparison, the Nazis. Agreeing with some of the callers last week that there probably is a uniquely medieval aspect to Islam not present or as prominent in other major religions, I still asked: “Why did Americans not have to worry about Islamic terrorism in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s? What has changed? Islam? Or our foreign policy?” The question answers itself in the sense that we don’t have to “imagine” what might happen if we “did nothing” in the Middle East today, precisely because when we did little to nothing decades ago–there was no terrorist threat to the United States.
Ignoring this logic altogether, a few of my critics immediately and predictably called me an “isolationist,” in much the same way Obama now chides conservative Republicans as belonging to the “Party of No” for opposing every new government intervention the Democrats come up with. Government must do something, you see, and no doubt Obama would readily paint anti-stimulus Republicans as some sort of domestic, economic “isolationists,” if such jargon came into fashion. Luckily for conservative hawks such jargon in foreign policy is well-established–but is no less absurd. Compared to how engaged we are today in the Middle East, did the U.S. have an “isolationist” policy toward that region in the first half of the 20th century? Is Switzerland asking for trouble due to their long history of neutrality or “isolationism?” Are 99 percent of nations “isolationist” for not mimicking the foreign policy of the U.S., arguably the most ambitious imperial power in world history?
When conservatives suggest that we should apply free-market solutions to financial crises, liberals dismiss those who make such proposals as libertarian wackos who don’t realize that it was the lack of government regulation that led to such problems in the first place. This is similar to the claim many conservatives make concerning foreign policy, that if the U.S. does not lob bombs into certain third world countries indefinitely, station troops in some Mideast sandpit for decades on end–basically regulate the world stage–our refusal to do all this would somehow put the U.S. at risk. When someone like yours truly points out that we have problems like Islamic terrorism precisely because of our constant government intervention, many on the Right can’t fathom this being true–though they immediately recognize and rail against the dangers of such government intervention, domestically.
It’s time for both sides to start imagining what they worst fear–what if we did nothing? What if our federal government didn’t spend or borrow beyond its means, or intervene constantly domestically? What if our federal government did not constantly intervene overseas, spending and borrowing well beyond its means to do so?
We used to have a Constitution which restricted our federal government from doing such damage and if we could only return to that charter this entire column would be a moot point. Yet the prevailing belief that government must always do something, and the more the better, both domestically and abroad, will likely not be discarded by the interventionist Left or Right anytime soon. Both sides have an enduring attachment to statism, born not only of their particular ideologies but political identities, and will continue to create new problems using government intervention in the name of solving old ones-blind to the fact that the larger mess is almost entirely of their own making.
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