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The Anti-Liberty Boomerang of U.S. Militarism

An important new book explains how wars abroad create dangerous opportunities for social control at home.
police protest

Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism, Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall, Stanford University Press 2018, 280 pages

Millennials and members of Generation Z have spent much of if not their entire lives at war. As I’ve noted in these pages and elsewhere, the Afghan conflict is now in its 17th year, with more than 6,000 days having gone by, making it the longest war in American history. I was 12 years old when that war began in 2001; I’m now a month out from my 29th birthday. Beginning next year, the newly enlisted 18-year-olds who are deployed to Afghanistan will be younger than the war they are fighting.

The Iraq war began in 2003, saw a major troop withdrawal in 2011, and then was re-escalated by former President Obama in 2014. American forces remain there today to aid in the fight against the Islamic State, despite an agreement with the Iraqis that was supposed to begin a troop drawdown. An American-led regime change intervention turned Libya into a failed state. And we have blanketed countries such as Pakistan and Yemen with drone warfare, so much so that drones now haunt their citizens’ dreams. U.S. Special Forces were on the ground conducting activities in 149 countries as of 2017.

This kind of foreign policy adventurism is hardly unique to the present day. America has been aggressively deploying its military on foreign soil since the late 19th century. As Stephen Kinzer shows in his book Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq, we got our foot in the door of the regime change business all the way back in 1893 with our acquisition of Hawaii.

Living in a post-9/11 world has shattered any inclination to view domestic life as separate from and unaffected by foreign policy, particularly since the 2013 publication of classified NSA documents leaked to the press by Edward Snowden. Snowden’s revelations threw back the curtain on an omnipresent surveillance apparatus under which very few aspects of our digital lives were left unmonitored—all in the name of national security and the global war on terror.

The Snowden leaks demonstrate how an adventurous foreign policy can have negative consequences for liberty at home. Now, political economists Christopher Coyne and Abigail Hall have documented this phenomenon in their important new book, Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism. In their words, “coercive foreign intervention creates opportunities to develop and refine methods and technologies of social control.”

Coyne and Hall, economists at George Mason University and the University of Tampa respectively, introduce a concept for understanding this phenomenon called the “boomerang effect.” It works like this: the constraints on the activities of the U.S. government in the realm of foreign policy are generally weak, which enables those involved in foreign interventions to engage in practices abroad that would meet some institutional resistance on the home front. Eventually, though, interventions end, the interveners come home, and the practices employed on foreign soil are imported for use against the domestic population.

This importation happens along three separate channels. First, there is the development of human capital—the skills, knowledge, and other characteristics that contribute to one’s productive capacity. All companies, organizations, and agencies have goals they seek to accomplish, so they hire people with the right kind of human capital to execute said goals. Foreign intervention is no different.

Among the characteristics necessary for interveners include extreme confidence in their ability to solve complex problems in other countries, a sense of superiority and righteousness, comfort with pushing the ethical envelope, limited compassion and sympathy for the targeted population, and the association of state order with control. Interventionists, as Coyne and Hall put it, treat “society as a grand science project that can be rationalized and improved on by enlightened and well-intentioned engineers.”

The second phase occurs when the interventionists come home. Some may retire, but many go to work in various public- and private-sector jobs. The skills and mentalities that served them well abroad don’t disappear, so they begin employing their unique human capital domestically. Those who land in the public sector are able to influence domestic policy, where they see threats to liberty becoming manifest. Because of the relative lack of constraints when operating in a foreign theater, tactics that would otherwise cross the line domestically are seen as standard operating procedure.  

Finally, physical capital plays a significant role in bringing methods of foreign intervention back home. Technological innovation “allows governments to use lower-cost methods of social control with a greater reach.” The federal government spends billions annually on research and development, which buys a variety of different capabilities. These technologies, many originally intended for foreign populations, can be used domestically. One example the authors point to are the surveillance methods originally used in the Iraq war that found their way to the Baltimore Police Department for routine use.

The implication of the boomerang effect for policing doesn’t end with surveillance. It can also help explain police militarization, the origins of which lie in the foreign interventions of the Progressive Era, specifically in the Philippines.

In the wake of the Spanish-American War, Spain ceded its colonial territories to the United States. This led to the Philippine-American War, a bloody conflict that directly and indirectly caused the deaths of 200,000 Filipino civilians, and which ended in 1902.  

As veterans returned home from the Philippines, many sought careers in law enforcement where they were able to implement practices inspired by their days in the military. The effect of this was to “establish precedents whereby military personnel and tactics not only would be considered legitimate…but welcomed” by police administrations. Police militarization wouldn’t kick into high gear until the latter half of the 20th century, with the introduction of SWAT teams and the federalization of law enforcement during the LBJ and Nixon years. The men behind the development of SWAT were veterans of the Vietnam War.

What ultimately creates the conditions for this boomerang effect to take place? One factor, Coyne and Hall argue, is fear. Fear and crisis, both perceived and real, creates “space for government to expand the scope of its powers and adopt the techniques of state-produced social control that it has developed and honed abroad.” Fear can lead people to seek assurances from authorities, which goads them into tolerating and even demanding expansions of state powers—powers that in less fearful times they would not accept.

Once accumulated, that power becomes a normal part of life, and isn’t easily given up, as the great economic historian Robert Higgs shows in his classic work Crisis and Leviathan. Anyone who has gone through airport security over the last 17 years understands this, as the fear of terror attacks after 9/11 has led to ratcheted up airline security measures by the TSA. This has resulted in some fairly egregious violations of person and privacy, despite very little evidence that they work.

Coyne’s and Hall’s book is a great, conceptually holistic investigation into how the state can threaten our liberty. Economists regularly recognize the unintended consequences of domestic policy; Coyne and Hall have explained the unintended consequences of foreign policy, and their costs. It’s particularly timely, as President Trump’s tenure has seen decision-making authority at the Pentagon pushed down the chain of command, leaving the United States’ war-making capabilities even less accountable and transparent. This book is an incisive elucidation of what writer Randolph Bourne recognized a century ago and of which we could use a perpetual reminder: war truly is the health of the state.

Jerrod A. Laber is a writer and Free Society Fellow with Young Voices. He is a contributor to the Washington Examiner, and his work has appeared in Real Clear Defense, Quillette, and the Columbus Dispatch, among others.



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