David R. Henderson  

In Defense of Cato

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Nathan Smith, a commenter on Arnold's recent post, stated:

Cato libertarians are ferociously ignorant about all things foreign-policy-related, ignorant not in the sense of being unaware of facts but of refusing to be influenced by them, and their views are written off by serious people.

Will Wilkinson of Cato answered:

I don't pretend to have any expertise in foreign or military policy, which was not in any case what my post about GDP as a proxy for welfare was about. Anyway, my Cato colleagues Malou Innocent, Justin Logan, and Chris Preble (among others) are some of the most best foreign policy minds in Washington, and "serious people" certainly do take them seriously. I encourage you to read their work some time.

I don't pretend to have expertise in foreign or military policy: I do have expertise. And I agree with Will. Some of the finest work on foreign policy in the last twenty years or so has come out of Cato's shop. Ted Galen Carpenter has done first-rate work, as has Doug Bandow, and now the younger generation is following their lead. Chris Preble has an excellent recently-published book on foreign policy that I highly recommend. If you want to see why, read my review.

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CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (9 to date)
Will Wilkinson writes:

Thanks, David.

RL writes:

I glad you posted this, David. I wasn't impressed by Arnold's initial post and several of the comments it generated were exceptionally dismaying. Cato, perhaps more than any libertarian think-tank I can recall, has made a very strong and PRACTICAL case for a libertarian, non-interventionist foreign policy while simultaneously being rigorous in its defense of immigration and international free trade.

Taimyoboi writes:

Has Henderson and/or Cato-ites made the case that not spending on the military during the Cold War would have brought it to an end more quickly and at less total cost to everyone (US and non-US)?

If so, could someone provide some links? I'd be curious to read them. If not, are there alternative arguments that those situations are different than the present day (is this something we can evaluate ex ante)?

I think Nathan Smith's criticism of Libertarian preference for non-intervention is not entirely inaccurate. For example, the individuals that Henderson notes and the review that he links to of the book all seem primarily focused with post-Cold War military spending, which, I think fails to adequately deal with precedent.

Tom writes:

Sorry, I was never the least bit impressed by Galen Carpenter nor Bandow's work, at least in the 1995-2002 timeframe when I was exposed to it.

If your review is accurate, it's also disappointing to see Preble fall for the myth of Japan's defense budget; calculated the same way the US does its, it's more than double the figure he reported. It's probably overly simplisme to completely dismiss Preble's work, but that's the sort of error that gets my hackles up, because it reveals that either he doesn't know something he should that I think is generally known by specialists or he does know it and he's ignoring it because it detracts from his point.

To explicate the error for the curious, per Henderson's review, Preble lists Japan's 2007 military spending at $340 per person. This is in line with the "official" military spending figure, which is capped at 1% of GDP. Of course, governments being governments, Japan's official military budget is always somehow close to but under 1% of GDP and actual military spending, judged the same way the US's is, is more like 2-2.5% of GDP. They get there by aggressively attributing acquisition and R&D costs to other ministries where remotely plausible, separately accounting for base expenditures and maintenance, sticking US-related costs under the Foreign Ministry budget, and, a big one, not including any personnel-related expenses beyond salary. Japan's military budget per capita is thus more like $800 per person. This doesn't substantively affect Preble's point that the US spends a great deal more than every other country, so the only reason not to include it is he knows not of which he speaks. As somebody who'd prefer a more intelligent libertarian voice in foreign policy, that's disappointing but not particularly surprising.

David R. Henderson writes:

I don't know the answer to your question, but my view is that the U.S. didn't need to be in a Cold War. Harry Truman has a lot to answer for.
Interesting point about Japan. Please provide a cite or two.

Nathan Smith writes:

So I followed the links, and I didn't have to go too far to see my view of Catoite isolationism confirmed.

First, observe how the titles nonchalantly assume that Americans' narrow self-interest is the only objective of US foreign policy. Preble's book is titled *The Power Problem: How American Military Dominance Makes Us Less Safe, Less Prosperous, and Less Free.* Note the *us.* A person might, of course, support US military dominance, despite conceding that it makes us less safe, less prosperous, and less free, on the grounds that it makes other people more safe, more prosperous, and more free. That it has done so to an enormous extent in western Europe is difficult to doubt in light of the contrast between the post-WWI and the post-WWII periods in Europe. In the rest of the world, the case is less open-and-shut, but the remarkable peacefulness of the world since the Cold War gives advocates of US hyperpowerdom pretty good grounds for feeing smug. None of this is to concede that abandoning US military dominance really would make us-- the narrow us; Americans-- safer, freer, and more prosperous. It wouldn't. But even if it would, most people think it's immoral not to take the welfare of others into account. At least, that's the intuition most of us have, and Catoites tend to not to seriously argue against it, trying instead to lure people into the notion by treating it as an assumption.

Again, on the Ted Galen Carpenter page to which Henderson links, there's a book title: *Beyond NATO: Staying Out of Europe's Wars.* Anyone not schooled in isolationist ideology has to scratch his head at this title. What European wars? OK, sure, there are minor affairs like Bosnia and Kosovo and Putin's invasion of Georgia, but generally speaking there aren't any "Europe's wars" to speak of, and the reason is precisely, and quite obviously, that after WWII, America decided not to "stay out."

In the book summary at the link, Carpenter makes the narrow self-interest point: "Above all, he urges U.S. policymakers to remain aloof from European conflicts that do not have a direct and significant bearing of America's vital interests." America's vital interests. But, again, what if there's a European conflict which doesn't really affect America, but in which there are clearly good guys and bad guys, and the bad guys will win and commit terrible atrocities if America doesn't get involved? The implication is that America shouldn't take that into account.

Yet this narrow self-interest argument is contradicted just a few sentences before, when we discover that "[Carpenter] contends that preserving NATO is unnecessary because the West European nations now have the economic and military resources to protect their own security." Logically, "p because q" implies "if not-q, then not-p." Logically, "NATO is unnecessary because Western European nations can defend themselves" would seem to imply "if Western European nations couldn't defend themselves, NATO would be necessary." If Carpenter believed that, he wouldn't be a good Catoite isolationist. Anyway, the final sentence of the book summary, about "America's vital interests," shows he doesn't. So why does Carpenter make the "NATO is unnecessary because W. Europe can defend itself" argument? Well, because he wants to broaden the appeal of his book. It's a sort of invitation: "Even if you're repulsed by my assumption that America shouldn't give a hoot whether England and France and Germany and Spain are free or get conquered by some totalitarian power, you can still agree with my policy prescriptions because that's not going to happen anyway." I think readers see through this transparent attempt at manipulation and don't appreciate it.

What can I say about Henderson's review of Preble's book? So Republicans were the peace party in the mid-1990s and then the war party after 9/11. Uh, so what? I'm for umbrellas on rainy days and against them on sunny days. As for the "huge" cost of American foreign policy, I don't think our military spending is high by historical standards as a share of GDP (compare, say, the Kaiser's Germany, or tsarist Russia), and the growth in prosperity and freedom worldwide since WWII, compared to the bloody chaos and depression of the 1930s, is a large enough benefit to make the cost of US defense spending negligible by comparison, particularly if the welfare of foreigners is taken into account. This is not to say that all the improvement since the 1930s is due to US foreign policy. But if you're going to say the world would have been getting better just as fast if the US had stayed isolationist, you have to make that case, because the rest of us think US foreign policy had a good deal to do with all the improvement in the post-WWII world, for the obvious reasons of temporal correlation-- things were getting worse before we stepped in and started getting better after-- and plausible causal connections-- countries are more likely to make wealth when they're not being invaded by Nazis.

To the "two damning quotes from neoconservatives" about how US power provoked 9/11, serious people understand that America's exercise of power in the world will provoke some backlash, but that's a price worth paying to advance humane values in the world and prevent larger threats from materializing. The odd thing is that Preble and Henderson treat these quotes as drop-dead arguments for isolationism. How could they think that? The example of the 1930s and WWII makes it clear that potentially tens if not hundreds of millions of lives hang on the US's choice to be isolationist or not. Possibly they don't really hang on it-- I'd be interested in hearing the case that they don't-- but the presumption has to be that they do. If so, how could a person regard the deaths of 3,000 New Yorkers on 9/11 as grounds for America withdrawing from the world? With all due respect to the 9/11 victims, they are too unimportant, literally by orders of magnitude, to be a reason for such a possibly/probably catastrophic change in policy. Needless to say, I would say the same if my loved ones or myself were among the victims. Indeed, in that case, I would be especially eager that my life not be a pretext for US isolationism. "Not in our name," indeed! Of course, to respond to 9/11 by withdrawing from the world would be imprudent as well as immoral. By giving the terrorists just what they wanted, would have been the best way to invite further attacks. If they give up as easily as that, let's hit them a few more times and see if we can get them to pay the *jizya!*

And I think here we get a glimpse of why Giuliani's rebuttal to Ron Paul in the 2007 debate made him the hero of that presidential debate. Most people were, like Giuliani, baffled and horrified by Paul's remarks, because they seemed to be a case of extreme cowardice-- an argument that America's response to 9/11 should have been to abandon the values we'd striven for for decades and go into full retreat-- and/or to show that Ron Paul wanted us to do what the terrorists wanted because he agreed with them, not in his vision of the good society of course, but in his attitude towards America's role in the world. To parse Giuliani's words too carefully is to miss the point. Possibly he misspoke slightly. But his shock and amazement was genuine, justified, and shared by the audience, which was grateful that he stepped up as its spokesman. In truth, Paul isn't exactly a coward. He has principles for which he would take risks, maybe even die. But because he and other Catoite isolationists understand that most people find their principles both naive and morally repugnant, they try to get people to agree with them by appealing to their cowardice.

A word on the term "isolationist." I think it is the right word for this school of foreign policy because Catoite foreign policy scholars argue in the tradition of the foreign-policy isolationism of the 1930s, when this way of thinking was much more influential, was indeed almost the consensus view in the country. The way to understand the Catoite foreign policy school is that they're the only people who never understood the lessons of Munich, who still want a foreign policy based on appeasement. I know they'd prefer to be called "defensive realists." But, first, that's a bit of a dodge. The value of that phrase is that no one knows that it means. It's a way of escaping associations with the 1930s foreign policy that everyone assumes has been discredited beyond recall. And, second, no one writing in foreign policy today is less entitled to call themselves "realist" than the Catoites, whose views are dictated by ideology (though I think Catoites are entirely mistaken in thinking that there is any connection between their foreign policy positions and libertarian ideology generally). However, to give credit where it's due, Catoites are the opposite of isolationist on trade and immigration, and I do appreciate that.

Well, I should stop before I wear out my welcome, if I haven't already done so. I wouldn't want to provoke Arnold and Dave and Bryan into blocking me from posting comments in future! I recently posted a long argument on "Christianity and Politics" at my blog, Free Thinker, which is relevant to these themes. People who want to read even more of my writing and argue with me can feel free to stop by.

Tim da Silva writes:

With all due respect Mr. Smith misses one vital piece of information. The foreign policy of the United States is to strategically influence the needs of the United States. It is paid for with money collected by the United States government for that purpose. The idea and purpose of the Bill of Rights is to guarantee the citizen's of the United States of America certain rights that the government should not be allowed to take away(not that they haven't to a certain extent in the past for one reason(e.g. Japanese Americans 1941) or another but the idea is that they should not be allowed to).
The idea of eliminating freedom's for the American people so that others in the world can be "more free" is not something that can be easily sold to anyone. Saying "look you may be living under a more totalitarian regime now but the people of Botswana have more freedoms because of it and you paid for that" (with your tax dollars)is not an exchange that most citizen's are willing to make.
As for NATO and the UN I would say it makes sense that they should be more concerned with making the world a better place for all. I do not believe though that any one country should disproportionately pay more than everyone else. I believe all member should pay there part.

Furthermore Mr. Smith,Although I am not with Cato, nor do I claim to represent anyone's views but my own. You really do hurt your own argument in two ways: 1. You build straw men up in your posts so you can knock them down by attempting to say people don't have a said background or they would not think the way they do(when in fact in my opinion they seem better informed than you). 2. You end with the following: "I recently posted a long argument on "Christianity and Politics" at my blog, Free Thinker, which is relevant to these themes. People who want to read even more of my writing and argue with me can feel free to stop by." It Might as well said sponsored by Budweiser, talk about gratuitous Marketing. I just hope most see through that.

Tom writes:

I'm having trouble finding a good internet explanation; I thought CDI had one, but their pages on military spending seem to have been removed. I'll dig up a good paper source, but that entails digging around in some old files, which won't happen until the weekend. I can email you if don't want to use the by-then old comment thread.

David R. Henderson writes:

Thanks, Tom. You can send to the webmaster, who will then forward it to me.

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