Many libertarian and conservative economists I know are good at pointing out the unintended, and usually negative, consequences of domestic government policy. But a smaller subset of these people seem willing to look at foreign policy with the same skeptical eye. As I have written elsewhere [gated], they should be even more skeptical when looking at foreign policy, for two reasons:
1. The information problem: It's often hard for citizens to get information about the effects of government's actions on the domestic front. It's even harder for citizens to get information about the effects of their government's actions in other countries.
2. The incentive problem: One of the things that makes government domestic intervention less harmful than otherwise is that the politicians need to take account of voters. But the main victims of a government's foreign policy are usually not the people who live in the country that government governs. The main victims live in foreign countries--and they don't get to vote.
Steven Kinzer has an interesting piece laying out some of the harmful unintended consequences of the U.S. government's and other governments' intervention in Libya. Here's an excerpt:
Under the regime of Moammar Khadafy, who was killed during the Libyan war, a portion of the army was made up of Tuaregs. They are a nomadic people whose traditional homeland is centered in northern Mali. After Khadafy was deposed, they went home -- armed with potent weaponry they brought from Libya. Seeking to press their case for a homeland in Mali, they quickly overran the lightly armed Malian army.
Into this upheaval stepped another group, shaped not by ethnicity but by devotion to an extreme form of Islam. It has attracted Al Qaeda militants from many countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Algeria. They seek to create a pure Muslim state -- and are destroying mosques and Islamic monuments that they believe represent the wrong kind of Islam.
This is an emerging crisis that could engage the world for years. A vast region has fallen out of the control of central government and into the hands of violent radicals. They may cause far more death and suffering than Khadafy ever did.
Four officials in Washington pressed hard for intervention in Libya last year and managed to persuade President Obama that it was necessary to avoid a humanitarian disaster. When the four of them -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador to the United Nation Susan Rice, and two staff members at the National Security Council, Samantha Power and Gayle Smith -- decided to lobby for this intervention, did they consider the possible consequences?