World Peace Begins At Home


Larry Barnhart
April 2003

Iraq Attack, Part II: The Human Dilemma Continues

It is fascinating to hear all the arguments going on as a result of our latest adventure in Iraq. Of course, the news tends to report most on the polar extremes of opinion. Unfortunately, this tends to produce more heat than light.

In this article, I want to take a more measured approach to exploring the pros and the cons of our current adventure, which should shed some light on the larger issue of world peace. Rather than trying to figure out who are the good guys and who are the bad guys, let's start with the assumption that everyone has the best of intentions: we want the same thing, but have different ideas about how they can be achieved.

Since the beginning of time, the majority of humanity has probably wanted peace. However, that majority seems to have had little success in neutralizing the minority who wants power more than peace. They are like rats deciding who is going to put a bell on the cat. Iraqis have been unable to affect Saddam Hussein and make him sensitive to public opinion and reduce his exploitative policies. By the same token, anti-war Americans and the rest of the world have been unable to sell the President and his administration on the idea of holding back. This suggests that those who have the guns get to call the tune.

Arguments in Favor of the War

Those in favor or the war in Iraq point to 9-11 and say that we must root out anyone who could be a potential threat. I know a few people who hold this view, and I do not doubt their sincerity.

Another argument in favor of the war is that the Iraqi people have been suffering under Saddam Hussien's oppressive rule for over twenty years, and that they deserve to be liberated.

(According to the last polls reported by the media, 73% of the people are in favor of the war, which means that I am hanging around in the wrong part of town. In my circle, probably only 20% favor the war.)

Arguments Against the War

Many of those opposed to the war say that it is motivated by opportunism rather than by ideals. "No Blood for Oil" is a popular slogan, and suggests that our leadership is cynically sacrificing our youth for personal profits: "Conducting public affairs for private advantage."

As for people who are not opposed equally to defensive as well as offensive wars, many question the immediacy of the threat. In their minds, the threat is so remote that they are sure America will be viewed as the aggressor rather than as a defender. Iraq Attack, Part I is more easily accepted as a defensive, and therefore, a just war. (From what I can see, Iraq Attack, Part II is going to have to be very antiseptic in order for America to avoid being perceived as an aggressor.)

Let's Go Back to Basics

World peace begins at home. There are two ways to get what we want from one another. Our first choice is to offer positive value for voluntary exchange: either positive material value which is the hallmark of business, or positive non-material value which is the hallmark of relationships. Our second choice is to use some form of coercion to get what we want from others when they will not trade voluntarily. The three key coercion strategies are force, fraud and guilt. If both sides do not agree to a transaction and it takes place anyway, we can be sure that some form of coercion is being used.

Many people will object to the simplicity of this concept while overlooking their unhappiness due to conflict/coercion in their relationships. These problematic relationships range from friends to lovers to families to employment to government. It seems there is no end to the drama that is available in everyday life. (People who are justified in their misery are miserable nonetheless.)

For all the suffering going on, most people apparently accept it as an unescapable part of life. Consequently, life becomes a "competition to be the criminal rather than the victim." (1) When whole cultures accept this world view, life does indeed become "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." On the other hand, as people become less convinced that life has to be tragic, they can create very nice lives.

It's A Matter of Degree

There is the story about the English diplomat who was talking with a Sultan. The diplomat suggested to the Sultan that by lowering taxes people would work harder and more revenue could be collected. The Sultan informed the diplomat that he did not need more revenue because he not only owned what the people used, he owned the people themselves.

This is nothing new. In yet an earlier century, Thomas Paine wrote: "Wherefore, laying aside all national pride and prejudice in favour of modes and forms, the plain truth is that it is wholly owing to the constitution of the people, and not to the constitution of the government that the crown is not as oppressive in England as in Turkey." (2) As we go back further in time we find that government ownership of the people was even more blatant.

In some ways America can be said to be the freest nation of earth. However, total freedom is an experiment yet to be tried on this planet. Even at the inception of this nation, there were two violations of individual liberty built into the system: slavery and tariffs. In 1848, Frederick Bastiat intoned that "legal plunder" invites reprisals, and in time expands to become a complete system. Although he complimented America on being the most moral place on Earth, he suggested that these two "legal crimes" may in the long run be the undoing of the republic. (3)

Today, we can safely say his prediction may come true. Government has expanded into every area of our lives, in some cases incarcerating people for consensual crimes, and in other cases forcing people to do things they would not do of their own accord. America now boasts the largest prison population percentage in the industrialized world. Nevertheless, our propaganda machine is unrelenting and most of us will declare that we are a free people.

Then again, these things can be relative. Saddam has a reputation of being a mean sort of fella. Authors who write things he doesn't like can choke to death as pages of paper are shoved down their throats. I feel confident that that will not be my fate here in America, at least for the time being.

A Formula For Peace and Prosperity

In reality, the formula for peace and prosperity is very simple. Cultures who compete primarily in the arena of production fare better than cultures who compete primarily in the arena of coercion. (Intellectuals who are rewarded better through political patronage than they would be in a free market hate such "simplistic" formulations.)

You can feel safe using this slide rule. Cultures who focus on creating value for voluntary exchange will be more prosperous than their neighbors who are focusing on coercing one another in order to get what they want. Therefore, for all of America's weirdness and subtle coercion strategies, a lot of work is getting done, and people are living quite well, materially, at least. On the other hand, some places in Africa and other parts of the world have so much conflict that they cannot even plan for the next crop, much less the 20 to 50 years relative peacetime needed to develop an industrial infrastructure.

Using the same slide rule, we can anticipate that as America shifts its energy from production to coercion, its peace and productivity will decline. Likewise, should another culture get tired of coercing one another and elect to go to work, they will become an ascending culture.

As long as these principles are not a topic of conversation, we can be sure that whatever we do in the name of freedom and democracy will be little more than fighting the effects without while nurturing the cause within.

Applying These Principles in the Current Situation

On a certain level America is justified in attempting to free the Iraqi people from the oppression of Saddam Hussein. It is universally accepted that a bystander has a right, if not a duty, to stop a rape from taking place.

Given that American wealth and power was used to put Saddam Hussein in power in 1980, we might even be morally obliged to intervene as our foreign policy helped put the Iraqi people in harms way in the first place. Unfortunately, Iraq is not an isolated case. American policy has been supporting dictators with so little regard for the welfare of the people that our declarations of promoting "freedom and democracy" can ring hollow in the ears of the world.

In short, America may be less oppressive within its own borders than other parts of the world, and can claim moral superiority only in the most abstract sense that, on average, more work is getting done. Nevertheless, we still have lots of housecleaning left to do, and therefore we should be more humble in our declarations of purity.

Practical Considerations for Promoting Freedom Around the World

While we are well within our rights to defend a woman who is being raped, if the guy is so big that he could kill us and then rape the woman anyway, we might want to think twice about it. Also, if the rape is taking place two states away, we would be wise to defer to a closer Galahad. Finally, in our current legal environment, the defender is just as likely to end up in court as the perpetrator. Remember, many opinion leaders hold that defensive force is as morally reprehensible as is the use of offensive force.

While the powers that be can be suspected of engaging Iraq on purely commercial motives, there are some moral justifications that hold true. As it turns out, America is being condemned for its virtues as well as for its faults.

It is good to remember that freeing a people who have been long accustomed to oppression will most likely result in the same outcome, only with different players. If we force "democracy" on Iraq, chances are good it will not take. The idea that governments own the people has been around for centuries. A new philosophy is needed that promotes the idea that people are their own property and that governments are simply protectors from internal and external predators.

Forcing structural changes on cultures without offering a new philosophical base can only bring temporary results. Given that America is using the current crisis to erode the rights of American citizens, we stand to lose more than they hope to gain. If the rumors about Patriot Act II are true, we can say goodbye to our personal liberties in much the same way that RICO has told us to say goodbye to our property. Of course, this is not new. Eric Hoffer warned that we usually end much like the enemy we are fighting.

An Invitation

Once again: World Peace Begins at Home. The Middle East has been long accustomed to the notion that governments are the owners of the people, and it appears that Americans are gradually being trained to accept the same assumptions.

If we think about it, wars can only happen when governments are the owners of the people. How do democracies end up giving their governments that much power? By promising that we can all live at each other's expense through the magic of force (taxation). When the masses swallow that promise, that is the beginning of the end.

Trends start very subtly. Physical cancers are best treated when caught early. Philosophical cancers, if not caught soon enough can lead to the demise of a culture or the transformation of a culture to the point where it exists in name only.

It has been said: "What a tangled web we weave once we set out to deceive." To say that freedom is freedom is fairly straight forward. To say that slavery is freedom requires more finessing of the language. In our culture, which many claim is the freest nation on Earth, we have embraced many forms of legal plunder. Consequently, we are experiencing unprecedented encroachments by government.

Unweaving the web can be equally complex, and cannot possibly be addressed in an article. Consequently, if anything in this article rings true to you, please feel free to read or download a PDF file of my book: A Farm Boy's Testament to the United Nations. for "the rest of the story."

1. Attributed to Bertrand Russell
2. Thomas Paine, edited by Moncure Daniel Conway, "Common Sense", The Writings of Thomas Paine (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1894) p. 74.
3. Frederick Bastiat, translation by Dean Russell, The Law (Irvington-On-Hudson NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1990).

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