Classical liberalism derives from individualism. Each individual owns his or her own life and energies and is therefore entitled to conduct that life according to his or her own judgment, consistent with the like liberty of others. From this foundation emerges the institutions of individual rights, private property, free trade, and the rule of law. Essential is the right of self-defense: if one owns ones life, one has the right to defend it against aggression. This is the basic argument for the right to keep and bear arms, and against gun control.
Groups, including societies, also have the prerogative to defend themselves. Groups are collections of individuals. There are no group rights per se, but individuals, who do have rights, are free to pool their resources and cooperate for their defense. Groups can have no rights not possessed by individuals. If an individual does not have the right to expropriate others to provide for his or her own defense, no group can have that right either. Group defense must be consistent with individual rights.
Governments, which have a monopoly on the legitimate use of force in a particular area, have traditionally and ultimately been justified on the need for collective defense, which, it is said, cannot otherwise be provided. Since a provider of collective defense cannot discriminate between those who pay for it and those who dont, it is argued, taxation and even conscription via government are justified to prevent free riders. In rebuttal it has been said that government itself presents a host of insidious free rider and other problems that may be worse than the one it set out to solve.
Another danger inherent in national defense is its tendency to exploit crises to enlarge and extend the coercive power of governmentparticularly executive powerto areas far removed from actual defense. If preparation for war has rationalized permanent new, intrusive powers, actual wars have magnified this process many times. The very logic of national defense weakens the checks on power that normally operate in domestic policy matters. For example, a skeptic about the fiscal viability of Social Security could not be plausibly silenced by the presidents claim that classified information shows the system to be sound.
Yet this routinely occurs in matters of national defense. The CIAs budget is classified. The activities of the National Security Agency are covert. Military plans, unless leaked, are secret. The potential for dangerous politically motivated mischief and wrongdoing is rife, and such episodes are often not unearthed until years laterif at all. The United States went to war with Spain in 1898 after an explosion aboard the Mainewhich may have been caused by a bad boiler. The War in Vietnam was precipitated by an attack on American ships in the Gulf of Tonkinwhich never occurred. U.S. participation in World War II followed the Japanese attack at Pearl Harborwhich was the not-unexpected culmination of U.S. economic warfare against Japan. Even during the Cold War, Soviet activities were construed by U.S. officials so as to justify the expansion of their power to tax and regulate the American people. This was essentially the analysis offered by Midwest Republicans such as Senator Robert Taft and Congressman Howard Buffett.
The upshot is that even in a constitutionally limited republic, national defense can serve to anesthetize the peoples wariness of, and hence to relax the constraints on, power. As H.L. Mencken put it, The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary. In the name of national defense, the federal government financed schools, built highways, and did other things only tenuously linked to true security. This tendency to expand government authority is encouraged by the facile dismissal and even silencing of critics as alarmists whose activities give aid and comfort to the nations enemies.
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