What Liberals Can Learn from the War

by Harry Browne

October 11, 2003         

War involves the use of force to impose one's way upon others. It brings with it collateral damages that hurt the innocent as much or more than the guilty. . . . 

   Innocent people die, are maimed, lose their property, or lose their loved ones.

   Innocent Americans are deprived of freedoms supposedly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights in the name of some goal, such as "world peace" or "national security," that is never reached.

   Innocent people are taxed to pay for an enterprise that they may oppose intensely, but that satisfies the desires of politicians.

   Innocent Americans lose the right to make their own choices.

Liberals naturally oppose these oppressions and speak out against them.

We can easily see similar harmful effects of using force in some other government programs such as the insane War on Drugs:

   Innocent people die, are maimed, or lose their loved ones in drug raids or because of the street violence that comes from taking the drug business away from pharmaceutical companies and putting it in the hands of criminal gangs.

   Innocent Americans are deprived of freedoms supposedly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights. People who don't deal in drugs still have their bank accounts and other property searched, and their assets are vulnerable to forfeiture with no constitutional safeguards in the name of some goal, such as "a drug-free America," that is never reached.

   Innocent people are taxed to pay for a program they may oppose intensely, but that satisfies the desires of politicians.

   Americans lose the right to make their own choices about their own lives.

Force Is the Defining Factor

But liberals need to understand that such collateral damages exist in all government programs, because force is the defining factor in every government program.

People are forced to do what they don't want to do, or are forcibly prevented from doing what they do want to do, or are forced to pay for things they don't want to pay for.

If you think some government program, law, regulation, or tax doesn't involve force, try disobeying it don't pay the Social Security tax, ignore an environmental regulation, or fail to register your gun and see what happens.

Every government program employs force to overrule life and liberty . . . 

   Innocent people die, are maimed, lose their property, or lose their loved ones because some bureaucratic decision satisfies a political purpose but is contrary to the wishes of the individual.

   Americans are deprived of the rights supposedly guaranteed in the Bill of Rights to read what they want to read, to use their earnings and property as they want to use it, to have their wealth safe from search and seizure in the name of some goal, such as "no child left behind" or "health insurance you can never lose," that is never reached.

   Innocent people are taxed to pay for a program they may oppose intensely, but that satisfies the desires of politicians.

   Innocent Americans lose the right to make their own choices about their own lives, to make their own arrangements for retirement as politicians mandate the way products must be built, ban popular products from the market, and force people into fraudulent schemes like Social Security.

The Same Force, Foreign or Domestic

When our government mandates what kind of government every country of the world should have, it's no different from the federal government mandating what kind of education system every American state should have or what every health insurance policy must cover or what products a company may offer or how much corn a farmer can plant.

If it's wrong to impose George Bush's choice of government on every citizen of a foreign country, it's just as wrong to impose anyone's choice of a health-care system on every American citizen.

It simply can't be any of the government's business in a country that calls itself "free."

War is no different from government health care, government education, government charity, government subsidies, government regulation, government compassion. In every case, persuasion and diplomacy are tossed out the window to be replaced by the naked power of mandates, regulations, and people with guns.

And the force is imposed indiscriminately on everyone . . . 

   Because some people might abuse drugs, all of us are afflicted with the sins of the insane War on Drugs Treasury agents rummaging through our bank accounts looking for suspicious transactions, asset forfeiture seizing the property of people who have committed no crimes, cancer and AIDS patients deprived of marijuana to ease their pain, cities terrorized by drug gangs because peaceful, reputable companies are forcibly prohibited from providing recreational drugs.

   Because some people might do bad things after looking at dirty pictures, the politicians assume the right to tell all of us what we can view on the Internet.

   Because some people won't save for their old age, all of us are forced to pay 15% of our earnings into Social Security.

Means & Ends

You may believe the force is being employed for a good purpose (just as the war-makers believe), but it is force nonetheless. And the force is imposed upon the innocent as much or more than the guilty.

The force is employed . . . 

   To prevent consumers from buying what they want to buy, and to prevent companies from selling what they want to sell under threat of fines and imprisonment.

   To give bureaucrats the power to overrule the strictly personal decisions of individuals under threat of fines and imprisonment.

   To take hard-earned money away from innocent people and use it in ways pleasing to politicians and bureaucrats under threat of fines and imprisonment.

   To impose monopoly suppliers on consumers or forcibly outlaw competition in such critical areas as education, postal service, electricity, and water under threat of fines and imprisonment.

   To impose bureaucratic decisions on doctors, hospitals, and insurance companies enforced with fines and imprisonment for differences of opinion about diagnoses, fees, policies, or treatment.

   To give politicians and regulators the power to withhold life-saving medicines from sick people under threat of fines and imprisonment.

The elements of war are employed in every government program, not just those involving disputes with foreign countries.

In war, a few visible beneficiaries or promises ("liberating" Afghans and Iraqis or "making the world safe for democracy") serve to obscure the brutality, the horror, and the deaths of innocent people.

With domestic government programs, a few visible beneficiaries or promises (a grateful subsidy recipient, "health care for everyone," or a "drug-free America") serve to obscure the iron fist of the state inflicting taxes on families and forcing them to forgo getting braces for their daughters' teeth, or regulating out of business companies that were providing valuable services that people willingly paid for.

And the few visible beneficiaries obscure as well the corruption and oppression that naturally follows from giving fallible human beings the power to coerce others.

War is the quintessential big-government program. It displays in stark relief the elements of all other government programs. War may seem more violent, more aggressive, more unjust, and more futile but the differences between war and other government programs are differences only of degree and visibility, not differences of kind.

Power Is a Powder Keg

It may seem that force is necessary to bring about worthy social objectives. But using force always sets in motion a series of events that you're bound to regret. Again, it is easier to recognize when war is the issue.

For example, how has George Bush managed to get away with attacking a country that hasn't threatened us? Because Bill Clinton paved the way for him. Very few liberals complained when Clinton invaded or bombed Haiti, Serbia, Afghanistan, the Sudan, and Iraq. If liberals had protested then, it might have been easier today to stop the war in Iraq.

And when conservatives protested Clinton's foreign adventures, they conveniently forgot that Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Sr. had already established the necessary precedents with attacks on Libya, Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, and Iraq.

Every government program gives politicians power and money that will be misused sooner or later. When you give power to a good President or a good Congress to do what you think are good works, you're automatically giving power to a future bad President or Congress to do bad works. The power doesn't disappear when a different party takes office.

In addition, power always expands. You may enact a program to perform a specific function, but it automatically takes on a life of its own. The program grows not just bigger, but in many directions until it bears very little similarity to the "good" program you supported at the outset.

Big government concentrates enormous power in one place. And that power is like a magnet, attracting the worst elements of society people who seek to dominate others and use the power for their own purposes. Not surprisingly, such people always seem to find a plausible reason to impose wars, tyranny, and the destruction of civil liberties.

As Michael Cloud has pointed out, the problem isn't the abuse of power, it's the power to abuse. The only way to stop the abuse is to take away the power.

Doing Good

Government is force.

And you can't achieve good objectives by force, any more than you can bomb a country into democracy or peace.

When you persuade someone to do something, he's a willing participant. When you force him to do something, he immediately begins looking for ways to get around what you're demanding or to get back at you for what you've done to his life.

And when you forcibly confiscate money from one person to satisfy the needs of another, the first person is inspired to reduce his earnings or hide his income and wealth while the second is encouraged to continually expand his needs.

So there's never enough money available from the earners to satisfy the needs of the takers.

That's why government's use of force never produces the results promised for it:

   Medicare was supposed to reduce health costs for the elderly and for society as well. So why does Medicare cost many, many times what was originally promised, and why do the elderly pay more out of their own pockets for health care (even after allowing for inflation) than they did before Medicare?1

   We're told that extracting money by force and showering it on government schools will improve education. So why after spending hundreds of billions of dollars do the politicians still complain about the terrible conditions in schools and the need for more money?

Welfare and Medicaid are perpetual scandals. Wasteful, harmful corporate welfare and farm subsidies don't go away no matter how many promises are made, no matter how many reforms are enacted.

Allowing politicians to confiscate our money by force empowers them to use it for what they want, not what you want. So a good part of it goes to keep foreign dictators in power until those dictators can be cited as excuses to go to war.


Why isn't there a single government program that has actually achieved what was originally promised for it? Not the elimination of poverty ("The days of the dole in this country are numbered" said Lyndon Johnson in 1964), not improved reading skills for children, not a "drug-free America," not an end to gun violence, not anything.

The reason for such universal failure is that coercion transforms everything it touches into something completely different from what was intended. With the use of force . . . 

   People in government get to spend other people's money, instead of money they had to work hard to earn and they will never treat that money with the same care and respect they would give to their own earnings.

   People in government never have to face the consequences of wrong decisions that you or I have to face, and so there's nothing to restrain them from pursuing utopian schemes endlessly or using their power to reward their friends and punish their enemies.

This power is like a cornucopia providing free money, unearned markets, freedom from prohibited competition. No wonder there are special-interest groups, voting blocs, and constant selling pressure on the politicians to provide more and more unearned goodies.

As a result, whenever you turn something over to government, it ceases to be a financial, humanitarian, medical, military, or commercial matter. It becomes a political issue to be decided by whoever has the most political power. And that will never be you or I.


Big government hasn't solved a single problem. On the contrary, it has always led to enormous problems. Just look at the way big government has affected foreign affairs.

Our government's overseas aggression was an outgrowth of the Progressive Era of the late 1800s and early 1900s. The expansion of government into regulatory agencies and new functions fostered the concept that the U.S. government could achieve good things for people and should have the power to do so. The increased power gave the politicians the opportunity and the arrogance to occupy the Philippines to "Christianize" the heathen causing the slaughter of thousands of innocent people.

The imposition of the income tax in 1913 gave the politicians what they never had before a virtually unlimited source of revenue. This furnished the resources to interfere in a European war something the U.S. government could never have done before. American intervention transformed a stalemated World War I into an overwhelming Allied victory enabling the Allies to wreak havoc on Germany and give Germans the incentive to turn to Adolf Hitler.

How could there have been U.S. wars in Afghanistan or Iraq the past two years if there were no income tax today if the federal government were still operating with the mere half-billion-or-so dollars in yearly revenue available in the early 20th century? The U.S. government is now spending per week in Iraq twice as much as its entire yearly budget in 1903.

America could never afford to have troops in over a hundred countries if the government were still small enough to fit within the Constitution. The $2 trillion budget has not only made the war on Iraq possible, it will facilitate the war on Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, or whoever else is to be the next lucky country to be liberated by an all-powerful American President with an endless supply of money with which to play God.

George W. Bush can do whatever he wants because he has the money and power to do it. Big government gives him the power to reward friends like Halliburton, Bechtel, oil companies, and construction companies and the power to destroy enemies, foreign or domestic.

Making war requires big government to provide the necessary money and control over individuals. A nation with a small government can't set about to remake the world.

Better Ways

If liberals want to stop tyrannical adventures like the invasion of Iraq, they must do everything possible to whittle big government down to a small, limited, constitutional government. Not the "limited government" the Republicans pay homage to in campaign speeches and ignore in practice, but the constitutional straight-jacket envisioned by the likes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.

The Founding Fathers knew first-hand how dangerous government can be. They intended the federal government to be limited to a few carefully defined powers that are itemized in Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution. And they added the 9th and 10th Amendments to make it clear that these are the only powers the federal government is supposed to have.

They provided a method by which the Constitution could be amended, but only by long and careful deliberation not by Presidents playing God or by Congressmen catering to the whims of politically powerful voting blocs.

Voluntary Methods

Almost everything good we enjoy today has come from the efforts of individuals and companies acting voluntarily, not under the duress of laws and regulations.

It didn't require coercion to produce low-cost computers available to people in almost all income brackets and getting cheaper by the month. It didn't require coercion to discover penicillin or a polio vaccine. It didn't require the coercion of the federal government to invent safety glass, disk brakes, seat belts, radial tires, or any of the other auto-safety features we enjoy. No one had to be coerced to create the Salvation Army, Goodwill Industries, charity hospitals, or free clinics.

Today there are over 300,000 churches in America. Not one single person had to be coerced or have his earnings confiscated in order to build and support these churches. Imagine what else could be done the money available to help the poor, find low-cost cures for diseases, and educate our children more properly if American families didn't have to pay an average of $10,000 a year in Social Security and income taxes.

If we want to take care of the poor, improve health care, have better schools, and make America a peaceful, beloved nation again, we must turn away from government and expand voluntary society.

When people are free to make their own decisions, social needs represent opportunities for someone to do well by doing good either by competing to sell lower-cost services directly to those who need them or by creating private agencies to facilitate the liberal desire to provide for the needy.

Such arrangements involve no force, no loss of anyone's civil liberties, no confiscation of anyone's property, no threats of fines or imprisonment, no single policy coercively imposed on everyone.

Those arrangements don't build resentments. They don't create struggles for winner-take-all pots of money and power that turn us into enemies of each other. In the grocery store, you can buy Heinz ketchup while I buy Hunt's, and neither of us considers the other a threat to one's own well-being. With government, one size fits all and so we necessarily become opponents in a fierce fight to make sure its one's own size that's chosen. No wonder there's so much class warfare, racial warfare, and generation warfare in America.

A society of free individuals acting voluntarily to help each other for mutual benefit should be exactly what liberals want. After all, the word liberal stems from the same root as liberty, not compulsion.

Liberals must take the trouble to discover the many alternatives available for solving social problems instead of just differentiating between big-government Republican programs and big-government Democratic programs.

There are better ways to preserve the environment, better ways to see that children get good schooling, better ways to take care of the health needs of the elderly, better ways to take care of the poor. And none of them involve more government. Just the opposite.

You can't have a big government that redistributes the wealth without a big government that restricts peoples' civil liberties and tries to remake the entire world. But you can have a society that constantly improves opportunities for everyone without resorting to force.

When liberals join with libertarians to provide non-coercive methods for social progress, we will get the better world that liberals want.


1In 1961 the average elderly family spent $1,589 per year on health care (in 1991 dollars). In 1991 this had risen to $3,305 per year. This was reported in "The Health Care Squeeze on Older Americans," a study by the Families USA Foundation, using data from the Consumer Expenditure Survey of the U.S. Bureau of the Census.

See also:
"The Invisible Hand Is a Gentle Hand" by Sharon Harris
"Persuasion vs. Force" by Mark Skousen

Articles by Harry Browne that offer non-coercive ways of dealing with the environment, poverty, regulation, drugs, security, and other social problems are at www.HarryBrowne.org.