Does Freedom Require Empire?

In a startling article, Daniel McCarthy, the admirable editor of The American Conservativemagazine (TAC), writes, “Successive British and American empires created and upheld the world order in which [classical] liberalism could flourish.” In other words, as he writes in “Why Liberalism Means Empire,” “Liberalism and empire reinforced one another in manifold ways.” Therefore, if we want an enduring liberal democratic society, we must acknowledge the necessity of a U.S.-enforced global empire.

I say the article is startling because for years TAC has been the place to find solid critiques of George W. Bush/Barack Obama–style interventionist foreign policy. But this is a call for American global policing, albeit not as Bush or Obama would have it.

Where libertarians and classical liberals historically have viewed empire as inimical to domestic freedom and free markets, not to mention the freedom and well-being of those ruled by colonial powers, McCarthy makes a historical case for reconsidering this position. Without the secure space provided by a liberal empire — first British, now American — liberal democracy could not have emerged and flourished, he insists. But the dependence of liberalism on empire has been unappreciated, leading many pro-freedom thinkers to believe erroneously that British involvement in Europe, 1914–18, and U.S. intervention in Europe, 1941–45, were terrible blunders. Wrong, he says. Intervention was necessary for the maintenance of domestic liberty and prosperity:

Liberal anti-imperialists today, whether libertarian or progressive, make the same mistakes Britain’s pacifists and America’s interwar noninterventionists once did: they imagine that the overall ideological complexion of the world, as determined by the state most capable of projecting power, need not affect their values and habits at home. They believe that liberalism is possible without empire.

There is little historical evidence for this.

McCarthy is no Wilsonian or neoconservative who longs for crusades to convert others to democratic liberalism; he understands that liberalism is a product of a slow social evolution. He has no time for those with “Napoleonic ambitions to liberalize the planet through revolution.”

Moreover, he writes, “Liberal imperialism is not directed toward gratuitous conquest but toward maintaining a global environment conducive to liberalism.”

He cautions,

Just as there are idealists who deny that power is the basis of the peaceful order upon which liberal democracy rests, there are other, more dangerous idealists who deny that power is a limited commodity that cannot simply be wished into existence by a feat of will. This is a view characteristic of neoconservatives….

In contrast, his is a far more modest empire, one that seeks merely to maintain global order by, among other things, keeping trade routes open and preventing the rise of a power-projecting tyranny. It aims to “preserve conditions in which the happy accident of liberalism can survive and grow, if at all, by a slow process of assimilation.”

McCarthy thinks one can coherently combine anti-imperialism and anti-liberalism — he cites Pat Buchanan and George Kennan as examples: “they would like America to be more like Sparta than Athens.” But this outlook is unacceptable to modern Americans: “After 200 years, liberalism has soaked too deep into the fiber of America’s national character for a new path of national self-sufficiency to hold much popular appeal.”

So liberalism is here to stay, and McCarthy believes that in the nature of things, liberal anti-imperialism is incoherent. He does not celebrate this “bitter truth about liberalism and its imperial character.” That’s just how it is.

So he opts for a “conservative realism,” which recognizes “that America will not be anything other than broadly liberal and democratic for a long time to come, and liberal democracy requires a delicately balanced system of international security upheld by an empire or hegemon” — namely, for the foreseeable future at least, the United States.

Key to McCarthy’s thesis is that “power is the basis of the peaceful order upon which liberal democracy rests.” He writes, “Liberal democracy is unnatural. It is a product of power and security, not innate human sociability. It is peculiar rather than universal, accidental rather than teleologically preordained.”

This puts McCarthy at odds with the core of the liberal tradition, which found the seeds of individual liberty and voluntary cooperation in the social and reason-based nature of the human race. Adam Smith referred to the “system of natural liberty.” Thomas Paine wrote in Rights of Man that “the great part” of social order is not the product of power — i.e., government — but of “mutual dependence and reciprocal interest.” It is tyranny that is unnatural, according to liberalism.

I hope that fairly describes McCarthy’s position. Now, what can be said about it?

My first reaction was that McCarthy has a rather liberal notion of liberalism — so liberal that it includes the illiberal corporate state, or what Albert Jay Nock called the “merchant-state,” that is, a powerful political-legal regime aimed first and foremost at fostering an economic system on behalf of masters, to use Adam Smith’s term. (The libertarian Thomas Hodgskin, not Marx, was the first to disparage “capitalists” for their use of the state to gain exploitative privileges.)

If by liberalism we mean instead what Adam Smith, J.B. Say, Frédéric Bastiat, Hodgskin, Herbert Spencer, or Benjamin Tucker had in mind (despite their marginal differences), it is hard to see how the British and American empires were good at nurturing and protecting it. Had McCarthy argued that empire is indispensable to (state, political, or crony) capitalism, he’d get no argument here. But where is the historical evidence that radical free-market liberalism required the protective umbrella of a global empire? The fact is that societies regarded as liberal have in essential ways moved ever further from radical liberalism while enjoying that protection.

McCarthy’s case relies in large measure on his claim that the “ideological complexion of the world, as determined by the state most capable of projecting power,” is likely to influence domestic “values and habits.” That is, a society won’t long remain liberal in an increasingly illiberal world. Just as the U.S. government adopted illiberal measures after the Bolshevik Revolution and after the Soviet Union ended up in eastern and central Europe after World War II, he writes, so a liberal noninterventionist America would have moved ever further from liberalism had a tyrannical power-projecting state ruled the rest of the world.

Maybe, but maybe not. It would depend on factors left undiscussed, most especially the population’s ideological commitment to freedom. (See Robert Murphy’s excellent rebuttal of McCarthy’s Keynesian-style argument concerning America, World War II, and the totalitarian powers.)

McCarthy insists that “power is the basis of the peaceful order upon which liberal democracy rests” and writes that “in time, liberal sentiment grew so strong within imperial Britain that its exponents began to lose sight of the security context that made liberalism possible. Idealists and pacifists — the privileged children of empire — fancied that the peace was a product not of power but of good intentions.”

But McCarthy is wrong in thinking that power, that is, force, rules the world. There is something stronger: ideas. As Jeffrey Rogers Hummel puts it in “The Will to Be Free: The Role of Ideology in National Defense,” “Ideas ultimately determine in which direction [people] wield their weapons or whether they wield them at all.”

“All successful States are legitimized,” Hummel writes.

No government rules for long through brute force alone, no matter how undemocratic. Enough of its subjects must accept its power as necessary or desirable for its rule to be widely enforced and observed. But the very social consensus that legitimizes the State also binds it. Ideology therefore becomes the wild card that accounts for public-spirited mass movements overcoming the free-rider problem and affecting significant changes in government policy.… Successful ideas therefore can induce alterations in the size, scope, and intrusiveness of government.

If this is the case with respect to the government a population labors under, Hummel argues, then it is also the case with respect to potentially threatening foreign governments. In other words, protecting ourselves from other governments is not essentially different from protecting ourselves from the government in our midst. The same ideological forces that keep “one’s own” government from aggressing even more than it does, and that are required to roll back that government’s power, are also suited to keeping foreign governments away. Hummel writes,

Much successful State conquest has been intermediated through local ruling classes, who remain legitimized among the subject population.… The effective dominance of would-be conquerors who possess military superiority but face the implacable hostility of an ideologically united population is more problematic. The English hold on Ireland was, due to this factor, always tenuous, and one can find similar instances in the modern day.

McCarthy sees the “military force of a superpower” as virtually irresistible. But what about Vietnam versus the United States? How about Afghanistan against the British, Soviets, and Americans? Superior force failed in large measure because of the motivation and ideological commitment of the indigenous populations.

An apparent weakness in this argument is that ideological commitment — eternal vigilance — will be hard to maintain. It’s a fair point, and Hummel agrees there are no guarantees. But a similar challenge can be posed to McCarthy. Why should we believe that the administrators of a  “liberal empire” will remain liberal? McCarthy’s article is strangely void of references to rent-seeking (the buying of political advantages by the well-connected), the plague of concentrated benefits for interest groups and dispersed costs for the masses, and Hayek’s “why the worst get on top” phenomenon. The military-industrial complex is hardly a passive beneficiary of government policy.

We’ve had enough experience with government to know that even well-intended policies will likely be turned to the benefit of special interests (“free-trade imperialism”) and that the people most adept at deception and most comfortable with administering the machinery of violence will be most attracted to political power and best at procuring it. What’s to keep the imperial apparatus from falling into the hands of politicians who see war and conquest as the keys not just to security but also to glory, manliness, and national greatness?

Thus if, as McCarthy writes, “liberalism … tends to be entirely contingent on the liberalizing security conditions established by some great empire,” then it stands on shaky grounds indeed. History seems to illustrate this.

We have many other reasons to doubt that liberalism is safe in imperial hands. One of them is the Hayekian “knowledge problem.” Even well-intended central planners of the international order, like central planners of an economy, will necessarily lack the local knowledge of foreign societies they would need to do their job. (See Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.) In short, they will screw up (but without personally suffering the consequences).

McCarthy says that “judgment must be exercised to discern essential conflicts (like the Cold War and World War II) from absolutely inessential ones (like Iraq) and relatively ambiguous ones like World War I.” But even if we agree with McCarthy on what’s essential, inessential, and ambiguous, we have no grounds for believing that the administrators will get it just right. After all, they operate under perverse incentives, spending other people’s money and facing few personal consequences. And even when they appear to get it right, the law of unintended consequences will usually bring grief — to others.  Easily made mistakes can be catastrophic. “Foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be,” Bryan Caplan writes.

Empires are bloody expensive. Even a “liberal” empire would require deficit spending — who would be willing to pay so much in taxes? — and a central bank to facilitate government borrowing. And with those things come all the evils we are well familiar with, including artificial booms and resulting busts with long-term unemployment.

Economic crises, like war, are the health of the state. As repeated and deeper crises engender public anxiety, people will be receptive to politicians’ promises to provide immediate relief and long-term stability. So even if an empire does not have a full-blown welfare state at first, in time it will get there. Randolph Bourne and Robert Higgs have explained why. (The demand for ameliorative welfare and regulatory programs came in the wake of special privileges for the economic elite, as even Grover Cleveland understood in 1888.) One lesson of American history is that corporatist empire is the incubator of the welfare state.

McCarthy portrays the British empire as essentially benign — more or less a free-trade zone — and even attempts to enlist Ludwig von Mises in his cause. (Murphy corrects the record.) But Mises was under no illusions about the nature of colonialism, which, let’s recall, was directed at controlling resources, grabbing land, conscripting cheap labor, and creating markets for manufactured products. As Mises wrote in Liberalism (1927):

No chapter of history is steeped further in blood than the history of colonialism. Blood was shed uselessly and senselessly. Flourishing lands were laid waste; whole peoples destroyed and exterminated. All this can in no way be extenuated or justified.… It stands in the sharpest contrast to all the principles of liberalism and democracy, and there can be no doubt that we must strive for its abolition.

Who could be confident that liberalism would remain secure at home with such illiberalism practiced abroad? (Herbert Spencer knew it would not.) When U.S. forces were slaughtering Filipinos resisting colonialism at the turn of the 20th century, Progressive intervention at home was accelerating in America. This was no accident. Indeed, Progressives loved the unity of national purpose that war and imperialism created and some of them only wished such unity could be achieved without the blood, that is, through “the moral equivalent of war.

Finally, as we well know, domestic-security concerns faced by an empire provide the pretext for suppressing civil liberties: warrantless searches and surveillance, etc. Empires make enemies — does this really have to be said today? — and enemies want vengeance. Public fear and political opportunism assure that civil liberties will be imperiled.

Reality offers no security guarantees. A radically free society that had no means to threaten other societies might be conquered by a malevolent power, despite its ideological commitment to freedom, its wealth, its technological advantages. On the other hand, as we’ve seen, even a well-intended empire holds the seeds of domestic tyranny.

Sheldon Richman is vice president of The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF’s monthly journal, Future of Freedom. 

Sheldon Richman, author of Coming to Palestine, keeps the blog Free Association and is a senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at  He is also the Executive Editor of The Libertarian Institute.