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One Big Thing Wrong

Mises Daily: Thursday, June 05, 2003 by



Journalists pride themselves on their power of observation. It is observation that is the first step toward putting a picture of the world into words and print, bringing to the rest of us an image they have seen but we have not. Journalists are often very good at seeing small pictures, but not big pictures. Actually, in their profession, it is bad form to even attempt to see the big picture until you have reached the highest level of professional achievement.

Thomas Friedman of the New York Times has achieved that level and thus acquired the right to pronounce. With three Pulitzer Prizes under his belt (1983, 1988, 2002) and a National Book Award for The Lexus and the Olive Tree (2000), his opinion on everything from economics to politics to war is highly regarded. Why? Presumably because he has seen so much, reported on so much, and been so long on his beat, he has mastered his craft. And it's true that his commentary is usually worth reading. He can be unpredictable and even manage to dissent from established opinion, if only on the margin.

But even unimpeachable public intellectuals like Friedman tip their hand from time to time, and reveal that they have no better an understanding of the world than any man on the street who has never taken a class in economics or read deeply in political thought. His column titled "A Theory of Everything," which ran June 1, 2003, is just such a case. For all his observations and reporting, he has missed the most elementary distinction and for that reason ends up falling back on a line of thought so conventional and confused that it could have been written by any college freshman on a term-paper deadline.

He begins with the question concerning the entire Muslim world after 9–11: why do they hate us? And after the most recent war, the question has broadened into: why does everybody else hate us? By now everyone knows these questions, but little thought is put into the phrasing of the question, namely, who exactly is "us."

Am I supposed to believe that the average Muslim hates me and you as much as they hate Richard Cheney, George Bush, and Donald Rumsfeld? The fact is that Muslims don't hate me or you. They don't know me or you. But they do know the names of people at the top of the U.S. government, and for good reason: these people have ordered the military occupation of Muslim countries. We did not order this; they did, and the citizens of these countries hate them for it. To conglomerate me and you with Dick, George, and Donald is to engage in a very slippery rhetorical tactic.

But let's leave that profoundly important problem aside, and assume that by "us," Friedman means America in general. There can be no question that world opinion on America has sunk. What is his answer to the question of why they hate America?


Friedman tells the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the amazing rise of American power in the 1990s, when the technology revolution led to the undisputable dominance of the U.S. as an economic and political power. As a "hyperpower," we began to touch their lives in their countries more than their own governments. People around the world began to sense that America was shaping their lives in ways they could not control.  

The world economy is too intertwined for anyone to consider an official military response, Friedman goes on, so that left it to people who have no real stake in the system to try to beat back the hegemon. Thus terrorism—warfare by private groups as versus states—became the preferred means of fighting.

After the U.S. crushed the Taliban and then Iraq, more and more people have begun to fear the U.S. People who once believed that the U.S. was a benign power began to believe that it was a dangerous one, especially given the Bush administration's go-it-alone approach. Friedman says that the world's real frustration is that people cannot vote over the uses of American power and thus have no choice over their fate, and this is fueling hatred. He concludes that we need to find "a stable way to manage this situation."

What is Friedman's error? In a phrase, he conflates Power and Market (to borrow a phrase from the title of Murray Rothbard's great book). In missing this point, Friedman shows that he has done too much reporting and not enough thinking. He sees angry people all over the world, from Muslims in a rage over U.S. troops and U.S. movies, to the French bourgeoisie, attacking McDonald's, and draws the most trivial conclusion possible: people always hate the dominant power. He makes no sharp distinction between econo-cultural influence and politico-military imperialism, whereas any serious understanding of the world must begin with this distinction.

What is the difference between econo-cultural influence and politico-military imperialism? It begins with the elementary divide between things that people choose to embrace and those that are foisted upon them. American commerce is not dominant around the world because people are buying products at the point of a gun. Consumers of the world have chosen, of their own free will, to purchase these goods offered by entrepreneurial companies.

It is an act of voluntary cooperation that has made American commerce dominant. Big Macs are not forced on the world; they are purchased by people who choose them over other options. If the French stopped buying Big Macs, the burger chain would pull out in a matter of months.

There is no reason to expect that market saturation would give rise to resentment. Let's understand this by way of analogy. Let's say that Persian rugs become hugely fashionable and inexpensive. They are on the floors of half of American homes. People don't want rugs of other types or designs, just Persian. Now, if a person saw this fact and started to whip up a huge frenzy about the scary power of Iranian rugmakers, everyone would think this person was a bit loopy. Far from being a threat, Iranian rugmakers have merely made it possible for Americans to acquire the goods they want.  

If the American hegemon were limited to Starbucks, McDonalds, and Nike, who would care? None of these companies have any power to coerce anyone. There is no reason to resent them, anymore than we resent the Finns for cell phones, the Swiss for watches, or the Russians for vodka. We are free to buy or abstain from buying any of these goods at any time. It is our choices as consumers that give these products prominence in the global economy.

But don't leftist protestors target U.S. companies and even burn them down from time to time? Yes, they do, and I don't doubt that anticapitalism has something to do with it. And yet these companies have come to serve as proxies for the aspect of the American hegemon that the world really hates: the military power, which is to say, the U.S. State. But don't Muslims despise the decadence of American movies and music? Certainly. But would their opposition turn to violence if the U.S. were not bombing and invading their countries? Highly doubtful.

There is a huge difference between setting up a company and inviting people to buy your product versus bombing people and bribing politicians to do your will. It is the difference between what Franz Oppenheimer called the social and political means. One way is peaceful, and the other violent. One asks for people's cooperation and the other demands it. One way is based on hope for voluntary choice and the other presumes that choice is a dangerous thing. Economic globalism and military globalism are not just distinct; they represent opposing forces in the world today.

The great tragedy of the American hegemon is that these two ways of doing things have been intertwined, such that people of the world are no longer able to distinguish the difference between the voluntary choice to watch an American movie and the coercive mandate to turn in your gun. That Thomas Friedman does not draw attention to the difference makes him culpable for grave intellectual error but hardly unique: both the friends and opponents of American commercial globalism have presumed that it goes along with military domination.

Friedman himself has famously written that: "The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist." For this he is called an apologist of corporate power. But here again, the phrase corporate power is highly misleading. In a market economy, no corporation has power, only profits and influence which come to it by the voluntary choices of consumers. Only the military exercises power as such, and it does so without seeking the input of others.

Friedman hints at this with his comment that people of the world do not have a vote on the behavior of the American hegemon. But a political vote would be useless. Do we really want to subject the fate of world trade to the political votes of the world population? Who or what would they vote for? What if the vote ended up granting the U.S. the right to do whatever it wanted? Those who voted against this outcome would be no better off for having slogged to the polling stations.

Nonetheless, he is right that people want some say in world affairs. That requires, in the first instance, a rejection of war and military occupation. The appropriate means to grant people a say over the shape and direction of the world economy and culture is the market. The market is the stable way to manage the situation. But in order for the market to do its work, the military means must be rejected in favor of the peaceful means, which is all about commercial activity and cultural exchange.


As Mises writes:

The free traders want to make peace durable by the elimination of the root causes of conflict. If everybody is free to live and to work where he wants; if there are no barriers for the mobility of labor, capital, and commodities; and if the administration, the laws, and the courts do not discriminate between citizens and foreigners, the individual citizens are not interested in the question where the political frontiers are drawn and whether their own country is bigger or smaller. They cannot derive any profit from the conquest of a province. In such an ideal—Jeffersonian—world of democracy and free trade war does not pay.

However, so long as the U.S. has troops in 100 countries, overthrows regimes at will, slaughters people in its wars, decides which countries may defend themselves and how, and otherwise assumes the right to manage all world politics, the wonderful aspects of the American "hegemon," namely the superiority of its economic and cultural exports, and their integration with countries and cultures around the world, will live in the shadow of the threat of coercion.

The American commercial sector has brought great blessings to the world. However, the great tragedy of a huge economy operating under a central state is precisely that it can be used to fund that state's imperial impulses. When people of the world are looking for a way to curb the military power, they invariably turn their anger against the vulnerable symbols of capitalism (hence the Twin Towers calamity). It is up to the citizens of the hegemon to make their will known and restrain the state so that the blessings of commerce can thrive.

The journalist's skill as an observer can only take him so far, if he is observing with the wrong theory in mind. As Friedman's column shows, without the distinction between power and market—the very core of the libertarian idea—a theory of everything can easily turn into a theory of nothing.


Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. (Rockwell@mises.org) is president of the Ludwig von Mises Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and editor of LewRockwell.com. See his Mises.org archive