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Volume 23, Number 11
Central Planning Road Trip
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr.
When they have the resources and political support, would-be central planners like to take their show on the road, always with the same results: huge promises followed by big disasters. Thus is there no reason to be shocked or surprised at the enormous mess the US has created in Iraq. With bombings, killings, human suffering all around, and nothing in sight in Iraq but the bad choices of continued military dictatorship or fundamentalist Islamic rule, everyone but the wartime central planners now regard Iraq as a disaster.
The Economist magazine put the question this way: "Why on earth can't the world's richest country ensure that Baghdad has water and electricity?" The answer is economic in nature. It is not possible for government to create an economy out of nothing, absent entrepreneurship, private property, competition, and mutually beneficial exchange. An economy is built one trade at a time, from the bottom up. The US has attempted to "reconstruct Iraq" from the top down. Planners have been trying this for centuries with always the same result.
Last spring, most people thought the war planners were decisive geniuses who had pulled off an amazing feat of military management. Donald Rumsfeld boasted: "Never have so many been so wrong about so much." War critics didn't believe him, but it took time for the full evidence of failure to emerge. Today, the war critics are the prophets and the war planners are regarded as hopelessly naïve architects of a quagmire. Bush's wars have not only failed to achieve their stated aims, they have left the world more unsafe, unstable, and violent.
The common question everyone asks is: what were they thinking? What they were thinking is not all that different from what most central planners think. They just took these ideas to their logical culmination.
Let's start with the big error. They believed that their will alone was enough to make and remake a country (whether Iraq or Afghanistan) and the world. They saw people as pliable, all events as controllable, and all outcomes as the inevitable working out of a well-constructed plan. Being the top dogs of the world's only superpower, they never doubted their ability to dictate the terms and so they had no plan for what to do if things went wrong.
This forgets several essential components of the structure of reality. People's free will is often backed by the willingness to undertake enormous sacrifice. Such sacrifices are made every day by average Iraqis. Most especially it overlooks certain underlying laws that limit what is possible in human affairs. In the scheme of how the world works, even the largest state is only a bit player. It is capable of creating enormous chaos and transferring huge amounts of wealth, but not of controlling events themselves. Government action often generates results opposite of those the policy is constructed to create.
The Bush administration did not want to believe this. Officials had a very simple model in mind, namely that Iraq was a country lorded over by a single dictator, and so all that was necessary to take over the country was to displace (decapitate) the dictator and install a new form of government that would run the country according to the liking of the Bush administration. It further believed that all resistance could be crushed by a proper application of violence and the threat of violence.
The truth is that no society operates like this. Human beings don't respond well to being treated like prisoners in someone else's central plan. If the desire is to wholly manage the future, the mega-planner is always a mega-failure, if not always in the short term certainly always in the long term. The Bush administration had bigger dreams than Wilson or FDR. But as Maureen Dowd aptly puts it: "The group that started out presuming it could shape the world is now getting shoved by the world."
In the meantime, tens of thousands of lives have been snuffed out due to the decisions of this administration. To convince themselves of the rightness of their cause, however, the Bush administration turned to an ancient myth. They came to believe that the nobility and constructive power of war far outweighs its costs. For intellectual support, neocon scholars promoted the pre-Christian romance of war, the idea that war gives life meaning and provides an essential opportunity for bravery, camaraderie, and the cultivation of character, in the life of the individual soldier and that of a nation.
It's all lies: war is about blood and destruction and nothing more. The destruction is wrought against the enemy and the victor. After the "heroic" and "noble" struggle is over, what are we left with? Debt, body bags, and a generation scarred by witnessing destruction on a scale no private parties could be capable of. War leaves in its wake a culture that has a lower regard for financial prudence, for freedom from leviathan, and for the value of life itself. War is uncivilized. It is a barbaric enterprise. It has never moved society forward. It is always a setback. It promises to give life meaning but ends in attacking the very source of meaning.
One thing war does do in the short term is cause people to rally around the flag, an effect which the political cynics count on to cover the disaster that war always is. But there was more than this operating at the White House. They didn’t want to merely boost Bush's poll ratings; they wanted to instill a new national ethos to supplant one that they didn't like. The neocons who gave us this war believed that Americans needed a new civic mythology to unite the country around great ideals, and that cheering on a war would revive the idea of national unity.
They longed for the Cold-War ideal when an entire population hunkered down as hostages to the doctrine of mutually assured destruction. Their writings heralded the eras of "national greatness" when the Panama Canal was built, when every business displayed a Blue Eagle, when every American mourned the death of JFK, when everyone cheered the moonshot. The "national mood" following 9-11 convinced them that this could be revived.
Even more than that, they continue to convince themselves of the great Lincoln Myth, a man who used immoral means to unite a country but somehow managed to emerge from it with the reputation of a great liberator, a new founding father. The trick, they believed, was to have the "moral determination" to inflict as much violence as possible in the hopes that they would be seen as visionaries, and to utterly demoralize the enemy.
In fact, the idea of national unity, beloved by every would-be tyrant, is something to be feared. It is not a sign of freedom but of despotism. It is the morality of the ant heap. In any case, the forced unity of the World War II era is long gone. Good riddance. The country is too diverse, and the culture too broken into niche markets, too many people too knowing. May the un-American "unity" of the World War II period never return.
There were also serious miscalculations concerning Iraq. Officials believed that they could ignore the country's internal ethnic and religious diversity, particularly the religious longings of the Shiites. Perhaps they believed it would be enough to pass a First Amendment to convince these people to privatize their beliefs in the national interest. If so, this is nothing but a variant of the initial error that government can bring about miracles. They are now dealing with managing intractable social and cultural conflicts, and shocked that all their talk about freedom and diversity is falling on uncomprehending ears.
Of course there is a contradiction associated with attempting to impose any form of freedom by force. The best symbol of the Bush administration's failure in this regard is the fate of the Iraqi dinar, which the administration assumed would vanish after the invasion. Today it is still the national currency, and the US has taken to printing it, with Saddam's picture. They have utterly failed to manage the money in Iraq.
This points to another serious miscalculation. No effort at all was put into how these great conquering heroes would manage an economy after they took power. It's as if they just completely forgot about the people's needs for electricity, clean running water, food, and communication. The one principle that has guided the occupiers in their economic affairs in Iraq has been that whatever happens, the US should be in charge of it. The error has led them to kick out private entrepreneurs who attempted to start cell phone companies and airlines.
Not that the Bush administration ever really understood what freedom really meant. They believed it was something granted by government, or the military as a proxy for government. They believed that freedom is something that exists because of the people running the government or the laws that manage society.
In fact, freedom means the absence of government. It can never be granted by the state. It can only be taken away by the state. If a government manager desires freedom for a society, his only path is to get out of the way. That is something the Bush administration refuses to do at home or abroad. They can say they want freedom, but in this case, freedom is reduced to a fiction.
And speaking of fiction, we now come to the biggest error of all. The Bush administration believed that even in the age of Google, it could still bamboozle the population with claims utterly contradicted by reality. For example, they believed they could continue to assert that Saddam had WMDs and that somehow this would become accepted truth. How could they be so naïve? Their sophistication involved old technologies of the kind you find in the energy industries. This is why the administration always seems to be behind the curve. The average evening web surfer is more ahead of the news and events than the people who gather in the Oval Office to discuss the future of the world.
It is increasingly clear that the total cost of the Iraq war will run into the hundreds of billions, and they proceed as if there are no worries about paying it. Of course the administration benefits by the presence of that great marble palace down the street that promises to print unlimited quantities of dollars to pay for whatever government wants to do. But even then, there are limits. The budget deficit has already passed the $500 billion mark and the national debt is an incomprehensible $6.8 trillion.
This scandal speaks to a larger truth. The war policy of this administration may have failed in every way to achieve its stated aims, but it has succeeded in the one way war does succeed: it has transferred huge amounts of money and power from the private sector to the public sector. In believing that war is good for the ruling regime, rarely have so few been right about so much. The only way to prevent a repeat of this war mess is through a broader acceptance of the great truth of our time and all time: the state, no matter who is in charge of it, is always and everywhere the enemy of peace, prosperity, and civilization.
Llewellyn H. Rockwell, Jr. is president of the Mises Institute. Rockwell@mises.org