Perfecting tyranny: foreign intervention as experimentation in state control.

Author:Coyne, Christopher J.
Position:Essay
 
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Writing at the dawn of the twentieth century, Mark Twain provided the following ominous commentary about a hypothetical "Great Republic" that had adopted a foreign policy of actively intervening in distant societies: "But it was impossible to save the Great Republic. She was rotten to the heart. Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other people's liberties, lived to suffer for their mistake in their own persons" (1972, 395).

What if Twain's scenario were not hypothetical, but rather real? What if foreign interventions abroad have the long-term effect of undermining liberties and freedoms at home? This paper explores how interventions abroad can affect domestic government activities in a way that reduces its citizens' freedoms and liberties. Although our analysis is generalizable, we focus on a specific "Great Republic"--the United States--because of its global dominance in economic and military affairs. We develop a theory of the "boomerang effect" of foreign interventions for understanding Twain's "natural process" through which interventions abroad increase the scope of government activities domestically, resulting in a reduction of citizens' liberties and freedoms. The underlying logic of the boomerang effect is as follows.

Foreign interventions serve as a testing ground for domestically constrained governments to experiment with new forms of state-produced social control over distant populations. Intervening abroad allows governments to circumvent many of the domestic constraints that end at the nation's geographic borders. The relative weakness or altogether absence of international constraints allows members of the intervening government to develop and hone new methods of control over citizens. Under certain conditions, these innovations in social control are then imported back to the intervening country through several channels that change the costs and benefits associated with expanding the scope of domestic government activities. The result is that the intervening government becomes more effective at controlling not only foreign populations but the domestic population as well.

The term foreign intervention is broad and has many different meanings. For our purposes, it refers to the use of the discretionary power of the members of one government to achieve some desired end in another society (see Coyne and Mathers 2010). Under this general definition, interventions may be more direct and hostile in nature, or they may be more indirect and mild in their methods. We limit our focus to what we call "coercive foreign interventions," which have two notable characteristics. First, an intervening government seeks to shape outcomes--political, economic, social, legal--to achieve an end that is different from what would have emerged absent the intervention. Second, in order to achieve its objectives, the intervening government invests resources to actively deter and suppress any resistance from the foreign population.

Our analysis contributes to three strands of literature. The first includes the literature on constitutional political economy (see Buchanan 1975; Brennan and Buchanan 1985; Weingast 1995; Gordon 2002), which explores the role, design, and enforcement of rules as constraints on government and private behavior. Our contribution to this literature is to emphasize that the domestic political structure is not invariant to interventions abroad. We demonstrate how a government, acting within existing domestic constraints to carry out coercive foreign interventions, can expand the scope of its domestic activities and in doing so generate a loss of liberties and freedoms at home.

The second strand of literature focuses on the costs and consequences of war and foreign intervention. This literature considers the costs of war, monetary and nonmonetary, seen and unseen (see Porter 1994; Denson 1999; Blimes and Stiglitz 2008; Duncan and Coyne 2013; Eland 2013). Our analysis contributes to this literature by emphasizing that the costs of foreign intervention are typically understated because they tend to neglect the associated changes in the scope of domestic government activities that reduce domestic citizens' freedoms.

The third strand of literature consists of theories of government growth, which fall into several different categories. Political science and public-choice scholars have developed two types of theories of government growth (see Garrett and Rhine 2006). "Citizen over state" theories argue that government growth is the result of increased demand by citizens--either as individual voters or as organized special interests--for government programs. In contrast, "state over citizen" theories maintain that the size of government is supply driven by political actors who seek to expand the size of government irrespective of citizen demand. Another category of explanations for the growth of government emphasizes the role of crises. Robert Higgs (1987) proposes a ratchet effect whereby government grows during times of crises. Retrenchment takes place following the crises, but the postcrisis size of government remains larger than the precrisis size. Bruce Porter (1994) analyzes how war making leads to the centralization of state power because the political center has the resources and incentive to fund and control military technologies. Ivan Eland (2013) catalogs a variety of ways the U.S. government has expanded due to war. Yet another explanation for government growth focuses on technological advances and highlights how technological improvements allow for better coordination, communication, and large-scale organization of government activities (see Cowen 2009).

We contribute to this third strand of literature by emphasizing the different margins of government growth. Growth in government can take place in the scale of government, as discussed in the existing literature, as well as in the scope of government activities. These two margins often reinforce each other, but not necessarily. The scope of existing government activities may change, for example, even though the overall scale of government may remain the same. In this regard, our analysis is closest to that of Higgs (1987), whose treatment of the growth of "Big Government" appreciates the interrelation between the scale and the scope of government activities. He argues that government growth during crises can and does occur both in the scale of traditional activities and in the "widening [of] the scope of its effective authority over economic decision-making" (62). Our analysis builds upon Higgs's ratchet-effect framework for understanding the growth of government in stressing that coercive foreign interventions often increase the scope of domestic government activities and power resulting in the erosion of domestic liberties. We discuss specific mechanisms underpinning the process of expanding government powers, which can be seen as contributing to the broader ratchet effect identified by Higgs. (1)

We proceed as follows. The next section discusses how coercive foreign interventions entail a foreign government imposing social control over a population located outside of its geographic boundaries. After this we discuss the four channels that constitute the boomerang effect of coercive foreign intervention and the conditions under which we expect them to be relevant. The following section applies the boomerang effect to two episodes in the United States: (1) the origins of domestic government surveillance and (2) the rise of special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams and the militarization of domestic police. We conclude with the implications of this analyses.

Coercive Foreign Intervention as Exogenous, State-Produced Social Control

Social control entails rules that govern human behavior. As Robert Ellickson writes, "A system of social control consists of rules of normatively appropriate human behavior. These rules are enforced through sanctions, whose administration is governed by other rules" (1987, 69, emphasis in original). He goes on to provide a taxonomy of alternative systems of social control and enforcement mechanisms consisting of three potential "controllers." Rules can be enforced by a first-party controller through personal sanction (i.e., personal ethics). Alternatively, they can be enforced through second-party controllers, which entail two parties agreeing on solutions to potential conflicts. An example is a principal-agent relationship whereby the agent agrees to rules (i.e., a contract) set by the principal. Finally, rules can be enforced via third-party controllers such as communities--that is, clubs, families, churches--or via the state. (2)

Coercive foreign interventions fall into the last category since they rely on state imposition and enforcement. A third party, consisting of the members of intervening government(s), attempts to achieve its ends by exerting social control over a foreign population to reduce or suppress resistance. Max Weber famously recognized the state as an instrument of coercive social control when he noted that "the modern state is a compulsory association which organizes domination" and that "[t]he right to use physical force is ascribed to other institutions or to individuals only to the extent to which the state permits it" (1958, 78, 83). He also emphasized the importance of the state's monopoly on force within a given territory. In the context of foreign interventions, however, members of a government broadcast their power beyond their territorial boundaries to exert social control over people living in a different geographic territory. Coercive foreign interventions entail imposing an outsider's vision on others, which necessarily entails imposing rules on what people can and cannot do. This means that the foreign...

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