The Overlooked Flaw in Retaliation
by Harry Browne
September 19, 2001

I now have received over a thousand emails in response to my articles on the terrorist attacks. I regret that I can't reply individually to them. Nor is it possible even to reply in print to many of the thoughtful suggestions, complaints, or proposals that readers have offered.

But there is one common theme I can deal with here – one that runs through all the proposals for retaliation – the assumption that the retaliation can be done in a way that achieves many good purposes with no bad consequences.

It can be summarized in the statement, "I believe we can retaliate with few innocent people killed, and Afghanistan may be a better place when we leave."

But something very important is overlooked in almost every proposal I've received:

When you believe the U.S. government can eradicate the terrorist threat, you're assuming it will design, create, and carry out the plan the way you imagine it.

When you endorse the idea that our government should invade Afghanistan, or occupy the Middle East, or conduct "surgical strikes" against terrorist sanctuaries, or round up a particular class of people within the US, you automatically assume it will be done as you imagine – with no bad side effects.

(This is a problem common to all government programs. You see suffering or danger, and in your imagination you see a government program eliminating it. But in the real world the program could operate as you expect only if you were a dictator – having at your disposal all of government's power to compel everyone involved to do things your way.)

Never Happen

But in fact it won't be done your way. This isn't Burger King.

The program you support will be carried out by the same kind of people who bombed a pharmaceutical factory in the Sudan, who fired cruise missiles into the terrorist camp that wasn't there in Afghanistan, who saw American troops humiliated in Lebanon and Somalia, who went to war with Iraq to keep oil plentiful but then forcibly prohibited the buying of most Iraqi oil afterward, who were going to stop Panama from being a drug conduit and instead left Panama completely defenseless against the drug trade.

That doesn't mean the same kind of failures will happen again, but it does mean almost certainly that what you propose is not what you'll get.

What's overlooked in the support for unleashing the military, the FBI, the CIA, and other crime-fighting or war-making agencies is simply this:

The government that's supposed to win the War on Terrorism is the same one that's been waging the War on Drugs, the War on Poverty, the War on Crime, and the War on Illiteracy. Perhaps we should pay more attention to its track record.

President Bush said, "We will rid the world of the evildoers." Perhaps he could start with Washington, D.C. – and if he gets rid of the evildoers. there, he could move on to some other part of America – and if he succeeds there, he could extend the program to the rest of America – and if he succeeds there, he could ask the Canadians if they want our help – and if he succeeds there, he could go on to the Mexicans, the Haitians, the rest of Latin America, and then the Europeans, and so on.

But start with the whole world? Doesn't that seem a little pretentious for a government with such a sorry record of failures?

If that sounds flippant, I'm sorry, but I get pretty tired of hearing all these promises made to justify taking more of my life away from me – when none of the thousands of promises made already has come even close to being fulfilled.

Why Government Fails

Why does government fail to keep its promises?

Whenever you ask the government to do anything, you transform what had been a financial, scientific, military, moral, or social matter into a political issue.

The program you propose will turn into one more Christmas tree on which every politician can hang his favorite pork-barrel boondoggle – and can use to sneak through his favorite scheme for controlling your life and money.

Government programs too often wind up doing the opposite of what their original supporters had expected. Look how programs to end racial discrimination have produced racial quotas, how federal programs to improve education have turned schools into laboratories for crackpot social theories, how "welfare reform" has greatly increased the cost of welfare, how "good works" to foreign countries have produced such ill will.

Political programs produce such strange results because the "public servants" who design and execute the programs have a wholly different agenda from the public who support them.

You Aren't a Dictator

You don't control the government. And your dreams of what government can achieve are just that – dreams. They bear no resemblance to what government will really do if your program is enacted.

If government is going to do someone's bidding, is it likely to be your bidding – or that of people far more determined, far wealthier, and far more influential than you are – people who see the operation as a chance to further their own self-interest?

That's why libertarians are so all-fired determined to reduce government to as small an entity as we can – where it can do as little damage as possible and be used as little as possible for someone's gain at someone else's expense.

That's why it makes no sense to entrust government with the job of bringing peace to the world. It can no more do that than Caesar could. And it can no more rid the world of evildoers. or make it "safe for democracy" than it can stamp out drugs or poverty.

So long as government is supposed to be the instrument of our protection, we can ask it to seek out, capture, try, and punish the specific people involved in the specific attacks – and hope that it doesn't kill too many innocent bystanders in the process. But think twice – no, think a hundred times – before sending it on a mission to cleanse the world of evil.

For our long-term safety, we must quit entrusting our government with world police powers.

When will we learn that government is not our salvation?

Harry Browne was the 2000 Libertarian presidential candidate. You can read more of his articles at, and his books are available at

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