Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Presidential Profiles: Harry S. Truman

On April 12, 1945 Vice President Harry S. Truman was summoned to the white house and informed of the death of President Franklin D. Roosevelt. His first thought was of Mrs. Roosevelt. He asked if there was anything he could do for her, to which she replied, "Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now." Truman entered office at a perilous time in United States history. Poor monetary policy in the 20’s and 30’s had triggered a collapse of the U.S. financial system, and 12 years of increased federal control, central planning and "bold, persistent experimentation" under Roosevelt had discouraged new investment and stifled recovery. U.S. federal debt had increased by a factor of more than 10 in the 12 years before Truman took office, from 22 billion at the beginning of FDR’s term to over 258 billion at the time of his death. World War II was entering its final stages. German surrender came within a month of the swearing in of the new President, but he still faced difficult decisions concerning Japan. Four months after being sworn into office, Truman authorized the use of nuclear weapons on the cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the war to a close. The economy of the United States, geared to support the war effort, now had to be turned to productive activity and the role of the U.S. in world government redefined.

Domestic Policy
The opportunity to return constitutional economic liberty to the people of the United States following the cessation of a war-time economy and the death of President Roosevelt would fall to a man who possessed little faith in the ability of the free market to solve problems. Truman was very reluctant to relax government price controls instituted during the war, believing that he could control inflation by controlling the price of goods. As a result, shortages persisted for essential goods and raw materials and the nation witnessed the emergence of pervasive black-market activity. A housing shortage, caused by continued price controls on building materials, became particularly severe. Large corporations, able to exploit loopholes and sway policy makers benefited most from central control, driving many smaller firms out of business. Voters made their voices heard in the 1946 elections, demanding the return of economic freedom and forcing the cessation of many of the federal controls that Truman had struggled to preserve. Following a surprising victory over Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, Truman continued to push domestic interventionism with a platform that came to be known as the “Fair Deal”. Conservatives in Congress rejected many Fair Deal proposals, such as nationalized health care and civil rights legislation, yet some proposals did find their way into law. The Housing Act of 1949 attempted to address the housing shortage by allowing the federal government to clear slums, build low-income housing and issue mortgages to Americans unable to obtain traditional loans.

Truman’s appetite for increased federal jurisdiction was evident with his treatment of worker’s unions and private firms. When railroad workers voted to strike in 1946, Truman seized the railroads, using federal injunctions to order strikers back to work and threatening non-compliant strikers with conscription into the armed services. When the United Mine Workers began a coal strike later that same year, Truman seized the mines and won huge judgments against union leaders that forced their capitulation. In 1952, Truman issued an order to nationalize the steel industry in response to a strike by the United Steelworkers of America. Taking a stand, steel company owners sued to regain control of their factories. In a landmark decision, the court ruled in Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer, 343 U.S. 579 (1952) that the president was acting unconstitutionally. The decision dealt a heavy blow to the President’s domestic agenda, curbing his heavy-handed dealings with the private sector.

Foreign Policy
Following victory in Europe and Asia, the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the two dominant superpowers on the world stage. Though former allies, mutual suspicions and vastly differing ideologies would cause each to separately attempt to carve a sphere of influence that would tilt the balance of global power in its favor. In Europe, Truman used over 17 billion taxpayer dollars to subsidize the rebuilding of war-torn Western European economies with the “Marshall Plan”. Though offered to all of Europe and the Soviet Union, the plan required U.S. economic control in return for subsidies. The Soviets rejected assistance and forced their satellite states in Eastern Europe to do the same. The U.S. used its newly purchased influence to convince Western European countries to exclude the Communist Party from participation in their national governments. Marshall plan participants then formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) for mutual defense and to "contain" Soviet expansion worldwide. Determined to establish global hegemony, Truman increased military spending and adopted what came to be known as the “Truman Doctrine”, which expanded the definition of U.S. national security to include conflict anywhere in the world. Accepted by congress, the Truman Doctrine emboldened the President to levels of intervention never before seen in U.S. foreign policy. In Greece and Turkey, the United States propped up oppressive regimes and brutal military juntas to put down communist revolutions. In China, over a billion dollars was disbursed to support the corrupted government of national leader Chiang Kai-shek, subsequently defeated by Chinese communist rebels and forced to retreat to the island of Taiwan. In an effort to counter increasing Soviet influence in the middle east, Truman recognized and subsidized the newly created state of Israel in 1948.

In the summer of 1950, communist forces in North Korea invaded U.S. supported territory to the south. Pent-up tension finally erupted and a proxy war ensued with the United States and her NATO allies joining South Korea in opposition to North Korean forces backed by the Soviet Union and communist mainland China. The war would ultimately last three years and cost millions of lives before a cease-fire would be reached which re-established territorial boundaries. The Korean War stimulated the Truman administration to more aggressive policy in Asia, leading to military support of French imperialism in Indochina that would ultimately escalate into the Vietnam War.

Monday, October 13, 2008

National Defense

"The monopoly of government is no better than any other. One does not govern well, and especially not cheaply, when one has no competition to fear, when the ruled are deprived of the right of freely choosing their rulers. Grant a grocer the exclusive right to supply a neighborhood, prevent the inhabitants of this neighborhood from buying any goods from other grocers in the vicinity, or even from supplying their own groceries, and you will see what detestable rubbish the privileged grocer will end up selling and at what prices! You will see how he will grow rich at the expense of the unfortunate consumers,what royal pomp he will display for the greater glory of the neighborhood. Well! What is true for the lowliest services is no less true for the loftiest. The monopoly of government is worth no more than that of a grocer's shop. The production of security inevitably becomes costly and bad when it is organized as a monopoly. It is in the monopoly of security that lies the principal cause of wars which have laid waste to humanity."
-Gustave de Molinari

The amount of money that our country spends on national defense is staggering, especially when compared to the rest of the world. In 2006, the United States alone was responsible for 46% of all military spending, and our disproportionate share of the total is only expected to increase in the years ahead. Our closest rivals come in at a mere 5% of the world total. Is this lavish expenditure of public funds truly necessary in order to maintain our domestic tranquility? Is it any wonder when other nations mistrust or conspire against us? Is the international perception that America has become an empire seeking to control the world with an ubiquitous military presence really unjustified?

"Defense is a service like any other service; that it is labor both useful and desired, and therefore an economic commodity subject to the law of supply and demand; that in a free market this commodity would be furnished at the cost of production; that, competition prevailing, patronage would go to those who furnished the best article at the lowest price; that the production and sale of this commodity are now monopolized by the State; and that the State, like almost all monopolists, charges exorbitant prices." -Benjamin Tucker

In the 2007 United States federal budget, Department of Defense and "war on terror" spending together were freely admitted to be almost 20% of total expenditures. This figure is actually very deceiving because the funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan comes largely from supplemental expenditures allotted by Congress throughout the year. It also does not include expenditures by the Department of Energy on nuclear weapons design and testing. Spending on Veteran's Affairs and the Department of Homeland Security are tallied under separate categories. The payment of interest on the national debt consumes an additional 8-9% of the overall budget, and past government borrowing for military spending contributes significantly to the total debt. The hundreds of billions spent annually on defense contribute to our burgeoning budget deficits, increasing the interest on the debt that future generations have to pay and deferring much of the cost. Some sources go so far as to claim that spending on our national defense ultimately amounts to 54% of all federal spending! I recommend a perusal of this website for a very interesting justification of this view. I will let you judge the accuracy of their methods; it is clear to me at least that federal budget figures downplay the actual cost of national security.

"Certainly no man can rightfully be required to join, or support, an association whose protection he does not desire. Nor can any man be reasonably or rightfully expected to join, or support, any association whose plans, or method of proceeding, he does not approve, as likely to accomplish its professed purpose of maintaining justice, and at the same time itself avoid doing injustice. To join, or support, one that would, in his opinion, be inefficient, would be absurd. To join or support one that, in his opinion, would itself do injustice, would be criminal. He must, therefore, be left at the same liberty to join, or not to join, an association for this purpose, as for any other, according as his own interest, discretion, or conscience shall dictate."
Lysander Spooner

I believe that an end to forced participation in the government's monopolization of security is the only way to eliminate wasteful spending and promote sensible policies for the defense of our nation and our communities. I understand the argument given in favor of government mandated support for defense based on the tendency in human nature to exploit any system where it is possible to benefit from a service without being forced to pay, but I believe that the commonly accepted cure of forced participation in government monopoly is worse than the disease. If individuals in our society were free to choose which organizations to support, as well as their level of participation, our economic situation at home and our political situation in the world would be very different, and in my opinion, much improved. If the military monopoly of the state were abolished, I do not believe that we could continue the imperialist and interventionist policies which have shaped the course of the last 100 years. This world-wide meddling is not without its consequences. We now have enemies all over the world who feel justified in their hatred of us. Many peoples that historically recently were friendly to our cause would now love to see us fall, and a few have heads of state that would be willing to use all the powers of their despotism toward that end.

It is difficult to hypothesize on the viability of a truly free society using the current state of global affairs as a guide. Any change to the current model might very well have to be gradual in order to avoid catastrophic upheavals. When thinking of these difficulties, I am reminded of a quote from Thomas Jefferson regarding the issue of slavery:

"As it is, we have the wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in the one scale, and self-preservation in the other."

Unfortunately, the longer you hold on, the larger the problem becomes.

Click here for some interesting ideas on how a free society might provide for a national defense.
Listen here for a great treatment on the monopolization of security by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.