To be sure, their considerations weren’t purely theoretical: Hobbes lived through both the Thirty Years’ War and the English Civil War, while Locke experienced the Glorious Revolution. But neither of them was in a position to shape the institution of a government ex nihilo.
Hobbes, perceiving human nature as selfish and violent, asserted that the purpose of government was to provide peace and security. Locke, with a bit more optimistic assessment of human nature, viewed the task of a government as protecting the lives, freedoms, and property of its citizens.
Shortly after - Hobbes published his Leviathan in 1651, and Locke’s Treatises appeared in 1689 - events in North America made the question considerably less theoretical and much more practical. In founding a new government, America’s founding fathers relied on their reading of Hobbes, Locke, and other political thinkers.
In addition to determining, in a concrete and specific way, the purpose of government, it was also important to determine what a government should not do. While a government is good or bad to the extent that it does, or does not, serve its proper purpose, it is also good or bad to the extent that it refrains from, or engages in, activities which are outside its proper purpose. Matt Kibbe writes:
We all agree that the first legitimate role of government forces is to protect the lives of individual citizens. But things get more complicated when it comes to defending against “enemies foreign and domestic.”
According to the Lockean views adopted by the founders of the United States, it is within the government’s proper tasks to defend the country militarily when the country is directly threatened by external powers. But what about indirect threats? What about responding to military threats, not on our own territory, but on the territories of a state with which we may have an alliance?
President George Washington worked to formulate a decision procedure by which Americans might decide which conflicts directly involved the country’s interests, and which did not. That question was urgent then, and is urgent over two hundred years later.
One principle he set forth was that the country should avoid excessive attachment to, or antipathy toward, any other nation. The excess, he felt, would arise from passion, not reason, and lead to decisions blinded by emotion.
Thus misled, we might find ourselves surprised by an unexpected attack, drawn into a war involving another’s interests but not our own, or forgoing a beneficial alliance for no good reason. Matt Kibbe frames Washington’s view this way:
In his 1796 Farewell address, George Washington warned Americans not to “entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils” of foreign ambitions, interests, and rivalries. “It is our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
A “permanent” alliance would be an irrational one. Nations like Germany, England, Japan, and China have, over the decades, oscillated between being our friends and being our enemies.
The economic cost of war, Washington warned us, is to be carefully considered. Until 1930, the vast majority of nation’s debt was war-related. The Civil War and WWI created both debt and higher taxes. Because debt harms the economy, and the wars created debt, it can be said that those wars harmed economic mobility and economic opportunity, reducing the potential size of the middle class. Matt Kibbe writes:
Our first president was hardly an isolationist, and his foreign policy views were guided, in large part, by common sense and pragmatism. One of his key considerations was the budgetary implications of overly ambitious foreign entanglements. “As a very important source of strength and security, cherish public credit,” Washington counseled. “One method of preserving it is to use it as sparingly as possible, avoiding occasions of expense by cultivating peace.
One may well ask how Washington would have viewed the nation’s involvement in Korea, Vietnam, the Middle East, and other places. Even WWI and the Spanish-American war might be suspect from Washington’s point of view.
In the year 2014 alone, Obama has sent U.S. soldiers into Iraq and the Ukraine. In 2011, he ordered the United States Air Force to bomb Libya. Upon taking office in early 2009, he increased troop levels fivefold in Afghanistan: the U.S. military presence there had numbered approximately 20,000 men until Obama increased it to over 100,000.
To discern whether these actions were justifiable by Washington’s standard would require a nuanced and detailed examination. Matt Kibbe, Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Austrian Economic Center in Vienna, Austria, writes:
You might interpret Washington’s skepticism, in a modern context, as warning against open-ended nation-building quagmires. Can we really establish a constitutional democracy in Iraq? Can we successfully mediate the violent disputes of warring factions in civil wars like the one going on today in Syria? Better yet, should we?
Among the many changes, from George Washington’s time to ours, is that our geographical situation no longer offers us a safe haven. We can be easily attacked in ways not possible two or three centuries ago. This requires that we recalibrate our understanding of threat.
The principle of nonaggression means that we should only declare war on nations demonstrably seeking to do us harm. The men and women who volunteer for our military should not be put in harm’s way by their commander-in-chief without a clear and just purpose, without a plan or without an endgame. This is just common sense.
While our notion of threat may need to be updated, our notion of alliance does not. The litmus test remains this: an alliance should be created or maintained only to the extent, and only as long as, it is in our nation’s interests:
In an era in which our enemies are no longer just confined to nations, the other key question is the balance between security at home and the protection of our civil liberties, particularly our right to privacy and our right to due process. Massive expansions of the government’s surveillance authorities under the Patriot Act and recent amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act have civil libertarians of all ideological stripes worried that the government has crossed essential constitutional lines.
Since Washington’s day, there has always been a tension between war and a citizen’s liberties. In the 1770’s and 1780’s, there were heated debates about conscripting both men and materials from citizens. During WWI, freedom of speech was curtailed in shocking ways. Now, the NSA and other government branches are being used, allegedly in the national interests, to intercept private communications between U.S. citizens.
One distinction needs to be articulated: if some agency of the U.S. government intercepts private communications between individuals who are not U.S. citizens, no civil liberties have been violated, and no U.S. citizen need be concerned. But intercepts of communications between U.S. citizens are matters of grave concern, and in such cases one must ask about warrants and FISA courts.
Returning to the Lockean hypothesis that the task of a government is to protect the lives, properties, and freedoms of its citizens, it is the task of each nation’s government to protect its citizens. If a Spaniard’s cell phone calls are being intercepted by a French intelligence agency, it is the task of the Spanish government, not of the French government, to be concerned about this. If a Swede’s emails are being read by a Polish intelligence agency, the Swedish government, not the Polish government, may have some duty to consider protecting the Swede from “unreasonable search.”
Defending America against the unchecked aggression of our enemies is a first responsibility of the federal government, but respecting the rights of individual citizens and checking the power of unelected employees at the National Security Agency is an equally important responsibility.
A few years before George Washington penned his “farewell address,” Ben Franklin offered some thought on the complexities of economics, freedom, and the role of government.
The situation in which Franklin wrote was this: In 1755, the colony of Pennsylvania was under attack. Franklin was a duly elected member of the legislature in that colony, and the legislature, as the voice of the people, intended to levy a tax upon all the colonists in Pennsylvania. The governor of that colony, however, wanted to exempt from taxation the lands owned by the Penn family.
The revenues from the taxes were urgently needed to continue the conduct of a defensive war.
Franklin noted that it is an “essential liberty” of the voters to levy, through the acts of their representatives, a tax upon the colony. It would be a violation of electorate’s “essential liberty” to impose that tax if one family, by fiat, could exempt itself from that tax.
To complicate matters, the war was raging as the Pennsylvania legislature argued with the governor about its right to levy taxes. The governor, hoping to pressure the legislature, intimated that by delaying the tax until the Penn family’s exemption could be eliminated, the legislature was compromising the safety of colonist in vicinity of the fighting.
The governor argued that the legislature, including Franklin, could “purchase a little temporary safety” by conceding the exemption to the Penn family. Franklin countered that this would be damaging to the rights of the electorate; the voters had the power to levy taxes, and a single family could not simply exempt itself by fiat. Franklin wrote to the governor:
In fine, we have the most sensible Concern for the poor distressed Inhabitants of the Frontiers. We have taken every Step in our Power, consistent with the just Rights of the Freemen of Pennsylvania, for their Relief, and we have Reason to believe, that in the Midst of their Distresses they themselves do not wish us to go farther. Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety. Such as were inclined to defend themselves, but unable to purchase Arms and Ammunition, have, as we are informed, been supplied with both, as far as Arms could be procured, out of Monies given by the last Assembly for the King’s Use; and the large Supply of Money offered by this Bill, might enable the Governor to do every Thing else that should be judged necessary for their farther Security, if he shall think fit to accept it.
While the Penn family, in 1755, did not possess a role in the government that allowed it to make tax regulations, it did have the type of unofficial relationship and influence which could result in the governor taking up its cause. As Matt Kibbe notes, any “unnatural concentration of power” found “outside government” is the result of some relationship between such a non-governmental power and some power within the government.
Thus it is that monopolies, in their truest and most damaging forms, are the products of government. Monopolies arise and endure only when natural market forces have been distorted by government intervention. In a truly free market, monopolies will eventually face some competition. This fact reveals the irony in “anti-monopoly” or “trust-busting” legislation.
We should always be skeptical of too much concentrated power in the hands of government agents. They will naturally abuse it. Outside government, an unnatural concentration of power - such as the extraordinary leverage wielded by mega-investment banks or government employees unions - is always in partnership with government power monopolists.
From the era of Benjamin Franklin to the present, complex questions of international military involvements can be analyzed not only in terms of the nation’s interests in terms of physical security, but also in terms of economic freedom and financial health.