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The Evil of American Exceptionalism

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Anne Applebaum is a renowned historian of the Soviet Union, but her recent book The Twilight of Democracy illustrates a common confusion. She says that she and her husband, the Polish diplomat Radek Sikorski, continue to support “the pro-European, pro-rule-of-law, pro-market center right,” though former friends of hers who held the same views have veered toward nationalist extremism. In doing so, she thinks the intellectuals among them have betrayed their calling as servants of truth.

In speaking of the rule of law, Applebaum has confused two very different things. As Mises points out, a free market requires a secure structure of property rights. Given this structure, people can engage in mutually beneficial trade. As he says in Human Action, “private ownership of the means of production is the fundamental institution of the market economy. It is the institution the presence of which characterizes the market economy as such. Where it is absent, there is no question of a market economy. Ownership means full control of the services that can be derived from a good.”

A government, if one is needed at all (Rothbard thinks it isn’t), should defend people’s rights and leave everything else to the free market. But this is not what Applebaum means by the rule of law. She thinks that America should be governed by a “meritocracy,” and that we should spread democracies all over the globe, using force if necessary to do so.

She speaks with contempt of the American radical Emma Goldman, who “was especially disgusted by American military adventures abroad, and the patriotic language used to justify them.” All those who deny American “exceptionalism,” that is to say, global crusading for “democracy,” are dangerous extremists. She bemoans the pessimism of Pat Buchanan, which in part derives “from his dislike of American foreign policy. Over the years he has evolved from ordinary isolationism and toward what seems to be a belief that America’s role in the world is pernicious, if not evil….In 2002, he told  a television audience that ‘9/11 was a direct consequence of the United States meddling in an area of the world where we do not belong and where we are not wanted.’” Although Applebaum professes herself a champion of reason and enlightened discourse, she sees no need to examine the truth of this view. Only someone deluded by propaganda could believe it, and when Buchanan later questioned the wisdom of our aggressive alliances against Russia, he showed himself to be a tool of Putin and his minions.

For her it is inconceivable to challenge the equation of a free economy and the rule of law with massive military intervention abroad to spread the blessings of democracy to all and sundry. “Trump’s victory in 2016 was the victory of exactly this form of moral equivalence [of democracy and autocracy]….Instead of a nation that leads ‘the citizens of democratic societies,’ we are ‘America First.’ Instead of seeing ourselves at the heart of a great international alliance for good, we are indifferent to the fate of other nations, including other nations that share our values. ‘America has no vital interest in choosing between warring factions whose animosities go back centuries in Eastern Europe,’ wrote Trump, or his ghostwriter, back in 2000. ‘Their conflicts are not worth American lives.’ That’s not an indictment of the Iraq War. That’s an indictment of America’s role in the world going back to the beginning of the twentieth century, an indictment of America’s involvement in two world wars and the Cold War, a return to the xenophobia and inward looking isolationism of the 1920s.” Again, she sees no need to defend what to her is the obvious truth of what she says. Only the duped and dishonest could question it.  Only “extremists” and proponents of conspiracy theories could believe that “American behavior abroad is evil….The real reality in this conspiratorial view, is that of secretive businessmen, or perhaps ‘deep state’ bureaucrats, who manipulate the voters into going along with their plans, using the cheesy language of Thomas Jefferson as a cover story.” In like fashion, supporters of Brexit, who do not wish to be controlled by the Brussels meritocracy, are foolish, as are those who decry George Soros as deserving of a place in the Kingdom of Darkness. What rational person could doubt the good intentions of the well-educated elite ensconced in high places?  

Rather than argue against those who reject her internationalist yearnings, Applebaum smears them. The French who reject control by the European Union are characterized in this way: “Since the war [World War II], a different vision of France, one based on rational thought, rule of law, and integration with Europe, has held sway, But the spirit of the clercs who sought to smear Dreyfus, to join Vichy, and to fight for France First lives on.”

Against Applebaum’s moral posturing, it is necessary to insist that support for the free market and rule of law mean just that, not a policy of world hegemony dressed up in the language of “democracy.”


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Mises Wire

The Mises Institute exists to promote teaching and research in the Austrian school of economics, and individual freedom, honest history, and international peace, in the tradition of Ludwig von Mises and Murray N. Rothbard. These great thinkers developed praxeology, a deductive science of human action based on premises known with certainty to be true, and this is what we teach and advocate. Our scholarly work is founded in Misesian praxeology, and in self-conscious opposition to the mathematical modeling and hypothesis-testing that has created so much confusion in neoclassical economics. Visit https://mises.org

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