The Right Coast

January 21, 2005
Bush and Worldwide Liberty
By Chris Wonnell

What are we to make of George W. Bush's Second Inaugural address yesterday, in which he committed the United States to a policy of advancing liberty everywhere in the world?

On the positive side, there is just no question that the world is better off when decent countries believe in themselves than when they don't. The post-World War I angst among the leading democracies left a power vacuum to be filled by the horrors of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And of course the post-Vietnam pacifist malaise facilitated the murder of a million or two in Cambodia and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

On the other hand, there's a tension, almost a contradiction, in the Bush message. He says, quite rightly, that democratic countries, being accountable to ordinary citizens, tend to be more peaceful. But this applies to the United States as well as to the countries we might want to democratize. A democratic America won't be enthusiastic for endless humanitarian military interventions, so the risk is that we will soon vote in a real dove who will put an emphatic end to such adventurism. The predictable result of such a course would be more aggression by the wicked.

I was also a little bit puzzled by the conception of "liberty" Bush wanted to promote. He clearly had in mind the rights to vote and to dissent, which are indeed excellent things. But for the average person, economic liberty is at least as important and seemed to receive very little attention. Indeed the President sounded an FDR note with his discussion of social security and positive freedom. This conception threatens to blur the distinction between freedom and unfreedom, since every law makes it possible for somebody to pursue an action she couldn't have pursued otherwise. Social security may be a sensible policy, but I would prefer that it be acknowledged as a paternalistic intervention into our rights of free contract and therefore as a limitation on liberty. We don't want to be so enthusastic about liberty that we call everything we like "liberty" and lose the meaning of the word.