Book Review: Delusions of Power by Robert Higgs

The Independent Institute has released a new volume, Delusions of Power, by Dr. Robert Higgs which critically examines the state, war, and the economy. The volume is a sweeping indictment against the State on all fronts, beginning with the theoretical justification (or lack thereof) for a state, to a penetrating analysis of the success or failure the State has achieved in providing its alleged services of "protecting rights, life, and property” of its citizens, to its economic impact, the effect of war, and much more.

In Part I, Dr. Higgs exposes the various narratives used to commonly justify the State as mere propaganda, unable to withstand the harsh light of critical scrutiny. In Chapter 1 he demonstrates that the argument of man’s fallibility as a justification for the state is nonsensical and self-contradictory as any legitimate failing of man’s character, knowledge, and so on, is only magnified when he is vested with the power of the State. Chapter 2 asks if the rationale for government is similar (or identical) to the rationale used for slavery, providing specific historical arguments used to defend the existence of slavery, and contrasting them to the arguments we hear today when someone acknowledges the failings of the State, but is resistant to any proposals of a stateless society.

Chapter 3, Democracy and Faits Accomplis, Dr. Higgs exposes democracy not as a system designed to be responsive to the wishes of the people, but rather, one that lacks any effective means to remove or prevent policies that the people disapprove of:

The great problem is that, by that time, it may be impossible to reverse the outcomes the rulers have brought about. Wilson was not elected in 1916 to plunge the nation into the Great War. Roosevelt was not elected in 1932 to impose the New Deal on the country. Nor was he elected in 1940 to maneuver the United States into the greatest war of all time. Yet, in each case, the president did the opposite of what he had promised to do, and the people were left with no recourse. The world of 1919, the United States of 1936, and the world of 1945 — each was so massively, so irrevocably altered from the preceding status quo that any genuine restoration of the previous conditions was unimaginable. Like it or not, people were to a great extent simply stuck with what the deceitful politicians had done.

Chapters 6 and 7 work in tandem to demonstrate how an economic (or any other type) of crisis, either real or perceived, virtually always results in an increase in government’s size and scope, that never returns to its pre-crisis size. Chapter 6 presents and then abruptly demolishes 12 commonly trotted out justifications for the increased government action during the period of crisis. Chapter 7 looks at the historical record and presents an overview of the “ratchet effect”, which demonstrates how government expands during a time of crisis, and how the subsequent retraction of these newly created crisis powers is always incomplete, leaving the government much larger than before the crisis hit. Higgs notes, “Attempts to eliminate or diminish emergency programs run up against a fundamental principle of political action: people will fight harder to retain an established benefit than they will to obtain an identical one in the first place.”

Higgs uses the term, “iron triangles”, to describe the alliance of government bureaucrats, congressional oversees, and private sector beneficiaries that benefit from the newly created crisis-time powers, and it appears to be an apt metaphor:

These arrangements are called "iron" because they are so difficult to break. Their beneficiaries have great incentive to fight for the retention and even for the expansion of the triangle's activities, whereas the general public rarely has much incentive to fight against them, even when it is aware of them, because the public burden per capita is normally too small to justify anyone's expenditure of much time or effort in the requisite politicking.

Part 1 concludes with Chapter 8, “War is Horrible, But…”, an appropriate attack demolishing 14 morally repugnant, yet disturbingly commonplace, justifications for war.

Part II Closer Look at Key Actors and Events, is where Dr. Higgs shines as a historian. There is a tremendous amount of exciting, fascinating, and rich historical analysis of key events that serve to illuminate just how the US government grew so far beyond its original formation and the confines of the Constitution. There are chapters exploring virtually unknown key political actors who via corruption, subterfuge, and all the other various unsavory aspects of the political process alter the course of US government in unimaginable ways. If you ever suspected that Democracy was nothing more than a cover for an extremely small group of political elites to rule, the historical evidence put forth in this section will validate that suspicion in a way you may not have ever dared to imagine.

One of the most profoundly relevant and timely chapters in this part is “Chapter 11: Truncating the Antecedents: How Americans have been misled about WWII.” Not only does Dr. Higgs take you behind the smokescreen of propaganda and biased historical revisionism to reveal the truth of WWII and the US involvement, but it serves as a perfect parallel to how Americans are being misled today about foreign occupations in the Middle East such as Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and more. There is an undeniable pattern of ignoring the preceding events and only focusing on the seemingly “out of nowhere” attacks in response, in an effort to blind Americans to their government’s role in provoking these attacks, and ensure they remain fiercely supportive of any warmongering ambitions the State is currently pursuing. In short, the world is not as cut and dry as bad guys vs. good guys. If you have the courage to accept that your government isn’t an angelic entity that only acts on the most noble intentions, this book will open your eyes to a reality that must be embraced if one wishes to create a more just, peaceful, and prosperous world.

Part III Economic Analysis, War, and Politicoeconomic Interactions will leave you feeling like you just went 12 rounds in a championship prize fight. The vigorous, relentless exposition of the havoc the State wreaks on an economic scale is simply staggering. I can’t help but to confess I found myself questioning if anything could stop a Leviathan this bloodthirsty. Chapter 19, Military Economic Fascism, makes the irrefutable case that corruption is an inherent feature of the state, not merely an unfortunate byproduct. For instance, the Pentagon’s spending is not even documented in a coherent enough way that it could be audited, this has prompted the Defense Department’s acting inspector general to remark, “financial management problems are long standing, pervasive, and deeply rooted in all operations.” What’s so breathtaking about this is the regularity and routine nature of it all. Every year the Pentagon is required by law to provide an account of its spending for audit. Every year it fails to do so. Nothing changes. As Higgs aptly concludes:

In Iraq since the US invasion in 2003, billions of dollars have simply disappeared without leaving a trace. Surely they did not all evaporate in the hot desert sun. The accounts at Homeland Security are in equally horrible condition.

No one knows how much money or specific property is missing from the military and homeland-security departments or where the missing assets have gone. If a public corporation kept its accounts this atrociously, the Securities and Exchange Commission would shut it down overnight. Government officials, however, need not worry about obedience to the laws they make to assure their credulous subjects that everything is hunky-dory inside the walls. When they are of a mind, they simply flout those laws with impunity.

I found chapter 18, “To Fight or Not to Fight”, almost as a fresh of breath air amidst the avalanche of
data and rigorously sourced examples of government waste and corruption unlike which I could have ever imagined. In this chapter Higgs demonstrates his versatility as not merely a brilliant economist and historian, but also as a writer. The association of individual as one with his government, (for example, “We won the war” or “We should go to war to spread democracy”) is so pervasive and engrained in us all, Dr. Higgs takes an incredibly effective tactic to dislodge it. By approaching the issue in such a simple and straightforward way, as if he himself is genuinely wondering for the first time if wars initiated by leaders of government, are, in fact, for the best interest of the people at large, the absurdity of the whole thing creeps up on you slowly as you follow him along. The simplicity and eagerness in which he seeks to answer this question doesn’t allow for any opportunity for the reader to throw up his emotional barriers out of nationalistic pride and the like. By the time Higgs’ arrives at the only logical conclusion possible – that U.S. leaders make decisions of war based on their own concerns and virtually always at the expense of the people that war impacts - seemingly as if for the very first time, the reader is left feeling embarrassed that he could have ever thought anything to the contrary!

Delusions of Power concludes with a series of book reviews of all the most significant works cited earlier throughout the volume. This allows for the reader to pursue any of the specific topics more deeply, as well as appreciating the depth of research and material underpinning Higgs’ arguments.


The GOP platform calls for a ban on online poker


I suppose the slogan of “keeping the government out of your bedroom” is pretty much officially retired amongst Republican circles now. The stated justification for this horribly intrusive, un-Constitutional, un-American, nanny-state action that the most hardcore Progressive would be proud of, is that “compulsive gambling is a serious disease” blah blah blah, Why is there no call to ban all forms of poker? Or all gambling? Or what about tobacco? Or alcohol? Is alcoholism not a serious disease? What about high-fat diets? Red-meat, perhaps? Of course, this issue, like virtually all, are shaped not by adhering to the desires of your constituents, or (and try not to laugh) adhering to “Conservative Principles” or things like the Constitution, but rather, is shaped by the interests of a very small group of very wealthy and influential backers of the Republican Party. (Read: Sheldon Adelson)

The lamest defense of all of those who have been instructed that they now are to oppose online gambling because their party leaders declare it so, is that the online aspect of it makes it easier for underage children to be exposed to it. If your underage child is able to forge identity documents, steal your credit card and routinely make online gambling charges to it, and sit on the computer all day compulsively gambling, and you are either unaware or unable to stop it, well you are a horrible parent and your child will have much worse issues than gambling. What happened to being the party of family values? I can’t think of anything more dangerous to the family unit than the implications that we are too incompetent to parent our children ourselves, and thus need the heavy hand of government to outlaw any activities that may lead to undesirable behavior. I’m pretty sure children have, on occasion, gotten their hands on their parents’ firearms to disastrous result. Any plans for adding a plank to the GOP platform calling for a ban on guns in households with children? Or would “conservatives” revolt at such a notion and correctly point out that responsible parents can take measures to ensure their child does not access their firearm?

What about being the party of creating jobs for the middle-class? Yes, I know government can’t create jobs and to even pretend that slogan makes any sense whatsoever will rightfully anger my libertarian friends, but they can stop doing things that impede job growth and creation. You know what’s a really bad way to create jobs? To outlaw a profession and literally drive tens of thousands of honest, tax-paying, economy supporting citizens overseas where they can make a living without being oppressed, all the while spending their money in a foreign country as opposed to here.

The reason the Republican Party is dying and will fail to unseat a President who is presiding over the worst economic crisis in nearly 100 years, while simultaneously abandoning all of his campaign promises and disenfranchising an enormous part of his own base, is because the Republican Party no longer stands for anything. Nothing. They stand for whatever issues their wealthiest backers desire and nothing else. To be fair, the Democratic Party is obviously identical in that regard. For decades they have ridden on the coat-tails of words and beautifully crafted speeches of limited government and freedom by people like Ronald Regan. But their actual actions and policies are indistinguishable from their supposed opponents of Democrats. Bailouts anyone? National debt? Abandoning the long-held conservative principles of being a strong, humble nation, who seeks to defend our country while avoiding nation-building abroad? If you don’t believe me just ask Taft or maybe George W. is a better example:

Perhaps it is time that conservatives who believe in the principles espoused by people like Ronald Regan (for instance, “government isn’t the solution, government is the problem!” and so forth) stop blindly supporting politicians and a party that no longer even pays lip-service to these ideas, let alone actually try and implement policies that would achieve them, merely because the have the letter R next to their name and the Republican Party leadership told them to.

There is only so long you can scream insults at the other guy to distract from the reality that there is no substantive difference between what he is doing and what you would do. The online poker is probably the least significant of all the issues the above commentary is true of, but maybe that’s why its so irritating as well.