Many Americans believe that foreign military intervention is central to protecting our domestic freedoms. But Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall urge engaged citizens to think again. Overseas, our government takes actions in the name of defense that would not be permissible within national borders. Emboldened by the relative weakness of governance abroad, the U.S. government is able to experiment with a broader range of social controls.
How do military contractors benefit greatly from U.S. militarism? What is “the boomerang effect”? What is the relationship between domestic citizens and political institutions in the time of increased militarization? What is the interventionist mindset? When did we develop our first SWAT team?
00:07 Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
00:09 Aaron Ross Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
00:10 Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Christopher J. Coyne, associate professor of economics at George Mason University; and Abigail R. Hall, Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa. Together, they are the authors of Tyranny Comes Home: The Domestic Fate of US Militarism. Welcome to Free Thoughts.
00:26 Chris Coyne: Thank you. Thank you for having us.
00:27 Abby Hall: Thanks.
00:28 Trevor Burrus: Now, you’re both economists. So why would economists write a book, as opposed to political scientists or historians or whatever, a book about American militarism?
00:37 Chris Coyne: So, this is part of a broader research program that we’ve been involved in for several years, looking at various parts of US policy, specifically foreign policy, but trying to bring some of the fundamental insights of economics to understanding both the limits and possibilities of that foreign policy. And so the way we view it is kind of the consistent application of the economic way of thinking, relative prices, scarcity, constraints, incentives, knowledge constraints and so on. And to our way of thinking, many of these issues are neglected in typical IR, international relations treatments of these issues, public policy discussions. And so we think there’s important light to be shed on a variety of topics using the economic way of thinking. And so those can be things from intervening abroad and trying to shape institutions, but in the case of this project, thinking about how foreign intervention and militarism can affect domestic life.
01:37 Aaron Ross Powell: Do you have a definition of militarism? Like, how you’re using that term throughout this conversation?
01:42 Chris Coyne: So, the way we think about militarism is the… And of course, a variety of different scholars have talked about it, is the reliance or primacy of the military means as a way of interacting, shaping and influencing military affairs. That’s one aspect of it. The related aspect then is that militarism influences the domestic fabric, if you will, social fabric, political fabric, economic fabric of domestic life. And so the way we view militarism is kind of a dominant ideology of military primacy, where pretty much every problem or most problems around the world… And domestically for that matter, when you think about things like the war on terror, the war on Drugs are viewed as being solved, at least partially, if not entirely, through military means.
02:33 Trevor Burrus: You make a big distinction too. So we’re looking at the size and scope of government or the scope and scale that you guys talk about, and what could be… How could militarism be a particular input into this. But you make a big distinction between scale and scope, so what is that distinction?
02:51 Abby Hall: So, when we talk about scale, we’re meaning just the overall size of government. And economists are really good at measuring scale. So you can look at things like government spending as a percentage of GDP, you can look at the number of people who are employed by the federal government. There are lots of different measurements that we can use to talk about scale. Where it’s often neglected though is the issue of scope, which would be, “Well, what are the activities that government is engaged in?” And we talk about several reasons that economists and others tend to ignore issues of scope. So it’s assumed to be correlated with scale. So you assume that if the scale of government is growing, the scope of government is also growing. There are also issues with how economists and others typically model government activities. So the way that a government’s portrayed is that it’s providing goods and services in the optimal amount. So they’re maximizing some kind of a welfare function, defense goods are a part of that. And so it tends to be ignored.
03:49 Abby Hall: We focus in on scope, because I think listeners will probably appreciate that that model of government is probably not the best for understanding how it is that government actually provides resources, defense included. But we also focus in on scope, because the tools that we’re using for this particular project are particularly well‐tuned to shed light on issues related to scope. So, by going through and working with this framework that we’ve developed, by looking into the historical cases that we do, we’re positioning ourselves to be able to use those economic tools to explain a part of government action that’s often neglected.
04:27 Trevor Burrus: And this is… It’s not particularly quantitative too, that’s important. There’s no graph, I didn’t find a single graph or at least a numerical graph in your book, or how you measure this. ‘Cause if you just measure GDP expenditure or how many people work for the government as you pointed out, half of them might be defense attorneys. Or you might have a huge… To protect the rights of criminal defendants. So if you just measure how many people are employed by the government, you’re not actually measuring how much they protect rights or violate them.
04:54 Chris Coyne: That’s exactly right. And the other interesting thing from an economic standpoint is we typically talk about technological advances in the context of private markets and private life, and one of the, of course, key insights that we have from private, peaceful interaction markets and so on, is that you get innovation, you get technological advances. That lowers the cost of doing things, which in markets, we tend to say, is a good thing. But that also applies to technological advances for the state. And so as the state acquires and develops tools of social control that lowers the cost of them violating people’s rights, you actually need fewer resources to utilize those effectively. And so not only do kind of crude aggregate macro measures miss these nuances, but they also miss the dynamics of innovation, and what that means for the amount of resources necessary to carry out an increased range of activities.
05:44 Aaron Ross Powell: What are the drivers of… If we’re seeing increased militarism, and we’re talking about this from an economic standpoint, so there’s incentives and there’s interests that are being pursued and so on. We can… Obviously, the military or people who are making money off of the military have an interest in increasingly using the military or growing it or “solving” I have it in scare quotes, “Solving problems” through the application of military force, but are there other… What are the kind of non‐just defense contract or driven things that are causing more militarism?
06:22 Chris Coyne: So that’s a great question. It’s a big topic of course and I think the answer is multi‐faceted, and so I won’t do full justice to it, but I think you clearly have incentives of interest groups driving this. But I also think there’s a broader ideological shift in the case of America that happened over time. And of course, there’s ebbs and flows over time, but really kind of the focal point, if you will, is the post‐World War II period, and there was a major ideological shift at that time, which again, it was driven by numerous factors.
06:54 Chris Coyne: But there was a acceptance both in the policy establishment of the foreign policy community as well as among a large number of American citizens that America was going to be involved and had to be involved globally that there was gonna be a state of kind of total war if you will, and permanent war to combat the communist threat. So in the wake of the World Wars, you get the onset of the Cold War. And that this wasn’t going to be like historical wars where you had this ramping up of resources expenditures and military might. You engaged against a clear identifiable enemy and once the enemy was defeated the war was over, if you will.
07:33 Chris Coyne: Instead this was gonna be a situation where the enemy was an ideology, a set of beliefs, and so that was something that needs to be combated both across geographic space, but also, domestically because you could have infiltrators domestically that would erode the American way of life and it was gonna be open‐ended. And that influenced the shape of foreign policy, it influenced economic activity associated with war production and so you get the onset of what people have called the permanent war economy, where instead of just shifting resources to increase certain military outputs, we had to prepare for future wars as well. And of course the military contractors that you’ve mentioned played into that, which is once you had this ideology in place, of course, they benefit greatly from the persistence of that type of set up.
08:20 Abby Hall: To add on to that. The examples that I always use, and they’re important for not only what we do in this book, but in other pieces that we’ve written, as well, is looking at the importance of the war on drugs and the war on terror. So Chris mentioned a moment ago, that in prior conflicts, you have a very clearly well‐defined enemy and that enemy is external, but there’s now, this internal component, when you’ve got the war on drugs and the war on terror. And so you have this tendency, I think, which is natural when people are afraid of something, they want people to come in and fix it. And the people in this case that are coming in to fix it, are our government and people become more comfortable over time with these intrusions on their personal liberties, because there is that fear component that’s there. The example that I use oftentimes with my undergraduate students is that they don’t remember what it was like to fly pre 9/11 ’cause at this point, most of them weren’t born yet, but had you told someone in 1995, for example, that every time they went to the airport their full body was going to be scanned, they could be pat‐down by some government agent, now the TSA. A lot of people would have told you that you were crazy. Now, we think about that as being normal and a necessary security procedure.
09:35 Trevor Burrus: And I get that’s a way of putting it. I think the thesis generally of the book which is historically we would have said “What is the main cost to America, domestically for fighting say a war in Vietnam or a war in the Philippines as a lot of the stuff seems to begin. And it would be “Oh, well taxes and lives of American soldiers.” Those are the main costs that come back to America. But you say No, that there’s actually what you call “The boomerang effect”, that there are more costs to this that are more deeply ingrained within the social fabric, that happens, as Abby said, maybe without even you noticing and suddenly we’re being patted down at airports or other things. So talk a little bit more about the boomerang effect and how that works.
10:15 Chris Coyne: Sure and so as you point out one of the key kind of insights… And the book’s a very basic point that comes out of economics. Frederic Bastiat and then Henry Hazlitt of course, about the unseen. And as Hazlitt put it, “The art of economics is not just analyzing the observable consequence of a policy, but also the chain of events that occurs much of which is unseen.” And so, really, in some sense, that’s what’s driving us here. We’re trying to identify some of the main unseen and over looked cost of a proactive militaristic foreign policy. And so how do we go about doing that? Well, we tried to develop a broad framework to think about these issues, drawing upon some of the insights from the economic way of thinking. And the boomerang effect, what we call the boomerang effect in its core logic goes as follows, “Foreign intervention provides a testing ground if you will, or a laboratory for governments to innovate, sharpen and refine tools of social control over other human beings.” When governments intervene abroad or the American government does there are relatively few constraints on what it can do, which we go through in the book the weakness of those constraints or the significance lacking in those constraints.
11:30 Chris Coyne: And so an unconstrained government or largely unconstrained government, will undertake actions that it otherwise wouldn’t at home if it was constrained. And will feel comfortable doing things to other human beings that they otherwise couldn’t deal with if they were effectively constrained. Under certain conditions the innovations in social control that take place both in preparing for and executing foreign interventions, return back to domestic life through a variety of channels that we discuss. And when that happens the American government, not only becomes more effective at controlling other people, but also the domestic citizenry as well, the relationship between domestic citizens and politics and political institutions changes and kind of the fabric of domestic life changes for the worst, often times. And that can lead to a variety of immediate consequences, but also long‐term consequences as well. And so really one of the key themes of the book is that foreign interventions create institutional precedent. They create precedence that oftentimes can sit there for long periods of time unused, but future politicians can use them.
12:40 Chris Coyne: They can draw upon the precedents that are created and those precedents can be legal precedents, they can be technological precedents, and then they can be used in ways that were unintended at the time of their initial design and implementation.
12:52 Trevor Burrus: So is this different… One thing that we hear a bunch about, say, the New Deal, is that a lot of the people who created the New Deal had been involved with the wartime economy in World War I. And we put ourselves in a wartime footing and everything was planned and we had it centralized, and we all have one goal, and that seemed really, really good. And then they were refugees from the Coolidge and Harding years and Hoover years and then they come back in the Roosevelt years and say, “Well, right, wartime was great. Why can’t we have a permanent wartime footing for the economy?” Is that a similar claim that you guys are making, or at least in the same vibe?
13:27 Chris Coyne: Certainly, it’s similar. And if I had to generalize from that point, that’s a wonderful example, is that people develop certain skills, certain, what economists call human capital, which is influenced by their experiences, what they do, what they become experts in doing, and that’s gonna influence their future, what they do in the future, and also to the extent they’re involved in policy in influencing organizations and institutions, the shape that those things take. And so, if I had to summarize one of the key takeaways, you can never just do one thing. And so an intervention, even a well‐targeted, well‐designed intervention, is going to have a series of consequences which you cannot fully anticipate, which you cannot fully measure, and it’s something to take into account when we’re thinking about foreign policy.
14:11 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a way to make the unseen seen in this instance? So, one of the ways to address these incentives would be to make the unseen more seen, these costs more obvious, and you can do it like… Obviously, your book is a step in that direction, but most people aren’t reading books of this type…
14:30 Trevor Burrus: Academic books.
14:31 Aaron Ross Powell: Academic books. Are there ways to adjust the incentives here to at least push back on this tendency?
14:38 Trevor Burrus: Edward Snowden did it, I guess. He made some unseen things seen.
14:42 Abby Hall: I think that that is a… It’s a really tall order. One of the things that I know I frequently am pushing back on is that we know that there are lots of unintended consequences of conflict. And one of the things that came out for me from writing this book was looking to see how, in some cases, as Chris pointed out, you have things that have been on the books for a very long time, or things take a really long time to develop. And so some of those unintended consequences, you might not see them for, forget months, it might be years or decades. But the fact that there are lots of unintended costs associated with conflict, whether we’re talking about the loss of liberties, we’re talking about environmental impacts. There’s a whole list of things that we could discuss. I think one shift that I would like to see, I think it’s probably, again, not likely to happen, is the impetus really needs to be on people who are then are proponents of conflict, to come to the table and have some way of articulating or offering some kind of a reasonable explanation for why we wouldn’t expect to see these types of consequences that we historically have seen with pretty much every conflict.
15:54 Trevor Burrus: One of my favorite things about your book is that you do break it down. And as I pointed out, many people have said, the same people in World War I were in the New Deal, but you break it down and say, “Well, this is what actually is going on.” So in one that Chris mentioned, the human capital channel; If you create a bunch of generals and soldiers, for example, to fight a war overseas, they might come back and be cops, which happens a bunch in the story. But you have these basic things like extreme confidence regarding the interventionist ability to solve complex problems in other societies through massive bureaucratic public‐private apparatus. There’s five more you talk about, but just like that one, is the kind of thing that you learn. And then you’re not… You’re no longer just relegated to working in foreign countries now, you might come back and get a job.
16:45 Chris Coyne: That’s right. And so, we term this the interventionist mindset. And really, to understand this, that list of propositions that you just mentioned, the first one. And one of the core kind of foundation things we discuss in the book, and I think it’s important for people to talk about, irrespective of where they fall down on, how interventionist America or other governments should be, is, what does intervention other societies require? And at its core, it requires a force of the threat thereof.
17:09 Chris Coyne: It requires social control. Social control is the rules and the different ways of life. Those rules can be formal or informal, that people follow to get things done. And what intervention ultimately requires to varying degrees, of course, depending on the type of intervention, is a group of outsiders saying, “I don’t like what’s happening in that society.” Of course, if they didn’t have that kind of view, that they didn’t like what happened, there’ll be no urge to intervene to change things and intervention tries to change what naturally would occur otherwise. And that requires controlling people, and that requires a certain mindset, a certain mental schema, if you will. And that’s what you’re getting at when you talk about, “Look, you have to have confidence in the ability of government to change things, you have to have confidence and comfort telling other people how to live their life, and backing that up by force if they refuse to do so.”
17:58 Aaron Ross Powell: And limiting compassion and sympathy toward the target populous, I like that one.
18:01 Chris Coyne: That’s right, that’s right. And you capture that. This is bipartisan. We’ve all heard politicians talk about Iraq and Afghanistan, the failure, not as a failure of US policy, but as somehow, the failure of the recipients, of… And they’ll put it in terms of a gift. “We gave, we bestowed upon the folks of Iraq and Afghanistan, the right to be free or democracy, and they chose to reject it.” Well, that’s certainly one way to view it. Another is that they didn’t view it as the gift that you’re framing it as. And so, there’s a certain kind of framing that goes here.
18:36 Chris Coyne: There’s a disregard typically for a human life of non‐Americans, and you see this in the way US policy makers and those in the military talk about it, the way they frame it, collateral damage. The unwillingness to, in many cases, even attempt to count the number of civilians lost or to make it as opaque as possible. Going back to your point about what kind of things could we do to make this more transparent, there’s constraints, there’s data you could make available, but oftentimes, in government, of course, they take active steps to mask this data so that people can’t have access to it and understand the full implications of it.
19:16 Aaron Ross Powell: Is that… That kind of pivot from it wasn’t our failure to… It wasn’t our failure, it was their failure. How you get around… When you first mentioned, when Trevor first mentioned this kind of… They go in and then they have this overconfidence in the ability of large bureaucratic systems, in this case, military systems to solve problems. It clashes with… Most of the people who I’ve talked to who served in the military come out being like, “Man, we had no idea what we were doing.” They don’t come out with confidence in these systems, and we… Making fun of the incompetence of the… There’s… The new Catch‐22 movie is coming out, that doesn’t seem… It doesn’t seem like we have this broad consensus that the military is this well‐oiled machine that gets things done.
19:58 Trevor Burrus: Or at least… Especially people who’ve been in the military.
20:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Right.
20:00 Trevor Burrus: Yeah.
20:01 Abby Hall: I think it probably depends on… And Chris may have other things to add to this as well. I think part of that, it depends on who it is that you’re talking to coming out from the military. Because I know in my experience, it’s been something very similar. When I present this or other research to former members of the military, the first few times I was surprised because I found a lot of them agreed with me, and they’re saying, “Yes, you’re telling us things that we actually lived through,” so they’ve experienced the bureaucracy. But I do think that there is some… Potentially a meaningful difference in maybe where you are within that organization. So for those people who have been able to climb the military ladder, and we talk about this in the book, they’ve illustrated that they are really good at playing that game. So they’re able to do the things which are pleasing to their superiors, to engage in the actions which are going to make them successful within that organization. And so the people that I might be talking to or who might be coming to me are not those people who’ve been able to make a career out of the military, they’re people who spent four, eight years in and then left. And I think that’s an important distinction to make.
21:12 Trevor Burrus: Now, let’s get some specifics here. So we’re talking the abstracts, but you do a very good job of saying this is exactly how it works. And the first one you talk about is surveillance. So we have a pretty… We know… I think most people expect a large amount of surveillance from the US government in their life, which wasn’t always the case, but that itself, some of those institutions and technologies have roots in foreign intervention.
21:36 Chris Coyne: Yeah, in the book we talk about the boomerang effect framework, we talk about America specifically, and the constraints or lack thereof, related to foreign intervention, then we shift into four illustrations or case studies and surveillance is the first one we discuss. And one of the interesting things that came about in all the cases that we discussed and studied for this book is just how far back they go. Of course, people think about surveillance, to the extent they think about it at all, and a lot of people say, “Okay, the NSA, Snowden.” And then you… If you just look up a history of the NSA, you see, oh, early ‘50s, that’s the NSA. And you say, “Okay, that’s the history of this thing.” But it’s not, there’s a much deeper history when you delve into it.
22:17 Chris Coyne: And there’s always been surveillance, of course, to varying types as long as there’s been wars, there’s been governments, they always surveil, whether it’s directly observing, having spies, opening people’s mail, those are all forms of surveillance throughout history as well as many others. But in the case of America, you can trace back the origins of the modern day surveillance state to the war in the Philippines, so we’re talking late 1800 into the early 1900s. And of course, the war in the Philippines is one that you don’t hear too many people talk about. But in many of the cases that we talk about in the book, you can trace back the origins to that. And of course, when America, or the American government, I should say, took over the Philippines, many of the citizens that lived in the Philippines were expecting to be granted independence, but the American government wasn’t ready to grant them independence. And so as you can imagine, that led to great unhappiness and a meeting of resistance by people living in the country being occupied and being told what to do.
23:19 Chris Coyne: So how are you going to fight the insurgents? Part of it was brute force; the American military apparatus engaged in brute force. But for the first time, the American government also established a apparatus of surveillance under someone named Ralph Van Deman, who’s called the father of military intelligence. He’s in the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame, there is such a thing. [chuckle] And he is… And what he did, which was quite genius at the time, was used all the available technology available to him. Now, again, by today’s standards, of course, it would be very rudimentary, but he collected enormous amounts of information on people and used that information to manipulate people, to try to anticipate who would be insurgents, to ruin people’s lives. And we’re talking everything from things about their participation in insurgent groups to their personal life, their sex life, their financial records. And so you had this systematic attempt to collect this information and use that information to manipulate people to get outcomes.
24:19 Chris Coyne: Van Deman finishes up, he comes back to America in the early 1900s, and he goes to work to try to set up a similar apparatus domestically. He meets a variety of bureaucratic barriers to doing this, it wasn’t like a smooth process, where he just snapped his fingers and it happened, but World War I or the onset of World War I presented him with the opportunity to do this. And he established one of the first kind of systematic surveillance operations. It was very small, it was only him and a few people in America, and it slowly expanded over time. At one point in time… And it went through a variety of iterations like any kind of bureaucracy, it had a whole host of different names if you look at it, which eventually became the NSA. The NSA was formed 1952, I believe, and that’s the year Van Deman died, so it kind of… His vision came to full maturation and came to be fulfilled at the end of his life.
25:12 Chris Coyne: And you see this, these crazy things, when you read about it. At one point, it’s called the American Black Chamber. They had set up a business front in New York City and they… Again, it was a small group of people, it wasn’t like this huge apparatus. So these people sitting in this building in New York City, and they entered into these backroom agreements with all the major wire… Western Union, which of course was one of the major telecommunication companies with international communications over wires. And you had a small group of members of the American military reading all these things, having access to all this information. Then, of course, you come up through the revelations that led to the Church Committee, which again was massive spying, the abuse of these tools of surveillance to fight people that those with political power didn’t like. And it wasn’t just Communists, it was civil rights leaders, others viewed as posing the broadest threat to members of the political elite.
26:05 Chris Coyne: And then, of course, you have the Snowden revelations, which are… So you start going back and you’re like, alright, the Snowden revelations come out and they’re jarring for, what, five minutes for people that care about it, and they move on to the next thing. And you quickly realize that this has been happening over and over again. The technology is different, the way that government implements it is different, but it’s the same kind of stuff over and over again, which shouldn’t be that shocking to people. One of the core insights which… It’s not new to us, it’s been talked by political theorists and others for centuries, is the paradox of government, the idea of, “Look, we empower government to do stuff, in principle they can do lots of good stuff, but of course they can also utilize that power to do lots of bad stuff.” And so how do you simultaneously, or can you simultaneously empower government and constrain them? And really that’s what’s this all about. Can you simultaneously grant political agents, government, massive surveillance powers, which by definition are covert; they have to be in order to surveil people ’cause if they know they’re being surveilled they’re not very effective, and simultaneously create constraints that are to prevent abuse. And that’s really in some sense what this all comes down to.
27:09 Chris Coyne: I would suggest the empirical record is very weak in coming up with effective constraints, and one obvious metric for that is whistleblowers. As you mentioned earlier, Snowden is… That’s typically how people find out about these things. But also the members of government when these things were revealed will simultaneously point out that there’s nothing there to see, and invest a massive amount of resources discrediting the person and trying to punish the person, which should strike people as odd if there’s nothing there to see. And so it poses that tension of how you resolve these things and can you, but in the case of surveillance, it is a perfect illustration of how a foreign intervention, over a century ago, boomeranged back, boomerangs back to domestic life and influences us today. The dynamics and nature of that has evolved, of course, but it’s still there, and the foundations go all the way back to that intervention in the Philippines.
28:01 Aaron Ross Powell: We’re talking about this, we talk in moralized language: We need to prevent abuses, we need to stop them from doing things that they shouldn’t do. But from a pure economic standpoint, are we just dealing with an instance of revealed preferences in that we in this room, or Trevor and I at the Cato Institute, we think that this stuff, that a massive surveillance state is bad, privacy violations are bad, social control is bad. But maybe it’s just a situation that Americans, despite the rhetoric of the American founding and our pointing to the Constitution, just simply like this stuff, or want this stuff, or aren’t bothered at all by it. And we see that in responses like, “Well, I don’t care if they surveil me because I’m not doing anything wrong,” or “If only we had even more cops busting heads in my neighborhood, that would be great.” And so is this just an instance where weird civil libertarians have a set of preferences that are just not shared by anyone?
29:00 Chris Coyne: That’s a wonderful point and we discuss this in the book at the end really, when we talk about solutions. And one of the main things is exactly the point you raise, which is there’s parts of a democratic system that operate outside the purview of what citizens want. Some people call it the deep state, whatever people wanna call it. Just given the nature of big bureaucracies there’s gonna be stuff that happens that you can’t monitor, that stuff’s gonna happen that you don’t directly express your voice for. It’s just the nature of the beast. But of course, that doesn’t mean people don’t have a voice, they can’t express their views, and of course, there have been moments in American history and in other societies where people have had dramatically different preferences than what their government is doing, and they have expressed those either through voting or through some kind of revolt or protest and gotten change.
29:50 Chris Coyne: What does this mean? At the end of the day it means exactly the point you made, which is I do think many Americans, perhaps most Americans, based on many opinion polls, are quite comfortable being surveilled. They say exactly the kind of things you’re saying, that, “If you have nothing to hide why would you worry about this?” or “I’m fine being patted down at the airport, it makes us safer.” And there’s the empirical aspect of that, does it make you safer? But then there’s this broader point that we’re trying to make about the long‐term consequences of that. And so where we conclude is that one of the things you need in order to reverse this… You can’t turn to politicians to reverse it, they have no incentive to reverse it. They like power, that’s part of this, and they’re gonna continually work to take advantage of existing slack in the constraints and to expand that slack.
30:39 Chris Coyne: And so where that leaves us is ultimately you need enough citizens, whatever enough means, to want to change things. And we try to lay out the case here that they should care about it; we hope they do ’cause we think it’s an important part of maintaining liberty and freedom. But ultimately you’re right, if people don’t want it, if they are complicit in government doing it, government’s going to do it.
31:00 Trevor Burrus: Your next example, something ‘ve worked on, police militarization. And Aaron’s question about seen and unseen… At the very beginning your book point out Ferguson, which was the first time that a lot of people saw something that had been going on for quite a while, and Radley Balko started his work on the Cato here. But I think it’s also a really good example of the three elements of the boomerang effect. So you have the human capital channels we discussed, so you have military people coming back to policing, you have the organizational dynamics, cops turn into militarized ranking and discipline, and in physical capital like tanks all together. But tell a little about that story.
31:37 Abby Hall: So the militarization example, as you point out, I think, is a really nice illustration because we’ve got all of the dynamics that we’re talking about. And again, what we find is the start really in the Philippines, at least that’s…
31:52 Trevor Burrus: It’s always the Philippines, yeah, yeah. We had…
31:53 Abby Hall: And that’s where we’ll…
31:54 Trevor Burrus: We’ll have to put this Stephen Kinzer episode in the show notes so they can go back and listen to that and then figure out all the stuff that started in the Philippines.
32:00 Abby Hall: Right. So we start off by noting that historically there’s been at least an attempt, in theory if not necessarily in practice, of trying to separate the functions of police from the military. So you look at something like the US soldiers’ creed about being ready to engage, deploy, and destroy enemies of the United States in close combat versus something like the LAPD model or a motto to protect and serve. There’s been a series of attempts, again, to codify that. People who are familiar with it may be familiar with something like Posse Comitatus, which came on the books after the US Civil War, where you had the US military, which was attempting to prevent Southern blacks from voting; that’s violated almost immediately. But to really start with it, I think, again, the Philippines is the best place.
32:51 Abby Hall: So as Chris mentioned a few minutes ago, you have this resistance, and the US military, not constrained by things like Posse Comitatus when they’re acting abroad, they develop a constabulary, a military police force, to control the civilian population. And as part of this, this allows for the development of and this honing of various styles of policing, some of which are remarkably brutal, which we do detail in the chapter. And from this you get a man named August Vollmer, who becomes known as the father of modern policing. So Vollmer is part of Philippine constabulary, he returns home, he joins the police department at Berkeley, he becomes Berkeley’s police chief throughout his tenure. He will also spend, I believe it’s a year or two as Los Angeles police chief. And he also serves as a consultant to a variety of different police departments. And if you read what people have written about Vollmer, if you read, again, his biographers or contemporaries of his, they talk about it as he felt as though martial law, or people felt that martial law was in place when he was police chief, and he felt like that that worked to his advantage. And he was of the opinion that police should be run like the military, and so that’s what he set out to do.
34:16 Abby Hall: He was a fan of things like universal fingerprinting for every citizen in the United States, something that he was not able to successfully champion, but was a big proponent of implementing the types of tactics and technologies that had been developed as part of this occupation of the Philippines. So things that we might not think about today as being huge technological innovations, but things like having police officers on bicycles, or them being able to call into the police station with a telephone or telegraph, or putting police officers in cars when cars became available. It’s appropriate that several years later, in another case that we talk about related to police militarization, and I think it’s important to point out, too, that we see this not happening all at once. We do see this occurring in layers, so it’s not this clean, linear trajectory, it’s piecemeal.
35:12 Abby Hall: You get to the war in Vietnam and you have… You got more foreign intervention, more opportunities to hone methods of social control. And you have the Watts riots in Los Angeles in the mid‐1960s. And then you have a guy named John Nelson, he was a Marine veteran, had served in Vietnam, and he’d been part of an elite Force Recon unit. Now, you hear reconnaissance unit, you think intelligence gathering. They’re effectively an elite killing force. So we have stuff about engagement statistics, casualty rates for elite Force Recon units versus regular Marine units. And John Nelson looks at these riots that are occurring in Los Angeles, thinking about his time in Vietnam, he is now a member of the LAPD. He takes this idea to his superior, at the time an inspector, he’d later become the police chief of the LAPD, named Daryl Gates. And he proposes to him this idea. He says, “I think I have a way for us to better control these crowds at race riots.” And he proposed to model a unit within the LAPD based on this elite Force Recon unit. This would eventually turn into the first SWAT team. And I think in a very pointed example of how this militarization of policing has come in, or the foreign intervention aspect, the proposed title was Special Weapons and Attack Team, but it was thought that that was too militaristic and too harsh, so they changed it to Special Weapons and Tactics Teams.
36:55 Abby Hall: This very quickly becomes a permanent fixture of the LAPD; every member of the original SWAT team for the LAPD had military training and experience. And the idea, as we now know from work like people like Radley Balko and others, has spread very quickly, which yet again we can tie in to these foreign interventions abroad. So those who are familiar with that topic might be aware of things like Program 1033, which has gone through various iterations. It’s the program that allows for the military to transfer surplus military equipment to police departments. So you start to see all of those dynamics that we talk about coming in. So you’ve got this human capital that is being infused at all these different points.
37:44 Abby Hall: So I mentioned Vollmer a few moments ago, it’s not just Vollmer, you have people who are doing similar things in West Virginia, people who are doing similar things in Pennsylvania with the experiences that they have. Other people who are coming back from Vietnam, and now in a contemporary context, returning from Iraq and Afghanistan and the war on terror, bringing in those mindsets with them, developing these different organizational dynamics in a way that people who are former or current members of the military would also recognize what’s going on in a policing context, because those are the dynamics that have been put in place. And then you bring in these programs which allow for the use of military grade equipment, and it really, I think, ultimately comes as no surprise that this is where we are. But we’ve got this historical context of foreign intervention really being the cradle of this very now hotly contested contemporary issue.
38:40 Aaron Ross Powell: While this was happening, to go back to the cultural question that I asked earlier, what was the reaction of people in, say, Los Angeles when the first SWAT teams came in or as the militarization went up? Was this move being cheered on by the general populous or…
39:00 Abby Hall: That… One of the tricky things about engaging in this type of research, is that some of those types of questions… And it’s a really good question, is that you don’t always have that kind of information. My guess would be, is that it would probably have been a mixed bag, so you probably would have had some people who were largely championing this as a move, and other people who would probably be detractors, very similar to what we see today with respect to police militarization any time I’m giving or talking about that as a topic. You run into something very similar to what we were discussing earlier of, “Well, if you’re not doing anything wrong, then you don’t have anything to worry about.” Or they’ll typically bring up something about what police are confronting and then ask questions like, “Don’t you want police to have what they need in order to be able to do their job?” The short answer to that question is, I don’t really know.
39:50 Trevor Burrus: Well, there definitely seem to be a pretty high level of demand amongst some people for criminal justice for cracking heads. Let’s put it that way, in the late ‘60s, the turmoil, the ‘60s race concerns, the drug war. All this stuff comes up. It’s not just a, “Hey, we’re gonna impose this new SWAT team thing on you because I was in Vietnam.”
40:10 Abby Hall: And I think the war on drugs piece… And we talk about this in the book, is the war on drugs and the war on terror being yet another mechanism through which we see kind of the expansion of police militarization. And a large part of that has to do with that dynamic of there are now domestic enemies which are present in part of this ongoing perpetual war on drugs, or war on terror. And therefore, in order to be able to effectively, the story goes, do our job, we need to be able to have this type of equipment, or use these particular tactics, which even though they were once relegated to military, are argued to be more appropriate or effective at doing the job.
40:49 Trevor Burrus: But you wouldn’t make this… Just to be clear, about this… You wouldn’t make the strong claim that, “but for Vietnam, we wouldn’t have SWAT teams,” right? How, I guess, inevitable does this seem? And in trying to sort of demonstrate the thesis do we see other countries maybe, or other empire, like British empire, do we see this happen too? Or are there other examples, how would the world look? There was demand for high level of policing, so maybe it was just that all these people had been in a war and then they had an easy option for being in the cops. When you say Dell Gates was in World War II, but so was every single person about his age at the time. And probably not all of them were that way. How strong is the thesis here?
41:34 Chris Coyne: Such a great question. And we don’t wanna overstate the strength… I guess the more accurate is the predictive power of the thesis. In the book, we are very careful both early on and throughout, to say that the boomerang effect is first of all just one factor that influences the growth of government. And every attempt to talk about the growth of government runs into this problem. It’s extremely complex, but of course to gain any kind of analytic tractability you have to focus on certain aspects and either hold others constant or push them off the table. And so, how would’ve things evolved absent in any particular war? That I don’t know. That’s an interesting counterfactual to think about. Do I think that it was inevitable that either militaries and police, or one of these other things would’ve happened absent of war? I imagine most of them still would’ve happened in some way, shape, or form. Again, this is me speculating. But the dynamics would’ve been different, but I do wanna make clear that we’re not saying this is the only cause of growth, that there’s a deterministic type of thing that’s happening, or that it has to happen.
42:34 Chris Coyne: Again, one of the key insights of the book is this isn’t the foregone way that life has to be. Things can be different. That requires certain things, and pointing out how things occurred, I think is important for, number one, understanding how they occurred but also for assuming people want to either constrain them or make changes to reverse them for understanding how to go about that. And so, that’s how I think about it. It gets even more complex by the way, because these things are all intertwined. In the book, we talk about surveillance and militarization of police. Of course these things are linked. Because there’s lots of present‐day examples of this that happened, came to light just as we were publishing the book and after. And one of the main ones, of course, is the surveillance technologies that were developed in Iraq that came back to America, that are employed by police forces. Stingray’s one of them. This idea of this real‐time regional gateway which was this algorithm developed by the military in Iraq and Afghanistan. And it’s great, it’s great for tracking and helping members of the military to track and kill what they consider to be the enemy.
43:35 Chris Coyne: The question then, you have to wonder, what happens when that comes home. Then they’ll say, “Okay now we have this technology, let’s deploy it at the Southern border because we have immigration concerns, we have drug concerns, we have terrorist concerns.” But of course, it doesn’t just stay at the border, it’s not just used to… Against the bad people, it collects a lot of information on a lot of people that may be bad, but may not be. And then you have to think about the implications of that. And so you get this blurring between the surveillance capabilities of government, the militarization of police. And it gets really complex really quick. But you can see how this kind of stuff manifests itself domestically and how you just get example after example, some in the immediate term, some in the longer term.
44:16 Abby Hall: You’d asked about potential other examples and does this occur other places? And we were careful in the book to point out, or we… The framework that we’ve developed is generalizable. And we do not think that this is in any way, shape or form, exclusive to the United States. Other governments that would engage in foreign intervention we’d expect to see this elsewhere. One of the things that I found both intriguing and at times frustrating about writing this book was the amount of digging and the amount of historical knowledge, and the amount of detail that you have to have about a variety of different things in order to really have an understanding of just the complexity of any one of these issues. And so, in the book, we chose to focus on the United States. There are some other examples in the US which I think are of interest. So looking at things like human rights abuses, or human experimentation, is something that we’ve looked at. You can also look at things like far‐right extremism. Looking at the intersection of the military and organizations like the KKK. Those things are also contemporary US examples. I would be very interested with people who have more knowledge about specific countries than I do, to see what kinds of examples that they might be able to use this framework to discuss and illuminate.
45:39 Trevor Burrus: The ones that I was thinking, Rome and the British Empire, of course, are the ones that are of similar scale as The American Empire. And it would be interesting, I don’t have enough knowledge, but I imagine maybe Roman people going to serve as governors of Gaul might have come back and been like, “Well, you gonna really keep those Gulls down or learn some techniques of sort of oppression,” or British Governors in India might have learned some things that brought them back home, but it does take some more research. And I think in general it seems like that, if we’re talking about what to do. We’ve identified a problem, which I think you guys are correct about this, but it’s not totally deterministic, but it has these elements to it, and we have one coming. At one chapter, you discuss drones which we’re having to…
46:23 Aaron Ross Powell: Did those begin in the Philippines too?
46:24 Abby Hall: No, but they’re close.
46:26 Trevor Burrus: No. What they did do in World War I though, I was so shocked about that one. Yeah. Talk about the drones origin, yeah.
46:32 Abby Hall: So drones as we think about them, as we point out. Not quite Philippines early, but we’re getting pretty close. So 1914, you see the first attempts at making some kind of an aerial drone. They’re used at first for target practice. Over the years, capabilities get better. So really you start to see the development of things like smaller cameras, micro processing systems, things like that. During the Cold War, they’re used for surveillance. We talk about reasons why things like if you were to shoot down a surveillance drone over the Soviet Union, that’s a bit more politically easy to deal with. So we see this continuous development, where we really see drones getting picked up and used extensively. Is primarily, again, in the war on terror. And while there is this historical build up to that, so it’s not as though all of a sudden we just get this technology right around the year 2001, 2003. But we do see that once that technology is developed, we start to see, almost immediately… And this is one of the things that I think is particularly interesting about the case of drones, is that once that technology starts to be used, what I would argue more extensively by the military, so for extensive surveillance and then also again for active targeting.
47:53 Abby Hall: Once that technology starts to be used in that way in the war on terror, you see, pretty much immediately… Within the same year, that those same drone technologies are being used along the US border. There are certain people who play a pivotal role, like Arthur Cebrowski is somebody that we discuss in the book as being particularly important for really pushing, in a very similar way that we saw in the chapter on surveillance, becomes an integral part of pushing for the use of these unmanned technologies, of these more advanced computer systems as a way to modernize the military. Again, someone who is coming from the perspective of, “This is technology that has been successfully used abroad. This can also be successfully used in domestically in a meaningful way.
48:43 Abby Hall: Bringing drones again, forward to 2019. We see now police departments. Again, Chris mentioned a few moments ago that one of the things that makes this so complex is it all gets woven together. So, you have surveillance, you have police militarization, and you have drones all simultaneously. Drones being utilized by police departments for things like surveillance. Drones being loaned out to police departments, from customs enforcement and border patrol, and also discussions of things like using armed drones by police departments being met with varying degrees of opposition. So again, you have some people who are big fans of this, and other people who are, understandably, I think, concerned about the security threat or the threat to liberties that that poses.
49:32 Trevor Burrus: Is that the difficulty here about… They say they kind of underscores the, “What do we do about this,” because it’s very hard to make a case against drones, in general. From a military standpoint if we’re not putting people in harm’s way, we can accomplish a task that’s better than the alternative, it seems for many military. When you design military gear, you design them to protect your people, and hurt them. Like a tank is about that. And if you don’t even have to put a person in there, so that’s… Military drones seem like not a bad idea from a military perspective. And then if we apply that domestically, we say, “Well, you shouldn’t use drones even though they’re very good at doing that thing that we’re trying to do, which is protect the lives of officers and soldiers, and getting the bad guys.” So how do we change the culture? How do we change ideas that there is something wrong with this when you have to also admit that it’s effective in doing many of the things that people think should be done?
50:22 Abby Hall: So I think to point out… And this goes back. First point is that we don’t make the argument that any of this technology is inherently bad. So for drones, for instance, they have very useful applications and things like combating fires, or even agricultural implications, search and rescue, drones can be very good. So we don’t make any kind of claim that any one technology is inherently bad. In terms of how do you change the culture surrounding it, I think it really goes back to this idea of the paradox of government that Chris mentioned earlier. That we can see the potentially beneficial uses for these technologies. With drones, there’s a question, by the way, about whether or not they’re actually safer for military personnel.
51:12 Abby Hall: There are some data, I think, convincing data that indicates they may actually put more soldiers in harms way, and they have some psychological effects that are important to discuss. But that aside, figuring out, “Well, if we want police officers for instance, to be able to use drones in the event of some kind of a crisis,” however we want to define what an appropriate crisis would be, how do we design rules to allow police departments to utilize technologies over the military, or whoever, to utilize these technologies in a way that we achieve results that we find acceptable, however we want to define that. And how do we constrain them to prevent the abuse of these? So one thing that people are typically concerned about… Something like, “Should drones be used to do things like monitor cars and issue people speeding tickets?” People seem to be particularly irritated about that, perhaps a lot less than they are about them using drones for surveillance.
52:15 Aaron Ross Powell: Thank you for listening. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, rate and review us on Apple Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast app. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible and Landry Airs. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.