Tyranny Comes Home
The Domestic Fate of U.S. Militarism
Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall


Chapter 1

Mark Twain’s Ominous Warning

Mark Twain, most celebrated as the author of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and its sequel, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, was also an astute political commentator. One issue that particularly concerned Twain was the U.S. government’s foreign intervention and imperialism.1 He worried that U.S. military adventures were unjust because they significantly and often brutally harmed innocent people abroad. But Twain also emphasized that foreign intervention had real effects on the social fabric of America as the intervening country. These concerns are apparent in two fictional essays from the early twentieth century written in response to the U.S. government’s occupation of the Philippines.2 The essays discuss a hypothetical “Great Republic” that had adopted an aggressive foreign policy of intervening in distant societies. Twain warned that the methods associated with this policy would return home and destroy the Great Republic:

But it was impossible to save the Great Republic. She was rotten to the heart. Lust of conquest had long ago done its work; trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home; multitudes who had applauded the crushing of other people’s liberties, lived to suffer for their mistake in their own persons.3

What if Twain’s scenario was not fictional but real? What if foreign intervention undermines liberties at home? The purpose of this book is to answer these questions by exploring how both preparation for intervention abroad and intervention itself affect domestic institutions in ways that threaten or reduce the freedoms of individuals living in the intervening country. Many believe that interventions overseas by the U.S. government protect domestic liberties. This book shows that this view is incomplete, if not entirely mistaken. When a society adopts the values of an aggressive empire, it runs the risk of adopting imperial characteristics at home.

To explain why, we develop a theory of the “boomerang effect” to understand Twain’s “natural process” through which foreign intervention increases the scope of domestic government and erodes citizens’ liberties from state coercion.4 The underlying logic of the boomerang effect is as follows. Preparing for and engaging in foreign intervention provide a testing ground for intervening governments to experiment with new forms of social control over distant populations.5 Under certain conditions, these innovations in social control are then imported back to the intervening country through several channels that expand the scope of domestic government activities. The result is that the intervening government becomes more effective at controlling not only foreign populations but the domestic population as well. Under this scenario, the preparation and execution of foreign intervention changes domestic political institutions and the relationship between citizen and government. Domestic freedom from interference and coercion by others erodes or is lost altogether as the state gains power over citizens.

The United States as the Great Republic

Although our analysis is generalizable, we focus on one specific “Great Republic”—the United States. We do so for several reasons. First, when writing about the hypothetical Great Republic, Twain was referring to America and the government’s decision to invade and occupy the Philippines. We thus address Twain’s concerns about the domestic implications of the U.S. government’s activist foreign policy, which has persisted since his time. In doing so, we offer a systematic study of the effects of foreign intervention on domestic freedoms in the United States.

In addition, we are both U.S. citizens and are concerned about the current, and future, state of our country. The deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York City in 2014 provoked public debate about the militarization of domestic policing. As we will argue, foreign intervention has been a contributing factor in domestic militarization. At the same time, in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the scope of U.S. government surveillance, debates rage about the appropriate role of the national security state as it relates to control over the private lives of U.S. citizens.6 As all these debates take place at home, the U.S. government continues to embrace a militaristic foreign policy, which entails intervening around the globe and attempting to shape world affairs according to the wishes of those with political power.

It has recently been noted that “[t]oday US military operations are involved in scores of countries across . . . five continents. The US military is the world’s largest tenant landlord, with significant military facilities in nations around the world with a significant presence in Bahrain, Djibouti, Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Kyrgyzstan, in addition to long-established bases in Germany, Japan, South Korea, Italy, and the UK.”7 The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) is also currently carrying out various military-related activities in at least twenty countries in the Middle East and Central and South Asia, meaning that “the US has some kind of military presence in Afghanistan, Bahrain, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Kazakhstan, Kuwait, Kyrgyzstan, Lebanon, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, U.A.E., Uzbekistan, and Yemen.”8 This presence is not a recent phenomenon, as the U.S. government has been actively engaged in military intervention in the Middle East for over three decades with no end in sight.9

The list of countries subject to U.S. military influence becomes even longer when one moves beyond the Middle East and Asia and considers that “the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) supports military-to-military relationships with 54 African nations.”10 A recent review of the global use of U.S. special ops forces concludes that “[d]uring the fiscal year that ended on September 30, 2014, U.S. Special Operations Forces (SOF) deployed to 133 countries—roughly 70% of the nations on the planet.”11 Only a minority of countries are immune from direct U.S. military influence.

Another indicator of the reach of the U.S. military is the prevalence of American bases as cataloged in the Department of Defense’s (DoD’s) annual Base Structure Report. For FY 2014 the DoD operated over 570 bases in foreign countries with an additional 4,200 bases in the United States and its territories.12 The agency’s total real estate portfolio is significant, consisting of “more than 562,000 facilities (buildings, structures, and linear structures), located on over 4,800 sites worldwide, and covering over 24.7 million acres” both domestically and internationally.13 Anthropologist David Vine estimates a higher total number of U.S. bases on foreign soil. According to his calculations, “today there are around eight hundred U.S. bases in foreign countries, occupied by hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops.”14

In addition to its direct global military presence, the U.S. government indirectly influences foreign affairs through a variety of mechanisms, including international arms-transfer agreements with other governments. “In 2015, the United States ranked first in arms transfer agreements with developing nations with $26.7 billion or 41% of these agreements. In second place was France with $15.2 billion or 23.3% of such agreements.”15 The United States also ranked first in the actual delivery of arms to developing nations, controlling $11.9 billion, or 35.4 percent, of the arms market.16 Adding developed countries to the account, “the United States was predominant, ranking first with $40.2 billion in such agreements or 50.29% of all such agreements.”17 France ranked second with $15.3 billion, or 19.2 percent, of global agreements. As this makes clear, the U.S. government is the world’s largest arms dealer.

The U.S. government’s global boot print is no post-9/11 phenomenon. The United States has been in a state of permanent war for decades, and the U.S. government has intervened in global affairs for centuries.18 No consensus exists on how many times the U.S. government has employed military force throughout the country’s history; nevertheless, attempts to catalog historical foreign interventions, beginning in the 1790s, have documented hundreds of cases.19 Each list varies depending on the relevant time frame under consideration and how the author defines foreign intervention. An exact number, however, is not important for our purposes. What is important is that no matter how one cuts the data, the U.S. government has used military force abroad a significant number of times. The historical prevalence of the U.S. government’s activist foreign policy is captured by economist Deepak Lal, who concludes that “[t]he United States is indubitably an empire. It is more than a hegemon, as it seeks control over not only foreign but also aspects of domestic policy in other countries.”20

The militarism that characterizes U.S. foreign policy is a central tenet of the country’s national identity. As historian Andrew Bacevich notes, “[t]oday as never before in their history Americans are enthralled with military power. The global military supremacy that the United States presently enjoys—and is bent on perpetuating—has become central to our national identity. More than America’s matchless material abundance or even the effusions of its pop culture, the nation’s arsenal of high tech weaponry and the soldiers who employ that arsenal have come to signify who we are and what we stand for.”21 Given the ubiquity of the U.S. government’s foreign interventions across time and place, and the associated militarism that is synonymous with U.S. foreign policy, it makes sense to focus on the United States.

That the United States is the dominant economic and military force in international affairs grants significant scope for U.S. government officials to use their discretionary power to intervene in the affairs of others. As Barry Posen, a political scientist, writes, “The United States is a wealthy and capable state. It can afford more security than most states. But the United States has extended the boundaries of its political and military defense perimeter very far.”22 He concludes that this expansive foreign policy results in “an embedded system of ambitious and costly excess” due to attempts by the U.S. government to influence global outcomes.23

Many scholars and writers argue that, given this power, the U.S. government and its citizens should embrace the status of global empire.24 For these authors, and for many politicians in both major political parties, an activist foreign policy does not threaten institutions and policies at home. If anything, it is argued, an interventionist foreign policy enhances domestic institutions by fostering global stability, peace, and freedom. For reasons we will discuss throughout this book, we are skeptical of this claim and believe that the proponents of Pax Americana neglect significant costs of foreign intervention that threaten the individual liberties which make America exceptional.

As Chalmers Johnson, a political scientist, warned, “[a]s militarism, the arrogance of power, and the euphemisms required to justify imperialism inevitably conflict with America’s democratic structure of government and distort its culture and basic values, I fear that we will lose our country.”25 As we will argue, coercive foreign intervention fosters an environment in which constraints on government are loosened, accountability is diminished, and domestic citizens, whether willingly or unwillingly, become more accepting of increases in the scope of government power. Given the prominence—both historical and current—of the U.S. government in the shaping of international affairs, as well as the calls for it to embrace, if not expand, its role abroad, it makes sense for us to focus exclusively on the United States.

What Constitutes Foreign Intervention?

The term foreign intervention is broad and has many different meanings. We use this term to refer to the use of the discretionary power held by government officials to achieve some desired end in another society.26 We limit our focus to what we call “coercive foreign intervention,” which has three notable characteristics. First, the intervening government seeks to shape outcomes—political, economic, social, legal, and so on—to achieve an end different from what would have emerged absent the intervention. Second, the intervention is unwelcome by a portion of the target population. Third, to achieve its objectives the intervening government invests resources to deter and suppress resistance from foreign governments or populations.

Our notion of coercive foreign intervention is purposefully broad to incorporate a wide range of interventions in other societies. Under our definition intervention may be direct or indirect. Examples of the former would be traditional war and military occupation such as the U.S. government’s occupations of Japan and Germany after World War II, or of Afghanistan and Iraq more recently. Examples of the latter would include the provision of various types of aid to key government and non-state persons so that the intervening government can indirectly influence affairs in another society. For example, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) orchestrated the 1954 coup to overthrow Guatemala’s democratically elected president Jacobo Árbenz in favor of Carlos Castillo Armas, a military dictator aligned with the goals of those in control of the U.S. government.27 There are many other examples of the U.S. government indirectly intervening in societies to change the status quo toward goals sought by U.S. leaders.28

Our analysis applies both to preparations for coercive foreign intervention—actual or potential—and to the act of intervening itself. Throughout its history the U.S. government has invested significant resources in innovating and honing techniques of social control in preparation for future foreign intervention. At the same time the U.S. government has developed, implemented, and refined techniques of social control while intervening in distant societies. In many instances these two aspects occur simultaneously as the government invests resources in preparing for future intervention while already engaged in intervention abroad. The key point is that both aspects—preparation and intervention—affect domestic political institutions and threaten the liberties of domestic citizens.

For our purposes the stated goal of a foreign intervention is irrelevant. It does not matter whether the intervening government is motivated by humanitarian concerns, the desire to retaliate against a group or government, national security concerns, or regime change. Instead, what matters for our analysis are the methods employed in the intervention and how these tools of social control ultimately affect domestic institutions and life in the intervening country. Also unimportant for our analysis is the degree of success or failure in individual instances of coercive foreign intervention. As the historical record shows, some foreign interventions have succeeded in achieving the goals of interveners, while many others have not.

Instead of being a judgment on the efficacy of individual instances of intervention, our analysis should be read as a warning against neglecting a key aspect of foreign intervention in general—its perverse effects on domestic political institutions and the lives of domestic persons. These effects are often long in developing and variable, requiring careful analysis to identify and appreciate. This is precisely why as economists we have something to contribute to this area of study. As economic journalist Henry Hazlitt noted, “The art of economics consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”29

Situating Our Contribution

There is a deep tradition of well-known thinkers who expressed concern that coercive foreign intervention and war threaten domestic negative liberties. Writing in 1795, James Madison noted,

Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is perhaps the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people. . . . No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.30

A year later, in his 1796 farewell address, President George Washington cautioned about “overgrown military establishments which, under any form of government, are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.”31 John Quincy Adams’s declaration in 1821 that America does not go abroad “in search of monsters to destroy” is well known. Less discussed is his reasoning, which is that otherwise “[t]he fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force. . . . She might become the dictatress of the world. She would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”32

In discussing the relationship between democracy and war, Alexis de Tocqueville indicated,

War does not always give over democratic communities to military government, but it must invariably and immeasurably increase the powers of civil government; it must almost compulsorily concentrate the direction of all men and the management of all things in the hands of the administration. If it does not lead to despotism by sudden violence, it prepares men for it more gently by their habits. All those who seek to destroy the liberties of a democratic nation ought to know that war is the surest and the shortest means to accomplish it.33

Finally, writing in 1918 the journalist Randolph Bourne warned,

War is the health of the State. It automatically sets in motion throughout society those irresistible forces for uniformity, for passionate cooperation with the Government in coercing into obedience the minority groups and individuals which lack the larger herd sense. The machinery of government sets and enforces the drastic penalties; the minorities are either intimidated into silence, or brought slowly around by a subtle process of persuasion which may seem to them really to be converting them. . . . [I]n general, the nation in wartime attains a uniformity of feeling, a hierarchy of values culminating at the undisputed apex of the State ideal, which could not possibly be produced through any other agency than war.34

While these authors held diverse views regarding the role of government in domestic and foreign affairs, they all recognized that foreign policy is not distinct from domestic life. They also recognized that foreign intervention poses a genuine threat to domestic political institutions by increasing not only the scale but also the scope of government over its citizens. Our analysis is motivated by these warnings. We build on these thinkers’ insights by delineating specific channels and mechanisms through which foreign intervention leads to the loss of freedom from interference and coercion at home.

In addition to contributing to this tradition of skepticism regarding the net benefits of foreign intervention, we engage three broad categories of academic literature. The first category is scholarship on constitutional political economy. This research explores the role, design, and enforcement of rules as constraints on government and private behavior.35 We advance this literature by emphasizing that the domestic political structure is not invariant with respect to intervention abroad. We demonstrate how preparing for and carrying out coercive foreign intervention can expand the scope of domestic government power, resulting in a loss of negative liberty at home.

Second, we offer an addition to the literature focused on the costs and consequences of war and foreign intervention—monetary and nonmonetary, seen and unseen.36 Our analysis advances this literature by emphasizing that the costs of foreign intervention are typically understated because they tend to neglect the associated changes in the scope of domestic government power, which refers to the ability of political actors to influence and control the lives of inhabitants. Increases in government power reduce the freedoms of the domestic populace to control their own lives free from the interference of others.

Finally, we contribute to the scholarship on theories of government growth. These theories fall into several different categories. Political science and public choice scholars have developed two types of theories of government growth. “Citizen over state” theories argue that government growth results from increased citizen demand (through individual voters or organized special interests) for government programs. In contrast “state over citizen” theories posit that political actors seek to expand the size, or supply, of government irrespective of citizen demand. There is an array of empirical evidence with mixed results for both sets of theories.37 These two theories are not necessarily at odds, however. Aspects of each potentially could operate simultaneously under certain conditions.

Another category of explanations for the growth of government emphasizes the role of crises. Economist Robert Higgs proposes a “ratchet effect” theory whereby government grows during crises.38 A crisis leads to calls for the government to do something. This can result in an increase in both the scale (size) and scope (range of activities) of government. Retrenchment typically takes place following a crisis, but the government’s scale and scope often remain greater than they were before the crisis.

Other scholars engaging this category of literature, along with Higgs, focus on how crisis and war-making have furthered the centralization of state power.39 Those at the political center have the resources and incentives to fund and control military technologies that further centralize and strengthen political power. One consequence is that peripheral political units, which serve as important external checks on the central government, tend to become entangled with the center in order to receive funding, privileges, and protection. Another strand of literature in this category documents a variety of ways in which government has expanded due to war, including an array of new regulations to control resources and production, and taxes to finance further foreign intervention.40

Yet another explanation for government growth focuses on how technological advances enable government to better coordinate and communicate in expanding its reach over its citizens.41 Consider, for example, that with advances in technology governments can more easily collect taxes, communicate with dispersed agencies over a broader area, and monitor their citizens.

We advance the literature on the growth of government in two ways. First, we demonstrate how foreign interventions can lead to the growth of domestic government. Second, our analysis stresses the different margins of government growth. Growth can take place in the scale, as typically emphasized in the literature, as well as in the scope of government activities. These two margins are often reinforcing, but not necessarily so. The scope of existing government activities may change, for example, even though the overall scale may remain the same. In other words, the fiscal dimension of the state—that is, its scale—may stay constant, but the range of activities undertaken with that constant budget—that is, its scope—may change.

In this regard our analysis is closest to the aforementioned work of Robert Higgs, whose treatment of the growth of what he calls “Big Government” appreciates the interrelation between scale and scope.42 He has argued that government growth during crises can and often does occur both in the scale of traditional state activities and in “widening the scope of its effective authority over economic decision making.”43 Higgs’s ratchet model of government growth does not imply or require that increases in the size of government are a neat and linear process. Instead, government can evolve on a variety of margins depending on the broader context and conditions surrounding changes in government, as well as the specifics of the interventions undertaken. We build on Higgs’s ratchet effect framework for understanding the growth of government by stressing that coercive foreign intervention often increases the scope of domestic government power, resulting in the erosion of negative liberties domestically. We discuss specific mechanisms underpinning this process that can be seen as contributing to the broader ratchet effect.

At the same time, we do not neglect the insights of the other theories of government growth. For example, as noted, we draw on the technological theory of government growth by emphasizing how coercive foreign intervention creates opportunities to develop and refine methods and technologies of social control. These innovations are often brought back to the intervening country, where the scope of domestic government power expands. Unfortunately, economists have generally neglected the scope aspect of government growth. Our analysis can be seen as an effort to correct this situation. To begin, we need to understand why economists have neglected the scope of government activity.

Why Do Economists Neglect Scope?

Economists have largely focused their studies on the scale of government. As noted, scope refers to the range of government activities, while scale refers to the size of the state.44 Scale typically is measured by focusing on aggregate quantitative variables, such as state expenditures. Some examples of standard measures of scale include (1) annual total budget, (2) annual budget by component (health care, defense, and other government functions), (3) annual budget per capita, (4) annual expenditures—total or by component—on final goods and services as a percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP), (5) total number of government employees, and (6) government employees as a percentage of the total labor force. These measures of scale can be and are applied to local, state, and national governments. They provide an aggregate measure of government size for a given period. In doing so, however, they provide no insight into the microlevel activities undertaken or how those activities evolve.

For example, comparing overall expenditures on “defense” over time does not tell us what specific defense-related activities were undertaken or how “defense” has changed. Instead, these measures of scale consist of broad categories intended to amalgamate government activities into a single measure comparable across time. However, as Higgs notes, a “modern government is not a single, simple thing. It consists of many institutions, agencies, and activities and includes many separate actors—legislators, administrators, judges, and various ordinary employees. . . . Because government is complex, no single measure suffices to capture its true ‘size’.”45 This suggests that focusing exclusively on aggregate quantitative measures of scale will overlook important issues of scope and whether government activities enhance or undermine citizens’ freedoms.

Nobel laureate economist James Buchanan recognized the important distinction between scale and scope when he noted that “[a]n interfering federal judiciary, along with an irresponsible executive, could exist even when budget sizes remain relatively small.”46 This highlights that while the scale of government is indeed important, so too is the scope. Even a relatively small-scale government bureau can wreak havoc on the freedoms of citizens if the scope of its activities is not appropriately constrained. Scope is difficult to quantify in a uniform aggregate measure because the devil is in the details when it comes to understanding the range of activities that the state is able to undertake.

Some scholars have attempted to measure the scope of government activities using alternatives to the list of measures that opened this section. For instance, they have developed a variety of indicators to measure government’s regulatory burden.47 These alternatives provide insight into the growth of government on certain margins, but they fail to capture the true scope of government activities.

For example, one indicator is the number of pages added annually to the Federal Register. Compiled by the Office of the Federal Register, the Federal Register serves as the official record of the rules, proposed rules, and public notices of the U.S. government.48 While the Federal Register records changes in such things, it does not indicate the nature of the changes. One can envision a situation in which a significant number of small changes in rules and policies—that is, a large number of pages in the Federal Register—have little impact on the scope of government activities and the liberties of citizens. In contrast, a small number of new rules and policies, which significantly broaden the scope of government power, could severely infringe on negative liberties. This suggests that appreciating the scope of government activities requires going beyond an aggregate measure and instead looking at the specifics of how government activities evolve, with a particular focus on how they affect the liberties of citizens.

To provide some concrete examples of the types of changes in the scope of government power we have in mind, Table 1.1 lists a sample of select government activities in the period following the September 11 attacks. These activities are broken down into categories (listed in the first column) that relate to individual liberties.

In each instance the range and nature of domestic activities undertaken by the government expanded. These expansions may not be captured by standard measures of the scale of government since they do not necessarily require an increase in expenditures. For example, the government’s budget might stay relatively flat over time, but state actors can use the same amount of resources to intrude into the lives of its citizens in new and novel ways that curtail their freedom from external interference. This is especially likely as the real cost of producing the goods and services associated with social control falls because of technological advances over time. Similarly, government toleration of and complacency toward rights violations of certain groups would not show up in indicators of new policies or regulations.

Table 1.1. A Sample of Select Violations of Freedom in the Post-9/11 Period.

Source: Text for table compiled by the authors. For expansions in the scope of government power during other, historical periods of war, see Dorsen 1989; Linfield 1990; Rehnquist 1998; Cole and Dempsey 2006; Cole and Lobel 2009; Herman 2011; Hummel 2012; and Coyne 2015.

There are three potential reasons why so few economists have bothered to look at the scope of government activities. First, many economists assume that scale and scope are correlated. If it is true that scale and scope move together, then focusing on the former would effectively capture the latter. For example, in his analysis of the growth of government economist Sam Peltzman stated that he was “going to equate government’s role in economic life with the size of its budget” and that “[m]y operating assumption has to be that large and growing budgets imply a large and growing substitution of collective for private decision in allocating resources.”49 Peltzman was fully aware that his assumption was not reflective of the actual workings of government when he indicated that “[t]his is obviously wrong since many government activities (for example, statutes and administrative rules) redirect resources just as surely as taxation and spending.”50 However, his preoccupation with quantitative measures of government scale necessitated his simplifying assumption.

Scale and scope could be correlated, but at any time, the scope of state activities could expand (or shrink) for a given scale of expenditures. Further, even if one assumes that scale and scope are correlated, focusing solely on the former adds little insight into the specific changes in the latter. For example, if scale increases, one might say that scope increases. But what does that mean in concrete terms of what the state can and cannot do in relation to citizens? Only by focusing on the details of changes in allowable government actions can one hope to understand the implications of changes in the scope of government.

As for the second reason for the neglect of scope, James Buchanan writes, “It is more difficult to measure the growth of Leviathan in these [scope] dimensions than in the quantifiable budgetary [scale] dimensions of the productive state.”51 This further explains, returning to the previous point, why many economists assume that scale and scope are correlated. There is no simple and readily available aggregative quantitative measure of the scope of government activities.

An alternative, however, is not to ignore issues of scope or assume correlation with scale, but rather to trace the history of and relationship between foreign intervention and changes in the scope of domestic government activities. This necessarily means that any attempt to discuss issues of scope will be less quantitative and fall outside the comfort zone of most of our fellow economists, who often associate rigor with measurement and testing. In our view, however, the scope of government activities is too important to ignore simply because it does not lend itself to quantitative analysis. Empirical evidence still exists in the form of history that enables us to understand how foreign intervention shapes the scope of domestic government activities. Ignoring issues of scope altogether is unsatisfactory, since our goal as social scientists is to understand the actual world. In this world the range of activities that governments undertake is just as important as, if not more important than, the amount of resources the state consumes.

Third, the dominant model of state-provided defense that economists employ renders scope irrelevant. Economists tend to use the term defense in a simplistic and broad sense to include all military and security expenditures and activities, including foreign intervention. They then proceed to model this overbroad notion of defense as a “public good,” which is provided in optimal quantities and qualities by an omniscient and benevolent government.52 J. Paul Dunne, an economist, noted that the standard economic approach to military provision “is based on the notion of a state with a well defined social welfare function, reflecting some form of social democratic consensus, recognizing some well defined national interest, and threatened by some real or apparent potential enemy.”53 Under this view the government is assumed to be doing exactly what is necessary to maximize social welfare, nothing more and nothing less. Given these simplifying assumptions, there is no need to be concerned with the scope of government activities since by assumption there is no room for the abuse of power by state officials.

Our position is that the standard treatment of defense by our fellow economists is naive and simplistic. The typical approach fails to recognize that state activities undertaken in the name of “defense” and “national security” not only may fail to be welfare-enhancing, but may undermine and erode the very domestic institutions they supposedly protect. The framework we develop appreciates how existing rules constrain, or often fail to constrain, those who exercise government power. It also recognizes that one cannot neatly separate foreign policy from domestic institutions. Foreign intervention can—and does—have real effects on domestic life, often for the worse.

A Road Map

The rest of this book proceeds as follows. The rest of Part I consists of two chapters that provide the underlying framework for our analysis. These chapters provide insight into what Twain referred to as the “natural process” of losing liberty at home. Chapter 2 discusses how coercive foreign intervention requires state-produced social control over the target population. It also develops the boomerang effect framework, which explains how the tools of social control associated with coercive foreign intervention can infiltrate domestic life in the intervening country. This process can result in changes to domestic political institutions that affect the lives and liberties of American residents. Among other things, we discuss the channels through which the tools of control intended for foreign populations bleed into domestic life. Finally, we provide several caveats to clarify the boomerang effect framework and delineate the boundaries of its applicability and explanatory capabilities.

Chapter 3 explores why America is susceptible to the boomerang effect. We consider the weak formal constraints, both domestically and internationally, on U.S. government officials in matters of foreign policy. The result is that preparing for and carrying out foreign intervention present a largely unconstrained opportunity for government officials to develop, test, and hone methods of social control. The significant slack in domestic constraints creates an environment conducive to the return of these methods as per the boomerang effect.

Part II, which contains four chapters, applies our framework to a variety of cases to demonstrate the operation and applicability of the boomerang effect. The topics of these chapters—surveillance, the militarization of police, drones, and torture—were selected because of their contemporary relevance. According to a recent Gallup poll, half of Americans believe that their federal government poses “an immediate threat to the rights and freedoms of ordinary citizens.”54 Each case study details a current threat to domestic liberties that has come to light following the September 11 attacks on American soil. Each threat can be traced to past foreign interventions. Therefore, these events can be interpreted and understood in terms of the boomerang effect.

The cases are not intended to be theory testing, but rather illustrative and interpretive. Further, their purpose is not to provide a comprehensive history of each subject under consideration but rather to illuminate the operation of the boomerang effect and the unseen costs of coercive foreign intervention. For some of the cases, such as drones, detailed information is limited due to the covert nature of the activities and the lack of transparency on the part of the U.S. government. Although we lack access to classified information surrounding these operations, enough information is available to discuss these cases in the context of the boomerang effect.

A common theme that emerges through these chapters is that the unseen costs associated with the boomerang effect are not the consequence of a single discrete choice, but rather are an emergent and cumulative outcome of government actions driven by an interventionist and militarist mentality. This mentality holds that the U.S. government must not only intervene around the world to shape global affairs but also invest significant resources in preparing for such intervention. One overlooked consequence of this mentality is that it creates an array of possibilities, both in the present and in the future, for expansion in domestic state power that threatens to erode the negative liberties of the populace.

The Conclusion discusses key implications. Among other things we consider some of the conditions necessary to reclaim and protect the Great Republic that is America. We contend that limiting the boomerang effect ultimately requires curtailing the American empire, which requires that citizens possess an antimilitarist ideology.


1. See Twain 1972a, 1972b, and 1992; Kinzer 2017.

2. Twain 1972a, 1972b.

3. Twain 1972b, 395.

4. The term boomerang effect has been used before; in psychology literature, see Hovland, Janis, and Kelley 1953, and in political science, see Keck and Sikkink 1998. The use of the term in these literatures is different, both from each other and from the manner in which we employ the term.

5. See McCoy 2009 and Barder 2015.

6. See Greenwald 2014a and Granick 2017, 41–52 for a detailed discussion of these revelations.

7. Bilmes and Intriligator 2013, 9.

8. Ibid.

9. See Bacevich 2016.

10. Bilmes and Intriligator 2013, 10.

11. Turse 2015.

12. U.S. Department of Defense 2014, 6.

13. Ibid., 2.

14. Vine 2015, 3.

15. Theohary 2016, 2.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. See Johnson 2000, 2004; Bacevich 2002, 2010; Dudziak 2012; Posen 2014.

19. See U.S. Department of State 1967, Goldwater 1973, Collins 1991, Torreon 2016.

20. Lal 2004, 63. See also Aron 1974, Ikenberry 2012, Posen 2014, McCoy 2017.

21. Bacevich 2005, 1.

22. Posen 2014, xii.

23. Ibid. On the significant costs of America’s military dominance, see Preble 2009.

24. Boot 2002; Ferguson 2003, 2004; Ferguson and Schularick 2006; Lal 2004; McCarthy 2014; Kane 2014; Cohen 2016. See also Mitchener and Weidenmier 2005.

25. Johnson 2004, 13. Also see Garrett (1953, 117), who argued, “We [the United States] have crossed the boundary that lies between Republic and Empire. If you ask when, the answer is that you cannot make a single stroke between day and night; the precise moment does not matter. There was no painted sign to say: ‘You now are entering Imperium.’ Yet it was a very old road and the voice of history was saying: ‘Whether you know it or not, the act of crossing may be irreversible.’” Similarly, see Ekirch (1956), who argued that United States involvement in World War II and the Cold War led to an expanded role of the military in domestic society threatening the liberties of U.S. citizens.

26. See Coyne and Mathers 2010.

27. For more on the CIA-backed coup, see Cullather 2006.

28. See Kinzer 2003.

29. Hazlitt 1946, 17.

30. Madison 1865, 491.

31. Washington 1796.

32. Quoted in Edel 2014, 163 (emphasis original).

33. Tocqueville 1840, 285.

34. Bourne 1964, 71.

35. See Buchanan 1975; Brennan and Buchanan 1985; Weingast 1995; Hardin 1999; Gordon 2002.

36. See Peacock and Wiseman 1961; Porter 1994; Denson 1999; Bilmes and Stiglitz 2008; Eland 2013; and Duncan and Coyne 2013a.

37. See Garrett and Rhine 2006 for a review of some the evidence regarding each set of theories.

38. Higgs 1987 and 2008a.

39. See Porter 1994.

40. See Peacock and Wiseman 1961 and Eland 2013.

41. See Cowen 2009.

42. Higgs 1987.

43. Ibid., 62.

44. See Higgs 1987, 1991.

45. Higgs 2008b.

46. Buchanan 1975, 163.

47. For example, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has an index of labor and product regulation. Dudley and Warren (2014) use the budgets and staffing of federal regulatory agencies as a proxy of the overall regulatory burden. See also Dawson and Seater 2013.

48. See Office of the Federal Register, https://www.federalregister.gov/up-loads/2014/04/OFR-STATISTICS-CHARTS-ALL1-1-1-2013.pdf, for the annual number of pages in the Federal Register: 1937–2013.

49. Peltzman 1980, 209.

50. Ibid.

51. Buchanan 1975, 163.

52. See Coyne 2015 and Coyne and Lucas 2016 for a discussion and critique of the way economists discuss and model defense.

53. Dunne 1995, 409.

54. Newport 2015.