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Costs, Benefits, and “Boomerang Effects” in Defense Economics

Summary:
On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered one of his most important speeches at the Riverside Church in New York -- "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."  The speech was delivered exactly 1 year prior to King's assassination, and while it was universally panned at the time by the mainstream media such as NYT and Washington Post, many of his close associates remember it as perhaps his best speech. King spoke out courageously about the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of "the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores."  But while King was giving "voice to the voiceless in Vietnam", he was also concerned with the erosion of morality

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On April 4, 1967, Martin Luther King delivered one of his most important speeches at the Riverside Church in New York -- "Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence."  The speech was delivered exactly 1 year prior to King's assassination, and while it was universally panned at the time by the mainstream media such as NYT and Washington Post, many of his close associates remember it as perhaps his best speech.

King spoke out courageously about the hypocrisy and moral bankruptcy of "the most powerful nation of the world speaking of aggression as it drops thousands of bombs on a poor, weak nation more than eight hundred, or rather, eight thousand miles away from its shores."  But while King was giving "voice to the voiceless in Vietnam", he was also concerned with the erosion of morality at among our troops and thus at home. "We are adding cynicism to the process of death, for they must know after a short period there that none of the things we claim to be fighting for are really involved. Before long they must know that their government has sent them into a struggle among Vietnamese, and the more sophisticated surely realize that we are on the side of the wealthy, and the secure, while we create a hell for the poor."  In short, the bombs we were dropping over there, were shattering communities over here.

My colleague Chris Coyne (along with Abby Hall) has developed the "boomerang effect" to explain how foreign interventionism results in a loss of domestic liberties.  They develop the thesis in their vitally important new book, Tyranny Comes Home.

I have a lot to say about this book.  But for this post, I just want to stress that Coyne and Hall's work in defense economics challenges not just the "defense brain", but the nature of the cost/benefit calculus that supposedly decision makers engage in when deciding to intervene abroad.  They should include in the calculation the full costs of the military action, and that includes also the costs associated with this boomerang effect.  Once we include the full costs in the decision calculus, the case for restraint becomes even stronger.  Just consider the current predicament over the past 17 years.

 On this day, as we remember the life of Martin Luther King, let's remember the power in his voice on this issue and both the social scientific analysis of boomerang effects and the the moral erosion of war.  Quoting the Buddhist leaders in Vietnam, King stated: 

Each day the war goes on the hatred increased in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.

How true, how sad.

Peter Boettke
Peter Joseph Boettke (January 3, 1960) is an American economist of the Austrian School. He is currently a University Professor of Economics and Philosophy at George Mason University; the BB&T Professor for the Study of Capitalism, Vice President for Research, and Director of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at GMU.

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