The atrocity of September 11 should remind us of an economic lesson that is better taught by the Bible than by any economics treatise. The greatest threat to prosperity is not inflationary central bank policy, or high rates of taxation, or overbearing regulation. Those do much damage, to be sure, but they are symptoms of the disease, not the disease itself. The greatest threat to prosperity is something fundamental to human nature: the propensity for evil.
It may seem callous to discuss the economic cost of 11 September’s evil. Life is what is precious, not buildings. But the economic cost is impossible to ignore. It’s staggering. Recent estimates have property and casualty damages running between $40 and $60 billion. Businesses have been devastated, financial markets are reeling, and international trade, already contracting before the atrocity, is now contracting even more.
The longer-term economic consequences will be more subtle but almost as perverse. Now and well into the future, this country will pour vast amounts of resources into security and defense. The economic cost of the shift in resources is enormous. Resources poured into security and defense cannot be used to produce houses, food, or medicine.
Evil comes in many forms and varying degrees. The September 11 evil is the most destructive type: the desire for power over other people and the willingness to use violence to attain it.
God commands us to love others as we love ourselves. The desire for coercive power is the antithesis of this commandment.
While the desire for coercive power sometimes manifests itself in private life, it flourishes in the political realm. Indeed, throughout history, politics, government, and violence have been three heads of the same monster. Government historically has rarely been a means of preserving order; even more rarely has it been a means of preserving freedom. Far more often, government has been the choice instrument of evil, an instrument of conquest and oppression wielded by those who lust for power.
The economic cost of the lust for power is as vivid as it is tragic. The poor countries of the world are not poor because they lack natural resources, or have poorly educated work forces, or have been exploited by global capitalism. They are poor because they were or still are ruled by tyrants, torn up in civil wars by would-be tyrants killing their way to power, or ravaged by imperialist states.
The American empire is anything but innocent in the latter respect, and it is not un-patriotic or un-American to say so. It was none other than George Washington who, in his farewell address, warned his fellow Americans that the greatest threat to American freedom was involvement in foreign political affairs.
U.S. government "involvement" – now there’s a euphemism – in the Middle East began in earnest in the 1940s. It was then that the region became a focal point of U.S. foreign policy. The object was not to advance freedom or democracy but to fuel the empire – literally. Virtually every U.S. government action in the Middle East, from staging coups to weapons grants to war, has been taken to secure America continuous access to Middle Eastern oil.
Those actions also include the propping up of totalitarian regimes. Firmly entrenched totalitarian regimes, the U.S. government believed, would provide the region with stability and secure America’s access to oil. So the government subsidized oppression, for the sake of empire and power.
But the desire for coercive power, this gross transgression against God, has no geographic bounds. Consider this list of states: Afghanistan, Burma, Cuba, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Turkmenistan. Most if not all of these states are known abettors of terrorism. But this is not the U.S. State Department’s list of terrorist-sponsoring states. This is a list compiled by Freedom House, an international think tank that gauges conditions of freedom in countries around the world. It is Freedom’s House’s list of the most oppressive states on the planet.
That the Freedom House list reads like a list of terrorist-sponsoring states is hardly surprising, for these states don’t just sponsor terrorism, they practice it – on their own populations. "The struggle to magnify itself is Power’s essence," wrote Bertrand de Jouvenel, and in these states violence is used to magnify state power into grotesque dimensions. The result is not civilization, but a sure glimpse of hell.
Economic life is not so much about prosperity and poverty as it is the choices that lead to prosperity and poverty, including the choice of doing evil. Man is a fallen being and is thus prone to evil, but there is no more destructive evil than the desire for coercive power. The cost of such evil is incalculable.