NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

War Policies May Be Regretted Later

October 4, 2001

In a national emergency, says Robert Higgs of the Independent Institute, perhaps the strongest urge of democratically elected officials is to "do something" immediately. However, policies adopted in the heat of the moment have proven, in cool retrospect, to have been overreactions that sapped the long-term vitality of civil society and the free-market economy.

  • For example, with U.S. entry into World War I, the federal government nationalized the railroad, telephone, domestic telegraph and international telegraphic cable industries.
  • It manipulated labor-management relations, securities sales, agricultural production and marketing, the distribution of coal and oil, international commerce, and markets for raw materials and manufactured products.
  • It turned the newly created Federal Reserve System into a powerful engine of monetary inflation to finance the government and war effort.

Contemporaries who described the 1918 government as "war socialism" were well justified.

The Bill of Rights also suffered. The Sedition Act of May 16, 1918, imposed severe criminal penalties on all forms of expression in any way critical of the government, its symbols or its mobilization of resources for the war. Those suppressions of free speech, subsequently upheld by the Supreme Court, established dangerous precedents.

The government censored all printed materials, peremptorily deported hundreds of aliens without due process of law and conducted (and encouraged state and local governments and vigilante groups to conduct) warrantless searches and seizures, blanket arrests of suspected draft evaders and other outrages.

President Bush says the United States has entered into "a new kind of war." Unfortunately, concludes Higgs, this undertaking has the potential for the same kind of domestic abuses and excesses associated with previous U.S. wars.

Source: Robert Higgs (Independent Institute), "Crisis Policy-Making: Immediate Action, Prolonged Regret," Brief Analysis No. 375, October 4, 2001, NCPA.

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