Coercive Foreign Policies and the Boomerang Effect

More than a century ago, Mark Twain noted that if a “Great Republic” goes about “trampling on the helpless abroad,” then that government stands a good chance of turning against its own citizens. But why does a nation’s repression of other countries raise the risk of repression at home?

The short answer, according to Independent Review co-editor Christopher J. Coyne and Independent Institute Research Fellow Abigail R. Hall, is that coercive foreign intervention sets in motion various politico-economic mechanisms that cause it to act like a boomerang, knocking down freedoms in the “throwing” country.

Coyne and Hall put forth their thesis of the “boomerang effect” in their lead article in the Fall 2014 issue of The Independent Review. How does it work? When a government tries to impose social controls on foreign populations, the authors explain, typically it does so using means that expand the scope of government domestically. Those means include new skills and equipment to monitor and quell resistance, greater centralization of government power, and the inculcation of a willingness to impose more coercion on ordinary citizens. When mixed together, these ingredients act as a potent corrosive that erodes rights and liberties at home.

Coyne and Hall also offer two illuminating case studies of the boomerang effect. The first involves government surveillance of ordinary Americans. Its origins, they show, go back to the U.S. occupation of the Philippine Islands after the Spanish-American War, when Army Captain Ralph Van Deman helped create a data collection system to monitor Filipino insurgents and others. After his return stateside, Van Deman lobbied high-ranking officials to create a similar program that later spied on U.S. citizens who opposed America’s entry into World War I—a precursor to the NSA’s high-tech surveillance programs.

Coyne and Hall’s second illustration examines the militarization of domestic policing. The paramilitary SWAT teams now common in police departments across the United States, they show, were first created by Los Angeles police chiefs eager to adapt what they learned from special military units during the Vietnam War and World War II.

The lesson? Mark Twain could have summarized his point with one karmic aphorism: What goes around comes around.

* * *

Perfecting Tyranny: Foreign Intervention as Experimentation in State Control, by Christopher J. Coyne and Abigail R. Hall (The Independent Review, Fall 2014)

Perfecting Tyranny, by Abigail Hall (The Beacon, 9/17/14)

AUDIO: Abigail Hall on the Scott Horton Show (9/19/14)

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[A version of this post first appeared in the September 23, 2014, issue of The Lighthouse. For a free subscription to this weekly newsletter from the Independent Institute, enter your email address here.]

Carl Close is Research Fellow and Senior Editor for The Independent Institute and Assistant Editor of The Independent Review and editor of The Lighthouse, The Independent Institute’s weekly e-mail newsletter.
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