Adam Smith and the village's amusement at war

Smith warned about exactly the disease plaguing Beltway culture, a disease that Barack Obama periodically talks about.

Published October 3, 2007 12:34PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II)

As Greg Sargent notes, Barack Obama delivered a speech yesterday which echoed many of the most common critiques made by bloggers of the political establishment. In particular, Obama emphasized that the fault for the Iraq War does not lie -- certainly not exclusively -- with George Bush and Dick Cheney, but rather with the Washington establishment as a whole. And particularly as the war has dragged on with no end in sight, the culpability of the Beltway Establishment generally has grown and become much more dispersed:

There are those who offer up easy answers. They will assert that Iraq is George Bush's war, it's all his fault. Or that Iraq was botched by the arrogance and incompetence of Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney. Or that we would have gotten Iraq right if we went in with more troops, or if we had a different proconsul instead of Paul Bremer, or if only there were a stronger Iraqi Prime Minister.

These are the easy answers. And like most easy answers, they are partially true. But they don't tell the whole truth, because they overlook a harder and more fundamental truth. The hard truth is that the war in Iraq is not about a catalog of many mistakes -- it is about one big mistake. The war in Iraq should never have been fought. . . .

[T]he American people weren't just failed by a President -- they were failed by much of Washington. By a media that too often reported spin instead of facts. By a foreign policy elite that largely boarded the bandwagon for war. And most of all by the majority of a Congress -- a coequal branch of government -- that voted to give the President the open-ended authority to wage war that he uses to this day.

Obama proceeded to identify virtually every other Beltway branch that bears responsibility for what has become of our country: "conventional thinking in Washington" -- "Some leading Democrats" - "the most experienced voices in Washington [who counseled] that the only way for Democrats to look tough was to talk, act and vote like a Republican" - "much of Washington."

This speech simultaneously highlights both the promise of Obama's candidacy -- he is the only viable candidate both willing and able to make this critique convincingly -- and also its disappointment thus far, due to what Michael Crowley, in a quite good article in The New Republic, describes as "the disappointingly conventional Obama campaign." Obama said this yesterday:

If you want conventional Washington thinking, I'm not your man. If you want rigid ideology, I'm not your man. If you think that fundamental change can wait, I'm definitely not your man.

Ultimately, no critique of any political issue or claims of "change" have any meaning at all unless they are grounded in the pervasive corruption not of one political faction, but of our political establishment as a whole -- all of the broken and worthless appendage parts that Obama identified. But, at least thus far, there has been little to demonstrate that this is more than a rhetorical campaign theme for Obama, though that can all change.

One of the most destructive diseases of our Beltway Village is how insulated they are from the consequences of the wars they unleash. A remarkably prescient warning of precisely this disease came from Adam Smith in his 1776 An Inquiry into the Nature And Causes of the Wealth of Nations (h/t It really is striking how perfectly Smith described our Beltway establishment:

The ordinary expense of the greater part of modern governments in time of peace being equal or nearly equal to their ordinary revenue, when war comes they are both unwilling and unable to increase their revenue in proportion to the increase of their expense. They are unwilling for fear of offending the people, who, by so great and so sudden an increase of taxes, would soon be disgusted with the war; and they are unable from not well knowing what taxes would be sufficient to produce the revenue wanted.

The facility of borrowing delivers them from the embarrassment which this fear and inability would otherwise occasion. By means of borrowing they are enabled, with a very moderate increase of taxes, to raise, from year to year, money sufficient for carrying on the war, and by the practice of perpetually funding they are enabled, with the smallest possible increase of taxes, to raise annually the largest possible sum of money.

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

Our Beltway establishment today is even worse than the sickly culture about which Smith warns, since they will not even tolerate mild increases in taxes to fund their war amusements. This is a critical disease in our political culture: that all appendages of our political class (other than the military itself) bear no sacrifice whatsoever for the wars they cheer on, and hence, are "dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war."

Nothing meaningful can be done about any of that except with the recognition that the fault lies not with any isolated political figure or party but with the entire Beltway edifice as a whole. Preventing any fundamental examination of America's role in the world -- questioning why we invade and bomb and occupy and interfere in the governance other countries more than anyone else by far -- is one of the top objectives of Beltway orthodoxy. Obama has been flirting with challenging these orthodoxies, but given how entrenched they are, flirtation is not nearly enough.

UPDATE: Speaking of the disease of the Washington Establishment, yet another report, this one from the Washington Post, indicates that "Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee have said there is consensus that the [telecom] companies should have some form of relief" for past lawbreaking with regard to allowing the Bush administration's warrantless eavesdropping on their customers in violation of the law.

The same article details the generally commendable effort of some House Democrats at least to compel the telecoms to disclose what they actually did here, but the Democrats on the Senate Intelligence Committee -- the Dianne Feinsteins and Jay Rockefellers -- are pronouncing a "consensus" that telecoms should receive amnesty even though they have no idea what the telecoms actually did and have little interest in finding out. I'm in the process of trying to work with the ACLU and other groups and bloggers to determine what, if anything, can be done to derail this absolute travesty, but as is often the case when there is bipartisan Beltway support for some corrupt Establishment-protecting measure, outside pressures are irrelevant.

The behavior of telecoms and their bipartisan cast of lobbyists and advisors, meeting in secret with key Democratic Senators and administration officials to concoct their amnesty scheme, becomes an impenetrable process. This is a perfect microcosm of the Beltway disease.

UPDATE II: From the American Freedom Campaign, via email:

Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) signed the American Freedom Pledge yesterday, expressing his commitment to protecting and defending the Constitution. With Senator Obama's pledge, all of the Democratic presidential candidates except Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) have now either signed the pledge or have provided the American Freedom Campaign Action Fund with a detailed statement addressing the issues described in the American Freedom Campaign Agenda . . .

The American Freedom Campaign (AFC) Action Fund is encouraging all candidates to sign this pledge, the text of which is as follows:

"We are Americans, and in our America we do not torture, we do not imprison people without charge or legal remedy, we do not tap people's phones and emails without a court order, and above all we do not give any President unchecked power.

"I pledge to fight to protect and defend the Constitution from attack by any President."

The Campaign also sent letters in August to the announced Republican presidential candidates. None of the Republican candidates have provided AFC with a response. Earlier this year, however, Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) signed a similar pledge circulated by the American Freedom Agenda, an organization formed by conservative leaders, including former Reagan official Bruce Fein and former congressman Bob Barr.

It is striking how little any of these candidates have been asked about issues of executive power and presidential lawbreaking, and none -- other than Chris Dodd and, to a lesser extent, Ron Paul -- has made those issues significant part of their campaign.

By Glenn Greenwald

Follow Glenn Greenwald on Twitter: @ggreenwald.

MORE FROM Glenn Greenwald

Related Topics ------------------------------------------