Think tanks wrap-up-1

May 14, 2003 at 4:09 PM
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WASHINGTON, May 14 (UPI) -- The UPI think tank wrap-up is a daily digest covering opinion pieces, reactions to recent news events and position statements released by various think tanks. This is the first of several wrap-ups for May 14. Contents: "victory" in Iraq could be disastrous; uninformed voters are like uninformed consumers.

The Cato Institute

WASHINGTON -- Whither victory?

by Charles V. Peña

Although he did not officially declare victory aboard the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln, President George W. Bush said that "in the battle of Iraq, the United States and our allies have prevailed." More importantly, he claimed that "the battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 1, 2001."

But how?

Prior to the war, much of the administration's case for war was based on weapons of mass destruction. And not just a few such weapons. Bush accused Iraq of having enough material "to produce over 25,000 liters of anthrax -- enough doses to kill several million people ... more than 38,000 liters of botulinum toxin -- enough to subject millions of people to death by respiratory failure ... as much as 500 tons of sarin, mustard and VX nerve agent." Secretary of State Colin Powell showed photographs to the U.N. Security Council, giving the impression that the United States knew where Iraq was hiding its weapons of mass destruction.

Although both the United States and United Kingdom are confident they will eventually find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, so far no chemical or biological weapons have been discovered. If none are found, the president's claim that "no terrorist network will gain weapons of mass destruction from the Iraqi regime" will ring hollow.

Plus there is the larger question of how weapons of mass destruction posed a threat to the United States. If the Iraqis had chemical or biological weapons but did not use them to defend their own country against a foreign invader, how and when were they ever going to use such weapons? The possibility that the Iraqis might have destroyed their weapons prior to or during the war only reinforces the notion that they were not much of a threat.

So if weapons of mass destruction were largely much ado about nothing, what about the president's claim that "we have removed an ally of al-Qaida"? To be sure, bases used by Ansar al-Islam -- a radical Islamic group accused by the administration of having ties to al-Qaida -- were destroyed in northern Iraq. But those bases could have been destroyed without a full-scale war. They were in Kurdish-controlled territory and could have been bombed with precision weaponry as part of U.S.-led no-fly zone operations.

And the terrorist Abul Abbas, who killed an American in the hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro in 1985, was caught. But it does not establish an Iraqi-al-Qaida link. Rather, it shows Iraq was affiliated with Palestinian terror groups that direct their violence primarily against Israel, not the United States.

This much seems clear: Iraq was not a hotbed for al-Qaida operations as was Afghanistan under the Taliban regime.

This war was a brilliant military victory that demonstrated unrivalled U.S. capabilities. And the Iraqi people were liberated from a brutal dictator. But the hard truth is that victory in Iraq has little to do with winning the war on terrorism. In fact, it might even make the problem worse. It's not reassuring that in the wake of U.S. military action in Iraq, the State Department issued a worldwide caution that "the recent events in Iraq may increase the potential threat to U.S. citizens and interests abroad, including by terrorist groups."

And the continued U.S. presence in Iraq to build a new democracy -- while noble and well-intentioned -- is also creating anti-American sentiment. Such sentiment, especially in the Arab and Muslim world, where opinions of the United States are low to begin with, is the first step toward hatred, which becomes a steppingstone to violence and then terrorism.

U.S. troops have now, just days apart, twice opened fire on and killed Iraqi protestors in Fallujah. And in apparent retaliation, grenades have been lobbed into a U.S. Army compound. Only time and history will tell us if this is the first spark that sets off a much larger fire.

In the end, victory in Iraq is simply a classical military victory in a classical war -- that is, a war fought between nation states. But the real enemy in the war on terrorism -- the al-Qaida terrorist network operating in over 60 countries -- is not a nation state and its army does not wear a uniform. And the irony and paradox is that the U.S. military victory in Iraq could do more to recruit Arabs and Muslims to take up al-Qaida's jihad against the United States than any of Osama bin Laden's exhortations.

(Charles V. Peña is the director of defense policy studies at the Cato Institute.)

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

(The LVMI is a research and educational center devoted to classical liberalism -- often known as libertarianism -- and the Austrian School of economics. LVMI seeks a radical shift in the intellectual climate by promoting the market economy, private property, sound money and peaceful international relations, while opposing government intervention.)

AUBURN, Ala.-- Voting booths vs. the marketplace

By T. Norman Van Cott

Statists -- those who advocate concentration of economic power in centralized government -- salivate like Pavlov's dogs at the mention of economic difficulties, real or imagined. Statists of a left-liberal bent are usually louder than their counterparts on the right.

Nevertheless, when the economic difficulty "bell" rings, all begin repeating the mantra about "new, imaginative government programs" bringing us closer to the promised land.

So successful has this salivating class been that virtually nothing Americans buy escapes seemingly endless lists of government do's and don'ts. The lists aren't cheap. Not only do Americans lose their freedom to engage others in the marketplace on mutually agreeable terms, they also have to pay the bureaucratic busybodies who take away this freedom.

Like having to buy your own guillotine, huh? Moreover, Americans also spend additional billions fighting and complying with the regulations. Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman once estimated that the costs of fighting and complying exceed the government's explicit budgetary costs by a multiple of 20!

The popular rationale for the government do's and don'ts is that in their absence, avaricious sellers prey upon uninformed buyers. Predator and victim reverse in the labor market. That is, workers (sellers) must be protected from avaricious employers (buyers). The salivators' vision is one of government as a kindly nanny who gets the "right things" produced in the "right way."

Critics of regulation effectively cede the offensive to statists by confining their critique to case studies of regulation gone awry. Statists remain free to claim that things will be different next time. University of Chicago professor Sam Peltzman's well-known examination of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration is such a study.

Raising the regulatory hurdle on new pharmaceuticals was ostensibly designed to reduce the chances of harmful prescription drugs appearing on the market. However, the higher hurdle necessarily meant that the introduction of new, beneficial drugs would be delayed. Peltzman demonstrated that the downside costs of delayed introduction exceeded the upside benefits of fewer harmful drugs.

Retrospective studies like Peltzman's gloss over a serious logical flaw at the heart of regulation's popular rationale. Once the flaw is recognized, the rationale crumbles like a house of cards. The point is simple yet powerful: in democratic societies, elected political officials are the final arbiters of the government's marketplace do's and don'ts. Who elects these political officials? Surprise! The same people supposedly incapable of making informed decisions in the marketplace.

How do people who are unable to make informed decisions about, say, lawnmower safety, become able to make an informed choice among legislative candidates, who then select the "right" amount of lawnmower safety? Could it be that bolts of enlightenment strike Americans in the voting booth but not in the marketplace?

Yeah, right. More plausible is the proposition that the popular rationale for regulation is statist nonsense. Logic points to Americans being better informed in the marketplace than in the voting booth.

To see why, suppose you're shopping for a refrigerator. You've narrowed the choice to a General Electric or a Frigidaire. If you opt for the GE, it's your call as far as size, color and features. At each stage in the process, your choices are "decisive" -- that is, they determine the brand, size, color and features of the refrigerator that ends up in your house. Your incentive to be informed about refrigerators is obvious.

Now instead of buying a refrigerator, suppose you're "shopping" for your state's new U.S. senator in the next election -- that is, you're voting. Suppose further that the Senate is scheduled to enact sweeping new refrigerator regulations. By voting, you're engaged in "indirect" refrigerator shopping.

The problem is that you have little or no incentive to discover the candidates' positions on refrigerator regulation. In the overwhelming preponderance of election outcomes, your vote is simply going to mean your preferred candidate either wins by one more vote or loses by one less vote. Your vote isn't "decisive." Notwithstanding the fact that new refrigerator regulations will be sweeping, you have little incentive to bone up on the candidates' positions.

Does this mean that the refrigerators people buy are more important than who is in the U.S. Senate? Not at all. Rather, it means people have more incentive to learn about refrigerators they're going to buy as compared with senatorial candidates who restrict their refrigerator choices. Ditto for the countless other goods and services bought and sold in the marketplace every day.

The larger lesson is that uninformed voting provides an important reason for democratic societies to limit the scope of government. The limitations, moreover, must go beyond mere statute law. Otherwise, the hazards of uninformed voting will impinge on the attempt to avoid the hazards.

The limitations must be constitutional in nature. Americans had such a constitution during the country's early decades, so the idea is not a pipe dream. Unfortunately, that constitution started to slip away in the 19th century and the erosion continues.

(T. Norman Van Cott is a professor of economics at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind.)

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