Monthly Archives: December 2014

The Good Country for Libertarians

Commentary magazine featured my essay on its December cover, The Good Country, which reports some astounding empirical correlations between U.S. troop deployments with economic and social development indicators in countries around the world. This finding is difficult from some to accept, particularly those who believe that the United States is too militaristic and meddlesome in the affairs of other countries. I’d like to challenge my Libertarian friends to think more carefully about what “The Good Country” means — because the simple interpretation is misleading.


Three key sections from the article are copied here. The first is the core claim, cited on the cover, and with some additional supporting evidence:

In country after country, prosperity—in the form of economic growth and human development—has emerged where American boots have trod.

… Indeed, from 1950 to 2010, more than 30 million U.S. troops were deployed around the world, the vast majority to allied countries, stationed in permanent bases, and cooperating in peace. They were building, not destroying.

… [A]llied countries with a greater U.S. troop presence experienced better outcomes on measures of life expectancy and children’s mortality. This effect held even for countries growing at the same rate. Furthermore, it held during two distinct eras, pre- and post-1990. Life expectancy worldwide increased by 10 years between 1970 and the present. But it improved more quickly in countries that hosted American troops, and more slowly elsewhere. The worldwide mortality rate of children dropped from 132 to 55 per 1,000 live births during the same period, but again, the results were better among America’s allies.


At a minimum, the “troops effect” challenges our priors. Almost everything thinks that when the military is deployed, that means war.  In fact, since 1950, combat was the exception not the rule, even in Iraq and Afghanistan. Second key paragraph:

Contrary to conventional wisdom, most troop deployments were not to countries at war—the sole exception being the years from 1966 to 1970, the height of the war in Vietnam. In the 1980s, 300,000 American forces were stationed in European allied countries, 100,000 in Asian allied countries, 5,000 in Turkey (a NATO ally), and 9,000 in Panama.

And finally, the third key point is that these alliance relationships worked because of demand for U.S. troops, not just the supply.

It would be a mistake to read the evidence about the positive impact of troop deployments as a clarion call for, simply, more. … Let’s think about this from the economist’s perspective of supply and demand. A strategy of pushing troops to poor, unstable countries is not the way this policy works.

The lesson in all of this for libertarians, even pacifist libertarians, is that America’s foreign policy should emphasize alliances more than monster-hunting. This is an essay — indeed a worldview — that libertarians should embrace and extend. I would like to think it would drive a wedge between pacifists (who surely support a policy of preventing war) and isolationists (who are willing to let war ravage the rest of world so long as it does not touch our shores).

If you really think the presence of American forces throughout the Pacific from 1945-1990 did nothing to prevent a follow-up war between China, Korea, Japan, and the rest, I think you are beyond reason. Contrast that with the experience of Europeans post-WW1 and post-WW2.  A pacifist recognizes the failure of the post-WW1 disengagement and embraces the continued presence of US forces in Europe after WW2, including former foes Italy and Germany as well wartime allies France and Britain. It worked: No WW3.