Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.

The U.S. as Savior

Winter 1997

Michael A. Ledeen
AEI Press, 1996, viii + 167 pgs.

Freedom Betrayed is a spirited polemic in support of a contradictory thesis. We need less government, and so we must sponsor a worldwide Democratic Revolution (capitals courtesy of our author) that rests on a massive increase in the power of the state.

Not content with his central contradiction, Ledeen adds additional contradictions to support his thesis. On the one hand, the Soviet Union was "an anomaly, both historically and economically: a military empire based on a third-world country that could not compete in the world marketplace, with a hopeless economic system at the mercy of commodity prices.... There was no way the Kremlin could maintain the empire on this miserable cash flow" (pp. 41 42).

Here, plainly, our author asserts that Russian Communism faced inevitable doom. Or does he? He elsewhere, on the other hand, assails the view that economic conditions by themselves doomed the Soviets. "Those who argue this way [that the U.S. should have followed a less aggressive policy during the Cold War] usually offer a narrow, economic explanation for the fall of the Soviet Empire and the end of communism: the economic system failed, and the empire collapsed accordingly. Yet this is not an explanation at all, for the Soviet system was a failure from the beginning.... If economic conditions caused the fall of the Soviet Empire, it should have fallen much earlier" (p. 4).

Economic failure insured the collapse of communism; economic failure did not do so. Ledeen cannot have both propositions, but which is correct? Students of Austrian economics should have little difficulty in answering. A socialist economy, as Mises long ago demonstrated, leads to calculational chaos. To anyone informed by sound economics, the Soviet fall was only a matter of time. Nor can it be objected that Mises's argument does not apply, because the Soviet economy did not collectivize everything. True enough; but it was collectivist enough for the deadly process of disintegration to take effect.

But what of Ledeen's objection? If the Soviet economy suffered from a fatal illness, it was, like Sarah Bernhardt, a long time dying. Oddly enough, Ledeen in large part answers his own query. "In a valuable three-volume work written a quarter-century ago, Anthony C. Sutton showed in detail that at the very start of its existence, the Soviet Union was provided with basic technology from the West...the Soviet system was heavily-fatally-dependent on Western know-how" (p. 44).

Without Western aid, then, no communism. Why then was the massively statist Cold War necessary? Ledeen maintains that the United States rightly pursued a course of worldwide military commitments to halt the Evil Empire's surge after power. This statist crusade aimed at promoting the American cause, one of limited government.

Had Ledeen grasped the import of his own analysis of the Soviet economy, he might have escaped from the Orwellian project of using statism and militarism to battle socialism. Given the weakness of the Soviet system, why not stand aside and allow it to fall?

Ledeen might object that I have distorted his analysis. If the Soviet economy depended on Western technology, does not an attempt to cripple that economy rest on denying the Soviets access to that technology? And does not that policy, in turn, demand an extensive system of export controls? Intervention, not isolation, is the order of the day.

If Ledeen were to argue in this way, he would fail to grasp the full force of Sutton's point. Soviet economic planning benefited from extensive Western governmental aid programs and loans. Absent these, the Soviet economy could not have continued. Controls on private investment were not needed: as always, government was the problem, not the solution.

Further, suppose that Ledeen is right: The imperative need to bring communism to a quick demise justified restrictions on private businesses' export of technology to Soviet Russia. Certainly, export controls depart from the free market: but we would still be a long way from the global crusade that our author desires.

Ledeen would no doubt respond that we have not accurately seen the danger. Even if the weakness of central planning is fatal to socialism, a centralized state may strike at the West before its own catastrophe impends. Had such heroic figures as Truman and Marshall not launched the Cold War, the United States might now be a province of the Soviet Empire. And the danger to us does not lie altogether in the past. We must today pursue a militant course against the menace of Red China. Readers will not be surprised to learn that control of technologically advanced exports to China ranks high on our author's list of priorities for policy.

Mr. Ledeen paints a vivid picture of a possible danger relax our grip, and we risk falling victim to Communist imperialism. But he never inquires about the likelihood of a threat of this kind. Readers of The Mises Review will, I suspect, require no instruction from Ledeen about the invidious qualities of Communist rule. But it does not follow from the manifold horrors of "scientific socialism" that Communist countries posed a military threat to us in the past, or that they do so now. Neither does it follow that the militarization of the U.S. economy and a program of worldwide military commitments are the best ways to cope with a Communist military menace to us, if in fact it does exist.

Of course, I have not shown the falsity of Mr. Ledeen's assessment of the military threat from communism. But this is not to the point here. Rather, this burden is on Mr. Ledeen to show why a departure from our traditional policy of non-intervention in foreign affairs is justified. Our author altogether declines to answer this burden of proof.

Instead, he has a preconceived scheme with which he views not only the Cold War, but all of twentieth-century history. "The pattern of modern American history is one of brief spasms of international activity, followed by rapid demobilization and prolonged disengagement.... After the Wilsonian spasm, we withdrew into righteous solitude, unmoved even by the onslaught of fascism, until the Japanese providentially [!] bombed us into war just in the nick of time" (p. 64). One shudders at the prospect of the United States's having avoided World War II a near miss indeed.

Ledeen's response to the accusation that he views history through a fixed formula may surprise the reader. He admits, nay, glories in the charge. "We do not wish to be part of the outside world, but we do wish to change it, to democratize it, to make it more like us. We are an ideological nation, and our most successful leaders are ideologues" (p. 3).

Our author goes further: America in his opinion has a messianic mission to export the blessings of democracy to all and sundry. Critics of Marxism, including Eric Voegelin and Murray Rothbard, have sometimes claimed that leftist political doctrines apply to the secular world categories that are in truth religious. Few before Mr. Ledeen have doubted that, if true, this point was a severe criticism of these ideologies. For our author messianism is a badge to be worn with pride.

What would happen if America were to act on the basis of Mr. Ledeen's romantic vaporizing? The policies Ledeen supports would move us away from the free economy and limited state to which he professes allegiance. We learn that "exports cannot possibly form the core of a coherent American foreign policy. The long-term effect of this kind of trade-for-its-own sake is to ensure that we will face fierce commercial competition in areas where we could easily maintain an overwhelming domination" (p. 96). One pauses, astonished, at Ledeen's devotion to the free market. Our confidence in the author as a friend of the limited state does not increase when we learn of his regret that the United States did not sponsor Nuremberg-style tribunals to try the former leaders of the Communist bloc.

Mr. Ledeen ranges widely, and a few details off the main theme merit comment. He usefully notes that "[Francisco] Franco recognized that his movement and the authoritarian system he created were destined to disappear with his death, and the bulk of the evidence suggest that he was certainly not disturbed by the prospect" (p. 21). The United States did not "impose democratic capitalism on West Germany" (p. 63); it resisted Ludwig Erhard's free-market reforms. Ledeen rightly praises the scholarship of Renzo DeFelice on Italian fascism, but I seriously doubt that Ledeen's book of interviews with him contributed in a major way to the "defeat of communist ideology in Italy" (p. 25). He greatly overstates Raymond Aron's significance as a political philosopher (p. 27). Ledeen's praise for Emmanuel Beau de Lomenie, a historian of the French aristocracy, is welcome; but it would have been better had he managed to spell his name correctly he gives it as "Beau de Leaumenie" (pp. 141 42). Was it a slogan of the American Republic that "taxation without representation is treason" (p. 88)? When you stop to think about it, taxation without representation is not treason.

Ledeen's loud praise of freedom would ring truer if he had a clearer idea of what freedom means. His crusade seems no more likely to succeed than the medieval variety.


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