Exclusive Interviews
James Payne on War, Politics and the Demise of Activist Government
By Anthony Wile - September 12, 2010

Introduction: Dr. James L. Payne is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute and Director of Lytton Research and Analysis and author of numerous well-known, libertarian-oriented books. These include A History of Force: Exploring the Worldwide Movement Against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem and his most recent book, Six Political Illusions. He is also the author of the Princess Navina libertarian-fiction series. He has taught political science at Yale University, Wesleyan University, Johns Hopkins University, and Texas A & M University.

Daily Bell: You obviously have a deeply held libertarian perspective. How did you acquire it?

James Payne: When I left the University of California (Berkeley) with my PhD in Political Science in 1964, I was an LBJ liberal. That's real embarrassing for me to admit today, but it's the truth. In the following years, my research into many different government policies revealed to me that government fails a shockingly high proportion of the time.

As a result of this learning curve, I became a conservative/libertarian. This leaves the interesting question: why was I a left-liberal in my younger days? The answer was that, as a youngster, I was in the grip of a number of illusions about government's abilities to solve problems. Recently, I've explained these illusions into a book, which has just been published (Six Political Illusions, see below), so that young people can overcome in a few days the fallacies that took me decades to get past.

Daily Bell: You began your career very young. Tell us how that happened.

James Payne: I was very keen on political science from my first undergraduate course with Aaron Wildavsky at Oberlin College. He showed me that it was possible to cut through the thoughtless cliches of politics and expose the fallacies and oversimplifications that dominate thinking on political subjects. For me it was exhilarating to transcend my own limited views, to realize how "dumb" I had been on one issue after another.

Daily Bell: What did you observe about Peru and the labor movement in your first book?

James Payne: Oberlin College allowed undergraduates to take a junior year abroad, and being an adventurous kid eager for travel, I went to Peru and did a study of the labor movement, traveling all over the country, up into the Sierras, taking a river steamer down the Amazon to the jungle city of Iquitos, interviewing labor leaders everywhere I went. I must have had 50-60 interviews. I ended up writing a book on the labor movement, which was published by Yale University Press. I suppose the main lesson I took away from that research is how complicated human political institutions are, and how distortion, misunderstanding and emotion play such a big role in the political arena.

Daily Bell: You've written on foreign policy; what are your views? What problems have you foreseen?

James Payne: One of my political epiphanies came shortly after I left graduate school in 1965. The Vietnam War was heating up at that time, and I was closely following the debate on whether we should escalate. At the beginning, I held the popular "dove" position that this was a faraway war, difficult to "win" and we shouldn't be there. Then I heard Dean Rusk make the case for deterrence—just a few well-chosen sentences—and I realized, with a slap to the forehead, that I'd missed a whole issue in foreign policy.

In a nutshell, this theory is that most wars are wars of miscalculation: the aggressor underestimates the defender's ability and willingness to resist. So the way to reduce the danger of World War III (which might kill hundreds of millions) was to demonstrate your credibility in seemingly trivial contests. I fleshed out this theory in my book The American Threat (1970, 1981). Of course, the idea that it made sense to fight in Vietnam was very much against the grain of what academia believed. But I still think it was right to resist in Vietnam: our action there lowered the probability of WW III—a very great good!

Daily Bell: You wrote an article, "What Do the Terrorists Want?" in The Independent Review (Summer 2008). Please tell us about that.

James Payne: My foreign policy writings since the collapse of communism are "dovish," compared to my "hawkish" position on Vietnam. I now stress restraint, turning the other cheek. There's no inconsistency, however. In the 1960s and 1970s, the context was hostile great powers, and that presented the possibility of a major war. At that time it was right to practice a policy of firm resistance, or containment, in order to reduce the danger of a terrible war of miscalculation, as I mentioned above.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the transformation of China, and the decline of communism as an aggressive force, we do not have a great power rivalry, and hence the danger of WW III is extremely low. Containment as a foreign policy has lost its meaning. What we have is the pin prick of Islamic terrorism. (Sorry, 9/11 was a pin prick: more Americans were killed in a typical day of World War II than in 9/11). Furthermore, Islamic terrorism is not represented by a major power, or even a minor power. So there is no danger of a world war with islamofascism. Therefore, a bellicose, containment-seeming foreign policy is not warranted.

As I explained in the article you ask about, what the terrorists want is not world domination. I made a quantitative analysis of the writings of Bin Laden, and discovered his overwhelming preoccupation is revenge against what he perceives as an aggressive, intrusive USA out to impose its social and cultural values on Muslin countries. The way to calm the craziness of the jihadists, therefore, is to cut down on our intrusive, aggressive foreign policy toward Muslin countries: don't station troops in Saudi Arabia, don't invade Iraq, cut back on our military bases and fleets.

Daily Bell: You wrote an article, "Does Nation-building Work?" for The Independent Review (Spring 2006). What was that about?

James Payne: American policymakers have had a shallow view of what it takes for a third-world country to become a stable democracy. "Does Nation-building Work" is an analysis of the 51 occupations by the US and Great Britain and their results. The record shows that in only 14 cases (27 percent) did a stable democracy follow the occupation. Furthermore, the presumed successes had little to do with US policy.

For example, the emergence of democracy in Germany after World War II had nothing to do with American policy. As I document in my article "Did the U. S. Create Democracy in Germany?" (Independent Review, Fall 2006), the occupation forces did everything wrong: they deliberately impoverished Germany, they deliberately avoided healthy, friendly contacts with German people; they persecuted former Nazis but wound up reversing the policy and making payments to those they persecuted.

Daily Bell: You've written about the history of force. What have you observed?

James Payne: I think my most important book is A History of Force; Exploring the Worldwide Movement against Habits of Coercion, Bloodshed, and Mayhem (2004). Its overall thesis is that the use of physical force has been declining for millennia, and is declining rapidly in modern times. Present times are amazingly peaceful, compared to what went on 50, 500, 1000, 2000 years ago. Unfortunately, the media reports on and exaggerates current violence, so this thesis about the decline in the use of force is not widely accepted.

Since physical force has been the foundation of many institutions—religion, government, moral codes, relations of the sexes—this analysis explains, and predicts, major changes in society and its institutions.

Daily Bell: You've written a great deal about taxation. What conclusions have you reached?

James Payne: My book Costly Returns; The Burdens of the U. S. Tax System (1993) tabulated the overhead costs of running the tax system. It found that for every dollar of taxes collected, the tax system puts an additional burden of 65 cents in wastes and costs.

Daily Bell: You taught political science at academic institutions, including Yale, Wesleyan, Johns Hopkins, and Texas A&M University. In 1985, you resigned your tenured professorship and moved to Sandpoint, Idaho, to work as an independent scholar and freelance writer. Why did you make this move? Has it lived up to expectations?

James Payne: For me, academia has two problems. First, American higher education floats on an ocean of government money. This creates a deep pro-government bias, which makes life difficult for anyone—like myself—whose research leads to questioning big government. Second, academia is restrictive and stultifying. The premise of an academic discipline is that that everything important is already known, and the scholar's job is to extend and decorate this "knowledge." My muse is to discover things, to show how deeply wrong we—myself included—have been about the world. A discoverer is persona non grata in academia. Leaving academia cost me dearly in income and status, but for my own intellectual development and emotional well-being it was the smartest thing I ever did.

Daily Bell: You have a new book out called Six Political Illusions. Give us a quick summary.

James Payne: The socialist premise is that we can use government to transform the world and create a much better society, even a Utopia. Unfortunately, this vision rests on a series of illusions about what government is, how it works, and what it can accomplish. While 150 years of disappointing experience has rather battered the appeal of these illusions, they have not gone away. They keep cropping up in the minds of the naïve—which includes most politicians—and keep getting turned into policy.

Let me give one illustration on a point we covered already, nation-building.

If you ask the man in the street if he, personally, knows how to create a democracy in, say, Iraq, this man in the street would admit that he didn't have a clue. If you had asked George Bush the same question in 2003, he would have been forced to admit that he knew nothing more than the man in the street about whether or how a US invasion force could create democracy in Iraq. So where did Bush—and so many others—get their confidence in U. S. nation-building prospects? The answer is, he assumed that government would know how to do it.

This is the watchful eye illusion, the belief that government has greater knowledge and wisdom than ordinary people. This is a fallacy, because government is made up of ordinary people who, individually and collectively, have no greater understanding—and often less—than the public. It's an ancient illusion, one that traces all the way back to the times when humanity believed that rulers were, literally, gods.

This illusion explains why, when it comes to government, we don't learn from experience. We see government fail but, influenced by the watchful eye illusion, we assume government will succeed next time. Take nation-building. The record shows, as I noted above, that military occupations don't bring democracy. Bush didn't bother to look at the record, to notice that this kind of thing usually ends in failure. Blinded by the illusion that government knows what it's doing, with his faith in its god-like wisdom, he plunged ahead—and got eight years of bungling and death.

[For the Introduction and first chapter of Six Political Illusions, readers can go to www.sixpoliticalillusions.com ]

Daily Bell: Tell us about your fiction— the Princess Navina books.

James Payne: As I continued my political science research, I kept finding cases where government not only failed but made the problem worse. I would say to myself, "If congressmen were deliberately intending to wreck things, they couldn't have done better than the policy they came up with." In one unguarded moment, I got the idea of putting this idea in a brief satire about a country where the ruler really does aim for the misery of his people. This became the story, Princess Navina Visits Malvolia—Malvolia being the land where the ruler wishes his subjects ill. In this country, the ruler—the Magog of Malvolia—has adopted policies to increase unemployment, impede entrepreneurs, and develop a class of unhappy, idle benefit-seekers. Well, these turn out to be pretty much the policies of the modern welfare state.

Then, to make other points in political philosophy, I wrote sequels about other wretched countries—Mandaat, Nueva Malvolia—and finally wound up with the conclusion of the series, Princess Navina Visits Voluntaria. This is a country which doesn't have a government—because they believe it is wrong to rely on the initiation of force, even for a good cause. So all public services are supplied by a plethora of voluntary groups, and sentiments of social cooperation are greatly strengthened (because society depends on generosity—not force). It's a voluntarist's Utopia.

Daily Bell: Where does the United States go from here?

James Payne: I don't share the alarmism of many on the right. Yes, the country is badly governed, and yes, many foolish ideas predominate (including six political illusions!). But what people forget is that throughout history, most countries have been very, very badly governed. What happened under the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s, for example, was more foolish and destructive than what's going on today.

As to the near future, there will be endless tinkering, endless complaining, and crusades to throw the rascals out and bring in new people dedicated to "hope and change." But since the premises of activist government are false, the result will remain an unmanageable, vaguely corrupt "goo."

The good news is that in the long run we shall be moving away from activist government. I go into this prediction at length in my History of Force; I'll summarize the basic syllogism:

1. Activist government depends on the initiation of force;

2. The acceptability and use of force is in decline (a decline that's been going on for 5,000 years);

3. Therefore activist government will decline.

What this decline will look like is an open question. It probably will not take the form of a conscious, thoughtful choice by society to turn away from activist government. Instead, activist government will fall increasingly into disrepute and voluntary methods of dealing with problems will emerge more fully. I believe we are already evolving toward the voluntary system that will prove much healthier for us. (An illustration: Look how we're handling roadside litter pickup today, with volunteers stepping forward. In the old days, it was assumed that a tax-funded government bureaucracy should take care of this problem.)

Daily Bell: Anything else you would like to mention?

James Payne: My goodness, I'm afraid I've already bored readers to tears. It's just that I get so engrossed with these questions it's hard for me to stop. I appreciate everyone's patience and interest.

Daily Bell: Thank you for your time and this insightful interview.

After Thoughts

James Payne makes many interesting points in this interview, but we found his conclusions about 21st century warfare to be especially thought-provoking. He writes that he made a "quantitative analysis of the writings of Bin Laden, and discovered his overwhelming preoccupation is revenge against what he perceives as an aggressive, intrusive USA out to impose its social and cultural values on Muslin countries." From this he concludes that Islamofascism is not an aggressive force but one that is more or less reactive.

This point, in fact, is one Congressman Ron Paul (R-TX) has made as well. If the US were not "over there," the chances are that those who wish ill for the West and the US would not be "over here." What he also points out it is that governments have generally been getting less violent and that gives him hope that government activism will generally subside.

We confess, we had not been aware of this perspective, as it seems to us that the world is constantly in a war or confrontation somewhere, and that Western governments and especially the Anglo-American axis are in the forefront of military action. In fact, from our point of view the Anglo-American axis has been fairly consistently violent since World War II. First there was the Korean war, then the war in Viet Nam and finally a series of wars in the Middle East.

In between, the CIA, especially, through Operation Gladio fostered additional violence across Europe. And the United States in particular has interfered in Central America, fomenting wars there and generally destabilizing regimes that were not to its liking. Thus it is that we would like to have James Payne's optimism as regards the reduction in violence worldwide and especially the reduction in violence of the Anglo-American axis, but we are not sure we can fully endorse this view at the moment.

It is in a way fitting that we publish this interview around the anniversary of 9/11 as more than anything the attacks on 9/11 plunged the West and especially America into yet another decade of serial warfare. We have long pointed out that some in the 9/11 Commission itself have serious reservations about the conclusions reached in the report the Commission issued.

In fact, controversy continues to swirl generally around the 9/11 and one way that might put various controversies to bed would be create a new and generally impartial Commission that could re-examine the evidence. An examination of the West's propensity for war even in a time of general peace might help put some of the current violence into better focus and provide lessons for the future. This might provide support for the trend that Dr. Payne believes he has identified, that governments are growing less violent.

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