Study their behaviors. Observe their territorial boundaries. Leave their habitat as you found it. Report any signs of intelligence.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Best Chances To Avert The Third Reich

The Cato Institute's blind spot is its strategic isolationism. A good idea for the decades and centuries of imperial rivalry leading up to the early twentieth century, strategic isolationism is now two epochs out of date. The first epoch that obsoleted isolationism began when imperial rivalry gave way to ideological rivalry in an era whose technological advances allowed totalitarians to kill tens of millions and threaten hundreds of millions more. The second epoch began when that ideological rivalry was settled c. 1989 in an era whose economic advances had rendered territorial conquest obsolete as a way to increase national prosperity. In the penultimate epoch, the stakes were too high for strategic isolation to be wise. In the current epoch, the humanitarian cost-benefit ratios of certain interventions are too low for strategic isolation to be conscionable.

Cato's Jim Powell is a typical libertarian strategic isolationist, who blames Woodrow Wilson for most of the twentieth century's parade of horribles. This thesis about 20th century history suffers from misunderstandings about path dependence and the difference between necessary and sufficient causes. When looking for turning points at which Europe's mid-twentieth-century horrors could have been averted, there are far better candidates:
  • If France had used its overwhelming military superiority to oppose Hitler's 1936 re-militarization of the Rhineland, Hitler's triumph would instead have been a humiliating retreat -- a retreat he had secretly already ordered if the French tried to stop this blatant treaty violation.
  • If central banks had in the 1920s been more competent, then European hyperinflation and the global Great Depression would have been largely avoided, making Nazi totalitarianism effectively impossible.
  • If France hadn't demanded ruinous reparations from Germany in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic would almost certainly not have been replaced by Nazi totalitarianism.

Compared to these multiple chances to save Germany after World War I, it's just not tenable to lay Hitler at Wilson's feet for the latter's decision to enter that war on the side of the democracies. I don't know as much about Russia and China in the early twentieth century, but I suspect they were probably more subject to their own internal dynamics. To me, the more interesting historical what-if here is: given the intellectual dominance of socialism in the 1930s, would central planning now be not nearly so discredited if Soviet and Chinese communism hadn't had such ample latitude to fail so spectacularly?

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