The Rise of Economics as an Element of National Security

Part I: The Inequity Engendered by Protectionism

National security has become the catchall justification for government inserting itself into matters which are beyond the purview given it by the Constitution. The definition of what constitutes a threat has expanded to a point where all manner of things are now regulated under the guise of protecting the people. Security is no longer simply about protection from physical harm, but also a function of stability and prosperity; it is not about the largely passive act of deterring threats but about actively promoting a certain standard of living.

Leaving aside the obvious problem of a government empowered enough to discern what constitutes “the good life” and make judgments about how to attain it for citizens, this mindset cultivates a politics rooted in dogma, where national security incontestably justifies government intervention. This lends an air of unassailable gravity and urgency to all issues swept up in the question, while at the same time undermining the seriousness and legitimacy of other crises which the government does not include under the umbrella of security concerns.

Such a practice creates a polity whose rights the government does not consider to be held equitably. More importantly, defense of them is not undertaken equitably. The government transitions from being a neutral, defensive actor to a proactive crusader, fighting for those causes which, according to its discretion, most need its aid; it is inevitable that a class system, one which endlessly shifts with the power dynamics of political ideology, emerges.

This effect is particularly concerning as the dialogue about national security increasingly draws upon an economic vocabulary. Security implies insulation from threat, but what constitutes an economic threat is extremely tenuous, particularly in a system where markets are ostensibly open. Risk and reward play an important role in the mutually-beneficial volitional interactions which form the basis of trade. It is self-interest that motivates consumers and producers alike. But this can only be satisfied when economic actors are able to determine their own self-interest. Government’s attempt to insulate economic actors against the threats implicit in risk abrogate the autonomy of thought and action which is quintessential to markets.

Certain classes of actors become government pets, cosseted and rewarded so long as they please the masters whom they have chosen to serve. Economic security is not, as government paints it, an act of beneficent altruism undertaken by officials determined to do their duty to their constituents whatever the costs. A government conscious enough to make judgments about the lives of its citizens takes on other attributes of a living being; it is aware of its own need to survive and looks to its longevity by drawing to it those from whom it benefits the most.

There are many ties between the rhetoric of economic security and populism, but xenophobia is amongst the most prominent. Just as populists eschew anything not indigenous to the community, branding it inherently threatening, so does the economic angle of national security cast non-domestic actors as malevolent. Imported goods are said to unfairly undercut domestic products because local actors have to compete with international products but the reverse is not true. A mentality of victimhood is quickly inculcated, allowing government to swoop in dramatically and play its role as defender.

But government has an interest in doing so, particularly where certain industries are concerned. Poor performance in manufacturing weakens government on the international stage, potentially weakening its political and economic clout. Domestically, a weak economy threatens to inflame feelings of political inefficacy. Here the self-interest of specific regimes to endure becomes prime. Calling upon the need to preserve the economic security of its citizens is a useful gambit which masks government’s meddling in the affairs of private actors over whom it really has no legitimate authority.

The antipathy which is promoted against non-domestic actors is no accident; it is a calculated rhetorical strategy designed to protect government stability. In tying the welfare and prosperity of the individual, the state attempts to ensure that any who question this rather highhanded approach to government cannot be questioned, as to do so would be to pit oneself against the safety and well-being of the polity and risk ostracization. Nothing is surer to galvanize the citizenry than the perception of a threat to survival. The psychology of economic security is built around this principle.

But once the validity of this rhetoric is questioned, the disingenuousness of government is clear, for it does not protect the economic security of citizens equally, but panders to those in industries which are most useful to its own ends.

Originally published at The Politics of Discretion.