The Rise of Militarism: Abigail R. Hall on Why U.S. Foreign Policy Threatens Domestic Liberties

As a graduate student, the interdisciplinary exploration of ideas at an IHS summer seminar reimagined classical liberalism in ways that were hard to ignore, says Abigail R. Hall, an associate professor of economics at Bellarmine University in Louisville, Kentucky. According to Hall, these seminars opened new doors that connected her research interests to a larger scholarly community. Her participation in IHS programs also entertained potential research questions with which Hall was just beginning to flirt.

Abigail R. Hall

One of the things that I have enjoyed most about IHS programming is that it’s truly interdisciplinary. There’s a richness to talking to scholars outside of your discipline. It creates a new and more complete picture of topics and really reveals how we can all talk about important issues, even if we come from different backgrounds.

– Abigail R. Hall

Hall primarily studies the political economy of U.S. foreign intervention and the impact it has had on domestic institutions. Her first book “Tyranny Comes Home” (2018), coauthored with IHS Senior Fellow Chris Coyne, endeavors to reveal some of the ways in which increased U.S. militarization is imported back into the country.

Hall and Coyne refer to this mechanism as the boomerang effect. This effect is used to explain “how the tools of social control associated with coercive foreign intervention can infiltrate domestic life in the intervening country” (2018, p. 17). For example, U.S. surveillance campaigns against foreign adversaries have led to increased surveillance at home, violating citizens’ rights to privacy.

As U.S. interventions abroad mount, they argue, domestic institutions are at increased risk of internal decay. In fact, “foreign intervention can and often does have a very real impact on domestic institutions,” says Hall, “even when governments are relatively well-constrained.” These erosive tendencies grow out of control unless there are sufficient bridles placed on government when conducting foreign policy.

In a forthcoming book “Manufacturing Militarism” (2021), Hall and Coyne make the case that democracies can be fertile soil for propaganda campaigns, just as they are in autocratic regimes. It’s ultimately up to citizens to remain vigilant and informed to various propaganda which can be foisted upon the unsuspecting eye.

Propaganda effectively limits the ability of individuals to engage in rational decision-making. It weakens the ability of citizens, elected officials, and other government oversight bodies from processing accurate information, weakening some of the core checks and balances on government. If we want to better align incentives in the foreign policy space, we need to look at how information is held and distributed.”

– Abigail R. Hall

Both books aim to diagnose the increased adoption of militarism in the U.S. The harnessing of fear and insecurity among the populace, Hall notes, is one of the main sources that has granted government license to carry coercive foreign interventions to new heights. Once the impending specters are raised among the government security apparatus, scaling back the size of government becomes ever harder to guarantee.

Similarly, the rise of U.S. militarism didn’t occur as a sudden jolt; rather, the increased domain of military ventures progressed at a piecemeal pace, which might explain some of the ambivalence citizens harbor towards the subject.

Hall asserts that “it’s these incremental changes over time that are chipping away at things people agree are really important, that is: private property rights and the rule of law.” Once these fundamental principles are debased, an open runway becomes available on which governments embark on brazen and often unconstitutional military campaigns.

Additionally, Hall mentions that her research is markedly enhanced after attending IHS events. Her own transition from being a student to now leading discussion groups embodies what Hall believes to be the quintessential IHS experience.

When I got my first invitation to be a faculty member at a summer seminar, it felt like a true honor as I had come full circle. At IHS, I had really started thinking through these ideas, and now I was able to continue thinking about these ideas by introducing them to new people. It was really surreal to be a discussion group leader alongside people who had served as faculty for seminars I’d attended as a student.

– Abigail R. Hall

Moreover, the mentorship component of IHS spurred scholarly connections that continue to flourish today. Another feature of IHS events is that they humanize scholars and generate organic engagements that might otherwise be left on the table. As Hall emphasizes, “these events encourage students to ask questions and seek out knowledge and advice about issues about which both parties are passionate.”

Since her first IHS event, Hall has benefited from learning in an interdisciplinary capacity. Her research borrows from and speaks to economics, law, history, and political science, among other disciplines. Hall reflects that “IHS programs provide people an opportunity to figure out what they’re interested in and passionate about, and then connects them to people who are interested in similar things.” These cross-collaborations make research not just a productive enterprise, but a fun one as well. Hall’s own experience evinces this fact.  

The Institute for Humane Studies is celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2021. For more scholar spotlights, video interviews, photo galleries, and in-depth conversations on classical liberal ideas, visit TheIHS.org/60.

60 Years Advancing the Ideas of the Good Society

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