I recently appeared on a couple of different podcasts to discuss U.S. Border Militarization and Foreign Policy: A Symbiotic Relationship, a paper that Chris Coyne and I recently published in the Economics of Peace and Security Journal. Caleb Brown interviewed me about the paper on the Cato Daily Podcast. This was a short nine-minute discussion in which I articulated some of our core arguments about the process of border militarization and the dangers it poses to civil liberties. Aaron Ross Powell also interviewed me on his new podcast, (Re)imagining Liberty. That episode is nearly an hour long, so we spend a lot more time unpacking how border militarization works and what we can learn from that process.

In both podcast discussions, I discuss the role of physical capital and human capital in border militarization. These are crucial to the argument that Chris and I make in our paper, and we think about them in a distinctively Austrian way. That is, we emphasize that capital goods are heterogeneous and have multispecific uses. As we explain in our paper:

“At the foundation of any foreign intervention is the desire by interveners to alter the actions of those being intervened upon. If actions abroad already matched the desires of the interveners, then intervention would be unnecessary. To alter foreigners’ actions and ensure compliance, interveners may use a variety of forms of social control, including surveillance, intimidation, imprisonment, occupation, policing, and physical violence.   To effectively engage in this type of social control, the interveners must first invest in capital that is particularly suited to the task. This includes physical capital, such as surveillance equipment, aircraft, armored vehicles, and weaponry. It also includes human capital, skills and knowledge that make soldiers, intelligence officers, and other interveners more effective at producing social control. Capital is heterogeneous and multi-specific. Capital heterogeneity means that once capital is created, it can only be used for some types of projects, but not others. For instance, a Blackhawk helicopter cannot be used to bake bread. However, capital is also multispecific, meaning it can be used for multiple types of projects. A Blackhawk helicopter is useful for foreign wars and for patrolling the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Because capital is heterogeneous, it is more useful for some projects than for others. Indeed, there are some projects that it cannot be used for.

As Peter Boettke explains:

“If capital goods were homogeneous, they could be used in producing all the final products consumers desired. If mistakes were made, the resources would be reallocated quickly, and with minimal cost, toward producing the more desired final product. But capital goods are heterogeneous and multispecific; an auto plant can make cars, but not computer chips. The intricate alignment of capital to produce various consumer goods is governed by price signals and the careful economic calculations of investors. If the price system is distorted, investors will make mistakes in aligning their capital goods. Once the error is revealed, economic actors will reshuffle their investments, but in the meantime resources will be lost.”

When government officials engage in foreign intervention, they invest in a set of capital goods, but their decision to do so is not guided by price signals, profit-and-loss feedback, or economic calculation. If capital were homogeneous, this might not be so troubling. We would have good reason to worry about the capital destroyed during war, but the capital goods created to make war could easily be redirected towards productive uses in peacetime. In our world, however, capital is heterogeneous and multispecific. The coercion-enabling capital created during wartime can be used for new projects, but these are more likely to be violent, coercive projects like police militarization and border militarization than projects that directly satisfy consumer demand.