A cogent argument can be made for national security in the sense of protecting one’s free country against foreign tyrants. In the Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith argued that some exceptions could be made to economic freedom in the name of the “common defence.” In his book The State, Anthony de Jasay argues more daringly that the only function of the “capitalist state” or minimal state would be to prevent an ordinary state from replacing it, whether domestic or foreign.

A minimal state… “if you can keep it,” Benjamin Franklin would say. Two current examples illustrate that what the state does in the name of national security or related justifications is generally aimed at increasing its own power.

The Chinese state plans to impose new national-security measures on Hong Kong. The Wall Street Journal reports (“China Plans New National-Security Laws for Hong Kong,” May 22, 2020):

In April, the new liaison-office director [for the Chinese government], Luo Huining, declared that Hong Kong’s legal framework for national security must be improved as soon as possible, especially after Beijing waited more than two decades in vain for the city to do so.

The same apparatchik said in a speech:

We must never allow Hong Kong to become a breaching point for risks to our national security.

The Journal article also reports on a letter from the Chinese Foreign Ministry to ambassadors of other countries with the purpose of defending Beijing’s position:

The Foreign Ministry letter also said “Hong Kong has become a notable source of risk to China’s national security” because of legal loopholes and a lack of enforcement mechanisms.

I think it should not surprise anybody familiar with the economic analysis of politics that our own states—in the “free” countries—also use national security to increase their own power, albeit not as uncontrollably as the Chinese government does. Think about the Trump administration imposing tariffs on steel and aluminum imported from allied countries in the name of national security and threatening to do the same on automobile imports from Europe.

A few days ago, on May 19, the same administration did something similar, even if it is not as immediately obvious how it harms Americans (while it clearly hurts poor people who are legitimately looking for asylum in America), and even if national security took a public-health face. The Wall Street Journal explains (“Trump Administration Extends Order Blocking Migrants at Border,” May 19, 2020):

The Trump administration extended a public-health order allowing it to reject migrants crossing U.S. borders without giving them access to the asylum system until the government determines the new coronavirus no longer poses a danger to the public.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published the indefinite extension on Tuesday. The order was introduced in March for a duration of 30 days and extended in April for another 30 days.

The public-health order allows the government to turn back any migrants it encounters crossing the border—including unaccompanied children and anyone asking for humanitarian protection—without taking them into custody or allowing them to file asylum claims.

What’s nice of Mr. Trump is that, with his limited understanding of the world, he often reveals his ulterior motives as a badge of honor—in this case, that the extension of the public-health order has little to do public health. The Wall Street Journal quotes him:

Every week, our border agents encounter thousands of unscreened, unvetted and unauthorized entries from dozens of countries. And we’ve had this problem for decades. With the national emergencies and all of the other things that we’ve declared, we can actually do something about it.

This looks pretty close to what Rahm Emmanuel (pardon me but I am tempted to write, borrowing from Mr. Trump’s invectives, the radical left, do-nothing Democrat Rahm Emmanuel, or the Democrat Savage Rahm Emmanuel) said in 2012:

You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. What I mean by this is, it’s an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.

Both President Donald Trump and Chairman Xi Jinping invoke nationalism to excite their respective political bases and reinforce their power. Nothing new there, perhaps, but two amusing facts are worth noting. In the Hong Kong story, the Wall Street Journal reports:

“I feel sick,” said Dennis Kwok, a pro-democracy legislator in Hong Kong who has in recent weeks been the target of criticism from Beijing for holding up legislation, including delaying the passage of a proposed bill that would criminalize disrespect for China’s national anthem.

Compare that with a tweet of November 29, 2016 from president-elect Donald Trump:

Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag – if they do, there must be consequences – perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!

Fortunately, constitutional constraints prevented Trump from following up on this idea, as on many of his electoral promises. The Supreme Court had long ruled that burning the flag is protected by the First Amendment.

The reality remains that in America, China, France, Canada, and most other countries, national security is generally a fraud. Think about all states in the world, even far from American shores but including the American state, used 9/11 as an excuse for increasing their surveillance power over their own citizens. The interesting question is how different states succeed in getting away with it. How does the state, a complex institution, democratic or not, always push to become Leviathan?