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A Bogus Libertarian Defense of War


Many conservatives dubiously insist that a robustly interventionist foreign policy can coexist with a free-market domestic policy. That’s why they have no compunction about supporting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while claiming to support limited and unintrusive government at home. On the face of it, these seem highly incompatible. War requires the accumulation and exercise of awesome powers. How can laissez faire be combined with militarism?

You’d think this insight would be a pillar of libertarianism. But unfortunately not all libertarians think so.

In an article in the Wall Street Journal recently, “Libertarians and the war: Ron Paul doesn’t speak for all of us,” Randy E. Barnett, a law professor at Georgetown University and a long-time libertarian legal scholar, wrote that libertarians can and do support the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Barnett in follow-up comments has insisted that his main point was only to show that some libertarians support the Iraq war and not that libertarianism justifies the war. But this point wouldn’t be so important if Barnett thought support for the war was inconsistent with libertarianism — which I will demonstrate in this article. In fact, Barnett’s mission is to show that support is not inconsistent. He is mistaken.

There are two problems with Barnett’s thesis: (1) historically, war and preparation for it have been the biggest stimuli to the growth of government, which libertarians philosophically oppose; and, (2) the Iraq war is an aggressive war, which libertarians also oppose.

Barnett writes,

While all libertarians accept the principle of self-defense, and most accept the role of the U.S. government in defending U.S. territory, libertarian first principles of individual rights and the rule of law tell us little about what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack. Devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly.

This is true as far as it goes. The problem is that it doesn’t go very far, and what it leaves out is crucial. To be sure, libertarian principles do not prescribe a military strategy or tell us “what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack.” But that doesn’t mean libertarian principles are silent on these matters; they do tell us what is inappropriate. They tell us that government should not provoke attacks by brutally intervening in other people’s affairs, as the U.S. government has done consistently in the Middle East for more than 50 years — see my paper “‘Ancient History’: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East since World War II and the Folly of Intervention.

Anyone who accepts, as Bar-nett puts it, “the role of the U.S. government in defending U.S. territory” should insist that the government not endanger the American people by making foreign enemies. A provoked attack would not call for a counterattack, but rather a change in the interventionist policy that created the threat in the first place.

Moreover, libertarian principles tell us that any response to a truly unprovoked attack must respect the rights of innocents. Actions that can be expected to harm people not involved in the original attack should be avoided. War must not be an occasion for dispensing with normal moral prohibitions. Those who disagree lose their standing to object to the murder of innocents on 9/11.

Barnett acknowledges that libertarians are skeptical that government can do anything constructive on the world stage:

To a libertarian, any effort at “nation building” seems to be just another form of central planning which, however well-motivated, is fraught with unintended consequences and the danger of blowback. And, like most everyone, libertarians oppose any war of aggression.

He’s right. But the prohibition on wars of aggression rules out the war in Iraq, which never threatened the American people. Barnett disagrees. He says the war can be justified as part of the defense against Islamic jihadis. But as noted already, the anti-American jihad grew out of dec-ades of oppressive intervention in Arab and Muslim countries. It’s the blowback Barnett refers to. Moreover, conquering a secular Westernized Arab country that was a natural barrier to both Sunni jihadis and Iran’s Shia government seems a peculiar way to defend against jihad. It’s far more likely to create new mortal enemies.
War and the nation-state

In a follow-up comment to his article at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, “Antiwar Libertarians and the Reification of the State,” Barnett further exposes his deficiencies in thinking about libertarianism and foreign policy. The core of his argument is that “radical libertarians” can’t coherently hold four principles he ascribes to them:

(1) The inherent injustice of war
(2) The sovereignty of foreign governments
(3) The illegitimacy of the United Nations
(4) The existence of fundamental human rights

One immediately smells a straw man. The trap is in (2). Here’s what he says:

[Many] radical libertarians who hold position (1) at the same time adopt a hyper-legalistic view of what constitutes a “war of aggression” in which states are treated as though they were individual persons. In other words, they adopt the Westphalian view of nation states and sovereignty, which was devised to recognize and protect the autonomy of the government rulers “their” territory [sic]. When making this argument, these radical libertarians treat foreign governments as “sovereigns” to be respected (by the U.S. government) unless they commit or imminently threaten an act of aggression against the territory of another sovereign. Systematically violating the rights of their own subjects or citizens is a wholly internal domestic matter. In essence, these foreign governments are treated in principle as the just owners of the territories they govern. And their conduct is to be judged by the same rules of self-defense as are individuals. … One might say that, when dealing with issues of (American) foreign policy, these libertarians reify (foreign) states and treat them like individuals, with all the natural rights of individuals.

Now, I’ve read a good bit of libertarian foreign-policy theory, and I don’t recall many references to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which marked the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War. According to Wikipedia, the two treaties that constitute the Peace enshrined the doctrine of national sovereignty and nonintervention in the internal affairs of states. But the entry also notes that a revisionist view holds, “Neither of the treaties mention [sic] sovereignty.”

This historical controversy aside, what does it have to do with libertarianism and foreign policy? Not much. While it is true that the most substantial libertarian thinking about foreign policy embraces the principle of nonintervention in other countries’ internal affairs, libertarian noninter-ventionism is not founded on the principle of national sovereignty. How could it be? Only the individual is sovereign. That being the case, no radical libertarian is guilty of reifying the state. Thus, there is no incoherence in the radical-libertarian position. Nice try, Professor Barnett, but no cigar.

If the reason for the prohibition on intervention is not national sovereignty, why have libertarian foreign-policy thinkers insisted that governments follow a strict noninterventionist principle? It shouldn’t be too difficult to discern the answer. Barnett of all people should know, given his long association with most of the heavyweight libertarian intellectuals.

Murray Rothbard, who did some of the most important work on libertarian foreign policy, summed up the answer in The Ethics of Liberty:

[The] libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals, “foreign” and “domestic.” The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area which it monopolizes, and not to aggress against other State-monopolists — particularly the people ruled by other States. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure “their” respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.

…This objective, incidentally, was enshrined in the old-fashioned international law of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, i.e., the ideal that no State aggress against the territory of another — which is now called the “peaceful co-existence” of States.

As one can readily see, no principle of national sovereignty is needed to establish the noninterventionist principle. Governments don’t have rights over “their” territories or populations. Rather, they are ubiquitous threats to life, liberty, and property. But that is precisely why they must be kept from clashing with each other — when they do, innocents get slaughtered and wealth gets confiscated. This doesn’t mean that governments may properly aggress against “their” populations unmolested. They most certainly may not. It simply means that the method of opposing a given state’s aggression must be something other than interstate warfare. One may not advocate aggression in order to fight aggression.

Barnett’s ahistorical and rationalistic “libertarian” defense of war turns out to be nothing of the kind. This is reinforced by the fact that he neglects the libertarian insight that war fortifies everything libertarians abhor: taxes, debt, jobbery, and violations of civil liberties such as privacy. No one has put it better than the anti-World War I writer Randolph Bourne: “War is the health of the state.” How can any libertarian defend it?

This article originally appeared in the October 2007 edition of Freedom Daily. Subscribe to the print or email version of Freedom Daily.

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    Sheldon Richman is former vice president and editor at The Future of Freedom Foundation and editor of FFF's monthly journal, Future of Freedom. For 15 years he was editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education in Irvington, New York. He is the author of FFF's award-winning book Separating School & State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and Tethered Citizens: Time to Repeal the Welfare State. Calling for the abolition, not the reform, of public schooling. Separating School & State has become a landmark book in both libertarian and educational circles. In his column in the Financial Times, Michael Prowse wrote: "I recommend a subversive tract, Separating School & State by Sheldon Richman of the Cato Institute, a Washington think tank... . I also think that Mr. Richman is right to fear that state education undermines personal responsibility..." Sheldon's articles on economic policy, education, civil liberties, American history, foreign policy, and the Middle East have appeared in the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, American Scholar, Chicago Tribune, USA Today, Washington Times, The American Conservative, Insight, Cato Policy Report, Journal of Economic Development, The Freeman, The World & I, Reason, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Middle East Policy, Liberty magazine, and other publications. He is a contributor to the The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. A former newspaper reporter and senior editor at the Cato Institute and the Institute for Humane Studies, Sheldon is a graduate of Temple University in Philadelphia. He blogs at Free Association. Send him e-mail.