Libertarians and war

by John Quiggin on July 29, 2004

Over at the Volokh conspiracy, Randy Barnett poses the question of what Libertarianism as a political philosophy tells us about foreign policy, and comes up with the conclusion “not much”, particularly in relation to war. He says his views are tentative and invites others to contribute to the debate. I’ll accept, partly because it’s intellectually interesting, partly because Jim Henley (who could, I think have done a much better job) has gone into hiatus, and partly because I think internationalism (at least my version of it) shares some points in common with libertarianism, while being opposed on others.

Barnett begins with a claim which I think is clearly inconsistent with libertarianism, as follows

But would the U.S. Army been acting unjustly on Libertarian grounds it it goes to the aid of innocent civilians in Somalia, the Sudan, or Iraq? I do not see why. If these people are indeed the victim of horrible rights violations a solder regardless of whether his uniform is American or Iraqi would be justified in going to the defense of the victim according to Libertarian first principles. So if “defensism” is a proper principle of foreign policy, it does not appear to follow from Libertarian first principle, since either going to the assistance of the innocent and not going to her assistance is an equally justified act.

But the US Army is not a person, and US soldiers are not acting as libertarian free agents. The correct question is “Can the US government justly compel US citizens to finance, and US soldiers to implement, policies aimed at preventing rights violations in Somalia and elsewhere”. Just as with ordinary foreign aid, libertarianism implies that, while individual Americans might be justified in assisting people in other countries, the US government is not[1]. Obviously, this is not a position with which internationalists would agree, though there is still plenty of disagreement among internationalists about the conditions under which humanitarian intervention is justified.

The main focus of Barnett’s discussion is “defenseism”, that is ” intervention is justified if the U.S. is responding to an attack or an imminent threat can be shown.” Here, there’s no problem with referring to the US as if it were a person. Since the US government may be regarded as a mutual defence pact among its citizens, responding to attacks is among its legitimate functions.

But, as Barnett points out, this criterion doesn’t help much in relation to debates about pre-emptive war, which end up turning on what is meant by “imminent”, a point on which libertarianism does not seem to have much bearing. Still, I would have thought that libertarianism would have implications regarding the kinds of evidence that ought to be accepted in assessing the claim that some particular government (such as Saddam’s) presents an imminent threat. In particular, I would have expected libertarians to be particularly sceptical of claims that rested on the authority and trustworthiness of government officials, and on the reports of spies, secret intelligence agencies and the like[2]. With a few exceptions, this was not the case, at least as far as the blogosphere is concerned.

Finally, there are a lot of other potential justifications for war, none of which are justified from either a libertarian or internationalist viewpoint, and nearly all of which were invoked in support of war with Iraq. These included assertion of national (state) greatness, projection of (state) influence in the region concerned, revenge for past wrongs and access to resources such as oil. On all of these points, I’d assert that these arguments rest on a view (traditionally linked to the Peace of Westphalia) of states as being natural sovereign[3] units that have rights and interests independent from, and in fact superior to, those of the individuals that make them up.

The fact that the Iraq war was being advocated on such unacceptable grounds should have been a factor in the thinking of those who oppose war in general, but are willing to countenance defensive or humanitarian interventions in some cases. This is because, whatever your own reasons for supporting the war, its management was inevitably going to be, at least in part, in the hands of people who advocated war on unjust grounds, and would therefore pursue it in an unjust fashion. Clearly this has been the case with the Iraq war.

fn1. There’s a second-order question here. Given that private military ventures by Americans may provoke retaliation from foreign governments, is the US government justified in prohibiting or restricting such ventures ?

fn2. The best evidence that Saddam did not have weapons that could threaten the US came from the inspections undertaken by UNSCOM, also a quasi-government agency. But we didn’t have to take the word of Hans Blix that the sites he’d inspected were not active weapons facilities, as claimed by Bush. The inspections were conducted in a very public fashion, unlike the intelligence efforts that produced the various dossiers invoked in support of the war.

fn3. Of course, in 1648, when the Peace of Westphalia was signed, the parties were real sovereigns, claiming divinely ordained rights over their subjects.

{ 24 comments }

1

Motoko Kusanagi 07.29.04 at 8:53 am

The libertarian case against war is made on a daily basis on antiwar.com, which is a little nutty sometimes, but a very useful resource. Basically their position is that what happens in foreign countries in “none of our business” and that government intervention, by definition, will make things worse. Their ME-commentator Ran HaCohen is especially good.

2

Scott Martens 07.29.04 at 8:55 am

I would have assumed a libertarian of Barnatt’s character would simply argue from first princiles: To the extent that the state undertakes collective action without having been explicitly conceded that power by every single person who must contribute to the collective action, it is unjust. Ergo, interventionism is only possible when undertaken by voluntary organisations.

State minimalist libertarianism offers another course of action: identifying state competencies explicitly and recognising an independent right to action in those areas. But, unless I am grossly misreading Barnett, he is not of that school. The two favourite historical examples of non-minimal-state libertarianism – pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon England and the Icelandic commonwealth – both were ultimately absorbed into less libertarian states in part because they had no mechanism for establishing collective defense. The Normans had a far less lax conception of government, and readily took over Britain. By the time it fell, no one was willing to defend Iceland at all.

The notion that the libertarian commonwealth is justified in defending itself against manifest threats entails the establishment of an authority to determine when and where a manifest threat exists. Even if the response to such a threat only involves the action of entirely voluntary defenders, it is still indistinguishable from some group of people appointing themselves guardians of the commonwealth. If the people can act in response to a threat, nothing prevents them from declaring anyone or anything a threat. If libertarians can go to war, and knowingly kill the innocent in its defense, then it seems unlikely that any measure in the name of collective defense would be proscribed by libertarian theory. If some court exists to restrain its actions, even some sort of polycentric court of the kind Barnett envisions, then the same ultimate authority is passed to its judges. It seems to me that that was the main reason why the Icelandic commonwealth fell: the hijacking of judicial appointments by a well organised clique with an authoritarian agenda.

3

bad Jim 07.29.04 at 10:11 am

Slightly OT: I remain puzzled concerning the stance of libertarian environmentalists. How can we combat climate change without charging for oxygen?

4

abb1 07.29.04 at 10:29 am

As far as the foreign policy is concerned, there are two basic strains of libertarianism.

One is crazy and scary; this is what Leonard Peikoff wrote in October 2001:

Fifty years of increasing American appeasement in the Mideast have led to fifty years of increasing contempt in the Muslim world for the U.S. The climax was September 11, 2001.

The choice today is mass death in the United States or mass death in the terrorist nations. Our Commander-In-Chief must decide whether it is his duty to save Americans or the governments who conspire to kill them.
http://www.capmag.com/article.asp?ID=2635

The other one is very reasonable; it’s exactly the opposite of Peikoff’s craziness; in fact I find myself agreeing with Harry Browne (on the foreign policy) 90% of the time. Here’s what Harry Browne wrote – also in October 2001:

…Our government has created ill will in many parts of the world. It has bullied smaller countries, imposed new governments upon people who didn’t want them, and demanded that other governments do what our government wants.

Bombing foreign countries doesn’t end terrorism, it provokes it.

Calling the present situation a war is an excuse to impose wartime policies against Americans and foreigners — including violations of the Bill of Rights and killing foreign civilians.

If you think you or America is entitled to something, reverse the positions and see how you’d react.
http://www.harrybrowne.org/articles/TerroristSolutionPart1.htm

So, as you see, these are two exactly opposite views, and both call themselves “libertarian”. How do you analyze something like that?

5

Jacob T. LevyJacob T. Levy 07.29.04 at 1:21 pm

You hold, as Randy does (and I do) that libertarianism as such is underdeterminate with respect to foreign policy, and that arguments about foreign policy have to proceed on at least partly-independent grounds.

With respect to John’s ‘But the US Army is not a person, and US soldiers are not acting as libertarian free agents. The correct question is “Can the US government justly compel US citizens to finance, and US soldiers to implement, policies aimed at preventing rights violations in Somalia and elsewhere”.’– one might agree with all that, and still not hold that any injustice is being done *with respect to Somalia and Somalis*, which is really the heart of Randy’s disagreement with some of the libertarian isolationists.

6

Giles 07.29.04 at 1:36 pm

I cant see how a strict libertarina philosophy can support government intervention.

The best recent examples of libertarian foreign policies – i.e. ones organised privately is Executive Outcomes in Sierra Leone and Angola… and obviously the large private armies in Iraq today.

7

Jim Henley 07.29.04 at 1:58 pm

John: Not bad! You’d have gotten full credit, though, had you managed to work Hayek into the conversation – CliffsNotes: The rest of the world is full of distributed information which is obscure to US planners, and which US intervention (central planning on the global scale) destroys. Each intervention creates the problems which, by the logic of the interventionists, requires the next, larget intervention.

Barnett’s strange hypothetical about individual soldiers who just happen to be in the neighborhood and pitch in on what appears to be their own initiative seems to have precisely no connection with the situation of actual soldiers or the organizations they serve. One must, indeed, look elsewhere for a libertarian guide to the dilemma.

8

John Isbell 07.29.04 at 2:32 pm

Mark Kleiman has an important contribution to the Barnett debate, unless it’s Kevin Drum.

9

Nicholas Weininger 07.29.04 at 2:38 pm

I mentioned this in a comment to Gene Healy’s post on the same topic, but it seems worth mentioning again: Barnett also fails to address the issue of the rights of innocent bystanders who get caught in the crossfires of war.

The injustice done to Somalis, Iraqis, etc. by US foreign interventions consists in:

1. large numbers of them “accidentally” being killed in the course of said interventions (I use scare quotes because people who initiate wars know perfectly well that lots of innocent bystanders are going to be killed as a result);

2. the rule of the subsequent occupation force, which is inevitably arbitrary and often despotic, even if well-intentioned.

Now, such violations must in some cases be justified, lest we rule out even defensive actions. But surely a decent respect for individual rights– not to mention a pragmatic consideration of the likelihood of abuse– demands that they be limited to cases of pressing necessity, i.e. self-defense against an actual or imminent attack.

I certainly don’t see how a libertarian can justify them as “humanitarian”. Arguments of the “yeah, but Saddam was worse” type cut no ice here: after all, others’ failure to respect individual rights does not relieve you of your obligation to do so.

10

David T. Beito 07.29.04 at 3:45 pm

11

Mike Huben 07.29.04 at 3:46 pm

There’s no one libertarian political philosophy to be underde terminate. There are many, founded on many different principles, They wouldn’t be coherent on this issue, (which is actually their hardest problem, and which they evade as glibly as possible.)

Four years ago, I heard Harold Browne, their presidential candidate bloviate about how his defense policy would be to offer large bounties on the heads of any leaders of any attack on the USA. He thought that would be plenty to deter nuclear attacks. Pathetic in hindsight, isn’t it. Bounties didn’t work for Saddam or Bin Laden.

Libertarian isolationism is another glib answer, and about as realistic as pretending there are no externalities.

Libertarian attempts to weigh injustice versus benefits (for interventions and any other action) flounder on the fact that they abhor any ways of comparing utilities except through market interactions. Instead they tend to pick favorable examples and use a lot of hand waving to claim non-intervention has to be better. WWII is one counterexample that destructively tests nonintervention ideology.

12

son volt 07.29.04 at 5:50 pm

If a libertarian can justify the Iraq war, then there’s a hole in his philosophy big enough for any Wilsonian do-gooder to drive a million troops and a trillion dollars through.

13

Justin 07.29.04 at 6:10 pm

I emailed Professor Barnett about this very post, and so I will just repost my response in it’s entirety.

I think your Volokh post makes sense amongst the things that you
include, but I tend to believe you left one-elephant-in-the-room
undiscussed, which doesn’t seem to be TOO big a deal pragmatically
but IS a huge deal (though perhaps not a dealbreaker) in
liberterian first: who pays? If taxing is not simply a “bad thing”
but a theft of the state on the private rights of its citizenships,
that humanitarian military intervention seems like it is as much a
theft of those that opposed the intervention (or, more to the
point, paying for the intervention) than, say, universal health
care.

Now, granted, I am not a liberterian, but I also think some of my
own views on war show the more pragmatic problems with your
hypothesis.  I supported Afghanistan (on defense principles), after
some thought opposed Iraq (because I believe the harm outweighed the
good), and would support a military intervention in Sudan (as I did
Rwanda), once again for humanitarian purposes.

But I think there’s a fair argument that against any non-Western
democracy, you’re going to be able to use your principles to avoid
dealing with any serious issues of liberterianism.  For instance,
Iraq certainly was NOT, at the time of invasion, the most abusive
regime in terms of total harm done or in terms of
harm-done-per-individual; now was it, on any measure of effort, the
best uses of our resources in ending abusive regimes.  In fact,
arguments have been made that more rights were violated by our
actions in Iraq than by keeping Saddam in power (see
https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/001994.html).  While this can
be debated, it of course could be debated for China, North Korea,
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even Russia….which means that, without
additional principles, it is possible that your formulation, other
than showing that there may be no explicit theory of liberterianism
in foreign policy, has absolutely no safeguards and allows all wars
to be treated as pro-liberterian first principles.

14

Justin 07.29.04 at 6:12 pm

I emailed Prof. Barnett on this topic. Here’s the email:

I think your Volokh post makes sense amongst the things that you
include, but I tend to believe you left one-elephant-in-the-room
undiscussed, which doesn’t seem to be TOO big a deal pragmatically
but IS a huge deal (though perhaps not a dealbreaker) in
liberterian first: who pays? If taxing is not simply a “bad thing”
but a theft of the state on the private rights of its citizenships,
that humanitarian military intervention seems like it is as much a
theft of those that opposed the intervention (or, more to the
point, paying for the intervention) than, say, universal health
care.

Now, granted, I am not a liberterian, but I also think some of my
own views on war show the more pragmatic problems with your
hypothesis.  I supported Afghanistan (on defense principles), after
some thought opposed Iraq (because I believe the harm outweighed the
good), and would support a military intervention in Sudan (as I did
Rwanda), once again for humanitarian purposes.

But I think there’s a fair argument that against any non-Western
democracy, you’re going to be able to use your principles to avoid
dealing with any serious issues of liberterianism.  For instance,
Iraq certainly was NOT, at the time of invasion, the most abusive
regime in terms of total harm done or in terms of
harm-done-per-individual; now was it, on any measure of effort, the
best uses of our resources in ending abusive regimes.  In fact,
arguments have been made that more rights were violated by our
actions in Iraq than by keeping Saddam in power (see
https://www.crookedtimber.org/archives/001994.html).  While this can
be debated, it of course could be debated for China, North Korea,
Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, even Russia….which means that, without
additional principles, it is possible that your formulation, other
than showing that there may be no explicit theory of liberterianism
in foreign policy, has absolutely no safeguards and allows all wars
to be treated as pro-liberterian first principles.

15

Decnavda 07.29.04 at 6:46 pm

I think this is entirely a means vs. ends problem, in two senses:

1. Libertarians (NOT anarcho-capitalists) believe in strong police enforcement of property rights, but their belief in these property rights places many restrictions on HOW the police can engage in this strong enforcement. The same would apply to war. You can believe that a war against a dictator is justified – indeed, the very fact that he is a dictator makes it justified – but also believe in major restrictions on how that war is fought. Thus, a privately owned power plant may be an illegitimate target, while actual military bases would undoubtedly be legitimate. It may be that a libertarian legitimate war is IMPOSSIBLE to fight on PRACTICAL grounds.

2. There are two types of libertarianism: “pure” deontological libertarianism and consequentialist libertarianism. Libertarianism is a political “stance” that can be justified on either grounds. The comments in this post apply only to the deontologists. A consequentialist libertarian could easily conclude (wrongly, in this case, but legitimately) that a war against a dictator, although inevitably resulting in the deaths of innocents, will advance the overall cause of freedom.

Indeed, expanding on point 2, it seems to me that the problem discussed here is not with libertarianism, but with deontology. Not only could a consequentialist libertarian easily support a war against a dictator, but ANY deontologist would have to oppose any modern war except to repel invasion. Is there ANY deontological moral code that would authorize the intentional killing of innocent workers at power plants?

16

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.29.04 at 8:09 pm

How does one post a follow up to a CT post?

This is the URL of the follow up post.

http://majikthise.typepad.com/majikthise_/2004/07/where_have_all_.html

17

John Quiggin 07.29.04 at 10:13 pm

Jim, I like the Hayek point. I observed something similar, in relation to Rumsfeld’s unknown unknowns.

I’m not convinced by Mark Kleiman’s claim that libertarians must be absolutely opposed to war because of the potential for harm to innocent bystanders. Police forces, for example, occasionally kill innocent bystanders, but are presumably considered legitimate by most libertarians.

OTOH, this is an important reason for being reluctant to go to war, especially if you include conscripted enemy troops in the innocent bystander category.

18

John Quiggin 07.29.04 at 10:30 pm

Lindsay, it’s hard to demonstrate, but if you put your URL in the standard HTML for a hyperlink, it will work. Example

In angle brackets
a href=”http://majikthise.typepad.com/majikthise_/2004/07/where_have_all_.html”
then
link text
then
close tag which is /a in angle brackets

19

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.29.04 at 11:13 pm

20

John Quiggin 07.29.04 at 11:32 pm

Lindsay, you’re nearly there. You just need to enclose the URL in straight quotes.

Unfortunately, MT converted the quotes in my example into curly quotes, which wasn’t helpful.

Can someone point me to a link on managing quotes in comment boxes?

21

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.30.04 at 1:24 am

22

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.30.04 at 1:27 am

I tried the HTML code for straight quotes, but it didn’t work. Sorry.

23

Lindsay Beyerstein 07.30.04 at 6:46 pm

24

Adam Stephanides 08.01.04 at 5:28 pm

” The two favourite historical examples of non-minimal-state libertarianism – pre-Norman Anglo-Saxon England and the Icelandic commonwealth…”

Eh? While I’m no expert on medieval history, when I have seen Anglo-Saxon England discussed, it’s usually said to have one of the strongest central governments of its time (after it was unified, of course).

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