Libertarians and war

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.

11 thoughts on “Libertarians and war

  1. John, interesting post. Just a small quibble, the United Provinces (modern Netherlands) and the Republic of Venice were also parties to the Treaty of Westphalia and neither could accurately be described as being ruled by a sovereign prince. The text of the treaty is online, rather bizarrely courtesy of the Nixon Presidential Library.

  2. There’s no one libertarian political philosophy to ask. 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.

  3. hi
    i found your blog via a comment on max’s blog here in US . i am neither a political scientist nor an economist . my understanding of libertarian thoughts is at a primitive level . how ever to me a bed rock principle seems to ne non-aggression except as self defence . most of these writers are / were supportes of US war on Iraq , are close to center of power and seem to me more of republicans than libertarins . a lot of this writing has been to justify their stance vis a vis war and still keep claim to libertarian thoughts .
    my simpleton 2cents.
    BTW i put your comments on the down under greens economic plank on a local list . will see if generates any discussion

  4. “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.”

    This touches on one of the key weaknesses of the case of the pro-war Left (Nick Cohen, Pamela Bone, Bruce Hartnett, Christopher Hitchens, Barry York, Adam Carr, Hans-Magnus Enzensberger, Paul Berman, TELOS magazine, etc.). I might have come closer to agreeing with them had they, or people who shared their motives and scruples, been managing the war.

  5. Very interesting post John. I hadn’t thought much about this aspect of the war before.

  6. at least i can think of three collective type libertarian ( or leaning ) web sites where several commentators have been explicitely against iraq war . from my limited understanding one of the main libertarian idea is that a state is to be at the best tolerated as an evil and should be allowed as little powers as possible . this along with the very clear notion of non-aggression does rule out them to be ” internationalist ” . the sites are ( history news network )

  7. I’ve come to regard the debate over the war, not as a debate of Left versus Right, but of “the right” versus “the good”.

    “The right” in this sense is what Robyn Eckersley defines as “the idea that the common structure of political action should constrain and limit what elected governments may decide in the name of the state, what citizens may do in pursuit of their own conceptions of the good life and what economic actors may do in pursuit of economic gain.”

    Translated to the canvass of international relations, it would mean (amongst other things) that the institutional framework of governance and political action at global level should authorise and constrain what states, political movements, organisations and individuals can do in pursuit of what they consider to be the good. This is my position, and is central to my reasons for opposing the war. The alternative view, implicit in the arguments of some of the pro-war Left and Right alike, is that there are certain goods (such as the removal of Saddam’s regime) which justify unauthorised unilateral actions by particular actors which are determined to pursue that objective.

    It could be argued (and I would agree) that the removal of particularly tyrannical regimes is not only “the good” but should also be part of “the right”, i.e. that a just institutional framework of international relations should seek to regulate and limit what governments of states can do to their citizens, their ecosystems, etc., and should provide a mechanism for effectively constraining such governments, and for removing them as a last resort. The sticking point over situations like Iraq is whether, in the absence of an effective mechanism for this purpose which has broad international consent, particular states or groups of states such as the Anglophone alliance should undertake a form of vigilante justice.

  8. One does not have to engage in ideological hair-splitting to determine whether libertarians were opposed to the war.
    The US’s official Libertarian organs, the Cato Institute, was outright opposed to the war.
    This anti-war spirit is shared by the so-called paeleo-conservatives, who are of a generally isolationist temper in matters of foreign intervention by the US Army and incursion by illegal immigrants.
    War-bloggers, who claimed to be libertarian, are just being disingenuous about their ideology in order to satisfy their frustrated alpha-male blood lusts.

  9. I would have thought I had first dibs on defending libertarianism… but Q does it well enough – at least with regards to libertarians seeing humanitarian intervention as being the same as foreign aid. 🙂

  10. Pr Q has done an admirable job of interpreting libertarian theory, which is ideologically opposed to pre-emptive wars and entangling foreign alliances.
    Libertarian theorists have always and everywhere disdained pro-active foreign intervention on the same grounds as they have disdained pro-active domestic intervention: if the government does it, it will be done wastefully, and according to political, not personal, preferences.

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