Libertarian Warmongers?

The libertarian movement appears close to suing conservatives for divorce. The vaunted “fusion” between liberty-oriented and virtue-oriented conservatives that helped propel Ronald Reagan into the presidency is breaking down. If Republicans are going to spend like Democrats, expand government like Democrats, and centralize power in Washington like Democrats, then why should someone with libertarian inclinations vote Republican?

An increasing number of voices are now pressing for a libertarian-liberal alliance, or at least a dialogue between libertarians and the Left. But so far the discussion has largely ignored foreign policy.

Brink Lindsey of the Cato Institute wrote in the New Republic: “The central challenge in cementing a new fusionist alliance – and, make no mistake, it is a daunting one – is to elaborate a vision of economic policy, and policy reform, that both liberals and libertarians can support.” Several participants in a Cato Institute Web debate (“Cato Unbound”) also produced many words without addressing the issue. Even anti-Iraq war blogger Markos Moulitsas, or Kos, focused on “the core Democratic values of fairness, opportunity, and investing in our nation and people” when he called himself “a Libertarian Dem.”

To their credit, Nick Gillespie and Jesse Walker of Reason magazine have pointed to the failure of liberal Democrats to acknowledge “their side,” as it were, hasn’t been very good at keeping the peace. Gillespie observes that President Bill Clinton’s bombing in the Balkans was no less “a war of choice” than George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq.

But among professed libertarians there’s been largely silence on the role of foreign policy in deciding on whether to fuse with either conservatives or liberals. Only John Tabin, a foreign policy hawk writing in The American Spectator online, confronts the issue, arguing for “a robust foreign policy” and continued libertarian alliance with the Right. He contends:

"If foreign policy remains the primary fault line in American politics, dovish libertarians may be bound to the left for the foreseeable future. But they will be bound to the left by their dovishness, not by their libertarianism per se. Of course, the same may be true for libertarian hawk; if both parties remain as enthralled with big government as they have been in the Bush era, every libertarian may be forced to become more or less a one-issue voter. But if we do avoid that unhappy fate, our conservative friends are likely to remain our most promising allies."

Yet “complete” libertarians – who believe that libertarianism has something to say about whether America should wander the globe wreaking death and destruction, slaughtering other peoples, making enemies, wrecking nations, and inaugurating bloody chaos and disorder – might want to echo the famous Lone Ranger/Tonto joke. “Who’s we, Mr. So-Called Libertarian Hawk?” Can there really be such a thing as a libertarian hawk, or is that an oxymoron? Indeed, with Iraq exposing the inevitable practical costs of a “robust” foreign policy, there is good reason for libertarians to become single-issue voters. Not for Democrats, necessarily, but for any politician or party willing to offer a more limited, humble, realistic, and rational foreign policy.

Libertarianism, though based on clear and simple principles, nevertheless yields its share of policy disagreements. Abortion and capital punishment divide libertarians. What kind of rights do children possess? Anarchists spar with “minarchists.” Even if so-called public goods would not be privately provided, should government fund them?

Nevertheless, some boundaries seem clear. Should a politician advocate high taxes, an expansive welfare state, and a system of universal national service, no one would consider him to be a libertarian. Someone who said that he thought small government was a neat idea but backed universal government health care would not be confused with a libertarian.

A politician who proposed radical decentralization, while encouraging localities to seize land, restrict property rights, ban chain stores, set prices, prohibit smoking and drinking, and censor books and movies could not credibly claim to be a libertarian. No genuine libertarian would combine support for civil liberties with a ban on drug use and intrusive legislation prohibiting “hate” speech, forcing landlords to rent to gays, mandating that companies offer “partner” benefits, ordering companies to alter their business practices to accommodate employee religious beliefs, requiring companies to provide health insurance, mandating employer provision of parental leave, and more.

Obviously, liberals and conservatives passionately argue about these policies. Fair enough. But to count as a libertarian someone who held such positions would be senseless. The term libertarian would become meaningless, for there would be no one – or at least few people – in politics today who could not then claim to be a libertarian.

How about war-making? Can a philosophy that speaks so boldly on so many issues having nothing to say about matters as important as defense and foreign policy? If so, libertarianism would lose much of its seriousness.

Libertarianism stands first upon its insistence that individuals are morally unique and important. As such, they have the right and responsibility to make choices involving their own lives. Their decisions should be limited by government only where there is a direct impact on others. Mediating the inevitable collision of free men in a free society is the state’s essential duty.

For that reason, government employs coercion through police, courts, and other institutions. People can best flesh out the state’s exact responsibilities and the best means of carrying them out through some form of democratic process. Various constitutional schemes may seem more or less prudent, but so long as political power is sharply limited, libertarianism presupposes no particular form of government.

In a world of competing, warlike nation-states, defense is an appropriate state function. A philosophy based on individual restraint and nonaggression would suggest an American foreign policy centered around protecting the American polity. With war the riskiest, bloodiest, and most expensive form of statecraft, its use logically should be strictly limited, employed only in cases where the interest is vital, alternative means are absent or inadequate, and restraint would be more costly than action. Foreign policy should be “robust” in the sense of effectively achieving legitimate U.S. ends, most particularly confronting serious security threats to America, but not in the sense of commonly and casually coercing other societies to suit the preferences of Washington policymakers.

Of course, there will be room for disagreement. Exactly what foreign policies need to be followed or military units need to be created would be a prudential judgment. Good people of sound mind and similar philosophy may perceive the abilities and intentions of foreign states differently. Such arguments have to be fought out in the political process.

At the same time, however, as with domestic policy there are boundaries beyond which a foreign policy could not be called libertarian. Intervening in such cases would be improper at both ends: (1) taxing American citizens, risking U.S. soldiers, and plunging American society into war; (2) killing foreign citizens and wrecking foreign nations.

For instance, aggression for purely selfish national aggrandizement would be beyond the pale. Whether the goal is conquest to slaughter/expel the inhabitants in order to gain Lebensraum, acquire natural resources (even oil!) to lower prices or speed economic growth, or enhance the state’s global reputation in order to better achieve other international ends, such a policy would be anathema.

Equally inappropriate would be war for minor or frivolous causes, even if nominally just. For instance, saving American citizens who voluntarily journey into risky situations – such as traveling on armed merchantmen of a belligerent power carrying munitions through a war zone, as in World War I – would not warrant war. Nor would war or threats of war be justified to vindicate companies whose assets were nationalized; invest overseas, but do so at your own risk.

Humanitarian intervention, while superficially more attractive, is no more justified. Some libertarians have talked about liberating oppressed peoples, a worthy goal, of course. But as a matter of principle, American resources should not be spent and American lives should not be risked unless doing so advances a fundamental interest of the American polity. Going to war is expensive and risky – usually far more so than expected at the start, as in Iraq’s case. Good intentions are rarely enough when it comes to war.

Moreover, an interventionist foreign policy makes it much more difficult to keep government small and unobtrusive. Intervening in numerous conflicts would require many more “boots on the ground” as well as air strikes. Maintaining such a military would be expensive, and the cost might be more than money: conscription likely would be necessary to provide the bodies necessary to fill those boots and garrison multiple trouble-spots around the globe.

Nor is building international support for war-making cheap. Aid and other inducements often must be offered to other states, while the U.S. inevitably becomes entangled in the affairs of other, sometimes antagonistic, countries. Finally, promiscuous intervention would put America’s homeland at additional risk. Terrorism like 9/11 grows more out of antagonism to U.S. foreign policies than hostility to American values.

Equally important, humanitarian intervention rarely has humanitarian results. Some of the worst human rights abusers, such as the People’s Republic of China and the late Soviet Union, are major powers against whom war would be catastrophic. Even supposedly just wars often trigger more injustice – such as the mass ethnic cleansing of Jews, Roma, and Serbs by America’s ethnic Albanian allies after NATO’s “liberation” of Kosovo. This should come as no surprise: no matter how rosy the scenario painted by war advocates, social engineering internationally is far more problematic than social engineering domestically. It is hard enough to manipulate people within a single society; it is far more difficult to transform people across international, cultural, and traditional lines.

Even against weak powers, rarely can the U.S. simply intervene and leave. Nation-building, or attempted nation-building, becomes an inevitable, ancillary duty of humanitarian war. Iraq provides a sobering practical example. The U.S. upended a vicious dictator and, in the process, triggered a worsening sectarian conflict. In the midst of violent chaos, Washington is attempting to create a liberal state. At the end of the day, whenever that day comes, Americans (other than George W. Bush, anyway) certainly and Iraqis possibly are not likely to believe the war’s results to have been positive.

Further, even wars that are just often should remain limited. That is, an initial good justification for action – to preempt another state preparing to attack, for instance – doesn’t mean Washington should adopt expansive goals of regime change or spreading democracy, despite the seemingly attractive opportunity that beckons. Assume it was necessary to invade Iraq to disarm Saddam Hussein. It still is not necessary to create – or attempt to create – a Western-style liberal democracy, or whatever the Bush administration is attempting to do.

Of course, some issues might generate disagreement. Common are wars, threats of wars, security commitments, and military deployments proposed to advance legitimate but not necessarily critical interests. Indeed, few policies are advocated in Washington without someone claiming that they promote the nation’s fundamental interests.

When the issue is in doubt, however, the bias always should be against military action. War inherently conflicts with libertarian goals: promoting human life and dignity, individual liberty, economic prosperity, limited government, constitutional stability, and republican government. As social commentator Randolph Bourne pointed out, and Robert Higgs documented so well in Crisis and Leviathan, war is the health of the state. War is the most important excuse used by politicians to restrict civil liberties, punish free speech, limit public disclosure, raise taxes, expand government spending, regulate economic activity, undercut democratic debate, and deform the Constitution.

At the same time, the benefits of war, no matter how positively the conflict is sold, usually prove evanescent or absent. Wars of choice have been common in U.S. and world history. In most cases even the winners suffered greatly, with any gains far overshadowed by losses and the causes of new conflicts sown in the wreckage left by the old ones. For principled and prudential reasons, any serious libertarian should oppose international intervention absent an overwhelming justification.

Iraq is a good litmus test. A libertarian could have supported the war, but only with great difficulty. Spreading democracy or avenging Saddam Hussein’s past depredations surely were inadequate grounds for unleashing the dogs of war. So was deposing the regime to eliminate terrorism directed at other states or to make other nations feel more secure. (Ironically, the country most empowered by the Iraq invasion has been Iran, which presumably was not the Bush administration’s intent.)

Instead, a libertarian could have made a national interest argument, but in doing so, he or she would have had to (1) rely on the dubious claims involving WMD and terrorist connections advanced by war advocates; (2) doubt the value of deterrence, despite international experience with Stalin’s Soviet Union and Mao’s China; and (3) believe fantastic predictions about the ease of the inevitable occupation. Having been so credulous, said libertarian today should be embarrassed – and skeptical of all future war propaganda.

Moreover, there is no good libertarian case for remaining to “finish the job,” “pursue victory,” or whatever other phrase represents the administration’s current talking points. Of course, departing quickly (though not instantly) would leave behind a great mess. But a great mess already exists, and there is no reason to believe that sticking around – or, more accurately, having U.S. forces stick around – will halt Iraq’s sectarian slide.

In fact, fundamental American security is harmed, not helped, by continuing to create enemies, sacrifice American lives, tie up U.S. military forces, and waste economic resources in an attempt to “win.” Having already lost many precious American and Iraqi lives in a forlorn attempt to build a foreign fantasy world, Washington should not ask to U.S. forces to stay and die for nothing. The best way to honor the dead is to stop making patriots die in pursuit of a flawed policy.

Whether libertarians should ally with the Right or the Left is a complex question. The tradeoffs among competing issues will never be easy. Whether libertarians should treat foreign policy as a key issue is clear, however. International concerns are as important as domestic ones and inevitably affect the latter. Indeed, it is hard to imagine how a free society could long survive at home if a government pursued an unabashedly imperialist policy abroad.

As a result, libertarians cannot be hawks, at least as that term is commonly understood. Libertarians must be for peace. They should always treat war as a last resort rather than an initial choice. War might sometimes become an ugly necessity, and some libertarians might disagree over threat assessments and policy responses. Nevertheless, just as a big-spending, high-taxing libertarian is an oxymoron, so too is a libertarian warmonger. Absent a genuine security threat of substantial magnitude, military intervention cannot be justified. Libertarians should vote accordingly.

Read more by Doug Bandow