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More on Libertarianism and War:

I agree with most of the points Randy Barnett makes in his excellent op ed on libertarianism and war. Both the Iraq War specifically and defense policy more generally have historically divided libertarians, as I explained in two posts last year (here and here).

Randy makes a good case that libertarians who accept the idea of defensive war cannot categorically reject the possibility that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. They can, of course, ultimately conclude that limiting war to narrow defensive efforts against truly "imminent threats" is the best policy. But that conclusion requires additional evidence to support it, and cannot be deduced from the nature of libertarianism itself on a priori grounds.

I would go one step further than Randy, and suggest that even nondefensive humanitarian military intervention is potentially compatible with libertarianism. This is a paradoxical claim. After all, libertarianism is nothing if not an ideology of deep skepticism about government-controlled enterprises and wars of any kind clearly fall into that category. Certainly, libertarians oppose all or most large-scale government programs in the domestic realm; if they didn't, they would no longer be libertarians.

Why is warfare different? Because in foreign policy, unlike in domestic policy, the alternative to US government action is often not the free market or civil society, but instead the continued rule of other governments. If the US government abolishes Domestic Program X, that usually means that the field is left open to private sector actors. Libertarians generally assume that the private sector will handle the issue more effectively - and with less infringement on individual rights - than the government would.

By contrast, let us assume that President Reagan decided not to invade Grenada in 1983. The alternative to Reagan's action was not private sector control of Grenada or a libertarian minimal state in that country, but the continued rule of Grenada's communist dictatorship. That dictatorship was, of course, itself a government. Moreover, it was a much worse government - in libertarian terms - than the liberal democratic regime that the US installed after the invasion Reagan ordered. On balance, it is highly likely that the US invasion of Grenada was a net gain in terms of promoting libertarian values, even when one factors in the loss of life and property in the fighting. Grenada is perhaps an easy case for pro-intervention libertarians. Other cases, including Iraq, may be much harder. Nonetheless, it does illustrate one example where military intervention clearly advanced libertarian values far more than it undermined them.

The key insight here is that question of humanitarian military intervention is not a tradeoff between government and the private sector, but is usually a tradeoff between two different governments - the status quo and the one the invaders plan to install. Sometimes, the latter government will be much better from the standpoint of libertarian values than the former. Obviously, one also has to factor in the lives and resources lost in the fighting. Sometimes, these will be so great as to counsel against intervention even in a case where the status quo government is extremely oppressive. The current government of North Korea is perhaps the worst in the world, but its possession of a large army and nuclear weapons ensures that trying to forcibly remove it may be even worse - from a libertarian point of view - than leaving it alone.

Whether or not humanitarian military intervention can be justified on libertarian grounds will vary from case to case. It depends on how unlibertarian the current government is, how much better the new one is likely to be, and how much loss of life and property will occur as a result of the fighting. Libertarianism gives clear, determinate answers on most questions dealing with tradeoffs between the government and the private sector. It is not nearly so unequivocal on issues dealing with tradeoffs between two or more governments. The question of war and military intervention usually falls into the latter category.

None of this suggests that one cannot be a libertarian and still oppose virtually all military action other than narrowly defined self-defense. If you believe that offense is rarely an effective form of defense and that humanitarian intervention nearly always leads to the installation of governments as bad or worse than those they replace, libertarian isolationism becomes the right policy prescription. However, such a conclusion does not flow from the intrinsic nature of libertarianism itself. It requires extensive additional empirical and theoretical analysis to justify it on libertarian grounds. For that reason, libertarians will continue to disagree over war and military intervention.

Anderson (mail) (www):
Shouldn't libertarians support armed interventions against victims of other, repressive governments?
7.17.2007 6:17pm
Salixquercus (mail):
So what's the difference between a pro-war Libertarian and a pro-choice/anti-Drug War Republican?
7.17.2007 6:34pm
Justin (mail):
This is a far better support for the Iraqi war in theory, though neither this nor Randy Barnett's argument is support for the Bush Administration's actions in selling and executing this war.
7.17.2007 6:39pm
Justin (mail):
Against the victims???? :)
7.17.2007 6:40pm
Anderson (mail) (www):
Oops, you're right, Justin, liberatarians aren't *that* bad ....
7.17.2007 6:45pm
Ilya Somin:
So what's the difference between a pro-war Libertarian and a pro-choice/anti-Drug War Republican?

It depends on where the Republican stands on other issues (government spending, regulation, etc.). Being a libertarian doesn't require you to be a member of the Libertarian Party. Indeed, I myself have argued on this blog that libertarian values can be more effectively advanced by working within the two major parties.
7.17.2007 6:53pm
Salixquercus (mail):
I agree. Thus I see no need for this spate of "what's doctrinally correct libertarianism" posts. Is the official party planning a purge or something? Or must one insist on maintaining a libertarian identity since Bush has so tarnished the Republican brand?
7.17.2007 7:05pm
T. Gracchus (mail):
So libertarian views come to a form of consequentialism? That is a surprise.
7.17.2007 7:52pm
Randy R. (mail):
So war is good if you remove a bad gov't and replace it with a good one.

Terrific! That gives any communist country, such as Venuzuela, the right to invade any non-communist country. Heck, they are just removing the repressive gov't of Mexico and replacing it with a much more egalitarian society.

What good libertarian would disagree with that?
7.17.2007 7:52pm
Martin Ammorgan (mail):
Really. I hope China never goes Libertarian.
7.17.2007 8:31pm
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
Salixquercus: As you can tell from reading Randy's op-ed, the reason for the "statement of doctrine" is that, in light of Ron Paul's statements at the debates and elsewhere, people may be getting the idea that libertarians are necessarily anti-war.

T. Gracchus: As I argue in the comments to my own post a little bit above, I think the best variety of libertarianism is "rights-consequentualism": Any violation of rights is justified as long as it maximizes net rights protection. What makes this libertarian is that (1) only rights can be balanced against other rights, not utility or anything else, and (2) the list of rights must be the libertarian list, and not, say, right to health care or right to be free from pornography. One may believe that consequentialism is verboten, but then I will demand that you be an anarcho-capitalist.
7.17.2007 8:57pm
Ilya Somin:
So war is good if you remove a bad gov't and replace it with a good one.

Terrific! That gives any communist country, such as Venuzuela, the right to invade any non-communist country. Heck, they are just removing the repressive gov't of Mexico and replacing it with a much more egalitarian society.

What good libertarian would disagree with that?


The flaw in the logic is the assumption that a communist government is better than a noncommunist one.
7.17.2007 9:15pm
Bleepless (mail):
A few years back, the NY Libertarian Party held a costume celebration. Each guest was urged to come as his favorite victim of US imperialism. The guest of honor was the immediate past Libertarian Party presidential candidate. The festivities were held on the anniversary of 9/11. Need one know more about the Libertarian Party?
7.17.2007 11:13pm
Martin Ammorgan (mail):
Sasha:

Ron Paul is a Republican congressman running for the nomination of the Republican Party. I know its hard to grasp that there may be shades of gray in Republican thinking, yet there it is.
7.18.2007 12:14am
Dennis Josefsson (mail) (www):
Grenada is perhaps an easy case for pro-intervention libertarians. Other cases, including Iraq, may be much harder. Nonetheless, it does illustrate one example where military intervention clearly advanced libertarian values far more than it undermined them.

One might question whether a libertarian government should advance libertarian values. It's not an easy question, since such a government might not be regarded as neutral in it self, a libertarian government advances libertarian values by mere existence. But still, that's a passive way of advancing the libertarian values and military intervention is active. Foreign aid is still foreign aid, even if you want it to advance libertarianism.
7.18.2007 5:39am
ATRGeek:
As an aside, I am puzzled by the distinction between the "a priori" or "intrinsic" part of libertarianism and the part of libertarianism based on "empirical and theoretical analysis". Libertarianism is a theory in the social sciences, and none of it is truly a priori.

Anyway, crucially missing from Ilya's analysis is a consideration of the effects of war on the intervening country and its government. Many libertarians have long recognized that conditions of war tend to increase the size and authority of governments, and indeed that people in government will often be tempted to create conditions of war for just that reason (to increase their power).

Now perhaps sometimes these effects are unavoidable, such as when the country is being attacked by a worse government (although I wonder what Ilya would think about a more libertarian government attacking our country in the name of liberating us from our repressive government). But the potential for people in government to start wars in order to give themselves an excuse for increasing the power of the government is going to expand dramatically in the absence of a strict rule that the only permissable wars are defensive wars.

And even if you want to resist making this rule so strict that it allows for no exceptions, at a minimum I think a libertarian should be doing more than Randy or Ilya have done to consider the likely affects of war on the balance between the people and the government in the intervening country.
7.18.2007 8:38am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
ATRGeek: These are all important practical considerations, but Ilya's concern, like mine in my post above, is just to show that there's nothing intrinsic in libertarianism to rule it out. War could be (and probably the verb should be stronger than "could be") non-libertarian, but this is a question on the merits.

Which gets to your puzzlement about the distinction between "intrinsic" and "empirical." Sure libertarianism is a theory in the social sciences, but part of it -- among many (not all) strands of libertarianism -- involves moral theory, and as you're aware, many moral theories make absolute statements that aren't based on anything empirical. For example, the Rothbard strain of libertarianism accepts the "non-aggression axiom," which a priori rejects the initiation of force. If you believe that, then you're an anarcho-capitalist, and you can indeed reject war a priori.

However, other strands of libertarianism allow more scope for empirical analysis. For instance, mine, which I've discussed in the comments to this post and to my post above, holds that you can violate rights in order to protect rights to some greater extent (this is my theoretical way of justifying coercive taxation to fund some wars, some policing, etc.). This involves heavy use of empirical analysis to determine whether a particular government action is, on net, rights-enhancing.

I can still rule out some government actions a priori, when there's no claim that the action will be rights-enhancing (easy example: expelling the Jews in order to maintain racial purity); but when there is such a claim, empirical analysis is required.
7.18.2007 9:10am
ATRGeek:
Sasha,

Kant's failed efforts proved to my satisfaction that any attempt to generate an a priori moral theory is doomed. Morality requires an understanding of the real world to which our actions will apply, and an understanding of the real world requires experience.
7.18.2007 9:53am
Sasha Volokh (mail) (www):
ATRGeek: Fine. But that just goes to the question of whether the libertarian apriorists are mistaken. This discussion is only about characterizing the different philosophical positions that it makes sense to call "libertarian," regardless of whether they're right or wrong.
7.18.2007 10:45am
ATRGeek:
Sasha,

Well, first we would have to confirm that the libertarians describing certain propositions with terms such as "first principles", "axioms", "absolutes", and so on were actually claiming to be articulating a priori truths. In my experience, on futher examination those tend to be terms of convenience, more or less indicating that the proponent is expressing an unwillingness to revisit the truth of the proposition on a case-by-case basis or in light of new evidence. But if asked to articulate the justification or basis for the proposition, it usually quickly becomes clear that the proposition in question is not in fact an a priori truth in the conception of the proponent.

Which, by the way, is to their credit, because again it is pretty clear that moral claims cannot be a priori.
7.18.2007 12:57pm
T. Gracchus (mail):
Thank you for the clarification - it did look like a proposal for rights consequentialism.
7.18.2007 1:21pm
markm (mail):
In Ilya's Grenada example, consider a couple of other alternatives for freeing Grenada from the Communist dictatorship that had recently taken over:

1) (In the absence of pesky US government regulations) Private organizations could have collected donations and smuggled arms to the Grenadans, enabling them to free themselves if they were willing. The cost in life and destruction of property would have been much, much higher, but since this is just providing victims with the means of self-defense, wouldn't this have kept radical libertarian principles pure?

2) The US government could have much more easily supplied and delivered the arms. (Think of a B52 bombing run, but dropping crates of weapons + ammo on parachutes instead.)

3) A private organization could have collected donations and hired a mercenary army to free Grenada.
7.18.2007 6:20pm
Sameer Parekh (mail) (www):
The problem with humanitarian wars to protect human rights is that governments are instituted to protect the rights of their own people, not the rights of people in far-off lands. In creating the US government, we delegated to it various powers because we want it to protect our rights. We do not ask for it to protect the rights of others. Only if we protect our own rights by protecting other people's rights (say, by defeating the soviet union) should we allow the government to do so.
7.20.2007 10:24am