THe Libertarian Split over the War II - Historical Roots:

I am happy that my post on the libertarian divisions over the Iraq War has generated so much debate both here at VC and elsewhere in the blogosphere (e.g. here and here), among other sites too numerous to list).

In this post, I want to focus on the fact that the intralibertarian debate over war and foreign policy is not a new one, and actually dates back to the Cold War era. During the 1960s and 70s, the formative years of modern libertarianism, some prominent libertarians, including F.A. Hayek and especially Ayn Rand generally supported US policy in the Cold War, at least to the extent of favoring a hard line against the Soviet Union and its allies. If I recall correctly, Milton Friedman was also generally hawkish during this period, as were most of the other prominent Chicago school libertarians. These Cold War libertarians did not support every aspect of US policy (e.g. - all of them opposed the draft), but they did favor a strong anticommunist line, including the occasional use of US military power.

Other libertarians, led by Murray Rothbard and the other founders of the Libertarian Party favored a dovish/isolationist foreign policy, and in some cases endorsed the New Left view that the Cold War was primarily the fault of the US rather than the communist bloc. In his 1978 book, For a New Liberty, Rothbard argued that the Soviet were primarily defensive in orientation and would not have tangled with the US but for American aggression and bellicosity. In 1969, Young Americans for Freedom, the most prominent right of center student group of the era splintered as a result of conflicts between pro-Vietnam War conservatives and anti-War libertarians.

What can be learned from this history? Does it seem to track the absolutist vs. maximizing and immigrant/Jewish vs. gentile/native-born hypotheses I advanced in my last post (linked below)?

I think it provides some support for both, but the second more than the first. To take the ethnic theory first, it is obvious that Hayek and Rand were both immigrants from authoritarian or totalitarian societies (fascist Austria and the USSR) and that these experiences had a powerful impact on their political views and may have led them to support the exertion of US power against totalitarianism abroad. Many of the other prominent Chicago School scholars of that era were also of either Jewish or immigrant origin.Murray Rothbard, by contrast was native-born and, though of Jewish background, he and his family were alienated from their ethnic roots because his parents were part of what he himself called "a communist culture" (see link above). Late in life, Rothbard even supported the presidential candidacy of the anti-Semitic Pat Buchanan. Rothbard's attitudes were somewhat idiosyncratic (especially his support for Buchanan), but he was one of the main founders of the Libertarian Party and his views on foreign policy were similar to those of most other dovish libertarians of the era. Indeed, Rothbard himself was one of the main intellectual influences on the modern dovish school of libertarianism.

The maximizer vs. absolutist split does not do quite as well. Although Rothbard was clearly an absolutist libertarian, so too were Ayn Rand and her "Objectivist" movement followers. Hayek, Friedman and the Chicago school fall clearly in the maximizer camp (and were in fact denounced by the Rothbardites for supposedly compromising libertarian principles). It may be that the absolutist vs. maximizer theory works better if we exclude Rand and her Objectivists from consideration, since they could be viewed as a special case. But I'm not sure that saving the theory in this way would be analytically justified.

The clearest lesson to be learned from this history is that the intralibertarian debate over foreign policy is not a new one, and that therefore it may be deeply rooted in the nature of the ideology and not just an aberration caused by recent events.

A happier thought is the fact that the existence of a deep internal split over foreign policy did not prevent libertarians from having a significant impact on domestic policy debates during the 70s and 80s, and perhaps this success will be repeated. At the same time, it is far from certain that libertarianism will be able to weather a deep division over the most prominent issue of the day without serious harm to its prospects.

UPDATE: To avoid confusion, I should note that I am NOT saying that it is impossible to be a "maxmizing" libertarian and oppose the Iraq War. It is perfectly possible to do so if you believe that the war undermines libertarian values on net more than it promotes them. My point was simply that a libertarian maximizer is MORE LIKELY to be willing to support the war than a libertarian absolutist.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. THe Libertarian Split over the War II - Historical Roots:
  2. Libertarianism, the Iraq War, and the Division in the Friedman Household: