Blogs > Liberty and Power > Hey Libertarian Party: It's the War Stupid!

Nov 2, 2006 5:09 pm

Hey Libertarian Party: It's the War Stupid!

The latest issue of Reason (link apparently not available) has appeals from assorted Republicans, Democrats, and Libertarians on who deserves the votes of libertarians.

At a time when most Americans want to exit from Iraq, Terry Michael, the Democratic Party defender, hits the mark (at least rhetorically). He depicts the Democrats as the best hope"to keep the government out of the bedroom, and hopefully out of Iraq."

By contrast, William Redpath, in his brief for the Libertarian Party, says nothing at all about Iraq or even Bush's use of the WOT to launch an assault on civil liberties.

Instead, Redpath's top reason for voting LP is"electoral reform." Oy vey.

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Aeon J. Skoble - 11/6/2006

A brief reply on my alluding to, but not explaining, arguments I've made earlier on this blog: I do apologize; I realize the blog-appropriate norm would be for me to link to those prior posts when I make that sort of argument, and I didn't do that. My excuse is that I was blogging from home on a slow dial-up connection, which makes it hard to do pretty much anything. The good news is, I have ordered a broadband connection, so in another week or so perhaps I won't have this excuse anymore.
As to the rest of Gus's comment, a lot of that sounds agreeable to me, and I'm all for using force in Darfur. In fact, I'll bet the US troops in Iraq would welcome the change in venue! As to voting against the power: If I were to apply the vote-for-who's-not-in-power principle in this case, I'd have to vote for a Dem governor, and GOP congressman. But there's no chance of our incumbent congressman being ousted, so an LP protest vote might be in order. I don't think we have a senate race this year. As I said earlier, though, it's a mistake to think that by voting for Dems, we'll put an end to illiberal uses of the military and overseas adventurism. Ask Lyndon Johnson how that worked out.

Gus diZerega - 11/6/2006

Mark could be right here. Bush and his syncophants gave so many reasons for attacking that some may have come after, others before the invasion. I very vaguely remember arguing with some people - classical liberals I think - before the war that there was no chance in Hell Iraq would emerge from this a democracy. But perhaps it was later.

If this was truly an after the fact reason for attacking Iraq, then there were NO decent moral reasons of any sort to justify the attack. those who supported the invasion were immoral, irresponsible, or fools. Or perhaps all of the above.

Mark Brady - 11/6/2006

Gus writes, "While our government gave many reasons for attacking Iraq, the one that in my opinion had the most moral weight, and I would hope Skoble’s, was that it would strengthen the likelihood of democracy in the Middle East."

I have a question. Although, after the event, the U.S. government used the promotion of democracy in the Middle East as a rationale for attacking Iraq, where is the evidence that it gave this as a reason for doing so _prior to the event_?

Gus diZerega - 11/5/2006

I am happy to see we have some common ground – I’ll return to it at the end of this post.

But nowhere do I say or imply that Aeon is GOP. As to whether I am simply being ad hominem rather than passionate – I think my post offeredd more reasons in it by far than did his reply. This relpy will offer many more.

Earlier I had been told by some members of this list that Aeon now opposed the war. I gave him the benefit of the doubt. But apparently his position is more nuanced. We should have attacked - for his good reasons- but we should get out now. For other good reasons also left unstated. Since there are no reasons given in this post as to why he was right for wanting to attack and right for wanting to leave two years ago (which, I definitely agree, would have been better than our staying) that part of the thread appears to be at an end.

But if I guess at his reasons, it may lead us to the interesting issue of what role Hayek's thought plays in all this. My guess is perhaps Aeon's reasoning went like this: 1) Hussein is a murderous thug. 2) It is good to oust murderous thugs. 3) Once he is ousted, we should leave immediately.

That is coherent, but still flawed because it treats societies in a mechanistic way. Sort of like a malfunctioning auto engine: once the defective part is replaced we can expect better performance. If this is at all close to Aeon's reasons, then it can explain why he misunderstands Hayek.

Here we still have something to discuss that may be useful for the list as a whole.

Skoble suggests that the Hayekian reasoning used to oppose our attacking Iraq could as well be used to oppose the American Revolution or entering WWII. I disagree. Let’s see why.

These first two examples were in my opinion clearly cases of self-defense. (I do not want here to debate the interminable question on this list of whether we should have been involved in WWII. It is the principle more than the specific example that matters most for my purposes.) When we defend ourselves we obviously do not know what will happen next. There is plenty of room for unintended consequences as in fact there as in ANY human activity. We never know the full results of our actions. But when outside events impinge sufficiently hard, a response is necessary or the impinging will continue and in all reasonable probability, escalate.

Hayek’s point was different. He emphasized our relative ignorance of complex phenomena, such as markets and societies. Such complex orders exist by virtue of rules and customs that evolved within certain contexts where they can often play far more complex roles than meets the eye. But they have stood the test of time by virtue of surviving. This does not mean they are optimal, or even desirable, (a common unsympathetic and wrong headed misreading of Hayek) but it does mean that when we try and change them wisely we do so through piece meal action within the system. Societies are more like ecologies than they are like automobile engines.

Hayek also emphasized the likely undesirable results from attempts at large scale social planning and violent intervention overriding these internal kinds of adjustment. Unlike hard core libertarians, Hayek did not oppose all intervention by government, but if it occurred it should never seek to override the signals generated by spontaneous processes such as the market order. So, from a Hayekian perspective, forcible intervention to rebuild cultures was just about guaranteed to fail, and not only fail, to breed lots of unexpected problems quite likely to be worse than the problem the intervention was designed to address. Such intervention disrupts networks of local knowledge and adaptation that may serve very important goals.

While our government gave many reasons for attacking Iraq, the one that in my opinion had the most moral weight, and I would hope Skoble’s, was that it would strengthen the likelihood of democracy in the Middle East. But even a cursory knowledge of culture and history there indicated that was a very unlikely outcome. Iraqis did not have very much in the form of cultural habits to help create a free society. Such institutions can arise – and in several Asian nations a great deal of freedom has arisen as they have developed economically and in richness of civil institutions. I am thinking of South Korea and Taiwan. Iraq did not have these. I said at the time – before war began – that failure in these terms was virtually guaranteed. This line of argument differs drastically from Aeon’s account of Hayek.

There is more. While Robert Higgs and I have had run ins and may well again, he is right, as have been a long list of thinkers from as early as James Madison through Bourne and Arthur Ekirch and others, in holding that war is the health of the state considered as a hierarchy of rule. A war in Iraq would undermine democratic liberties here at home, as in fact it most certainly has. In many ways the Bush administration has launched a far more radical attack on our constitution than has any president in the lifetime of any one now alive.

But there is one other possibly legitimate reason in my view for attacking Iraq – to save lives. Perhaps this is what motivated Aeon to argue for the path of violence - that Hussein was a mass murderer, and had earlier murdered many thousands of his own people with gas after the first Gulf War. I have some sympathy for this argument. Unlike many on this list I support intervention to stop genocide and mass murder. But ONLY as it is happening. Aeon mentioned Rwanda. What about Dafur? Those crimes are happening now.

Saddam’s crimes of mass organized slaughter occurred under the presidency of Bush I, and had dwindled to simply the horrors of an ordinary brutal dictatorship by this time. Evil. Without justification. But not markedly different from the crimes of many others. Then was the time to intervene – while the murdering was going on.

Then, later, the argument arises that Hussein killed lots of his own people and so we should invade. That makes no sense unless you want to invade every dictatorship that ever killed lots of its own people. That is truly a silly notion at best. And is guaranteed to have a horrendous impact not only on the people invaded, it will have a horrible impact on us.

And needless to say, the sequence of events started by George Bush has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, many at American hands and bombs, others because of the social chaos and terror our actions made possible. Current war supoorters have a great deal of blood on their hands.

Perhaps Skoble and I would agree that we are justified in ending current genocides like that now happening in Dafur. Going in, killing the killers, perhaps arming the victims, and then leaving. And by using troops who volunteered for the mission. Many libertarians on this list would disagree. My reasons are ill suited to the time I have to post this argument and would take me away from Aeon's post. So I will not go there. I assume that Aeon, at least, will not attack me here.

But I would harbor no fantasies that we would build free societies in ending these crimes. All we would accomplish is leave more people alive to build whatever kind of society they can, given who they have to work with, give pause to future mass murderers, and undermine one of the most destructive contemporary doctrines of statism – that governments should be free to do whatever they want within their own borders.

Happily, Aeon finds some common ground in the principle that we simply vote for whomever is not in power. I am sympathetic to the principle. Very sympathetic. But my argument is not quite that.

The American system was built on a principle of approximate consensus, not majority rule. One of the deepest misunderstandings of our Founders' constitutional thought was in not appreciating this, an error common on left and right alike. When we have one party rule AND the party is relatively disciplined (ironically, a New Deal liberal ideal) our system of checks and balances breaks down. The Democrats under FDR never had that degree of unity, thank God. The Republicans today do, and do so under a man who would be Caesar. That is why our freedoms have never been threatened as they are today.

Aeon J. Skoble - 11/5/2006

As usual, Gus goes for the ad hominem, which in this case also creates the false impression that I'm GOP or that I think I was wrong, neither of which is correct. I can say now (and have been for at least 2 years) that the US should get of Iraq without it implying that the reasons I favored the campaign when it began are invalid. Hayekian appeals to unintended consequences, which Gus implies I'm unfamiliar with, could invoked regarding anything, and that doesn't mean that US entry in WWII was unwarranted, or that the Revolutionary War was unwarranted, or that we were right to ignore the Rwandan genocide.
My certainty that the Dems are lying doesn't require any armchair pyschoanalysis: it follows from the larger truth that politicians habitually lie. My point, and perhaps I wasn't expressing it clearly, was that the Dems only look good now because they're the opposition party. But to think that the Dems are a principled party of military nonaggression is delusional.
In any case, Gus makes a point towards the end of his comment that I think has some validity, the idea that a libertarina might want to consider always voting for whomever is not in power. That makes a kind of srategic sense, but let's not pretend that there's some inherent vices in the GOP which the Dems don't share, or that the Dems are a repository of virtue inaccessible to the GOP. A pox etc.

Mark Brady - 11/5/2006

There are two separate sets of questions being debated here.

One is whether a Democrat or Republican victory at the polls would be more or less likely to achieve a particular purpose, e.g., curtailing executive power, bringing U.S. troops home, promoting peace in the Middle East, etc., etc. I'm inclined to agree with Gus that a Democrat victory would be more likely to reign in some of the excesses of Republican rule. I'm not clear that it would be more likely to end U.S. intervention in Iraq. That may be coming--and quite soon--as James Baker and the older Republican establishment reassert control over the wayward George Bush, Jr. And I'm certainly not clear that the Democrats would seek to influence the Republican administration into taking a more even-handed approach to the Israel/Palestine question. So, although the hubris of the Republicans has become increasingly awful and is calling out for correction, I'm not persuaded that a Democrat victory would be much of a good thing.

The second question is how should a libertarian vote given that his or her vote will have absolutely no effect on the result in any race. The question of how libertarians should vote doesn't strike me as a sensible question--a lot less so than the questions of how libertarians should dress and what car they should drive. There, at least, their dollars determine what they receive in the marketplace.

Finally, even if one argues that had enough Greens switched their votes from Ralph Nader to Al Gore in 2000 so that Gore had defeated Bush, how would this have strengthened the values the Greens profess in the long run?

Gus diZerega - 11/4/2006

I am as unimpressed with Skoble's insights regarding the war today as I was back when he supported it against Hayekian arguments by people such as myself, who held such large scale attempts at social engineering would inevitably fail, and in the process kill many innocent people.

I and other critics have been shown to have been right. Sadly right.

Also it should have not been news to readers of this list that war is the health of the state and that NO libertarian has any reason to support an aggressive war. For those unclear as to the meaning of nonaggression, this point has also been substantiated. Initiating a chain of events where 650,000 or so killed, countless more maimed, and many tortured, is not defense. That so many self-described "libertarians" justified the war at one point says a lot about the intellectual vitality of libertarian and classical liberal principles - and what it says is not comforting.

While anti-war Democrats comprise only a part of the Democratic Party, and other Democrats are much less reliable, some leading Democrats do want us out now. They legitimate dissent. The Republicans by contrast seek to give the President the power to criminalize dissent.

I wonder whether Skoble's certainty Democrats are lying reflects his own irritation at having been so wrong about something so important? Or perhaps it simply reflects a new and unacknowledged acquisition of psychic power?

There is one other reason for supporting the Democrats. Our constitution, to the extent it works, relies on internal opposition to implement the separation of powers. Unless you are insane enough to not distinguish between democratic and undemocratic governments, it only makes sense to vote Democratic Tuesday. If they win they cannot pass legislation over the President's veto - and they can at least hold hearings where the thugs in the White House will have to testify under oath.

Libertarians who do not vote Democratic in this election - at least in places where there is a genuinely competitive election going on - are politically brain dead. They will do for their values what the Greens who voted for Nader did for theirs - that is, undermine them even worse than they already were.

David T. Beito - 11/4/2006

I agree with you that are probably lying. That's why I stressed the Democratic guy's argument was rhetorically better.

I'm not agnostic about the election but I can see an upside to any result on Tuesday (GOP is better on racial preferences, for example). Still, I prefer a Democratic victory because the hubris of the GOP has become unbearable and needs correction.

Aeon J. Skoble - 11/2/2006

Is it just Iraq, or illiberal uses of the war machine generally? If the former, then yes, the Dems might be a good choice -- not because they are more principled, but because this is a GOP war. The Dems have had no compunctions whatsoever about throwing the military's weight around when _they're_ in power. So if your concern is the latter, I see no evidence that the Dems are a better bet than the Reps. It shouldn't come as news to any contribtor to L&P that whichever party has the power will use it illiberally. So it's not clear why we should favor either one. I suppose one might argue that, whichever party is in power, we should support the other party (Marxism of the Groucho variety). But please, no nonsense about the pacifism of the dems. And as to my bedroom? The dems may leave my bedroom alone, but they won't leave my TV or computer alone. And they won't privatize social security either. Yes, I know the GOP hasn't done that yet either. My advice: if one of your two choices for congress is in favor of taking back the military power that congress has been slowly ceding to the executive over the last 50 years, vote that way. If he or she isn't, it won't make one bit of difference w.r.t. future military adventurism. Ditto w.r.t. the social security issue. Hmm, sounds like an argument in favor of LP voting -- I'm actually agnostic on that. Depends on the candidate I guess.

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