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Jul 19, 2007 10:45 am


Ahistorical "Libertarian" Warmongers



Legal scholar Randy Barnett wrote in the Wall Street Journal yesterday that one can be a libertarian and also support the war in Iraq. (Judge for yourself: "Libertarians and the War.") Much could be said about this woeful article. But I'll touch on just one point for now.

Nowhere in Barnett’s article does one find a hint that the leading, pioneering classical liberals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not just skeptical of the government’s war-making power; rather they were forthrightly antiwar, anti-empire, and pro-peace. These include Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, John Bright, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, and William Graham Sumner. This is no coincidence. These men were not ivory-tower theorists; they were historians as well as keen observers of contemporary events, applying libertarian principles to the historical conduct of politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats. It was Sumner, echoing many before him, who pointed out that"national defense" means"war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery." The liberals unfailingly understood that war meant the mass murder of innocents and regimentation at home. Nothing is easier for a politician than conjuring up a"self-defense" justification for war, but the great classical liberals would have nothing to do with it. For one thing, they realized that the self-defense analogy is bogus. When an individual defends himself, he does not tax others to help him, conscript others, or bomb the attacker's friends and family, who may be completely innocent of wrongdoing. The state is not an individual. The rules are different.

I think this gets at an underlying flaw in Barnett’s case. He, like others, approaches libertarianism in a hyper-rationalistic, ahistorical way. If in his view a policy position cannot be reached deductively from libertarian first principles, he concludes that libertarianism per se has nothing to say about it. But his method is wrong. Libertarianism isn’t purely an a priori theory. It's a set of insights about human beings and a unique historical institution -- the state -- insights produced by centuries of experience. Libertarianism properly conceived is an interplay of theory and history, neither ever losing sight of the other. It is, as Chris Sciabarra notes, dialectical.

Barnett curiously combines his simplistic a priori approach to libertarianism with a vulgar dilettantism regarding current events void of detailed knowledge about the U.S. government’s conduct in the world for at least the last 50 years. That is what allows him to blithely proclaim that there is no libertarian position on a war against a country that posed no threat to the American people and that was run by a former agent of American presidents. That's why he takes George Bush's pronouncements and policy seriously.

And why are libertarian such as Barnett comfortable with this dubious methodology with respect to foreign policy? Because not far below the surface, they are nationalists. The nation is still a special unit of emotional value -- particularly the U.S. There's an implicit theory of exceptionalism here too. That accounts for their lack of interest in the history of U.S. intervention.

Cross-posted at Free Association.

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Sheldon Richman - 7/20/2007

I took "armchair" to mean a prioristic theorizing. See my other comment. Don't get me started on medical marijuana. It is not a step toward liberty, but an intensification of the Therapeutic State.


Sheldon Richman - 7/20/2007

Thanks, Jule. Here's the line that should really infuriate libertarians: "[L]ibertarian first principles of individual rights and the rule of law tell us little about what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack."

As I said elsewhere, "But they sure as hell tell us what constitutes inappropriate 'self-defense' after an attack. Such as: don't commit mass murder, don't destroy a people's infrastructure so they will die of starvation and disease, and don't violate the rights of the people allegedly being defended. The principles also provide guidance in how to avoid attacks and the need for self-defense in the first place. Such as: Don't prop up and arm dictators, don't overthrow elected regimes, don't aid those who oppress others, don't go out of your way to acquire enemies, etc. etc. etc."


Keith Halderman - 7/19/2007

Yes he did argue the medical marijuana case but not from a self-ownership prospective but rather from a state's rights one. Mind you I am not criticizing Barnett for this because given the make up of the court this line of attack probably had the most chance of success. However, I do not think his actions in the matter provide a very strong case for his libertarianism.


Jule R. Herbert - 7/19/2007

Would you prefer "quixotic"? Strike that. I very much admire Randy's work in that cause. There is great value in forcing the Supremes to opine that there is indeed no "commerce" component to the "commerce clause."


Aeon J. Skoble - 7/19/2007

In what sense is Randy "armchair" and not "pragmatic"? He argued the medical marijuana case _before the Supreme Court_, for crying out loud.


Jule R. Herbert - 7/19/2007

Sheldon: You nailed the proper analysis without being nasty. It is the "armchair" variety of libertarianism that fails to see the practical realities in the world. Then when they get "pragmatic," they abandon libertarianism altogether. One is reminded of Rothbard's critique of Greenspan's support of laissez-faire -- but only at a "high philosophical" level.


matt zwolinski - 7/19/2007

2 Comments Close this window Jump to comment form
Matt said...
I was waiting for you to comment when I saw the article. I am glad you did.

8:03 AM


mzwolinski said...
Hi Sheldon,

I think that's a nice insight about dialectical vs. a priori views of libertarianism. In my own discipline, philosophy, libertarianism is almost universally identified with Robert Nozick, and hence with the set of propositions that can be deduced, a priori, from self-ownership. Of course, almost *nothing* of interest can be deduced a priori from self-ownership. (What, after all, does self-ownership tell us about riparian rights?) And so libertarianism as a philosophical doctrine is dismissed.

Like you, then I think it's much better to see libetarianism as a set of policy recommendations that are grounded in a whole host of consideratinos - some a priori commitments to the value of self-ownership, some empircally grounded economic considerations, some historical, etc. It's the diversity of reasons that can be brought to libertarianism's defense that makes the theory as rich as it is.


Bill Woolsey - 7/19/2007

Yesterday, I brought the WSJ home so that my wife could read the article. Her only comment was "I didn't know that there were any pro-war libertarians,"... but that was a joke. Sadly, we discovered some Guliani supports at a recent meeting of our local Bastiat society.

However, while she was reading, I had some positive thoughts about Barnett.

Articles about libertarianism don't appear very often in such important venues. That was good.

Second, I believe he gave a pretty fair explanation as to why many libertarians opposed the war in Iraq and favor withdrawal. Sure, more could be said, but he didn't build up a strawman to attack.

You know, the portion of his argument explaining why most libertarians oppose the war is one of the best explanations to appear as an oped piece in the WSJ on why the war was a bad idea!

And...maybe...being embedded in a "pro-war" article..maybe the arguments would be read and comprehended.

Think about it. I read the article, and I see good reasons to oppose the war, and this implausible fantasy explaining why it should be supported.

Regardless of what Barnett intended..this is a great anti-war article placed in a very pro-war
venue.

Still, further, it might actually reach people who are leaning against the war now. We know there are many people like that, of course. And, it might help people who have turned against the war now, come to have a better understanding of why it was a bad idea.

So, ignoring whether or not one can be a libertarian and still hope that the surge will succeed and.... I don't know.. the pro-Iranian Shia rule without Sunni opposition.. (Yes.. it is so delusional..)

But ignoring that, I am pleased with the article and really don't see the key message of some libertarians can be delusional as much of a downside.



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