Blogs > Liberty and Power > Antiwar Libertarianism: Principled or Pragmatic?

Jul 29, 2004 3:42 am


Antiwar Libertarianism: Principled or Pragmatic?



[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Randy Barnett asks how non-aggression in interpersonal ethics translates into non-intervention in foreign policy. I'm largely in agreement with what Gene Healy says in response here, but let me add a few points. (Much of this I've said before, but it's worth saying again.)

I agree that the relationship is not of the straightforward form"if individuals shouldn't invade the boundaries of other individuals, then states shouldn't invade the boundaries of other states." For one thing, a state does not have the same kind of right over its boundaries that individuals have over their own boundaries. (Indeed it couldn't, so long as individuals with those sorts of rights exist within the state's borders.)

Indeed, I would go farther. Since I regard states as inherently illegitimate and criminal organisations, I would say that a state has no rights at all; thus it has neither a right to invade nor a right not to be invaded.

Still, we can ask what we as citizens have a right to try to get the state to do. So long as we are ruled by states, and until we can succeed in shutting them down for good, we are justified in trying to direct them toward activities that protect rights rather than violate them. Hence we are within our rights to call the cops or lobby our legislators, even if those cops and those legislators have no right to hold the positions they hold.

So why isn't it legitimate for citizens to direct their government's armed forces to invade dictatorships and liberate the people there? Why isn't that like calling the cops when you hear screams coming from next door?

I think there are two chief points of disanalogy. First: although invading a dictatorship is not per se a violation of rights, realistically the way the state is going to handle such an invasion will involve massive violence against innocent civilians. This is not merely a prudential objection to interventionism (though it is at least that -- creating more recruits for our enemies is hardly in our interest); directing the state to behave in such an enormously rights-violating manner is itself a violation of the non-aggression principle. (For the limited scope of permissible" collateral damage," see here and here. Anyway, I'm not just talking about" collateral damage"; given the incentive structures involved in state systems, sending the armed state into a territory is a sure recipe for deliberate rights-violations. The Abu Ghraib scandal was not an"anomaly"; it was the state manifesting its essential character.)

Second: war is the health of the state -- that is, given how states actually operate, calling for military expansion means calling for the state to augment its power here at home. This means not only the increased taxation that Gene talks about, but also the eroding of civil liberties, and the fueling of the neofascist corporatism that Chris Sciabarra and Arthur Silber have explained so well. Citizens who urge their governments to engage in military interventions are calling for more rights-violations, not only abroad but at home.

Bentham rightly characterised war as"robbery, having murder for its instrument ... operating upon the largest possible scale ... committed by the ruling few in the conquering nation, on the subject many in both nations." Does war necessarily have to take this form? Not at all; there are ways of conducting military operations that avoid these problems. But states by their nature will not conduct military operations in that way. Hence as libertarians we run the risk of violating the non-aggression principle if we direct our states into war.

I might be asked: don't these arguments apply just as much to defensive as to invasive military action? I think they do apply to defensive action also -- but not"just as much": fewer foreign civilians will be killed in a purely defensive war, the lower costs of defense mean a lower tax burden, and the absence of prospects for plunder will moderate the neofascist aspects. On the other hand, admittedly, governments will probably curtail civil liberties even more in a defensive than in an invasive war. More importantly, however, the question really does not arise as to whether libertarians should favour military action in such a case, because there is simply zero chance of the state's forgoing military action in the case of a direct attack, and so there would be no point in libertarians agitating for military action. It is only in the case of interventionism that the issue of what libertarians should support even arises.

Randy will presumably say that even if my case for noninterventionism is sound, it is merely a"pragmatic judgment of the sorts of rightful actions that will or will not yield good consequences" and"does not follow from Libertarian principles." I disagree. The problem with sending the state to war is not just that doing so has bad consequences, but that the bad consequences are rights-violations. So for me, at any rate, the case against military intervention is an application of the nonaggression principle (though I think purely consequentialist considerations would also tell against such intervention). Nor am I simply claiming that a policy of nonintervention"indirectly leads better to the protection of rights than alternative policies." I don't see rights as something whose protection should be maximised (which would allow trade-offs whereby more rights protected over here makes up for a few rights being violated over there) but as side-constraints (Ă  la Nozick) to be respected. The nonaggression principle is not a call to decrease the total amount of aggression in the universe by whatever means necessary; it is a call to refrain from aggression oneself. It is addressed to the individual human soul, not to some mythical central planning board with authority to dispose of human lives at will.

One further point in closing. I speak here for myself, not necessarily for other antiwar libertarians. Many antiwar libertarians take their positions for primarily consequentialist reasons; and many libertarians who opposed the invasion of Iraq favoured the invasion of Afghanistan (which I opposed). So they shouldn’t all be tarred with the brush of my extreme deontological views! (Strictly speaking, my views are really virtue-ethical rather than deontological, but that's a long story.)
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