Blogs > Liberty and Power > Not Borders, nor Wilkinson, nor pacifists

Sep 10, 2004 5:34 pm


Not Borders, nor Wilkinson, nor pacifists



With all due respect to your headline-writing skills, David, Max Borders doesn’t represent “the” libertarian hawk position. First of all, there probably isn’t just one, and second of all, Borders isn’t IMO making the clearest case. What’s that, Chris, you want me to elaborate? Ok.

I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the Borders piece, but neither was I satisfied with the Will Wilkinson piece David just mentioned, plus one of my colleagues here at BSC was on this subject today, so I guess I’ll have to reply to everyone all at once.

I’ve been known to express hawkish sentiments from time to time, but I would dissent from Borders’ analysis. My main disagreement with Borders is the insistence that rights are contractarian fictions, which is established partly by contrasting social-contract theory with a straw-man version of natural rights: “We get rights by virtue of some sort of social contract, not from our Creator….’rights’ as such, are not some Cartesian substance that animates the body in the manner of a soul.” Well, sure, if “natural rights” means that, I guess contractarianism looks pretty good. But this analysis ignores another approach to natural rights, the neo-Aristotelian. On that view, the “natural” in “natural rights” refers to human nature, the requirements of a human life and the necessary conditions of human flourishing. However, perhaps the argument for hawkishness doesn’t hinge on which strategy one employs to derive a theory of rights.

I’d also be a lot more comfortable if Borders would not be so fond of the definite article. Libertarian hawks aren’t one single thing with a monolithic view. “The libertarian hawk takes her cues from Hobbes, not Locke” Huh? I don’t. America’s most famous libertarian hawk, Thomas Jefferson, didn’t either. Jefferson’s arguments in the Declaration of Independence, and in his essay on“the Necessity of Taking Up Arms”, are wholly within the Lockean perspective. My long essay on this will appear in December or January, along with Roderick’s contrary piece, from the symposium I mentioned above, but the short version might go something like this: We have rights prior to any political structures. Political structures maintain power through force, which much be justified by consent. Consent can only be legitimately given if the power-structure which is being consented to protects rights. A regime which is rights-abusive has no legitimacy, which means that its use of force to protect itself is also illegitimate. That means that it may be overthrown, by force if necessary. That was the rationale for the use of force by the colonists against Great Britain, and that might also serve as a rationale for overthrowing any dictatorship. Wilkinson’s main objection (and this seems to be the view of some of my co-bloggers) seems to be that American taxpayers shouldn’t have to pony up the cash to pick up the tab for overthrowing someone else’s dictator. Well, that’s true – but then, from a radical libertarian perspective, American taxpayers shouldn’t have to pony up the cash to pick up the tab for anything if they don’t want to. Saying the overthrow of Saddam wasn’t obligatory doesn’t mean it was unjustified. (Deontic logic, people!) An act may be permissible but nonobligatory. A subcategory within that group is the supererogatory. Maybe the Iraq war was one of these. It didn’t violate the rights of American taxpayers any more than anything else they spend our money on. It certainly didn’t violate the rights of the Baathist regime there. Ditto terrorists: Wilkinson writes “the fact that there are terrorists, murderers, and illegitimate regimes out there who have forfeited some or all of their moral standing does not begin to imply that the United States of America may swoop in and see that justice is done.” Sure it does – anyone may. Whether it’s mandatory, or prudent, are separate questions. But libertarians who prefer the “letters of marque” approach need Wilkinson to be wrong here just as much as the Pentagon does.

My colleague here criticizes Borders for implying that “the new White Man’s Burden is to coax (with pre-emptive tough love where appropriate) those outside our charmed circle of civilization and contractual liberties into sharing our worldview.” But who’s being the neocolonialist here? A human rights view must by definition be a universalist view. If there’s any such thing as natural rights/human rights, then Iraqis have them too, which means they are just as entitled as the American colonists to be rid of a tyrant and to institute small-d, small-r democratic republics. One difference between the American colonists and the Iraqis under Saddam, though, was the whole extensive terror/secret police/disarmed populace/mass graves/poison gas thing, which King George hadn’t thought of. Under those conditions, it’s plausible that they might need help to be rid of the tyrant (as, to be honest, so did we).

My colleague further expresses skepticism about libertarian hawkishness on the grounds that it’s “freedom for me but not for thee.” But it doesn’t have to be that way. Were the Japanese more free in 1938, or in 1948? The Germans? It’s “freedom for me but not for thee” with respect to Baathists and Nazis, just like it’s “freedom for me but not for thee” for any criminal. The general population in Iraq and in Germany, though, are just as entitled to freedom as we are.

Is the current administration entirely committed to maximizing individual liberty? No. Is it actively subversive of liberty via the Patriot Act? Yes. Is it predominantly interested in maintaining and expanding its own power (as would be the opposition, if elected)? Yes. But it doesn’t follow from any of that that everything it does is illegitimate, broken clocks and all that.

Now let’s see whether this comments thread can break the record set by the sci-fi thread.


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Aeon J. Skoble - 9/13/2004

Yes, and I'm not saying that it's always right to be hawkish either -- what got my hackles up was Borders' pronouncement that "the" libertarian hawk was a contractarian and Hobbesian, as if it weren't possible to have some other philosophical understructure.


David T. Beito - 9/12/2004

Much as I hate to admit it Thomas Paine (one of my favorite classical liberals) was very much a natural rights Lockean hawk. By the last years of his life, he was urging the U.S. to use its power to promote liberty throughout the world.

This had some unsavory aspects, however. Paine wrote to Napoleon offering his help to invade England to carry out this plan.....showing perhaps that international power politics will ultimately trump ethical considerations. Still, Paine's proposed foreign policy was based on Lockean justifications.


Aeon J. Skoble - 9/11/2004

Will Wilkinson emailed to tell me that he tried to reply here, but couldn't for some tech reason. But he has posted a reply on his blog (linked on the blogroll), so interested parties should check that out. Also, my anonymous colleague sent me reply. I will surely reply to all comments, but likely not til Monday. I'm basically a weekday blogger - that's when I'm at my desk, with T1 access. I guess next time I feel like posting something controversial, I shouldn't wait til Friday afternoon! Anyway, keep the comments coming, I'll engage eventually.


Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 9/11/2004

Aeon writes: "What’s that, Chris, you want me to elaborate? Ok."

Some people just know me too well. :)

In principle, there is not much for this "antiwar" libertarian to disagree with here. I do agree that "Libertarian hawks aren’t one single thing with a monolithic view." I'd apply the same maxim to those of us on the other side of the divide. There are enormous differences among my "antiwar" colleagues, as has been illustrated right here at HNN.

Aeon writes: "Is the current administration entirely committed to maximizing individual liberty? No. Is it actively subversive of liberty via the Patriot Act? Yes. Is it predominantly interested in maintaining and expanding its own power (as would be the opposition, if elected)? Yes. But it doesn’t follow from any of that that everything it does is illegitimate, broken clocks and all that."

This is partially what I argued here and here; the simple fact is that the state-centered system that all of us oppose exists; it isn't going away, and those of us who think it is possible to act as if that system didn't exist are living in an illusion. Just because everything can't be changed doesn't mean that nothing can be done in response to an attack.

But because of all the internal contradictions of this system, we are obliged to be very careful in the kinds of actions we advocate. Yes, of course, "[t]he general population in Iraq and in Germany ... are just as entitled to freedom as we are." But how freedom comes to these general populations is a profoundly important strategic question. There are enormous differences between the current context of Iraq and the historical context of post-war Japan and Germany, both of which were utterly destroyed by total war, but which still retained a uniform culture, with some democratic antecedents. And these differences, bursting with Hayekian unintended consequences, led many of us, who formerly favored military action in Afghanistan, to oppose it in Iraq.

Aeon is wrong about one thing; there's no way "this comments thread can break the record set" by the sci-fi one. I suspect that's because sci-fi was a blast of the new, whereas the subject of this war has been beaten to death. More to come, no doubt, as the nation mourns on the third anniversary of the horrific 9/11 attacks.


John Arthur Shaffer - 9/10/2004

What about the Arab proverb, "Better 100 years of tyranny than one night of anarchy."

Maybe they don't value freedom above all else, whether we think they should or whether we think they're entitled to it. The country is in utter chaos now and it's hard to see how it gets any better from here. A system of freedom cannot just be imposed by a colonial occupier.