Are Libertarians Guilty of 'the Kitty Genovese Syndrome'?

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by Gene Callahan by Gene Callahan

Libertarians who consistently oppose American military interventionism are sometimes accused of selfishly being concerned only about their own liberty. They are wrong, their critics say, to ignore the plight of people suffering under tyrannical regimes in other nations. (I will ignore the assertion, which might be made by some followers of Ayn Rand, that it is entirely moral to be selfishly concerned primarily with one’s own liberty. While it is worth addressing, I don’t want to do so here. I will engage the interventionist’s argument on its own terms, rather than trying to dispute its premises.)

“Shouldn’t those who support liberty,” the argument goes, “be in favor of any US military operations that will increase the freedom of people in other countries? Why should advocacy of liberty stop at national borders?”

There is, of course, a relevant practical question concerning wars intended to liberate others, namely, will they achieve the desired result? It is not at all obvious how to answer it in advance of any particular, proposed campaign. After all, a number of US interventions have not resulted in a clear increase in the freedom of the people they were intended to help. The Haitian adventure of the 1990s is a recent example. However, not wanting to be sidetracked into such a complex issue, I will once again simply grant interventionists their premise, and assume that they have found a case where American military action in some country will almost certainly increase the freedom of most of its residents.

Are non-interventionist libertarians morally obtuse to oppose such an action? The case for answering “yes” was recently made using a pointed analogy, by a blogger known as “Tacitus”:

“[I]t is… enough [to justify a US war against certain foreign organizations] that they are, by any objective standard, barbarous and evil, and perpetrating their monstrous crimes upon innocents. In my book, that merits my active opposition. I know that libertarians like [Jim] Henley [of Unqualified Offerings] disagree: in their book, foreign policy must be run strictly on the Kitty Genovese principle. Which has the advantage of being simple and easy to apply, for sure. When you see the dead neighbor, though, it tends to tax the conscience.”

(If you are not familiar with the famous incident involving Kitty Genovese, you can follow the link above, or accept my brief summary: Kitty was a victim of a horrible, criminal attack, which ultimately killed her. Many of her neighbors were aware that she was in distress, and might have been able to stop the attack, but none came to her aid.)

Tacitus offers a vivid rendering of the general indictment against libertarian non-interventionists. Furthermore, both his analogy and the indictment itself are crippled by the same fundamental flaw. Therefore, I will employ the analogy in rebutting the indictment.

In the case of the attack on Kitty Genovese, a number of people saw her being brutally victimized, but failed to do anything to help her. Is opposition to the US invasion of a country where the people are oppressed by some despot the moral equivalent of Kitty’s neighbors ignoring her cries for help?

To answer that question, we should consider what will transpire if some person, out of sympathy for the oppressed citizens of Ruritania, successfully prompts the US government to invade that nation. Does the interventionist himself rush off to Ruritania liberate the people? In the infrequent case that he is on active military duty, he just might. However, generally speaking, he has no intention of going anywhere near the place during the war. Does he sacrifice his own resources to help liberate the Ruritanians? To the extent that his taxes might go up a bit to help pay for the war, he does to a very minor extent. But basically what an interventionist does is to encourage his government to forcibly extract resources from a bunch of other people, whether or not they share his belief in the morality or likely effectiveness of the proposed intervention. The government will then use the resources it has seized to send yet another group of people off to risk their lives attempting to free the Ruritanians, the folks for whom the interventionist has so much compassion.

Those of us who are opposed to the US launching “wars of liberation” might be forgiven if we declare that we would have more faith in the depth of the interventionist’s concern if he were putting his own life, or at least his own money, on the line. If Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Michael Ledeen, Tacitus, and others who share their views want to privately raise funds for a volunteer army to help liberate Iran, North Korea, or Zimbabwe – indeed, if they wish to go fight in such places themselves – I cannot imagine any libertarian objecting on principle.

What libertarians do oppose is the interventionists’ desire to coerce others into aiding their schemes. Even someone who sincerely believes that all people in the world are entitled to full liberty will only have limited resources to devote to that cause. Since no one else knows an individual’s “particular circumstances of time and place” as well as he himself does, he is usually the best judge of where he should expend his efforts. For some people, the answer might be Cuba, or Libya, or Saudi Arabia. As for me, I plan to work for expanding freedom right here in the US. After all, as the old saying goes, charity begins at home.

February 20, 2004

Gene Callahan [send him mail], the author of Economics for Real People, is an adjunct scholar of the Ludwig von Mises Institute and a contributing columnist to

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