Libertarian Warmongers

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The argument used by most warmongers in the present day comes down to the claim that if we don’t kick Saddam’s butt first, he will do just that to us, first. Sometimes this is stated more formally along the following lines:

It would be a dereliction of duty for the U.S. government not to invade Iraq, since if we do not, that country will unleash its weapons of mass destruction at us.

There are several problems with this way of viewing the world.

First of all, we have already "kicked Saddam’s butt" in the first Iraqi war, under Bush the Elder. We continue to do so with our "no fly zone" policy, and our interference with that country’s trade. Saddam need not argue that the U.S. might attack him; America has already done so, and threatens to do so once again.

Secondly, throughout all of history there has never been a dictatorial aggressor, a mass murderer, who could not have agreed with this preemptive strike sentiment, and enthusiastically so. Consider Stalin as an example. Is there any doubt he could not have resorted to this sort of defense with regard to Hitler? And the reverse, of course, is equally true. Each of these "worthies" could argue that the other might attack him, and therefore he would be justified in invading the other, first.

Next, consider Attila the Hun’s incursion against his neighboring tribes. Even though, we may posit, they did not threaten him, still, they were capable in principle of doing physical harm to him. Could Attila not have subscribed to the notion that since these other peoples might harm him, he was justified in a preemptive strike? To ask this is to answer it.

Let us move from the international to a local scenario, to see how this sort of thinking might play out. Suppose there are two men walking toward each other on the street. All of a sudden, without any provocation from the latter, A hauls off and punches B in the nose. When questioned about his behavior, A replies, "Well, B might have molested me first. The violence I employed was thus justified as a purely defensive measure." Even Jack the Ripper could have hidden behind such a "defense." After all, those women he murdered might conceivably have done him a physical harm. At least it does not constitute a logical contradiction to suppose so.

This sort of thinking, it should be obvious, is a recipe for disaster. It is an utter conflation of offense and defense. If the libertarian notion of non-aggression against non-aggressors is to make any sense at all, then surely there must be a distinction between the two concepts. If we cannot even in principle distinguish between offense and defense, our political philosophy is incoherent.

But of course we can. In order for defensive violence to be justified, the person against whom we are acting must have at least threatened us; even more clearly, he must be in the early stages of launching an attack upon us.

If he is doing none of these things, then to launch aggression against him is unjustified, at least based on the libertarian code.

It cannot be denied that Saddam had previously utilized aggression against Kuwait. But what has that to do with the U.S.? Where is it written that America should be the world’s policeman? And if it is justified for the U.S. to take on this role of protector of the known universe, this would also apply to other countries.

But that is the last thing that we as libertarians should want, for this is a recipe for almost total disaster. For the libertarian anarchist, government is always and ever an affront. Even for the libertarian minarchist, this description applies to the state when it exceeds its proper and very limited bounds. Given that government is a catastrophe always and ever just waiting to explode, the last thing we want is for them to mix it up with each other. If we have to have institutions that are exercises in initiatory violence, and, it appears, we must, then at least let us all bend our efforts to keep them away from each other. They are like scorpions, and we don’t want to put two or more scorpions in a bottle, and then shake that bottle up, especially if the rest of us have to live in that bottle, too.

The proper role for the state, according to even the limited government libertarian, is to have this institution protect the rights only of its citizens. Invading Iraq to punish it for its rights violations in Kuwait is to violate the first of these strictures. In this philosophy, further, the government can only protect its citizens when they are located within its own territory. For example, if a Canadian citizen visits Japan, and his rights are violated there, then it is the Japanese government, not the Canadian, which must put matters right. If Canada attempted to do so, there would be overlapping sovereignties: both countries would claim to be sovereign in a given geographical area. Canada should limit its protection of its tourists abroad to telling them that they travel at their own risk. But when any given country attempts to police the world, this is precisely the result: overlapping sovereignties, a recipe for disaster.

These remarks will appear to non-libertarians as drivel, or as misbegotten, or as hopelessly misleading. But how will they appear to libertarians, particularly those who advocate U.S. adventurism all around the world? This is a nonsense question, insofar as those who favor U.S. imperialism cannot properly be considered libertarians. They may favor the elimination of rent control, tariffs, minimum wages, subsidies to business, welfare and all other such violations in the economic sphere; they may argue for rescinding laws which prohibit victimless crimes such as prostitution, pornography, gambling, using addictive drugs, etc. But unless and until they favor a strictly non-interventionist foreign policy, one limited to self-defense, they cannot be considered libertarians.

Dr. Block [send him mail] is a professor of economics at Loyola University New Orleans. See his Autobiography Archive.

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