Are Pro-War Libertarians Right?

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In response to a letter from a pro-war libertarian discussion group. Ed.

Dear John,

My little essay "Some Are Weeping, Some Are Not" is scarcely an "argument" in any strict sense. It is an invitation for people to face squarely some of the consequences of what the US government has done in its invasion of Iraq. Evidently, my invitation touched a raw nerve in many people, because I have been receiving a good deal of hostile mail in regard to it. Setting aside all those who dismiss it (and me) on Neanderthal grounds, the thrust of this mail is in large part along the lines of the summary statement you sent me, as follows:

"There were hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, including children, who were imprisoned, tortured, maimed, and killed by Saddam’s regime. Further, such rights violations would’ve continued had his regime been allowed to continue. You can’t ignore all this without rendering your arguments hollow."

In response, I would emphasize at the outset that it is wrong to take actions that kill and maim innocent people. Period. It’s just wrong, whether one’s ideological outlook be libertarian or anything else half civilized. The best face one might put on taking such actions is that by committing these wrongs even greater wrongs will be prevented. In the present case, making such a judgment with anything approaching well-grounded assurance calls for powers that none of us possesses.

Pierre Lemieux, I believe, already has posted to your list some of the standard objections to utilitarianism that apply in the present case. How does anybody know, for example, what the future harms caused to innocent parties by Saddam and his henchmen would have been, or that those harms, somehow properly weighted and discounted, are greater than the harms caused by the US armed forces in their invasion of Iraq? Such judgments turn on both factual speculations and on subjective weightings that are, at best, open to serious question. Here in the United States, far from the scene and subject to constant bombardment by government and media disinformation, people are extremely ill-placed to arrive at well-informed judgments about Iraq in any event.

How do we know that, now that the old Iraqi regime has been chased away, the harms supposedly prevented will not actually take place under a new regime? Have all the cruel people who populated Iraq in times past simply evaporated? I scarcely think so. It is entirely possible that new crimes will continue to be perpetrated against innocent parties in Iraq. In fact, I will bet on it with heavy odds. Moreover, the occupying US forces already seem to have fallen into a pattern of shooting down members of crowds — some of them children — protesting the US presence: thus, new wrongs continue to be piled atop the previous ones daily, and in all likelihood they will continue to be so piled for years to come. Odd, Saddam is gone, but not all is sweetness and light in Iraq.

Suppose, for purposes of argument, one conceded that removal of the old Iraqi regime was a moral action, all things being considered. From this assumption, it does not follow that any and all actions purportedly taken in the service of the ostensible goal are themselves morally unimpeachable. Scattering cluster bomblets about areas inhabited by civilians, for example, was inexcusable: doing so was in no way necessary to oust Saddam’s government. Nor was the use of very-high-explosive bombs (2000 pounds and bigger) in densely populated urban areas a means one can defend morally. With but a modicum of thought, one can think of all sorts of ways in which the United States could have overthrown Saddam’s regime without wreaking nearly so much harm to innocents. The government keeps telling us how careful and humane it has been in its military operations in Iraq, but this official line is contemptible propaganda. Nor should the government be excused for its crimes merely because other governments on other occasions have behaved even more egregiously (for example, the US government in its first war against Iraq in 1991). The not-so-bad-as-Dresden-or-Nagasaki test is, shall we say, not a very exacting one.

For some people, the concession that the old Iraqi regime ought to have been removed is sufficient to justify everything done under the rubric of "making war." But uttering the incantation "war" does nothing to remove one’s actions from applicable moral strictures. Whatever is wrong in peace is wrong in war. This maxim in no way constitutes a refusal to see that in wars "hard choices" must be made. Hard choices always must be made. Human beings have developed moral codes precisely because they need guidance in making such choices. When governments go to war, they want their subjects to set aside everything they have believed about morality and to substitute a slavish acceptance of whatever the government pronounces necessary in order to "win the war." I have been appalled to see how many libertarians, of all people, have fallen for this government manipulation during the past year and a half. Better than others, libertarians ought to appreciate that war has been the health of the state, including the US state, and that all such wars constitute, directly and indirectly in countless ways, further steps toward our own continuing enslavement.

Finally, I would merely point out again that my little essay sought also to vivify the contrast between the sufferings of the innocents in Iraq and the blessings now being enjoyed by Bush and company, who engineered these horrors. If the situation truly had been a tragic one in which great wrongs had to be done in order to prevent even greater wrongs, then the only humane sentiment to carry away from the event is one of profound sadness, because, after all, no matter what the seeming justification, one has committed great wrongs. Bush, Rumsfeld, Cheney, and the rest of the gang, however, are not overcome with sorrow. They are now out yucking it up with the fat cats on the campaign trail. One needs to face these concrete realities; war is not about abstractions. Now that its first phase has ended, some human beings are mourning, but others are doing just dandy. People ought to think about that situation, and about the fact that the doing-dandy crowd consists precisely of the people whose actions brought about the deaths and injuries for which others are mourning.

This morning’s paper (5/1/03) quotes a statement made to reporters by Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the US viceroy of Iraq, as follows: "You all are reporting a lot about some demonstrations, and yeah, there’s some demonstrations. . . . [But] Damn, fellas, we ought to be beating our chests every morning. We ought to look in the mirror and get proud and suck in our bellies and stick out our chests and say, ‘Damn, we’re Americans,’ and smile." In the circumstances, if this is not obscene, then obscenity does not exist.

Robert Higgs [send him mail] is senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, editor of The Independent Review, and author of Crisis and Leviathan and the editor of Arms, Politics, and the Economy.

This summer Professor Higgs will teach a seminar at the Mises Institute on “Crisis and Liberty: The Expansion of Government Power in American History.”

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