The Contradictions of Libertarian Interventionism

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One of the
principal controversies within libertarianism at the moment is the
question of whether supporters of the Iraq War and similar attempts
at forcible democratization can still be libertarians. This sort
of thing is not new, of course – controversies have raged over
whether pro-lifers, supporters of immigration controls, death penalty
supporters, or minarchists are really libertarian. The war issue,
however, has taken center stage, with many opponents of the war
saying that supporters of the war are not real libertarians, and
many supporters of the war condemning “purists” for supposedly having
too narrow a view of libertarianism.

There are
a wide variety of ideas about culture, constitutional structure,
and moral philosophy that can fit under the category of “libertarianism.”
However, there are ideas that, while not logically incompatible
with libertarianism, are so likely to cause unlibertarian results
that they might as well be. Call these ideas and their holders “effectively
nonlibertarian.” For instance, it is conceivable for a government
with no checks and balances, no separation of powers, no limits
on state action, and no constitutionally guaranteed rights to nonetheless
be absolutely respectful of libertarian rights. (If you’re an anarchocapitalist,
assume for the sake of the example that this is in fact possible
under minarchy.) It is, however, so improbable that it would not
be unfair to say that a person who advocates such a regime is effectively
nonlibertarian, even if he believes that this unrestrained government
should refrain from violating libertarian rights.

Such, I
would argue, is the case with libertarian interventionists. If minarchists
like Ayn Rand, Ludwig von Mises, and Frdric Bastiat are libertarians,
and they obviously are, than it is possible (though mistaken, in
my opinion) for a libertarian to believe that a certain amount of
state coercion is a necessary and acceptable method for preventing
even greater rights violations. Thus, it is in principle
possible for an interventionist to be a libertarian. Having the
state overthrow tyrants abroad, interventionists often argue, is
just an extension of having the state stop crimes against life and
property at home, and thus is not logically incompatible with libertarianism.

But in
practice, how likely is it that a libertarian government that repeatedly
started aggressive wars to liberate foreign countries would stay
libertarian? Would an aggressive state be able to maintain the political
and cultural values that support freedom? Most obviously, war has
historically been the best way for the government to justify increases
in its power. The state feeds on the fear of the people, and nothing
is more frightening than war and the terrorism that it often helps
to fuel. It is worth noting that even many libertarian-leaning people
are willing to tolerate wartime encroachments on liberty that they
would balk at in peacetime. Engaging in frequent wars of “liberation”
would make this state continuous, until “temporary” wartime measures
become part of the normal fabric of life.

War is expensive.
The “liberation” of a single nation, Iraq, is already projected
to cost over one trillion dollars, and Iraq was an easy target,
with only the pathetic wreckage of an army, by the time America
invaded in 2003. Making such wars of liberation a habit, and most
likely having to continue garrisoning our new allies to prevent
a collapse into chaos or renewed despotism, would necessitate an
ever-greater military budget, and thus greater and greater taxes.
The evil wrought by this goes beyond the obvious fact that the American
people would be deprived of their property; the deeper evil is its
cultural influence.

People in statist
present-day America have gotten accustomed to the idea of having
a quarter or a third of their income taken from them to feed the
projects of their leaders, because anything that goes on long enough
starts to seem normal and natural. This is one of the perceptions
that have to be overcome if liberty is to make advances in America.
A libertarian regime that gobbles up a large percentage of the nation’s
income to feed wars of liberation would gradually encourage acceptance
(or reacceptance) of the idea that the government has the right
to demand as much as it pleases from the people for the sake of
“liberty.” Once that happens, public opposition to further expansion
of government spending and power will weaken, and politicians will
find it easier and easier to demand sacrifices from the people.
Ideas, as the conservatives often say, have consequences.

The collateral
damage to innocent people that is inevitable in any war, especially
aggressive war, is not only a crime against the innocent, it is
a moral poison that threatens to corrupt a society from within.
Where collateral damage is concerned, libertarians have rightly
focused on the suffering of the victims themselves; it is they whose
rights were violated, after all. However, what is often overlooked
is the fact that a willingness to kill noncombatants for the sake
of an aggressive foreign policy ultimately degrades the aggressing
nation as well. Learning to live with the idea of collateral damage
for the sake of the state’s projects means learning to live with
the idea of routinely sacrificing people to the interests of the
state. A society where this idea becomes entrenched has embraced
the fundamental tenet of collectivism, and cannot expect to stay
libertarian for long.

Thus, the
libertarian interventionist project is self-contradictory; its unavoidable
means are incompatible with its ends. However strongly the interventionists
believe in the idea of a libertarian society, they also seek, knowingly
or not, to cut down the cultural supports that would allow such
a society to endure.

30, 2006

Markley [send him mail]
is a freelance newspaper reporter from Illinois. He maintains a
blog at The Superfluous

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