Libertarian Foreign Policy

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In his campaign for the President of the Republic, Representative Ron Paul has generated some controversy stimulating some fresh new public scrutiny of the nation’s foreign policy. Even though he is running as a Republican, his libertarian perspective stirs skepticism of heretofore settled political doctrine. Libertarian Ron Paul’s candidacy for President on the Republican ticket is not only disturbing the status quo but is attracting curiosity regarding the underlying libertarian message. He is earning respect for his intellectual courage in creating this new public forum. His following is ideological, not political.

Although elected to congress several times as a Republican, Dr. Paul has earned public recognition and respect as an independent thinker. To only a select few is he known and appreciated as a libertarian. Yet, his rural, small-town Texas constituency enthusiastically returns him to congress term-after-term on the Republican ticket. Who knew that libertarian ideas were that politically persuasive?

Ron Paul’s candidacy is raising the intellectual level of public discussion of war and peace. His principled views have provoked outrage from the entrenched and besieged establishment’s foreign affairs department. However, as a candidate in a partisan contest for a political office, he is saddled with stereotypes that prevent him from delivering a message that is fully consistent with his avowed philosophy and ethics. One wonders what Dr. Paul might say about foreign policy if he was not so inhibited? What would libertarian foreign policy look like unshackled from the status quo?

Perhaps a good place to start trying to figure this out would be with a consensual definition of the term foreign policy. From Wikipedia:

A country‘s foreign policy is a set of goals that seeks to outline how that particular country will interact with other countries of the world and, to a lesser extent, non-state actors. Foreign policies generally are designed to help protect a country’s national interests, national security, ideological goals, and economic prosperity. This can occur as a result of peaceful cooperation with other nations, or through aggression, war, and exploitation. It may be assumed that foreign policy is as ancient as the human society itself. The twentieth century saw a rapid rise in the importance of foreign policy, with virtually every nation in the world now being able to interact with one another in some diplomatic form.

Nominally, creating foreign policy is usually the job of the head of government and the foreign minister (or equivalent). In some countries the legislature also has considerable oversight. As an exception, in France, Finland and in America, it is the head of state who is responsible for foreign policy, while the head of government mainly deals with internal policy.

Central to this common-language definition of foreign policy is the notion of a political entity — such as a country, nation or state — which is presumed to be interacting with like entities. Such entities are not people or entrepreneurial concerns, but are collectives that have no brain with which to think, reason, develop values and choose preferences among alternative courses of action. Collectives don’t bleed real blood either, which conveniently palatalizes sacrifice. Without a brain, the only voice collectives have for communicating thoughts and ideas is that of presumptuous leaders who try to hide the fact that they are only speaking for themselves. Members of the collective have voices of their own even if they neglect to use them. Who speaks for the American people as a whole? No one.

Political entities are naturally prone to conflict because group interest is invariably the interest of the lowest common denominator of the crowd, i.e. the most juvenile of the humanity collected. Notice how the behavior of labor unions, political parties and national governments resemble schoolyard gangs. The U.N. is a classical case in point. By contrast, individual self-interest is for the most part an adult pursuit of happiness informed with first-hand knowledge of its owner’s goals, limitations and liabilities.

In the group, somebody else pays the bills. That’s the attraction to membership — something for nothing. Groups are also stuck with bureaucratic procedures (administration by non-owners) and diplomacy (negotiation between non-owners), which dooms them to predation, stagnation and oblivion.

On these grounds, libertarians are inclined to reject political rule as invalid, inept and illegitimate. They prefer the spontaneous social order of competitive capitalist enterprise in the voluntary marketplace, which they consider the appropriate paradigm of government of human society. After all, life is an adventure come what may, and libertarians appreciate the simple fact that every individual, left alone, knows how to mind his own business. He is the world’s foremost expert on his own affairs. By contrast, what does a bureaucrat know?

Civilized propriety for libertarians consists of individual humans left alone unmolested, each in his proper domain. This means that wherever there is aggression, it is a proportional response to trespass. Aggression by an individual in self-defense is natural, expected and appropriate. An organization of such defense is problematical. War, which is aggressive conflict between states, has no legitimate connection. Neither do strikes, riots, demonstrations and like group behavior. Libertarians consider all such political contests to be illegitimate.

If political statecraft is considered illegitimate, and the Wikipedia definition of foreign policy is accepted, there is no such thing as libertarian foreign policy. Indeed, the very idea of “policy” (specifically public policy) is at odds with individualism, which is the central feature of libertarianism. Policy is understandable only, if at all, in an organizational or collective context. Policy is a subterfuge to escape the bounds of proprietorship. The closest thing to policy for a libertarian is a statement of the owners’ charter for the use of his property by others. Moreover, property is private else it is not property. This means there is no such thing as public property. By the same token, there is no such thing as private policy.

Libertarians should be wary of the word "policy" because it comes from the same root as the word politics. The root is polity, which is another word for the state.

Foreign policy studies are notoriously difficult to reconcile with libertarianism because libertarian principles are irrelevant to making the state work. Harry Browne was one libertarian who believed the state could not be made to work by the application of any principles known to man.

Public policy is based on the false assumption that people can be forced to want what they get from government, yet work on their own recognizance to get what they want from the market. On account of this fallacy — that these “wants” are the same kind of thing — the state is bound to rely on coercion and compulsion to have its way with the people. The state continues only as long as it is able to maintain the illusion that it can and will force compliance with its policies everywhere on everybody within its province. In the absence of such a state of unreasoned fear of institutionalized coercion, there can be no state. An example is immigration to the United States where law enforcement is virtually ignored.

Curiously, the state always fails to work. Yet it never fails to coerce. Coercion is all the state has to offer. So who wants it? Who needs it? It is doubtful there are enough masochists to make a market for it. Persuasion is a futile gesture because the risk of rejection is too great to go to the trouble.

Clearly, the demand for state coercion is not a popular one. To the contrary, the demand comes from a select few elitists and cynics. The elitists presume a superior view of the world, which presumption entitles them to impose their will on others for their own good. The cynics seek benefit from the plunder of others, devil take the hindmost.

Chief among the beneficiaries of institutionalized coercion are the "rent seekers." Rent seeking is the process of obtaining legal privilege for financial gain. It occurs whenever an individual, organization, or firm seeks to win money rather than earn it. For every winner there is a loser. By contrast, earning allows all to win to some degree.

Rent seeking is a short-cut to riches enabled by political government. It consists of manipulating the economic environment rather than abiding it, bribing regulatory bureaucrats rather than seeking an honest buck in profit from successfully competing with moral equals in trade and production in the economic environment as it is. Rent seeking is a form of robbery in which the law is an accomplice. The rude hand of government is used at the behest of rent-seekers and do-gooders to manipulate the market. It is a kind of protection racket that can only be accomplished in an establishment of institutionalized coercion, which is the monopoly of the state or political government. (Mafia eat your heart out!) Rent-seeking is most frequently associated with government regulation, and it is always evidenced by lobbying the government for economic regulations, tariffs, tax breaks and subsidies invariably favoring a special interest. A related symptom is collusion between the rent-seeking firms and the government agencies assigned to regulate them whereby the agency relies on the "knowledge" of cohort firms about the markets to be affected and the regulations to be justified. (Conflict of interest anyone?)

In this era of national hegemony, foreign trade has become virtually impossible without some degree of rent seeking. "Globalization" has yet to overcome that burden completely. Tollbooths and check-points are still commonplace in the world, not least in the United States.

But the threat of state coercion eventually peters out as its impotence is discovered, such impotence being the most important of all state secrets. The state fails to work because it cannot substitute its policy goals for the myriad motivations of individual human beings who actually do the work, if any. The state is always on the verge of the demise suffered by that most famous of all eggs, Humpty Dumpty:

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall.
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

The history was irreversible even if ordered otherwise by edict of the king. (Take New Orleans after Katrina, Rita, Nagin, Blanco, Bush and FEMA.)

Libertarian principles cannot be applied to foreign policy because they are irrelevant to politics. They only apply to relations between individual humans and their proprietary institutions because they are basically ethical and moral considerations. Libertarian concerns boil down to a question of “Whose property is it?” Contrary to popular opinion, ethical and moral considerations are irrelevant to collectives because they are not owners.

According to libertarian principles, ownership is the only legitimate source of authority in society. Ownership also determines responsibility and liability without which there is no justice. If there is anything analogous to libertarian foreign policy it would be the marketing strategies, risk management provisions, security and property safeguards and conditions of sale as compiled by all private profit-seeking businesses anticipating doing business with the world at large on a voluntary basis. A treaty backed up by military might is anti-libertarian. Only contracts freely entered into are libertarian. If there are no owners, there can be no contracts. Only conflicts. Caveat emptor.

So how might libertarians have proceeded in the historical encounters between the capitalists and barbarians like the Barbary Pirates? Assume for the moment no political states with large standing armies and ambitious foreign policies were playing geopolitical games with foreign territories. That such states as Great Britain and the U.S. were not bolstering the passions of the natives in favor of nation-building in opposition to the tenure of the pioneering entrepreneurs of whatever nationality. In such places as India, Persia, Mesopotamia, Mexico, Arabia, Egypt, Venezuela and Libya where the private enterprises were threatened by the indigents, the libertarian shareholders of those ventures would have seen to the eviction of the trespassers from their properties wherever and whoever they were as an aspect of self-defense. Owners seeing to the defense of their duly homesteaded properties would have brought to bear all the righteous motivation, industry, diligence and ingenuity inherent in the entrepreneurial breed without any taint of chauvinism or jingoistic saber rattling. Such a defensive posture taken in a timely manner could have thwarted the usurpations and expropriations of the Shah’s, the Saud’s, the Farouk’s and the like. The petroleum, shipping, navigation, telecommunications, industries and transportation facilities that were undertaken throughout the Middle East, Africa, Latin America and India in the past would have remained in the hands of the peaceful, productive and equitable private enterprises that created and developed them in the first place. Those primitives that wished to retain their traditional isolation to practice opportunistic plunder as if foraging for game would have been at a physical and moral disadvantage to the pioneers. Consequently, it is likely the thugs would have declined the challenge and returned with their camels to their tents in their desert encampments from whence they came where they could more clearly contemplate their experience and the terms offered for entering the modern world in peace.

As it happened, the history was written by ordinary foreign policy at the hands of the family of nations, not peoples. Nationalization took place under the protection and assistance of gratuitous military power from abroad, not industrialization under the impetus of private, profit-seeking enterprise. As a result, alien nationalism still festers in the remnant of stone-age populations as an indolent wound in the modern world.

The historical encounters between British Petroleum, Standard Oil, Shell, the Suez Company and kindred private concerns with the remaining aborigines of the world at the places of private, speculative technological development were opportunities for accelerating the growth of freedom. Sadly, these opportunities were lost to history because of foreign policy. But there will be other opportunities in the future hopefully under a more libertarian influence. And as long as libertarians like Ron Paul persevere with their ideas, the lessons of history will not be lost on those who cherish freedom and understand its prerequisites to obtain a more humane outcome from encounters with lesser-developed people.

Al Lowi (send him mail) has been a professional engineer in private practice in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, for the past 40 years.

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