In Defense of Non-Interventionism

It is well known that the canonical libertarian position regarding a state's foreign policy is non-interventionism, no foreign aid, and free trade. This combination has been espoused by people from Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, and George Washington to Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises. It is part of the platform of the US Libertarian Party.

Brink Lindsey, a scholar at the Cato Institute, has had some reservations about this libertarian combination, most notably the non-interventionism (never mind that he's not sure he's a libertarian). He thinks that state intervention for the purpose of liberation, which I will refer to here as humanitarian intervention, can be justified in some cases. My understanding is that this is one motivation for his calling the Libertarian Party "a cringe-inducing embarrassment."

I intend to show here that contrary to Lindsey's claim there is a principled case for state non-interventionism and non-aid. He needs no lecturing on free trade, to be sure. And I will not engage in historical debates over whether the waging of the Civil War could be or was actually either justified by the abolition of slavery in the South or waged for that end. I will only make the principled case against humanitarian intervention.

The Welfare Argument

Humanitarian intervention is a type of foreign aid. It is an in-kind donation from one government to the people under another government. As such, it is a type of "welfare" program, whereby one body of persons (taxpayers) is forced to help another body of persons (the liberated).

Since libertarians hold a deontological principled stand against forcing one person to help another, the case for state non-interventionism obviously follows (not a deontologist? Roderick Long has raised some interesting questions regarding deontology and consequentialism). What makes a libertarian unique is his endorsement of negative rights and rejection of positive rights. I will not here make the case for such a principled stand against welfare programs, but if Mr. Lindsey denies a principled case against state non-interventionism abroad, he certainly concedes much to the social democrats domestically. If people are to be helped by taxpayers, why not choose the domestic poor or disadvantaged?

Just because humanitarian intervention might be a good does not imply that it should be tax-funded.

The Constitutional Argument

The Cato Institute is well known for its excellent Center for Constitutional Studies; scholars in the latter have underscored the connection between the Constitution and Locke's Second Treatise via the Declaration of Independence, and have been instrumental in reviving the doctrine of enumerated powers.

The doctrine of enumerated powers is that "the power the people give to government, to exercise on their behalf, is strictly limited" (quoted from the preface of this booklet) and in the Constitution, they are listed in Article I, Section 8. Nowhere in this section is a power granted to conduct humanitarian interventions. Certainly, the power to declare war is granted; but declaring war is quite different than conducting a humanitarian intervention.

And, if we are to take the enumerated powers doctrine seriously, then we must construe all clauses of section 8 as non-elastic and delimiting. The opening line of section 8 is, "The Congress shall have Power to…collect taxes…[in order to] provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." This clause, under the enumerated powers doctrine, means that all expenditures of the Congress must be appropriated either for the defense of the United States, or for its welfare – not the welfare of those outside the United States. On the fact that there is a comma, not a semi-colon, after the word "Excises" in the opening line of section 8, how there almost was one, and how it would have radically altered the meaning of this passage, refer to tape set 6 here.

This is congruent with the Declaration of Independence. If "to secure [their] rights, governments are instituted among men" then this social compact is among those people so contracting, not among all people of the world. Therefore, you also cannot extend the government's duty to protect the rights of people beyond its geographic borders.

In the concrete, it is clear that this was exactly the intent of the founders. As Charles Adams pointed out in his book Those Dirty Rotten Taxes: The Tax Revolts that Built America:

[Historically, r]estricting taxes was…achieved by restricting spending. In early modern England, a tax was illegal if the expenditure was illegal. For example, in 1497, Henry VII got Parliament to approve a tax for a military expedition against the Scots. A revolt erupted in Cornwall (southwest England) when collectors were lynched en masse. The Cornish people argued that the tax was illegal because the expenditure was illegal. No tax was justified for military purposes – except for defense. This view…found expression in the U.S. Constitution…The framers realized that taxing and spending are inextricably tied together, so you have to control both sides of the public purse – the spenders and the taxers. They would put clear-cut provisions in the Constitution to get the job done.

I think Roger Pilon is right about the enumerated powers doctrine. Of course, I also think Spooner was correct about the Constitution.

The International Law Argument

I will grant that this sub-argument is nuanced, and perhaps the weakest.

A towering figure in the libertarian tradition is Hugo Grotius. He is widely regarded as the father of international law. His writings had, as their goal, the promotion of peace among nations, by deducing the natural code of justice that states should adopt, vis–vis one another.

The core concept of a state is the notion of sovereignty. In many ways, the corpus of classical international law theory mimics the topology of libertarian rights theory. Libertarian rights theory describes a sphere of inviolable sovereignty for the individual, typically his person and his naturally acquired physical property; and specifies that all other interactions among individuals should be voluntary; and specifies that any breach of the sovereignty of A by B without A's consent is a violation of rights.

Similarly, classical international law describes a sphere of inviolable sovereignty for the state, typically its historic geographic borders and its possessions, such as boats, in otherwise unowned areas (such as international waters and outer space); and specifies that all other interactions among states should be voluntary; and specifies that any breach of the sovereignty of A by B without A's consent is a violation of international law.

Libertarians deny the sovereignty of the state, but I will leave that to one side for now.

In the case of Iraq and the US, Iraq is a sovereign state, and it is a violation of international law for the US to conduct an invasion or other breach of Iraq's borders without proof that Iraq has or intends to attack the US. And, as Charley Reese has recently underscored, no proof of this sort has been offered.

Libertarian rights are the side constraints which individuals face. Similarly, international law(s) are the side constraints which states face, if they proclaim their sovereignty. Here, I am drawing on Stephan Kinsella's estoppel approach, insisting that states not act in ways that are self-contradictory.

The triumph of international law theory was to use the state's own logic to restrain its predations. To deny international law theory is to remove a constraint to state power. My argument is of the slippery-slope type. If we do not insist upon the canons of international law, then we deny the external constraints that all states face. If states may, for causes they deem appropriate, conduct humanitarian interventions; then, it follows that stronger states will face one less barrier to imperial "benevolent hegemonic" expansion.

Robert Nozick opined in Anarchy, State, and Utopia that a dominant private defense association, thinking its procedures to be the most just, and having the best-equipped forces, would be able to shut down all of its competitors by force, and that this would be the necessary result of anarcho-capitalism. Rothbard rightly ridiculed this as the "immaculate conception of the state" but one can rightly imagine states with the power to tax, no longer constrained by the doctrine of international law, expanding their benevolent empires (and the tax revenue and power they deliver to the hands of the political elites) thus tending toward the establishment of a one-world government.

This is a direction for future history that I, for one, would like to ensure does not happen. My two girls should live to see the end of taxation, not the triumph of the empire.

The Anarchist Argument

Now, there are some libertarian anarchists who have suggested that, all of this said, we should still trust the state with humanitarian intervention. After all, if our life were threatened by a home intruder, we would call the state police or no one. If there's a fire, we call the tax-funded fire department (not all of us do) or do without. We live in a statist world, and must use the state for those functions which it has monopolized.

This is an appealing argument, but I think it is wrong. Even if none of the other arguments above applied (which they do, don't get me wrong), we are still faced with a band of robbers who are willing to do our personal bidding.

We should demand repeal of all so-called neutrality and anti-piracy laws that prevent funding and participation in foreign wars by private citizens.

We should, perhaps, fund businesses whose intent is to make a profit by humanitarian intervention. The businesses might send agents into the territory of the state in question and get contracts by the subjects of that state which say, "If company X overthrows the government, then I will pay $Y to company X." Illegal? Yes. Immoral? No. And, I should point out, it is only illegal according to states; it is not forbidden by international law. The Iraq interventionist wants to break laws too: those of international law and of Iraq, and, as I argue above, the laws of the US. Neither side in this debate is advocating strictly legal activities.

We should not encourage the state to spend taxpayer money on our behalf. Our houses are not on fire, and our lives are not being immediately threatened by a home intruder: lifeboat ethics do not apply. Instead, we are coolly considering how, in accordance with the non-aggression axiom, we can help some people who are being oppressed by a state.

The answer is not statism.

December 27, 2002


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