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Do You Think I Could Get Away with Very Quietly Reversing My Pro-War Position?

I noticed in a recent conversation with an old friend that I am no longer a foaming-at-the-mouth warhawk. I expressed a sentiment that I was still “on the fence” about the issue. I believe that I have now come down from the fence, and am merely taking my time about saying good-bye to it.

I’m a libertarian, and libertarians are anti-war. Pretty much as a rule. But seeing as I was convinced of the libertarian philosophy some time after reading Atlas Shrugged, and Randians are quite voraciously in favor of the war, it makes sense for me to be somewhat conflicted. The authors at the Ayn Rand Institute, however, hold a tenuous position, as we can see summed up in paradoxical statements such as the one telling us that the solution in Iraq is “to start forcefully asserting our principle of individual freedom.” How exactly can you force someone to be free?

Even in reading Atlas Shrugged I was never quite happy with Rand’s views on what justified the use of force in some situations and not in others. She seems to say that it is perfectly all right to use force to further one’s principles, as long as those principles are correct (and this is not in any way arbitrary, since the correct principles can be objectively determined). So it is wrong to use the ultimate threat of force to collect income tax, but not wrong to use force to steal it back. Rand also places a value on human life at exactly equal to the extent to which the human in question is a competent follower of the correct principles – because if they aren’t, they have failed in their capacity as humans and are really to be equated with dumb animals, or brutes, to use her term. Part of the justification for this mindset is that the brutes pull down the rest of us. She implicitly forgives the hapless victims who wish nothing other than to do an honest day’s work for succumbing to a system that is designed to cause them to fail – these people are expendable, but their situation is not of their own making.

Given these values, it is not difficult to see why Rand would support war by a nominally capitalist State on a nominally religious one – the capitalists are decent, intelligent men and women who, like Atlas, hold up the world, while the religious folk are boorish sheep laboring toward their own destruction under the rule of a dictator who cares for them only to the extent that he can exploit them. However, the situation is not nearly that simple.

In Atlas Shrugged there wasn’t a war. The competent people simply stopped supporting a corrupt system that was oppressing them, and watched it collapse. And yet far from being the utopian Galt’s Gulch (a small valley run using objectivist/libertarian principles) that Rand wrote about, the America of today far more closely resembles the dystopian America that Rand used as a literary device to show us the ultimate ends of communism. Rand wrote of the railroad as a symbol of the ability of free enterprise, and she wrote of the government incursions upon it as being indicative of the road towards ruin. Now the railroads are nationalized (they have been for years) and failing (ditto) and yet no one comments on the correlation nor does anyone take Rand’s successful prediction as anything other than a lucky guess. She wrote of successful entrepreneurs being punished and reviled for their success by less successful companies, and the Microsoft suit is as good an example of this as the historical examples she must have been aware of, like the successful lobby by the electric companies to be granted a State-sponsored monopoly. America is if anything much more anti-capitalist today than it was when Rand was writing her novels, and many of her worst fears have come true. But in Atlas Shrugged she considers the American government to be buffoonish at best, and the scourge of humanity at worst. So why are her supporters supporting America? What moral right does America have now that America has become the enemy of personal freedom and self-ownership? Rand’s principles simply do not agree with the pro-war position, regardless of what her supposed intellectual heirs may believe.

Furthermore, if Iraq truly is a corrupt and terrible nation that poses a danger to its own people, why not take the path of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged and abandon them to their fate? Clearly if Iraq is in fact a nation of dumb brutes presided over by religious exploiters, it can only collapse in on itself. Contrarily, up until foreign involvement in the region Iraq was a center of prosperity and indeed of secularism. The rifts between socio-ethnic groups were stoked deliberately by foreign powers in order to achieve their own ends. Radicals gained a foothold because of our invasion of their land. And our invasion of their land, when they had never invaded ours, stolen from us, or otherwise used force against us, is directly at odds with Rand’s postulates that man must act rationally in order to fulfill the promise of his nature, and that the use of force rather than rational persuasion denies man’s nature as a rational animal. Clearly, those in favor of war in Iraq do not consider the Iraqis people who can be reasoned with, and seek to deny their nature as man qua man. The reason for this delusion is obvious – Rand’s disciples are not viewing things objectively, rather, they have set their sights on a supposedly expedient solution and sacrificed the principles they claim to follow on its altar. In fact, it is America that is not acting rationally.

And why should it? America is not rational. America is not human. Rand’s principles apply to individuals. If America was an individual we could very well expect it to behave rationally. However, America is simply a name – a concept, a golden calf, a collective noun. As Rand demonstrates, collectives rarely if ever attain rational results – they are much more likely to drive competent individuals to antisocial behavior, punish success, and reward theft and deceit.

The Objectivist position in favor of war contradicts Objectivism itself, in many ways. The one way in which it doesn’t is in Objectivism’s disregard for human life. Individuals are just pawns in the struggle between the right principles and the wrong ones. To me, this seems like a pretty backward way of looking at things – after all, principles mean nothing without someone to hold them. The battleground of principles should accordingly be within the individual mind.

The failings of the Objectivist case for war aside, I come now to my reasons for having supported the war in Iraq. From the first, I viewed this war in terms of liberal vs. conservative, Democratic vs. Republican. As a knee-jerk reaction against liberal propaganda I began trying to justify the war. It was not hard – I grew up being taught that Iraq was a power-hungry nation questing for world domination and it was America’s duty to stop it. I had followed the situation intermittently throughout the Clinton administration, mostly before I became a Republican, and I had read some statistics about the UN mismanagement of the aftermath on a libertarian website. The trouble was that at the time I was not well-versed in libertarian theory, and I misunderstood the point of the statistics. The point was that the UN, as a collection of States, and possessing several characteristics of Statehood itself, was incapable of handling a situation such as the one in Iraq rationally. Indeed, the UN, led by America, had deprived Iraqis of the basic needs of life, and by some estimates caused a million fatalities.

In my point of view, a war in Iraq would prevent another million fatalities in the next ten years. Just like in other episodes in American history, America would march in and everything would be okay. We’d put in peacekeeping forces and then restore the infrastructure such that Iraqis would no longer have to starve. What my point of view failed to take into account was the inability of the State to fix its own problems. The answer to the destruction wrought in Iraq by the Statist US and UN was not, in fact, more State intervention. The further intervention made things worse, not better.

I then attempted to detail some reasons why I am for the war – I was tired of hearing people dispute the official reasons, and wanted them to dispute my reasons. I hoped that I could articulate the case for war better than the State could. And, in my opinion, I did. I made a case for war that was, by leaps and bounds, more convincing than the one Bush made. Somehow, I thought that this was an endorsement for Bush. When a snotty 22 year old is capable of producing better justifications for an action than the State is, there is a problem. The State’s inability to complete so mundane a task as forming a convincing argument for its own actions somehow failed to deter me from supporting its endeavors.

Eventually I turned to making light of the subject. But the points I made as a joke are all too valid. War doesn’t help people. America does launch wars of aggression relatively often. The US was not fighting for its own self-interest – the American people did not stand to gain by going to war. So the question is, who did?

The politicians, clearly. All the pieces were there, but I did not put them together. The US was acting in a way that was detrimental to its citizens, for no apparent gain for those same citizens. No wonder people took to the streets in protest. I called them selfish, and they were selfish – and so should we all be. We should evaluate an action and wonder what the expected gain is vs. what the expected costs are. If the gain is freedom for some people thousands of miles away and the costs are our lives and resources, is that really worth it?

I still believe that my points about the no-win situation we seemed to be in may have been valid. If we kept oppressing Iraq, anti-American sentiment elsewhere would continue to rise and the credibility of the American State apparatus would have been threatened – and American credibility, such as it is, does indeed provide a measure of safety to us. If we tried to stop all sanctions and leave Iraq alone it may indeed have armed itself to the extent that it could pose a measurable threat to world stability. If we tried to rely on the UN for a solution it undoubtedly would have continued its massive failure. If we went to war we risked the situation we have now – guerrilla warfare and an indefinite occupation. There is no way to know what would have happened had we chosen differently.

What we can know is that the State got us into this mess. War may indeed have been the best of all State options; however, that should not be taken as an endorsement of war, but as a damning indictment of the State. An institution that makes war inevitable should be discontinued as soon as possible. Any institution in which the best interests of the institution are at odds with the best interests of its members should be abolished by those members. As the State could not, in this situation, do anything but harm the interests of its members, so in many other situations it creates no-win scenarios and perpetuates cycles of violence, suffering, and misery. Just as Mises demonstrated (see part 6) that one socialist intervention necessitates further socialist interventions in order to further the original goal, so does the history of America and Iraq demonstrate that one imperialist intervention necessitates further imperialist interventions, all in the name of peace and security and all taking the world farther from both of those goals.

And even if there was a better option available, the failure of the State to discover it or utilize it strengthens the case against the State. I cannot judge what will be best for other people. I cannot weigh the lives of a thousand US soldiers against the risks of allowing Saddam Hussein to stay in power. I have no standard of value by which to do so. Accordingly I should not be given the power to. Each individual should assess the value of his or her own life and take his or her own risks. George W. Bush may have made the best decision he was capable of, or he may not have – however, the fault lies not with the President but with the fact that the decision was given to him to make in the first place. No human being is omniscient and therefore no one can possibly weigh the outcomes of decisions affecting millions of people in any rational way. By allowing the power to dispose of our incomes, efforts, and lives to fall into the hands of one person, or nine, or 435, we have relinquished our values and told some other group to enforce upon us their values instead, and they, unable to determine what is really best for us, have merely done what is best for them.

There is no doubt in my mind that the war in Iraq is being handled poorly. I would say that I should have known better, but I had no basis by which to know better. I was taught in State-run public schools that America saved the world at least twice in the last century by going to war, and that we bring peace and prosperity to all of our conquered lands. I used to wonder why there was a discrepancy between the results of war in American History and the results of war that I see presented to me as current events. There is no discrepancy – I have simply been lied to. The state of our public schools is a matter for another post entirely, but suffice it to say now that public schools give us indoctrination rather than education, and given that the State runs them we should not expect otherwise.

I do not know what America can do to rectify its current foreign policy problems. No one does. I do know that America is separated from Iraq by many, many miles of ocean, and that we could defend our coasts at a fraction of the cost of intervening preemptively in other regions. I don’t think it is right to sit by and watch while atrocities and genocides go on around the globe, but I no longer believe that the State can offer a viable alternative, especially if that alternative is more atrocity and more genocide. Evaluating what is right and what is wrong is important for individuals. However, for the State the evaluation should be can and cannot. Can the State bring peace, prosperity, and liberty to Iraq in the least costly (in terms of time, money, and human life) way possible? No, it cannot. Can the State solve all the world’s problems? No, it cannot. It cannot even solve the problems of its own citizens. It cannot provide affordable, high-quality transportation, health care, education, or utility service.

I have learned in the past year that regardless of morality, regardless of extenuating circumstances, regardless of personal philosophy, the State is not an appropriate tool to further a personal agenda. No matter how good or bad the agenda is, the State will make a mess of it. I think that people in Iraq should have a fair chance to rebuild their own peace and prosperity – I even think they should be compensated for what was stolen from them – but I no longer believe that the State can do it – whether it’s America, the UN, or the fabled Iraqi democracy.

December 30, 2004