• 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.

    October
    30, 2006

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

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