The Contradictions of Libertarian Interventionism


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