November 18, 2002
Tony Woodlief on Libertarianism III

Libertarians on foreign and domestic policy

Libertarians not only suffer from a lack of strategy for winning, they have little to offer in the way of maintaining authority should they some day emerge victorious.


Start with external enemies -- the host of armed authoritarian states that would relish an opportunity to seize American wealth and liberty. There is no gentle way of saying this: libertarians sound like absolute fools when they talk about foreign policy.

How's this plan for a foreign policy?

Cease grant-like foreign aid completely. Use strictly-termed loans instead.

Cultivate friendly relationships only with countries that meet a minimum level of social, policial, and economic freedom. For nations that fall below this level of freedom, make it a point to illustrate their social, political, and economic abuses in a quarterly report available to the public. Maintain libertarian-style open trade policies except with the most egregious of the offenders, the most threatening to our national security. It is against our self-interest to aid authoritarian regimes.

The United Nations, I believe, is a waste of our time. Either we hold to our principles firmly or we pull out. Many libertarians believe the former is the better course of action. Treaties are well and good, but they are never to be allowed to trump the rights of individual Americans. International agreements are just those...agreements. Contract enforcement is to be dealt with by the parties involved. Impartial arbiters and mediators are readily available and the potential need for them does not necessitate a global government, legal court, or enforcement entity. The World Trade Organization and the other business-related non-government authorities are voluntary associations and do not carry the weight or authority of law.

War should be the method of last resort in all confrontations. However, it's plainly obvious that the methods of choosen resort often get used up quickly in the face of a determined and violent adversary. So, in the case of WWII (which Mr. Woodlief points to), it was justified to enter the conflict since not only were our interests being threatened and destroyed, but free societies which were buffers to that threat as well

Likewise comes the libertarian claim that American adventures in the Cold War were misguided. In this they display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans, which explains the view of many that the U.S. Civil War represents the earliest great infringement on liberty (as if the liberty of slaves doesn't count in the balance).

I would hesitate to lump libertarians all together in such a slap-dash manner. I think that the greatest number of people who believe the Civil War was a great infringement on liberty are those states rights Republicans who have drifted over into our camp over time. From their perspective, the federal government trampled the rights of states to mostly govern themselves. Such an arguement is collectivist because it places the rights of states over individuals. I concur with Mr. Woodlief concerning Libertarians who were isolationist regarding the Cold War that they were wrong, but not because they "display an ugly penchant for concerning themselves with the liberties of white Americans" (people are rightly concerned with their self-interests, and they happen to be white Americans, so be it...non-whites are and have been similarly concerned) but because the threat of Communism was important enough to fight.
These arguments against foreign intervention derive from the libertarian principle that coercion is wrong, which is really no fixed principle at all, because nearly all libertarians admit that a military financed through taxation is a necessity for the protection of liberty. Somewhere in their calculus, however, they conclude that this coercion shouldn't extend to financing the liberation of non-Americans. Perhaps this is principled, but it is certainly not the only viable alternative for a true lover of liberty. To tell people languishing in states like China and the former Soviet bloc that our commitment to liberty prevents us from opposing their masters is the height of churlishness and foolishness.

Libertarians believe that the central government's most important duty is to secure the liberty of it's citizens. A well-funded volunteer military is the best way to defend ourselves in light of our hostile world.

Intervention in foreign affairs is an extremely tricky business. Unintended consequences would appear to be more prevalent during such activities than at any other time. We can't "police the world" so we must try to limit intervention to clear cases of need. If a nation is openly hostile towards us and has infringed upon the liberties of our nation and individual citizens, then foreign intervention becomes a justifiable response among other choices. For "beign" authoritarian governments which do not engage in international hostilities but seem to exist in order to perpetuate the slavery or semi-slavery of it's citizens, I believe it falls upon the shoulders of it's citizens to help themselves to break their chains. If the regime represses such efforts, then that government has lost it's legitimacy and should no longer be recognized. When the people of that country call for help, it would be in our long-term interests to aid them, be it through funding of institutes such as the Minaret of Freedom or by actively engaging and uprooting the opressive system in place.

Perhaps the worst is the libertarian position on Israel, which amounts to a replay of Joe Kennedy's see-no-evil, hear-no-evil approach to Hitler in the 1930's. Sure, without American support every man, woman, and child among the Jews might have their throats slit by Muslim thugs, but it's not like they got that country fairly in the first place, and really, it's none of our business. That's not a caricature, by the way. At an event in Washington I heard a prominent libertarian argue that we shouldn't support Israel because what happens to them is their problem, not ours. And libertarians wonder why nobody takes their views on foreign policy seriously.

I see libertarians defending Israel for mostly two reasons. One, in order to highlight the prinicple that a legitimate government has a right to self-defense. Two, in order to highlight that Israel, for all it's socialistic faults, is by far the lesser of many evils to support in the region and the freedoms that Israel's citizens have are worth defending. While it is regrettable that some of these defenders do not point out there are many reasons to object to Israel's policies (external and internal), these defenses do not necessarily admit to a 100% agreement with Israel's actions and laws.

By itself, when compared to other free countries, Israel ranks low. In the Index of Economic Freedom for 2003, Israel is 33rd out of over 150. Only Japan and France earned a worse score when comparing Western-style democratic nations. Israel may have a free market, but only when compared to it's neighbors'. Israel has a high marginal tax rate and government expenses equal more than 50% of GDP. There is an undeniable bias towards Jews regarding the Law of Return which (among the strong "non-Jews will dilute our nation" nature of the state in general) taints the country in theocratic tones, much like the American government's minimal endorsement of Christian themes. The seizure of private property is well-documented, though it is obvious much of that property was being used for terroristic purposes. Israel is no libertarian ideal and beyond discussion of it's terrorism problem, it has social and economic issues which rightly deserve criticism.

The libertarian response to this critique is to point out examples of failed U.S. intervention. Yes, the CIA sowed seeds of anti-Americanism in Iran by supporting the Shah. Admitted, we supported a tyrant in Haiti. True, we armed the mujahaddin in Afghanistan. But we also dealt the death blows to Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany, and accelerated the self-destruction of the Soviet Union while controlling its expansion. These are not trivial events in the history of liberty. Libertarian academics have developed a cottage industry, however, to produce counterfactual histories which amount to claiming that all of the good things would have happened anyway without American intervention, and probably would have happened faster.

Those are rather poor examples of interventionalism because the Axis powers were legitimately opposed, as was the USSR-bred Communism of the Cold War. Nations as hostile as those are rare and few, limited mostly to Iraq, North Korea, and a spattering of others. Only a few have the capability to hurt us in any significant way. Therefore, beyond responding to them, the only other kind of intervention relevant today is the "free the people" kind. Considering the current status of social, political, and economic liberty in the world, that's a lot of work for a libertarian nation devoted to intervention in the name of liberty. Work which is not ours to bear because there are people around the planet who either irrationally don't want that freedom for various reasons, are afraid of the responsibility that freedom requires, or are too ignorant to grasp it's importance. Mr. Woodlief doesn't acknowledge this crucial difference. Granted, he's talking about the isolationist libertarian bloc, but they are just as wrong as those who would intervene everywhere. Sometimes we must act in our interests and sometimes we must act when called upon by others when their quest is moral and just.
The point is that in the area of foreign policy libertarians are most likely to argue from principle, yet this is the area where consequentialism is most required. Nobody cares about principle if it leads to enslavement or death.

This is a non sequitur. Mr. Woodlief believes that by not acting, we cause the negative outcomes in other nations. This is not true. It is not our fault that by not acting something happens in the world. Only actions cause events. Non-action causes nothing.
To be taken seriously as a philosophy of governance, libertarianism must grapple with foreign affairs...

He has his strongest point here in that there really is a stronger urge to focus on domestic issues rather than foreign.
But let's assume that most libertarians would support a military large enough to fend off foreign enemies.

You wouldn't have to assume. I daresay that a majority of libertarians do support a strong national defense architecture. Without a strong and convincing national defense, our freedom to operate is endanger. A strong military is a stabilizing influence because it secures our rights. It deters threats. It clears the way for other freedoms to run openly, without the fear of international interference.
[I]magine that libertarians have nominated a slate of charismatic, well-funded, highly networked candidates (indulge me -- it's a Friday) who have won the Presidency and a solid majority of Congress. These revolutionaries proceed to create the libertarian wet dream -- drug legalization, plans for phasing out government schools and Social Security, isolationist foreign policy, no more ATF . . . and did I mention drug legalization?

Mmm, wet dream...but enough with the drug legalization ad hominems, alright? And a better way to phrase a basic libertarian position on foreign policy would be "a more isolationist foreign policy," not just simply an isolationist one, which carries all manner of emotional baggage.
Except, people get older. Memory fades. The Left remains committed to brainwashing children and co-opting public and private organizations. A child overdoses on heroin. Drugs are slowly re-criminalized. Some idiot old babyboomers (sorry for the triple redundancy) starve to death because they could never be bothered to save for old age. Others lose their savings when they invest them all in Bill Clinton Enterprises. Hello Social Security and financial regulation. The schools stay private because the Left realizes how much easier it is to peddle garbage by McDonaldizing it (i.e., by becoming the low-cost provider and pandering to human weakness).

So, in a generation or less, the revolution is slowly dismantled, and libertarians are blamed for the ills of society. [incorrectly blamed, I might add, and libertarians would point that out as well -Drizz]


The Left doesn't face this problem. Deprived of principle, integrity, or honor, they are happy to snip the bottom rungs as they climb the ladder of power. You can already see this in Europe, where EU thugs are slowly transferring decision-making authority from quasi-democratic legislatures to unelected Brussels technocrats.


But libertarians are all about individual liberty. Thus they face a quandary: How to maintain their state once it's built?


There appear to be two avenues open: the first is to adopt a variant of the Left's strategy, and eliminate unfavored options for future generations. Libertarians might, for example, replace the Constitution with a mirror document that does not contain any provision for amendment.


The second avenue for maintaining the libertarian state is culture. If children and new citizens are thoroughly educated in logic, economics, and other foundations of libertarian thinking, then perhaps they can be trusted to maintain liberty even in the face of very persuasive demagogues.

He then goes on to attack libertarians because they either "won't discuss" amendment-like changes or they "ignore" and "deride" the cultural indoctrination and the policies that may be necessary to maintain a libertarian society. The first point repeats a theme Mr. Woodlief puts much stock in...that his experience with libertarians applies to all, most of, or at least a significant portion of libertarians and to the philosophy of libertarianism. I can't agree with that until I see some sort of evidence. This is further illustrated by this passage:
How many libertarians, however, give much thought to where even their own children will go to school? Sure, they want safety and effectiveness, like any other parent, but how many give serious attention to finding or building schools that inculcate in children the ability to think critically, along with a sense of moral responsibility? Precious few.

This is simply an assumption and an insulting one at that. Conjecture, especially on this level, does not make an arguement.

The second point is important because libertarians are an individual lot. We believe it isn't up to us to decide how someone else (beyond those under our legal protection, such as our children) is educated, worships, and how children are to be cared for and raised. As long as those activites do not violate basic rights, we have no right to force those people to follow an "acceptable" path.

If libertarians were serious about taking and maintaining power -- truly serious -- then they would drop the caterwauling over drug criminalization and focus every drop of energy on building schools. The latter is hard work, however, and forces consideration of messy things like moral instruction, and self-discipline, and what makes for good parenting. It's far easier to toke up in the discounted hotel room at the Libertarian Party Convention and rail against the DEA. Thus libertarianism remains less a force for change than a tool for self-expression.

Mr. Woodlief jumps from the second possibility (cultural changes would be used as opposed to amendment-like changes in order to futher a libertarian society) to this, which states "building schools" is where the libertarian energy should be focused. As long as he isn't talking about public schools run by the government, that's a legitimate libertarian stance. Personally, I believe that people will continue to opt for public schools simply because they seem cheaper, though over time they would change their minds as they see the benefits of a private education. But his loathing of the drug issue and his incorrect premise that he knows what most libertarians stand for and would do when presented with problems such as these undermine his arguement.

Above all, I don't consider it a priori that a system of government must have a way of "maintaining authority." It isn't about that, and doubly so for libertarianism. Specifically, if people are not willing to support their liberty, then they pay the price of living in a society where that liberty is restricted. The responsibility lies with the people to maintain the system by not destroying it from the inside. I would support a Constitutional amendment process. It would not infringe upon someone's liberty because that person would have the choice of remaining or leaving, of agreeing to or disagreeing with the prinicples outlined in the document. Free government means voluntary government, one that is supported by the people.

If people decide they no longer what that kind of government, they can find another to their liking.

He has another essay in the works and I'll address it when it appears.

Posted by Drizzten at November 18, 2002 01:07 PM

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