The problem I see with the libertarian pro-war position is that libertarians don’t have recourse to the most powerful argument for the war: that it made the world a better place. Non-libertarians can yammer on about freeing poor Iraqis who were crushed under the thumb of Saddam Hussein, and that’s definitely a benefit. But Libertarians don’t believe it is OK to steal money via taxes and spend it on other people. Hence they can’t use this argument.
– Patri Friedman
There has been a lively discussion in the comments section of Johnathan Pearce’s article here on Samizdata.net When libertarians disagree. It has thrown up so many interesting points that I felt a new article on the issues might be a good idea. It is pleasure to see so much intelligent discussion of strongly held views without the acrimony and name-calling that so often characterises debate on the internet.
We have a problem that the label ‘libertarian’ sometimes it does not really inform as to what a person thinks, something which September 11th 2001 brought starkly into view, and I am not just referring to the more absurd uses of the term. For example a frequent commenter here on Samizdata.net, Paul Coulam, is a prominent libertarian and anarchist, well known in pro-liberty circles in London. He is also a friend of mine and has been known to get plastered at Samizdata.net blogger bashes. I too am fairly well known in the same circles and describe myself as a ‘minarchist’, or social individualist or ‘classical liberal’ or a… libertarian. I see Paul as a ‘fellow traveller’ of mine but clearly we have fairly major disagreements of where we would like to end up. We just agree on the direction we need to move from where we are now. I regard the state as probably indispensable, albeit a vastly smaller state than we have now, whereas Paul sees no state as the final destination.
In my view the minarchist ‘classical liberal’ view to which I subscribe means the only legitimate state functions which can be funded via some form of coercive taxation are those which can only realistically be carried out by a state, and which are essential to the survival of several liberty. The military seems a fairly clear cut example of that to me (with the proviso I would like to see the state military as only ‘first amongst many’) and possibly a very limited number of other roles, such as (maybe) a centre for disease control function to prevent plagues, and some form of superior court function.
So once you get over that core issue of small state or no state (no small feat), the rest is arguing over magnitude (also not a trivial issue), rather that whether or not you even have a military funded by some form of coercive action: that also means ‘how you use that miltary’ is an argument over degree rather than existence. In short I see the difference between a ‘libertarian’ (or whatever) of my non-anarchist ilk, and sundry types of non-libertarian statist as being one of the degree to which the state is allowed to accumulate coercive power. Certainly some libertarians fall at the trap labelled ‘magnitude’ as they cannot bring themselves to see the moral or sometimes even practical differences between the USA and Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. As I want a ‘vastly better state’ rather than ‘no state’, and as I also regard the process of getting a vastly better state involves holding ‘the state’ and its borders in considerably less regard, the idea of using’ less bad states’ to overthrow ‘much worse states’ does not really pose a great moral dilemma for me, particularly in the here and now of 2004.
I am not suggesting wars and struggles between states are a generally Good Thing but at the ends of the continuum, the moral and practical calculus does not seem that hard to me. Sure, the justification ‘it makes the world a better place’ is used by left and right statists all the time for all manner of things and sometimes they are even correct… but for me the test is ‘but would the world be an even better place if the state had got out of the way and left private individuals to sort things out?’ On that test, the state fails pretty consistently, which is why my ‘ideal state’ is one where it is permitted to act in only those very few core functions where private non-coercively funded action cannot do what must be done for the survival of life and liberty.
So yes, I supported war by the bloated regulatory nation-states of the USA and UK (and others) against Ba’athist Iraq and doubly so against the hideous national socialist regime in Belgrade, whose works I saw first hand in Croatia and Bosnia (a process that not only inoculated me against the Murray Rothbard virus once I was exposed to it years later but also left me with an abiding hatred for ethnic nationalism, a fondness for 338 Lapua and ‘smile reflex’ whenever I see an F-16). My view is that it is only a matter of practical consideration whether or not one should be shooting at tyrants and their servants and using other people’s money to do that. My friend Paul is not a pacifist so I am sure we would agree that ideally tyrants should be overthrown locally and, ideally, for profit: where we depart is over when it needs to be done on the taxpayers dime.
Left to their own devices, tyrants accumulate to themselves the means to spread tyranny and so the notion that offensive war against a tyrant is morally wrong seems bizarre to me, particularly as I am not too hung up on the whole national borders thing when it comes to spreading liberty. The utilitarian consideration of ‘are they too strong to just attack’ is rather important of course, which is why I rather like the idea of attacking North Korea before they get nuclear weapons.
Why? Because it makes the world a better place.