We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

A dialogue between pukka libertarians

David Goldstone has written in with Why Libertarians should be for the liberation of Iraq but against the war. I have replied to his thoughts afterwards

Dear Perry,

I have every sympathy with those on Samizdata who support the forthcoming war. The thought of Tony Benn telling an Iraqi women why it is wrong for her people to be freed from tyranny is skin-crawlingly repellent. And as for the marchers yesterday, well if they against the war that is almost reason enough for me to be for it.

Almost reason enough, but not quite. In the final analysis, I still believe (and I say this with all respect to those who disagree), that the pro-war libertarians are wrong.

Let me say clearly that this posting is not addressed to those who believe that the war is justified on the grounds of pre-emptive self defence. I disagree with them but the debate between us is not a debate of principle, merely one as to the weight of the evidence. Rather, this posting is directed at those who would justify the war on the grounds that it will bring liberty to millions of Iraqi’s.

Let me also say clearly that I fully endorse the goal of bringing liberty to Iraq and I would willingly contribute some of my own money to pay for a military effort to bring about that end.

But others would not. And therein lies the contradiction for libertarians. How can we justify using force (viz tax revenues) to make others pay for a war that they oppose? If the U.S. or U.K. governments were to conscript people to fight to free Iraq, I am sure we would be loud in our condemnation. Yet taxation is at only one remove from conscription. Whether we like it or not, millions of people in the U.S. and the U.K. disagree with the war. We may disagree with them, but how can we as libertarians justify forcing them to pay for it? The implications are obvious and run counter to everything that libertarians stand for.

I would dearly love to see a compelling answer to this question because I would dearly love to be able to support the war. But so far, I have yet to see any answer to this question on Samizdata, let alone a compelling one.

David Goldstone

Well David, I actually agree with you more than you might suppose! Although I am less convinced than you seem to be that Saddam Hussain poses no actual threat to me, my primary reason for wanting to see the overthrow of Ba’athist socialism in Iraq is that I wish to see an end to tyranny, the death or imprisonment of its perpetrators and an increase in liberty for Iraq’s hapless people.

For me the only argument against this being done by the militaries of the USA and UK is that this requires the theft of tax money from US and UK taxpayers.


What is done is done. I have been robbed by the US and UK states (the two places I have been paying taxes) for a great many year and the lavishly equipped volunteer militaries capable of overthrowing Ba’athism are already in existence.

As selling off the military equipment and returning a huge pot of my stolen tax money to me is going to happen when pigs fly, I am left with either watching the proceeds of my robbery slowly depreciate as they sit in military bases scattered across the world, or instead demanding that I at least get some value for my stolen money!

Just as I would rather have privately own roads, private police forces and private healthcare, in the here-and-now I at least what the state owned roads to have no potholes, the state owned police to prevent me being mugged and the National Health Service to fix me up when I am injured. I am after all being forced to pay for all these things!

And so… please take this volunteer military I was forced to pay for and go and kill Saddam Hussain. The state made me pay for the weapons and salaries, so bloody well give me some value for my money!

15 comments to A dialogue between pukka libertarians

  • David

    Many apologies. I just posted a comment along the same lines to Nigel Meek’s last post. Feel free to delete!!


  • No, it is worth a posting of its own.

  • “How can we justify using force (viz tax revenues) to make others pay for a war that they oppose?”

    Well, how can we justify using force (viz tax revenues) to make others pay for prisons, or police, or judges, or anything else that they may oppose? We can’t — but we can still acknowledge that the ends are just and within the proper sphere of government, even if the money was taken immorally.

    As libertarians, we are obviously opposed to the methods by which these funds were extracted. That it is an injustice that the money has been taken by taxes is a given. But, even if the source of funds is illegitimate, there are still legitimate purposes to which the funds can be put. Bringing muderers to justice is one of those purposes, whether we’re going after American, British, or Iraqi murderers.

    It’s certainly a more legitimate use of the funds than enforcing the latest requirement that pig farmers buy toys for their stock, or paying for public television, or redistributing wealth.

    Give me a chance to refund the taxes to the citizenry, and I will; but as long as the money will be stolen anyway, let’s use it for legitimate purposes — justice against those who brutalize their fellow men.

  • David

    Warmongering Lunatic:

    “Well, how can we justify using force (viz tax revenues) to make others pay for prisons, or police, or judges, or anything else that they may oppose? We can’t — but we can still acknowledge that the ends are just and within the proper sphere of government, even if the money was taken immorally.”

    I’m not sure I follow. Most classical liberals and minarchist libertarians would regard the examples you give as legitimate functions of the State and hence as cases where taxation is legitimate. However, as far as I am aware, the bringing of liberty to foreigners has never fallen into that category.

    “but as long as the money will be stolen anyway, let’s use it for legitimate purposes — justice against those who brutalize their fellow men.”

    Surely that begs the question which is whether the money ought to be “stolen” in the first place! Of course if the money has already been stolen and spent (i.e. we are just talking about sunk costs), that’s a different story. However, notwithstanding Perry’s argument, it seems highly unlikely that the war will entail no additional net tax burden. Indeed I have seen figures to suggest that the additional tax burden (reflecting redeployment, replacement of munitions etc) will be many billions.

    Thus it follows that a vote for the war is a vote for more taxes to bring liberty to foreigners. It’s a worthy cause, but (as with a myriad of other worthy causes) the question remains how libertarians can justify it, having regard to their own principles.


  • Hehe, I was about to chastise David for calling his opponent a “warmongering lunatic.”

    Well, in that case David, it begs the question, “Do we completely accept the traditional libertarian view of government?” I know, this is a libertarian blog; go away you say. But I think that libertarianism can include a kinda wide range of views on how much a limited government does. And I believe that it’s possible that liberating other people is included. I mean, we *do* have an interest, however far in the future, in a world of freedom and capitalism.

  • David


    I think you have rightly identified a central issue here. My concern is that once we start loosening the criteria for legitimate State action beyond (at most) the limits of classical liberalism (which definitely do not include the bringing of liberty to foreign places), we will cease to be libertarians and will become indistinguishable from the neo-cons – not that I have anything against neo-cons – I think Mark Steyn is a brilliant writer – I just don’t want to be one.

  • There’s a small rhetorical point in that “being one” should not be a problem but you obviously mean that you don’t believe the things that neocons believe. And I really don’t want to get into those philosophical issues; I’ve never actually convinced anyone ;-p. So I suppose we should agree to disagree.

  • So by that logic you should be for abortion, because if the state is going to perform abortions anyway, many abortions should be performed in order to get the most bang for your buck.

    You think you’re smarter than you are.

  • Andrew –
    (I’m responding on “Warmongering”‘s side)

    a) you don’t need to personally insult people. Ok, so your statement was not that bad. But still, on principle….

    b) I don’t think that’s an apt analogy. Most people in this debate accept that regime change in Iraq would be a good thing; they just say that the costs are greater than the benefits. In the case of abortion, the argument is over whether the “objective” is good or bad in the first place, then over whether it is good enough with few enough costs to justify government action.

  • Andrew Sulayaman: Would you care to explain that logical leap?

    In your example, your logic is rather badly flawed as there is no attempt to see what value judgement I might have made on what constitutes ‘value’ to me. Overthrowing tyrants is valuable to me, performing abortions has no value to me: therefore if the state is going to take my money against my will, I would rather it be spent on overthrowing tyrants than performing abortions. Is that really so hard to understand?

  • Perry, there is the argument that we should be focusing on good outcomes, rather than lesser evils. But Andrew didn’t make it very well :-p.

  • Sandy P.

    You might want to tell David that the Germans think Saddam’s got smallpox.

    Rumblings last week, article in one of the German papers today. Rumor is Gerhard got the intel before the election and suppressed it.

    Andrew Sullivan has the link.

  • Michael Lonie

    The contention taxation = theft is no more valid or spohisticated than the property = theft equation of the socialists. You would will the ends, civil order, legal systems for criminal and civil law, national defense, but not the means. The means are ability to tax and a certain degree of administrative capability. Nor do voluntary contributions cut it. There is the free rider problem, not to mention the question of whether the amounts contributed will be enough. They may fall short because not enough people contributed to the national defense voluntary fund, or because the state did not have the administrative ability to mobilize the country’s resources to resist attack. Then when some despot conquers the country, you’ve lost all your freedoms, of which you were so jealous that you could not bear to contemplate giving a government the power to defend them.

  • Michael Lonie: What it all comes down to is what are the legitimate functions of a state? The anarcho-capitalist view is there are none. As a minarchist, I take the view that defence and perhaps courts are the legitimate functions… and thus any money taken as tax for functions beyond that are illegitimate and therefore in fact tantamount to theft.

    The ‘free rider’ problem is really not such a problem as you think (for example, explain Britain’s volunteer funded and operated non-governmental Lifeboat service). The fact is, if a society will not defend itself, then yes, it will be crushed by some tyrant. So what? If a society is worth defending then it will be defended. Britain fought its pre-20th Century wars without conscription and with a relatively small share of GNP being eaten by the state.

    My guess would be that under a more voluntary system, if the state does not have enough money for essential functions, they probably are not essential functions.

  • Hmm, Perry, people should be nice and pay for the functions of the state that are of value to them. And many will to begin with. But when you’re in a financial crisis, which goes first – your 1/100000000 of the military or the house? And then the military just never comes back :-p.

    ok, so that’s not a very “deep” argument. But it would happen.