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A way forward

Reading a number of anti-war libertarian blogs such as that of the estimable Jim Henley, it occurred to me that among the various errors in their positions over what to do about Saddam, etc, is a tendency to dismiss or downplay any threat that such countries may pose to us.

Now, I am not going to engage in some long ramble about why I think the case for war is correct (though I think it is). However, what I do want to do is briefly reflect on what I think is an aspect of the anti-war libertarian position which could prove damaging to libertarianism more generally. It is the problem of evasion.

In recent years, libertarians have been aware of a growing threat to our free society, namely, the Green movement. And much time is spent, rightly, dismissing or pulling apart the scare stories (such as the Greenhouse Effect, population explosion, etc) that are offered to justify wholesale government controls over our lives. But a nagging question is – what would libertarians do if the Green case is partly, or even wholly, correct? What if global warming is as bad as they claim? What would we fans of free-wheeling capitalism do about that? It is simply not good enough for us to trash the Green case without at least working out how we would cope with such issues.

It seems to me that the isolationist libertarians who rubbish most government attempts to crack down on terrorists and their state sponsors need to answer a similar sort of question. How can free, minimal state societies deal with serious threats to liberty and life? What sort of measures should such societies take?

I think we owe it to ourselves to pose such questions and come up with a few ideas. Attacking governments for trashing civil liberties and ramping up defence spending is of course a good thing for libertarians to do, and we must continue to do so. But not offering any positive suggestions on how we defend ourselves is not just unwise. It threatens also to make the libertarian movement irrelevant.

And frankly, I don’t give a toss whether such worries make me a ‘neo-libertarian’ or whatever. I am not interested in going to my grave knowing that I died like a good disciple of Murray Rothbard. I want to stay alive with as much freedom as possible. It is about time that we worked on a few ways to achieve that.

Consider the gauntlet thrown on the floor.

20 comments to A way forward

  • Theodopoulos Pherecydes

    I thought libertarians opposed assault. I don’t find it difficult to call ecoproblems an assault on the environment and, therefore, on my person. As to Saddam Hussein…close enough for government work.

  • Paul Coulam

    Libertarians, even Rothbardian ones such as myself, are not pacifists (With the notoriuos exception of Robert Lefevre). If there is a genuine attack or the clear and present danger of the threat of attack then retaliation is perfectly in order against those who did it (I mean actually did it not a huge bunch of innocent people who happen to be in the way) and would be achieved through the voluntary actions of all those whose interests were threatened and their allies and sympathisers employing such arms and armies as may be necessary. But this is merely the response to the charge of evading this logical possibility because the current war against Iraq is not like this.

    You are evading the fact that the United States Government is the foremost terrorist organisation in the world at the current time and its war plans are not designed to protect yours and my liberties but rather to extend its own power at the expense of me and you in terms of our money, liberty and increased risk of attack and at the expense of the lives of the innocents in Iraq who are about to be bombed. It is the foreign policies of the United States with its continual interference in other countries that provokes and incites possible attacks on the West and inflames and radicalizes these people against the West. If the US had followed a similar foreign policy to that of say Switzerland we would be much safer, freer and richer than is currently the case. Would Saddam or Osama or any of the rest of them be remotely interested in us if our governmnets hadn’t sought to continually intervene in their affairs. The current war policy will not make us one jot safer or freer in fact it will be quite the reverse – more robbed and oppressed by our own governments and more of a target for terrorist revenge and as for those killed in Iraq, well they’ll be dead – more victims or the American terror machine.

  • Eichra Oren

    Regardless of what got us here, and I’m not trying to trivialize the past, understanding it is important, we ARE here, and the sooner Libertarians understand what that means, the better off they’ll be. We are under attack by people that hate us, want us dead, and are rapidly acquiring the means to that end.

    We can blather on all day about the superiority of Switzerland’s foreign policy, and I’ll grant you that Switzerland has done better than us so far.


    We are where we are, and must act accordingly. Pulling out of the Middle East is not going to save us now. Human nature being what it is, a pullout will send exactly the wrong message. It will tell the rest of the world that we are weak, vacillating fools, easily discouraged, with no moral courage at all. It will tell everyone that the censure of France, of all nations, is enough to deter us.

    We must destroy terrorism, as much as possible, as quickly as possible, for if we don’t, we are dead, literally.

    It’s a matter of priorities, and national defense ALWAYS comes first, no matter what Harry Browne and company say.

  • John Taylor

    It’s great fun to hear the Neocons in Britain clamouring for the USA to go to war against a third world country. They don’t seem to understand what war has done for the growth of the federal government in USA. Have you never asked your self why Lincoln, Wilson, FDR, LBJ are so loathed – nay hated by the majority of american libertarians? You talk war but you don’t mention USA PATRIOT ACT, TIA, TIPS. And do you really believe that Saddam is a greater threat to the American people than Dubya. You better learn something about the history of the American republic.

    “If tyrrany and oppresion come to this Land, it will be in the guise of fighting a foreign enemy”
    James Madison

    “Free government is founded in jealousy, not confidence…. Let no more be heard of confidence in men, but bind him down from mischief by the chains of the Constitutions.”
    Thomas Jefferson

  • Juan Fernando Carpio

    See hanshoppe.com for an interview with the German scholar on how to respond to terrorism in a libertarian manner.

    See you!

  • Juan Fernando Carpio

    I don’t agree with Eichra. Retreating for the US would probably be interpreted as “We renounce to create more of a mess. We aknowledge the damage done, but whoever comes after us will be destroyed”

    More interventions will further create a state of unrest. The US State must recognize that through Wilson it created the conditions for Nazism and international socialism to flourish for decades long. Withouth those no Afghanista, Bin Laden, Saddam, etc would exist or pose a serious threat.

    Time to back up!

  • Robert

    ” … But not offering any positive suggestions on how we defend ourselves is not just unwise. It threatens also to make the libertarian movement irrelevant.”

    Very well put and preceded by what I thought was a simple, straight-forward question; how should libertarians respond to terrorists and their state sponsors? What policies should a minimalist society enact to respond to such threats?

    With a rational analysis of the situation at hand, consideration of historical precedents and proposals of policy options to be debated, a libertarian prospective will be at least taken seriously. If ill-considered statements of “fact” and irrational assigning of blame to an American conspiracy and calls for a utopian foreign policy “like Sweden’s” are given creedence in the debate, the libertarian viewpoint is destined for irrelevance.

    And rightly so.

  • In order to combat terrorism it is necessary to engage in a non-interventionist foreign policy, to have a heavily armed civilian population – more guns, less crime – and to treat terrorism for what it is: not as a conventional attack by the armed forces of another state but as essentially private conspiracies and crimes which must be combatted accordingly by police action, hired mercenaries, privateers, assassination commandoes, and headhunters.Hans-Hermann Hoppe

    Is that what you mean, Juan?

    Since we operate with limited information (even the recent Powell presentation to the UN didn’t divulge all the intel we have on Iraq), we’ll probably never really know the degree of threat Iraq poses to the US and to it’s neighbors. The libertarian principle of non-agression reads much like the legal definition of justifiable force used in self-defense: it requires either a direct and immediate threat to one’s life or property or the reasonable belief that such a threat is a forgone future conclusion.

    This seems to be the crux of the arguement. Much of the problem lies with how well you trust the government’s data. Libertarians obviously tend to have a harshly skeptical opinion of government-derived information, but it is irrational to assume all government data is corrupt and incorrect, just as it’s irrational to assume the opposite.

    So it falls to the individual (like it always does) to gauge the risks involved. I think it is safe to say that Iraq is not going to engage the US in fierce tank battle on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., mine our harbors, or drop cluster bombs on state capitols. I don’t think it’s safe to say that Iraq does not encourage and actively aid terrorism, the problem we now face.

    In such a light, we have to decide if there should be a war on terrorism. And not one of those liberty-smothering wars like the one on drugs or poverty, but a serious and concentrated war on those who target the US for violent attack. “Those” being individual terrorists, terrorist organizations, and nations that sponsor them.

    I feel that in light of reality and our self-interest, standing up to terrorism and fighting it hard is a better choice than waiting for


    …that to suddenly happen in an American city. The threats we face aren’t the kind easily observable or predictable. We can track the vocal supporters of terrorism and the people they associate with, but that doesn’t protect us from the people who don’t speak up and don’t show their faces. I think it is irresponsible to choose to wait for an imminent threat to appear before acting on it. One doesn’t wait for the wasp to land on your arm before using force against it.

    None of this justifies most of the bills that the US Government has passed in response to 9/11. Personally, though I feel international airport security is part of a government’s job description, much of what has become law is anti-liberty.

  • Johnathan

    Thanks for the above posts. I actually agree with about 90 pct of what the above writers say. To take Paul Coulam’s point first, of course it is undoubtedly true that the US has engaged in many stupid and ill-considered interventions in the past, which have stirred up trouble. However, his citing the case of Switzerland begs the question of what would have happened to the Swiss during the Cold War had NATO not existed?

    The Swiss Army vs the Red Army? Sounds like Farnborough Utd vs Real Madrid.

    I totally agree with libertarians who fear, rightly, that “war is the health of the state”. What I was hoping to get from my piece were some ideas of how, in a minimal state or even an anarcho-capitalist society, we would deal with regimes determined to destroy us.

    For Paul’s comment misses an obvious point. What happens if, no matter how Swiss-like (!) we are, groups such as al-Quaeda or countries such as Iraq are determined to destroy us? Vibrant, liberal, open societies such as those spawned by libertarian ideas are a direct threat to such people.

    Defence and foreign policy has always struck me as being the potential weak spot in the libertarian credo. I am not totally sure how we deal with this. That is why name calling and dismissing those who have doubts by calling them “neo-cons” or whatever just isn’t very clever.

  • Jacob

    “United States Government is the foremost terrorist organisation in the world at the current time ”

    The debate above was generally very polite and educated and interesting.

    However, I cannot leave the above comment unanswered, and find it very difficult to keep my calm about it. I think the writer of that should be sentenced to (at least) spending a year in Iraq.

  • Paul Zrimsek

    One of the chief deficiencies of antiwar libertarians is their inability to hew consistently to the methodological individualism from which they are trying to argue. Paul Coulam believes that terrorist governments and their people are separate for purposes of deciding whom to retaliate against (“I mean actually did it not a huge bunch of innocent people who happen to be in the way”). Well and good– but notice how government and people become fused once more when it comes time to complain about “interference in other countries”. The Rothbardian individualist turns out to believe just as fervently in national sovereignty as anyone at National Review, and Saddam Hussein gassing Kurds is just another of “their affairs”, whose privacy the true libertarian is bound to respect.

  • David Goldstone

    I’m not a Rothbardian, but ……

    1. As to Johnathan’s point about Farnborough v. Real Madrid, the last time the Red Army invaded a mountainous country with a heavily armed citizenry (in 1979), they didn’t exactly collect the full three points.

    2. Whether or not one agrees with PC’s charge that the U.S. is a terrorist State (that’s another debate …), there can’t be much doubt that the citizens (oxymoron?) of a libertarian society would be much less likely to be the target of external aggression than the citizens of a highly interventionist State, such as the U.S. or U.K.

    3. Nevertheless, there will be some cases in which even a peaceful society will face external aggression or the threat of it from stupid criminals who value short-term conquest over the long-term gains of peaceful trade. However:

    a) Wealth helps. War is very expensive. The richer society will always have the advantage and a fully libertarian society is likely to be very rich indeed.

    b) It is far easier to persuade people to fight defensive wars than offensive wars. Hence the dreaded free-rider problem is likely to be less of a problem for a libertarian society which would only ever wage defensive wars (or, at most, pre-emptive wars).


  • Attacking governments for trashing civil liberties and ramping up defence spending is of course a good thing for libertarians to do

    I find it strange that you both support the war, and want to see a smaller defense budget.

    As to civil liberteries, I would love to live in a world where those are my biggest concern, but we are not there yet.

  • Robert

    ” … there can’t be much doubt that the citizens (oxymoron?) of a libertarian society would be much less likely to be the target of external aggression than the citizens of a highly interventionist State, such as the U.S. or U.K.”

    This presupposes that the attacks of 9/11 were due to the “highly interventionist” policies of the US. This supposition is dubious at best and has been repudiated by none other than Usama Bin Laden. We are “The Great Satan” because of our culture’s foundations; a secular society of liberty, religious tolerance, economic freedom & etc. Therefore, any society founded on the libertarian principles of personal, religious and economic freedom will be as much a target, if not more so due to it’s military weakness, as the US or UK.

    UBL’s only mention of US “interventionism”, prior to the total defeat of Al Qaedh/Taliban in Afghanistan, is the fact that we have troops stationed in “the land of the holy places.” Well, the government of said land (Saudi Arabia) requested/begged for our troops following the invasion of a neighboring nation by a mad man. Are we now to define answering an allie’s request for aid as interventionism? Or do we call refusal of said aid what it is, the isolationism of cowards?

  • Joel

    What would have been the proper libertarian response to East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda? Individual volunteers forming international brigades as in the Spanish Civil War?

  • Jacob

    Those who bring Switzerland as an example of a peaceful nation beeing left alone are deeply mistaken. Switzerland is a free rider in a world order maintained by others who lift the burden of defense.
    The idea that a peaceful coexistence of all nations without the need for defence is possible is utopian pacifism.
    Switzerland is safe because, among other reasons, potential attackers know that well armed countries, like NATO, will not tolerate an attack on Switzerland, despite Switzerland not beeing a member of NATO.

  • David


    Re. “What would have been the proper libertarian response to East Timor, Bosnia, Kosovo, Rwanda? Individual volunteers forming international brigades as in the Spanish Civil War?”

    I wouldn’t fight because I’m weak and cowardly but I’d happily pay others to fight if I felt the cause was worthwhile.

    What I resent is the State taking my money and making the decision for me. You can be quite sure that if the State makes the decision using other people’s money, then:

    1. There will be be too much spent on war.

    2. It will be spent inefficiently on the wrong wars in the wrong places at the wrong times.

    Of course for “war(s)” you can substitute anything you like ….


  • Joel


    Okay, that’s the abstract, debating-society response to my question. Now how about a concrete, practical, and effective libertatian response to problems like Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, and so forth? Hire mercenaries? I don’t think I’d want a huge number of mercenaries around waiting for concerned libertarians to pay them to bash whomever needs bashing. I’d rather have a democratically accountable state in control of powerful weaponry than private armies.

  • Win

    Outstanding Exhange, thanks.
    Basics:Countries, business, organizations, have no rights or reponsilities, only individuals in them. Have at the guilty leave the innocent alone.
    No not that GW!

  • David


    1. I don’t see what’s wrong with private armies. If anything, they would be more rather than less accountable to those who ultimately fund them. At the moment, the chain of accountability is tenuous or non-existent anyway.

    2. Why shouldn’t funding be a matter of a choice? If I choose to fund the liberation of oppressed peoples in X, that’s a matter for me. Why I should be forced to pay for military intervention in a far-away place any more than I should be forced to pay for any other kind of foreign “aid”?

    3. Re. practical libertarian solutions for Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, Afghanistan, … I don’t see that libertarian solutions can do any worse than conventional solutions. Rwanda got no help from anybody until the genocide was over. Ditto (in effect) East Timor. We all know what happened when Western States tried to help out in Aghanistan. Kosovo is arguably the only case where any good may have been done, but even there, it must be questionable whether the end result was worth the effort.

    4. Obviously there are major limitations on libertarian solutions in the present world (just as private health doesn’t stand much of a chance in the UK as long as the State rules the roost). However, in an alternative world, imagine the response if “Oxfight” had run a campaign for funds to provide military assistance to the Tutsi to help defend themselves against Hutu genocide. My guess is that millions would have been quickly forthcoming and would have been put to good use.