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When libertarians disagree

A smart and thought-provoking blogger I have recently come across, Perry Metzger, who seems to hail from the anarcho-capitalist bit of the libertarian intellectual universe, does not like the way this blog has supported the military ouster of Saddam Hussein. Now, of course another certain Perry (de Havilland) of this parish thinks rather differently.

Metzger asks how it is that folk who are so ardently opposed to the State can possibly countenance the use of force, including appropriation of wealth via taxation, to topple another regime deemed to be dangerous. Well, it is actually quite easy to answer that question in my view. First of all, not all libertarians believe a free society can exist without a minimal state, including one with the ability to provide external and internal security, which may include the need to take out violent and hostile foreign regimes.

Second, the supposedly sacred libertarian principle that thou shalt not initiate force against another is not very useful when it comes to judging whether regime X or Y poses your country a particular threat or not, and whether action of a Bush-style pre-emptive sort is justified and perhaps even more important, whether it is prudent. Good people will and do differ a lot about that.

Such disagreements cannot in my view be arbitrated solely by referring to abstract moral principles – although principles are of course crucial – but have to be also judged on events, by weighing up the possible consequences of an action or taking no action. In fact, taking no action and adopting a purely reactive approach to defence will also have consequences, not all of them necessarily good ones. There is no easy way to say which approach will always be better. So even two ardent libertarians who read a situation in the Middle East, say, could differ on fine points and end up having precisely the sort of heated debates we get in the comments sections.

I have changed my mind on so many aspects of the current war in Iraq that my head will probably explode at some point. At one point I felt the whole affair was a dumb mistake and we would have been better off leaving Saddam in his palaces and let things run on awhile. But regardless of what I thought about facts on the ground and the news reports I read, I honestly do not feel that appeals to higher tenets of libertarian theory really ever decisively swayed my mind about the particulars one way or the other.

25 comments to When libertarians disagree

  • snide

    What a missed opportunity! Clearly the name of this article SHOULD have been “When Perrys attack!”(Link)

  • You just have to remember, when you think Iraq was mistake, there are parts of Iraq that are peaceful (mostly) and where the people there are very happy for the war. The news and blogs only concentrate on the Shias going nuts, they do however forget that the people who Saddam gassed are now free. Yes, I am talking about the Kurds.

    BTW: I think many libertarians have been intellectually inept over the whole war thing. Instead of having a rational debate some of retorted the tired, intellectually dishonest rhetoric of the far-left and the stoppers.

  • Quite a compliment to actually be responded to in Samizdata. I’ll be posting a more extensive reply on my blog later, but for the moment, please note that my argument in my original posting has nothing to do with anarchocapitalism. Indeed, I assume (rhetorically) the minarchist position in it.

    The meat of my argument is simply that Iraq was not a threat to the United States or United Kingdom, and thus the cause of deposing Saddam Hussein was, at best, a “charitable work”, like spending money on housing for the poor.

    To a libertarian, it is fine to spend one’s own money on such things. I donate money to many worthy causes. However, it is not okay to spend other people’s money on such things.

    The minarchist position is that the government exists only to provide protection from force and fraud for its citizens, not to fund every worthy cause in sight. That’s why virtually all minarchists favor a swiss-style foreign policy.

    To be clear, i do not question whether Hussein was an evil guy, or whether his people would ultimately be better off with a libertarian system rather than with Hussein. I only am questioning whether a libertarian should support a government based response to someone like him.

    Anyway, as I said, I’ll respond more thoroughly on my own blog later today. My position isn’t merely that the invasion violated dogma, but that it was, as a practical matter, the continuation of a mistaken foreign policy that has brought us great harm.

  • David Hecht

    I believe that this was previously addressed by the folks over at The Volokh Conspiracy, but part of the error is to conflate principles that govern individual-to-individual relations and those that govern state-to-state ones.

    Now, obviously, if you don’t believe in states, this might seem like a non-issue. But–to quote Leon Trotsky–just because you take no interest in the state, does not mean the state will take no interest in you.

    Or to put it in the more derisive terms one hears elsewhere, “How many libertarians does it take to stop the Republican Guard?” “None–the market will take care of it.”

    Given that Saddamite Iraq was hardly a bastion of laissez-faire libertarianism, what, if any, is the moral posture of libertarians who are faced with the spectacle of some thug truncheoning his own people? And if it’s unacceptable to have your own state do something about it, would it be OK for a voluntary group of freebooters (for that is what they would be) to go in and topple a Saddam-like regime?

    Now there’s a foreign-policy construct for you–back to the Renaissance and the condottiere!

  • would it be OK for a voluntary group of freebooters (for that is what they would be) to go in and topple a Saddam-like regime?

    It looks like someone was trying to do exactly that in Equatorial Guinea. I suspect that might have been a worthy endeavour – even if motivated by hopes for booty. President Brig. Gen. (Ret.) Teodoro strikes me as exactly the type who should be got rid of by privateers. The place is a corrupt nepotistic military dictatorship – with oil.

    Maybe it needed a Thatcherite takeover? 🙂

  • On the issue of the war and libertarians, I think the war has led to a lot of ideological inconsistency. A lot of libertarians are patriotic, have a gut hatred of dictators etc. It might not be justifiable ideologically to support a war-state, but emotionally… that’s another thing.

    I’m in the in the ideologically muddled camp. My heart says it was right, my head says it was always going to be a mess.

  • S Lawrence

    If we take no regard of national boundaries, as they have little justification; and one criminal harms people in a certain area – then what could be the problem with helping them, anymore than the police helping their neighbour deal with a burglar?

    Of course if one objects to the police then it is another matter.

  • veryretired

    I have been listening to attitudes like Metzger’s for a long time, and they are just as flawed now as they ever were.

    First, the demand that the world must be perfect or I won’t play is a childish response. There is nothing sophisticated about holding your breath until you turn purple.

    Second, the appeal to the Swiss model is unrealistic and amoral. Does Metzger or anyone else actually believe the Swiss would have survived Nazism if there were no other opposing forces left?

    Third, it is a form of pacifism. While I respect the right of anyone to refuse military service, or adopt a totally pacifist approach to life, the world does not operate on the fine moral priciples that pacifists cling too. Even Ghandi admitted his campaign would have been very different against a totalitarian regime instead of the British.

    Fourth, the proposal that the US retreat behind its borders and only react when attacked is ahistorical. The people of the US were very opposed to war until we were attacked, and war was declared against us in 1941. The results of that conflict positioned the US as the only force in the world which could defend democratic states against a ruthless totalitarian adversary.

    When would Metzger have had the US adopt a Swiss foriegn policy? Give us a date, and examine honestly the conditions in the world and the likely consequences. I would very much like to see some specifics instead of all the airy theorizing that usually goes on about this subject.

    Finally, there are a great many men and women who have accepted the challenge of protecting liberty over the decades, and they are worthy of respect, not denigration as fools and puppets, as Metzger and some of his fellows characterize them.

    Iraq’s position in the ME is strategic. The results have been mixed, but it is no coincidence that the Pakistani nuclear underground, the Libyan nuclear program, the attitude of Syria, and the safe passage of many terror suspects have all been seriously altered to our benefit.

    The idea that being libertarian means one should be so naive and removed from the realities of life on this earth that puerile dreams of being the new Switzerland are a substitute for a meaningful approach to world problems is camouflage for the inability of Metzger and his friends to accept the fact that this dirty, ishy world will never be neat and perfect enough for them to get their hands soiled defending it.

    It’s so much easier to sit back and sneer at those who do.

  • Nick Timms

    I think Metzger makes some valid points and I did not get the impression that he was “sneering” at people who defend their country.

    Whatever your political leanings it always makes sense to attack someone if you feel that there is a real chance that they are planning to harm you. This is true of individuals and states.

    This has proven not to be the case with Iraq. Whether we were deliberately misled, or the politicians really believed the intelligence they had, is another matter. (My own opinion is that we were deliberately misled. If the truth about our actual intelligence on Iraq had been known I do not believe either Bush or Blair would have had sufficient political backing to attack Iraq.)

    Iraq and Iraqis are likely to be infinitely better off now that Saddam Hussein has been ousted, and the west’s strategic control of the ME has been strengthened, but, this does not mean that our government was right to attack Iraq.

    I believe that the attack on Iraq was, at root, a need for the west, and especially Bush, to be seen to be doing something concrete in the wake of 9/11. An understandable feeling especially as operations in Afganistan produced little in the way of tangible results regarding Al Quaeda.

    A war on terrorism, to be effective, was always going to have to be a long drawn out business targeted against the various terror organisations and the individual members of them. The terrorists themselves, rather than their ignorant supporters, probably only number a few thousands and operate clandestinely so this is going to take time.

    The people of Iraq are probably far better off now but this is not the point. I believe that a government should defend its citizens against credible threats and attack is a legitimate form of defence. I am happy to pay taxes for this. I am not a pacifist. Like Metzger I am not happy that money co-erced from the tax payer was used to attack a country where no credible threat existed.

    Saddam Hussein is a mass murderer and I am glad that he will almost certainly be executed for his crimes. He won’t suffer enough I feel, but I pay my taxes so that the government will protect me and my family, not citizens of a foreign country. But what about the poor Iraqis tyranised by Saddam Hussein? Not our problem unless he decides to attack us or provide help to those who would.

  • Although I obviously disagree with some of what Perry Metzger wrote and agree with (a few) of veryretired’s views, I too take issue with describing it as ‘sneering’. It seemed on the whole rather reasonable and temperate language to me.

  • The trouble with the pacifist libertarian response to Saddam is that is ultimately suicidal. Saddam (or at least his secret service) had links with Islamic extremists. After all he paid a bounty to Palestinian “martyrs”. I think it would have been a costly mistake to wait until someone supported by Saddam attacked the US.

    Surely 9/11 taught us that burying one’s head in the sand and hoping for the best is not a viable option. There were people, including me, that were predicting a large scale terrorist attack on the US by Islamo-kazis. The only think that surprised me about 9/11 is that it hadn’t happened sooner.

    The isolationist libertarian view while theoretically laudable is hopelessly naive.

  • At risk of earning the nickname “Spamizdat,” I offer:

    See “911: the Road to Tyranny,” the Alex Jones film which makes Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” look like pro-Bush propaganda.

  • What should be done about Saddam and other dictators? The answer is simple; any group may attack and topple such a criminal, all libertarians will assent to this. The objection that libertarians of principle (anarcho-libertarians) have is that you may _not_ attack the rights, liberties and interests of other innocent third parties while you attack the tyrant. Therefore the war may _not_ be financed by taxation but more importantly, and this is the crucial point at issue between the pro and anti war camps, you may NOT KILL INNOCENT PEOPLE while you are pursuing your project.

    Typically the pro war people come back with a crass utilitarian response that overall fewer people are dying since Saddam is no longer gassing his own population. This will not do. We all know the errors of utilitarianism. One should not murder, whatever the excuse and the Iraq war is a very, very poor excuse.

  • Paul: your reasonable response requires further questions.

    thought experiment 1. A group of hostage takers is wildly shooting at other innocents from behind a shield of innocent people. Do you return fire and try to slot them or hold fire as the chance of tagging a hostage is very high? The situation and environment are both uncontrolled and in progress so negotiation is not an option. Some people will die either way.

    thought experiment 2. A mortar is being fired at your troops from inside a village filled with third party non-combatants but you have a good fire control solution from counter-battery radar. Do you order an artillery fire mission to silence the mortar even though you are probably also going to kill some people you really do not want to kill? Fire is incoming on your troop’s positions right now, so some people will die either way.

    Serious questions. And the answer is?

  • Tim Starr

    Pearce is absolutely right that foreign policy questions are not reducible to libertarian principles alone. They also require serious historical analysis, and examination of various theoretical explanations of historical events. Some of those are:

    1) Whether attacks upon us are caused by prior State interventions against others.

    2) Whether War really is the Health of the State

    3) Whether all States are basically equivalent, or whether there are significant differences between democracies and dictatorships

    4) The particular facts of the case – whether Iraq really did have WMDs and ties to Al Qaeda, etc.

    The principle of avoiding aggression does not answer any of these questions for us. The most relevance the non-aggression principle has to foreign policy is the question of collateral damage, but even there its relevance is debatable, not clear-cut.

  • Staffordshire Knot,

    You are quite right to try out these thought experiments as we must test our moral intuitions about these matters. However as for these specific examples. I do not see that they are analogus at all to the Iraq war in any plausible way which is why I called that war a very poor excuse. Nevertheless the questions you raise cannot be dismissed out of hand. My reply is that with these questions one must consider the rule which must pertain under iterated instances of the phenomena. My reply is that the general rule “do not murder” is both the immediately correct moral response and the best long run strategy. There is a separate question of how judicial restitution should be allocated to parties when crimes are commited under threat and I propose a proportionality formula based on minimising imposed costs.

    Nevertheless my view is that even under rule utilitarianism the correct answer is DO NOT MURDER. It is immoral to kill innocent people even in your own self defence. True, one can ratchet up figures such that would you kill one innocent to save the live of 10 000 people but I allege that there is no plausible real world analogue to this logical possibility and certainly the current war is not one.

  • Shawn

    I disagree that war may not be financed through taxation. This would only hold if the anarchist position that all taxation and all government is wrong.

    It is often said that libertarians can have different views on issues, and I agree. As I have said many times conservative libertarians will have different views on some issues than liberals.

    Fair enough. But both camps would agree that libertarianism means small and strongly limited government, and that such a government has the right to raise money for legitimate purposes such as national defense.

    The anarchist position is exactly that, anarchism, not libertarianism.

    On the issue of Perry Metzger’s idea of Swiss style armed nuetrality, and foriegn policy in general, I used to be a proponent of this myself, and its still an idea that I have respect for. But lets be clear, the Swiss formula is maintained by compulsory national service, a policy many libertarians would find dubious at best.

    My own view for what its worth, is somewhere between the isolationists and the internationalists. I dont believe that the US should simply be the tool of maintaining the UN globalist order, nor that we should try to spread democracy by force around the world. I opposed the bombing of Serbia on the grounds that Serbia was no threat the US, and that we were obscenely attacking a Christian nation defending its terroritory against Islamic terrorists. Serbia is a good example of a bad war for bad reasons.

    I also agree with the isolationists that we should get out of all foriegn military alliances, including NATO. As a general rule I agree with Perry that we should maintain a stance of armed nuetrality. I would also support some form of national service to back this up, though rather than a compulsory version, which is too anti-liberty a policy for me, I would prefer simply restricting the right to vote to those prepared to do their term of service.

    But a stance of armed nuetrality should not be a strictly non-interventionsit policy as well. In a world where we are increasingly facing proxy terrorist military cells acting either alone or with the secret backing of states, and in which these groups will sooner or later have their hands on chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, then simply waiting until after we are attacked is ludicrous. The danger of the mass killing of millions of our citizens in one strike is too great to simply wait for. So a stance of armed nuetrality should be combined with a policy of pre-emptive offensive defense when there is a reasonable concern that we are under threat.

    I supported the Iraq phase of our moral war against Islamic terrorism, and nothing has changed my view that the Iraqi action was correct. I have read enough to be very wary of the claim that Iraq was no threat to us. There is till evidence that Saddam did have WMD’s, but had sufficient time to hide and/or remove them to Syria. There is also evidence that Saddam was preparing terrorist attacks on the US through proxy groups. None of this can proved beyond doubt, but neither can it be totally disproved, and in the wake of 911, a precautionay approach of dealing to Saddam was right.

  • Guy Herbert

    […]a Christian nation defending its terroritory[…]

    What the Serb nationalists were doing in their well-named terroritory is not somehow justified or excused by their Christianity, any more than any of the incidental atrocities of the “War on Terror” is excused or justified because they are perpetrated in our name.

    If you didn’t want to stop the Milosevic regime at all, because you considered its actions legitimate, then the difficulty of the question, “was stopping it justified?”–at all, by bombing, or by some other means–goes away.

    The difficulty for libertarians of what violent intervention ought to be permitted by one state in the affairs of another arises when the intervention is proposed on the ground it will somehow improve the world at the cost of life or liberty for the citizens of one or both states involved. We are estopped from an utilitarian calculus, because we generally deny both that the interests of an individual may be sacrificed in order to benefit unrelated others and that a “general good” is definable.

    We have to look for justification to improvements in liberty: does this action tend to decrease the arbitrary power of some people over others, without tranferring that arbitrary power elsewhere? But I still don’t know that we can legitimately offset gains in freedom for some against losses of fredom for others, in theory at all, or in practice unless there is a vast disparity.

  • Patri Friedman

    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.

    Instead, they must argue that Hussein’s Iraq was a threat to the US. Not merely a threat, but such a direct threat that its worth initiating force to stop it. And enough a threat as to outweigh the invasion’s huge negative consequences in lives and money on the US.

    This argument doesn’t seem so unreasonable for the Taliban. Or for North Korea (weapons merchant to the world’s dictators). But I don’t see how this can be justified for Iraq. Iraq had no WMD’s, almost nothing to do with 9/11, and no real capability to hurt the USA. Yet we’ve already spent a hundred billion and a thousand American lives.

    If we count Iraqi freedom on the ledger, maybe its worth it. But libertarians don’t get to do that. They don’t believe its OK to steal taxpayers money to fight for freedom. Libertarians only get to check whether the “such an immediate threat that it’s worth attacking” criterion was fulfilled. I don’t think it was anywhere near fulfilled for Iraq.

    I also find it laughable that libertarians, who normally believe the government is notoriously incompetent at even simple tasks, are calling for it to handle a massive, complex, difficult, multilayered task like eliminating worldwide terrorism. I wish that poverty could be eliminated – but I don’t trust the government to do it. Same for infectious disease, lack of education, and all the other things that make the world an imperfect place. Why is terrorism any different? Is it really so much worse than the other problems facing the world that its worth putting resources into this horribly wasteful, inefficient, plodding piece of crap that is government?

  • Effra

    Dodge: “Saddam (or at least his secret service) had links with Islamic extremists. After all he paid a bounty to Palestinian “martyrs”.”

    So does Saudi Arabia. When are we invading it and besieging Mecca?

  • Shawn

    “If you didn’t want to stop the Milosevic regime at all, because you considered its actions legitimate”

    I considered its actions regarding Kosovo legitimate in so far as protecting its territorial integrity against Islamic seperatists goes. And as Serbia was not an enemy of the US, there was no reason for us to engage in military action against it.

    I also think that civilisational/religious ties should play a part in determining foriegn policy. It is never under any circumstances legitimate for us to side with an Islamic nation or group against a Christian one.

    Post-Christian tranzi liberals will of course object to this, most likely on liberal grounds dressed up as libertarian principle. So as not to highjack this thread, lets all just agree to disagree now and move on.

  • Shawn

    ” Iraq had no WMD’s, almost nothing to do with 9/11, and no real capability to hurt the USA.”

    This is opinion not fact. There is too much evidence (note I say evidence not proof) to suggest otherwise imo.

    “I also find it laughable that libertarians, who normally believe the government is notoriously incompetent at even simple tasks”

    This is not a libertarian principle, but an opinion expressed by some libertarians. Personally I think its a dangerous attitude.

    There is good reason to limit government in the way the Founders limited the US federal government, via seperation of powers, the Constitution and federalism. But the attitude that government is always and everywhere incompetent is unbalanced. National defense is a legitimate function of central government, and if we assume that any undertaking in our nations defense will be doomed solely on the basis that it is carried out by the government, then we simply paralyse ourselves into inaction.

  • The discussions here are so interesting that I have replied via a new article.

  • Cobden Bright

    Regarding the Paul Coulam vs Staffordshire knot points:

    Paul wrote – “Nevertheless my view is that even under rule utilitarianism the correct answer is DO NOT MURDER. It is immoral to kill innocent people even in your own self defence.”

    Incorrect. It is immoral to *intentionally* kill innocent people, even in your own self defence. It is not always immoral to kill someone, if that was not what you intended – for example if you are driving at night and someone is sleeping in the middle of the motorway, and you run them over and kill them. Anyone who drives knows that they are deliberately undertaking an aciton that kills hundreds of thousands of people a year, but it is not immoral because those deaths are not the intention of the action, and reasonable steps (such as driving to a reasonable standard) are taken to avoid the bad consequences. The key difference is between intended consequences i.e. those you want to happen, and forseen consequences i.e. those you don’t want to happen, but are unfortunately likely to occur. The dividing line is not clear cut, but it does exist. Look at the treatment of negligence and “reasonable man” judgements in common law for examples of how common morality judges such behaviour.

    In my opinion, if you are conducting a just action which is likely to endanger innocent people – such as shooting a hostage-taker in a crowd – then you are not *intending* to kill the civilians, thus cannot be condemned purely for doing so. However, by endangering them by your morally motivated action, you have a duty to make your best effort to ensure they are spared the consequences of your actions. Thus if you just spray into the fray with a machine gun, or bomb the building, you are guilty of recklessly endangering their life if a sniper rifle was available. However if you use the sniper rifle to the best of your ability, and get as close as possible without endangering your rescue mission, then you have acted in a morally legitimate fashion.

    Clearly in Iraq, by its heavy bombardment prior to invasion, the coalition did not meet this standard. However it is conceivable that they would have done – in which case the deaths of innocent people cannot be held against them as a crime, as it was not intended and they would have (in an ideal world) done everything within their power to stop it.

    “True, one can ratchet up figures such that would you kill one innocent to save the live of 10 000 people but I allege that there is no plausible real world analogue to this logical possibility and certainly the current war is not one.”

    The logical validity of a conditional statement (i.e. IF x occurs THEN y is true) is not dependent upon the truth or falsity of the original condition. If martians invaded earth and tried to conquer it, it would be legitimate to kill them. This statement does not become any less true just because no martians exist. In the same way, it may be moral to regrettably endanger or even kill an innocent person whilst trying to carry out another task, in order to save large numbers of people from death, even though such a situation may never occur.

    For these reasons, I can’t agree with the pacifist approach. I don’t see how you can judge morality purely on consequences, without any regard for good intentions. A true pacifist could argue against virtually any behaviour with a bit of risk, on the grounds that it unnecessarily kills innocent people.

    I’ve addressed the taxation question in the other, newer thread.

  • Cobden,

    thank you for claryfying a number of my vague points which I made late at night after a few drinks. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I was a complete pacifist and you are quite right to bring out the difference between committing a forseeable recklessness or negligence and killing or maiming by pure accident after taking due regard for circumstances which is reasonably unforseeable.

    However I think that these are different things from intentionality. One can be criminally reckless yet still not ‘intend’ any harm.