Yesterday, executive board member Clint Townsend published a blog post warning of “5 Mistakes Libertarians Should Avoid.” While most of his article soundly advises to avoid stupidities like grammatical errors and conservatism, Clint gives one pointer that I firmly believe is detrimental to the liberty movement—namely that “The principle of foreign non-interventionism is not a precondition to being a libertarian.” Citing Cato fellow Brink Lindsey’s advocacy of the Iraq War , Clint argues that being anti-war is not a litmus test for being pro-liberty.
Fortunately for our movement and thousands of innocent lives, most libertarians would disagree with Lindsey’s defense of the offensive Iraq War. With estimates at over 100,000 American troops killed or wounded, 114,000 civilian deaths, and a dangerous power vacuum erupting that will ensure even more carnage, Iraq’s record speaks for itself as the opposite of any “liberating” conflict that libertarians should defend. But, what about the principle of non-intervention more abstractly? Is it true, as Clint and Dr. Stephen Davies claim, that “it’s perfectly possible to be a libertarian and to advocate a more interventionist foreign policy”? The answer to me remains a resounding no.
Mind you, I don’t mean to sound exclusive. I strongly believe that to galvanize our political movement, libertarianism should take a big tent approach, welcoming freedom fighters of all flavors. Whether one is a Constitutionalist, Austrian, or utilitarian is immaterial to our mutual goal of restraining the Leviathan state. With that said, there must nevertheless be boundaries to our philosophy lest it cease to be a philosophy at all. Foreign policy is perhaps the clearest issue to draw the line because in war the coercive nature of government is seen in full regalia—clad with tanks, bombs, missiles, guns, death, and destruction.
Indeed, foreign interventionism contradicts every principle a libertarian can subscribe to. For you Constitutionalists out there, America’s current conflicts abroad have resulted in innumerable illegal violations of the War Powers Clause and has given monarchial prerogative power to the presidency—a topic I am writing my honors thesis on at Berkeley. Not only has every foreign conflict after World War II failed to be formally declared by Congress, interventionism has given rise to a plethora of other legal quagmires such as the Guantanamo Bay detention camp, the USA PATRIOT Act, and the National Defense Authorization Act. Nowadays the state can wiretap, detain, and assassinate you at will regardless of jurisdiction or citizen status. Is this truly the constitutional ends “libertarian” interventionists are seeking?
For you natural rights deontologists out there, foreign interventionism necessitates massive violations of the non-aggression principle. As Murray Rothbard concisely explains, “All State wars… involve increased aggression against the State’s own taxpayers, and almost all State wars (all, in modern warfare) involve the maximum aggression (murder) against the innocent civilians ruled by the enemy State.” Empirical proof of this observation can be seen by the Iraq body count cited previously and the rampant costs of war accumulated by the current conflicts abroad. Indeed, foreign interventionism is the most obvious manifestation of the non-aggression principle’s violation, as trumpeted in its very name. Foreign interventionism non-consensually intervenes against another nation’s sovereignty without provocation by an official declaration of war. Is this the non-coercive ends that “libertarian” interventionists advocate?
Finally for you undogmatic utilitarians out there, foreign interventionism has led to an unsustainable debt and an unbridled military-industrial complex. Military expenditures now account for 18% of the federal budget by government figures during an era of a $1 trillion annual deficits. Of course, history has proven state statistics to be wildly underestimated. In reality, academic studies have pegged the costs of the foreign interventions since 9/11 to be as high as $4 trillion. All of this, conveniently, during one of the severest economic depressions the United States has faced. Worst of all, foreign interventionism, like all other government interventions, results in great unintended consequences that lead to future costs in dollars and lives. Let us remember that American foreign policy once officially supported Stalin’s USSR, Ho Chi Minh’s North Vietnam, bin Laden’s al-Qaeda, Hussein’s Iraq, and Mubarak’s Egypt, subsidizing their tyrannical policies on Uncle Sam’s dime. Is this the best outcome that “libertarian” interventionists strive for?
Such “libertarians” may object that my arguments thus far are all straw men. Certainly they may take a more interventionist stance on foreign policy than the rest of the flock, but that doesn’t mean that they consequently condone the damage done to the Constitution, the non-aggression principle, and the economic and physical well-being of millions of people domestically and abroad. Rather, they may claim that they simply advocate a more “realist” approach to foreign policy, freed from the dangerous bonds of non-interventionist idealism, that protects against genuine security threats like al-Qaeda while avoiding all the ugly consequences of prolonged intervention.To this common counterargument, I have two points. First, it seems more “idealist” than non-interventionism to believe that the American military can truly engage in limited conflict given the long list of historical evidence that says otherwise (e.g. Korea, Vietnam, the Gulf War, etc.). Secondly, if these “libertarian” interventionists’ truly believe in the principles outlined above (i.e. the Constitution, the non-aggression principle, utilitarianism), then they should disregard their hawkish tendencies for the time being, acknowledge that the current conflicts overseas far overstep the interventionist boundaries they had imagined, and join the choir in stiffly opposing to the wars.
Thus, contrary to Clint’s assessment, I cannot conceive of how any self-respecting libertarian today could abandon non-interventionism in light of the current atrocities in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Pakistan, etc. As Randolph Bourne so astutely observed in the early 20th century, “War is the health of the state.” Thus, advocating foreign interventionism necessitates abandoning all of the ideals that a libertarian could possibly subscribe to—the Constitution, the non-aggression principle, fiscal responsibility, civil liberties, limited government—with the result of strengthening the state’s chokehold on our freedom.
And if this intolerance for warmongers and their advocates is a “Mistake Libertarians Should Avoid,” then I will proudly remain an “erroneous” advocate for peace.