Recently, a blogpost written two years ago by my friend Clint Townsend ‘Five mistakes libertarians should avoid‘ was wildly shared again. The problem many people had was with Clint’s statement that ‘The principle of foreign non-interventionism is not a precondition to being a libertarian.’ Clint goes on to argue that there is widespread disagreement and therefore that it’s not part of a litmus test. I hope this blogpost can clarify this issue a bit.
The key issue is – of course – that words matter. The dictionary definition broadly defines libertarianism as being pro liberty in all areas of life. However, if you use the Rothbardian definition and equate libertarianism wit the NAP (and thereby exclude all government action per se), ‘foreign intervention’ (usually a term associated with government policy) is a necessary implication. To turn this around, it also means that it is a precondition to be against foreign intervention if you want to qualify as a libertarian. (Or, at least, that you are not libertarian on that particular issue.)
I personally don’t think that Rothbard’s definition is the best definition that truly captures the broad classical liberal/libertarian tradition. Hence, I have argued in the past for a different interpretation, that ‘libertarianism’, historically and currently, covers a tradition that is about “safe-guarding voluntary interaction, where the key mechanism to guard this is (broadly spoken) Lockean rights.” To expand on this
“The core question that libertarianism historically attempted to answer was: how can people with different views of the good life live together peacefully and cooperatively? This, to me, is the key emphasis on what libertarianism is (as well as why we are still, intellectually, cousins to modern day high liberalism (Rawls and all).”
I will add, immediately, that as president of the Belgian based Murray Rothbard Institute that I think Rothbard’s interpretation is, more or less, right. I think that in real life, libertarianism should aim for what Murray called ‘anarchy’ – a society where there is no monopoly on the use of force and or the deliberate creation of legislation, or, even different, competitive enterprises who provide law and security. This also means that I agree with Rothbard’s prudent and principled case against foreign non-intervention.
However, I think it’s – again, historically and currently – more accurate to say that Rothbardianism is a very important subdivision of libertarianism, rather than the core of it. When it comes to policies, I generally like Walter Block and Stephan Kinsella more than I like the proposals for Universal Basic Income from people like Zwolinski. (Which doesn’t mean I don’t want to have that discussion, but I just happen to think they are wrong.) One can think Rothbard is (broadly) correct in his conclusions, without thinking that one necessarily has to agree with Rothbard to be called a libertarian.
I hope by now it’s sort of clear from what angle that Clint’s statement came. If you take a broad view on what libertarianism is – and, again, I think this definition is more accurate, contra Rothbard – then it’s not necessary to be principled against foreign interventionism. (Just like it’s not necessary to be principled against ‘the government existing’.) However, there is another important aspect and that is, obviously, the prudential question.
Just because Objectivists are in favor of a minimal government, doesn’t mean that anything can be justified even if it falls within the case of a ‘minimal government’. Similarly, even if you think that in principle there is nothing wrong with intervening in other countries, it doesn’t follow that you think is prudent.
Let me be clear: I think the principled case in favor of (government) non-interventionism is true.I disagree – fundamentally, prudentially and principally – with those who advocate foreign intervention (even in very, very limited cases). However, it doesn’t necessary follow that they aren’t libertarians. I just think they are wrong for advocating it. And plausible even dangerously wrong in some cases.
I am also happy to report that most, if not all, SFL’ers share a deep skepticism about justifications for foreign interventionism by governments everywhere. This doesn’t mean that some SFL’ers aren’t more open to some kinds of interventionism, than others. But even there is a small difference, I’d argue.
I think – but feel free to disagree – that there is still an important difference between justifying government action for a cause that is not inherently evil relative to a cause that is. I am allowed to defend myself. If a police officer – I do understand the fictional nature of the argument, but let’s suppose – defends me (while being on tax money), this is not an inherently evil cause, but it’s supported with evil means (taxation). Similarly, some ‘foreign intervention’ goals – such as: overthrowing the North Korean regime, or even assassinating dictators – doesn’t seem inherently problematic (but it is highly problematic that is done by government), whilst advocating foreign genocide (as you, for example, sometimes hear on both sides of the Israel/Gaza discussion) is.
It is in the former category that some libertarians can be persuaded that foreign military intervention can be justified. ‘We have the army, so why not use it for good causes’. Again: I think this opinion is highly problematic, but I have no need to define these people out of the movement. I do want to convince them of the general error of their ways, and if they want to be persuaded, a good (prudent) case against this, is Chris Coyne’s After War: The Political Economy of Exporting Democracy.
One more note of caution. The ‘libertarian’ movement is not in danger because we – at SFL – refuse to define people out of the libertarian movement. Libertarian is only a word. Can we please stop focussing on how SFL defines libertarianism – we have had this debate, really – and start focussing on: why do people favor certain positions and explaining why (you think) they are wrong?
Lode Cossaer received master’s degrees in philosophy from the University of Antwerp and the Catholic University of Leuven and is currently working on a PhD proposal.
He teaches economics in Brussels, at a private business school. Cossaer was a political officer of the LVSV. He is an executive board member of European Students For Liberty and president of the Murray Rothbard in Belgium.