Everything Wrong With The Libertarian Movement, Part 4: Foreign Policy
In my previous posts, I’ve been writing about the problems libertarianism has today, the difficulties it has trying to work with the American public. First, I talked about rhetoric. Then, I wrote about intellectual property rights. Third, I devoted some time to anarcho-capitalism. Now, in what I plan on being my last post in this series (until and unless a new topic arises that warrants my attention; feel free to send suggestions) I want to focus on foreign policy, and how libertarianism, so far, has been fairly inadequate.
There seem to be two chief positions in the libertarian movement on foreign policy. The first is the view taken by Robert Higgs, who wrote in The Independent Review (from the Independent Institute) last fall that “Warmongering libertarians are ipso facto not libertarians.” In the other corner lies neolibertarians like Jon Henke and* people like Eric Dondero, who wrote on our blog, in a comment, that:
When you say “less aggressive foreign policy,” what you really mean to say is “more girly-manish foreign policy,” or cowardness, or just downright surrendertarianism.
These two extremes, honestly, do not have any place in the libertarian movement. While I agree with Higgs that “war is the health of the state,” and the half-century has shown that this government is largely incompetent when it comes to defending us abroad and we shouldn’t be involved in these expeditions, we cannot completely pull back and have a pacificst foreign policy. War is inevitable; it happens, sometimes by people who don’t like us. And sometimes, there are justifications for executing operations in foreign countries.
I’m not going to get into “Just War Theory” or anything like that. Just this: if you had reliable, concrete intelligence than an enemy was lining up a nuclear warhead aimed at the United States, and was going to launch it, would you wait until it entered US airspace to shoot it down, or would you go in there and take it out from its launching pad? It’s what military scientists call a “preemptive strike,” and I, for one, am a libertarian who is supportive of such things. I am not a fan of what they call “preventative war,” which is much longer term in focus (and which would likely end up causing the very thing it was supposed to prevent), but I am a fan of saving lives, and if that means a short, directed operation in order to protect American lives, then I’m for it.
Frederich von Hayek, the luminary of our movement, had what he called “a presumption against regulation.” With that statement, he noted that regulation is not, ipso facto bad, but we must have an innate opinion against them to begin with. That way, proponents of regulation must make an extremely good case for it, and if it passes a very high bar, then it can go. This would weed out roughly 90% of the regulation proposals, only permitting the basic ones required for an economy to function.
From this, I propose another idea: a presumption against intervention. Those arguing for foreign expeditions and interventions must make the case that this operation would be in the vital interests of the country, and we should have the utmost of skepticism with regard to their arguments. All the tough questions must receive answers, as much information as possible must be shared, and only after the argument passes a very high bar should we go in. Again, I think this would eliminate somewhere around 90% of foreign expeditions, and greatly cut down our empire and our bloated military-industrial complex. It also means we have to stop meddling in other countries’ internal affairs. We cannot be the world’s policeman, and we shouldn’t. Let other countries do as they will, so long as they don’t take a potshot at us or look like they’re reading their rifle to do so.
The reason I argue for this is because libertarians cannot hamstring themselves to either extreme. Donderian warmongering is not only wrong, it doesn’t go over with about 95% of the American people. But Higgsian pacifism just makes us look like fools who can’t see the threats in front of us. Make no mistake, the world is a dangerous place, and sometimes, in rare instances, we have to do dirty deeds in order to protect ourselves. We should not enjoy it, we should not relish it or celebrate it, and we should feel considerable remorse and regret that we had to do it. But if we have a choice between saving American lives from an imminent threat, and violating some notion of libertarian purity, well, that’s not really a choice at all, now is it? How does one enjoy liberty when one is a corpse?
I myself am what I call a “defensivist.” I believe in fighting only in self-defense. (Some people argue such a thing is not force, or violence; again, I won’t get into those semantic arguments.) We protect ourselves, and if an enemy ceases to fight, we cease also. That is a just and sane policy. It does not call for a massive army nor navy nor air force, just enough to make sure we are protected from external threats. It also does not call for anything like the Department of Homeland Security, the Transportation Security Administration, nor any of the multitude of security agencies and investigation bureaus that populate Washington. How is this an untenable position to some libertarians, on either extreme?
If libertarians want to resonate with Americans, we cannot let ourselves fall into silly pits of nonsense. We cannot hamstring ourselves and leave ourselves defenseless, yet we also cannot go on warmongering flights of fancy. This is one of those cases where we must find a middle ground. Is it more difficult to hold than an extreme, up against a wall? Perhaps, but it is also more mature and reasonable to do so. And we libertarians have always prided ourselves on being mature and reasonable.
*On second thought, Henke is probably closer to my position, not Dondero.