Randy Barnett at The Volokh Conspiracy has two new posts on the subject of libertarianism and war, here and here. Barnett’s posts, the posts he links to, and the comments on some of those posts have highlighted the need for a clear definition of libertarianism. In particular, we need a definition of libertarianism as it applies to the defense of America. I will offer that definition here, then (in a later post) I will offer a doctrine of pre-emptive war that is consistent with my view of libertarianism.
According to Wikipedia,
Libertarianism is a political philosophy which advocates individual rights and a limited government. Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon what they believe to be the equal rights of others. In this respect they agree with many other modern political ideologies. The difference arises from the definition of “rights”. For libertarians, there are no ‘positive rights’ (such as to food or shelter or health care), only ‘negative rights’ (such as to not be assaulted, abused, robbed or censored). They further believe that the only legitimate use of force, whether public or private, is to protect those rights.
That’s consistent with this passage from the Libertarian Party’s introductory statement:
The Libertarian way is a logically consistent approach to politics based on the moral principle of self-ownership. Each individual has the right to control his or her own body, action, speech, and property. Government’s only role is to help individuals defend themselves from force and fraud.
Note that Wikipedia‘s definition and the Libertarian Party’s statement both acknowledge a role for government. It can’t be said often enough: Liberty is not anarchy. The state is legitimate, though not everything the state does is legitimate.
That statement may not seem to say much about libertarianism, but it does when libertarianism is contrasted with its alternatives. There are four main points on the political compass:
• Anarchy is the stateless solution, in which individuals, families, clans, and bands may or may not cooperate to defend their lives and property from others. Of course, anarchy inevitably gives way to a state, a rather powerful and oppressive one at that, because under anarchy “might makes right.”
• Libertarianism admits a minimal, neutral state to protect life and property, and therefore the liberty to enjoy them.
• Communitarianism uses the power of the state to regulate private institutions for the sake of “desirable” outcomes in such realms as income distribution, health, safety, education, and the environment
• Statism consists of outright state control of most institutions, including religion (which may be banned or allowed in only one form). Statism may be reached either as an extension of communitarianism or via anarchy or near-anarchy, as in Soviet Russia, the Third Reich, and Communist China.
In sum, those who say that the state is inherently unjust — be they anarchists, anarcho-capitalists, and anarcho-libertarians — are not libertarians, they are simply anarchists by various names. All of them must accept the logical consequences of their ideology: They have no right to life, liberty, or property; they must prey upon others or be preyed upon. Luckily for most of them, their proclaimed belief in anarchy is a cloistered virtue, cosseted in the United States by a state that is far more benevolent than the one that would arise from anarchy.
Libertarians, having a firmer grasp of reality, understand that living under anarchy, in what amounts to a constant state of warfare, diminishes liberty — the ability to enjoy life and property — for all but the strongest or most ruthless. They understand, further, that there is less to enjoy under anarchy, communitarianism, and statism because those ideologies are inimical to free markets and property rights. Libertarians therefore willingly accept a neutral state for defense from force and fraud. Libertarians understand that the presence of such a state actually makes life better for everyone but predators.
Libertarians can and do argue about how the state should go about protecting individuals from force and fraud, but one cannot be a libertarian and argue that the state is inherently an unjust institution. That untenable position is reserved for anarchists and crypto-anarchists. As “Decnavda” says in a comment on a post by John Quiggin at Crooked Timber:
I think this is entirely a means vs. ends problem, in two senses:
1. Libertarians (NOT anarcho-capitalists) believe in strong police enforcement of property rights, but their belief in these property rights places many restrictions on HOW the police can engage in this strong enforcement. The same would apply to war. You can believe that a war against a dictator is justified…but also believe in major restrictions on how that war is fought. Thus, a privately owned power plant may be an illegitimate target, while actual military bases would undoubtedly be legitimate. It may be that a libertarian legitimate war is IMPOSSIBLE to fight on PRACTICAL grounds.
2. There are two types of libertarianism: “pure” deontological libertarianism and consequentialist libertarianism[*]….A consequentialist libertarian could easily conclude…that a war against a dictator, although inevitably resulting in the deaths of innocents, will advance the overall cause of freedom.
Indeed…it seems to me that the problem discussed here is not with libertarianism, but with deontology. Not only could a consequentialist libertarian easily support a war against a dictator, but ANY deontologist would have to oppose any modern war except to repel invasion. Is there ANY deontological moral code that would authorize the intentional killing of innocent workers at power plants?
There are, of course, consequentialist libertarians who argue that we only make the world more dangerous (for ourselves as well as others) by going to war in the absence of imminent danger to the homeland. But that’s an argument about how and when to go to war, not about whether to go to war or whether pre-emptive war is always unjustified.
The deontological view — what Randy Barnett would call “defenseism” — is more troublesome. Deontological libertarians (“defenseists”) seem to say that we should never attack until we are under attack, and then we must be very careful about what and whom we attack. Such a view, aside from being suicidal in practice, implies that the innocents and private property of the United States are somehow less worthy of protection than the innocents and private property of other lands.
That leads me to these thoughts, which I ask “defenseists” and reluctant consequentialists to consider.
You, the innocent, are targets simply because you’re Americans. Your main enemy — Osama bin Laden and his ilk — don’t care about the lives and property of innocents. Your main enemy doesn’t care what you think about George Bush, the invasion of Iraq, or pre-emptive war. Your main enemy doesn’t care whether you’re anarchists, crypto-anarchists, libertarians, communitarians, or even neo-fascists. You don’t have to choose sides, your main enemy has already done it for you.
The only ideology your main enemy values is Islamism, and he would impose an Islamic state upon you if he could. But he will settle for killing and terrorizing you so that you retreat from the Middle East. He will then control it and you will become poorer and ever more vulnerable to his threats of death and destruction. Now ask yourself whether you are willing to acquiesce in your enemy’s aims before you acquiesce in actions that might — unavoidably — result in the killing of foreign innocents and the destruction of their property.
That’s all for now. This post positions me to lay out a doctrine of pre-emptive war that is consistent with libertarianism, properly understood. I’ll do that in a future post.
[* Editor’s note: Borrowing from Wikipedia, a deontological libertarian believes that the use of force is always wrong, except in self-defense; a consequentialist maintains “that the rightness or wrongness of an action depends on the consequences of the act and hence on the circumstances in which it is performed.”]