Blogs > Liberty and Power > War and Peace in the Classical Liberal Tradition

Mar 18, 2005 6:28 pm

War and Peace in the Classical Liberal Tradition

This is a reply to Bill Woolsey's post, which reflects the thinking of many who identify as libertarian.

BW: On the supposed opposition to war that is a key element of the classical liberal tradition—Bush, like just about everyone in the U.S., fits.

Few argue that war is a positive good—providing the best field for man to exemplify his martial virtues. Few argue that the U.S. needs an Empire so that our nation will be glorified in History.

Similarly, few argue that we should have an Empire to collect loot or tribute. Or even to impose favorable trade or investment policies so that the U.S. can gain or maintain prosperity at the expense of the rest of the world. The conventional wisdom today is that the trade and investment policies we favor for other countries would benefit them and the rest of the wold too.

All the sorts of bizzare pro-war notions that the classical liberals opposed have almost entirely been defeated in the marketplace of ideas. Instead, we have competing ideas about how best to apply liberal (or libertarian) values to foreign policy.

MB: Many of us believe that the lessons of the past have not been learned by contemporary nation-states and in particular by the United States. There seem to be few limits to the hubris of the Bush administration. I assert that current U.S. policy can be meaningfully described as imperialism, although of course it is somewhat different in character from the imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

BW: Isolationism isn't the only libertarian approach. The notion that it is, is just that sectarian approach that those libertarians who disagree with my view aren't really libertarians. Not unusual, but innacurate.

MB: Isolationism is not—and has never been—a libertarian approach. The classical liberal tradition has always emphasized peaceful relations between the residents of different states. And a diplomatic policy of genuine neutrality is not the same thing as isolationism.

BW: Liberal (or libertarian) imperialism isn't a very plausible approach, but some libertarians do hold to it. Creating a libertarian world is one way to provide for national defense, and one way to create a libertarian world is to impose it by military force.

MB: I agree that imperialism isn’t a very plausible approach for libertarians and classical liberals to adopt, but more to the point it’s fundamentally antithetical to their ideology. The word ‘libertarian’ looses a vital part of its meaning if ‘libertarians’ can advocate imperialism—just as it would loose a crucial part of its meaning if ‘libertarians’ included those in favor of a mixed economy or limited government censorship. Can Professor Woolsey provide even one example of how a nation-state has successfully promoted libertarian values at the point of a gun?

BW: While it seems to me to be unlikely to work, could easily be counter-productive towards geting a libertarian world or for national security for some regime trying to implement the strategy, and would likely have unnacceptable collateral casulties and create an unreasonable tax burden, it isn't incompatible with libertarian values.

MB: What Bill Woolsey considers likely I see as well nigh inevitable. Moreover, they call into question how libertarian such a policy could ever be. Where I disagree with him is with regard to his implicit assumption that the mindset behind such a policy is compatible with libertarian values.

BW: Of course, Bush isn't working fo a libertarian world, but rather a democratic capitalist one.

MB: What exactly is a “democratic capitalist world”? Democracy may well be incompatible with what I understand Bill Woolsey to mean by capitalism.

BW: But then, the claim isn't that Bush is a libertarian. Rather that he shows libertarian tendencies. While what I like least about Bush is his foriegn policy, I can't agree that it is obviously unlibertarian. Some libertarians support it.

MB: Where does Bill Woolsey draw the line and assert that a position is so antithetical to the libertarian ideology that a libertarian cannot support it and remain a libertarian? How about advocacy of a mixed economy? Or limited government censorship? Or is his ecumenical approach prepared to include such people within the libertarian tent? It’s not that I am a narrow sectarian seeking to crush deviationism but words do have meanings and a non-interventionist foreign policy has always been at the core of the (evolving) classical liberal tradition.

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Bill Woolsey - 3/19/2005

Pretty inclusive.

I see libertarians as folks who want more personal
and economic liberty by reducing the size and
scope of government. That is defined relative to the
status quo.

For no really good reason, I count Friedman, Hayek,
and Buchanan as the mainstream. I particularly have
in mind the "mixed economy" elements of the policies they have proposed from time to time.

And yes, I conceptially accept similar approach to
paternalism--even traditional moralistic paternalism.

For example, at one time Tullock seemed to think that
L.S.D. was just horrible. While he favored ending
prohibition of herion, marijuana, and cocaine, but L.S.D., he claimed, makes you dangerous and psychotic. While he might have been just trying to pick an argument with me, I took that to be his true opinion. Even so, I
counted him as a libertarian.

I see the Rothbardians as a extreme sect of libertarians.
(And I am not limiting this to the Paleo phase, I mean back when he was the intellectual guru of the "radicals.")

I find the rhetorical purge tactic irritating. (More moderate libertarians aren't really libertarians.)

As for the foreign policy business, there have been some self-described objectivists who have crossed the line. Nuke the mideast and resettle all their lands, or something like that. (Weird that otherwise libertarian folks would have views that are about the worst one hears in our statist society. Worship reason and you adopt the reductio.)

If there were libertarians who took the Roman approach to imperialism, they would be beyond the pale.

But a crusade to stamp out rights-violators all over the world--crazy as that seems to me--is plenty libertarian.

I believe that libertarian imperialism could work. The world conquest version is wildly disconnected from today's world, but imposing libertarianism on a very small and weak country would be possible. Something like Grenada.

And, suppose the entire world except Grenada was already

My imagination isn't limited to what I can find in history. I don't think I would be a libertarian at all if that were the case.

I don't believe that democratic capitalism is an oxymoron. Whatever we want to call the policies
mainstream conservative Republicans support, I don't
favor them. But I believe they are superior to some
alternatives--Islamic fundamentalism or Communism, for
example. I presume that is why libertarian interventionists can support this neo-con imperialist program.

As for my use of the term "isolationist,"...come on! Of course I didn't mean restricting trade, investment, or immigration. I know perfectly well the Rothbardian plumbline, and plenty of libertarians of that stripe have used to term isolationist to mean no political intervention overseas.

If Bush really were a liberventionist, then those of us who have more sensible foreign policy views would just have to accept that fact. Some libertarians are more dangerous in power than some who aren't libertarian at all.

How foolish would it sound to just spout off sectarian
sentiments when some leftist criticised some aspect of the domestic agenda of a hypothetical libertarian imperialist? My response to the proposal by President Cathy Young that marijuana be legalized is that she supports foreign intervention so she is no libertarian at all.

Maybe disputes among libertarians really matter. Maybe we don't need some notion that all libertarians pretty much agree on everything.