Blogs > Liberty and Power > Reply to Somin on Libertarians and the Iraq War

Jul 25, 2006 12:52 am

Reply to Somin on Libertarians and the Iraq War

Here is my take on Ilya Somin’s thoughtful discussion over at Volokh about possible reasons for the split between pro and antiwar libertarians. Somin's comments are highlighted.

One possibly theory is that this disagreement tracks the longstanding division between those who endorse an absolutist interpretation of libertarian principle versus those who take a maximizing approach. Wars clearly lead to violations of rights to life, liberty, and property. If you are a deontological absolutist who believes it is always (or almost always) wrong to violate such rights regardless of consequences, then that gives you a logical reason to oppose virtually any war, possibly excepting a strictly defensive one, with"defense" defined very narrowly. … However, it is not clear to me that the longstanding absolutist vs. maximizing division among libertarians fully accounts for the split or even that being absolutist or a maximizer is a good predictor of individual libertarians' positions on the war.

The “absolutist” v. “maximizing” approach doesn’t gets us very far. While moral absolutist arguments are important to the antiwar libertarian perspective, consequentialist/Hayekian/public choice objections also appear frequently. In this regard, the case which antiwar libertarians make against intervention in Iraq is not so different from that made by free market economists against the minimum wage, etc.

A key reason why Hayekian antiwar libertarians oppose the Iraq war is because they fear the danger of negative unintended consequences. For example, many of them warned (accurately) that the pro-war emphasis on the ballot showed an inordinate faith in democracy, rather than liberty, that could backfire, as it has in the case of the Hamas, Hezbollah, and Shi’ite (Iraqi) fundamentalist electoral victories.

“Maximizers” can be found on both sides of this debate. Many antiwar libertarians assert that intervention will actually diminish the long-term chances for liberty to take root in the Middle East. As evidence they stress worsened sectarian violence in Iraq, the intolerant polices of Shi’ite fundamentalist politicians now in power, and increased anti-American attitudes (which also serve to discredit markets/free speech, etc).

On the other hand, hard-core absolutist arguments are quite common on the pro-war side. These can entail a rigid and moralistic/Wilsonian determination to impose democracy and liberty regardless of the consequences. In any case, the absolutist/maximizing dichotomy, as Somin seems to agree, has limited value.

A second possible explanation is more autobiographical than ideological. It is possible that those libertarians who embraced the ideology primarily out of hostility to the various works of the US government are more likely to be antiwar than those who came to it primarily because of personal or familial experience with statist and socialistic governments elsewhere. Certainly, anecdotal evidence suggests that immigrant libertarians are more likely to be pro-Iraq War than native-born ones. So too with Jewish libertarians (who, even if native-born, may have a strong consciousness of their people's oppression by governments outside the US) as opposed to gentile ones, though Milton Friedman is one of many exceptions to the pattern. If you are highly focused on the evils of oppressive regimes and political movements outside the US, you might be more willing to countenance the use of American military power to destroy or contain them than if you have regarded the US government itself as the main threat to your freedom. Obviously, most native-born libertarians are well aware that many other governments, including Saddam Hussein's. are much worse, in libertarian terms, than that of the US. Similarly, foreign-born and Jewish ones are still deeply hostile to the many nonlibertarian policies of the US government (I know I am!). However, there may be a visceral difference between the two groups as to which of these dangers to liberty seems more vivid and threatening and which engages our emotions more strongly at a subrational level.
Somin may be on to something when he stresses the distinctiveness of the “immigrant libertarians” but, when all is said and done, does it really matter very much in terms of numbers? I’d wager that the vast majority of both pro and antiwar libertarians and have little direct or indirect experience with totalitarian or authorities states.

I see no persuasive evidence, however, to back up any claim that Jewish libertarians align primarily with the pro-war side. I suggest that the opposite is more likely to be true. After all, taken as a whole, Jewish Americans are more opposed to the war than non-Jews. According to recent polls, an overwhelming 70 percent of Jewish Americans oppose the Iraq war.

Perhaps Jewish libertarians diverge from the American Jewish mainstream in their attitudes on the Iraq war but I don't see why this should be true. In any case, the burden of proof should be on those who contend that they do diverge.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Jeffrey Rogers Hummel - 8/7/2006

Hi Less,

I've been trying to send the following message to your email address for over a week, but it keeps bouncing back. So I thought I'd post it here.

I normally avoid the blogosphere, having enough other ways to be unproductive already. But Mark Brady directed me to the Liberty & Power thread about Ilya Somin's post, and I must say that I was quite impressed and pleased with your several comments. I didn't realize that such matters still commanded much of your attention, but bravo! You said some important things that needed saying and said them well. You certainly still have all your old zing. Keep it up.


Mark Brady - 7/28/2006

"But I stand prepared to flip-flop once again should changing circumstances warrant." To read the "Confessions of a Former (and Maybe Future) Hawk," go here:

Anthony Gregory - 7/27/2006

"I'd be lying to say that my objection to government action has no moral, or at least emotional, dimension, but I know in my heart I would accept the unjust killing of one innocent person if I knew it was the only way to save the lives of a billion innocent people, and having conceded the point, I just can't be sanctimonious about being a strict moralist."

But Less, if you concede that you'd be willing to do something unjust, you are simply admitting that, in some cases, people are pressured to do unjust things. It still means it's unjust. It still means it's immoral. And it still means it's unlibertarian.

Although most people could be brought to commit an unjust act under extreme circumstances, I agree that the big danger comes in trusting the state with such calculus. And so I, too, draw on both consequentialist and moral reasons for opposing the state, and thus opposing its wars.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/27/2006

"Aeon" is pronounced as if it were "Ian," of which it's an obscure variant.

Bill Woolsey - 7/27/2006

I'm not sure what I mean by neo-objectivist. Do you have some schemata describing people influenced by Rand (including perhaps philosophers.)

I think it is pretty standard that defensive force isn't a violation of rights.

The issue at hand is how we describe "collateral damange." Does the person defending themselves violate the rights of the innocents suffering collateral damage? (No one is arguing that the rights of the aggressor are being violated.) Is there a "strict liability standard?" Or is there some kind of negligence approach?

Jason Pappas - 7/27/2006

Permitted? Can you clarify that? Does he have rights (those unalienable rights that one has by one’s nature as a human being) and you are no longer required to respect them? Or does he no longer have rights having forfeited them by his character and/or actions?

By the way, how do you pronounce "Aeon"?

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/26/2006

Guys, if you want to know what "libertarians" think about "the" war, you're already making 2 mistakes. One, self-identifying libertarians/classical-liberals/whatever don't all agree about this subset of issues. Two, one might be opposed to War A but not to War B. Again, may I recommend the April issue of Liberty magazine, and the current issue of Reason Papers? Not just for my stuff, although that would save me a lot of blogging, but also Roderick's, Steve Cox's, Tim Sandefur's -- lots of interesting stuff.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/26/2006

>perhaps Aeon (whom I count as being
> an neo-objectivist) can clarify,
> but I think the usual view is that
> doing things that ordinarily would
> be a violation of rights, aren't a
> violation of rights during
> the "emergency situation" where you
> are permitted to do these things.

Depends what you mean by "neo-objetivist," but in any case, this is pretty much right, if you mean, for instance, that while under normal circumstances, I'm not permitted to kill people, but if someone is attacking me, I am.

Less Antman - 7/26/2006

I thought I made clear that my view was different from the dominant view.

Less Antman - 7/26/2006

I'd be lying to say that my objection to government action has no moral, or at least emotional, dimension, but I know in my heart I would accept the unjust killing of one innocent person if I knew it was the only way to save the lives of a billion innocent people, and having conceded the point, I just can't be sanctimonious about being a strict moralist. I'm a libertarian because I believe it will maximize peace, prosperity, and freedom in the world, and that makes me a consequentialist. I oppose all intervention because the negative consequences of allowing the principle of intervention massively outweigh the possible, occasional benefits of it, and I think a study of the subject will convince most people of the validity of that view.

But even if my sole reason for being a libertarian were deontological ethics, I'd still then look to what would cause more people to behave ethically, and in my experience the best armor against statism is a solid understanding of the consequences of government action. I have tried both ethical and practical arguments to convince people on various libertarian issues for more than a quarter century, and usually find that the practical arguments convince more people and, just as importantly, produce people who STAY convinced when it matters. People KNOW using force against innocent people is wrong, yet they still support it when they think it produces good results.

Economists ended the draft, for instance, and arguments about effectiveness and morale are doing far more to keep it from coming back than moral objections. If the only objections were moral, you'd see all the arguments about patiotism, duty, and repaying America for freedom with a mere 2 years of service to the country, and they'd win the argument. The politicians would have no problem reinstituting the draft in the present environment were it not for the practical objections.

This is also why we're losing on torture: people secretly believe it works, and they're willing to bury their moral objections as long as someone else is doing the dirty work and they don't have to hear about it. Moralists don't stick to their morals when they don't believe them practical: we have millions of people who can say with a straight face that they are trying to follow the teachings of Jesus while they treat Iraq as the other cheek, and the rate of divorce among people trying to protect the institution of marriage from gays is so high as to be laughable (and higher in the red states than the blue ones). If we want to stop torture, we'll have to convince people it has negative consequences for the people of the torturing country.

But I could be wrong.

Less Antman - 7/26/2006

I certainly agree with Gregory on military policy: I opposed the Afghan invasion at the time on the grounds that government cannot be trusted to do anything correctly, and that the rare times when government action has a positive result are massively outweighed by the damage resulting from the special empowerment it requires and the long-term consequences. I don't think it is possible to create a powerful organization funded by coercion and without liability for the harm it causes, and then expect it to stay within any defined limits or serve the general interest: for all the talk of market failure, the externalities of government action are so massive that this one topic ought to be a specific class in every economics department.

I also agree that the calculus I described of lives lost now vs lives saved later is virtually guaranteed to fail when used to decide when to intervene in other countries, and that future benefits are so uncertain that such a case-by-case calculus leads to awful consequences, which is why I believe a consequentialist will, if they devote time to studying and considering national defense theory rather than just debating current events, come to Gregory's conclusion that one must follow a strict principle about how to act and not engage in such a calculus. I think a consequentialist comes to the realization that establishing principles before a crisis hits, and following them even when one isn't confident they'll work this time, is the approach that leads to the best results.

Remember that I was trying to describe what I thought was the methodology used by Instapundit, Volokh Conspiracy, and others who call themselves libertarians while taking the pro-war position. I refuse to write them out of the libertarian movement unless and until they write themselves out. In my view, what the movement needs is outreach and education WITHIN the movement rather than excommunication: a person's self-identification as a libertarian ought to be the beginning and not the end of their study of libertarianism, and avoiding the hard questions in theory is what leads to a failure of will in practice.

Jason, I think the reason you don't see as many prowar libertarians is that such people generally gravitated to the Republican party or, at least, had no desire to live as pariahs within libertarian groups that treated them as heretical monsters. And I do think a majority of self-described libertarians supported the Iraq War at the time it was declared. But if we take the position that anyone who was pro-war in Iraq is not a libertarian, I agree with Gregory that most libertarians were against the war. ;)

Jason Pappas - 7/26/2006

Thank you. All reasonable assertions.

Bill Woolsey - 7/26/2006

I support a rapid withdrawal from Iraq.

I think as a general rule I disagree with the "you broke it, you must fix it" theory of intervention.

In my opinion, the ties between the Taliban and Al Quaeda were suffiently close that an attack on the Taliban regime was justified.

I don't think that the havoc imposed on that regime (up to its destruction) obligates the U.S. to create a new regime for Afghanistan at least as good as the Taliban regime, much less some kind of "ideal" regime.

It is up to the Afghanis to develop a new government.

In the case of Iraq, where a despot privileges a minority, and the majority has now formed a new government...

Well, I don't think we owe it to the Shia to cement their power. We gave them more help than they deserved already.

The Sunnis' on the other hand, didn't deserve their previous position of dominance. We are under no obligation to protect them from retribution.

Jason Pappas - 7/26/2006

Let’s proceed to the next ethical consideration. Mainstream political commentators (i.e. non-libertarians) often take the position that we shouldn’t have invaded Iraq but now we can’t leave. Quoting Colin Powell’s China-shop slogan -- "we broke it, we own it" -- they argue that we now have an ethical obligation to stabilize Iraq and minimize damage. Where do libertarians stand?

Do the deontologists say we have a moral obligation to end all the evil that eminates from our hands and pull out even if a blood bath occurs (but karmic forces will align to avoid that)?

Do the utilitarians say we must make sure that it is best for them and for us--pulling out insures this because local thugs know better than foreign thugs?

Do the "neo-objectivists" or nationalists (I’ll call them this for now) say that our interests (i.e. defense of our people) no longer require a presence; and what happens is no longer our concern?

I apologize for the blatantly loaded questions but for sake of reducing the number of posts, I thought I’d suggest a few options to cut to the chase, if you don’t mind. Despite the small sample (Bill and Anthony) this is quite informative because you both have broad experience. Yes, I’ve read Rothbard and dozens of others but I don’t personally know that many libertarians to know what dominates in today’s libertarian scene.

Oh, and yes, we can all say this wouldn’t be a problem if “my” philosophy was followed. But given the facts as they are …

Anthony Gregory - 7/26/2006

Well, I imagine it probably wouldn't, which is one reason why I never supported allowing any state the power or authority to overthrow other states, nor did I ever imply such support. On the contrary, my whole point was that just because Saddam had no right to rule doesn't mean that Bush had a right to do what he did to overthrow Saddam, nor does it mean we should trust states in war just because they're pitted against other evil states.

Personally, I think the way to decrease statism is cultural and intellectual change—to make people think differently, such that they withdraw their support from the state. War moves society in the opposite direction.

Anthony Gregory - 7/26/2006

I suppose it all depends how you define libertarian. I define the term somewhat narrowly such that "pro-war libertarian" is an oxymoron, just as much as "pro-gun control libertarian," "pro-prohibition libertarian" or "pro-income tax libertarian."

I'd say self-proclaimed libertarians were mostly against the Iraq war, at least.

As for Less's view about the consequentialist vs. deontological libertarians and who is more antiwar, I'd have to say my strict antiwar position is guided by both practical and purely moral considerations. Even if I thought it was moral to kill 100 innocents in "collateral damage" to save 1,000, I wouldn't trust the state with such a calculation.

On the moral question, I disagree that it's libertarian to kill 100 innocents to save 1,000. It might be understandable why someone would do it. It might be a rights violation that many civilized people would be willing to comprehend and forgive. But it is a rights violation. It is not within your rights, according to libertarian ethics, to make that decision over other people's lives. You simply don't have the right to initiate force against X innocents to save X+Y innocents. If you did have that right, then those X innocents wouldn't have the right to stop you. But if you tried to kill someone to save ten innocents, although your reasons might be understandable, the person you're trying to kill still has a right to life, and to defend his life against your aggression.

Thankfully, such situations rarely come up in real life, not nearly as often as they are contrived in the imaginations of those attempting to find excuses for aggression. Also thankfully, we libertarians who have both an ethical and practical understanding of the state, liberty, the strengths of spontaneous orders and the flaws in central planning, can comfortably oppose the state's being expanded on the premise of a remote possibility that such calculations over how many innocents it's okay to slaughter to save how many other innocents would present themselves, and that, furthermore, the state would make the right calculation. I don't trust the state to feed the poor, teach the children, protect family values, ensure equality or keep guns out of the hands of criminals. Not only can the state not do these tasks well for reasons explained by free-market economics; the power that the state amasses in its projects to improve domestic life are terribly corrupting to those wielding it, perverting their incentives and making them criminals.

Why would I trust the state with the power to kill innocents in order to save innocents?

Bill Woolsey - 7/26/2006

I am not a neo-objectivist. I am reporting on their position as I understand it.

And perhaps Aeon (whom I count as being an neo-objectivist) can clarify, but I think the usual view is that doing things that ordinarily would be a violation of rights, aren't a violation of rights during the "emergency situation" where you are permitted to do these things.

The Rothbardian position (as I understand it) is that sometimes the right thing to do is to violate rights (say, collateral damage) but it remains a violation of rights.

I doubt that war financing can be mangaged on a voluntary basis. However, that issue is not directly related to foreign intervention. It could cost money to fight the enemy at home too.

As for _this_ war (Iraq,) I think plenty of libertarians have been emphasizing consequences.

How many libertarians have been saying that sure, we can remake Iraq into a shining example of liberal democratic capitalism and while that is imperfect from a libertarian perspective, it is much better than what they have now. And this wonderful example will lead to a glorious domino effect, causing liberal democratic capitalism to spread throughout the middle east.
Soon the vast majority of people there will understand that the U.S. and Israel are their friends. They will all be happy. There will be no terrorist threat to the U.S. or Israel.

But, despite all of those wonderful consequences, we should still not invade Iraq because it would violate the rights of taxpayers in the U.S. and noncombatants in Iraq.

I think, nearly all libertarians have said that these good consequences are not likely. That our efforts to reconstruct Iraqi society will generate more hatred of the U.S. The "threat" of liberal values to conservative Muslims is much greater when we plan to invade them and impose them by force! No, the reality will be hmmmm, about what happened.

That is what libertarians have been saying. They have been claiming that there will be bad consequences. Not that there will be good consequences but moral side constraints prevent us from accomplishing them.

Jason Pappas - 7/26/2006

Thanks, Bill (Woolsey), I certainly recognize the different strains of libertarian viewpoints to waging war, in your exposition. And you anticipated my question about the means of fighting a war, which may have bearing on the willingness to wage war. By the way, your parody of the Rothbardian strain is amusing.

I’m surprised at all the consequentialists!

The reason I sense a strong deontological basis is the overriding reliance on rights-violation as a case-closed rejection of supporting a war effort. At least that’s what I’ve encountered. Perhaps it just appears that way because deontological objections are expressed more vociferously and with harsh denunciations.

I disagree with you that a modern war can be successfully fought without violating individual rights … just the financial cost of it requires such a violation and it doesn’t stop there.

Bill Woolsey - 7/26/2006

I think all libertarians are "anti-war." None think war is a good thing and that human affairs need to be organized so we can have wars from time to time. You know, promoting the values of courage. Creating national greatness. Writing the name of your nation across the pages of history. The glory....

But many libertarians believe that war is sometimes a necessary evil. Probably most libertarians have that view.

Some libertarians oppose all foreign wars.

I think the vast majority of libertarians opposed invading Iraq.
That is, even libertarians who support some foreign wars (say, some historical ones or some hypothetical ones) would reject this particular war.

Of course, we know that there are some libertarians who did support invading Iraq. Incredible.

Anyway, gregory is giving the Rothbardian plumbline.

Modern War kills innocents, so one reason the libertarian must oppose all foreign wars is to defend the rights of innocent noncombatants.

A substantial number of libertarians have adopted this approach, but I doubt it is the majority.

Neo-objectivists take a rights-based approach to political philosohpy and they rejected the Rothbardian argument on foreign policy.

Let's see. It has nothing to do with whether wars are fought on foreign soil or enemies are confronted at home. It is rather about what methods may be used against enemies. Can anything be done that might injure an innocent?

For example, suppose the Chinese were attacking Ohio. Shelling the front would destroy the property and perhaps kill innocent Americans. It doesn't matter where the fighting is done, the issue is on the use of artilery.

Then, the neo-objectivists reject the notion that using effective military technology to defeat enemies violates the rights of the innocents that are also killed or injured. (I'm sure that Aeon or someone can explain exactly how this works. I'm sure that the position is more nuanced than suggested above.)

I think, though, the usual point is that the Rothbardian "principle" implies that libertarian-proof armor just requires that one strap human innocents on everything. This would allow the wicked to defeat the good. This cannot be in our rational self-interest. So, the Rothbadian view is wrong. Collateral damage is not necessarily a violation of rights.

Generally, the neo-objectivists insisted that the foreign policy of a government be aimed at defending the rights of citizens of that government. Alliances, then, had to be based on mutual advantage.

In other words, the neo-objectivists rejected a sort of do-gooder, nice policeman of the world. Hmmm, the rhetoric of the Kennedy administration (and some of the more recent neo-con rhetoric) was offensive to their anti-altruism principles.

The Libertarian Party, at least, has traditionally wrapped itself in the words and policies of the founders. Some libertarians are inclined to read the Constitution as requiring all the policy preferences of the more libertarian of the founders. Some founders were more or less noninterventionist.

Anyway, I think most rank-and-file libertarians combine elements of these various ideas.

I don't believe that Antman is correct that most libertarians adopt his particular consequentialist perspective. While there are a good number of libertarian consequentialists (including me,) I am not sure my views are typical.

My inclination is to some kind of rule based approach, though I reject absolute noninterventionism as a rule.

More like noninterventionism with an exception for growing empires. I think containment and even subersion are desirable. I don't favor waiting for an invasion.

I don't think the U.S. faces this kind of situation today.

Jason Pappas - 7/26/2006

Thanks, I think you’re taking the opposite view of Mr. Gregory—consequentialist rather than deontological—but your impression of ‘movement’ suggests that I may have missed a sizable contingent. Indeed, I may be wrong!

I wonder what others here think the dominant libertarian position is.

Less Antman - 7/26/2006

Me, serious? You must be kidding. Okay, I'll try:

I believe that the dominant view among libertarians is that terrorists and dictators act in a manner that makes it impossible to take them out without killing lots of innocent people along the way, but that action against them is still consistent with libertarianism if the action kills fewer innocents than the number who would have eventually died without such action. This turns the whole process into a guessing game as to lives lost today vs lives saved tomorrow: the pro-war position will sometimes turn out to be the right one and the anti-war position will sometimes be the right one. No automatic libertarian answer exists, and each potential intervention must be judged individually. In short, most libertarians end up holding the same view on national defense as the rest of the public, except that most U.S. citizens only count American lives while a reasonable number of libertarians think human beings in other countries should be counted as well.

As I indicated earlier, I don't think this would be the dominant view if libertarians spent more time studying the problem pragmatically. I think a consequential examination results in a far more consistent anti-war and non-interventionist position than reliance on deontological ethics, and I think the evidence supports the view that consequentialist libertarians opposed the Iraq war in larger percentages than those who based their libertarianism on deontological ethics. But I could be wrong.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/26/2006

That's what I figured, thanks.

Jason T. Kuznicki - 7/26/2006

<em>So smashing Saddam's state was legitimate, as is the abolition of any state that violates rights—or put more simply, the abolition of any state. </em>

Suppose that one state goes about smashing all the other states in the world, until there is only one state left, a world-state. How does this advance human liberty?

Jason T. Kuznicki - 7/26/2006

Because I want to end all foreign aid.

Jason Pappas - 7/26/2006

But seriously, Less, what is the dominant viewpoint? Perhaps my exposure has misled me to believe that all foreign incursions must be condemned because innocents will necessarily be killed in modern warfare. After decades of reading, I still can’t figure out any concrete policy that would be widely accepted in libertarian circles. Of course, I understand opposition to the current administration, who would support the ineptitude of this regime outside the Weekly Standard? But the libertarians that I’ve talked to and have read are full of nothing but negatives … “we wouldn’t do this, we wouldn’t do that, but please don’t say we wouldn’t do anything at any time …”

Less Antman - 7/26/2006

I don't see how Gregory's comment can be interpreted as a special objection to actions in foreign lands. He was objecting to the killing of innocents, period.

Most libertarians publicly supported the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Those who objected included many who said they supported a U.S. military force that went into Afghanistan, hunted down the Al Qaeda thugs who planned 9/11, and left after capturing or killing them. IIRC, even supported the latter.

Only a few libertarians take the position that U.S. government troops should never move outside U.S. borders, regardless of circumstances. This small group of crazies takes the view that any permission to the government, regardless of stated limitations, will be exploited and misused by those who, once they get power, will work to expand it as much as possible. And some of these nutcases believe that even the most noble task should never be given to a government because it will somehow find a way to screw it up. To listen to these flakes, you'd think that the U.S. government couldn't even handle the simple task of capturing or killing Osama bin Laden, notwithstanding the most powerful military in history, the support of the entire world, and hundreds of billions of dollars to spend. Thank heavens nobody listens to these goofballs, or else bin Laden would still be alive and free toda ... er ... never mind.

Anthony Gregory - 7/25/2006

I don't categorically oppose the fighting of wars in foreign lands. I categorically oppose aggression. It just so happens that almost all US foreign wars have been aggressive.

Jonathan Dresner - 7/25/2006

Because of Israel, because you want to end all military aid, or because you want to end all foreign aid?

Craig J. Bolton - 7/25/2006

I can't quite decide whether some of these comments are already being covered or not, so out of an abundance of caution, and because I like to hear myself type:

(1) I don't understand the purported relationship between deonthological libertarians and being anti-war. Empirically, the most deonthological quasi-libertarians are the Randists, and they are also most pro-war. As I believe someone has already said, those who rest their libertarianism on something like the "non-initiation" principle, are also those who tend to be less discriminating in worrying about appropriate retribution. Once you "violate my rights" I can, apparently, justifiably kill you, your dog, and your best friend.

(2) I am also a consequentialist, but not from a Hayekian standpoint on this issue. According to "property rights economics" or neo-institutionalism [or whatever you want to call the branch of applied microeconomics that deals primarily with incentive patterning in particular institutions] the last thing a libertarian would ever want to do is endorse any government any where to carrying out an unrestrained war.

Wars, as someone has already mentioned, have their own dynamic and are traditionally associated with a breakdown of conventional restraints on unbounded government power over the domestic scene. Wars, therefore, should always be as specifically defensive and limited as possible.

It is for that reason that I was jumping up and down opposed to this series of wars since before "we" went into Afganistan.

In fact, I can well remember the transition point. Just after 9/11 Bush was telling the press that "It may take awhile but we are going to go about this in a very step by step methodical manner. We are going to find out who was responsible for this attack, then we are going to apprehend them, then we are going to bring them to justice through an appropriate judicial proceeding if at all possible." In other words, no shoot 'em up cowboy stuff.

A couple of weeks later, however, Bush was telling the Taliban representatives "No, we are not going to bargain about this or take any excuses. Hand him over right now OR ELSE. And, no, I'm not going to present you with the evidence he's guilty, that would endanger national security."

The first reaction gave me doubts about whether my judgment of this Bush was correct, since I found it very rational and impressive. The second was a strong signal that was was actually being contemplated was a new irrational stars and strips campaign to convert the heathen - with the domestic heathen appropriately stomped under foot on the way to the crusade.

(3) Incidentally, as may be obvious from my previous comments by now, I'm Jewish [a convert nonetheless]. And my reaction to these wars and to the domestic persecution of Muslims that has accompanied them has been unreservably hostile. One thing Jews should have learned by now is who is likely to be next once a witchhunt gets underway. That some haven't learned that less simply indicates that Jews as a group aren't as smart as they're portrayed to be. [Just like any other people AS A GROUP are usually pretty stupid, according to the usual rule that you take the average I.Q. and divide by the number of people making up the group.]

Enough said....

Jason Pappas - 7/25/2006

How common is this view among libertarians in the “anti-war” camp? How many categorically oppose, as the above writer implies, the fighting of wars in foreign lands?

Steven Horwitz - 7/25/2006

Let me just say "I agree with Jason" on both of these comments.

Anthony Gregory - 7/25/2006

I think that a consistent deontological libertarian is the most likely to oppose war, actually. In the case of Afghanistan or Lebanon, Mr. Kuznicki says the states bear some responsibility for not stamping out, or for supporting, terrorists in their midsts. Perhaps. But I think a natural law libertarian, or any libertarian completely devoted to the non-aggression principle, would say that just because a state—a criminal gang with flags, essentially—bears responsibility for murderous criminality in its jurisdiction, does not mean that all the people around it do, and so if you drop massive bombs on the Taliban's or Lebanon's infrastructure, killing innocents, including children, in the process, you are guilty of aggression, and thus in violation of libertarian principle. The war in Afghanistan wasn't just about attacking the Taliban, which somewhat ironically is still around. It also involved killing and displacing many innocent people, and that cannot be squared with the non-aggression principle.

I always hear pro-war libertarians talk about how attacking Iraq wasn't aggression because Saddam was a bad guy. Well, this isn't about whether Saddam had a right to rule. No government has a right to rule. Even minarchist libertarians don't believe governments have a right to rule. Only individuals have rights. So smashing Saddam's state was legitimate, as is the abolition of any state that violates rights—or put more simply, the abolition of any state. But that doesn't mean you can violate innocent people's rights in the process. The Iraq war was a violation of the rights of innocent Iraqis, who were murdered, maimed and deprived of their homes and livelihoods, and of Americans, who were forced to pay the bill. None of this can be squared with the non-aggression principle. I found that most libertarians who adhered to the principle first and foremost opposed the war. Actually, they all did, since it would be an impossibility to adhere to the principle while supporting such a massive violation of the principle. The ones who supported the war seemed primarily to be consequentialists and those who thought that state central planning could bring about more liberty in the long run.

Jason T. Kuznicki - 7/25/2006

I agree, and I would end military aid to Israel if I could. No question whatsoever.

Mark Brady - 7/25/2006

"For exactly the same reason, I think Israel is justified in acting against Lebanon. (I think it would be gravely wrong, however, for us to intervene. No good can come of our being policeman for the world.)"

Surely the U.S. does intervene re Israel if only because it uses taxpayer funds to finance Israel's purchases of weapons?

Jason T. Kuznicki - 7/25/2006

Excellent analysis.

I think you pretty much described my postion when you wrote, "A key reason why Hayekian antiwar libertarians oppose the Iraq war is because they fear the danger of negative unintended consequences..." This, combined with the already-obvious distaste for freedom in that part of the world, made the idea of invading and reforming Iraq an utter absurdity. Destroying that country's purported chemical and bio weapons was always a solution in search of a problem -- these weapons couldn't do very much more damage than conventional explosives. So much for Iraq.

But then, I do support our actions in Afghanistan; a state that harbors and encourages a violent group rather than stamping it out takes responsibility for the actions of that group. For exactly the same reason, I think Israel is justified in acting against Lebanon. (I think it would be gravely wrong, however, for us to intervene. No good can come of our being policeman for the world.)

Bill Woolsey - 7/25/2006

I think Somin is focusing on libertarian bloggers.

My limited experience with rank and file libertarians in the Libertarian Party is that Antman's first point is very relevant. The theory that the nonagression principle is a moral absolute and that it implies a noninterventionist foreign policy was common. After 911, many found that approach unacceptable. It is remarkable that they were so open to adopting neoconservative insanity as an alternative. (I think it comes from listening to too much talk radio--rots the brain.)

Those who had instead taken a consequentialist approach to foreign policy from the beginning, and were willing to adopt either a strict noninterventionist rule or else opposed intervention in general, but with exceptions, were unlikely to drop the rule or else consider Iraq to be sensible exception.

I noticed with interest that several posters in Somin's thread claimed that the LP adopted a "do nothing" policy in response to 911. This is false. The LP actually adopted something very much like Cato. Yes to attacking Al Quaeda in Afghanistan along with its Taliban allies. No to the invasion of Iraq.

Harry Browne, the LP nominee for President in 1996 and 2000, on the other hand, did adopt a "do nothing" response.

I believe the LP lost tremendous support because Browne primarily recruited from right-wing talk radio. And then, he took the rather extreme "pro-peace" response to 911. And the Browne-devoted libertarians were lost to both him and libertarianism. The identified libertarianism with Browne-thought, and rejected it with his positon.

I'm sure that little of this would be apparent to people who read most libertarian blogs.

Less Antman - 7/25/2006

Superb analysis. While I also applaud Ilya Somin for a sincere attempt to address this puzzle, I share the view that he ended up getting two out of three theories wrong. In addition to what you've suggested, I'd offer the following:

(1) Many absolutists made a decision to accept the non-aggression principle without ever studying national defense in detail. As we know, the famous Nolan chart doesn't have a single question on foreign policy, and since this is such a hard question to analyze pragmatically, few libertarians have tried to do so systematically (many talk about specific events, but few discuss the overall theory of a libertarian national defense). So when a crisis hit, they had their principle, but also had their doubts as to whether it was practical, and wavered.

In contrast, those few attempts I've seen to address the practical side of national defense from a libertarian perspective, including THE MACHINERY OF FREEDOM and THE MYTH OF NATIONAL DEFENSE, virtually all ended up on the non-interventionist side. My own conversion to anarcho-capitalism was the result of David Friedman's thoughtful analysis of national defense in THE MACHINERY OF FREEDOM, and I had no difficulty opposing the Iraq War from day one based on expected consequences, because I'd thought it all through well before the crisis. I fall back on principle all the time, but primarily because my conviction about these principles came from being convinced that they were the most practical way to decide issues (I regularly gave a speech to libertarian audiences in the early 1980s entitled, "What is the Foundation of Libertarianism: Ethics, Economics, or Mental Instability?", on this very topic).

(2) Non-Jewish libertarians who oppose the war are far more likely to be accused of Anti-Semitism than Jewish libertarians who oppose the war, so it is easier psychologically for a Jewish libertarian to oppose it. Somin misguessed this one, as the statistics David Beito cited demonstrate.

(3) It is likely that some of the motivation for immigrants being pro-war is that they hold a more favorable view of the U.S. government relative to the country of their birth because the U.S. government is freer (undoubtedly, the very fact that they chose to immigrate demonstrates a strong preference). But I think there is an elephant in the room that should be acknowledged. Immigrants are far more likely to have their loyalty to the U.S. questioned than someone born here, and there is enormous psychological pressure on them to support the U.S. government, especially in time of war. This could affect their judgment. This is, in fact, similar to the reason non-Jews feel more pressure to avoid looking Anti-Semitic, although more so due to the strongly negative consequences of appearing to be a disloyal immigrant.

So my prediction would be that a consequentialist Jew born in the U.S. is the most likely to oppose the Iraq war, and an absolutist Gentile immigrant most likely to support it.

Ultimately, though, I think this split would be far less deep if libertarians had spent more time openly discussing libertarian principles of defense over the decades, and the solution is for such an open discussion to commence ASAP.

The Garbageman - 7/25/2006


I agree with what you've said here. The 'maximizing' v. 'absolutist' distinction is not useful. I argued in my own post in the comments section on the VC blog that the distinction was between those who know how to maximize liberty and those who don't. But of course that's loaded.

I also pointed out that I don't think there's really a split at the institutional or intellectual level. So I wanted to ask you and any other L&Pers:

Is there really a significant split amongst libertarian intellectuals?

I don't get the feeling that there is. The split seems to be between grassroots/blogger type libertarians. I don't feel that it penetrates to the economics/history/philosophy level. In fact, I've never really seen any detailed reply from the pro-war camp to the anti-war camps worries. Perhaps I can be pointed to such literature if I've missed it.