Blogs > Liberty and Power > A Response to Randy Barnett on the Iraq War.

Jul 17, 2007 11:08 am

A Response to Randy Barnett on the Iraq War.

My good friend Randy Barnett has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on libertarians and the Iraq War. He asks: “Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war? The simple answer is 'no.'....all libertarians accept the principle of self-defense, and most accept the role of the U.S. government in defending U.S. territory, libertarian first principles of individual rights and the rule of law tell us little about what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack. Devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly.”

I am leaving for a long delayed vacation so my initial response will have to be short. Here is one vital point. Not even the Bush administration has ever claimed that Iraq ever attacked us or had an plans to attack us. Saddam led a secular/socialist regime which was hostile to both the Shi'ite fundamentalists (now in power in Iraq courtesy of Bush) and Sunni fundamentalists, such as Al Qaeda. Thus by definition the Iraq War can not be considered one of self-defense even for the “mainstream libertarian.”

For the sake of argument, however, let’s concede that Randy is right. Let’s assume that libertarianism does not “commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq War.” If this is true, then libertarianism belongs in the trash can of history. If libertarianism can not answer such a vital question of the day, it is a dead philosophy that is more suited to parlor games than to discourse about problems in the real world.

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Steven Horwitz - 7/19/2007

RJ Sestack has it more or less exactly right here. Randy is just wrong - it doesn't disqualify him as a libertarian.

Yes, war is very important, more important than porno or a 10% tax cut, but being wrong about this war isn't ipso facto evidence of not being a libertarian (despite the claims of Gus and others to the contrary). That stance has to be seen in the context of a whole bunch of other views. In Randy's case, there's plenty of evidence to outweigh his error on the war.

Jule R. Herbert - 7/19/2007

Randy certainly participated in the libertarian debates of his youth. He wrote in Reason while he was still a prosecutor for Cook County, IL, as I recall.

RJ Sestack - 7/19/2007

The question of what makes someone a libertarian is a potentially difficult one to answer. Libertarians often quarrel over who are and who are not the real libertarians, and over whether certain positions are or are not compatible with liberty. Examples include school vouchers, immigration, abortion, centralization versus decentralization, and, of course, war.

Libertarians agree on many abstract principles. No authentic libertarian would oppose individual rights, private property, or the free market. As has been pointed out, problems begin with the application of certain principles to particular situations. Disputes don’t normally arise about the ends to be attained, but rather the means of attaining them. Thus, Barnett states that supporters of the Iraq war believe it can make “Americans more safe,” by which he presumably means that Americans will be more secure in theirs rights of person and property. A libertarian would support increasing the security of such rights.

I think the failure to distinguish between two different things has led to some disagreement. There is a difference between taking a libertarian position on a particular issue and being a libertarian. Howard Stern, for example, takes a libertarian position on free speech but, although he is sometimes described as one, I have neither seen nor heard any evidence that he is a genuine believer in liberty. (I must admit, though, that I have not looked.) Frederick Douglass has also been labeled a libertarian. His opposition to slavery was surely libertarian. But can Douglass properly be considered one? Perhaps he should be because of his stance on slavery alone. Perhaps he shouldn’t be because, as far as I know, he never advocated any other libertarian positions.

The question is: How many libertarian positions must one take before he is a legitimate libertarian? Additional scenarios are possible and thus additional questions arise. What if a person, perhaps such as Frederick Douglass, takes up only one issue and takes a libertarian stance upon it? Is that enough to qualify? More to the point, what if someone takes many positions in favor of liberty and a few positions against it? Complicating the calculus is the relative importance of the issue or issues.

It seems to me that the disagreement in the posts (and elsewhere) stems from a failure to formulate a useful standard to determine whether or not someone can properly be described as a libertarian. Such a standard is not easily formulated, and I don’t intend to propose one here. The point is, though, that without recognizing the absence of such a standard there is no way to make an argument for or against without inadvertently resorting to arbitrariness. Usually no such standard will be needed because the answer is quite clear. Neither Al Gore nor George Bush is a libertarian. A standard is only needed when the case is close.

I think it is unfair to say, as Justin Raimondo implies, that Randy Barnett is not a believer in and supporter of liberty. I also think it is presumptuous, unless there is something I don’t know, to claim that Barnett has abandoned the views of his youth. He didn’t repudiate the Structure of Liberty, which was published in 1998, and he has not, as far as I know, undergone an ideological evolution. He has explained that, if given his preference, he would choose the legal order advocated in the Structure of Liberty. Given that we are nowhere near establishing a polycentric legal order, he decided to write a book about the legal order under which we at least nominally live. Additionally, he has not repudiated Spooner. Indeed, he dedicated Restoring the Lost Constitution to him. Rather, Barnett attempted to rebut Spooner’s argument that the Constitution has no authority by appealing to the security of natural rights. If this legitimates the State, it does so for only a very limited function. Nonetheless, the principal purpose of the book is to revive those clauses of the Constitution that restrict governmental power, whether state or national.

The real issue with respect to Professor Barnett is whether he is mistaken in his presumed belief that a militaristic foreign policy will not undermine liberty here at home. For the reasons mentioned in both Raimondo’s article and Sheldon Richman’s post, I think he is. Professor Barnett would do well to heed the words of the other person to whom he dedicated his book on the Constitution. According to James Madison, "The means of defense against foreign danger historically have become the instruments of tyranny at home."

Mark Brady - 7/18/2007

A further thought. I can't imagine that Randy's article will "make him a very readable and persuasive voice of liberty" to our friends on the left.

Mark Brady - 7/18/2007

And that’s not fair to what I wrote!

I don't seek to debate whether Randy has "abandoned the libertarianism of his youth" or "sold out his libertarianism." And his continued involvement in free market organizations is neither here nor there. It's clear, however, that he has sustantially changed his views from those he espoused as a young man (nothing wrong with that per se —- it all depends on the changes) and I don't just mean he's no longer an "anarcho-capitalist" for there's no denying that his constitutional jurisprudence has shifted significantly in recent years. Moreover, I suggest that any good arguments he may continue to make will have less impact as a consequence of his disingenuous and grossly ignorant (of the classical liberal tradition against imperialism and war and in favor of peace) essay in yesterday’s issue of the Wall Street Journal.

Whose remarks about his academic career "just sound utterly petty"? Mine or Justin's or both mine and Justin's? For my part, I sought to explain Justin's description that Randy had "crawled out of the woodwork" with reference to the fact that "for years he has sought a prestiguous position in academia" (and there's nothing wrong with that per se) and hasn't "much participated in the intellectual debates of his youth." I'm sure Randy would agree. Indeed, if he had continued with his former intellectual interests, he would have been less likely to land an endowed chair at Georgetown. To say that is not petty but true. And I'm sure Randy would agree with that too.

Steven Horwitz - 7/18/2007


That's not fair to Randy. I do think he's wrong in that op-ed, but he has hardly abandoned the libertarianism of his youth, even if he's not the anarcho-capitalist he once was. He is still involved in Mont Pelerin and other libertarian organizations. His excellent scholarship make him a very readable and persuasive voice of liberty to friends of mine on the left. That's not to be taken lightly.

And to raise the issue of his appointment at G'town just sounds utterly petty. I guess there's still nothing worse to "purist" libertarians than someone who succeeds in academia, because they are, by definition, a sell-out.

Can we please distinguish between:

"Randy Barnett has made a bad argument."


"Randy Barnett has sold out his libertarianism"

Gus diZerega - 7/18/2007

I think two other factors help undermine any grounds to take Barnett seriously either as a libertarian (assuming the term retains any meaning) or a person who comprehends the preconditions for a free society of any sort.

First, war always helps the state. It turns a democracy into a classic state treating everyone as either resources or hindrances to its purposes. Freedom becomes a luxury, to be set aside until later. The incredible assault on constitutional principles by the radical right, the Republican Party, and given excuses those who once masqueraded as classical liberals is a case in point.

I think Chris Hedges’s comparison of war to chemo in his wonderful War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning is apt. War is always a poison to a free society. Always. Unlike some here I think there are times when it is unavoidable – but those times must be extremely grave indeed. Those “libertarians” who support the war on Iraq seem to think going to war has no impact on domestic institutions. Much as Higgs and I disagree on things, we both agree that this is utterly wrong.

Second, to agree with my reading of Sudha Shenoy’s post, societies are complex orders that will always undermine the plans of social engineers left or right. I* and some others on this list made this argument before the shooting started, and events have supported every sad prediction we made. Has Barnett or any of his blessedly few supporters learned anything at all from Hayek and Mises?

Finally, to perhaps amplify RJ Sestack’s fine post, to my mind Barnett loses any grounds to be taken seriously as more than a hack when he justifies our attack on Iraq as self-defense given that no Iraqis participated in the atrocities of 9-11. This is intellectual dishonesty on a scale that even George Bush might admire.

Mark Brady - 7/18/2007

Aeon, you DO need to read Justin's essay, which is good knock-about-fun which Randy richly deserves.

As Justin points out, Randy's constitutional jurisprudence has shifted ("evolved", as some would say) in a direction that many libertarians do not welcome. And he has "crawled out of the woodwork" in the sense that for years he has sought a prestiguous position in academia (he now holds a chair at Georgetown Law Center) and not much participated in the intellectual debates of his youth.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/18/2007

Don't get me wrong: (1) I have no problem supporting Ron Paul; he's thousands of times better than any other candidate, and (2) I've been opposed to the American presence in Iraq since Nov 04, as noted upthread. All I'm saying is that this purity-test stuff tends to get overused and misused.

Bill Woolsey - 7/18/2007

I think reality counts a good bit, and that is the key problem with the pie-in-the-sky scenario persented by Barnett. What the Iraquis think about being an exemplar of democratic capitalism very much influences the practical problems with imposing this system.

At least some approaches to libertarian imperialism in theory, would simply require that one Iraqi assert his or her individual rights, and then outsiders could help that person stand against every other Iraqi (if necessary.)

The history of Iraq and the views of the Iraqi people play a key role in determing the costs of that approach. (And the views of people in other places who don't want this sort of treatment and how they will react, is important too.)

By the way, "nation building" is about the opposite of any libertarian conception of society. But I don't think that means that libertarian imperialism is a contractition. Imposing a libertarian legal order and keeping the peace is not the same thing as constructing a society. The society that develops subject to those libertarian rules somewhere (like Iraq) would be a spontaenous order. The continued development of such a society would be beyond the possiblity of consious human planning.

Hong Kong existed (and still does.) And it didn't develop as a conscious plan of the British colonial administration.

Of course, one problem with those libertarians who have signed onto the Bush administrations policies (and really, doesn't it seem that most of the pro-war libertarians have signed onto the Cheney faction of the administration?) is that the neconservatives aren't libertarians and so they really do want to build a nation. Somehow there is to be a strong, centralized Iraq, with popular support among its people, that will have policies generating prosperity, and ally with the U.S. against Iran. (Insanity!)

Bill Woolsey - 7/18/2007

Skoble, you need to read Raimando's column. He mentions Barnett's credentials as a libertarian scholar. The title, I guess, is about Raimando's purpose..which does appear to be one of those "rhetorical purges."

I met Raimondo during the SLS years, 79, 80, 81. He was very much involved in the Libertarian Radical Caucus. My impression is that he followed Rothbard in his "paleo-libertarian" turn.

I don't agree with Raimando too much, but I do support Ron Paul as he does.

And I check out every morning.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/18/2007

These three posts and coomment threads at VC are on the same topic, BTW:

RJ Sestack - 7/18/2007

Professor Beito is right and Professor Barnett is wrong about libertarianism and the war in Iraq. The reason is not mysterious either. Professor Barnett states it plainly in his op-ed. “Libertarians oppose any war of aggression.” How can the unprovoked attack and invasion of Iraq not qualify as such a war? Professor Barnett answers that some people viewed the invasion as self-defense because of a war against “Islamic jihadists.” Which Islamic jihadists? Saddam Hussein and his regime? The Baath Party? They were not jihadists. Perhaps he means the few members of al-Qaeda who were allegedly there before the U.S. invasion. If so, why was the Iraqi government targeted? It was not harboring al-Qaeda. Precisely what group or organization in Iraq was the U.S. military protecting the American people from, such that the invasion can be considered self-defense? Professor Barnett provides no answer. He speaks only of unnamed Islamic jihadists, an indeterminate “enemy,” and “those who declared war on the U.S.,” without making the slightest attempt to connect them to Iraq.

Libertarianism certainly does offer a clear position on this issue and is thus a living operational philosophy. Moreover, it always will be because its principles are timeless.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/18/2007

I've never met Raimondo nor am I familiar with his work, but the suggestion that Randy Barnett is "crawling out of the woodwork" is quite ridiculous, as he's relatively famous (as academics go), and the suggestion that he's not a libertarian is something that only someone totally unfamiliar with his work would appreciate. This is why I wrote in to disagree with David: while I wouldn't expect David to say something this silly about Randy, this is the end result of that kind of purity-test mindset: "I am a libertarian, Bob disagrees with me about Issue X, therefore Bob can't be a libertarian."

Mark Brady - 7/18/2007

"Fake libertarian legal scholar crawls out of the woodwork to attack Ron Paul's antiwar stance."

Justin Raimondo cuts Randy Barnett down to size here.

Sudha Shenoy - 7/17/2007

The Middle East, including Iraq, is _not_ so much plasticine which can be moulded as one pleases. IF one has a real interest in its people, then it is necessary FIRST to have a very clear idea of all the influences etc ALREADY at work & shaping its continued history. THEN one can assess what happens when US soldiers are sent in.

All I see here is discussion of what _Americans_ think. The Iraqis -- & their continuing history -- are also a part of this, however small that part may be.

Steven Horwitz - 7/17/2007

I can only add that I do think a libertarian defense of the war was at least possible at the onset. I didn't buy it myself, but I don't think that accepting it disqualified one as a libertarian.

However, after maybe a year, when it was clear that any pretense that might have made remote sense from a libertarian view was simply bogus, I simply cannot see how one can mount a libertarian defense of what's gone on.

And certainly there is NO libertarian defense of "nation building." If you can construct a libertarian argument for toppling Saddam, that's one thing, but for continuing to try to "build" a nation? No way.

Bill Woolsey - 7/17/2007

I will grant that Barnett did describe this as a defensive war. He said it is defending against Islamists. In his story, Iraq was attacked because it was a tyrannical Arab regime whose existence made Arabs and Muslims angry, and they get confused about what made them angry and attack the U.S. It wasn't that Iraq attacked the U.S., but its evilness caused other Arabs and Muslims to attack the U.S. (How can people really believe this?)

I can't believe that anyone would believe that you can attack a third party because they have angered someone else and that person is so confused that they attack you.

So, I assume this is based upon the principle of libertarian imperialism. Tyrannical regimes have no right to exist. Libertarians can use force to defend individual rights anywhere in the world.

Saddam violated the rights of many Iraqis. More than one Iraqi asked for help. People may morally help others. There is no need for Iraq's regime to attack the U.S., for the U.S. to morally destroy Iraq's regime.

Whether it is sensible or not for the U.S. to do this, is another question.
Rand, for example, might think that doing this for the good of the Iraqis would be evil altruism. And so, we combine it with some implausible notion that liberating Iraq is in our self-interest because Islamists will no longer hate us because Iraq is so bad.

Anyway, I think a libertarian could support a policy of imposing libertarianism all over the world, out of an altruistic impulse to help others or based upon the notion that once all the statist regimes are gone, the world will be truly safe for liberty.

But there are all sorts of practical difficulties.

Matt Barganier - 7/17/2007

I'm not arguing for censorship, in case that wasn't blindingly obvious. But if being denied access to porno mags is a violation of one's rights -- and it is -- how could losing one's life or property to an act of mass aggression not be? Is it one of those "the death of one man is a tragedy, the death of a million is a statistic" sort of things? Is that what passes for libertarianism these days?

Keith Halderman - 7/17/2007

I do not think the comparison between the Iraq War and the abortion issue is a fair comparison. In the first case your arguing about whether the war is a case of self defense and it seems to me as time has progressed with us learning more it has become pretty clear that it was not. That is why so many people who originally supported the war no longer do so. In any case it is possible for one side or the other to win such an argument. However, it will probably be historians who declare a victor. In the case of abortion you are arguing about whether their one person or two people and I think it is not possible for either side to win that argument. It is a matter of faith and the argument will never be settled.

Bill Woolsey - 7/17/2007

I think the best answer to Barganier is to again return to the abortion issue. From the pro-life perspective, the murder of millions of babies is very serious. Pro-choice advocates sometimes sound pretty outraged about enslaving women. These are serious matters. But that doesn't make the resolution of the issue any less ambiguous.

Censorship of pornography may not cause any great harm, (like enslaving millions of women or murdering millions of infants,) but what purpose does it have? It inconsistent with libertarianism.

As for the jewish conspiracy theory of the Iraq war... Perhaps Skoble had in mind libertarians who take that view, but I didn't read it that way. I suspect that in the white power movement, there are plenty who explain the Iraq war (and every other public policy in the U.S.) as part of a Jewish conspiracy.

Bill Woolsey - 7/17/2007

Maybe he was just playing devil's advocate with me, but Gordon Tullock once insisted that L.S.D. should be illegal because people with hallucinations would be dangerous to others. I don't remember exactly, but I think he was describing a scenario in which the person taking L.S.D. perceived another person as a monster and injured this innocent party.

This was in contrast with heroin, for example, whose prohibition should be ended.

Well, I took him seriously. But I didn't think that this meant he wasn't a libertarian. Just that he had a mistaken view of the effects of L.S.D.

As a practical matter, people who favor treating marijuana like liquor (which in my state is highly regulated and taxed,) but have a terrible fear of those "dangerous hard drugs," count as libertarian on the drug issue to me. I take a pretty incrementalist view on things.

Matt Barganier - 7/17/2007

Most interesting, Skoble. So censoring pornography is a greater infringement of libertarian principles than preemptive war. Can you provide some statistics on how many innocent people have died as a result of porn censorship? And please quit being coy: who are these people who opposed the Iraq war because they thought it was a Jewish conspiracy? David Duke? Do you have any others in mind? I want names and citations.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/17/2007

RE my own example, let me say that for some Xs, it would be proof of that person's inconsistency or irrationality. But I'm just saying that there are _some_ Xs for which it's possible that reasonable people might disagree. I certainly agree that if someone said "I'm a libertarian, and I support a peacetime draft and government censorship of pornography" that that person would be deeply confused. But I'm not ready to say that about pro- versus anti-abortion, or hawk vs dove.
As to your larger point: "whether libertarianism can be called a living operational philosophy in the real world if it can't offer a clear position on Iraq" -- well, there is such a thing as doing the right thing for the wrong reason, so I'd say there are good reasons to oppose the war and bad reasons to oppose the war. There are also good reasons why one might be in favor and bad reasons why one might be in favor. I don't count all opponents of the war equally, and neither do I count all advocates of it equally. Since Nov 04, I have been against the war, but some oppose the war because they are all-out pacifists, and some are opposed because they think it's a Jewish conspiracy. I think those are wrong views, so my being opposed is very different from those people's being opposed.

David T. Beito - 7/17/2007

Sure.....though how far do we take this? If we're going to say that someone can still be a libertarian and make an exception for the war on drugs, and compulsory national service in peacetime, fine.....but I don't think Barnett is claiming that, or is he?

Also, my main concern is not who is, or isn't, a libertarian, but is whether libertarianism can be called a living operational philosophy in the real world if it can't offer a clear position on Iraq. This is more a practical point I suppose than than a philosophical one.....but still critically important for the future of libertarianism (assuming it has a future).

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/17/2007

David, do you think there is such a thing as a person who (a) is a libertarian and also (b) wrong about Social/Political Issue X?

David T. Beito - 7/17/2007

How far do we want to take this? I suppose you could also make plausible albeit delusional libertarian argument for a war on drugs.

Some folks have argued, for example, that drug addiction makes people unable to exercise free choice and that drug prohibition can empower them to make free choices. Interestingly, Walter Block has claimed that the drug addict is a "slave" just as much as a chattel slave though for some reason he does not follow the logical premise of this claim and come out for prohibition.

If someone makes this kind of libertarian argument for a war on drugs, can they be considered delusional libertarians as well as long as they take libertarian positions on other issues?

Bill Woolsey - 7/17/2007

I agree with Barnett and Skoble.

Contary to Beito, Barnett pointed out several reasons why libertarians could not support the War in Iraq.

So, libertarianism isn't empty on issues of war and peace.

The pro-war libertarians he describes (which I think includes himself, correct?) have a rationale that not only promotes the security of the people of the U.S., it also benefits the people of the middle east by bringing them the blessings of liberty.

Of course, when he continues on to parrot the administration's line about the giving the surge a chance.... well.... it is a bit hard to stomach.

But I think one can be a libertarian, and be delusional.

Iraq will become a capitalist democracy and it will be so good there, that all the Muslims will convert to supporting democratic, liberal capitalism, and so there will be no one interested in Islamic fundamentalism any more, and certainly not imposing it by killing innocent civilians. So, invading Iraq will prevent Americans from being killed by foreign terrorists in the future all the while allowing the people of the Middle East to enjoy the better life provided by democratic capitalism. (Of course, taking the first steps towards a more libertarian order, right?)

How can anyone believe this? We have crazed fundamentalists in the U.S. (Christians, mostly) Even if we did impose liberal democracy on the middle east, why wouldn't we expect there would remain crazed islamic fundamentalists? Why wouldn't they still support attacking the far enemy? Especially with our now proven commitment to force the traditionally Islamic states to live like we do. And, killing some American citizens would probably be a better terrorist tactic in an imaginary liberal democratic Egypt that killing a bunch of Egyptians at a nightclub. How much easier it will be for them to hide among all the affluent secularized Egyptians visiting disneyland and las vegas.

It is crazy. How can anyway believe this string of rosy scenarios?

But, again, you can be a libertarian with delusions...

P.S. What scares me most is that we know there are people who are otherwise libertarian, who favor what amounts to a policy of extermination against the people of the middle east.
Well, that is how I read the positions of the Ayn Rand Institute. When I read a string of delusions like that provided by Barnett, I wonder if it isn't just a rationalization for what amounts to the same position as the Ayn Rand Institute.

Yes, that is our good intentions, and, as we can really expect, they hate us more and more for trying to make the like us, we will just kill more and more of them until they are all dead.

And that, I think, is very much contrary to libertarian values.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/17/2007

I chose abortion precisely because it's an issue about which people who are "real" libertarians disagree. In the comments thread at Volokh, I noted one commenter say that Randy Barnett is not a real libertarian. What an amazingly ignorant thing to say! Anyway, I agree that plenty of issues, like the drug war, _do_ have a "standard" libertarian reply. My point was that some do not, and that in any event, one can sincerely hold libertarian principles and at the same time be mistaken about how they apply to some real situation or other.
Also, I'm not getting why you think that if libertarians do disagree about some issue that that would imply the irrelevance of libertarianism, as opposed to implying its vitality. Fourthly, don't plenty of _conservatives_ disagree about the war? That means that there's not _a_ single conservative position on the war, but it hardly means that anti-war conservatives "aren't conservative" or that conservatism is becoming an irrelevant position. And ditto liberalism, for that matter.

David T. Beito - 7/17/2007

Why do you do choose to substitute the abortion issue? If you substituted the "drug war," would your conclusion be the same?

In any case, when it come to ordinary Americans, foreign policy (of which the Iraq War is just one example) is of far more vital to their real world concerns than either abortion or the drug war. If libertarianism can't address it head on, it is on the road to becoming irrelevant.

Aeon J. Skoble - 7/17/2007

I disagree, David. It's precisely because it's a vital philosophy that people can come to different conclusions. Look, rewrite your post substituting "abortion" for "the Iraq War" -- surely there are both pro- and anti-abortion libertarians. I don't think that all answers are equally correct, mind you - but being mistaken about how to apply libertarian principles doesn't make one unlibertarian. Shameless plug: My essay on this topic, while not _exactly_ about the Iraq war, does get into this a bit. The PDF is here:
That said, I agree that the time has long past to get out of Iraq, as I posted here at L&P in Nov of 2004: