Blogs > Liberty and Power > Misguided Libertarian Support for the Afghan War

Jul 29, 2004 8:50 am

Misguided Libertarian Support for the Afghan War

I did not and do not support the U.S. in Afghanistan (or Iraq), and I believe that those defending such actions for self-defense or otherwise are misguided. On 9/11, Al Qaeda was itself responding to U.S. interventions, which have only greatly intensified. Furthermore, Letters of Marque (LOM) would have been far more efficient and targeted (see here and here than launching an invasion and occupation on any country, killing thousands of innocent people in the process, and creating the conditions for a massive recruitment program for Al Qaeda. LOM furthermore involves no tax funding nor" collateral damage" nor any of the inadequacies or unaccountability of central planning and government bureaucracy.

Al Qaeda is both a criminal and a guerilla organization. It should be dealt with this in this way, and no amount of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers, nuclear missiles and surveillance satellites have anything to do with the matter. The huge expansion of defense spending is pure pork and corporate welfare. Indeed, such weapons systems and defense spending are a big part of the problem, and we stated such on 9/14/01.

Moreover, the fact that various pro-market advocates and civil libertarians have supported the war, when this and all war" crises" are the major engine for statism, means that such advocates have chosen to be on the side of Bigger and More Intrusive Government. To these people, the end justifies the means (somehow socialism/corporatism not only can be made to work for defense purposes, but it is"ideal"), even if the reality is that in the end the U.S. produces both less security AND less freedom.

Hence, both natural rights and utilitarian libertarians who have supported the neoconservative/liberal interventionist war crusade have shown themselves to be willing to abandon reason and ethical principles for the glory of the warfare state. The resulting explosion of federal power does not seem to bother them too much these days, or if it does, they wring their hands and wish it were just not so. Bob Higgs's classic book, Crisis and Leviathan and his new book, Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society, shows otherwise.

It is time for libertarians to grow up and face the truth regarding the nature of government power. Is collectivism and warfare statism the route to liberty or not?

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Irfan Khawaja - 8/4/2006

When one is done reading the kicking, flailing and screaming at reality in Mr Theroux's inordinately long response to Sciabarra, one realizes that he doesn't have even the slighest clue how to go about answering Sciabarra's eminently reasonable question.

A first obvious response: If Mr Theroux had ever bothered to read a single Al Qaeda communique, he would realize that the point in history that Al Qaeda laments took place "80 years ago." What American intervention was taking place in the Near East 80 years ago? None. What was happening 80 years ago? The fall of the Ottoman Islamic Caliphate. This little piece of evidence, obvious as it is, and straight from the horse's mouth, might clue Mr Theroux in to the possibility that what Osama bin Laden & Co want is a re-establishment of the Caliphate. And that desire is absolutely invariant with respect to American "meddling" in the Middle East. Meddle or don't meddle, bin Laden is going to to want the Caliphate back. And he'll use terrorism to get it. So what's the "non-interventionist" response to that? Lift tariff barriers, maybe?

Mr Theroux than goes on to tell us that PRIVATE armies can handle Al Qaeda. Never mind that the nations of the Middle East and South Asia have not exactly been strangers to the idea of private armies, and have not exactly found their influence salutary at any time in the last, oh, 1400 years. Never mind that the idea of letters of marque and reprisal originated in the Middle East (viz., assassination), and has not exactly proven the most fruitful route to political stability, either. So WHAT exactly are these private armies, mercenaries, and trade-barrier lifting tough guys going to DO to fight terrorism?

Unfortunately, not even Mr Theroux's long list of rhetorical questions can camouflage the fact that he has absolutely no idea. At the end of the day, whether your army is governmental or private, it can't abolish the need for a grand strategy, sound tactics, logistics, supply lines, and actual fighting. Nor has any army known to man reversed time to undo policies that led to the existence of the enemy. What armies do is to destroy enemies, but they can't do it blindly. So since we face an enemy, the salient question is: how should we do it? What strategy to adopt? How to implement it?

What we are very quickly finding out that our anarcho-libertarian friends have not a snowball's chance in hell of even approximating an answer to that question. They never saw the threat coming, and they don't take it seriously enough now to know what to do about it.

"National security statism" is no solution? Yeah, well, neither are rhetorical questions, hand-waving references to books on private law enforcement, and wistful "if only's" about what we "shouda done" fifty years ago.

M.D. Fulwiler - 8/6/2004

I'm surprised that Mr. Theroux just about totally misread what Chris Sciabarra said, and obviously had not bothered to read, much less seriously understand and analyze, almost all of Mr. Sciabarra's earlier work. I think the anarchy/minarchy debate is an open question, but the anarchist side is not well served by this lack of intellectual rigor.

Chris Sciabarra is saying that, given that fact that we have a state and given the fact that the state has supressed many private options and institutions, we may have to ~reluctantly~ utilize it at times. Is Mr. Theroux such an anarchist purist that he refuses to spend .37 to mail a letter by U.S. Mail and instead sends all his mail by Federal Express at 40 times the cost?

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 8/5/2004

David, it is not true that I consider morality and economic foolishness "irrelevant" if I feel "threatened."

What is true is that we live in a historically specific time and place. Things are what they are. This doesn't make morality "situational." But it does make the application of moral principles contextual. And if we don't recognize the current context as relevant, our principles become disconnected, floating abstractions. This is not a question of being "obligated to support" government monopoly systems. I have not said that it is incorrect or immoral to discuss or even attempt to implement practical, voluntary parallel institutional alternatives. Nor have I suggested that we "should not rock the boat" or that "[government] monopolies ... are our best chance for survival."

I have been deeply critical of the US government in this "War on Terror" from the very beginning, all the way back to my first posts on the subject on September 12, 2001, even though I lost many friends, acquaintances, and neighbors in the terror attack on the WTC... even though other friends and family members have been permanently scarred by their escape from the inferno.

I don't know if you're suggesting for one moment that I've been among those who have "viciously attacked those of us who questioned [US] policies"; I have been one of those on the "antiwar" side of this equation, fervently opposing the Iraqi war, and fervently criticizing the way in which the war in Afghanistan was fought. I wouldn't know where to start in terms of providing links for you to read, but perhaps I can suggest a perusal of my "Not a Blog": , or of my website:

You write: "Does this mean we should not critique [government] and propose alternatives? Does this somehow mean that monopoly socialist/corporatist 'systems' can be made to work and must always be supported as government officials regularly pronounce some new national 'emergency'?" You write further that "The first matter of business then should obviously be to stop poking this hornets’ nest, which should not have been happening in the first place! But, somehow, supporters of U.S. warfarism believe that despite common sense and all of the empirical evidence, there is no alternative than for the U.S. to intervene more in the Mideast, kill and torture more people, occupy more countries, and spend more tax dollars. Somehow only then will we be safe and our liberty protected."

As we say here in Brooklyn: You gotta be kiddin' me. Where on earth do you suppose that I would endorse such things? I've been critiquing and proposing radical alternatives to the US system of neocorporatism and cronyism for the last 20+ years. I've advocated a radical move toward noninterventionism in US foreign policy.

But where I differ from you is this. I might agree with you that "National security in the U.S. has been nationalized over a period of 150 or so years, but especially since World War II. It is time to reverse this and begin denationalization." I just don't believe that such denationalization is possible without a comprehensive revolution against the warfare-welfare state. That revolution must be aimed first at the philosophical and cultural foundations upon which statism is built. You simply can't graft some new political structure upon a nonexistent foundation. Nor can you sit by and wait for everything to change before you do anything in response to attacks on your family and your neighbors.

Yes: You do whatever you can, privately, as Ross Perot did, to save your family and your neighbors. But in the absence of fully developed private parallel institutional alternatives, there are few tools one can use other than the ones in place in response to such an attack. All the more reason to be as specific as possible in one's advocacy of the nature of that response. Shooting missiles at known terrorist camps, taking out Al Qaeda operatives in commando raids, destroying financial and other networks of support, are all important means of waging war. It does not require full-scale invasions, occupations, and the creation of umpteen enterprises in "democratic nation-building," a cancerous neocon idea. But it is cancerous precisely because one can't graft "democracy" or "freedom" onto tribal foreign cultures, for the same reason that one can't graft radically individualist political solutions onto a tribal domestic culture here in the United States.

It is culture that must be altered over time for such solutions to become genuinely viable.

Oh, and btw, my "unnamed 'mentor'" was a Marxist: Bertell Ollman, a gent who happened to have been a comrade of Murray Rothbard and others in the Peace and Freedom Party back in the 1960s. He's not been "unnamed" anywhere in my various publications, where I give him credit for many methodological points, while criticizing him rather fundamentally for his Marxist perspective. And I consider Rothbard a personal mentor of sorts as well; see here, for example:

I'm not an anarchist; I went through an anarchist phase. My fundamental problem with anarchism, however, is the same fundamental problem I have with many minarchists: There is just not enough attention paid to the cultural and philosophical foundations for a free society. You can't simply get rid of the state and expect social problems to wither away; odds are, in the culture we have today, even if we eliminated the state and its props immediately, it would only come back tomorrow.

The Founders understood a lot; but the Founders also had an Enlightenment culture upon which to build. That culture is gone with the wind...

Arnold Shcherban - 8/3/2004

I'm sorry to intervene,

But let me briefly answer the dillema raised by you.

What the US should have done as a democratic and
internationally engaged sovereign country, is to launch immediate missile and bombing attacks targeting Al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, as soon as it obtained sufficient information on the responsible for the 9/11 terrorist acts on US soil. The preparation for the attacks should have been very secretive, without divulging the developments of investigation of 9/11 events and the conclusion about who was found to be responsible, and
whom the attacks were planned against, specific and short. Provided Bin Laden and its top leutenants would not have been killed during the attacks, the hunt for them should have been initiated, as it was done, anyway.
No invasion, and no occupation of Afhganistan.

David J. Theroux - 7/31/2004

To further reply to Chris Sciabarra, although he agrees with my points regarding the immorality, economic foolishness and disgraceful history of U.S. interventionism, he apparently considers all such points irrelevant if he feels threatened. Suddenly, the laws of economics and morality become situational for him and his unnamed “mentor” because we do not have an overall defense “system” based on bonded privateers. Chris is in effect saying that because government bureaucracies create monopolies, we are obligated to support such monopoly “systems” even if they are unjust and counterproductive, that no practical alternatives can or will exist, and we should not rock the boat for such monopolies which are our best chance for survival.

My question to Chris is: has use of the national security state made you safer, and at what cost in lives and treasure are you willing to expend via warfare statism? Iraq itself is a disaster and now the world’s major recruiting ground for terrorists, and Afghanistan is rapidly imploding:

But to answer his question, the first problem here is that all government actions are intended to create monopoly power through the use of coercion. So what? Does this mean we should not critique them and propose alternatives? Does this somehow mean that monopoly socialist/corporatist “systems” can be made to work and must always be supported as government officials regularly pronounce some new national “emergency”? Can collective farms somehow be made to produce food for all? Can the disastrous track record of CIA intelligence gathering and analysis somehow be made to function efficiently and dependably? Can trade restrictions create economic growth and lower prices? Can bombing a city block safeguard those peaceful people who live there?

The fact that New York City has a housing stock that suffers from the foolishness of rent control should not stop those who are economically literate to seek alternatives and insist on abolishing such price controls and implementing wholesale economic liberalization of housing markets. And, the same is true of any government domains.

The solution to the disasters created by collective farming or mining is to denationalize it, not support collectivism because that is what exists. National security in the U.S. has been nationalized over a period of 150 or so years, but especially since World War II. It is time to reverse this and begin denationalization.

For example, when President Carter launched his military campaign to release U.S. government hostages held in Iran in the late 1970s, the entire adventure was a disaster with almost everyone killed. But the fact that the national security state also fully existed then did not stop Ross Perot to organize his own privately funded military operation to rescue the employees of his own firm also held hostage. Indeed, if he had not, these people would likely have not survived. Should we have supported Carter or Perot?

In other words, there is no reason why existing trained military personnel could not be privately deployed to go after Al Qaeda. Clearly the existing war-socialist approach is doomed to failure just as is rent control. Private military operations are utilized in most parts of the world today because they are far more effective than the ineptness, unaccountability and expense of collectivist ones. Competing private security firms to protect people and property worldwide have created an enormous industry. (Please note that this is utterly different from the cronyism and neo-mercantilism of existing cost+ defense contracts.) To say that private firms could not have been utilized after 9/11 or now is simple nonsense. A private firm was even hired to protect the new President of Afghanistan, and private firms are regularly used to rescue hostages, fight terrorists and criminal gangs, track down and capture criminal suspects and fugitives, and provide security for people and property throughout the world.

Similarly, although the public police are responsible for criminal law enforcement, the track record of public police “systems” in tracking, arresting, and protecting people from criminals is abysmal, especially compared to private police and bonded bounty hunters. In fact, there is no comparison (see for example Bruce Benson’s book, To Serve and Protect: Privatization and Community in Criminal Justice: And today, in the U.S. there are three times as many private to public police.

What should be done by anyone seeking to protect freedom and the lives and property of Americans is not to cheer on the national security state, knowing full well that it will fail and in fact cause even greater dangers and innocent deaths, but to insist on the ethical and practical precision and accountable measures from private entrepreneurial operations (subject to the rule of law) and an end to U.S. government interventionism. The Founders understood this and they fought a revolution to protect themselves against the corporatism of an imperial standing army.

The second problem is, as I have noted, to get over the view that the U.S. was suddenly attacked for no reason at all. As I have noted, the attacks of 9/11 and since are in retaliation to U.S. interventions in the Mideast. The first matter of business then should obviously be to stop poking this hornets’ nest, which should not have been happening in the first place! But, somehow, supporters of U.S. warfarism believe that despite common sense and all of the empirical evidence, there is no alternative than for the U.S. to intervene more in the Mideast, kill and torture more people, occupy more countries, and spend more tax dollars. Somehow only then will we be safe and our liberty protected.

After 9/11, too many sunshine “libertarians” dropped their devotion to the idea that all individuals have a right to life, liberty and property and instead firmly embraced war collectivism and mass murder as the “only practical option.” The wholesale taxing and killing of innocent people was suddenly okay so long as was not them or those they identified with. Moreover, many such people viciously attacked those of us who questioned such policies based on the very same ideas that they once claimed unswerving devotion.

Only as the war in Iraq began to turn sour and our points were being verified about the truth regarding the build-up to and conduct of the war and occupation, have we seen these same people begin to reconsider their unreserved support for U.S. warfare statism. But for them, the fact remains that ethics, the rule of law and economic principles are situational and can and must be suspended when politicians declare a “war crisis.” They then suddenly believe that the government is “us” and is acting in “our” interest.

Furthermore, regarding Chris’s analogy of a Chinese restaurant in which you cannot order a pizza, it is important to recognize that the “state” itself is simply an idea that some people have the right to impose their coercive rules “legally” on the others (see Etienne de la Boetie’s The Politics of Obedience: Discourse on Voluntary Servitude: The state is not a restaurant or any building, or a piece of paper, or a tank or aircraft carrier, or a group of legislators. And, Chris’s analogy of a Chinese monopoly restaurant for an entire city is a straw man. There is no such “restaurant” anymore than there is a “federal government” that has just sovereignty over 50 “states.” Moreover, the terrorists did not attack “America” or “us” on 9/11. They attacked the symbolic centers of the U.S. global corporate state. There are of course only individuals who think, live, act, and make choices. The question regarding human interaction is whether each individual (private or public) is acting peacefully with others or is using aggression to accomplish his/her aims. And if some individuals believe that only one monopoly restaurant should be legal in a city or that federal invasive power is justified at home and abroad, it does not make it so or make it inevitable. Such ideas are fundamentally flawed and can be refuted. So why not do so? In fact, this is the only way to overcome the situation. To also use an analogy, it does not matter how much a sailor may believe that drinking seawater will quench his thirst or how much will do so. It never will. Embracing preemptive war and national security statism is hardly our only option and is no solution at all.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 7/30/2004

David, thanks for your response. I do not disagree with you about the ways in which the US has fought in the Middle East post-9/11; I do not disagree that the consequences of these strategies have been awful, or that US foreign policy has, to a significant extent, laid the basis for the conflicts in which the US is currently involved. Nor do I disagree with you about the constitutional or moral legitimacy of bounties in capturing key Al Qaeda operatives. Nor do I disagree with you about the need for civil or criminal accountability for ~all~ individuals involved in military actions.

The issue, for me, is one of ~system~. Given that neo-corporatism is at the very heart of US political economy, and that 3000 American civilians were murdered on 9/11, and that the ~wholesale~ adoption of privateering as a substitute military strategy was/is virtually off the table, my question remains: What was to be done ~in that context~ on September 12, 2001, when such a horrific act had taken place on American soil?

Let me provide an analogy that was passed on to me by my mentor: When you go into a Chinese restaurant, you don't order pizza. You have to order what's on the menu, or simply go to another restaurant (unless, of course, the Chinese restaurant is the only restaurant in town). In other words, while privateering may have been a moral, constitutional option as a response to the 9/11 attack, it wasn't on the ~institutional~ menu. And ~at this time~, neo-corporatism is the only "restaurant" in town. Privateering may have been on the menu back in the 19th century---but not today (at least not as a wholesale strategy). And since some kind of military response was forthcoming, given the political and cultural realities post-9/11, it brings me back to the central question: What is to be done?

Please note that my own advocacy of a military response against Al Qaeda and their Taliban enablers is not a wholesale approval of ~how~ the US responded or, least of all, what the US has left behind. See here, for example: .

In any event, thanks very much for the discussion and for raising important questions and issues.

David J. Theroux - 7/29/2004

To reply to Chris Sciabarra, despite all of the official sanitized claims, U.S. actions in Afghanistan have hardly been "targeted strikes." Otherwise, there would not have been well over 3,000 innocent people killed even as early as the beginning of this year. Why would we expect otherwise? The use of bombers, gunships, and mortars are not exactly designed to be discriminating projections of firepower. Indeed, we would be outraged if the government used such firepower in any city in the U.S. So, why would we expect such means to be "targeted" in a city in Afghanistan? Are we to believe that everyone in such a locale is an "enemy" so that resulting random deaths are acceptable? (See,,, and

Self-defense is indeed a legitimate use of force, but U.S. military campaigns are by their very nature not police actions or self-defense. They are military offensives by design and brutally so. Moreover, they are wielded by collectivist organizations also designed to be unaccountable and indiscriminate. Furthermore, such preemptive war is nothing short of the abolition of the rule of law itself (, while self-defense is the protection of the rule of law. This fact is manifested in the insistence by the Bush Administration that U.S. military personnel should not be subject to civil or criminal prosecution anywhere in the world for their actions and the claim that the U.S. can secretly round up and indefinitely incarcerate people without charge, legal counsel, or trial.

The Constitution’s provision for self-funded bounties through Letters of Marque are clearly preferable to war socialism/corporatism in the name of defense, and despite the official chill from the Iron Triangle in Washington for such an approach, when push came to shove, the only real successes the U.S. has had in capturing key Al Qaeda leaders have been through the use of paid bounties. In other words, I submit that Al Qaeda could have been very effectively pursued, without killing innocents and using scorched-Earth policies, for a tiny fraction of the funds expended by the U.S. national security Leviathan.

As for Pat Lynch's question, it is a mistake to equate a nation or community with a state that claims sovereignty by conquest over a certain territory. Moreover, we must look to why the U.S. was attacked on 9/11 ( or at Pearl Harbor ( The fact remains that in both instances, the U.S. government had been systematically intervening in other lands and the result was to provoke the rise of belligerent and intolerant groups who believed that only through retaliation could they end such intervention. Such “blowback” ( is not new, yet most Americans remain utterly shocked when it occurs over and over again.

David J. Theroux

Loudius Fubqua - 7/29/2004

Suprise! Groups have rights! Ok, whitey, time to pay up for slavery. So how much can I put you down for?

And as to conflating defense with vengence, let us be clear: The object of defense is to prevent the agressor from carrying out his agression. Hence, defending your family might consist of preventing them from being killed. If you've failed in this and they're already dead, then defense is no longer an option. Nonetheless, your bronsonesque thirst for vengence might be understandable.

So, if in the course of a personal crusade for vengence (read: justice), against persons well deserving of vengence, you accidentally murder somebody's daughter/family/city, and the State's prosecutors decline prosecution in view of the particular righteousness of your cause, and considering the unreasonable standard of perfection demanded of anyone who would drop 1000 pound bombs in residential surroundings without causing injury to innocents--then, in fairness, you ought grant the State the same consideration.

I once assumed libertarianism to be consistent with individualism. But now I'm not so sure.

chris l pettit - 7/29/2004

not that I define myself as anything in particular, but I figure to be more leftist than anyone posting I would think.

Just wanted to support the post and express solidarity with the positions articulated. As a big believer in international law and individual human rights (my profession), I figure I would probably raise the ire of many by supporting an international global community, but also by decrying the nation-state sovereign concept. however, i find that supporting an international community based on the rule of law (not positivism) and human rights based on non-nation state participation seems to be very compatible with the libertarian point of view, at least from a social and cultural perspective. Economically, there will always be disagreements, but we all seem to be headed to the same place, just through different tunnels...



Pat Lynch - 7/29/2004

David I think Bob's book is a classic and makes a virtually airtight case for the dangers that wars create when it comes to growth in government, but at what point does a nation have the right to defend itself from attack - not potential attack? Or are you dismissing the notion of the nation as legimate? I just think that short of Pearl Harbour how this standard works.

Chris Matthew Sciabarra - 7/29/2004

David, as you might suspect, I agree in principle with what you say, and, in principle, I like what Larry Sechrest ( )
and others have said about "Letters of Marquee."

But as I say in my post today < >, too much of this discussion among antiwar and pro-war libertarians seems bogged down in a kind of historical vacuum. Ross Perot may have used LOM to retrieve his employees in Iran, in 1979, as Larry explains, but most of these LOMs are a product of another age, the 19th century, long before the birth of the leviathan US state.

I opposed US intervention in Iraq, but given that LOMs were not used in Afghanistan (and probably were not even politically possible, given the political and systemic conditions, post-9/11), what should the US have done? Note: I'm not dismissing LOMs out-of-hand... I just believe that the political and ideological conditions of the time most likely made their use impossible. The ~system~ of interventionism that currently exists contextualizes everything; we may wish to "bring back the spirit of the privateers," as Larry argues, thus conjoining the pursuit of profit and the pursuit of justice... but this subsumes that we have a political, cultural, or intellectual context that would allow for such pursuit. The system we have won't allow it. It exists, and until or unless we change that system fundamentally, what is to be done? (a question not owned by Chernyshevsky and Lenin).

I think targeted strikes against terrorist camps, disruption of financial networks and such---rather than full-scale invasion and occupation---might have been an efficient alternative, but clearly something had to be done in response to the Al Qaeda attack.