Jan 10, 2004 4:19 pm


For libertarians, the first question of political philosophy is, why have a state at all? Can a coercive monopoly be justified, and if so, how? Non-anarchist libertarians usually follow Locke, Nozick, and the Declaration of Independence—answering that governments are instituted among men deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. Legitimate government, the argument goes, is a protective association founded on a social contract.

In the American context, you can identify that contract as the Constitution of 1789. Because of it, we Americans are pledged to assist each other in the defense of our liberties from enemies foreign and domestic. Reflecting the Lockean logic, the Constitution empowers the federal government to provide for “the common defense” of the United States, not the defense or liberation of oppressed people throughout the world.

Thus, when the North Koreans land in San Francisco, those of us on the East Coast can’t say to California—“tough break, but you’re on your own.” We’re part of a mutual protection pact requiring us to be there for the Californians so they’ll be there for us when legions of crack Eurotroopers descend on Washington, bent on forcing us to take a month’s vacation every year and drive around in poky little fuel-efficient cars. We Americans pay into a common system for our mutual protection. We’re all in it together, in that sense.

But we Americans are in a different position with regard to oppressed citizens of other countries. We are not pledged to defend their lives, liberty and property—they’re not part of the pact. Consider Iraq: assume for the sake of argument what appears to be the case, that the Baathist Regime was no threat to American national security. If so, then going to war to liberate Iraq was an act of foreign policy altruism, coercively funded, like all acts of state altruism. Altruistic war has no more justification than any more conventional foreign aid program. We can speak out against the crimes of an oppressive regime, we can urge our fellow citizens to give to the cause of the oppressed—we can even join libertarian Lincoln Brigades and march to war (right behind Bill Kristol, Max Boot, and other neoconservative hawks, no doubt). But taxing Americans or otherwise restricting their liberty in order to protect those outside of the social contract violates our fellow citizens’ rights.

You can answer, with Lysander Spooner, “what social contract? I never signed any contract.” Which is fair enough. But that doesn’t get you to a libertarian justification for altruistic regime change. If anything, it proves too much by implying that even taxing Americans for the defense of America is illegitimate—let alone taxing us for the liberation and transformation of the Middle East. Having debunked the moral foundation of even a limited state, the libertarian interventionist can’t go from there to arguing for a more ambitious form of government bent on spreading liberty abroad. He'll need another justification for the state, and other reasons to say that nondefensive war-to-spread-liberty is libertarian. And there are powerful reasons to think it's not, such as the non-aggression axiom [which I'll discuss in the next post].

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