Blogs > Liberty and Power > The Logic of Jihad

Jul 7, 2004 4:09 am

The Logic of Jihad

[cross-posted at Austro-Athenian Empire]

Jacob Levy has responded to my previous post. Concerning the analogy I there drew between confused criticisms of anti-interventionism in military policy and confused criticisms of anti-interventionism in the economy, Jacob writes that it's"fallacious to treat the cases as so closely analogous" and indeed that I have"usefully offered one of the neatest accounts I've seen of the fallacy that leads people to treat strict non-interventionism as a matter of libertarian principle" -- since"Politics is not economics, and international politics is really not economics, and terrorism is really, really not economics."

Jacob has usefully offered another example of the mistake for which I chided him earlier: criticising antiwar libertarians (in this case, me) for something other than what they said. In the present case he has misunderstood the point of my analogy. The point was not to argue that, just as libertarians oppose intervention in the economy, so they should oppose intervention in foreign affairs. Indeed, as I said explicitly in my original post, the purpose of that post was not to argue for the antiwar position at all, but only to complain of Jacob's mischaracterising of that position.

The analogy I was making was thus not between the case for economic libertarianism and the case for antiwar libertarianism. Rather, the analogy I was making was between an (imaginary, and to libertarians obviously ludicrous) bad argument against economic libertarianism and an (all too real, and alas, apparently not obviously ludicrous to all libertarians) bad argument against antiwar libertarianism.

However, since Jacob has raised the question of the former analogy, let's consider whether there is one.

One possible misunderstanding needs to be gotten out of the way right off the bat. It might be thought that antiwar libertarians are treating military intervention per se as a violation of the nonaggression principle. We are not. Insofar as military intervention is being conducted in order to overthrow or defang an unjust régime, it could in principle be justified as defensive rather than initiatory force.

I say"in principle" because military intervention in the real world usually involves violations of the nonaggression principle, since such interventions cause collateral damage (for the libertarian case against collateral damage see here and here) and are funded through tax extortion -- as well as indirectly advancing aggression by fueling civil liberties violations and the military-industrial complex back at home."War is the health of the State," and all that. (See Chris Sciabarra's Understanding the Global Crisis: Reclaiming Rand's Radical Legacy and Arthur Silber's I Accuse: To Those Who Pave the Way for the New Fascism.)

But let's leave all that aside and asks whether, in purely economic terms, the libertarian arguments against economic intervention apply at all to military intervention. And surely they do. Remember, this is government action we're talking about; given the severe informational and incentival problems that governments inherently face, the odds that they will intervene where and how they ought are just about nil -- and the results of such failures are much more sanguinary than an inefficient Post Office.

As David Friedman reminds us:"It is difficult to run a successful interventionist policy, and as libertarians we do not expect the government to do difficult things well." (Machinery of Freedom, p. 215.) Jacob complains that in its handling (i.e., losing) of the Iraq War"the Bush Administration has failed basic tests of competence in policymaking and execution, and of trusteeship of long-term interests like alliances and trade negotiations and moral credibility." This apparently came as a surprise to him -- whereas it's exactly what the antiwar libertarians expected and predicted. Why should states stop acting like states when they're fighting terrorism? (Jacob thinks Kerry will be better; I'm not sure why.)

But the parallel between military interventionism and economic interventionism is stronger still. Back in 2002 I argued as follows, and the argument still strikes me as compelling:

Ludwig von Mises used to argue that a market economy regulated by governmental intervention, hailed by many as a middle path between socialism and laissez-faire, is an inherently unstable system: each additional interference with private commerce distorts the price system, leading to economic dislocations that must be addressed either by repealing the first intervention or by adding a second, and so on ad infinitum.

I'm reminded of Mises' argument every time the boosters of America's current rush to empire tell us:"Well sure, maybe you dovish types are right when you say that the 9/11 attacks could have been avoided if we'd pursued a less provocative Middle East policy. But it's too late to debate that issue now. We can't turn back the clock; we have to deal with the situation as it currently exists. Given the threat we face now, we have to pursue that threat and eliminate it."

The problem with this argument is that it's timeless. Hawks were saying things like this long before 9/11, about the threats that we faced then. Every time America goes off on one of its bombing or invading romps, resentment grows among the bombed and invaded. From this resentment sprout new threats to America's security. To protect against these threats, America engages in further bombing and invading, which creates still more resentment, which breeds still new threats, prompting still more bombing and invading, and so on ad infinitum.

Mises' insight that interventions breed more interventions is as true in foreign policy as it is in domestic economy. And just as the logical endpoint of the cycle of economic interventions is complete socialism, so the logical endpoint of the cycle of military interventions is world conquest. In both cases, the only way to avoid the goal is to stop the cycle.
Now Jacob's objection to this line of reasoning is that it assumes terrorist behaviour is predictable in the same way that the behaviour of economic actors responding to a price control is predictable -- that it ignores subjective factors like ideology. For Jacob there's"no invisible hand that leads the radical Islamists of the world to respond violently to our wrongs rather than our rights, or even more frequently to our wrongs than to our rights."

Invisible hand? I'm talking about a visible fist. And I don't see how I'm ignoring ideology; I'm just making the quite ordinary observation that people are more likely to respond violently to people who attack them than to people who don't. That doesn't mean unprovoked attacks don't occur; it just means that provoking produces more violent responses than non-provoking. If what the terrorists hate about us is our freedom and prosperity, why aren't they attacking Switzerland? Can Jacob really claim with a straight face that U.S. foreign policy has nothing to do with al-Qaeda's behaviour?

Suppose I go out into any street in the world -- Peoria or Fallujah -- and start randomly punching people on the street. I feel fairly confident in predicting that the percentage of people who hit, kick, or shoot me will be far higher among those I hit than among those I didn't hit. As I wrote in my very first blog entry ever:

Do the terrorists hate us for our (relatively) libertarian culture, or for our un-libertarian foreign policy? Well, pretty obviously, both. The question is whether they would be motivated to give their lives in an attack on this country if they had only the cultural grudge against us, rather than the military grudge as well? Sure, I imagine some would still be willing. ... All the same, I for one find it hard to imagine al-Qaeda having quite as easy a time recruiting suicide hijackers on the basis of a mere horror of Baywatch.
And recruitment is really the issue here. Jacob thinks it's"simply untrue that the Iraqi sanctions prompted 9/11," since those sanctions were not"a wrong of any great importance to Bin Laden." Now I don't know whether bin Laden cared about the Iraqi sanctions or not, but the sanctions certainly were one more grievance that helped to fuel resentment against the U.S. in the Islamic world. I rather suspect that bin Laden was thrilled with the U.S. invasion of Iraq, since it simultaneously hurts one enemy (Hussein) and makes another (the U.S.) look bad -- while bringing much closer the prospect of a fundamentalist régime in Iraq. But bin Laden has nevertheless loudly proclaimed his outrage over the invasion, because he's playing to an audience, and that audience isn't us.

What matters is not so much what bin Laden cares about aswhat his potential recruits care about -- and I don't see anything"mechanistic" about the assumption that there might be correlations between a) the amount of damage the U.S. inflicts on the Muslim world, b) the number of Muslims who feel angry and resentful toward the U.S., and c) the number of potential al-Qaeda recruits. This isn't any sort of praxeological law; it's just common sense. Assuming that there's no such correlation, that anybody who becomes a terrorist would have been a terrorist anyway, seems enormously unrealistic. Indeed, in the context of defending U.S. foreign policy it seems like wishful thinking of, well, Panglossian proportions.

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More Comments:

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Ryan Decosta

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David T. Beito - 7/10/2004

Well said. Some pro-war libertarians forget that wehn Hayek wrote about intended consequences he never limited that concept to economics. In fact, one could argue that his insight better applies to the consequences of foreign intervention which include countless and incalculable variables which transcend mere laws of supply and demand such as ethnicity, religion, public choice, etc.

Roderick T. Long - 7/7/2004

> Intervention in the economy occurs
> as an alternative to liberty in the
> economy. Intervention in foreign affairs
> as a result of the military defeat of a
> totalitarian regime (like Nazi Germany,
> Fascist Italy, Saddam’s Iraq) brings an
> occupation that is an alternative to
> fascism – not liberty

Since I already explicitly made just this point, and explained whyit wasn't the respect of analogy that I was talking about, this objection is yet another ignoratio elenchi.

> You provide no evidence to support
> your assertions but rely mostly on
> introspection

I have no idea what this reference to "introspection" means. In any case, the grievances of the terrorists are a matter of public record.

Jason Pappas - 7/7/2004

Your parallel still does not hold. Intervention in the economy occurs as an alternative to liberty in the economy. Intervention in foreign affairs as a result of the military defeat of a totalitarian regime (like Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Saddam’s Iraq) brings an occupation that is an alternative to fascism – not liberty. Is the occupation fraught with the problems that all government-run enterprises face? Of course! Your point is obvious to all libertarians both hawk and dove. But the government intervention was already in place and on a greater scale. The US occupation in West Germany and Italy didn’t lead to a greater statism than existed prior to the war.

I’ll leave others to address your secondary point: what motivates the enemy. You provide no evidence to support your assertions but rely mostly on introspection. Some how I think bin Laden thinks differently than you. Correct me if I'm wrong.