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The Libertarian Foreign Policy Problem

Outside of trade policy and climate treaties, I very seldom discuss foreign policy.  First, because it is not my first interest.  Second, because I am not an expert and do not spend the time to keep myself sufficiently informed on the issues to have useful insights.  Third, because of exactly this problem stated so well my Megan McArdle:

I periodically flirt with isolationism, or if you prefer, "non-intervention". Like most libertarians, I'm attracted to "high concept" political philosophy: simple rules that can be stated in a sentence or less. No arguments about causus belli, blowback, or ultimately unknowable political ramifications; just a simple "yes or no" test. Did a foreign army invade the United States? For "Yes", press one; for "No", press two, and go back to arguing about what should replace child welfare laws in the coming anarcho-capitalist society.

Besides, all the foreigners hate having us there. Why not leave, and see if absence makes the heart grow fonder? (I suspect that many nations which have come, over long decades, to regard regional peace as some sort of natural law, will get a rather nasty surprise. This might make our influence look, in retrospect, rather appealing.)

But anyone who thinks at all seriously about libertarianism will, fairly early on, be faced with a very high hurdle. There are a handful of wars in which American intervention unambiguously halted gross abuses of human liberty. World War II is one, though many end up going around, rather than over . . . arguing that the Nazis were the direct result of American intervention in World War I; or that it was justified because Japan attacked us1; or that Russia and Britain would have defeated Hitler anyway2.  The American Civil War, however, is by far the highest leap; and the hardest to dodge.

In theory, every state has the right to secede, and the stated Federal rationale for the Civil War--preserving the union--was the vilest tyranny. In practice, chattel slavery was a barbarism even viler.

And so we killed 20-30% of the Confederate Army, not a few of our own, and uncounted numbers of civilians. That's not counting the wounded, who probably outnumbered the dead. All we managed to achieve, at this horrendous cost, was a corrupt and brutal occupation, followed by the "freedom" of Jim Crow, sharecropping, and "separate but equal". And it was worth it. The good guys won. We didn't do everything we wanted to, or even everything we could have, or should have. Jim Crow was putrid. But it was nonetheless so much better than slavery that it was worth the horrendous cost--in my opinion, and that of almost everyone in the world.

For me, a big part of the problem is one of information -- generally, most of the information one might find useful in deciding if X is a good war to pursue is from the government, an institution that demonstrably cannot be trusted based on past history when it makes this case.  Non-interventionism seems the right way to go, except for the (relatively few) times it is not.  The problems is, to paraphrase the famous dictum about advertising money, "half (or more) of our wars are a waste -- we just don't know in advance which half."  Megan uses the example of the Civil War, saying that that war was worth it because we got rid of slavery.  But the war by no means began that way.  It wasn't really until well into the war that both sides were pretty much in agreement that the war was about ending or retaining slavery. I would argue that in advance, that war looked like an awful, terrible, horrible proposition.  The initial value proposition was "let's go to war so the Feds can have a bigger empire to run."  Only later did it become, "let's go to war to free a large part of our population."  There was a female professor, I forget her name, who made the point that the Emancipation Proclamation changed the war from a bloody waste of time to a moral positive.  But that came years into the fight.

The other problem I have is that the war is fought by, well, the government, the institution for which I have no trust.  One way of thinking about it is that every time we go to war, we put our lives and treasure and very future as a country in the hands of the Post Office.  Eeek.

Posted on January 6, 2008 at 10:52 PM | Permalink

Comments

Foreign policy is a lot of fun to read about. Like the cold war & Africa. Think of it as a big ol' game of who can have the most "friends" on MySpace.

Posted by: Allen | Jan 7, 2008 6:04:42 AM

One problem with Megan's argument is that it relies on the same kind of static analysis that leads opponents of, say, school choice to argue that there aren't enough private schools for everyone, and private schools are too expensive anyway.

Her scenario allows for one and only one factor to change: the choice of whether to fight the war or not, and exactly in the way it was fought. It doesn't take into account the changing of the whole dynamic that a non-interventionist President, Congress, etc. would cause. It assumes that under a Ron Paul-type President, the tensions between the North and South would have played out just the same way, and that if he did decide to go to war, there would still be Sherman "Driving ol' Dixie Down" on his way to the beach.

I have problems with Paul's Rothbardian foreign policy as well, but "would you have gone to war to free the slaves" is not a fair question.

Posted by: Kyle Bennett | Jan 7, 2008 7:18:23 AM

I think part of Warren's point, and one made by most historians, is that the North did not go to war to free the slaves. That rationale became prominent only well into the war. In the beginning, the primary rationale for the Northerners was "union" in defense against the South's aggressive promotion of "states' rights." Later in the war, Northern politicians would conflate "union" with "freedom" in one of history's most blatant examples of doublespeak to the accepted by the masses. Only in hindsight does the question of whether or not the Civil War was worth it (in the sense of freeing the slaves) make sense from a libertarian perspective.

Posted by: M. Hodak | Jan 7, 2008 7:42:23 AM

very nice topic thank you

Posted by: eğlence | Jan 7, 2008 7:54:43 AM

"One way of thinking about it is that every time we go to war, we put our lives and treasure and very future as a country in the hands of the Post Office."

This sums up my own opinion on interventionism. Something that the pro-war libertarians have never explained clearly to me is how people that make arguments about how horrible government is at providing education, health care, environmental responsibility, or equality can somehow provide freedom and democracy to billions of people through force and superior fire-power.

And I think the War of Secession is a terrible example of a war that was "worth fighting". There are more reasons than the ones you and McArdle have mentioned, but I don't think this is a discussion to validate the uncivil war.

Posted by: mith | Jan 7, 2008 8:24:11 AM

In case of WW II, McArdle hits a weak point because the US was rather ignorant of Hitlers expansionism. The US first entered the war when Germany declared total war on the subject of naval battle (Hit'n Run Tactics by submarines and light cruisers). Then Nazi Germany became a problem to the US because it repeatedly hit US convoys and passenger boats which ultimately led to the declaration of War against the Axis.

So, I think this is the weakes argument of all, because libertarians actually support the right to wage war in self-defense!

In my opinion her argument for the Civil War is even a worse statement, because the principle of unseen benefits does apply here. Were 600 000 dead men necessary in a war that was not primary about abolishing slavery but enslaving states to the Union?
If the war were about slavery, it would have been the casus belli, but it wasn't. The fear of secession that loomed in the Northern States was one of the driving factors. The abolishment of slavery (though not the end of segregation!) was only secondary.

If she wants to argue on that level than we have to compare death by slavery to death by Civil war and on the same level, we have to measure up that segregation (quasi slavery) was still rampant throughout the US! So, the marginal benefit of abolishing slavery contra the costs of waging a war that cost hundred thousands of lives and still ended up with blacks been a minor person.

So after all, it is not as easy as she makes it to be.

Posted by: max | Jan 7, 2008 9:15:19 AM

Of all the elements of the government, I believe the military exhibits the greatest efficiency/degree of mission success. Why? Because the military necessarily faces competition and most of those making decisions in the military directly experience the consequences of those decisions.

Note that this does not apply to the civilian oversight of the military. However, I hasten to point out that civilian oversight is *very* important to minimize Pournelle's law from creeping in so that the military acts in the interest of the military instead of the country.

The upshot being, while I agree that it's hard to generalize a libertarian foreign policy, I think the post office comparison is unfair as the military is the least-bad government institution because it is the institution that comes closest to being a player in a market.

Posted by: Jody | Jan 7, 2008 9:29:59 AM

The South's secession, and the brush war in Kansas that preceded secession, were about extending slavery to new territories. The South had legitimate complaints about tariffs and other economic policies, but mainly their way of life required periodically relocating west after exhausting the soil in their plantations, and Lincoln's main campaign platform was about stopping that. Even if Lincoln had been willing to let the Confederacy go in peace, he wouldn't have allowed them to add Kansas and maybe even Nebraska to the slave states, let alone have allowed the US/Confederate border to continue extending west - and there would still have been a Civil War over it.

Posted by: markm | Jan 7, 2008 9:39:31 AM

As for how the military can be efficient, in the first place it isn't - but a large, grossly inefficient, but well-coordinated army still beats a small, efficient, or (usually) an uncoordinated collection of many small armies.

I spent 1978-1989 in the Air Force, and then working for a defense contractor. The waste was terrible, and much of it was required by the contracts and regulations - but usually the job still got done. Most of the people in the service, and the ex-servicemen that held most of the contracting jobs intended to make a difference, and we did as good a job as the constraints allowed.

However, it is possible for a force at peace for too long to get it's priorities totally inverted. At Cannon Air Force base, in spite of a good Colonel commanding the wing, keeping the airplanes flyable definitely came third in the minds of the senior NCO's who really run every service. First priority was winning the base appearance contest over all the other Tactical Air Command bases, every year. They really disliked unsightly messes such as someone taking apart anything to fix it... Second priority was getting the paperwork right - no problem if the airplane hadn't flown in a decade if the paperwork documented why it couldn't fly, with every word of the regulations followed to the letter. Woe betide the man who signed "M.Moss" where it called for initials or "MAM" where it called for the first initial and last name.

But eventually there's always a war, and the purveyors of mickey mouse BS get killed or shunted aside where they can't do much harm. The Post Office never faces such a test.

Posted by: markm | Jan 7, 2008 10:02:01 AM

Foreign policy can not be divorce from foreign trade. In order for a free enterprise system to work there must be rules and enforcement of the rules. For example, you rent to a tenant that doesn’t pay the bills you must be able to evict said tenant and the burden of the eviction should not be just on the landlord, the state, is the enforcer of the rules. The other alternative is that only the strong could be landlords. Con artists, thieves, pirates and gangster must be stopped and punished or the law of the jungle will prevail.

This becomes the same in foreign trade, the interest of the traders must be protected. This requires a military with both the ability and the will to use it. In the 20th and 21st century the US did not as a rule, go to war for humanitarian reason although the results of the war may produce good humanitarian results.

Joining the fight in War World II and then the US keeping a presence in Europe produced a stable Europe and keep communism at bay. Also War World II stopped Imperialistic Japan who would use force to obtain their economic needs and transformed it into a major trading partner in the Global market. The Korean War stopped the North and secured the right of South Korea to develop economically to where it is a major trading partner.

The Vietnam slowed the advance of communism into Southeast Asia allowing its neighbors to develop their free enterprise system and ultimately turning a former enemy into a trading partner.

Direct and indirect fighting in Grenada, San Salvador and Nicaragua stopped the spread of communism in Central America, allowing more countries to participate in the Global Economy and prosper.

The first Gulf war insured the continue flow of oil from the Mid-East.

Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan is about handling threats to Western Civilization and world trading, (The 9-11 attacks was against the World Economy, the US military and the US Government)

As the question what would happen if the US “disengaged” its military present throughout the world, who or what would fill the vacuum, Iran, China, other groups? Next question; would the world be better or worse, would the US be better or worse for it and would the Global Economy continue its course, producing wealth for the people of the world?

Posted by: will | Jan 7, 2008 11:22:29 AM

Slavery was the underlying cause for the civil war. No slavery, no Slave State vs. Free State debate, no Dread Scott decision, no Missouri Compromised, no abolitionist movement, no John Brown, no succession. No succession, no firing on Fort Sumter, no war. That was the South fatal mistake, without the act of Southern Aggression the North would not have had an excuse for starting a war.

Posted by: will | Jan 7, 2008 11:34:02 AM

Max, "which ultimately led to the declaration of War against the Axis" - you don't think that the declaration of war against Germany was perhaps caused by Germany having first declared war against the USA?

Posted by: dearieme | Jan 7, 2008 11:35:27 AM

Of course, the Constitution makes it abundantly clear that defense of the Union from enemies without and within is one of the few legitimate functions and responsibilities of the Federal Government -- whether or not you like the Post Office! Maybe we'd do better at foreign policy if the Federal Government wasn't so busy doing things best left to the States.

Posted by: wp | Jan 7, 2008 11:45:05 AM

Even libertarians must recognize that the government provides some necessary functions, and clearly national defense is one of them. So, the "government" conduction a war argument is really worthless mainly because a government does not have to be efficient in waging war. It can simply command the necessary resources to fight it.

In fact, the libertarian argument is very weak in connection to a democratic government that is based upon the soveirgnty of the People. We created the government, of all levels, by transfering to it certain recognized powers.

THe problem with government is not that it is inefficient. IT almost necessarily is. THe problem with government is that it is not good at giving up power once they have acquired it. The vested interests and beauacrats are good at preventing change.

The post office is a great example. Clearly, you cannot argue that in the beginning of the American Republic that there was any other entity that could provide this service. Large multi national companies did not exists. Large pools of capital did not exist. The national government was one of the few entities to have sufficient means to provide a national postal service.

But, time and technology changes. Clearly the modern day post office is not efficient compared to other entities that could provide the same or similar service. But the entrenched interests, mainly Democratic union protectionism, keeps the post office afloat and protected from its competition.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 7, 2008 11:52:39 AM

In fact, the libertarian argument is very weak in connection to a democratic government that is based upon the soveirgnty of the People.

The who what now?

Even libertarians must recognize that the government provides some necessary functions...

Since no libertarian would argue that the government doesn't, this statement appears to be the result of some confusion.

Posted by: Josh | Jan 7, 2008 1:07:40 PM

"Since no libertarian would argue that the government doesn't, this statement appears to be the result of some confusion"

Well, then the "post office" cracks really don't hunt, do they? (ANd the statement says exactly what you wrote "EVEN libertarians must .....).

The problem with government is that it is not efficient. It cannot be because the "maximization" process that a government does is a political maximization, not profit or welfare maximization. Even government, operating in its defined sphere will not operate "efficiently"; there will be waste and corruption.

But, unfortunately the government fills real roles that the private sector alone cannot. Free markets and capitalism cannot exist without government a government that protects private property rights, even if it inefficiently does so.

Posted by: Mark | Jan 8, 2008 10:58:52 AM

Not only was the primary cause of the Civil War slavery, the problem only came to war in the 1860s because the most Libertarian men among the Founding Fathers (e.g. Jefferson) did not have the political strength to denounce slavery in the Declaration or prohibit it in the Constitution. If they had somehow managed that in the late 1700s, we might not have thrown the baby of small, local government out with the bathwater.

Posted by: Moosashi | Jan 8, 2008 7:51:40 PM

Like Ron Paul says, slavery ended in every other country in the world too without a civil war, so the Civil War probably ended that gross abuse of human liberty only a little earlier than it otherwise might have.

Posted by: Noumenon | Jan 9, 2008 7:52:55 AM

If Ron Paul had a better understanding of History and the use of military force he would know that slavery was not ended in the rest of the world without force. The British, once convince that slavery had to end, used its Navy might to blockading the African coast effectively stopping the slave trade. The British people was convinced to end slavery without a war, the Americans was not.

Posted by: will | Jan 9, 2008 11:42:44 AM

i hate this stupid dumb blog...itz too long!!!

Posted by: | Mar 24, 2008 4:01:46 PM

"Slavery was the underlying cause for the civil war. No slavery, no Slave State vs. Free State debate, no Dread Scott decision, no Missouri Compromised, no abolitionist movement, no John Brown, no succession. No succession, no firing on Fort Sumter, no war. That was the South fatal mistake, without the act of Southern Aggression the North would not have had an excuse for starting a war."

Couldn't have said it better.

"Not only was the primary cause of the Civil War slavery, the problem only came to war in the 1860s because the most Libertarian men among the Founding Fathers (e.g. Jefferson) did not have the political strength to denounce slavery in the Declaration or prohibit it in the Constitution. If they had somehow managed that in the late 1700s, we might not have thrown the baby of small, local government out with the bathwater."

Couldn't agree more.

"The post office is a great example. Clearly, you cannot argue that in the beginning of the American Republic that there was any other entity that could provide this service. Large multi national companies did not exists. Large pools of capital did not exist. The national government was one of the few entities to have sufficient means to provide a national postal service."

Are you still licking the glue on USPS stamps? You present a false dilemma. Lysander Spooner started the American Letter Mail Company in 1844 with hard work, sweat, and ingenuity, not large pools of capital. There's no reason to think it couldn't have been done sooner the same way. Even if I SPOT YOU that point, that still wasn't a reason to make it a monopoly then or keep it as one now.

"If Ron Paul had a better understanding of History and the use of military force he would know that slavery was not ended in the rest of the world without force. The British, once convince that slavery had to end, used its Navy might to blockading the African coast effectively stopping the slave trade. The British people was convinced to end slavery without a war, the Americans was not."

Hey block head! Blockade not equal to war--civil or otherwise. And the slave trade continued after the British blockade though in diminished capacity. Nearly a million slaves were exported from Nigeria in the nineteenth century in spite of the British blockade.

As far as the "Civil War" goes, the reality is that the Southerners blew a critical pivot in the history of liberty by denying freedom to others at the same time they were trying to win it for themselves.

Posted by: Me, Myself, & I | Jun 1, 2008 3:04:46 PM

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