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Another Round

A little while back, I insinuated myself into a dispute regarding what is and is not an appropriate libertarian foreign policy. This was a bit of an odd thing to do since I'm not a libertarian myself, but here's another round between libertarian dove Justin Logan and libertarian hawk Max Borders. Not being a libertarian, I'm pretty disinclined to wade back into the muck here.

UPDATE: What the hell. Not for nothing was I a student in the last course Robert Nozick taught before his untimely death. Borders' argument seems to me to partake heavily of obscurantism. The metaethical topics he's trying to raise ("what are rights? where do they come from?") are frankly irrelevant. Making war is a massive deployment of the state's coercive force, both against the target population and (in order to acquire the necessary warmaking resources) the warmaking nation's home population. All ideological points-of-view represented in contemporary American society involve some skepticism about the advisability and/or morality of deployments of the state's coercive force. Libertarianism (in all its varieties) is all about taking this skepticism rather further than do other points of view. Since libertarians are skeptics about the use of the state's coercive force and war is a huge use of coercive force, libertarians ought to be skeptics about war.

This isn't to say that one must be a pacifist in order to be a libertarian, just as many libertarians in good standing support a kind of skeletal welfare state for reasons of social stability and so forth. Nevertheless, unless you're pretty damn skeptical about welfare state type initiatives (for one reason or another), you're not a libertarian. Borders' view -- roughly speaking that it's a good idea for the United States to launch wars against countries that have not attacked us and that do not threaten to attack us in the immediate future in order to affect a reconstruction of the prevailing social and political order in those countries -- does not evidence what one would call a great deal of skepticism about the use of the state's coercive force. That isn't to say that Borders' view of foreign policy is necessarily wrong (though I think it is, but that's another story) it's merely to point out that it's not much of a libertarian view. If the sort of thing he wants the US to do for Iraq is moral and feasible, then whatever premises have led him to that conclusion ought to lead him to rethink his skepticism about the morality and feasibility of state coercion at home. Which is to say that he shouldn't be a libertarian.

December 1, 2004 | Permalink

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Comments

Between the number of your friends who are libertarians and your heterodox positions on some issues, we might make you an honorary libertarian.

Posted by: Justin | Dec 1, 2004 10:02:58 PM

Funny, I initially read it as "Libertarian Marx Brothers" - my brain nearly shut down trying to process that...

Posted by: Eli | Dec 1, 2004 10:16:53 PM

Matt, you couldn't have "insinuated" yourself into a dispute.

However, this:

This isn't to say that one must be a pacifist in order to be a libertarian, just as many libertarians in good standing support a kind of skeletal welfare state for reasons of social stability and so forth. Nevertheless, unless you're pretty damn skeptical about welfare state type initiatives (for one reason or another), you're not a libertarian. Borders' view -- roughly speaking that it's a good idea for the United States to launch wars against countries that have not attacked us and that do not threaten to attack us in the immediate future in order to affect a reconstruction of the prevailing social and political order in those countries -- does not evidence what one would call a great deal of skepticism about the use of the state's coercive force. That isn't to say that Borders' view of foreign policy is necessarily wrong (though I think it is, but that's another story) it's merely to point out that it's not much of a libertarian view.

is sharp.

Posted by: Mark | Dec 1, 2004 11:59:53 PM

Seems to me that some of the reason people become libertarians is precisely because of these metaethical concerns. However, Harry Browne seems to advocate (based on his blog) a far more consequentialist view than I would have expected, with Libertarians always talking about "rights" and weird things like that.

Posted by: Kenny Easwaran | Dec 2, 2004 4:00:32 AM

Yeah, but who takes Browne seriously in the libertarian movement, since he proved to be a con man? You realize, Badnarik's chief qualification for the LP nomination was that he had no connections to Harry Browne?

Posted by: Brett Bellmore | Dec 2, 2004 7:01:37 AM

Which is to say that he shouldn't be a libertarian.

Yeah, but what if he wants to smoke weed? Huh? What then?

Posted by: Kieran | Dec 2, 2004 7:21:54 AM

Finally, I will end with the toughest question Logan asks: "Can the U.S. government ever have or wield too much power internationally in the view of the libertarian hawks?" My answer to this would be simply that "too much power" comes when the power is being used in ways that are not in the interests of the US.

This guy is a libertarian? Seriously? He is saying that the only limit upon the amount of power which the state can obtain from the population and wield in the world is the extent of the state's own interests. Not the people's interests (which would be bad enough from a libertarian perspective, aggregating all the people's interests into a single statist gesture), but the interests of the state itself. Interesting.

It's as if Borders is taking "every person his own nation" as a palindrome, with "every nation its own person" as an equally true corollary. The US is just another steely-eyed libertarian hero, acting on its own interests to the limits of its power.

Never mind the profoundly anti-libertarian equation this draws between the interests of the individual and the interests of the state. Never mind the profoundly anti-libertarian fetishization of the state this represents, as the individual prerogatives of the population are subsumed and devalued within the state's self-interested acts.

Never mind all that. Go USA!

Posted by: st | Dec 2, 2004 9:26:30 AM

Wow, that was glorious. Matt Yglesias is a better libertarian than most libertarians.

Posted by: digamma | Dec 2, 2004 9:27:00 AM

It's as if Borders is taking "every person his own nation" as a palindrome, with "every nation its own person" as an equally true corollary. The US is just another steely-eyed libertarian hero, acting on its own interests to the limits of its power.

This is sharp -- while the position you describe is philosophically incoherent, I think that psychologically it's exactly the way a lot of libertarian-ish right-wingers, at least the ones I talk to, think.

Thanks for phrasing it so neatly.

Posted by: LizardBreath | Dec 2, 2004 10:00:13 AM

Most of the so-called libertarians are really just republicans that are denouncing the religious right. That way they stay "above the fray" when the thugs start legislationg morality. They vote for Bush, but the gay-bashing is not their fault - they just want the tax cuts.
It's easy because they get to be both greedy and cowardly at the same time!

Posted by: fasteddie | Dec 2, 2004 10:16:10 AM

Word, fasteddie, word.

Posted by: Matt_C | Dec 2, 2004 11:17:54 AM

It appears to be Mr. Border's contention that it's A-OK for the government of the United States to steal from my pocket (via the coercive force of the IRS) in order to (hypothetically) benefit Iraqis (since Iraq was no threat to the United States, the invasion of Iraq obviously has nothing to do with benefiting Americans).

The Libertarian view is that government should be strictly limited in its powers, and should pursue tasks that are necessary for the health and safety of its constituents, and should do so only if the vast majority of its constituents so demand (as a Libertarian, it would not bother me a bit if spending bills in Congress required 3/4ths approval -- only things about which there is a national consensus should be done by the national government, everything else should be done more locally). The war in Iraq in no way had such a national consensus behind it. Mr. Borders is about as Libertarian as Woodrow Wilson, who similarly engaged in a war to "make the world safe for democracy" -- and ended up only making the world safe for Stalin and Adolph Hitler.

Note that I am not saying that things like, e.g., a national health care insurance system, could not be supported by Libertarians. What I am saying is that a healthy skepticism should be involved, and said system should be adopted only when it has been proven to work elsewhere to benefit the health and safety of the people as a whole (e.g., by the French and the Swiss, who have top-notch health care system) and has support of the vast majority of Americans. Expanding government power should never be done lightly.

But then, I'm a conservative, and the "neo-cons" are just jumped-up Trotskyite con-men who have no problem at all expanding the size and scope of government as much as possible...

- Badtux the Libertarian Penguin

Posted by: BadTux | Dec 2, 2004 3:45:07 PM

matt: those guy are actually "schmibertarians."

Posted by: belle waring | Dec 2, 2004 6:11:18 PM

Good show, Matt.

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