An Assembly of Pieces

James Anderson Merritt's piecemeal thoughts and observations, and the occasional attempt to put some of the pieces together.
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All material except cited quotations Copyright (C) 2004-2008 by James Anderson Merritt. All rights reserved.
Monday, January 19, 2004

NOTE: I recently posted a version of this essay as a "comment" entry in response to the Reason Online's Hit and Run blog item entitled "Kerry: The Only Libertarian Choice!" (January 16, 2004).

I am rather astounded at some of the comments offered to me to reconcile libertarianism with the Iraq War, not to mention other aggressive wars or even wars of conquest.

I couldn't disagree more strongly with the statement made earlier in the thread, that libertarianism constrains only how a government may treat its citizens, and is therefore compatible with a variety of foreign policies, some aggressive and intrusive. I think that the micro-model of libertarianism -- individual sovereignty unless and until the exercise of that sovereignty improperly abridges another's -- naturally scales up and extends beyond the nation's borders, at least in terms of constraining government action. Even if I were wrong about this, however, Nick B made an astute comment earlier, along these lines: the resources consumed by wars have to come from the people, and libertarianism constrains how much of those resources can go toward government projects, including wars. Said another way, it makes sense that people would put up with the conscription of people and resources to prosecute a purely defensive war -- indeed, they might rush to contribute and enlist. To the extent that a war is not defensive, however, more and more people would be less and less ready to kick down; such resistance would naturally constrain a war effort, very likely below the level necessary to support conquest or empire.

On the other hand, Nick B also repeats the "technology changes everything" argument which has, for instance, been used (successfully, if unfortunately) to justify government control of electronically-disseminated speech, on the theory that the founders could not possibly have foreseen broadcast media or intended such developments to be included in the category of "press." Similarly, Nick B says that the founders' fondness for non-interventionism, and their warnings against entangling alliances and national belligerence, were products of a time before weapons of mass destruction. When the technology of death may be in the hands of our enemies, Nick implies, the founders' intentions are rendered irrelevant, and even a libertarian must recognize and support the need for pre-emptive aggression. Beg pardon, but this libertarian disagrees.

With regard to the issue of "weapons of mass destruction," I think it is rather sad that people needed the spectre of continental or global carnage, in order to be stampeded into accepting an aggressive war that created real regional carnage. In the name of a possible, yet fictional future involving the deaths of millions or billions -- as described by "our leaders" -- we readily travelled elsewhere in the world to kill tens of thousands. Mass destruction happened in 2003 and is still happening now. Dare we say that the thousands that have died already are the unavoidable price of keeping all the others safe? I could understand (though not necessarily agree with) such a calculus, were it based on solid evidence indicating that an attack on the US by the alleged enemy were imminent. Every day, however, we read reports that reveal the complete lack of such evidence in the case of the Iraq War. The case for the War wouldn't, as far as I can see, have convicted a single defendant to death in an American court. That it was used to justify the deaths of thousands in a foreign war seems to border on the obscene.

The founders knew mass- death and destruction, too. War was a particularly brutal undertaking in the 18th century, especially as both weapons and the state of medicine were primitive. A few cannonballs, a horse-drawn wagon full of gunpowder, a blockade of supplies and provisions (especially in Winter), or the introduction of a simple disease (in something as seemingly innocent as blankets) could kill hundreds or thousands in a short space of time. The founders were aware of all of those possibilities -- often enough from personal experience. Understanding that America's enemies had a wide variety of horrific methods of dealing death to whole cities and regions (and being able to imagine worse, as they were some of the era's most intelligent and educated people), the founders nevertheless advised non-interventionism as a foreign policy, and liberty as a domestic policy. They went further, structuring our form of government to make defensive wars fairly easy to prosecute, but aggressive wars deliberately difficult to start. I am far from convinced that, seeing the state of "weapons of mass destruction" and terrorism today -- including the machine gun and the thermonuclear bomb -- the founders would have chosen to do anything else. I think today's situation would only validate their own studies of political and military history, and the conclusions drawn from them.

Life wants to live. Libertarianism, at its heart, is "live and let live." The point of the libertarian government is to deal with the situations that crop up when people don't "let live." A libertarian government, following a libertarian foreign policy, would emphasize ways to protect its own interests and those of its citizens, without going against this fundamental tenet, and would be judged a failure to the extent that it did go against it. I can't see any way around that conclusion, which further implies that a policy of non-interventionism and active yet intelligent engagement with the rest of the world is the natural foreign policy of a libertarian government. Are any candidates, Republican or Democrat, saying this? Or would we be better off to look to third parties or independents for that kind of wisdom?


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