Libertarians and foreign policy: the individual, the state, and war.

Author:Preble, Christopher

Human liberty is the foundation of a good and just society. Men and women flourish when they are able to live, work, and play where they desire. People live better, more fulfilling lives when they are free to associate with the people they choose and how they choose. The presumption of liberty and against the use of force to coerce or compel a person to behave in a particular way is the defining feature of libertarianism.

The presumption of individual liberty goes hand in hand with that of nonintervention. Libertarians believe that legitimate governments possess limited and enumerated powers to protect their citizens' basic rights. They should provide a system for adjudicating disputes and impose sanctions or punishment for those who would willingly transgress the rights of others. The state should otherwise interfere as little as possible with an individual's ability to earn an honest living and to enjoy the fruits of his or her labor. Libertarians believe, therefore, that in domestic affairs the best governments are small governments.

The same principle of limited and enumerated powers applies when government turns its attention beyond its borders. Libertarians believe that people should be free to buy and sell goods and services, study and travel, and otherwise interact with peoples from other lands and places as well as be generally unencumbered by the intrusions of government. Ideally, a government will pursue policies that allow its citizens maximum freedom.

For example, governments often choose to have formal relationships with other governments and peoples. They engage in diplomacy and exchange ambassadors. These agents, acting on behalf of a government and representing the interests of that government's constituents, may negotiate treaties of friendship or establish rules governing trade between them. Such activities are wise and just to the extent that they facilitate their citizens' ability to live freely around the world and not merely in the country of their birth or the place where they reside or work.

Libertarians are skeptical, however, of government actions that depart from a narrow and well-defined mandate to facilitate maximum space for individual liberty. Take, for example, the case of foreign aid. Many libertarians object to the idea that citizens can be compelled by force (i.e., taxed) to pay for the construction of schools, roads, and bridges in their own communities, let alone in a distant state. And yet few would object to nongovernmental entities performing a similar service based on voluntary contributions of time and resources. After all, the ability of individuals to interact freely--from mutually beneficial trade to private charity--is a basic human right. This point reminds us that foreign policy is about much more than what a government does or does not do.

But although the facilitation of trade and other forms of voluntary engagement between individuals is an essential function of government, war remains the state's single most consequential foreign policy. Providing defense against threats, foreign and domestic, is one of the main reasons why governments came into existence in the first place. So although a country's foreign policy should not be defined solely by the wars that it does or does not fight, it is obvious that such decisions are the most far-reaching and thus deserving of the most scrutiny. And libertarians have traditionally been most skeptical of war because of the unique threat that wars pose to liberty.

This article explores the roots of these libertarian attitudes, with a particular focus on how they were manifest in the United States. It concludes with observations on the recent past and of how libertarian attitudes toward the use of force--and toward foreign policy generally--can appeal to a wider audience than merely the 13 to 15 percent of Americans who can reliably be called libertarians (Boaz, Kirby, and Ekins 2012).

Libertarians and War

Though few libertarians are doctrinaire pacifists, libertarians have traditionally favored peace over war and have done so more consistently than progressives and conservatives. They have done so not merely because of the threat that war poses to life and liberty but also because of war's tendency to grow the power of the state.

Wars impede the free movement of goods, capital, and labor that is essential to economic prosperity; restrictions on such exchanges constitute an assault on fundamental individual rights. A government at war confiscates resources, undermining and circumventing market forces and instituting a measure of regimentation and central planning that would never be tolerated in peacetime. Indeed, progressives and conservatives have on occasion found it easier to institute such restrictions during times of war and sometimes have even championed war for precisely these reasons.

Libertarians are wise to these schemes but rarely able to thwart them. War is the largest and most far-reaching of all government-run enterprises, and citizens' views of the state's legitimate authority subtly but perceptibly shift during wartime. "Individualism ... flourishes during peacetime," wrote the late Ronald Hamowy for The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism, "but clashes with the collectivism, regimentation and herd mentality that war fosters" (2008, 374). Citizens who would typically demand to be shown an explicit reason for a particular government action grow quiescent during times of war. Those in uniform are bound by honor and law to obey the state's orders, as conveyed by the chain of command. Those who do not are often severely punished. Deserters face execution. Civilians on the home front, meanwhile, are reluctant to go against civilian authorities, too. Dissenters often face the threat of violence. The safer course is to go along. And the social stigma of opposing wartime measures is also very great. Such opposition can appear greedy or self-interested when one's fellow citizens are malting heroic sacrifices. It might seem particularly petty, for example, to complain of your own privations--from higher taxes to the unavailability of certain foods or consumer goods--when a neighbor has lost a husband or son in combat.

In his sweeping survey War and the Rise of the State (1994), Bruce Porter summarizes the problem eloquently: "a government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of militarily vital resources. This centralizing tendency of war has made the rise of the state throughout much of history a disaster for human liberty and rights" (xv).

Classical liberals consistently opposed war. Adam Smith taught that "peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice" are the essential ingredients of good government. Other classical liberals, from Richard Cobden and John Stuart Mill to Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek, excoriated war as inconsistent with prosperity and social progress, and all saw its potential for growing the state at the expense of the individual. A classical liberal, explained Ludwig von Mises, "is convinced that victorious war is an evil even for the victor, that peace is always better than war" (qtd. in Hamowy 2008, 374).

Such ideas inform modern libertarians' attitudes. About a year before his death in 2006, Nobel laureate Milton Friedman warned that progress in his goal of rolling back the role of government was "being greatly threatened, unfortunately, by this notion that the U.S. has a mission to promote democracy around the world." Friedman told the San Francisco Chronicle, "War is a friend of the state." It is always expensive, requiring higher taxes, and, "[i]n time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do" (qtd. in Lochhead 2005).

The historical evidence bears out this assessment. The expansion of state power has occurred in almost every war or major crisis and at the expense of individual liberty. And the state rarely surrenders these powers when the crisis abates (Higgs 1987; Porter 1994).

Some instances of this relationship between war and the state's expansion are small but have far-reaching consequences: the first income tax in the...

To continue reading