Saturday, September 18, 2004

Understanding Libertarian Hawks

Lee at verbum ipsum takes issue with my recent post about Libertarian hawks. In that post I took a shot at a point he had made:
Libertarian hawks want an all-powerful State that can preemptively crush its enemies abroad but will leave us in peace and freedom at home. The idea that foreign policy and domestic liberty can exist in hermetically sealed compartments seems willfully naïve given historical precedent.
About which I said:
I'm not sure about the historical precedent, but there's plenty of peace and freedom abroad in the U.S. today, in spite of the present emergency. Just look at what went on in New York City during the Republican convention and what goes on daily in the media and across the internet. The crushing of dissent is confined almost exclusively to liberal-run academia. Moreover, Lee...chooses to overlook completely the strategic advantage of foreign intervention, which is to take the fight to the enemy and, in combination with other (clandestine) means, to distract him, to disrupt his plans, and to deny his access to resources. Perhaps Lee would rather fight it out in his living room.
Lee has responded thoughtfully, and so I will quote him at length:
First off, unlike some, I have never claimed that dissent is being “crushed” in present-day America. Of course, there’s still freedom in America. The relevant question is whether war is a threat to freedom. I merely pointed out that, as a matter of historical fact, war tends to increase the power, prestige and role of the State in people’s everyday lives. As James Madison put it:
Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war, too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied; and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of subduing the force, of the people.
Whether it’s been justified on balance, it’s pretty hard to deny that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have resulted in at least two items on Madison’s list, the increase of debt and the increase in the discretionary power of the Executive.

Now, I’m not saying that this shows war is always unjustified, but for libertarians I would think that, other things being equal, measures that tend to increase the power of the State are to be avoided whenever possible. At the very least, libertarians should not be eager to go to war. War will always require a shift from a relatively free liberal order to a more highly centralized one; resources must be allocated, troops must be marshaled, and lives and freedom will be lost.

Secondly,...who is “the enemy” here? As I stated before, I have no problem with "taking the fight" to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and elsewhere if necessary. But I don’t see how this offers any justification for the invasion of Iraq, which it now seems safe to say, posed little or no threat to the U.S. Are libertarians of all people going to give the government a blank check to invade anyplace they think "the enemy" might be?

Look, I’m not a libertarian...but I am mystified at self-proclaimed libertarians who are so eager to embrace military interventionism. After all, what is this but another big-government program? Barring a clear and present threat, I would think they would want the government to show restraint. Isn't that the whole point of their creed?
I'm not going to argue with Lee. I'm simply going to say how I, as a libertarian, can take positions that he, as a non-libertarian, seems to find inimical to libertarianism.

I'll begin with my libertarian view of the state: The existence of the state is justified solely by its role as the protector of its citizens from predators, within and without, so that those citizens may be secure in their persons and in their enjoyment of the fruits of liberty. Defense isn't just "another big-government program" -- it's one of the few government programs that's consistent with libertarian principles. (Beware of "libertarians" who think that defense can be privatized. They're actually anarcho-capitalists who reflexively reject the legitimacy of the state's existence for any purpose.)

Thus the question for a libertarian is not whether the state should defend liberty and safety, but when and how it becomes necessary to defend liberty and safety. How much it costs depends on the when and how; there's no arbitrary upper limit on defense spending.

Before I go any further, I must emphasize that I'm talking about the liberty and safety of Americans. We're not a nation for nothing. In fact we're a nation because the Founders fought for our liberty and safety. I am not a moral relativist when it comes to American's liberty and safety. They take precedence over the liberty and safety of other nations. American's liberty and safety may be served by the liberty and safety of other nations, but the liberty and safety of other nations are secondary to the liberty and safety of Americans.

The defense of liberty and safety sometimes requires us to relinquish some of the fruits of liberty, as in World War II, when soldiers were drafted, goods were rationed, and there was a wall of secrecy around much of what the government was doing. The present war is, by comparison, almost benign in its effects on Americans. But the real question isn't whether we now have more or less liberty and (apparent) safety than we had on September 10, 2001, but how to maximize our liberty and safety in light of the threat that became blindingly visible to us on September 11, 2001.

For that's when the war on terror began in earnest -- when we were struck. The question then facing us was not whether to go to war but how to fight the war.

War can be fought defensively or offensively. Defensive war-fighting is like defensive football -- it cedes the initiative to the opponent. You're always trying to figure out what he's going to do next instead of turning the tables on him and forcing him to figure out what you're going to do next. A state that chooses to fight a defensive war is, in my view, a state that inadequately defends its citizens' liberty and safety. Thus the preference of libertarian hawks for an offensive war on terror doesn't arise from an eagerness for war but from an understanding of war and from a fundamental tenet of libertarianism: The state's legitimate role is to protect its citizens from predators.

Fighting an offensive war on terror is a lot harder than fighting an offensive war against a nation-state with well-defined armed forces. There's much less certainty about where the enemy is, where he's going to strike next, and where to strike him -- financially, and diplomatically, and through the courts, as well as militarily. But the state must proceed in the face of uncertainty, sometimes making mistakes and sometimes making progress toward defeating the enemy -- or at least diminishing his ability to strike at us.

The uncertainty involved in fighting terrorism requires giving the government some degree of latitude, but that latitude hardly amounts to a blank check. The invasion of Iraq, for example, was specifically authorized by Congress and is constantly questioned in Congress and the media. There's no blank check there, simply a reasonable degree of deference to the commander-in-chief whose responsibility it is to prosecute the war. That deference will end if and when Congress decides to end it.

Was the invasion of Iraq a mistake or a strategic move that -- although costly -- will in the end repay its cost? I believe that it was a good strategic move, but I'm willing to concede that it's too soon to tell. And we'll never know if we cut and run, as libertarian doves (among others) would have us do.

If we were to cut and run, what signal would that send to terrorists? And what signal would it send to other regimes -- notably Syria and Iran -- that support terrorists and have aggressive ambitions of their own? If history teaches us anything, it is that an aggressor moves quickly to fill a perceived vacuum.

Another thing that history teaches us is the resiliency of American's civil liberties. They have advanced markedly during the past 228 years, in spite of wars. Our economic liberties haven't fared as well, but the regulatory-welfare state that shackles those liberties arose and has grown independently of the guardian state that strives to defend all of our liberties. In fact, the proponents of the regulatory-welfare state have generally viewed the guardian state as a rival for resources.

Libertarians -- even libertarian doves -- would rather have some sort of guardian state than any sort of regulatory-welfare state. The argument within libertarian circles, insofar as I can tell, is an argument about just what the guardian state should do to protect our safety and liberty.