Libertarian Interventionists

November 26, 2007

Bryan Caplan at EconLog asks Why Did So Many Libertarians Support the [Iraq] War and tries to put the apparent contradiction into historical context.

Plenty of libertarians were against it, of course. But if you remember how integral isolationist/ non-interventionist foreign policy was to the libertarian idea back in the ’70s and ’80s, the libertarian reaction to the Iraq War (and the War on Terror generally) has been quite astonishing.

You might say that libertarians changed their mind because Islamic fundamentalism is such a serious threat. But it’s a lot less serious than the Soviet threat. And back when the Soviets still ruled eastern Europe, the standard libertarian foreign policy prescription was to pull out of NATO, Korea, and Japan. Similarly, you might say that Islamic fundamentalism is so ideologically repugnant to libertarians that they were willing to make an exception. But from a libertarian perspective, Marxism-Leninism is even worse, isn’t it?

In my view, libertarian thought does not lean to either an isolationist (anti-Iraq War) or interventionist (pro-Iraq War) side. Libertarians generally believe in a kind of Golden Rule: an individual has the right to do whatever they like as long as their actions do not impinge on the rights of others. What we often forget is that the Golden Rule does not specify the appropriate action to take when an individual breaks the rule.

How to deal with individuals, or groups of individuals, that break the Golden Rule is at the heart of the issue. As a libertarian, do you ignore or confront individuals that deny others their individual rights and freedoms. What about despotic rulers of sovereign nations? What about despotic rulers that commit genocide within the borders of their sovereign nations.

Iraq was a “problem from hell” (to borrow terminology from Samantha Power) before 9/11. Libertarian interventionists believed that bringing liberty to an oppressed people was a good thing. Libertarian isolationists believed that such pursuits were pure folly.

I think all libertarians believe that people around the world will benefit from an increase in individual rights and freedoms. The hard part is determining the best course of action/inaction required to increase liberty and that is the root cause of the apparent libertarian dilemma.