Thursday, July 19, 2007

War and individual rights

(Programming note: one of my primary universalized health care sparring partners emailed me to say he will be unavailable for a bit; we shall resume that debate once he returns)

One of the reasons I describe myself as a "small-L libertarian" and am still a member of the GOP (I know, but really, I DON'T think it will change if we abandon it to the fundies) is foreign policy. I don't blog about it much here, but I am pretty Hawkish. I am not out-of-hand opposed to preemptive war (I only wish we had gone after Iran instead of Iraq--just one letter's difference!), and certainly support a defensive one. I am, however, uncomfortable with Wilsonian crusades aimed only at "spreading democracy;" I would like to see a more direct national security interest behind my wars. Now this is not a post about Iraq, but rather whether these principles mesh with my claims of supporting liberty.

Randy Barnett recently published an Op-ed in the WSJ (my favorite NY newspaper!--hat tip to a reader who wishes to retain anonymity) arguing that while many libertarians opposed the war in Iraq a position favoring individual rights is not necessarily incongruent with support (at least at the outset) of the war with Iraq:

Other libertarians, however, supported the war in Iraq because they viewed it as part of a larger war of self-defense against Islamic jihadists who were organizationally independent of any government. They viewed radical Islamic fundamentalism as resulting in part from the corrupt dictatorial regimes that inhabit the Middle East, which have effectively repressed indigenous democratic reformers. Although opposed to nation building generally, these libertarians believed that a strategy of fomenting democratic regimes in the Middle East, as was done in Germany and Japan after World War II, might well be the best way to take the fight to the enemy rather than solely trying to ward off the next attack.

However, in short order Glenn Healy posted on Cato-at-Liberty (the Cato blog) has some respectful though critical words in response to Professor Barnett. Among them:

Is libertarianism really a political philosophy that tells you what to think about mandatory recycling and restrictions on the interstate shipment of wine, but has virtually nothing of interest to say about when it might be morally permissible to use daisy cutters and thermobaric bombs?

And while Healy goes to say that "libertarianism and Wilsonianism don't mix;" I'm not sure that Barnett would disagree. Indeed I agree very much with that sentiment. So how do I reconcile my hawkishness with my limited government rhetoric? Let me try.

I have a deep distrust of government; therefore, I prefer less of it in my life. That's where many of my libertarian policy positions on domestic issues originate. That said, I trust foreign governments even less than my own. My own government, at least in some small way, is marginally answerable to me. The Japanese Parliament, for instance, is not answerable to me at all. I suppose that means that with regards to international relations I am something of a realist. Given half the chance I think any state wouldn't think twice about oppressing me if it meant more security, economic or military power for them.

So I happen to think in order to preserve my right to order my daily affairs as I see fit, I need someone to protect my rights of life, liberty and property. So I am no anarchist; i am fine with a police force and court system that punishes people who infringe the rights of others (or perhaps help balance conflicting rights). I think that also includes a government that protects me from other governments that would infringe those rights. So we are still on track when it comes to defensive wars: someone attacks, they have violated the rights of life, liberty or property of citizens, so it appropriate for a government to respond.

What about preemption? Is it appropriate for us to neutralize a danger with military force before it infringes our rights? That's a tougher question. If I answer yes, how do I distinguish between a government preempting an international threat with one that say imprisons people because they look like they might commit a crime? If I answer no, then I say that I require my government to wait for death of its citizens before it protects the rest? I want to answer yes, so here is my attempt at rationalization (this is well open for discussion, I hope people will participate and even call me out if I am inconsistent!).

First, we do punish people before they commit crimes: we call them attempt crimes. Nonetheless, that is not a satisfying answer even to me. Another option is to take the morally dubious position that a government only owes any protection to its citizens. That takes my premise (a government will care about the rights of at most its own citizens) and normalizes it (a government shouldn't care about the rights of those who are not its citizens). Really it boils down to "Who cares about 'em if they ain't 'MERICAN?" I don't like that much either, and I do not people to think that I am going to that practically sociopathic extreme.

Here's what I am working with now: if the realist paradigm accurately describes the international arena, then each actor in that arena is going to try to acquire more security and power, and unlike economic arrangements those are rather zero-sum. If I am relatively more secure then someone is relatively less secure. And part of securing my rights is ensuring that my government is able to continue doing so, which means it needs to be as secure as possible from international threats and part of that is neutralizing threats before they do damage. Does that work? Really, right now I am just thinking out loud (is there an analogous expression applied to writing?), and I'd appreciate your comments.
UPDATE: Barnett responds to critics here. It must be emphasized that neither he nor I am justifying the Iraq war (I feel the time to do so credibly has slipped away forever), but that he and I are talking about libertarianism and war, using Iraq as a context for showing that libertarians can disagree about war without being intellectually dishonest. However, because none of the points to which Professor Barnett responded came up here, I am only linking it for journalistic purposes.


andronicus said...

In the context of the title of your post, if not so much the content, this is scary:

Bush signed an executive order 3 days ago giving the US government the right to seize the assets of anyone interfering with his Iraq policy. Solely on his say due process, no protection under the constitution.

If the President decides you are threatening the 'peace and stability of the government of Iraq' or you donate money to someone who is threatening the peace and stability of the government of Iraq, the government can seize your assets. This means if Bush decides that Obama's speeches threaten the stability of the government of Iraq, and you are a contributor to Obama, your assets can be seized. Anyone protesting the Iraq war could have their assets seized.

This is nothing short of appalling and the beginning of the underpinnings of a totalitarian state. Very similar to some of the executive orders issued by Hitler in the 1930's.

All this from the leader of the GOP, which long long ago used to stand for smaller government, individual rights and less government interference. Shameful and disgusting.

War and individual rights. What rights.

Andronicus said...

Here is the link: it got cut off earlier:

Tim in Italy said...

Hey Pink,

I need for you to explain to me why some of the most fertile minds on the right (of which I include you) cannot grasp the reality of what our military is experiencing in Iraq. Why is there this overpowering need to compare it to some past conventional war experience? You use Germany and Japan as examples yet both are spurious. Both nations had well-equipped conventional armies, both nations undertook pre-emptive strikes against real or perceived enemies and both nations had to be pounded into dust before embracing some notion of democracy or having to be told to embrace it.

Our current enemy shares none of these traits. There is nothing conventional about them. They fight for no flag or country; their loyalty is to various mullahs and sects. They follow no conventions or treaties regarding the waging of war. They are brutal, resourceful and heartless. By comparison, the Viet Cong could have been considered a standing conventional force.

So why this persistence in facing this redoubtable enemy with a conventional force and questionable tactics? Don’t you see how they’re simply wearing us down? I would think that the field manuals of US army officers fighting the Apache in the Southwest of the 1870’s would serve a more useful purpose than what we’re doing now.

As to your Libertarian view of war in general, where does that leave the troops? Certainly they volunteer and agree to take what comes, but doesn’t that just increase our responsibility and commitment not to put them in harm’s way for reasons dubious and ill-informed? (Please note that I purposefully left out the words “arrogant”, “self-seeking” and “personal enriching”.)

Finally, I suppose pre-emptive strikes have a place in any government’s considerations, but my concerns are practical, not moral. There’s very little room for morality on the battlefield. Seeking to make war civilized or even agreeable only makes us more likely to wage it. But war is an ugly business and we should strive to make it as brutal, as horrible, as possible so that we will always think twice before sacrificing those who wish to serve. But we were pre-emptive in Iraq and now we face an enemy that has no qualms about waging a total, brutal war. And as you know, one of the first principals of military engagement is that you cannot disengage from an enemy that doesn’t want to disengage.

So now what do we do?

Andronicus said...


Damn blogger keeps cutting off my link !

One last try, cuz this is important:

I am also going to do my best to convince you to give up the GOP and join the Libertarian (capital L) party. I am a Libertarian, having come to it from the left. I also favor strong defense, but abhor nation building, interference, etc.

Today's GOP is morally bankrupt. Where can you find the influence and thinking of Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt and Barry Goldwater ? Reagan was good in some ways, but horrible in others. Tear down the wall--great. Iran-Contra--horrible. And don't forget ever that he let his prejudice of gays delay a real federal response to the early days of the Aids crisis for years, causing the death of millions. And yes, public health is a government function.

What is it about today's GOP that you find so good ? That there is hope they will throw the fundies under the bus ? Never gonna happen.
Goldwater warned that the rise of American Fundamentalism would wreck the party, and he was right. Compare the civil and moral rights of Lincoln with today's GOP suppression of black votes. Compare the environmental stewardship of Teddy R. with Dick Cheney's rape the land philosophy. Compare Goldwater's philosophy of smaller federal government with the Bush/GOP record of enormous growth in federal discretionary spending, excluding war and terrorism related expenses. Medicare part D is horrible and will cost trillions. No child left behind will not improve education, federalizes schools and will cost billions. And on and on.

And I think a Dem President with a Dem congress would do even worse.

I sincerely would like to hear you tell us why you support the GOP ...what is there for you ? What is keeping you from being a proud out of the closet Libertarian ?

Pink Elephant said...

Andonicus: that is VERY frightening. I'm not sure it can have the force of restricting speech becasue it makes clear that it refers to acts of violence. The question is does speech that incite violence consititute an act of violence? How close does causation have to be? Nonetheless, it is yet another erosion of due process in the name of security. Even the most hawkish libertarians won't stand for that. What's more frightening is that none of the big news sources (not even that communist rag the NYTimes) saw this to be important enough to warrant a story. Are we so used to trading liberty for secuirty that we don't notice it anymore?

Tim: many good points. I suppose part of my error was using the word "government" to refer to international actors that bear little resemblance to a formal state. My point was that it is approprate to deal with threats preemptively, not necessarily that Iraq was an appropriate battleground or even that they were a threat (IRAN! IRAN! IRAN!). I used Iraq merely as a context for my larger question, as I think did Professor Barnett.

You pose other great questions, that I will get to later, but I was a bit consumed by andronicus' point. Now I have to get back to work. This is not a dodge! :)