Statism in Libertarian thinking

“Non-interventionism”/“isolationism” is statism!

Posted on the Libertarian Professors’ List on Tue, 9th Oct 2001 at 22:28:01 +0100

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2001

At 1:35 pm -0500 on September 11, 2001, Stephan Kinsella wrote on the Libertarian Professors’ List: 

[S]urely, unless you are totally taken over by the Randian/neocon//Buckley type warhawk coldwar type thinking, you believe in a minimal government and fairly isolationist foreign policy. (If I am mistaken here, I apologize for mistaking you as a libertarian. It’s so hard to tell who on this list is.) And if so, that means you favor isolationsim and think that interventionism must be bad for some reason. There must be some bad conseuqences that can flow therefrom. So it seems to reason that one of them would be it makes others hate us more and more likely to offesnively or defensively attack us–wehther rational or savage like some of the Arab muslims. And given this, it’s strange that you seem to think our imperialism has nothing to do with why we are hated overseas.

Many libertarians describe themselves as “isolationists” or “non-interventionists”. I find this illogical as well as appalling. 

What exactly is “non-interventionism”? Who or what is supposed to avoid intervening? And where are they not to intervene? 

As can be seen from many of the comments from those who describe themselves as “non-interventionists”, “isolationism”/ “non-interventionism” is the doctrine that states (in particular, America) should not act outside the areas that are their own jurisdiction—that they should not interfere in matters that are “not their concern”: 

At 10:40 am -0500 11/9/01, Stephan Kinsella wrote: 

I’m talking about the fact that America intervenes and meddles abroad so much, and in such an arrogant and destructive fashion, that it is inevitable that we make enemies. If we were isolationist, minded our own business mililtarily, withdrew foreign troops, the incentive for foreigners to hate and attack us would be minimized. What do you disagree with in this?

“America intervenes”—what does that mean? Does that include McDonalds’ intervention in France, which has also attracted terrorism? 

And what is to be done to Americans who show this sin of “arrogance” that Stephan Kinsella considers to be an “incentive for foreigners to hate and attack us”? Life imprisonment? 

Withdraw “foreign” (i.e. US) troops? From where? From Britain, so as to put an end to frenzied British terrorist attacks on the US? From the high seas, so that US ships can be freely seized by anyone who chooses to? And by what means are private armies who would spring up to protect American lives and property overseas to be suppressed? Or US residents who wish to support wars abroad? 

At 11:24 am -0500 11/9/01, Stephan Kinsella wrote: 

Aeon, this is incomprehensible that you are out of the blue denying that we are imperialist or that our military intervention and meddling abroad does not provoke and give rise to enemies. I am totally bewildered by this.

Think of it. Suppose we were totally isolationist, and minded our own business, no troops abroad, etc. Now, yes, the Arabs might still hate us. They might hate our secularism, our godlessness, our filthy hollywood movies, etc. But what good would it do to attack us? What would it accomplish? Surely that does not stand a chance of changing our ways, making us all start worshipping Allah for example. By contrast, the current attacks are designed to try to sway public opinion to change our political policies. Those are thigns within our control. But our culture etc. is not.

Nonsense. Our culture, and the morality inherent in it, defines the circumstances under which we must or must not use force. 

At 1:37 pm -0500 11/9/01, Stephan Kinsella wrote: 

Sure, and Israel is right to defend itself. We are not a Jewish nation however, so why spill our blood to attack another nation’s enemies? Surely, it is fairly obvious—the Arabs regard us as their enemy because we ally and defend their enemy, Israel.

 To first divide people into nations, and then define who it is worth defending (not Jews, obviously), according to which nation they belong to, is filthy statism. 

It is not Jewishness that Israel is defending, any more than we are now defending New-York-ness. Israel and America and others are engaged in a common task of building a peaceful, progressive and utterly benign civilisation. This common purpose has certain practical consequences, and certain moral consequences, and it is because of those that we help each other, and must help each other. 

At 1:48 pm -0500 11/9/01, Stephan Kinsella wrote: 

they hate the US especially b/c we support Israel and meddle abroad. If we withdraw and mind our own damn business, they will still be religious idiots and dislike us, but we will not be giving them extra provocation to attack us. If we minded our own business, what good would an attack on us do? Very little. this is so obvious that I find it hard to see how others here do not automatically see this.

Re “minded our own business”—who is we? What is our business? 

The idea of intervention/non-intervention/isolationism only makes sense if one takes a totally statist world view. It is sad that so many libertarians remain steeped in this statism, with its warped morality in which actions are judged by according to whether a state does or does not have the jurisdiction to carry them out, rather than whether they are right or wrong. 

When libertarians argue that, for instance, the US should not intervene to defend Kuwait from Iraq because Kuwait is outside US jurisdiction, they are using the statist premise that there is such a thing as a state’s jurisdiction and that actions outside that are less legitimate than actions inside it. When libertarians argue that “America” shouldn’t go to war, they are using the statist premise that every action of the state employees involved (such as the soldiers) is by definition wrong because it is done by a state employee. In Britain, almost all medical treatment is done by state employees. That makes them all either thieves, or receivers of stolen goods, according to many libertarians. OK, but what you cannot say is that this makes their medical decisions wrong. It does not mean that every heart operation performed is a crime against the patient

The real libertarian position ought to be that people’s right to use force in self-defence and defence of their friends and allies is independent of which country they are located in, and whether they are or are not the agent of a state, and whether that state does or does not have jurisdiction over the issue. Right and wrong do not depend on geography or jurisdiction. 

Some isolationists would deny that they are using statist criteria: they would say that events in Afghanistan “do not concern us” as individuals either. 

But why? Why is it suddenly wrong for an individual to meddle when the government of Afghanistan oppresses women there, or suppresses freedom of speech there, let alone sends people to commit murders here! Is it because they own those people? Or what? 

Is it really true that what happens in Afghanistan doesn’t concern me personally? If I had a daughter who was a journalist in an Afghani prison, or if I had a daughter who had been trying to persuade Afghans to abandon the Muslim religion, and was now threatened with death for doing so, would it not be legitimate for me to use whatever force was necessary to get her out of there if I possibly could? Or does she have only herself to blame? In other words, do I have only her to blame? 

The idea that she has only herself to blame is disgustingly immoral. Does she have only herself to blame because she has exercised her human rights, and it makes a difference whether she exercises them in one country or another—in the jurisdiction of one state or another? 

No. Right and wrong are right and wrong. Everyone—Afghanis, Americans, men, women, children—have the right to exercise their human rights and to defend themselves by force if necessary against anyone—even a legitimate government—that tries to prevent them. 

Some of you may be thinking “We don’t say that! We only say that governments shouldn’t intervene.” But that too is a most unlibertarian and statist line of argument. A government is by definition a group of people that has seized the monopoly of force among a wider group of people. In other words, they use force to suppress or control any other use of force in their jurisdiction, however legitimate. This puts an absolute responsibility on them to use force themselves and to use it rightly. A government is like the thief who steals my gun: he cannot then rely on the pseudo-libertarian let-out clause that he is only a bystander and has no duty to help me, however desperate my situation. On the contrary, he is obliged to help me, to use not only the gun he stole but every other means at his disposal, to protect me from the danger to which his disarming me has exposed me. And in particular, a government has a duty to wage war whenever its citizens would have had the right to do so. 

The situation we currently find ourselves in is the epitome of one in which citizens have a right to wage war, and in which anyone and everyone who has responsibility for the safety of others—including governments, soldiers, and parents—has a duty to support, and where necessary play an appropriate role in, that war. 

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2001, ‘Statism in Libertarian thinking’, Libertarian Professors’ List, 9th October, 2001,