Arnold Kling  

Libertarianism and Terrorism

What, Me Worry?... Doing Good While Doing Well: B...

Science-fiction author Neal Stephenson, in an interview 18 months ago, said

Speaking as an observer who has many friends with libertarian instincts, I would point out that terrorism is a much more formidable opponent of political liberty than government. Government acts almost as a recruiting station for libertarians. Anyone who pays taxes or has to fill out government paperwork develops libertarian impulses almost as a knee-jerk reaction. But terrorism acts as a recruiting station for statists. So it looks to me as though we are headed for a triangular system in which libertarians and statists and terrorists interact with each other in a way that I’m afraid might turn out to be quite stable.

However, in my latest essay, I argue that Stephenson's novel Snow Crash offers a less centralized approach for addressing terrorism.

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The author at Emergent Chaos in a related article titled Airline Threats: Nothing to Fear Except Fear Itself writes:
    I'm glad to hear that they caught a set of people with real plans and capabilities to carry out an act of mass murder. Too many of the recent groups arrested have fit better into the "round up some suspects"... [Tracked on August 10, 2006 10:50 PM]
COMMENTS (25 to date)
Brad Hutchings writes:

Wow, great timing. I have two friends flying across the country tonight and back early next week. While I'm not particularly worried about their safety in light of last night's revelations, I am totally sympathetic to their comfort on the flights.

Now we can't bring bottled water on flights. It's unclear whether we can bring or will be allowed to continue to bring personal electronics. For me, the iPod changed flying from bearable to pretty fun. Cramped seats, screaming kids, fat people who can't fit in their seats -- they are (were?) problems of the past when I can pick from 1000 songs to get me through a few hours on the plane.

Maybe the flying public can form a private army and just go deal with this problem. Or maybe we could hire the old IRA guys... They gotta be looking for work now, no?

carl marks writes:

I'm flying from London Heathrow to New York Early Saturday Morning, but now it looks like i'll need to get there late friday night.
Tommorrow I'm going to go buy a box and some packing material for my laptop and other equipment, but i have a feeling that they will wind up breaking my stuff anyways.
Terrorists score another point, even if they wren't successful.
Even worse, this type of plot has been known for more than 10 years, and yet we still don't have screening technology to find this liquid stuff. I can see the carry-on restrictions lasting for quite some time.

Randy writes:


Probably won't be able to bring bottled water through security, but if purchased past the gate I can't imagine there would be any problem. I imagine this will create an opportunity for kiosks selling shampoo, shaving creme, mouthwash, and toothpaste, as well. Either at the airport or in hotels.

Kyle writes:

Way too frequent traveller here.

Just a quibble. Shouldn't much affect most hotels. Anything over $80/night in most of the country ($50 in parts) will supply you with toiletries. Only the toiletry snobs have cause to worry, and those folks can check their I will be doing tomorrow.


Steve Sailer writes:

It's always amusing how libertarians think that "Snow Crash," which is obviously inspired by Jean Raspail's "Camp of the Saints," is a utopian, rather than a dystopian, novel!

Second, Arnold writes that he is for a policy to:

"Minimize the operational capability of terrorists."

And a few lines later he says:

"I wrote that it was very important for this country to remain united, and I worried specifically about anti-immigrant hysteria."

Perhaps one way to minimize the operational capability of terrorists would be to NOT LET THEM IMMIGRATE TO OUR COUNTRY?

Just asking ...

Anton Sherwood writes:

I can see how one so risk-averse as to close the doors to what makes America wonderful might find Snow Crash dystopian, but its characters are generally optimistic about the future — and the Feds, representing the old order, are allied with the explicit bad guys.

For an example of optimism in Snow Crash, consider what Hiro did with a windfall in the backstory.

Diana writes:

I agree with most of your analysis on the illegitimacy of the "motives" of Islamic terrorists, but if there were such a thing as Rat Thing, how many Americans you think it would take out?
Just the politicians that delegated the invasion of Iraq or also the soldiers and taxpayers that paid for the "war effort"?

GT writes:

Arnold, since you studied economics maybe your next essay could do some cost-benefit analysis of different ways of combating terrorists.

Ajay writes:

Another nutso piece by Arnold on the subject of the middle east. It's clear that his emotional attachment to Israel takes over and that he cannot think rationally on the subject, this especially from a guy who writes rationally about many other subjects.

Glen Raphael writes:

Kling, your "policy of disarming Muslims" seems like a fine example of the "something" falacy - a chain of reasoning having the form:

(1) there is a problem.
(2) something must be done!
(3) this is something.
(4) therefore, this must be done!

If you disagree, take that same pencil and paper of yours and list all the times in the last 5 years that "a policy of disarming Muslims" successfully stopped terrorism. How long is that list?

Rick Strange writes:

"It's always amusing how libertarians think that "Snow Crash," which is obviously inspired by Jean Raspail's "Camp of the Saints," is a utopian, rather than a dystopian, novel!"

_Snow Crash_ is neither utopic or dystopic. It is a work of science fiction that plays fair with the reader by pulling no punches. Stephenson offers the reader the some of the most extreme of worst case scenarios (e.g., "What if someone owned his own nuclear warhead?") and describes what might happen in a stateless world. In this way, _Snow Crash_ differs from endearing yet ridiculous statist science fiction like "The Day The Earth Stood Still" where egg-head scientists save the world from global conflict by genuflecting before a ~deus ex machina~ of intergalactic government named Gort.

liberty writes:

I don't think one can reasonably argue that government is a recruiting ground for libertarianism. The most libertarian population in history was probably at the founding of America, and that state has been growing ever since. Throwing off the yoke of the British and starting up in a new country, during the enlightenment, allowed a few revolutionary souls to engage true libertarianism. But ever since state aid has bred statism. States tend to grow as populations learn they can depend on them and vote themselves more goodies, and use them to fight off competition, etc.

Some ex-Soviet states are now dabbling with libertarianism as they have learned the hard way that states can be dangerous - but they were occupied; they did not generally grow that state on their own - and we shall see how long it lasts. Sadly, the fresh new start may last less long than did the libertarian nature of America, as state breeds statism and more state.

morganja writes:

Wow. That was a pretty racist rant by Arnold. I haven't really seen such a fundamentally racist argument in a long time. What he seems to be advocating is a vigilante group that hunts down and exterminates moslems. Not really murder since in his analysis, moslems are not fully human, incapable of, if I might quote:

"Kevin Drum is tragically mistaken. The other side does not want "trade agreements, security pacts, genuine support for grassroots democracy, a willingness to practice the same international rules we preach, etc." The other side wants to kill."

Pretty grim. Sub-human killing machines, incapable of reason.

Or is there a different perspective on the situation that isn't based on the racial superiority of one group over another?

A. PERLA writes:

Liberty: "But ever since state aid has bred statism."

Er, what kind of "state aid" would that be ... the millions spent on the poor or the billions spent for agricultural subsidies and the military-industrial complex?

Please clarify just which of these is "statism" to your mind, because I suspect that you find one hideous and the other perfectly normal - though both are financed from the same tax base.

Just curious ...

liberty writes:


Nope, I find both hideous.

A. PERLA writes:

Liberty: "Nope, I find both hideous."

I see. Then the state need not either concern itself with national security nor trouble itself with education.

I'm glad you put me straight on those two areas where state meddling is equally intolerable.

liberty writes:

military was #3 and is a constitutional function of any government - no matter how libertarian - the others are just to prop up private industry and persons.

"military-industrial complex" is confusing the issue. You can have a military without pouring money into other reserahc and industry.

I think that government should serve the sole purpose of protecting the life, liberty and property of its citizens. This includes: police, courts, congress, military, administrative duties and little else.

liberty writes:

And btw you had that backwards, more is spent on the poor and other social programs than is spent on agricultural subsidies - it would be "billions on the poor and millions on agricultural subsidies". If you throw in the "military-industrial complex" you do end up with billions; given that war does cost billions.

But the 300 billion on the war is microscopic compared to the TRILLIONS spent on social programs. Over 60% of our annual budget goes to social programs, they are the "goodies" I mentioned above and they go poor, middle class, uninsured, elderly, children, farmers and just about any other group you can think up.

Am I heartless because I don't want children to have education or elderly to eat?

No. I simply don't think the government should be in the business of providing it. I also want everyone to have housing and shoes and tea; but I don't think government should be in the business of providing housing, shoes and tea to everyone: I think the private sector should do it. We are rapidly moving toward socialism when people think that government should provide these things.

Rick Stewart writes:

Well, Arnold's essay sure doesn't make much sense to me, although I agree with a few of his points. But to say 'Muslims' are the problem, as he appears to do, I find flabbergasting. Really? All Muslims? No exceptions? Hmmm ... can't really buy into that.

On another point, perhaps a libertarian country would not find itself in the situation the USA does now. The 'freedoms' that have both created the enormous wealth we enjoy and are the envy of much of the world (where the freedom to say what you think in public would generally fetch a jail cell or a bullet to the head) are in fact shrinking, as the state takes over the economy, educates us, coddles us to the grave, etc. And it is the state (the USA), not the citizens of the state (Americans) that have truly raised the ire of Osama and his like.

Perhaps it is only *because* our state is so powerful (in a non-libertarian sense) that it has irritated so many people to such an extent that they are primarily interested in getting their revenge on us (our state). Perhaps if our government really was only focused on the fundamentals, and really only spending 5% of the GDP (as it was not so long ago), it would not be pissing so many people off.

I'm not suggesting surrender, but I am suggesting that if your fundamental behavior is *both* hampering economic growth at home *and* creating deadly enemies for you abroad then *perhaps* you could change course, to your ultimate advantage.

Without having to blame the Muslims.

liberty writes:


I agree with your suggestion that we return to a state that is limited to protecting rights and only spends 5% of the GDP, and I agree that this would lead to economic growth and prosperity and freedom; however I do not think that it would change the minds of the Muslims.

To suggest that is to misunderstand why they hate us. They don't hate us because of our foreign policy (and we would still have to defend ourselves even given a completely libertarian state). Osama talks about a war that goes back thousands of years. The radial Islamic fascists (not all Muslims!) hate Christianity and Judeism, not just the USA. They equally hate France, though the French have a foreign policy quite unlike ours, and they equally hate Spain as we saw not so long ago. They hate our freedom and prosperity, our religion and generally our infidelism.

Still, I would love to see a return to our state's original purpose as protector of rights, not granter of charities.

Buce writes:

As the fella says--

I don't oppose capital punishment, I just don't think the government should get to decide.

Dan Landau writes:

We already have a “rat thing,” it is called “special opps. troops.” Private enterprise military forces existed in all periods of anarchy in history. They never brought peace or prosperity. What is different now? Government is the only body that can keep the rat things from killing who ever doesn’t pay them enough. Hobbes has not been answered by science fiction. The only thing worse than government is no government.

Doug writes:

Arnold, I usually like your writing, but this is not a strong essay. I think it borders on racist to argue that "Muslims" are the problem, and that they must be disarmed. Let's keep in mind that the recent airline plot was foiled because of an intelligence tip from a British Muslim. That's a billion people you're talking about there, and it hardly seems like a "libertarian" impulse to treat them as a monolithic collective.

On the other hand, I think the idea that states are basically powerless to fight the war on terror is closer to the money. So far, it's the other side that has deployed decentralized, deniable proxies to wage their fight. But one wonders how long it will take before the US and Europe react in similar fashion.

Xellos writes:

--"Probably won't be able to bring bottled water through security, but if purchased past the gate I can't imagine there would be any problem."

News reports indicate that this is not the case; you have to scarf/chug anything purchased past security before you can get on the plane. No, it doesn't make sense, and yes, they're doing it anyway. That's how knee-jerk reactions tend to work.

I've been avoiding airplanes for a while now, and this is only going to make that firmer. If I do have to go somewhere that isn't international, I'll check out air-taxis. If I do have to go international, well, I went to Tel-Aviv once and El-Al's security wasn't this annoying.

John T. Kennedy writes:

Aside from being absurd Kling's proposal to disarm a billion muslims is obscenely evil on it's face. Maybe people would understand this better if he'd proposed disarming jews:

"I believe that what we need going forward is a policy of disarming jews. I believe that we must keep devout jews away from weapons, and keep weapons away from devout jews. I can work with jews, send my children to school with jews, and be friends with jews. I do not have an issue with their religion, as long as they do not have weapons. However, the combination of weapons and Judaism poses unacceptable danger to the rest of us."
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