Bryan Caplan  

Why Did So Many Libertarians Support the War?

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When the Washington Times announced that libertarianism is trendy, I couldn't help but think "It would be a lot trendier if libertarians had been against the Iraq War from the start."

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?

So why did libertarian thinking on foreign policy change so sharply? Here are a few possibilities:

1. Libertarian commitment to non-interventionism was always much weaker than it appeared. Rothbardians (and ex-Rothbardians who didn't want to seem like sell-outs) had key positions in the Libertarian Party, think tanks, etc., and falsely claimed to speak for all libertarians. In fact, many libertarians held the diametrically opposed Rand/Goldwater view that the U.S. should take off the kid gloves and start "really" fighting the Soviets.

2. The movement away from natural rights and toward consequentialism made libertarians more open to using government for good causes. Indeed, the very fact that Islamic fundamentalism is a lot weaker than the USSR makes it a more attractive target.

3. The movement away from philosophy and toward economics made libertarians vulnerable to the simple-minded view that "getting tough" is a free lunch.

4. The rise of the "Establishment libertarian" led to moderation. In the 70's and 80's, libertarianism was an alienated outsider movement. Over time, however, many libertarian thinkers have been accepted into polite intellectual society. The cost is that they had to distance themselves from "impolite" positions.

5. The end of the Cold War revived the libertarian/conservative alliance, making libertarians more receptive to conservative positions on everything from foreign policy to immigration.

What do you think? Anyone got a better explanation? To repeat, the question is not whether the war was actually a good idea, but why so many libertarians supported it.

Update: Alex Tabarrok suggests a much simpler story: Terrorists launched a successful attack on American soil; the Soviets never did. What do you think?

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The author at RAD Thoughts in a related article titled Libertarian Interventionists writes:
    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... [Tracked on November 26, 2007 5:40 PM]
The author at Modulator in a related article titled Did Some Libertarians Support the Iraq War? writes:
    Bryan Caplan's question:Why Did So Many Libertarians Support the War?The answer is much simpler than the possibilities that Bryan suggests. No libertarians supported the Iraq war. Via.... [Tracked on November 27, 2007 12:59 AM]
COMMENTS (58 to date)
Unit writes:

The USSR never was able to blow up several tall buildings in the heart of New York City. Also the incessant news of suicide bombings coming out of Israel made people think, what if it's going to start over here too? That surely is a threat to private property rights. After six years, those fears didn't materialize and people are folding back on prior positions, but other irreversible mechanisms have been set in motion that might be hard to stop.

Selfreferencing writes:


I think that most of your speculation is spot on. One might add that many libertarians are secular and are more likely to think therefore that Islamists are likely to be irrational whereas even if the Soviets were evil, they were reasonable in foreign policy. This leads these libertarians to a different analysis of what policies will be successful. Against the USSR, you could say, "Well, the USSR will do X because X is in their interest." But some libertarians (and lots of other people) think the statement, "Well, the Islamists will do X because X is in their interest." is a bad argument because they think the Islamists are mostly irrational.

Further, many libertarians who have entered the movement since the 70s and 80s are less educated in libertarian theory and so less likely to hold libertarian positions. They aren't consequentialists so much as they have no real moral theory at all. I think the median libertarian today is less educated than the median libertarian in the 70s and 80s simply because there are so many more of us.

And I think the conservative/libertarian alliance really screwed us. It has led many of us to see lots of worthwhile lefty movements (some sorts of feminism, anti-military-industrial-complex stuff) as something to be opposed much like socialism.

Don't forget also how hysterical people became after 9-11, libertarians included. The USSR never attacked our home soil, although they came close. The Islamists basically started off with a successful psychological attack on our own soil, and that sent lots of us off the deep end.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

I say (1). Libertarians are apt to be blinded by the fog of nationalism, just slightly less apt than others, still leaving lots of libertarians to go throw everything out the window when foreign people or governments arguably more authoritarian are arguably a threat.

(2) does not seem true -- I know a number of natural rights nuts who supported the terror war, and may still.

(3) is not persuasive, as there are plenty of economic arguments against interventionism (understatement).

(4) opposition to the war was hardly an impolite position

(5) I don't see much evidence that the end of the cold war increased conservative/libertarian alliances. The GOP takeover of Congress in 94 was a hopeful blip, but I don't see any direct relation to the end of the cold war. Rather, the terror war is the end of ~70 year conservative/libertarian alliance.

dana writes:

Obviously, in order to be trendy a political movement must in some part be completely antithetical to reality. I have called myself a minarchist instead of a libertarian for some time now because there is a giant gaping hole in libertarian thinking on government and force. In order for humans to coexist and trade peacefully SOMETHING must be invested with a sovereign monopoly on the legitimate use of force, in the form of national and personal defense, law and punishment and the effective enforcement of contracts.

This monopoly on the use of force is the sole legitimate function of the government. Removal of the threat of force and retaliation from between free people allows them to trade and thrive. This limited role makes government a necessary GOOD.

By rejecting force as legitimate and by demonizing the government constantly, libertarians undercut themselves as a philosophy. Why not be anarchists? What good is the evil government at all?

Anti-war hysteria growing in their ranks is cognitive dissonance. They know full well they live in a longe range missile and nuclear world, a world where anyone can march into a mall and explode and they are usually smart enough to get that that may effect them. But having spent decades demonizing the government they have no way of allowing the government to act in their defense.

Untenable position .

TGGP writes:

My answer: many of them aren't really libertarians but "fiscally conservative social liberals" or "enterprisers".

I think a lot of the Reason folks were guilty of this. Virginia Postrel talked about "dynamists" rather than libertarians because it was easier to fit things like the Iraq war into that schema. The Samizdata folks still cling to that vision and haven't apologized for their mistaken support for the war, which they still consider a good idea and even think that they used foolish conservatives to get their war and are about to roll back the state!

TGGP writes:

The most hawkish libertarians seemed to have been Leonard Peikoff's "Objectivists". Ayn Rand herself opposed Vietnam and Korea as an "altruistic" wars, but her heirs don't seem to think that way. On a more subversive note, a disproportionate number of libertarians are jewish, though perhaps not to the same extent as neocons. Anti-israel muslims are a more attractive target than Soviets. At Volokh (which contains a large number of libertarian hawks, including jewish ones, they discuss the relevance of being an immigrant to foreign policy views in one of the posts in this chain about the libertarian split over Iraq).

There were some hawkish libertarians at No Treason (Tim Starr and John Sabotta come to mind), but all the ones posting now seem to be anti-war, and John T. Kennedy claims libertarians overwhelmingly opposed war.

greenish writes:

Terrorism works, and fear increases the human tendencies towards irrational thought and authoritarianism.

Dr. T writes:

Libertarians opposed the USSR and other communist regimes because they denied individual rights. However, the United Nations-run Korean war was a poor method of opposing communism. A large number of nations sent troops, yet they could not defeat a ragtag, poorly supplied North Korean army. A libertarian could be against that war while still opposing communism.

The Vietnam war was even worse: we got involved only because the tyrant in North Vietnam was supported by the USSR. In turn, we supported equally bad tyrants. The 'conflict' had no clear political or diplomatic goals and was run by civilians and 'political' generals instead of by experienced war leaders. Again, this was a poor method of opposing communism, and sensible libertarians would recognize that.

The conflicts in the mideast (against the Taliban and other similar groups in Afghanistan and against Saddam Hussein and other Iraqis who support Muslim terrorists) seem just to many libertarians. Mideast terrorism has been a growing problem for decades. The shock of the passenger jet attacks presented a window of opportunity to our nation's leaders. The populace would now support direct military intervention. The plan to destroy the Taliban (and Osama bin Laden) in Afghanistan was widely (and appropriately, especially given the outcome) supported by most groups, including libertarians. The plan to destroy Saddam Hussein, his army, and his political support and then install a democratic government received somewhat less support. However, many libertarians (then and now) believe it to be a worthy goal. Libertarians (probably more than most political groups) understand that changing from tyranny to democracy will take time, especially in a war-torn country with many remaining terrorists and guerillas. That is why they still support our efforts to bring democracy to Iraq. The former supporters unrealistically expected a quick victory followed by a big military parade down the streets of Baghdad with the populace throwing flower petals in front of the liberators.

Scott W writes:

First, I think we have to separate the War on Terror from the Iraq War, just as we separate the Cold War from Vietnam, though one was used to justify the other.

I can see libertarian support for the War on Terror because Americans are basically hiring the national government to keep Americans safe internationally and domestically. As far as I know there isn't really a free-market solution to national defense and protection from terrorism (free-rider problems, etc). It seems national defense is crucial to maintaining a well functioning market (in addition to the primary benefit of fewer casualties from terrorism). After all, the terrorists took down the World TRADE Center, supposedly symbolizing opposition to capitalistic economic power.

I can see libertarian support for the Iraq War if the US wasn't interested in top-down nation building. Since the US actually has been nation building, I don't see how any libertarian can really support the Iraq War as it has been carried out thus far. Indeed, from what we know now about Iraq not really being a national threat, it's hard to see any libertarian justification ex post. Alas, going in there and knocking off Saddam could be supported by libertarians, ex ante, for roughly the same reasons as their support for the War on Terror. If you buy the neo-con justification, that they did indeed have WMDs and were planning to make nuclear weapons (which might be made available to terrorists in the future), then it's back to the (pre-emptive) defense issue. Even libertarians think the US should have a department of defense (it just so happens that the guys running the DOD believed in the old cliché: sometimes the best defense is a good offense).


Libertarian support for the Wars may have actually exposed what libertarians have been shouting all along: even if you have the best case scenario of an enormous amount of intelligent people working in a top-down bureaucracy (i.e. CIA, NSA, etc), government will still most likely produce terrible results. The intelligence leading up to the Iraq War was flat out wrong, and presumably the US had the best of the best working on it with the highest stakes to the executive. The aftermath seriously undermines the confidence in government actually doing things well. Americans thought that the CIA and NSA hired these smart guys like from the Good Will Hunting movie. A new libertarian slogan: do you want the same people running your healthcare system who supplied the pre-War intelligence?

Now imagine the counter-factual situation where we succeeded beyond our wildest dreams in Iraq. While it would have been great in terms of cost (both monetary and human costs), it might have elevated American confidence in government bureaucracies doing things well. For libertarians, this might have been disastrous for future domestic policy.

General Specific writes:

"The USSR never was able to blow up several tall buildings in the heart of New York City. "

Yeah, though they could have incinerated the entire island--even if it took them one hundred missiles to do it (with most of them going off willy nilly, even on their own heads).

Anyway, back to the questions: Why did many libertarians support the war? Couldn't IQ explain this? It seems to explain everything else around here.

Ok, that's a joke.

Couple answers:

(1) There are quite a few people I run into who call themselves libertarian who don't seem to have a clue what it means other than a few more bucks in their pocket come tax time. I suppose these people should be discounted in this discussion--or should they? I met a guy who called himself libertarian until I explained that his near-xenophobic hatred of immigration and foreigners was largely at odds with the word libertarian.

(2) Entanglement. Seems to me some libertarians have become entangled with the GOP for one of two reasons: (a) Furthering the libertarian cause--the enemy of my enemy is my friend, so to say. The Grover Norquists of the world road the GOP with Dubya and his tax cuts all the way into the garbage bin of history. (b) Libertarians, like marxists or objectivists or neocons, often have a cult-like or religious mindset--what one might call a strong dose of the holier-than-thous--that can easily lead them to unwittingly absorb and fight for a few nonlibertarian principles. Oops.

Greed and entanglement if you ask me. Even if they didn't support it, they were willing to go along with the ride to aid their own cause.

I think libertarians have done themselves great damage because of it.

General Specific writes:

Scott W: I do feel the need to comment on your post. I don't think you've learned the right lesson from the Iraq war. The government bureaucracy did not support this war because they didn't think Iraq was a threat. Inspectors were in Iraq when Bush pulled the trigger on the war.

The correct lesson: a group of elitists (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) can seize the reigns of government--and start unnecessary wars--when the appropriate regulations--read checks and balances--are not adhered to. In addition, once the trigger on that war is pulled, free market mentality, run amuck in the aftermath, will create chaos.

This meme you're spreading--big government was the problem--is exactly the problem I refer to in my post or response above this one: Libertarians twisting and warping reality to further the libertarian cause.

The iraq war is not the result of big government.

Bill writes:
The correct lesson: a group of elitists (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) can seize the reigns of government--and start unnecessary wars--when the appropriate regulations--read checks and balances--are not adhered to.

I seem to remember a little something called the "Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Iraq Resolution of 2002."

Les writes:

It is a fallacy that the Soviets were a greater threat than Islamic terrorists. The Soviets were unwilling to attack our homeland because of mutually assured nuclear deterrence.

But Islamic terrorists have repeatedly attacked American interests overseas and at home with little fear of retaliation because they can hide within a number of countries. After all, Bin Laden is still not captured, and Al Qaeda is not destroyed. Further, Islam already has nukes and is on the verge of acquiring more nukes, and most of the world's oil is in Islamic hands.

So it is a mistake to imagine that the Soviets were a greater threat than Islamic terrorists.

Honest disagreement.

Josh writes:

Bryan, I think you're confusing two time periods here. You're comparing Islamic Fundamentalism at its beginnings (at least as a public policy issue) and Communism at the end (and even worse, you're more talking about Communism in SE Asia, rather than the USSR which was the real threat). I think you'd find a lot more support for anti-communism among Libertarians in 1950 than after a decade of failed incursions into Asia. Likewise, I think you found a lot more support for anti-islamo-fascism at the start - which was exacerbated by the actual invasion of US soil on 9/11 - than you find after a half decade of failed incursions into the middle east.

Basically what I'm saying is that soon after the s*it hits the fan, the threat seems much more substantial than it does when you've had several years to see that it's not really that big of a deal (or worth the cost anyway).

George writes:

I don't think things have changed that much. There is a basic error here about names. The Libertarian party was made up of fringe nutjobs in the 70s and it still is today. The party did not and does not represent mainstream libertarian thought.

The libertarian authors who sold millions of books in the 60s and 70s were people like Rand and Friedman (and Heinlein). The libertarian politicians who got millions of votes in the 60s, 70s and 80s were people like Goldwater and Reagan. These people represented the true mainstream of libertarianism and none of them were pacifist.

jb writes:

I was one of those libertarians. My belief was that if Iraq was attempting to acquire nuclear material and nuclear technology, and also was in cahoots with terrorists, that they could issue suicide nuclear strikes against the US asymmetrically. That would represent a significant threat against the US soil.

Before the Iraq war started, I had a choice to make - are those conditions (nuclear tech and terrorist collaboration) satisfied by Saddam Hussein. At the time, having no specific insight of my own, I felt the government's intel was better than my own. Thus, reluctant support for the war.

We've since discovered that the nuclear tech was ephemeral, and the terrorist collaboration was relatively weak. I would not have supported the war, knowing what I know now. Yes, that means that Iraqis would be suffering under a dictatorship right now.

The only silver lining I can find right now is the possibility that the years of pain and struggle limit future nation-building missions for a generation or so.

eddie writes:

Not to discuss the merits of the war, but I can't help but notice Bryan presupposes the war was *not* a good thing from a libertarian point of view. By contrast, a libertarian hawk might entitle a post "Why Did So Many Libertarians Oppose The War?"

When the war started, Harry Browne came out strongly against it and carried with him the implied imprimatur of the Libertarian Party. Reason Magazine was against the war. Ron Paul, the libertarian darling in Congress, was against the war. I think you would have been hard-pressed to find libertarians of note that supported the war.

To ask "why did so many libertarians support the war" when in fact so few did implies that *any* libertarian support is astonishing. Certainly the libertarian hawks believe their position is neither anti-libertarian nor particularly hard to understand.

Nathan Smith writes:

I think it's simpler than that. Think about it this way:

(1) Libertarians are anti-totalitarian. Even more than most people.
(2) Saddam was a totalitarian regime.
(3) Libertarians are against Saddam.

Dovish libertarians resist this conclusion through some notion of sovereignty, the social contract existing at the national level, so that there is a definable national interest, and US foreign policy should pursue this and be utterly indifferent to the welfare of anyone beyond our borders. If you think this is nonsensical and/or amoral and/or dangerous (it is), then you are likely to be hawkish on the war in Iraq.

Nathan Smith writes:

Are you justified in using the past tense in the title of this post? The public has retreated from support of the war in large numbers, but have hawkish libertarians recanted in the same proportions?

Bob writes:

I think that your Lisa Simpson quote is part of the reason.

Daniel Klein writes:

I too think the post is spot on. A really great post!

To second your points 4 and 5:

I think that by the time of the 2000 election Cato types like myself were hopeful that Republicanism would become more libertarian, and consequently had psychologically, professionally, and institutionally joined more with conservatives, hoping for a reconceptualization in US politics between a Grover Norquist "leave us alone" coalition and the social democrats. Also, just an anomisity toward Clinton Democrats. Bush foreign policy (and other actions) suddenly challenged all this, and libertarians were slow to give up the hopes and careerist interests in being in the WSJ, etc.. I can only imagine the funding-raising shock that would have come from flatly opposing the war on terror and Iraq.

I say this largely from introspection, although I wrote and circulated a long memo against the war on terror from the start, even had a little exchange with Eugene Volokh at about it way back when. So I think that, for many libertarians, there was some careerist preference falsification mixed with confusion and rationalizations.

All this is not to deny that there may be in principle good consequential arguments for military actions--your point there is also spot on.

jab writes:

First, I'd like to deny that Marxism-Leninism was worse. Consider the treatment of women.

Second, I think the main reason that many (but not most, I don't think) libertarians supported the war is that THEY WERE LIED TO. We were told that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear/chem/biological program and that he was close to acquiring these weapons. So many supported the war as anti-proliferation--with teeth.

The next part of the argument was that if Saddam had these weapons, he could transfer them to non-state actors.

Non-state actors would not be susceptible to the logic of deterrence or the strategy of containment.

The USSR did not use suicidal tactics to prosecute attacks as were done on 9/11.

In retrospect, libertarians (like myself) should have been more mistrustful of the Bush administration's claim that the Saddam regime had weapons.

Troy Camplin writes:

With the Soviets a game-theoretic approach worked -- they were rational enough to not want to participate in Mutually Ensured Destruction. The Islamists are not. Many even welcome mutually ensured destruction. The communists may be deeply, fundamentally wrong -- maybe even evil -- but they were never illogical. How else are you to deal with a group of people who want to kill you, and not necessarily convert you? We have seen over and over that not doing anything, or doing next to nothing, only emboldens them -- Lebanon and the bombing of the Cole and of the African embassies comes to mind. This is a calculation many made, including myself.

Personally, Hussein was more in the Soviet-style camp and seemed to be controllable so long as you let him mouth off on occasion. However, he was also in the position of supporting such people as we do need to fight against, so at least potentially he could have been dangerous. Whether he would have been or not is pure speculation and can never be known.

Rimfax writes:

Peikoff and Boortz aside, my impression was that most libertarians opposed the Iraq War, but not with much enthusiasm. Most found it more reprehensible to appear to support the dominant anti-war movements (neo-Levellers, pseudo-anarchists, antisemitic conspiracy-theorists, etc.) than to oppose an unethical war. (Peter Bagge has a cartoon about that one.) Some considered that a rapid war with an outcome at least as good as Kosovo might not be any worse than the protracted low-level conflict that had been going on for over a decade. A few allowed that the threat, albeit weak, was arguably real and might be considered principled self-defense, even if a bit of a stretch.

kenshi writes:

It has never been clear that isolationism is a major philosophical component of libertarianism. There is nothing inherently contradictory between libertarianism and activist foreign policy or militarism. People seem to have finally figured that out and started looking at the issue of foreign and military policy in a more contextual way.

Punditus Maximus writes:

Because a Republican proposed it; so-called "libertarians" are just Republicans who hate paying taxes more than most. The civil rights and isolationist bits are window dressing; slip a libertarian a twenty in the form of tax cuts and he or she will vote however you ask them to.

Perhaps it is because so many individuals who call themselves libertarians aren't truly libertarians. I have many friends on both sides of the aisle who call themselves libertarian, but in reality are only libertarian on certain issues.

Brad Hutchings writes:

G.S., You completely missed Unit's point. The USSR could not blow up a few tall buildings in NYC because it would necessarily lead to a wider, more catastrophic confrontation. Radical Islamic terrorists could do this because their connections to governments were tenuous. Western Civ hasn't managed to develop that level of sophistication and destruction in-house. Tim McVay managed just a small fraction of what the 9/11 terrorists did.

While the connections to countries and governments was tenuous, the connection to culture was not, and the role of government and country in the Middle East region is comparatively less than the role of religion, particularly radical elements. I have no problem as a libertarian holding the position that despite government's inability to do anything halfway right, it is far better to do something, no matter how indiscriminate, now to project our power and state our right and intention to exist on our terms than to do nothing and let Islamic extremism fester.

On another plane here... Look at the recent news story about the Saudi woman sentenced to jail and lashings for being a rape victim! That is so beyond screwed up. Regardless of what we think of government, Western Civilizationalists cannot allow that to spread. That's a far worse problem than communism, socialism, or the Kelo decision. "Better dead than red" doesn't even begin to compare with how we should feel about that kind of injustice. In the name of relative peace, we may have to tolerate it where it is, but we must never tolerate it spreading.

PrestoPundit writes:

The current war began in 1991. I opposed starting it -- but have always supported finishing it, i.e. winning it. You win wars the way Roosevelt did -- overwhelming power, total domination. The war has been a fiasco because we don't have a Roosevelt and we don't have an America, circa 1941. WWII continues to be a false model. The Bush- Clinton- Bush Presidencies have been an ongoing disaster.

I also believed Iraq had biological weapons, had chemical weapons, and was after the bomb. I mostly thought guys like Cheney were smart and honest guys -- I didn't appreciate at the time to what extent so many of them were C students and political hacks. You can add Powell to that list.

TGGP writes:

Here are Peter Bagge's cartoons referenced above.

Libertarians (probably more than most political groups) understand that changing from tyranny to democracy will take time, especially in a war-torn country with many remaining terrorists and guerillas.
The issue of democracy is orthogonal to that of liberty. In many cases democracy will lead to less liberty because the people are less liberal than their rulers. The fact that the transition is difficult should actually make the cost/benefit calculation more lopsided against the war and lead libertarians to oppose it.

I can see libertarian support for the Iraq War if the US wasn't interested in top-down nation building.
Why? They didn't attack us. It was an unprovoked, pre-emptive war. I like both what Don Boudreaux and John T. Kennedy have to say: "The world is full of evil tyrants. But given the nature of government, it’s not the role of government A to sit in judgment of government B. The most legitimate role for any government is to protect its own people from violence." and "The Iraq war is funded in part with tax loot stolen from me, and I would prefer to spend my money on things that I value more than this war.", respectively.

It is a fallacy that the Soviets were a greater threat than Islamic terrorists.
Do you know how close we came to nuclear war?

The Soviets were unwilling to attack our homeland because of mutually assured nuclear deterrence.
So was Saddam. Also, China under Mao seemed pretty damned crazy and undeterrable when it was immolating itself during the Cultural Revolution, talking about "paper tigers" and claiming its huge population could shrug off nuclear attacks. That was around the time Nixon went over there and helped spark their split with the Soviets. Even if the terrorists have the desire to attack us, they don't have anywhere near the same kind of capability. There's a book about that.

Even libertarians think the US should have a department of defense
I'm getting awfully partial for the old militia system without a standing army right about now.

I met a guy who called himself libertarian until I explained that his near-xenophobic hatred of immigration and foreigners was largely at odds with the word libertarian.
It depends on what that means for the state. If it means we need more government to be constantly looking out for us and protecting us from the awful threat, that would lead away from libertarianism, but if he just personally dislikes and avoids them, that's perfectly compatible. There are a number of libertarians in favor of immigration restriction, and I'm one of them.

I felt the government's intel was better than my own.
A libertarian should know better than to trust the government, which has lied us into war repeatedly in the past and dramatically inflated the power of the Soviet Union.

I think you would have been hard-pressed to find libertarians of note that supported the war.
Brink Lindsey did, and now really regrets it, as does the somewhat-libertarian Andrew Sullivan. I think Eric S. Raymond coined the term "idiotarian" to describe those who opposed it, though I don't know his position now. A number of people at Reason supported it. Eric Dondero quit working for Ron Paul because of it.

Libertarians are against Saddam.
I'm against Bush (not saying he is nearly as bad as Saddam), but I certainly don't want the country to be invaded. Libertarians don't like poverty either (for the most part, there could be some religious types who think poverty is holy but also oppose government) but they still want the government to mind its own business because they don't trust it. The original classical liberals, since they didn't really have to deal with socialism, spent a great deal of their efforts railing against militarism.

First, I'd like to deny that Marxism-Leninism was worse. Consider the treatment of women.
Is that supposed to make up for killing more people than Nazism?

We were told that Saddam Hussein had an active nuclear/chem/biological program and that he was close to acquiring these weapons.
The Soviet Union had nukes. So did China. Now Pakistan and North Korea have them. We still wisely avoid war with them.

So many supported the war as anti-proliferation--with teeth.
Why would a libertarian be in favor of that? We don't trust the government to do arms control within its jurisdiction, why should it be telling other countries what they can have?

Non-state actors would not be susceptible to the logic of deterrence or the strategy of containment.
Saddam was a state actor and responsive to deterrence. The terrorists he sponsored were regional ones like the Kurdistan Worker's Party or MEK to harass neighbors he didn't like. Nukes are a precious commodity and it would have been ridiculous for him to hand them over to terrorists. Like Bismarck giving battleships to anarchists.

The correct lesson: a group of elitists (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld) can seize the reigns of government--and start unnecessary wars--when the appropriate regulations--read checks and balances--are not adhered to.
I am not surprised at Bad People being in charge of the government, which is why I want to remove power from said government so they will not be able to abuse it when they inevitably rise to the top.

In addition, once the trigger on that war is pulled, free market mentality, run amuck in the aftermath, will create chaos.
The free market mentality of price controls and gas subsidies, resulting in shortages? The free market mentality reflected in the Iraqi constitution? Government contractors are not part of the "free-market", public money means public program.

These people represented the true mainstream of libertarianism and none of them were pacifist.
Neither is Ron Paul. He voted for military action against Afghanistan and tried to pass letters of marque and reprisal. Being against stupid unnecessary wars doesn't mean you don't believe in defending yourselves.

As long as we're on the subject, I think the all-time stupidest attack on Ron Paul might be this one. "Lead by example"? Sure, whatever, keep saying it and eventually I'll understand what that has to do with anything.

Faré writes:

Of course, the whole questionable premise of your post is the package deal of selling the war and the state together.

I support waging some wars and no state.

The state may have been monopolizing warmaking, that doesn't make warmaking bad per se anymore than its monopolizing police makes police bad per se, or that its monopolizing agriculture makes agriculture bad per se.

"To make war requires the will to act. But to be at war, it suffices to suffer the aggression. Refusing to fight will not bring you peace."

NBM writes:


Many of us believe that U.S. presence in Iraq is an important strategy in defending ourselves against Islamic fascism, a sociopolitical movement that has both publicly declared war on and attacked America multiple times in the past 20 years and which continues to actively pursue the violent oppression and murder of American civilians. No where in libertarian philosophy is it said that one should not defend one's life and liberty against an aggressive and violent opponent.

While we may disagree with the means the government uses to pursue this strategy, including putting U.S. troops in Iraq; and we might in fact argue over whether or not a government-sponsored military is the best means of defending our freedom from violent aggressors; and we may even refuse to acknowledge that an armed, militant, organized, populous enemy which has carried out premeditated attacks on American civilians on U.S. soil and which continues to publicly declare its intention of doing so again (the word they use is "war"), is a credible threat to our lives and freedom -- no serious libertarian could possibly accept these points and yet decide that supporting the war in Iraq is somehow "unlibertarian".

8 writes:

How would libertarianism be regarded if it was uniform in opinion and a terrorist traveled over the open U.S. border and used WMD? The cost of being for a bad war in America is far less than the cost of being seen as doing nothing in the face of total disaster, or worse, supporting policies viewed as enabling the enemy.

They supported the war because they were pragmatic. They viewed the war as the best course of action in a bad situation, either for political reasons or for policy reasons.

Also, you assume those in government are "selling out". But if those in a position of responsibility repeatedly abandon the same principles, maybe the principles are wrong.

eccdogg writes:

Well I am not sure that I buy the premise. I didn't hear many folks that I consider the voice for libertarians (ie Cato) in favor of the Iraq war, but maybe I am forgeting.

I for one was highly sceptical of going into Iraq. I believed that Saddam had WMDs but that he was unlikely to use them or let them loose given that it would assure his destruction and loss of power. However, at the end of the day I was not highly against it because I thought that the administration and congress must know somthing that I did not since they thought the war made sense. Come to find our they didn't know anymore than me.

My view now on the war is that we have started a mess and we have an obligation to fix it. I am not sure if that is best to stay or go but I think we do owe it to the Iraqi people to leave them in a situation that is better than the one when we entered.

Scott W writes:

General Specific,

Libertarians tend not to have the blinders on Bush and his buddies. Tenet and the CIA produced the two most memorable words in intelligence history: slam dunk. But it's in the history books now that the CIA was convinced Iraq had WMDs (UK and Russia intel apparently felt the same way). The intelligence bureaucracies screwed up, on the grandest of scales, as did the neo-cons for using that as justification for invasion.

Whether the bureaucracy supported the war is not particularly relevant. Their primary job is to provide intelligence to policy-makers. The intel they provided was wrong, plain and simple. Indeed, to my knowledge only a small portion of every bureaucracy in the executive is directly appointed by the executive, therefore it would be a hard pill to swallow if one made the claim that only the neo-cons screwed up in gathering intelligence. This is an indispensable part of the story.

Back to the topic of libertarians, I think this is the lesson Americans have learned from the Iraq War (or perhaps should pay more attention to). Government failure leading up to Iraq, and its aftermath, have shaken confidence in bureaucracy. Again, not only were the policy-makers wrong in hindsight, but the bureaucracies failed too. It's much easier for libertarians to identify with this dual culpability than Democrats or Republicans, whereas the latter two parties focus solely on one or the other (Bush or CIA) being at fault.

Unit writes:

Ok so a true libertarian should be against the Irak invasion solely because it's a government operation. But say one still wants to get rid of Saddam, how would that happen? One way would be for a home-grown US terrorist movement (a la unabomber or McVeigh?) to infiltrate Baathist Irak and either divert a plane onto Saddam's palaces or drive a truck full of explosives into a government building in Baghdad. It's unfortunate that uncle Sam has such a monopoly on aggressive foreign policy...kidding aside, I'm utterly confused by this debate. My attitude is that wars are like hurricanes, or other massive destructions of physical and human resources, they happen with a certain regularity, and one adjusts one's behavior accordingly. I would never declare myself in favor or against Hurricane Katrina for instance, I didn't like it, but what does declaring myself against it do?

Barkley Rosser writes:

Interesting post. I was unaware there were so many libertarians hawkish on Iraq, although I fully understand supporting attacking the Taliban in Aghanistan, a matter of self-defense. I thought only fools who believed that Saddam was pals with al Qaeda went along with the Iraq nonsense.

Regarding the link to Volokh on the Friedmans, they indeed were part of this older Establishment semi-libertarians who were hawkish in the Cold War. The surprise there was not that Rose was hawkish on Iraq, but that Milton was dovish, after all of his previous hawkishness on foreign policy. Clearly Rose was peeved with his shift in that regard.

Regarding Scott W.'s claim about intel agencies, what they all thought (and I did too) was that Saddam had chemical weapons, but not nukes or bio. But chemical weapons are not really "weapons of mass destruction," and he had no serious delivery system for them to hit the US. They were never a justification for invading Iraq, even if they had actually been there.

Eric Dondero writes:

Those who did not support the War on Islamo-Fascism could not be called libertarians by any stretch of the imagination. Libertarianism is the exact polar opposite of Islamo-Fascism. How can one claim to be a libertarian, yet support an ideology that wishes to force women to wear burqas from head to toe, outlaw nude beaches in Europe, jail all gays, and ban free speech, particularly for newspaper cartoonists.

Barry Goldwater founded the libertarian movement. He was stridently Pro-Defense. He'd be appalled today to see how some people have twisted the term "libertarian" to mean pacifism and appeasement in the face of fascism.

We Pro-Defense libertarians are fighting back against those leftist anarchists who've infiltrated our movement, most of whom are with the Ron Paul campaign.

Rolland writes:

As a long time Libertarian (circa 1980/Ed Clark), I opposed the invasion of Iraq in the strongest possible terms. Why?

1. There was absolutely no evidence that Iraq possessed WMD; the evidence presented to the UN was touted by Bush and repeated by the media as a "smoking gun", but it was a massive stretch to see how the evidence that was presented was anything more than an insinuation. It seemed clear that the Bush administration was trying to pull a fast one based on everyone in his administration using "Saddam Hussein" and "9/11" in the same sentence for the last year, when only the truly clueless didn't know they had nothing to do with each other.

2. Even if they did have WMD, so what? We have them too. Not only did they not represent a threat to the US, we do not have the authority nor the moral justification to take the position that it is fine for us to have them, but not you (remember, the only nation that has every used a nuclear weapon to attack another was the US).

3. Wars are expensive (both in terms of dollars and lives lost or shattered), and should only be used as a last resort. I supported going into Afghanistan to capture/kill Bin Laden, but--either by design or incompetence--the Bush administration had already failed miserably at doing that. To start another war--one that was completely unnecessary--while still not being able to prove any hint of being qualified to conduct one to actually result in a victorious outcome seemed completely insane.

I find it curious that there are people that professed to be Libertarian, yet supported the invasion of Iraq. I would argue that the two are at great odds with one another.

David Johnson writes:

I can explain why I was not opposed to the Iraq invasion at one time. Simply put, I was bamboozled into thinking that Iraq was a terrorist state and was an imminent threat. If we are honest with ourselves, we must admit that was never true. But at the time many of us got sucked into the "attack them or they will attack us" panic.

Never underestimate the power of statist propaganda.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Eric Dondero,

It is perfectly possible to "not support" the ideology of a country while also not supporting going to war against it.

Also, Barry Goldwater did not found the libertarian movement. It long predated him. Indeed, prior to the 1950s it was a left-wing movement, going back to France in the 1800s. In the 1920s there were actually self-styled "libertarian communists."

Tucker writes:

Great post.

But maybe part of the reason was that getting tough simply got cheaper! The potential cost of going to war with Saddam was much lower than going to war with the Soviets and their arsenal of nuklear weapons. So, maybe getting tough was never considered a free lunch after all.

Barkley Rosser writes:


Yes, war with Iraq was certainly cheaper than a nuclear conflict with the Soviets. OTOH, even the lowest estimates have it closing on $1 trillion with lots dead (if we include counting Iraqis), and an upshot of "Islamo-fascist" terrorist recruiting probably having been stimulated globally rather than cut back (at least that is what some NIEs have said).

Drew Mehta writes:

I think (1) is the real answer. There certainly was/is a strong strain of libertarianism that viewed military force with revulsion, but I think a sizeable number of self-described libertarians were hawks during the cold war. I can't speak for the 50's-70's, but I think there were a number of libertarians (including myself) in the 80's who did not view hawkish policies towards the USSR as opposed to libertarian viewed about individual rights.

Rolland writes:

Dondero. Your assertion that defeating Islamo-Fascism in the world is a Libertarian tenant is absurd, as is your implication that invading Iraq would somehow strike a blow against it. Whatever faults that one can find with a Saddam Hussein Iraq, the regime was relatively progressive with respect to strict enforcement of Islamic law; under Saddam Hussein, women could marry who they wanted, were protected against being killed for the honor or men, were allowed to attend schools, and were not forced to wear a hijab. I would suggest that the US invasion of Iraq has in fact retarded the progressive ideology that you would shove down the throats of Muslim nations at the end of a gun barrel.

And speaking of retarded, it are you neocons masquerading as Libertarians under the guise of being pro-defense who've infiltrated our movement. Live and let live is a fundamental Libertarian tenant and that also includes foreign policy. I suggest that you read the Libertarian party platform ( and quit pretending to be what you are not.

KRG writes:

It's tempting to lay the blame at the feet of the virulent "neocontagion" that's blanketed Washington, D.C., but so long as there are soft minarchists who contend that universal rights must be universally enforced (e.g., by a distant, highly centralized Superpower, like the U.S., or even a World State, like the U.N.), court libertarians will always be with us.

ebert g. beeman writes:

big government is so instilled in our society that even many libertarians constantly think "how can we make government better?" instead of returning to our founding fathers goal of government doing nothing except protecting property rights. and what else can be exptected from people that are the product of a government school? such people will not even consider the possibility that the muslims have a reasonable excuse for fighting with the united states. expect things to get much worse before they get better.

Bill Woolsey writes:

One hypothesis suggested by Caplan is that a move from natural rights to consequentialist thinking was responsible for support for the war in Iraq.

I would suggest that the opposite might be true. While "natural rights" reasoning may appear to be an absolute barrier against statist policies, it is brittle. When there is sufficient pressure, it breaks. And then, what is left?

So, 9-11 occurs. The "principle" of strict nonintervention is called into question. Analogies to the "nonagression" principle version of individual rights don't seem so applicable. Maybe "taxation is theft" doesn't apply as well as it appeared to do when the issue was social welfare or humanitarian foreign intervention in Bosnia or Kosovo. And war is always immoral because foreign civilians might die? Right...

Never really paid much attention to the consequentialist arguments regarding intervention in the Middle East that have been promoted by Cato over the years. So once the implausible "natural rights" rationales for nonintervention are gone, the libertarian has a blank slate--ready to adopt neoconservative fantasies. (Imposing liberal democratic capitalism on the Middle East will end the threat of terrorist acts by Islamists.)

I think Caplan has in mind various libertarian intellectuals. I am thinking more of the rank-and-file. I believe that many libertarians at the time of 9-11 had learned of libertarianism from Harry Browne. Browne opposed attacking Al Quaeda in Afghanistan. He pointed out that 9-11 was blowback for U.S. interventionism. For those libertarians who over-identified libertarianism with Harry Browne, this created a break.

Harry Browne's "do nothing" approach regarding Al Quaeda appeared so naive. (While the policies Browne advocated in his Presidential campaigns were standard "hardcore" libertarian, his philosphical basis for libertarianism was not standard and leaned towards pacifism.)

The Libertarian Party didn't follow Harry Browne on Afghanistan, but opposed the Iraq war. Cato did the same. But for those people who were still receiving Harry Browne emails on 9-11, the damage was done. These people were ready to believe that Saddam was buidling a nuclear weapon in order to give it to Al Quaeda so they could smuggle it into the U.S.

Westmiller writes:

I don't think any of your proposals apply.

The fundamental problem is a logical error among some libertarians: a simple Association Fallacy, which was heavily promoted by the Bush administration.

Specifically, that we were attacked on 9/11 by "non-state actors" who can only be identified by their philosophical motives. Given that they were radical Islamists, the defined "enemy" is therefore ALL "radical" Islamists. That error is used to justify a "War on Terror" (a tactic) and all Muslims (a faith belief, not an act) who might be aggressive.
In libertarian theory, NO person can be subjected to retaliation who has not acted in violation of another person's rights. The threat of force can constitute a violation, but only by those who are making a real, substantive, and imminent threat. All of the alleged threats are purely speculative, even if nurtured by the unexpected nature of the 9/11 attack.

Aside from the logical fallacy, some libertarians who support "the war" are rationalizing their own sentiments (as much about religious hysterics as any kind of military threat) rather than applying libertarian self-defense principles.

Robert Capozzi writes:

My take on the question -- Why libertarians supported the Iraq War? is:

All of the above. The trauma of 9/11. The search to avenge 9/11. That the Soviets never did a 9/11. The threat to Israel. The "caliphate" theory, and the judgement that the al Qaeda network can actually pulll of a caliphate.

I didn't buy the Iraq War from the start. With reservations, I did support the Afghanistan action, although I would have preferred a declaration of war.

I see this thread is careening into the anarchist/minarchist and natural rights/consequentialist discussion. Personally, I find these formulaic constructs silly, even childish.

It's why I coined (I think) the term "less-archist." I'm for less government today. If we're ever successful in pulling THAT off, I'm for less government tomorrow.

Michael writes:

To those of you who think that the Soviets were no big threat, I suggest you read your post WWII history, especially around the Cuban missile crisis. There were so many people sure that Nuclear Armageddon was just around the corner that bomb shelters were a booming business. Even as late as the mid 70's I remember being quite sure that nuclear winter was going to end the human race within the decade.
I am sure that in 30 years people will look back on 9/11 and say only 3000 people killed and the US just went totally nuts for years! 3000 people are killed EVERY MONTH in Iraq. Now that is something to get upset about.

Vinay Gupta writes:

I think the answer is that the Libertarian movement had been picking up Republicans for a long time as the Republican party became more and more authoritarian.

It's basically a dilution effect.

Ralph writes:

What Tabarrok said. The attacks here were genuinely frightening, particularly because the extent of the threat was actually not known at first. But a months post-9/11, Libertarians (actually everyone) should have come down to earth and drawn the reasonable conclusion: Islamic terrorism is not a significant threat in comparison with fuel, monetary concerns and many other problems currently facing our damaged country.

Ugly American writes:

I don't know any libertarians who supported the Iraq war.

I know many who supported going after Osama in Afganistan and pushed to go get him when he ran away to Pakistan.

It was the Republicans & Democrats who voted to demolish the civil government and infrastructure in Iraq instead.

It was the Republicans & Democrats who voted to make Pakistan an 'ally' with bribes instead of siding with India who has already been fighting Muslim terrorists along the border with Pakistan for over 1,000 years.

Glen Bradley writes:

I am a newbie and a nobody. I grew up on Heinlien. I consider myself a little "L" libertarian, and a constitutionalist. There is a point I wanted to add and see if it makes sense to you thoughtful and educated ladies and gentlemen.

I think there is a (small but important) difference between libertarianism and constitutionalism. Some people are just libertarians without being constitutionalists, and some people are constitutionalists without being libertarians. As for me, I consider myself to be a libertarian constitutionalist. This position came about in me, I think, because I grew up on Heinlien as if every word was bread and water, and as a former Marine and life-long (founding father) patriot, I took the oath to uphold and defend the constitution extremely seriously.

Much of this discussion on pro-Iraq or anti-Iraq can be pinned down to these three positions. I have said, long before I even heard of Ron Paul, that I was opposed to going to Iraq -- unless the US would issue a formal declaration of war. It turns out that Ron Paul, also a strong...well...maybe he is a constitutionalist libertarian rather than a libertarian constitutionalist if such a distinction can be made...has the exact same position. He seems to be not so much "anti-war period" as he is "anti-going-to-war-without-a-formal-declaration."

Of course, his non-interventionist foreign policy would have caused him to vote *against* the declaration of war; however had a declaration passed Congress in spite of his vote, I have to think he would have thrown his weight behind the effort. Just as I would have.

For five years now I have ben telling everyone I can, that maybe it was a good idea to invade Iraq - I don't think so, but say for the sake of argument that of all the options we had, invading Iraq was the best bet. In order to do that, we MUST have a formal declaration of war. Without such a declaration, we simply can not invade, whether it was the best course of action or not.

In sum, I think what is missing in this discussion thus far, is a contrast between the philosophies of libertarianism and constitutionalism, and a discourse on how those two philosophical positions of US Governance interact within an individual, to produce a reasoned and nuanced position on the war on terrorism and on the invasion of Iraq. As for myself (and I came to this position before I had even heard of Ron Paul - who does have a very similar position to my own) I am fully in support of issuing letters of marque and reprisal against Bin Laden and Al Qaida, and fully against the invasion of Iraq - and have been from the very start, at the outset of 9/11 and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

Glen Bradley writes:
NBM writes:

Many of us believe that U.S. presence in Iraq is an important strategy in defending ourselves against Islamic fascism, a sociopolitical movement that has both publicly declared war on and attacked America multiple times in the past 20 years and which continues to actively pursue the violent oppression and murder of American civilians. No where in libertarian philosophy is it said that one should not defend one's life and liberty against an aggressive and violent opponent.

The problem here is, you can't effectively wage a shooting war against an idea. If you want to wage a war against ideas, it has to be an ideological war. Now, it is true that actual violence and firepower are tools which can be employed in the course of ideological warfare, but bombs and bullets can not be the primary component of an ideological war as they tend to serve the opposite effect of what is intended. We have myriad examples of this, dating from before the Roman attempts to crush Christianity. You try to kill an idea by force of arms, and all you do is serve to strengthen peoples adherence to said ideology.

I believe that fact should be obvious to all thinking people. There is too much evidence in history to think otherwise. As a matter of pure efficacy alone, regardless of left, right, authoritarian or libertarian, efficacy alone should reveal that the onle effective "warfare" against an ideology, is ideological warfare as opposed to a shooting war.

Ross Levatter writes:

If you read Radicals for Capitalism, you find that in the 40s and 50s, major businessmen who were libertarian were radical anarchists and vehement non-interventionalists, not something you find today. And this was at a time when the Soviet Union was in some sense a credible threat (granted, dramatically overblown).

I think the major problem is that most libertarians today, like most Americans, have a very limited grasp of history in general and American foreign policy history specifically. Thus an attack on American soil does not get them to think, "I guess the non-interventionalists were right; if we screw with Middle Eastern countries for many decades, eventually we'll piss people off to the point they'll attack us". Instead they think, "These crazy people attack us when we've never done anything to them; now we have to give up "theoretical" libertarianism until we're safe, just as conservatives felt they had to give up aspects of freedom to defend against the "Communist threat". Historically, classical liberals knew there were always "threats" that could be ginned up by power-seeking politicians, which is why libertarians seeking prosperity always preached peace. But today's libertarians come to it through economics, not through philosophy or history, and can thus be fooled when "non-economic" reasoning comes into play.

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