Bryan Caplan  

EconLog Book Club: For a New Liberty, Chapter 14

Unintended Consequences, Chapt... Barry Eichengreen's Theya Culp...
Some libertarians argue that the implications of libertarianism for foreign policy are unclear.  In this chapter, Rothbard argues that libertarianism implies strict "isolationism":
Pending the dissolution of States, libertarians desire to limit, to whittle down, the area of government power in all directions and as much as possible... In foreign affairs, the goal is the same: to keep government from interfering in the affairs of other governments or other countries. Political "isolationism" and peaceful coexistence--refraining from acting upon other countries--is, then, the libertarian counterpart to agitating for laissez-faire policies at home. The idea is to shackle government from acting abroad just as we try to shackle government at home. Isolationism or peaceful coexistence is the foreign policy counterpart of severely limiting government at home.
But couldn't one government's military actions increase human freedom?  Not in a morally permissible way.  Suppose, he asks, that the imaginary nation of Walldavia tries to defend the freedom of Belgravia against an invasion from Graustark?  It's still wrong:
[W]hen Walldavia, or any other States, leap into the fray [they] are themselves expanding and compounding the extent of the aggression, because they are (1) unjustly slaughtering masses of Graustarkian civilians, and (2) increasing tax-coercion over Walldavian citizens. Furthermore, (3) in this age when States and subjects are closely identifiable, Walldavia is thereby leaving Walldavian civilians open to retaliation by Graustarkian bombers or missiles. Thus, entry into the war by the Walldavian government puts into jeopardy the very lives and properties of Walldavian citizens which the government is supposed to be protecting. Finally, (4) conscription-enslavement of Walldavian citizens will usually intensify.
After laying out this hard-line, Rothbard defies Cold War orthodoxy.  The U.S. is no hero: "empirically, taking the twentieth century as a whole, the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States."  And despite its monstrous domestic policies, Rothbard argues that the Soviet Union's foreign policies haven't been all that bad.  Lenin pioneered the theory of "peaceful coexistence," and...
As time went on, furthermore, this policy was reinforced by a "conservatism" that comes upon all movements after they have acquired and retained power for any length of time, in which the interests of keeping power over one's nation-state begins to take more and more precedence over the initial ideal of world revolution. This increasing conservatism under Stalin and his successors strengthened and reinforced the nonaggressive, "peaceful coexistence" policy.
What about the Nazi-Soviet pact and the Red Army's later occupation of Eastern Europe?  Rothbard's unimpressed.  The Nazi-Soviet pact was merely an attempt to restore Russia's pre-WWI borders, and its post-war expansion was just a byproduct of the Soviets' defensive war against the Nazis:
[I]n order to defeat the invaders, it was obviously necessary for the Russians to roll back the invading armies and conquer Germany and the other warring countries of Eastern Europe. It is easier to make a case for the United States being expansionist for conquering and occupying Italy and part of Germany than it is for Russia's actions--after all, the United States was never directly attacked by the Germans.
While he condemns the later Soviet invasions of Hungary and Czechoslovakia, Rothbard insists that the broader world should not feel threatened by them:
Their only use of troops has been to defend their territory in the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet bloc in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops--reprehensibly, to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive rather than expansionist manner.
Rothbard closes the chapter with a defense of multilateral disarmament:
Not only should there be joint disarmament of nuclear weapons, but also of all weapons capable of being fired massively across national borders; in particular bombers. It is precisely such weapons of mass destruction as the missile and the bomber which can never be pinpoint-targeted to avoid their use against innocent civilians...If it is illegitimate for government ever to employ such weapons, why should they be allowed to remain, fully loaded, in their none-too-clean hands?
Critical Comments
Rothbard's deduction of isolationism from libertarianism is basically correct.  The main slippage is his insistence that libertarians focus on limiting the crimes of their own government.  What if your own government is relatively benign, and another government is murdering millions?  Mightn't it make more sense for libertarians to focus their protests on the greater evil, even if it is further away?

In purely consequentialist terms, too, isolationism deserves a lot more credit than it gets.  WWII, widely seen as the proof of the necessity of an active foreign policy, left half of Europe under Soviet rule, and put Mao Zedong, the century's greatest murderer, on the Chinese throne.  Is that what counts as "American success"?  In a similar vein, it seems likely that the U.S. wouldn't have to worry about terrorism if it had simply stayed out of the Middle East altogether.

When it comes to his Cold War revisionism, though, Rothbard let his hatred of the U.S. government blind him to the relative benevolence of U.S. foreign policy and the absolute malevolence of the Soviet Union. 

When I was eighteen years old, I met Rothbard and challenged him on these questions.  He basically told me to go read some actual history.  I followed his advice, reading most of his favorite New Left historians.  I wasn't impressed.  Furthermore, the more I read about the history of the Communist movement, the more I realized that Lenin and Stalin really did command an international totalitarian conspiracy of unthinkable proportions.  I particularly recommend Franz Borkenau's World Communism and Burnett Bolloten's The Spanish Civil War: Revolution and Counterrevolution.

The most absurd omission in Rothbard's U.S.-U.S.S.R. comparison, though, is that he pays zero attention to how the two countries acted in victory.   Doesn't that have anything to do with who deserves to be named the century's biggest imperialist?

While it's true that the U.S. can be a truly barbarous combatant, abject surrender to American occupation leads to amazingly good results.  The American occupation of Germany and Japan clearly paved the away for the most libertarian policies these countries had ever known, not to mention peace and prosperity.

On the other hand, Soviet occupation almost invariably led to mass murder, mass deportations, wide-scale slave labor, collectivization, famine, and other horrors.  Abject surrender was no protection, as the citizens of the Baltics learned in 1940-1.  To say that sovietizing Eastern Europe was all part and parcel of rolling back Hitler's invasion is absurd.  The creation of the Soviet bloc may have been opportunistic, but it was still a clear-cut case of an "expansionist" foreign policy.

To be blunt, the main thing decent people around the world have had to fear from the U.S. is that they'll get killed in the crossfire if their government or fellow citizens resist.   The main thing decent people around the world had to fear from the U.S.S.R., in contrast, was that they would experience the standard treatment the Soviets dealt to everyone under their control.

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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Ricardo Bernhard writes:


As a wannabe Brazilian diplomat, I'm quite interested in libertarian thought on international relations. Do you know who are the top libertarian thinkers on that topic? Any journal, or think tank?

Thank you,

David Friedman writes:

On the general question of interventionist foreign policy and WWII, I like to go back a little further, with the following question: The first time Hitler tried to annex Austria, who stopped him?

The answer, which I got from the first volume of Churchill's history of the war, is Mussolini. He moved Italian divisions into the Brenner Pass and made it clear that Italy would not tolerate a German annexation of Austria.

What changed that was Abyssinia. In Churchill's view, England and its allies should either have accepted the Italian aggression or opposed it with military force--intending, in the latter case, to bring down Mussolini's government. By opposing it but not doing anything serious to stop it, they convinced Mussolini, first, that they were not his friends, and second that they were relatively impotent. He reconsidered his options, allied with Hitler, and gave Hitler implicit permission for the annexation of Austria.

Which strongly suggests that, absent an interventionist policy at the time by Britain and its allies, Italy would have continued to oppose German expansion, making the events that led to WWII less likely.

Blackadder writes:

In Rothbard's telling, Stalin turns out to be the greatest anti-communist of all time. He stops communism from taking over in France, Italy, and Greece, tries to stop it from taking over in China and Yugoslavia, and would have been happy to not to have it happen in Eastern Europe, if only they had been more like Finland. I'm with Bryan in finding this story less than compelling.

Jason writes:

Rothbard loses me when he discusses pre-modern warfare. He paints this picture of organized armies, one for each side, pitted against each other in honorable combat. He says townspeople used to picnic and watch the war (I don't disagree this didn't happen, but how is it different from watching the war on television?).

To ignore the barbaric acts committed by pre-modern armies on conquered peoples or those in the way of war is a joke. War crimes have been committed since the hunter gatherer days. To say otherwise is ignorant, at best, revisionist, at worst.

I have enjoyed reading his work so far, but this chapter really rubs me the wrong way.

needle writes:

yeah, we should have stayed out of the ETO in WW2 and then Stalin could have taken ALL of Europe not just the eastern half and had we not interferred with the Chinese, Mao could have taken Taiwan too and we wouldn't have to deal with that today

Zac writes:

I buy the 4 moral objections to military interventionism that Rothbard gives. But there are exceptions to every rule and I think it is a mistake to look at history and suggest that at any point we would have had better outcomes if only we followed our pet moral theories.

Bryan says

WWII, widely seen as the proof of the necessity of an active foreign policy, left half of Europe under Soviet rule, and put Mao Zedong, the century's greatest murderer, on the Chinese throne. Is that what counts as "American success"?
And really, I am tempted to say, yes, that should count as success. Not just for America but for humanity. It seems entirely reasonable to say that the alternative would be: all of Europe, Northern Africa, and the Middle East under Nazi control, Stalin and Hitler reaching a mutually beneficial alliance, and all of East Asia coming under the control of fascist Japan.

Some wars are more just than others. I cannot honestly say that nonintervention during WW2 was a better policy. I think none of us can say the world would be better off with a libertarian United States (who knows how long that would have survived) and a worldwide alliance of fascist dictators controlling the eastern hemisphere.

caveat bettor writes:

Libertarians seem to generally advocate economic and trade freedoms across jurisdictions. This seems to contradict the isolationist tendency to turn the back on individual freedoms beyond boarders.

Randy writes:

I don't find it a compelling argument that a Nazi German controlled Europe and an Imperial Japan controlled East Asia would have been a threat to us. Had the Germans and Japanese suceeded in conquering such huge territories they would have been immediately bogged down in suppressing resistance movements. In short, way too busy to think about initiating action in the western hemisphere. We involved ourselves in WWI, WWII, and all subsequent engagements, because that was what the Progressives wanted to do, not because it was in any way necessary.

Kurbla writes:

I can agree that there is a need for foreign intervention. The last successful case is NATO intervention on Kosovo, and the last failed case is Rwanda - millions of the lives could be saved there. But such aggressive policy is incompatible with abolition or even reduction of the state. You cannot have both in the same time. Rothbard knew that so he tried to make the case for non-intervention.

This problem is only going to be worse, since development of the technology will make weapons of the mass destruction always more available; libertarians solutions cannot survive technology able to deliver A bomb to many extremist politician, terrorist, cult leader or suicidal maniacs.

USSR vs USA, capitalist vs self proclaimed communist foreign policy? Both were evil, I'd say - but, overall, the capitalist countries attacked and occupied more and more distant countries, killed more people - compare Afghanistan with Vietnam; Czechoslovakia and Algeria. The capitalist countries including USA even invaded Soviet Union.

Randy writes:


"...libertarians solutions cannot survive technology able to deliver A bomb to many extremist politician, terrorist, cult leader or suicidal maniacs."

Personally, I believe that libertarian solutions stand a far better chance of survival than does Progressive interventionism. If you walk into a biker bar and start throwing your weight around, the probability of getting jacked goes up, not down - even if you are a badass.

needle writes:

The Soviets might not have went head to head with us much, but we sure killed alot of ideological littermates that were armed,fed and supported by Mother Russia.I guess it's intellectually "hip" to talk about how evil the US was/is and how much better off the world would have been under Axis/Communist domination but I seriously doubt any of those "hipsters" would rather live under that domination;or if they would even be willing to give it a chance.

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