David R. Henderson  

Response to Arnold on Libertarianism and Foreign Policy

Where I Differ with Some Liber... Three from the JEL...

On both of Arnold's points (see "Where I Differ with Some Libertarians,") I agree somewhat with Arnold and disagree somewhat. In this post, I focus on his point #1 about libertarians and foreign policy.

Like Arnold and unlike Bryan, I am not a pacifist. I've written about this here. One excerpt:

I take "pacifism" to mean opposition on principle to using force, even in self-defense. As I once said, after someone in a roundtable discussion had called me a pacifist, "If you come at me and try to kill me, you'll see how much of a pacifist I am. I'll defend myself, with force if necessary." It was fun to see the person turn a little pale when I made my non-pacifism clear in such a personal way.

Actually, to be fair to Bryan, he is not a pacifist in the sense I defined above. He believes that people should defend themselves, with force if necessary, but thinks war is a bad idea, even in defense of a country that's invaded. I think there are usually better ways of responding to threats than to make war but I don't think that's always true.

Back to Arnold. Where I differ with Arnold is when he jumps from opposing pacifism (again, to emphasize, we agree with here) to his statement:

It seems to me that some libertarians link arms with the far left as blame-America-firsters, with scathing attacks on America's military and its foreign policy. I am not sure what constructive solutions come from this stance.

First, I think we need to distinguish between "America" and the U.S. government. I often blame the U.S. government and sometimes I blame it "first." I blame it first when it is the aggressor against a country whose government did not attack the United States: think Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon in Vietnam, Bush I in Panama and the Persian Gulf, Clinton in the Balkans, Bush II in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan, and Obama in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, and Yemen. In other words, one can criticize pacifism and support national defense without supporting what I call "national offense." If you want to see more of the case I have laid out on these issues, start here or just go through my Archives on antiwar.com.
Second, I think that many people, including many libertarians, tend to drop their skepticism about government when it involves foreign policy. Many of them are incredibly ignorant about U.S. foreign policy because they have read so little history or have read only the history written by the victors.
Third, I'm depressingly confident that we can never have the small government so many of us want as long as the U.S. government goes around the world kicking up hornets' nests and having bases in many dozens of countries. See these two articles by Sheldon Richman (here and here.)

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CATEGORIES: Economic History

COMMENTS (17 to date)
Philo writes:

"I blame it first when it is the aggressor against a country whose government did not attack the United States . . . ." On what valid principle may a government fight to repel aggression against its own territory but not to repel aggression against another country?

Hyena writes:

Prof. Henderson,

When I worked in government, what was startling was just how much it reflected the military. I think an overlooked cost of our massive national defense apparatus is the expertise pool it creates.

The Department of Defense is a steady source of people who are well-schooled in how to build and maintain an inefficient top-down bureaucracy. Those people have a future in government thanks to statutory hiring preferences for veterans.

It's hard for me to see this system of education and selection as good, from a libertarian or any other perspective.

David R. Henderson writes:

Philo asks:
"On what valid principle may a government fight to repel aggression against its own territory but not to repel aggression against another country?"
Good question, Philo. My answer is the principle that the only possible justification for coercing funds from people for defense is to defend them, not to defend others in other countries.
Good point, Hyena. I hadn't thought of that.

Richard A. writes:

The Vietnam war cost something like 150 billion dollars in the early 70s when the US GDP was about one trillion dollars. This 150 billion was never paid off. Instead, our government has simply been borrowing each year to pay the interest on this expenditure. The national debt is a few hundred billion dollars greater today because of the Vietnam war.

If government takes from A to give to B, B will be richer at the expense of A, but the overall wealth of the country will remain the same.

If government takes from A and/or B to build bombs to blow up, real wealth of the country has been destroyed.

David R. Henderson writes:

Richard A. writes:
"If government takes from A and/or B to build bombs to blow up, real wealth of the country has been destroyed.:
Well put, and I would just add "real wealth of both countries--bomber and target--has been destroyed."
While I agree with the spirit of your first point about taking from A and giving to B, it's too strong. Any tax and any subsidy involves deadweight loss. So the simple act of distributing--to see why I refuse to call it redistributing, see Dwight Lee's article in the Concise Encyclopedia--destroys wealth, just not as much wealth as the acts of taxing for bombs and bombing.

tim writes:


That's a rather negative view of people who work in our military. I don't work in government but in private industry (always have). In most cases the veterans we've hired are more efficient and capable than those that have never been in the military. And most do not actively pursue government positions once they leave the military due to inefficient bueacracy.

To put it another way and to borrow a quote from Seinfield about life after his show:

``Ever take a dog into the park and take his leash off?'' he asked. ``He kinda looks up at you for a second and then just bolts like a maniac? Something like that.''
Prakhar Goel writes:

Dear Dr. Henderson,

Al-Qaida was operating from the territories of Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, (and now Pakistan) etc...

Al-Qaida staged an attack on the world-trade center in New York, which happens to be US territory.

I assume you do not disagree with any of the two points above.

Given this, how can you possibly claim that Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran have not attacked the US. Al-Qaida may not be officially affiliated with their national governments but Al-Qaida operates out of their territories and these governments had shown no inclination (or at the very least, no ability) to eradicate them.

Going by your analogy, if someone attacks you directly, he gets a bullet. However if that someone owns and manages a complex which houses armed and hostile gangs which occasionally come out and use you for target practice, if furthermore this manager is either unwilling or incapable of curbing these gangs, he (the manager) is morally above reproach. Note that there is not police force in our scenario. How then is this complex manager not a hostile entity and how can a sane person justify attacking the gangs but not the entity giving them safe harbor?

Dale Courtney writes:


When you refer to "pacifism", you are talking about "categorical pacifism."

But categorical pacifism is not the only kind of pacifism.


Hyena writes:


Most members of the military won't enter Federal employment because there aren't enough jobs for them to fill in most cases. However, veterans are overrepresented in government because of statutory hiring preferences.

While your point is well taken, it bolsters rather than undermines my fears: those who do go on to government employment not only have expertise in inefficiency, but also weren't turned off by it.

That's a more, not less, aggressive selection effect undermining reasonable goals for our bureaucracy.

Slugger writes:

Wow, Al-Qaida was operating in Iraq, Iran, and other countries? I thought that Al-Qaida was a few dudes using the absence of formal modern state structures in Afghanistan to perpetrate a few big crimes against the US almost ten years ago. Now, I do understand that they were ginned up into a pretext for a wide war.
I am not a libertarian, but the habits of nation-states to foment wars make me sympathetic to the distrust of government that many libertarians have. When I look at the horrors of most of the wars of modern times, I understand why people come to distrust government.

Prakhar Goel writes:


Doesn't that just bolster my point even further then? If there is no "modern state structure" in Afghanistan, then the "invasion" of Afghanistan wasn't a hostile act against the Afghanistan government at all.

Also, just because the attacks were ten years ago doesn't mean that Al-Qaida isn't a hostile organization or that it doesn't operate out of the above mentioned countries.

Also, make bold statements without supporting evidence isn't an argument, it's just empty posturing.

For evidence of my proposition that Al-Qaida was operating out of Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran, I offer the current ample evidence that it has a presence there. Hopefully, the available evidence on 9/11 is enough to convince you of my second point.

Do you have any evidence that Al-Qaida didn't perpetrate 9/11? Do you have any evidence that Al-Qaida didn't operate out of or receive material aid from Iraq, Iran, and Afghanistan? Lastly, do you have any evidence (i.e. conversations, other actions, memos, etc...)whatsoever that Bush et al. operated in bad faith when they launched the war in Iraq that hasn't already been discredited and isn't just left-wing group-think?

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

Prakhar Goel asks a very good question--and, no, Al Qaeda was definitely not just a few dudes operating out of Afghanistan. They operated all over the world; Africa, Indonesia, the Philipines for example.

Here's another question for David to ponder; suppose allies of the Soviet Union had attacked Canada or Mexico in the 60s, would the US be justified in using its military power to help them defend themselves?

If your answer is 'yes', then by what principle do you deny the US to right to assist an ally in SE Asia the same way?

Jacob Oost writes:
Third, I'm depressingly confident that we can never have the small government so many of us want as long as the U.S. government goes around the world kicking up hornets' nests and having bases in many dozens of countries. See these two articles by Sheldon Richman

I agree with you there, and it's one of the reasons I'm becoming more and more opposed to the idea of having a big, standing military like we do. I don't have all the ideas about proper defense policy, but I think having a huge, centrally-controlled military is a major impediment to many possible libertarian reforms. For one, the ability of the country to peaceably split apart if cultural and political differences get fiercer and fiercer.

To say nothing of how utterly devastating a military coup could be, given our military's might, or how other countries are mooching off our defense budget instead of tending to their own defenses.

Sheldon Richman writes:

Prakhar Goel: Al Qaeda was not in Iraq, Pakistan, or Iran before 9/11. On the other hand, aQ people operated out of Germany, Florida, California, and other U.S. states. So, did this latter group of political entities "attack America"? If not, then how did "Afghanistan" do so? How can we justify the deaths of thousands of Afghans and the injuring of so many more? "Terrorism" is crime, not warfare, and in the case of 9/11 it was crime provoked by long years of U.S. killer intervention in the Muslim world.

Shayne Cook writes:

Dr. Henderson:

Perhaps I'm mis-understanding your stance[s] on pacifism, but I'm finding them rather shallow, superficial and very conflicted. For example, your statement that " ... I will defend myself, with force if necessary" is a valid statement of your willingness to use force to dissuade or retaliate against aggression. That's fine - and your statement produced the reaction in your listener (and the readers here) that you intended it to. But effective dissuasion, or retaliation-after-the-fact, requires both credible demonstration of the will and the means to do so. That is true of individuals and nations/governments. If a potential aggressor has any inclination to believe a potential victim lacks either the will or the means, the potential victim is going to become an actual victim. You seem to understand that concept.

But you seem to reject the notion that dissuasion of aggression, or retaliation to aggression, can legitimately be applied to preserve economic well-being in addition to personal well-being. Would you, for example, be willing (and able) to "use force" to prevent someone from burning down your house (assuming your weren't inside)? How about your next-door neighbor's house? If you were to answer "no" to those questions, I suggest you are kidding yourself - you would certainly call the police, which is merely use of force by proxy.

You cite several U.S. administrations and their aggressive actions/policies in various parts of the Middle East and South-East Asia. Quite frankly, I probably would agree with you on many of those examples, but I doubt if it would be for the same reasons. But as an economist, I understand that ANY CHOICE - by an individual, or a national government - entails both costs and benefits. The only legitimate (economic) argument then becomes one of whether the costs of such actions exceed the benefits derived from them. And emphasizing the costs, absent any discussion of benefits, is unworthy of an economist.

One benefit of even those U.S. actions in the Middle East and South-East Asia is that they demonstrated unequivocally that the U.S. has both the will and the means to retaliate against aggression. A concept you seem to embrace yourself.

rapscallion writes:

I don’t think there’s any hope of consensus regarding when war is justified in non-consequential term—i.e. when a nation has a “right” to invade other nations. It’s hard enough to figure out all the murky hypotheticals for individuals, and collectives are an order of magnitude trickier.

I think there might be a bit more hope of consensus if we agree to accept a consequentialist line. Most people probably agree that a minimum consequentialist condition for justifying a war is that it should be expected to save many lives on net.

Invading a country just to apprehend or kill a small group of people almost never meets this standard, especially when obvious alternatives like embargoes, sustained legal lobbying, international arrest warrants, and beefing up domestic security are taken into account. It’s very rare that a few are so dangerous that killing many to get them will save lives.

Peter writes:

Just a comment on veteran employee's. Having worked in both the private and public sectors I will usually always hire a veteran over a non-veteran purely because, in my experience, veterans have this ability to do what they are told, follow directions, and ask questions irrelevant to the task at hand later after the work is done instead of before holding the process up weeks or months, i.e. once a decision is made veterans tend to execute instead of mope and obstruct. These are essential qualities in any organization where you are trying to get stuff done in an efficient manner and something that is generally lacking in the general populace. I don't need whining kids asking me "why" or "that rule/policy/law is dumb", I need them to do what they are told (yes even in professional jobs you still need people to do what they are told).

I will happily take a veteran and train him than a over-educated Gen-Whiner who will never perform.

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