David R. Henderson  

Richard Epstein's Faulty Case for Intervention

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My Hoover colleague Richard Epstein has recently been arguing for the U.S. government to make war in the Middle East and has singled out libertarians for particular criticism. In a relatively fact-free piece, Richard argued that libertarians are "clueless on the ISIS threat" and that "libertarians often have the illusion of certainty."

In "Richard Epstein's Faulty Case for Intervention," I argue that the opposite is true, at least for me. I'm a libertarian who is against U.S. government intervention abroad and a large part of my argument is based on the fact that we can't have certainty. I draw on Friedrich Hayek's classic 1945 article (I mistakenly said "1946" in the piece but the editor will correct it later today), "The Use of Knowledge in Society," to make my case.

An excerpt:

When governments intervene in the domestic economy, they almost always do damage. One of the main reasons is that they don't have - and can't have - the information they would need to plan the economy well. As Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek argued in a classic 1945 article, "The Use of Knowledge in Society," the information that matters most for economics decisions is held in the minds of the hundreds of millions of market participants.

Similarly, when governments try to intervene in other countries, they are even more ignorant about those countries than they are about their own. This can have disastrous consequences. Consider the Middle East and ISIS. Where did ISIS come from? As President Reagan used to say, let's take a trip down memory lane.

Again, making the Hayek point:
The simple fact is that when a government thousands of miles away decides to intervene, it must figure out which faction to support and has little assurance that it will support the right one. Indeed, it has little assurance that there is a right one. Thus my point above: whatever else libertarian non-interventionists believe, few of us have what Professor Epstein calls an "illusion of certainty." It is the exact opposite: we are positive that there is great uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that should, in general, cause us to pressure our government to stay out of other countries' affairs. There are many "monsters to destroy," to use John Quincy Adams's famous phrase. It is generally a bad idea to go abroad to destroy them. It is even worse if one does so by allying with other monsters.

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vikingvista writes:


"In the face of international turmoil, they become cautious and turn inward, confusing limited government with small government."

What, other than war, has done the most to permanently remove limits on government?

It is bewildering how Epstein can be realistically skeptical about government capabilities and outcomes in some areas, but uncritically romanticize government when it comes to war making. Does he not see his own inconsistency?

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