Libertarianism, George Washington and War

Originally posted July 25th, 2006. (Listening notes: The Dukes of Stratosphear)

Ilya Somin (H/T Instapundit) addresses the topic of libertarian thought on war and arrives at a number of interesting questions and possible explanations of the varied libertarian feelings about the war in Iraq. I would like to put another piece of history into the discussion.

One part of the resistance to foreign adventures of all types comes from our nations peculiar place in the world and libertarians and small government types relying on an intellectual tradition reinforced by the masterful speech given as George Washington’s farewell address. In that document we are warned from foreign adventures, entangling alliances and pursuing foreign policy not directly aligned with our interests. It was a tour de force that has informed our particular world view from that point forward. Call it pragmatic isolationism. I have seen it dragged out to support partisans of every stripe when it comes to our foreign policy, but it has always held a special place for the isolationist right and libertarians.

I have two points about this speech. The first is commonplace, but the second, at least in general discussion, I have not heard discussed, though I do not mean to imply that it hasn’t or is in anyway original.

The odd thing about libertarians use of the ideas in the speech is that Washington (and his collaborator on the speech, Alexander Hamilton) and the Federalist Party represented, at least broadly, the strong central government, domestic interventionist side of the debate on the shape of our government. Jefferson and Madison represented the radical small government side of the debate in the US, while wanting to help spread a republican revolution worldwide. Jefferson’s (and men such as Thomas Paine) support for the French Revolution (which Hamilton presciently predicted would lead to despotism) was a defining issue between the parties. Obviously mapping the beliefs of either party to the modern era is treacherous, but broadly it was the libertarian hero Jefferson who was enraptured with a more idealistic foreign policy, not his nemesis Hamilton.

Of course the use the use of the speech has been selective, Washington was no strict isolationist, as this makes clear:

Our detached and distant situation invites and enables us to pursue a different course. If we remain one people, under an efficient government, the period is not far off when we may defy material injury from external annoyance; when we may take such an attitude as will cause the neutrality we may at any time resolve upon to be scrupulously respected; when belligerent nations, under the impossibility of making acquisitions upon us, will not lightly hazard the giving us provocation; when we may choose peace or war, as our interest, guided by justice, shall counsel.

What Washington is counseling is based upon our unique geographical situation. As the second part in bold makes clear he does not rule out at our discretion war, just alliances (that through honesty and probity we must abide by) should be avoided so that we are not drawn into one despite our own preferences. It is not based upon a universal principal as is made clear here:

Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none or a very remote relation. Hence she must be engaged in frequent controversies, the causes of which are essentially foreign to our concerns.

Note the word must. He understands the other nations behaviors. In different circumstances our behavior might need to be different as well but our good fortune gives us another path. This is of course not an original point, and it in no way implies I believe that now Washington or Hamilton would approve of Iraq or changed their view of our situation. We don’t know and those who claim they can divine such a thing are assuming things they cannot possibly know. My point here is merely that the address is filled with wisdom, but its application is not cut and dried. In the end our judgment on the particularities of our world have to be applied for the wisdom to mean anything. Obviously our world does not leave us geographically isolated and certainly we should account for that.

I would however suggest for libertarians there is a larger political dimension this document is immersed in that we have to grapple with that I have not heard mentioned, though I am sure the point has been made. The flaw Hamilton and Washington saw in Jefferson, Paine and others support for the French Revolution and its potential to drag us into the European wars of the time was situated in a period when all the fighting was between various forms of despotisms. There were no other democracies and the French Revolution was in their mind on a path which was uncertain at best and a radical tragedy at worst. Hope for Europe, or anywhere else achieving a more democratic character was low. Great Britain was the shining light of liberty and they had just fought a war to throw off its yoke. Sympathy with the peoples of Europe was not absent, it was that there was no one to support and they would be isolated if momentarily successful. In the minds of Hamilton and the other founders, even Jefferson, the American revolution and the formation of its government was an untested and radical idea and it was not clear that a republican form of government could even work here, much less abroad.

In a world, despite its imperfections and terrors, with large democratic states the hope of liberating its peoples is no longer a pipe dream. It is no longer difficult to imagine that other peoples can possibly achieve some degree of political freedom. Alliances and diplomacy, maybe even wars, to secure that goal may not only make us safer from the depredations of dictators and their proxies, but has some chance of success and help from fellow democracies. If instead of various monarchies the federalists had seen a number of relatively free trading democracies mixed with terror states such as Iraq or previously the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, would they have said it is not of our concern. I doubt it.

Once again this is not an argument for Iraq, Afghanistan or involvement in other wars or entangling alliances. It is to show that there were political and ideological, as well as the oft remarked upon technological differences, in the world that must be considered in understanding how this great document can help guide us forward. Those of us who are libertarian, or at least on that end of the spectrum, that look to our founders for guidance and rhetorical support need to keep that in mind. The tenets of libertarianism that sprung from this document were not simple principles without which we cannot be libertarians. They were based on a realistic appraisal of the world as it was. We should do the same. I suggest we will have many different ways of seeing that and none of them can be attached to libertarianism exclusively. My own view is that I do not engage in action merely for my own liberty, I do so as well for my fellow citizens. Many will no doubt conclude that that concern for our fellow men does not stop at our nations boundaries. One view is as libertarian as another.


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11 Responses to “Libertarianism, George Washington and War”

  1. on 24 Jul 2006 at 7:50 pm PogueMahone

    “My own view is that I do not engage in action merely for my own liberty, I do so as well for my fellow citizens. Many will no doubt conclude that that concern for our fellow men does not stop at our nations boundaries. One view is as libertarian as another.”

    Well stated. In fact, I thought your whole last paragraph was worded beautifully. When we find ourselves in a pickle, is when actions implemented by our government to bring liberty to our fellow men outside our nation’s boundaries begin to infringe upon the economic and personal liberties of our fellow men inside our nation’s boundaries. It’s a tough line to walk upon and that is why most traditional libertarians that I know look at those actions with extreme caution.

    Many will no doubt argue that concern for our fellow men does not start at our nations boundaries, and also does not stop at our fellow men’s pocketbooks.

    And I look forward to many posts from A Second Hand Conjecture.

  2. on 24 Jul 2006 at 8:05 pm Lance


    It is great to see you here. I appreciate the sentiments. I rarely see you comment except to counter an argument;) I hope I see that in the future, but it is always nice to see common ground acknowledged as well, especially on my first day up.

    I’ll say that I agree with your sentiments on the line we walk. I struggle with that whenever it comes to foreign policy. I see no easy way to see where the line is, or if sometimes the outside worlds suffering eliminates all such concerns about our own welfare.

    I would suggest that in those cases the deciding line might be that we can’t positively impact the world as much as we might want to, and therefore some idealized outcome is not what we should use to evaluate a policies appropriateness. We should probably imagine that the best outcome will be limited in scope and calculate the costs and benefits accordingly. If better things come we can be thankful.

    I also think that if our leaders policies were judged with such modesty they and we would be better off. Their decisions, and ours, would be better absent the unreal expectations we place on them and any policies likely outcome.

  3. on 25 Jul 2006 at 3:41 pm David Tomlin

    I would like to see some evidence that ‘Jefferson and Madison [wanted] to help spread a republican revolution worldwide.’

    My impression is that all the founders were what we now call ‘realists’ in foreign affairs. Their version of realism was informed by classical liberalism, particularly regarding trade policy, but they were realists nonetheless.

    The Federalist/Republican division on foreign affairs predated the French Revolution. I think it rested mainly on a difference opinion about Britain rather than France, at least for Jefferson.

    Both sides agreed that we now call ‘normalizing relations’ with Britain would be in the interests of both countries. The Federalists thought the British saw that also, but Jefferson was convinced that the British ruling classes still resented American independence and were jealous of any American success. He thought the British would act against American interests even in despite of their own.

    For both sides, the attitude toward France followed as a matter of realpolitik from the attitude toward Britain. The Republicans wanted to hold fast to the French alliance as a counterweight to Britain, while the Federalists wanted to cool off the French alliance as an essential part of normalizing relations with Britain.

    Jefferson’ enthusiasm for the French revolution didn’nt last all that long. Like many others he became disillusioned with its antidemocratic turn. But his support for alliance with France predated the revolution and outlasted his sympathy for it, because it was based on realpolitik and suspicion of Britain, not ideological sympathy.

    While Jefferson was president, most of the Spanish American colonies declared independence. Jefferson put off recognizing them so as not to upset his negotiations with the Spanish over buying the Floridas. He put national interest ahead of any Wilsonian crusading.

  4. on 25 Jul 2006 at 7:54 pm Lance

    “I would like to see some evidence that ‘Jefferson and Madison [wanted] to help spread a republican revolution worldwide.’

    My impression is that all the founders were what we now call ‘realists’ in foreign affairs. Their version of realism was informed by classical liberalism, particularly regarding trade policy, but they were realists nonetheless.”


    Thanks for the comment and I think you have some good points. First, when I say wanted, I mean that in the sense that it was a desire, not that they were committed to it whatever the cost or unrealistic. Of course one of my points is that realism being interpreted as somewhat isolationist was necessary and wise given the circumstances of the time. The moral impulse to be involved on the side of those seeking what Jefferson considered to be liberty was certainly strong. I could provide documentation, but I don’t think it obviates my point. If you would like more than this response let me know. I’ll get something up later tonight.

    I have little fundamental disagreement with you except to say that while Jefferson was realistic in the sense of seeing the alliance with France as being useful, his reasons did not stop there. He did feel that being on the side of liberty was important.

    I certainly wouldn’t characterize Jefferson’s behavior as president as “Wilsonian” as that term has come to be used. It was quite canny and shrewd in many ways. I should also note that many supporters were disappointed in his pragmatism and use of federal authority, so his actual policy stands and actions in an official capacity were often divergent from his rhetoric when acting as a political candidate or behind the scenes manipulator (which he was masterful at being.)

    I would also add that the term realist is quite malleable. I consider, and am arguing in this post, that this speech and the philosophy espoused was not based on the kind of libertarian isolationism that in common usage it has come to represent for many people. It was a realist document, but that in different circumstances Washington and, possibly more importantly, Hamilton might have viewed the best policy differently.

  5. on 22 Nov 2006 at 1:19 am jjv

    Very interesting view. CATO of course does not agree. To put it even more clearly is our Revolution, “Liberty in One Country” to paraphrase Stalin, when indeed he thought that revolution endangered. Or is it outward looking? The key point here is that the world seems to have tendencies. When fascism and communism were sweeping the globe all of the democracies seemed threatened. Similiarly, when liberty was on the march in the 80’s and 90’s it caused a giddiness in the liberty camp (end of history anyone?). The problem with a CATO world view is that if we do not intervene when, our intervention could tip the scale to the more liberty loving party we might find ourselves surrounded and alone one day if despotisms take a different view. Spain of the 30’s is the everlasting example of this (although I tend to think Franco was better than communists that is not the view of the 30’s liberty party).

  6. on 22 Nov 2006 at 1:24 am Lance

    Thanks for your thoughts, and in fact I pretty much agree. Some at Cato however have a more nuanced view, in fact I reference some of that in the second part of this.

  7. on 22 Nov 2006 at 4:15 am Xrlq

    I agree with your points, and would only add that perhaps the biggest difference between then and now has less to do with our allies (in that there are more democracies among them now) or our enemies (in that they are more globally menacing today), and more to do with our own position as a superpower today vs. a nascent democracy then. Joining an 18th Century equivalent of NATO, with England as our partner, might well have compromised independence. At best, it would have made us someone else’s bitch.

  8. on 22 Nov 2006 at 4:20 am Lance

    True, very true.

  9. on 15 Jan 2007 at 5:02 pm A Second Hand Conjecture » Random Observations, Second Thoughts and the QandO Podcast

    […] Since starting this little project at A Second Hand Conjecture there have been many highlights, my first link to a post (talk about inflating the ego, it was from Ilya Somin at the Volokh Conspiracy on day one) our first Instalanche (and Glenn Reynolds has been far more generous with links and support than I ever imagined or believe we can possibly deserve) getting to know Michael, Omar, Keith and others (Glasnost, Don and Pogue Mahone come to mind) covering the Turkish Invasion (Michael’s adaptation of Shakespeares St. Crispin day speech being an especially brilliant satirical adlib that will forever be in my blogging Hall of Fame) and the general amazement at how well this has gone for a bunch of essentially unknown people. […]

  10. on 22 Mar 2007 at 1:02 am Jim Stevens

    this article reaks of smelly box

  11. on 22 Mar 2007 at 1:17 am Lance


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