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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