Libertarianism and War: A Review of Concepts

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Maryland Army NG in Baltimore. Photo: Staff Sgt. Ron Lee.

“Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights)”.

These are the first words written in the 1974 publication, Anarchy, State and Utopia, by the then-36 year old Harvard philosopher, Robert Nozick. His book was written three years after his colleague John Rawls’ influential work, A Theory of Justice. The two developed a rivalry based on Rawls’ political liberalism on the one hand, and Nozick’s deontic-libertarianism on the other.

These two individuals reinvigorated political philosophy from a dire state of decline since the great early and late Enlightenment thinkers, concluding strictly from first moral principles designed to persuade listeners of the intuitive logic of their arguments. They built upon key philosophical concepts such as self-ownership and social contract theories, but also developed a range of accessible thought-experiments which were often heard by wider society outside of the walls of the university. Economic theories for lower taxation touted by the likes of Mises, Hayek and Friedman were helped by political philosophers, largely from America, feeding the idea that ‘tax is theft’.

One such example was Nozick’s “Wilt Chamberlain” thought-experiment argument, well-rehearsed by political philosophy professors in front of impressionable students as Nozick’s attack on Rawls’ argument for re-distribution of earnings, and readily available online. This was one of the many arguments Nozick made during his war with Rawls.

Yet, whereas Rawls wrote a book developing theories surrounding international relations, war, and wider practical problems through his less-remembered book, Laws of Peoples, Nozick, by contrast, rarely spoke about war.

It is one thing to argue about a utopian libertarian state, where ideally property rights are respected and people are free to do whatever they want so long as they don’t affect the negative liberty of others, but quite another to argue about what to do when we don’t live in a perfect world – where North Korea routinely uses the state not only to restrict the liberty of our fellow human beings, but cuts short their right to life.

Nozick concludes that “a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and that the minimal state is inspiring as well as right”.

Where Nozick would argue that the state police would have every right to use force or violence to physically prevent a person from stealing or damaging somebody’s property, or to arrest murderers for denying somebody’s right to life and self-ownership, Nozick doesn’t extend his principle to explicitly confirm that the state would be entirely justified to use force to restrict tyrants in foreign countries, when they perform the same actions on humans, albeit not in America.

In other words, the libertarianism that is expressed here is implicitly entirely parochial, nationalistic, inward-looking, based on current notions of ‘citizenship’, of individuals living within a national ‘community’, rather than strict individualism where we’re blind to what international state you’re unluckily born into.

This isolationism is strongly exhibited by famous libertarians such as Ron Paul and Rand Paul, both critical of the Iraq War and any suggestion of military threats against Syria, North Korea and other despotic regimes.

Whereas Americans, Brits and other libertarians know precisely what the government should be with respect to themselves: less tax, less regulation, less interference in what we can say or do, libertarians remain less vocal, more divided, and arguably less consistent about how governments should act within the wider world, and at what cost.

Rand Paul often employs a utilitarian consequentialist argument against the Iraq War, citing what he deems to be net negative consequences in the region, downplaying the many rights which Iraqi Kurds were able to claim after the intervention. Such resorts by Paul to consequentialism would not please deontic-libertarians such as Nozick, who would claim, like Immanuel Kant, that rights ought to be upheld, defended and fought for regardless of the perceived or calculated consequences.

These political and moral philosophical dilemmas are not just problems for libertarians, but as we live in a more globalised world, where aggressive and despicable foreign powers may develop long-range weapons, and where growing superpowers (be it China for America, or the EU for Britain) may disrupt our ability to engage in free trade, libertarians will need to complain less about how their own government restricts them, and start thinking about how their government can prevent other governments from interfering with their freedoms and the freedoms of other humans in more coercive ways.

Political philosophers tend to adhere to strict moral assumptions – for Nozick, he opens his opus magnum with the bold claim that “individuals have rights”. However, the question of what is the best way to preserve such rights internationally endures in debates between neo-cons, classical liberals and other rights-based political philosophies.

Libertarians have always argued for a smaller national state – but whether that argument applies on the international stage remains an open question. Is it an American government’s job only to enforce laws, such as with regards to property entitlement, to preserve liberty for American citizens? If so, how is such nationalism grounded in libertarian philosophy? Or is the movement to ensure the recognition of individual rights a global project, requiring armies to enforce such rights, and diplomacy and sanctions to inhibit the power of tyrants?

Libertarian philosophy has yet to account for the fact that the world is populated by nation-states, and whilst the rights that individuals ought to have can be cogently articulated and, to many minds, coherently argued, the practical problem of how to achieve them for most of the world’s population is less well-considered and therefore less commonly expressed.  The same old themes regarding self-ownership, human rights and the non-aggression principle are dated, often used in a parochial fashion relating to their own government’s attitude to their own citizens, and a more practical and global thesis needs to be written.

In the words of T.S. Eliot, last year’s words belong to last year’s language, and next year’s words await another voice.

Featured image by Staff Sgt. Ron Lee, 29th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

* Simon Bartram is a British graduate from the University of St Andrews, having graduated in 2013 with a first-class degree in modern history and philosophy. He is a freelance writer, strongly influenced by the work of John Rawls.

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