Non-Intervention, All of the Time – Opting Out

war, draft, civil war
Maryland Army NG in Baltimore. Photo: Staff Sgt. Ron Lee.

Time is never wasted reiterating the libertarian position on war. For those who want to get a bit more concrete than personal opinion or tendency, there is an orthodox, or at least logical libertarian position on foreign policy if you happen to believe in the validity of the non-aggression principle. You don’t even have to think it’s philosophically airtight — if you think it’s generally a good idea, you’re anti-war. There’s no other way around it. You can ignore it, and people do, but nonetheless, there are some that claim to believe in the central axiom of libertarianism yet allow themselves to slip into unnecessary concessions to interventionists.

The non-aggression principle (NAP) holds that it is unjustifiable to initiate aggression against a person if they have not first committed aggression. It is okay to use defensive force to protect one’s person or property, but only when receiving an unambiguous threat of violence.

This is the principle by which someone’s libertarian mettle is tested. I won’t be attempting to “prove” the NAP here — I’m merely using it to illustrate the distinguishing feature of the libertarian compared to other political philosophies. It’s simply the standard to which one is held, and libertarians are tested. If you don’t care about the NAP, then this doesn’t apply to you.

It’s not an entirely controversial principle on its own; it’s only when libertarians reveal the applications of it that people start to squirm. It means that all things the government does are a violation of the NAP. Everything. The state cannot exist but by violating people’s person and property. It produces nothing of its own, so has to steal to fund itself. Then it uses those funds to go around pillaging more people, often around the world.

The standard libertarian position on foreign policy then is that of non-interventionism, which means being anti-war. Using the state’s military to kill and expropriate violates the NAP. That shouldn’t be too difficult.

But what about in the case of humanitarian intervention? If Canada had a military coup and installed a dictator who began to tyrannize and murder its citizens, wouldn’t it be justified to motivate our state’s resources to protect the liberty of others?

This is only applicable if you are a minarchist, as obviously there can be no state to do this in a stateless society. Minarchists believe the state has to be limited to the protection of life and property. It follows from that position that it’s okay for the state to defend people from tyrannizers at home. Some minarchists then argue that since it is the right of all people to be safe from tyranny, it’s justified that the state uses its military to defend the rights of foreigners (some minarchists might oppose this on pragmatic grounds).

Anarchists need not make these concessions, as they’re brave enough to take libertarian ideas seriously. One doesn’t even need to make a special case given that we are living under a state — we oppose intervention in any situation. Anything.

People who differ simply haven’t been reading their Rothbard. Murray Rothbard’s essay War, Peace and the State is the required reading on this topic, and lays out the libertarian position in all of these cases.

“… the overriding consideration for the libertarian is the condemnation of any State participation in war. Hence his policy is that of exerting pressure on all States not to start a war, to stop one that has begun and to reduce the scope of any persisting war in injuring civilians of either side or no side.”

This is not to appeal to authority, only to disabuse readers of the notion, if they hold it, that complete non-interventionism is an idiosyncratic position from a libertarian point of view. Ron Paul’s “isolationism,” if you’re married to that term, is only strange and kooky if you happen to think the inventor of modern libertarianism is strange or kooky. His reasons are as follows:

“Any war against another State… involves the increase and extension of taxation-aggression over its own people.7 Conflicts between private individuals can be, and usually are, voluntarily waged and financed by the parties concerned. Revolutions can be, and often are, financed and fought by voluntary contributions of the public. But State wars can only be waged through aggression against the taxpayer.”

But given that we do live under a state at present, it is the duty of libertarians to urge our own states to not only not attack other countries, but not intervene in any case.

Revolutions are morally justifiable on occasions where the force is only directed at the oppressors, and there is no force used to gather the resources necessary for the overthrow. The revolution becomes no longer justifiable when the revolutionaries tax (steal from) people to fund their mission.

This also goes for foreign governments “helping” revolutionary forces, as Western powers often do to disrupt unfavored regimes in the Middle East. Pro-intervention libertarians like to solemnly remind us that people living under despotic regimes in foreign countries also deserve liberty. This is a total red herring — of course, people have a right to freedom from oppression. The issue is that when western governments fund and supply revolutionary militias, the lines between spontaneous popular uprising and Western-backed coup d’état become blurred.

It might just be the case that the citizens of the target Middle Eastern country are largely uninterested in regime change — that they would rather put up with the bad now to avoid the massive cost of disruption, and the risk of things being worse than they were. For all this is assuming that whatever regime the West installs in its stead will be better than before, and the country won’t be destroyed in the process.

Moreover, if you take the NAP seriously at all, the whole idea should be out of the question. Even if it were guaranteed to get a better ruler than before with little cost and damage, it’s still wrong to tax people to fund your coup. We can’t even be sure the foreign country’s own people want a revolution, let alone our citizens, who probably couldn’t place that country on a map if asked. It’s about consent — and the interventionists have none.

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James Smith

Writer and film-maker from the United Kingdom. Digital nomad. Author of 'The Shy Guy's Guide to Travelling'.