Viewpoint: Revisionism, Libertarianism, and Imperialism

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Many libertarians are historians and most of them would class themselves as revisionists. In recent months I have been reading several papers by such libertarian revisionist historians (or students of history). My attention has been drawn to something related to the approach many of these individuals take to the issue of imperialism. Quite plainly, several papers start with a reprimand of those libertarians who supposedly accept a simple reading of history, one in which the United States is supposed to come off as the embodiment of virtue while the Nazis and the Soviets carry the total burden of aggressive responsibility. In short, many libertarian revisionists claim that other libertarians are wrong about the essentials of recent history.

Well, I am not an historian, revisionist or otherwise. Moreover I have few fixed opinions about the responsibility of various parties for various disastrous events throughout the world. I believe some stories to be true, others to be false. But these are not often well founded opinions, not to mention something I would claim to know.

Still, I suspect that I am among those libertarians constantly admonished by revisionists about their narrow-mindedness. For indeed I tend to think that on the whole the Nazis were worse than the Americans or allied nations, and that the Soviet Union is a more vicious government, even in international affairs, than is the U.S. government. This does not mean, emphatically, that I believe FDR to have been an angel during World War 11, or Wilson to have been the paragon of diplomatic and political virtue in World War I.

What I do think, though I do not know, is that when all the pluses and minuses are calculated, the United States comes off better than the others—not in each individual instance, but on the whole. To me this is something like the belief that on the whole Al Capone was very likely a worse fellow than, say, Pope Pius XII—while, of course, I consider both to be characters far from worthy of emulation.

Am I wrong? Since I cannot get involved in the details of history, the question of moral and criminal responsibility, I am left with the above impressionistic viewpoint. Is this wrong?

One additional question bugs me as I encounter the revisionist literature. There is a lot of talk about imperialism. I have never found a careful, well defended definition of this term in the same literature. Is this only because I haven't read enough? I hope so!

Consider the following case—hypothetical but hopefully realistic enough to illustrate my point. We have this American businessman who sees a great opportunity to dig for oil in some foreign country. He goes there with the idea and discovers that he can only deal with the government. He hasn't read Rothbard, Rand, and the rest, so he makes the simple move of entering into a contract with said government and begins to dig. For a while things go fine but then the natives get restless and depose the government holding the contract. A new regime comes to the fore and our businessman is threatened with expulsion, nationalization, etc., unless he can come up with some help to the stability of the new regime.

Now the trouble begins. He goes to Washington and talks to the Department of State about the matter. He expresses his desire for help, he talks up the importance of its activities for national security. Much of it is bull, but they buy it. So a treaty is formed. Business continues but then some country close to the place of his business decides to help the resistance movement against the local government. The U.S. government now rises to the occasion—and soon all hell breaks loose.

I assume that the above characterizes at least some cases of imperialism. But who is at fault? Some libertarian revisionists seem to think that the above type imperialism is explainable by reference to American economic interests. Well, the idea that riches are better than poverty explains a good deal of human conduct, admittedly. But in our case can we really hold that imperialism came about because our businessman wanted to make a buck?

On the face of it this is not how the situation appears. Without the kind of laws permitting government to enter into treaties of foreign aid, without Senators, Congressman, academicians, citizens at large buying the premise, the bit would have failed to get off the ground, greed or no greed! Consider, too, that doing business abroad could be motivated by feelings of missionary zeal, ideological conviction, the desire for adventure, etc. Economics is not always motivated by economics.

At any rate, I think these matters deserve attention from our libertarian revisionists.

Tibor Machan teaches philosophy at SUNY-Fredonia. Dr. Machan's viewpoint appears in this column every third month, alternating with the viewpoints of Murray N. Rothbard and David Brudnoy.

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