The Perils of Global Libertarian Utopianism


THE STATE POSES the greatest threat to liberty, and the greatest expansions of state power occur during times of threat-both real and imagined. To protect us from these threats, and ultimately from the state, Ronald Bailey advocates an aggressive foreign policy "aimed at building a free world sooner rather than later." Bailey argues that this policy would be only temporary, and that the ultimate goal would be the creation of a new order, whereby liberty could be guaranteed at home without the need for "an intrusive national security apparatus."

This is global libertarian utopianism. By this logic, freedom-loving people will use government action to mold a perfect, free world. But if libertarians are opposed to government action to make a perfect domestic world, why discard those principles beyond the water's edge?

The practical and moral difficulties of welfare-statism on the domestic front pale in comparison to those of global libertarian utopianism. For one, Bailey vastly underestimates the capacity of the state to hold onto power once that "new" world is created, once the unfree are made free. He also underestimates what it would actually take to force democracy down the throats of the approximately 3 billion people who currently live under some other system of government.

An overwhelmingly powerful national security state would certainly be needed. Bailey implies it would be only temporary, but how long is that? A decade? A century? How will we know when we have won, when we can return to our happy cocoon, safe from external threats, and therefore content to demobilize our armies, scrap our ships, and leave our airplanes to bake in the desert? Talk of temporary measures enacted in the name of defense should consider how other "temporary" measures-from federal tax withholding to mohair subsidies to NATO-seem stubbornly permanent, even after the crises in question (World War I, World War II, and the Cold War, respectively) have long since abated.

The state will always find new justifications for its existence. The end of the Cold War should have opened the door to a reduction in the threats posed to Americans and American interests. But other threats rose to the surface. Liberal governments might have taken action to mitigate the threat from global terrorism, but for a variety of reasons most looked the other way. September 11 refocused our attention.

It should also have refocused our attention on the proper means for dealing with threats. A reflexive return to the Cold War model, focused on state actors, is particularly unwise because Al Qaeda is not at all like the Soviet Union. Since the 9/11 attacks, more harm has been done to this loose-knit network of terrorists and fanatics through timely intelligence gathering, cooperative law enforcement, criminal prosecution, and international financial pressure than by laser-guided bombs and cruise missiles.

Yet the Bush administration seems determined to implement an over-ambitious strategy that often deals only tangentially with Al Qaeda and that draws most heavily on military resources to accomplish the mission of eliminating all terrorism. In this environment-filled with dozens, if not hundreds, of threats, both real and imagined-there will be ample opportunities for the state to expand its power over the individual. The most obvious manifestation is the American military machine, which is now projected to consume nearly $400 billion in fiscal year 2003 and over $500 billion by fiscal year 2009. Very little of this spending buys anything that will protect us from terrorism.

In the interest of protecting individual liberties, liberal democracies are constrained in their use of power. The most important of these constraints is the limitation on the use of force abroad, which is tied to the notion that states may act only when their vital security interests are threatened. To lift these constraints, and grant liberal governments the authority to engage in military action when vital interests are not at risk, ultimately would erode the very notion of a democratic peace that is at the core of the global libertarian utopian vision.

This is not to say that freedom-loving people must sit idly by while half the world's population struggles under autocracy. Libertarians know what works best to promote positive change in the domestic realm: political and economic freedom. Men and women advance the cause of liberty every day not by government edict but out of self-interest. We should be no less optimistic about the power of economic activity, trade, voluntary exchange, and person-to-person cultural contact to change even the most illiberal and autocratic countries in the world. Peaceful, voluntary exchange is far more in keeping with classical liberal principles than an empire of force, dedicated to the principles of compelling "illiberal" nations to heel. Liberal governments can best promote democracy not at the point of a bayonet but rather at the point of sale.

Liberal, free market democracy spreads naturally, from free states to unfree states, from dynamic societies to stagnant ones. And we all know why. Classical liberalism encourages intellectual inquiry; autocracy stifles it. Free markets reward entrepreneurial spirit; the state punishes it. Growing, vibrant liberal states combine the traits of political and economic freedom to defeat their autocratic neighbors not by killing their soldiers, bombing their cities, and jailing their leaders, but by luring away the most ambitious, intelligent, and gifted individuals. Faced with this exodus of talent, illiberal governments have only two choices: isolation or reform. Isolation leads to collapse-not immediately, but eventually. In the meantime, for individuals living in free countries, the threat posed by the self-isolated states is typically quite small; when and if these unfree states actually do pose an imminent danger, the free states are in a far stronger position to prevail militarily.

Aside from these rare instances, however, we should be far more fearful of the state's insatiable appetite for power, and we should avoid inviting government to pursue illiberal ends abroad under the guise of promoting freedom at home.

Christopher Preble ( is director of foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.