Getting Serious


Ryan Sager raised a minor stir earlier this month with a TechCentralStation column (building on posts from his blog) criticizing (non-hawk) libertarians' "unseriousness" on foreign policy questions. Radley Balko has written a lengthy and effective response.

While I'm in broad agreement with what Radley says—Sager, his own protestations notwithstanding, seems to want to use "serious" as a rough synonym for "agreeing with Sager"—I'll actually stick by a shorter response I sketched earlier on my own blog: If libertarians don't seem to speak with a unified voice vis a vis foreign policy strategy, it's because they shouldn't be expected to. Not because individual libertarians might not have plenty to say about how to efffectively fight terror, but because there's not likely to be anything distinctively libertarian about the relevant proposals, even if some proposals are clearly unlibertarian.

Domestic crime policy provides a good analogy. Libertarianism as a political philosophy has lots to say about what sorts of things shouldn't be crimes at all (prostitution, smoking pot) and about what methods of fighting genuine crimes are inadmissible (warrantless searches, coercive interrogation). But when it comes to the best way to reduce muggings, say, libertarianism (as opposed to particular libertarians who may have relevant expertise) isn't going to have a whole bunch to say. Do more police patrols work, or is the marginal dollar better spent on more streetlights? How long should sentences be to provide optimal deterrence? Invest in undercover agents to infiltrate gangs or better forensics technology? These are choices made by governments, but they aren't really political choices; they're technical ones.

All this notwithstanding, there are probably some distincitvely libertarian things to offer even on these sorts of questions—Radley links quite a few papers by his Cato colleagues. Even on strictly instrumental questions, someone of a Hayekian bent is likely to come up with different pragmatic solutions to any number of problems than someone who believes centralized action is more effective. But we shouldn't expect the same level of consensus at this tactical level that we find on broader questions that lie closer to basic political principles.

NEXT: "Unfair Freedom of Speech Did Him In."

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  1. I agree with Julian in general, but there is quite a bit of unseriousness to, say, the LP foreign policy platform. The dogmatic insistence that nonintervention precludes the need for a significant military and the blase dismissal of the desirability of fighting overseas rather than at home are two examples I encounter on a regular basis. There is a distinction between being skeptical about the usefulness of interventions and the sorts of arguments I mostly run into as a libertarian hawk.

    I’m told that there is no material difference between a war on terror and a war on drugs or a war on poverty. The corollary is that any time you leverage force against a perceived problem, you automatically make things worse. This is not a serious argument, and I hear it all the time.

    Similarly, the end of every discussion seems to be the utterance of the word ‘blacklash’ (or backblast, or whathaveyou), as if it were obvious up front that backlash is always worse than doing nothing. That there might be equal moral culpability to the choice of inaction is not even to be considered.

    I am thrilled when I see a libertarian proposing a solution to a specific foreign policy issue because it is so rare. What I normally see is the claim without evidence that if you mind your own business (as if that were even possible in a global economy), everything will be roses.

  2. No way.

    Far from a “technical” problem domain like the example you cite, foreign policy questions usually invoke peoples’ most fundamental conceptions of human nature, political reality, etc.

    Because people arrive at libertarianism from vastly different worldviews, foreign policy can serve to highlight the ideological differences within an otherwise pragmatically-inclined crowd. Folks with no comprehensive views in common might be able to agree on the extent to which the state should leave them alone, but foreign policy presents a different set of problems, and is also seen as within the purview of even the most minimal, non-intrusive national government.

  3. I don’t know. I rather think the people who argued vociferiously against any action in Afghanistan (including those people who said the only appropriate response to 9/11 was to issue letters of marque against Al Queda) were clearly unserious. They may not work at Cato, but there sure were many calling themselves “libertarians” back in 2001.

  4. Eric,
    Sure there were a lot of people in the isolationist corner against the Afghan campaign, but there were also conservatives in that camp as well. We don’t dismiss conservatives as a whole as unserious. When Falwell said that 9-11 was due to gays and lesbians and premarital sex and other such sundries (apparantly, he hates our freedoms), did he lose his influence? Actually, the opposite.

    Sure the letters de marque is a silly idea, but it’s hardly the first silly idea to be stated by a libertarian (see: Badnarik and zip codes).

    Libertarian views aren’t being ignored because they are unserious, but rather because the majority of the population disagrees with them. Same as the drug war, pork, strong federal governing, etc.

  5. I thought Julian’s post was very thoughtful
    and smart. I think libertarians sometimes
    underestimate the importance of technical
    knowledge of the sort he describes. It is
    not unimportant in foreign policy, but it
    is rare because of two small numbers problems.

    First, the number of people who run countries
    is very small, so personalities matter. In
    statistical terms, the error term around
    systematic relationships at this level is
    pretty big.

    Second, and not unrelated, there
    are not many countries, and there are not many
    years of good data about most countries on
    most things. Thus, it is tough to even think
    about doing the type of “large n” (to use the
    polisci jargon) empirical research necessary
    to get really compelling answers. Instead,
    of necessity, case studies are the order of
    the day. These can be done well, and be very
    insightful, but they are still just case studies.

    Both these factors help move foreign policy into
    a different type of discussion than, say, micro
    economic policy. That is why, I think, you see
    more disagreement, not only among libertarians,
    but on the left and right as well.


  6. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I thought the libertarian answer to muggings was something along the lines of “more guns, less crime.”

  7. Julian and Matt are both right.

    Libertarianism, per se, doesn’t give us the scoop on foreign policy. Ditto for Democrats & Republicans — but, maybe, *they* do a better job of forging/imposing a general party line than we do.

    The problem with foreign policy is (my opinion) that people shouldn’t even venture a guess at it until they’ve read lots of history. I did, and it changed my mind on foreign policy drastically. It be a jungle out there…

    I’m a hawk who thinks Afghanistan was justified and Iraq was a mistake. I think Bush pushed us into Iraq for reasons (nation building, or maybe to drain the swamp) he knew the American public wouldn’t go for, so he made up the WMD thing.

    OTOH, if we’re going to “do” Iraq, why do we have to pretend we’re pure as the driven snow? That drives me nuts. Wipe out Saddam, AND take enough oil to pay for the venture, and then — you have to seriously ask if you can leave the conquered on their own, or whether you’ve got yourself a vassel. But that question ought to be answered before hand.

    I don’t think this is barbaric. Supposing Iraq had the WMD, then we wouldn’t have any choice but to defend ourselves. So why would it be wrong taking some of that oil to pay for the venture? My take on war is, if you have to do it, then do it like a capitalist. 🙂 Play the game to win. Good old Roman pragmatism doesn’t hurt a bit, if you’ve got to fight.

    I’d think we libertarians could put up a good “make war like a capitalist when you must fight” case. Instead, we more often seem to make the lasseiz faire case. Which often sounds to me like “ignore the problems and avoid fighting whenever possible”. But there’s a case for that too — historically war is, in fact, one of the greatest foes of individual liberty (think growth of buearacracy).

    Hell, I can’t even agree with myself. Good luck to the rest of you.

  8. And remember there will be a big difference between what libertarians say versus what the peaceful anarchist wing of libertarians says.

  9. Ruthless for Dear Leader!

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