Foreign Policy

A Foreign Policy for Knaves

Can't expect an empire with good intentions


David Hume (1711-1776) was no hardcore libertarian, but he was a provocative thinker and a key figure in the development of liberalism. Hume helped make the Scottish Enlightenment the important period it was. He also can be fun to read. Observe this from his essay "Of the Independency of Parliament":

Political writers have established it as a maxim, that, in contriving any system of government, and fixing the several checks and controuls of the constitution, every man ought to be supposed a knave, and to have no other end, in all his actions, than private interest. By this interest we must govern him, and, by means of it, make him, notwithstanding his insatiable avarice and ambition, co-operate to public good. Without this, say they, we shall in vain boast of the advantages of any constitution, and shall find, in the end, that we have no security for our liberties or possessions, except the good-will of our rulers; that is, we shall have no security at all.

Hume here embraces the views of thinkers we may regard as the progenitors of the Public Choice school. Awareness of the problem he refers to goes back to antiquity, and it has challenged the best political thinkers. Persons do not transform into a different sort being simply because they take government jobs.

We need not accept Hume's definition of knave  – someone who has no other end than his private interest — to take his point. In fact, Hume himself may not to regard the mere pursuit of private interest as the main problem. Here's what he says next:

It is, therefore, a just political maxim, that every man must be supposed a knave: Though at the same time, it appears somewhat strange, that a maxim should be true in politics, which is false in fact. But to satisfy us on this head, we may consider, that men are generally more honest in their private than in their public capacity, and will go greater lengths to serve a party, than when their own private interest is alone concerned. Honour is a great check upon mankind: But where a considerable body of men act together, this check is, in a great measure, removed; since a man is sure to be approved of by his own party, for what promotes the common interest; and he soon learns to despise the clamours of adversaries. To which we may add, that every court or senate is determined by the greater number of voices; so that, if self-interest influences only the majority, (as it will always do) the whole senate follows the allurements of this separate interest, and acts as if it contained not one member, who had any regard to public interest and liberty.

So here Hume appears to be saying that the problem is not private interest itself, but rather the institutional context in which that interest is pursued. Libertarians are familiar with the many arguments for why people are likely to act better in a private capacity than in a "public," i.e., governmental, capacity: the incentives are markedly different. In the private sphere we tend to deal with other people face to face; we bear most of the costs of our actions; and we enjoy most of the benefits. This induces a sense of responsibility, and experience is a hard teacher.

In contrast, politicians and bureaucrats spend other people's money (obtained by force), have other people do the heavy lifting (how many personally invaded Iraq?), and hardly ever suffer the consequences of their bad decisions. Even being denied reelection after a major blunder is rare. No one was fired after the 9/11 attacks or the Iraq invasion, but some were promoted or awarded Medals of Freedom. (I've previously discussed how perverse political incentives encourage voters to act irresponsibly. In politics, it's irresponsibility all the way down.)

I agree with Robert Higgs (PDF), though, that the difference between private and political actors involves more than the incentives they face. The political system itself selects for vicious persons, as F. A. Hayek discussed in chapter 10 of The Road to Serfdom, "Why the Worst Get on Top." Higgs quotes Robert Sirico's amendment of Lord Acton's famous observation, "The corrupt seek power and use it absolutely." Acton himself noted that "great men are almost always bad men."

In Hume's terms, then, individuals in the political sphere are much better sheltered from the consequences of their "knavery" than they are in the private sphere. So we should expect more of it in the former.

Leonard E. Read, a founder of the modern libertarian movement, understood this too. In his essay  "On that Day Lies Began," he quoted Leo Tolstoy:

From the day when the first members of council placed exterior authority higher than interior, that is to say, recognized the decisions of men united in councils as more important and more sacred than reason and conscience; on that day began lies that caused the loss of millions of human beings and which continue their unhappy work to the present day.

Read continued:

Persons advocate proposals in association that they would in no circumstance practice in individual action. Honest men, by any of the common standards of honesty, will, in a board or a committee, sponsor, for instance, legal thievery — that is, they will urge the use of the political means to exact the fruits of the labor of others for the purpose of benefiting themselves, their group, or their community.

These leaders, for they have been elected or appointed to a board or a committee, do not think of themselves as having sponsored legal thievery. They think of the board, the committee, the council or the association as having taken the action. The onus of the act, to their way of thinking, is put on an abstraction which is what a board or an association is without persons.

We would avoid a lot of trouble if people kept this in mind. For example, a policy that looks good in the abstract (leaving aside the core libertarian objection to forced financing, i.e., taxation) will be interpreted and carried it out by Hume's knaves. In that light the policy might not look so good after all. This need not entail self-conscious perfidy. For a "public servant," nothing is easier than to identify his private interest with the social good.

This is what came to mind as I read The American Conservative editor Daniel McCarthy's response to my comment on his original article in defense of "liberal empire." McCarthy argues the development of liberalism in practice and thought (roughly in the classical sense) requires security, and only a global empire (as exemplified by Great Britain and then the United States) can provide that security. Insecurity, in contrast, breeds illiberalism, he writes. So if we want an enduring liberal society, we must have empire, which will necessitate judicious and limited global intervention.

I don't think things are quite so simple — intervention breeds illiberalism, and insecurity could stimulate liberal institutional responses. At any rate, this is where Hume's concern arises. McCarthy writes:

Preventing a hostile power from dominating Europe and keeping a balance in East Asia is "empire" enough. Beyond that, prosperity and industrial strength, along with our nuclear arsenal, are the keys to our security. This is a historically realistic vision, one that solves the great problems of the past—what to do about Nazi Germany or the USSR—and the otherwise insoluble problems of the present, such as what to do about the Middle East: namely, minimize our exposure to crises that we cannot fix and that do not affect the top-tier distribution of power. Today what is most ethical and what is politically and strategically realistic coincide reasonably well: we should not seek to enlarge our commitments; we should preserve our naval power; we should use diplomacy and economics to advance our interests and contain disruptive powers.

This is not a strategy of hard-heartedness toward the oppressed peoples of the world. A secure and prosperous U.S. is in a position to be an ideological counterweight to any illiberal state or insurgency, and it can act when necessary only because it does not act when not necessary.

Even if we accept (for argument's sake) McCarthy's vision as desirable, the odds of its adoption as he intends it are nil. The private interests of the political class — and those in the "private" sector for whom the political class acts — virtually guarantee that the power to police the world will be put to perverse objectives. McCarthy's criteria for a good intervention may be impeccable, but what grounds have we for confidence that the policy makers and their patrons will share those criteria? History certainly gives us no grounds. McCarthy opposed the disastrous invasion of Iraq, and he doubts that U.S. entry into World War I was a good idea. Yet the ruling elite thought both were worthwhile. Those interventions brought us the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, and now ISIS. (I don't mean to equate the power of ISIS with that of the Bolsheviks or Nazis.) The turmoil in the Middle East demonstrates what can happen when foreign policy is shaped by narrow considerations.

McCarthy's good intentions notwithstanding, I'm fairly certain he won't be the one making foreign policy.

But the problem of private interest is not the only problem for a McCarthy-style foreign policy. The "knowledge problem" is equally devastating. Even with the best intentions, the administrators of the world hegemon must suffer a critical and insurmountable ignorance. In responding to Richard Epstein's "faulty case for intervention," economist David R. Henderson writes:

The simple fact is that when a government thousands of miles away decides to intervene, it must figure out which faction to support and has little assurance that it will support the right one. Indeed, it has little assurance that there is a right one. Thus my point above: whatever else libertarian non-interventionists believe, few of us have what Professor Epstein calls an "illusion of certainty." It is the exact opposite: we are positive that there is great uncertainty. It is this uncertainty that should, in general, cause us to pressure our government to stay out of other countries' affairs. There are many "monsters to destroy," to use John Quincy Adams's famous phrase. It is generally a bad idea to go abroad to destroy them. It is even worse if one does so by allying with other monsters.

Thus, by the "first do no harm" standard, the case for liberal empire also must fail. If we wish to achieve and maintain liberalism at home, we'll have to find means other than offensive military power.

NEXT: Reason TV: Should More Land Use Scholars Be Libertarians?

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  1. Hey, second confirmed Ebola case in Dallas, a health worker. So much for all their precautions and supposed difficulty of transmission.

    1. ’tis but a flesh wound!

    2. In a statement, Texas Health Resources, which operates Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas, said the worker “had been under the self-monitoring regimen prescribed by the CDC, based on involvement in caring for patient Thomas Eric Duncan during his inpatient care that started on September 28.”

      The person was not considered to be “high risk” by the CDC, said the chief clinical officer for Texas Health resources Daniel Varga. The health worker was “following full CDC precautions” including a gown, gloves, mask and protective face shield.

      “We’re very concerned,” Varga said, though he added that the hospital is “confident that the precautions that we have in place are protecting our health care workers.”

      Procedures were followed…but now she contracted Ebola.

      1. “the hospital is “confident that the precautions that we have in place are protecting our health care workers.”

        If they are protected then why does this person have the virus? Chief Clinical Officer(whatever the fuck that is) Daniel Varga should be drawn and quartered immediately.

      2. Cytotoxic, call your office.

        1. Cyto assured us a couple of days ago ebola would NEVER EVER have a breakout in the US.

      3. Put on a pair of nitrile gloves. rub some soap on your hands. Now take the gloves off without getting soap on your skin. It’s not that easy. Besides, Ro is 2 for ebola. this guy only infect 1. we’re ahead of the curve.

    3. One transmission does not contradict difficulty of transmission. The people who were in more “high risk” situations didn’t contract it.

      Dollars to donuts this worker got sloppy with procedure. Health care workers aren’t always the sharpest tools in the shed.

      1. Another possibility is that Duncan’s hosts in the US are also Liberians who may have acquired some natural resistance to ebola while the health care worker who contracted the diseased had no such resistance.

        This has happened before. I happened in the case of small pox which devastated native American populations.

      2. I agree. As long as everyone perfectly follows procedure, 100% of the time, even when they are uneducated, disinterested, and/or stoned, we likely won’t have any more outbreaks.

        1. The SOLUTION here, is we need a degreed, board-certified expertologist of expertology to train ANYONE before they are allowed to wear a pair of latex gloves or a haz-mat suit! TRAINING and CERTIFICATION and DEGREES will fix it all!!! Especially if all the trolls under the educational and certification bridges are paid off in FULL! NO latex gloves for YOU, w/o a prescription! If you think I am crazy… Please see the need for prescriptions for a cheap plastic flute to blow on, to clear out your lungs and throat? Kinda like “coughing”? are we gonna need a prescription, per the Over-Lords (Over-Lards, Fat -Cats?!?) at the FDA, before we perform that dreaded “medical procedure” of COUGHING, next? Search for “lung flute” on the inter-tubes in general, or my web site at ? To see that I bullshit you not!!! In EVERY other nation on the planet, North Korea I assume to be included, we can blow on a cheap plastic flute, w/o sucking the balls of Government Almighty, and the Doctors of Doctorology? But NOT in the USA, the Land of the Free, and the Home of the Brave!!!

  2. Those interventions brought us the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany,

    For the record the US had very little to do with the take-over of the Soviet Union by Lenin and company. The US entered the war in April and the Russian Revolution was in November. With the amount of time required to travel back then, the only American troops officially in World War I were rather small.

    Also, Wilson argued against harsh treatment of Germany. That harsh treatment is widely regarded as part of the cause of the Nazi rise of power.

    1. Yes, but US intervention put the UK and France in the position to dictate terms to Germany. Had they come to a peace without intervention it likely would have been more balanced.

    2. US intervention also may have influenced Kerensky’s decision to continue Russian involvement in the war, which was the biggest factor in the Bosheviks’ seizing power.

      Basically, when you intervene you are protecting someone from the consequences of their actions. In many cases that is not a good thing, because it encourages foolish actions. (e.g. our saving the Shia Iraqi govt’s ass now).

    3. The link is that after the Brest-Litovsk Treaty of February 1918, the Germans occupied the Baltic States, Belarus, Ukraine and Poland and had the ability to end Lenin’s government whenever it chose.

  3. They think of the board, the committee, the council or the association as having taken the action. The onus of the act, to their way of thinking, is put on an abstraction which is what a board or an association is without persons.

    I realize we’re talking about government agencies here, but where is the individual responsibility in GM or AIG or Fannie Mae/Freddie Mac/Sallie Mae? At some point, corporations adopt the same viewpoint as governments – our purpose is to serve the customer, but not me specifically serving you specifically, so fuck off.

  4. Yet the ruling elite thought both were worthwhile. Those interventions brought us the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany,

    /makes note in calendar “Oct 12, 2014 New Stupidest Thing Richman has ever written.”

    /shakes head.

  5. So, let’s see. The uneducated and the Tea Party both thought it was very likely Ebola would spread in the US. The educated and Dems mostly believed it wouldn’t.

    Once again the Tea Party turns out to have been right all along.

  6. McCarthy’s good intentions notwithstanding, I’m fairly certain he won’t be the one making foreign policy.

    Neither of you will be. Nor will either of you be the one deciding whether such foreign policy choices are even on the menu. So why bother discussing them?

    It doesn’t make sense to say you won’t be deciding who plays the game, so the rules of the game should be such-and-such, because you just as equally don’t get to decide the rules of the game. Nor do you get to decide even whether there’ll be a game, or whether anyone will be allowed to decide whether there’ll be a game.

    If you’re going to discuss your input at one level, then unless you’ve reason to think your influence on different levels operates differently, you might as well assume you have as much influence on all levels. If you’re giving instructions as to what kind of regime to have, then you might as well assume you’ll be in command as well. If anything, it seems you have a slightly better chance of keeping knaves out of the driver’s seat than you do of building the vehicle.

    1. If you were, for instance, setting up a trust or foundation, you could make the rules to mitigate the follow of future administrators?although that doesn’t seem to work in the long run. But you don’t have anything like the authority to set up the rules for foreign policy, though you might have a slight chance of influencing an administrator or choice of administrator in the present.

  7. Hume is the father of subjectivism, a philosophy which derailed Western intellectuals budding discovery of a reasoned-based moral code (to replace a religious-based moral code). Hume’s influence led to today’s profound cynicism and doubt about both reason and morality. In other words he undercut the moral self-confidence of The Enlightenment and left us today with modern intellectuals ideas who argue that cultures are of equal value–e.g., multiculturalism–and Western Culture is no better than say Islamism for instance.

    But yet, Richman finds a way to align his libertarian sensibilities to this guy. I am beginning to think Richman just plain doesn’t understand some of the ideas and philosophers he tries to discuss.

    1. Maybe you don’t understand how to shop for ideas. You don’t have to take the package deal.

  8. my co-worker’s step-aunt makes $67 hourly on the laptop . She has been without a job for five months but last month her income was $15977 just working on the laptop for a few hours. go to this website….


  9. my co-worker’s mother-in-law makes $84 /hr on the internet . She has been without work for eight months but last month her paycheck was $21951 just working on the internet for a few hours. check out the post right here….

  10. Another great article. The Higgs PDF alone was worth the price of admission; I haven’t read him as much as I should have, but on the basis of that I’m going to seek out his archives on LR and Mises.

    This is not a strategy of hard-heartedness toward the oppressed peoples of the world. A secure and prosperous U.S. is in a position to be an ideological counterweight to any illiberal state or insurgency, and it can act when necessary only because it does not act when not necessary.

    Although I’d like to see a world where the state is eliminated entirely, one of the better aspects of the libertarian/liberal tradition is that we exist on a sliding scale of authority based on the principle of federalism. Were the United States or similar empires to employ secession or even constitutionally permit states greater autonomy, individual states could choose their own participation in foreign wars without burdening the whole nation. Those in favor of war (and in paying for war) could move to the states with higher taxes and a more bellicose attitude. Those who didn’t want war on the basis of expense or humanitarian grounds could choose a new home a few hours away.

    As it is, Americans who oppose empire have no choice but to move to Canada or Europe, which isn’t much of an option for most of us or in many cases significantly better. Federalism would be a very useful political stopgap for that problem just in case that whole anarchism doesn’t work out.

  11. my neighbor’s aunt makes $69 every hour on the laptop . She has been fired for eight months but last month her check was $16750 just working on the laptop for a few hours.
    Go to website. ? ? ? ? ? ?

  12. “We would avoid a lot of trouble if people kept this in mind. For example, a policy that looks good in the abstract (leaving aside the core libertarian objection to forced financing, i.e., taxation) will be interpreted and carried =it= out by Hume’s knaves.”

    The it is unnecessary and breaks the flow of the sentence.

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