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Wall Street Journal Letter to the Editor

An excerpt of this letter appeared in the July 30, 2007 print edition of The Wall Street Journal

Dear Editor:

Randy E. Barnett’s explication of why some libertarians support the war in Iraq (July 17) cries out for criticism on many grounds, but two points in particular seem most urgently in need of expression.

First, as Barnett affirms, all libertarians believe in an “individual right of self-defense.” He proceeds, however, to confound the actions an individual might take in self-defense with the actions a state takes when it goes to war. Individuals have rights that each of them may properly defend; a state has no rights whatsoever, but only powers, many of which it uses routinely to violate the just rights of individuals in its jurisdiction. To draw an analogy between self-defense and warfare is to run off the rails at the outset. Warmaking is a state enterprise, regardless of what the state’s leaders may claim about its benefits to the people at large. And because the U.S. state has an undeniable history of mendacity, only a fool would take its claims at face value in any event.

Second, Barnett regrets that libertarian opposition to the Iraq war might “inhibit a wider acceptance of the libertarian principles that would promote the general welfare of the American people.” But the American people have no greater interest than the preservation of their own liberty, and nothing threatens that liberty so greatly as the U.S. state’s engagement in warfare. Throughout our history, notwithstanding all the pious propaganda claiming that the state’s wars aimed only at preserving American liberties, the net result of every major war since the War Between the States has been that when the war was over, the American people found the state stronger and, for the great majority, their own liberties weaker than they had been before the war began.

I have devoted the greater part of the past twenty-five years to documenting and analyzing this repeated pattern, which I call the ratchet effect of national emergency on the growth of government, most recently in my book Neither Liberty Nor Safety. It is unfortunate that Barnett fails to recognize warfare for what it has long been: the master key with which the state gains entry into every formerly protected area of American life, overriding long-established rights and suppressing long-established liberties. No libertarian with a firm understanding of our history can accept his de facto defense of the Iraq war, which is in fact as clear a case of international aggression as anyone can find and has already done much to undermine our remaining liberties.

Robert Higgs, Senior Fellow, The Independent Institute

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. His many books include most recently Taking a Stand: Reflections on Life, Liberty, and the Economy, as well as such volumes as Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government, Depression, War, and Cold War: Challenging the Myths of Conflict and Prosperity, and Neither Liberty nor Safety: Fear, Ideology, and the Growth of Government.

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