Libertarian Foreign Policy in the Hobbesian Crosshairs: A Reply to Bret Stephens


When we libertarians are not simply ignored, we are often reproached―and not in a respectful way, either, but condescendingly, as if we were children who just don’t understand life’s harsh realities and need to be scolded. The most recent case in point is Bret Stephens’s article on “Ron Paul and Foreign Policy” in the Wall Street Journal, January 15, 2008.

Stephens takes the text for his sermon from recent statements by Ron Paul, the libertarian candidate for the Republican presidential nomination. Stephens avows that “most of us” sympathize “up to a point” with the core libertarian belief that people ought to be left alone in the pursuit of their own happiness. He reaches that stopping point quickly, however, and his disparagement of “Dr. Paul’s cult-like following” reveals early on that he has no intention of dealing fairly or knowledgeably with Paul’s views on U.S. foreign policy.

Paul’s undoing, Stephens tells us, springs from a clash between his policy ideas and certain “details of history.” For example, early Americans, having tired of paying bribes to Barbary pirates in the Mediterranean Sea, were “forced to build a navy, and then go to war, to defend [the country’s] commercial interests, a pattern that held true in World War I and the Persian Gulf ‘Tanker War’ of the 1980s.” The problem that springs from such details of history, however, weighs much more heavily on Stephens’s views than it does on Paul’s.

Nobody “forced” Americans to begin to build a navy in the 1790s. Government officials and seafaring merchants decided to do so and to deploy this force against (among others) the pirates to whom the government had been paying protection money. They might instead have continued to pay off the Barbary raiders. Or they might have rested content to let the merchants of other nations, perhaps Great Britain, which already had a large navy, handle the shipping of American goods in the Mediterranean. The fact that U.S. leaders resorted to force does not demonstrate that they chose the best option. This option did, however, socialize the costs of engaging in the Mediterranean trade, spreading it across all American taxpayers largely for the sake of the traders who had an immediate interest in the matter.

This historical affair might well serve as a lesson applicable to one foreign-policy episode after another in the following sense: the national government’s power, created at the national citizenry’s expense, was employed to resolve by armed force what amounted to a special-interest economic problem. Stephens’s examples of U.S. participation in World War I and the so-called Tanker War conform to the same template. Here is what governments do best: concentrate the benefits and disperse the costs, or, with similar effect, privatize the gains and socialize the losses. National leaders, all too often beholden to one special interest or another, speak as if “we” Americans all have the same interest in knocking down some group of foreigners, but such is rarely the case.

World War I starkly exemplifies this phenomenon. The wealthy northeastern movers and shakers who finagled, intrigued, and politicked to push Woodrow Wilson into seeking a declaration of war against Germany in 1917 could hardly have been more unrepresentative of the general interest, and ultimately nearly everybody realized in retrospect that U.S. entry into this dynastic bloodbath had been a monumental blunder. The Old Right foreign policy that exerted so much influence from the mid-1920s until World War II―the policy of Senator Robert A. Taft, Senator Gerald P. Nye, and other prominent political and literary leaders to which Ron Paul’s foreign-policy views may be directly traced―sprang in large part not only from George Washington and Thomas Jefferson’s classic advice against entangling alliances, but also from the widely shared interwar recognition that U.S. entry into World War I had been an enormous disaster for the American people in general, however much J. P. Morgan and Co. and the other “merchants of death” might have profited from it.

Libertarians, however, in Stephens’s Hobbesian view, have an unrealistically benign view of their fellow man, especially their fellow man abroad and most especially their fellow man in the Middle East. “Mankind is not comprised solely of profit- and pleasure-seekers; the quest for prestige and dominance and an instinct for nihilism are also inscribed in human nature, nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Libertarianism makes no accounting for this.”

This claim is false. Libertarians not only take this aspect of human nature into account; they make it the bedrock on which they found their doctrines. They fully recognize that some men are vicious, vainglorious, and imperious. Further, unlike Stephens, libertarians recognize that the dangers such men pose to society will be magnified enormously in the event that they gain government power and that, indeed, in F. A. Hayek’s memorable phrase, the worst will tend to get on top. Our only sure protection against such wicked men in positions of authority is to limit the government’s power as much as possible, and thereby to confine the harm that they can do. Far from assuming “the relatively tame aspirations of modern American life” as a “baseline for human nature,” libertarians, in proposing designs for optimal government institutions, assume the worst about human nature, including the human nature of their own rulers, and rest their policy proposals on that assumption.

Stephens, ever the good Hobbesian, places his faith in “the overawing power of government to transform natural rights into civil ones.” He declares that “some kind of decisive power” is needed to keep the private protective agencies that some libertarians favor from “collid[ing] with the political interests of the U.S. or some other government.” Libertarians want people―all people―to be left alone as long as they respect the equal rights of others, but Stephens fears that when things are left alone, they will “fall apart.”

One’s immediate reaction is to point out that despite our suffering under the insults and costs of a massive, globally interventionist, Leviathan state, things are not exactly hanging together splendidly now. The U.S. state is breaking eggs hither and yon, but where’s the bloody omelette? Americans now face terrorist threats in many parts of the world when they go abroad, the “blowback” from various U.S. interventions; national-security outlays, all military-related things being included, of a trillion dollars a year loaded onto American taxpayers; unprecedented revulsion against Americans and their government around the world; oil selling at close to $100 a barrel; and political leaders who look forward with equanimity to keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for another hundred years. Thanks a lot, fellas. We couldn’t have done it without you.

Having graciously conceded in passing that Paul’s foreign-policy views are not “purely spurious,” Stephens concludes by counting it “no small blessing that Dr. Paul remains a man of the fringe.” The basic problem, he declares in classic Hobbesian language, is that “libertarianism can only be seriously espoused under the protective cover of Leviathan.”

In this declaration, he errs fundamentally. The greatest problem is that a Leviathan is a Leviathan and acts accordingly. Only a fool, an ignoramus, or a stooge for the state expects it to “transform natural rights into civil ones.” Notwithstanding the sugar-coated assurances of its leaders, its flunkies, and its cheerleaders in the mainstream news media and the state-dependent special interests, a national government that attempts to run the world must necessarily resort to the fleecing of citizens and the suppression of freedom at home. This is the true lesson of our history: war, preparation for war, and foreign military interventions have served for the most part not to protect us, as we are constantly told, but rather to sap our economic vitality and undermine our civil and economic liberties.

Robert Higgs is a Senior Fellow in Political Economy at the Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, the University of Economics, Prague, and George Mason University.

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