Peter Schwartz

Libertarianism vs. Liberty

Republican presidential candidate Rand Paul has been drawing criticism from his libertarian followers. A recent op-ed in the New York Times, for instance, chastises him for being insufficiently libertarian. His critics are particularly upset over his “hawkish” foreign policy, accusing him of abandoning the ideal of individual liberty.

The reverse, however, is true: it is the libertarian movement itself, with its embrace of “non-interventionism,” that contradicts the ideal of individual liberty.

Modern libertarianism began in the 1960s and was born of an attempted marriage between capitalism and anarchism. Despite the fact that a state of anarchy presents a clear threat to the rights of every citizen, libertarians claimed that the means of achieving capitalism’s goal of individual liberty is through anarchism. Murray Rothbard, widely acknowledged as the intellectual father of this movement, proudly labeled it “anarcho-capitalism.”

A strong leftist, anti-American orientation was present at the start. For example, Rothbard contended that during the 20th century “the single most warlike, most interventionist, most imperialist government has been the United States.” The libertarians’ enemy was the CIA, the FBI, the military, the police—all of which were regarded as tools of an oppressive state, a state that had to be smashed so that the people could be free. And “free” meant the capacity to indulge in any whim without interference by the government.

Today, libertarians want political respectability and few are still overt anarchists. But a tacit strain of anarchism remains. The current platform of the Libertarian Party, for example, accommodates its anarchist contingent by stating that “governments, when instituted, must not violate individual rights.” (Emphasis added.) The platform also endorses jury nullification—which is de facto anarchism—as it asserts a “right of juries to judge not only the facts but also the justice of the law.”

The libertarian disavowal of anarchism is nominal only. Under a system of laissez-faire, government has the legitimate function of protecting its citizens against force or fraud. But libertarians regularly denounce that function, particularly in military matters. They regard military action as intrinsically illegitimate, and call their viewpoint “non-interventionism.” For instance, Ron Paul—Rand Paul’s father and a former Libertarian Party presidential candidate—insists that America has no right to interfere with Iran’s nuclear program: “One can understand why they might want to become nuclear capable, if only to defend themselves and to be treated more respectfully.” The Ron Paul Institute for Peace and Prosperity makes an even more preposterous claim in opposing any intervention by us: “Iran has not sought a nuclear weapon, and the country’s leader declares such weapons contrary to Islam.”

Probably the best-known representative of mainstream libertarianism is the Cato Institute, which also finds virtually no U.S. military action justifiable. For example, one of its senior fellows writes: “One of the most unchallenged, zany assertions during the war on terror has been that terrorists present an existential threat to the United States.” Among the views scorned as “extravagant alarmism” is one that says the enemy is “committed to the destruction of freedom and the American way of life” and seeks “world domination, achieved through violence and bloodshed.” This incontrovertible fact about the nature of the jihadists is supposed to be just a “zany assertion.”

Rand Paul has tried to moderate some of his views. Nonetheless, like his father, he believes in the code of “non-interventionism” and maintains that a nuclear-armed Iran, despite its demonstrable threat to America, should be acceptable to us. He is, as a Washington Post analyst accurately notes, “far, far outside the mainstream on this—and far to the left of President Obama.”

The premise of laissez-faire is the premise of individual rights. It is the premise that your life and your property belong to you, not to the collective. To those of us who hold this view, a proper foreign policy achieves the same fundamental purpose as a proper economic-social policy: the safeguarding of our liberty. When individuals engage in voluntary, peaceful action, the government acknowledges their right to do so and refrains from forcibly intervening. But when a foreign entity subjects us to non-voluntary, non-peaceful action, the government forcibly intervenes, in self-defense, to repel that threat to our rights. That is, the state refuses to initiate force against the innocent, but willingly uses force in retaliation against those who initiate it (or threaten to). This is how our freedom is sustained.

The pseudo-concept of “non-interventionism,” however, makes freedom impossible. It indiscriminately condemns government’s use of force, erasing the crucial distinction between initiated and retaliatory force—i.e., between force that violates our rights and force that protects them, between force directed against the innocent and force directed against the guilty. (See “Libertarian Mindlessness.”)

Not only does such a policy put our freedom in jeopardy to foreign threats, but it also undermines the principle of capitalism, which libertarians claim to uphold. “Non-interventionists” declare that the justification for keeping government out of the economic sphere is the same justification for keeping it out of the military sphere. They argue that we should oppose government intervention in, say, health care, for the identical reason that we should oppose government intervention against, say, the Islamic jihadists. Even a supporter of the free market, if offered this false alternative, will likely decide: “Then I’m for ObamaCare.”

In other words, if one seeks to establish a system based on the principle of individual rights—if one seeks to identify what rights mean and what constitutes an objective threat to them—then one ends up with a political structure that genuinely defends freedom, in both the domestic and foreign realms. If, however, one starts with the emotionalist credo that everyone should be allowed “to do his own thing”—if one believes that government has no right to tell any citizen that he can’t make his own laws, or to tell any nation that it can’t have its own nuclear bomb—then one ends up with a policy that contradicts the requirements of freedom: “non-interventionism.”

For the true advocate of individual liberty, libertarians are not allies, but enemies.♦♦

See also “Libertarianism and Objectivism.” 

[This was published at Huffington Post, April 27, 2015]

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