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A Libertarian War


There have been a number of interesting observations regarding libertarian hawks in the last few days. Matt Yglesias points out that many who consider themselves libertarians actually aren’t, and thus can’t be relied upon to define a libertarian foreign policy. Jacob Levy makes a good argument for libertarian hawkishness on Iraq over at Crooked Timber. Finally, lest we forget, I was the recipient of what must be considered the final word on libertarian hawkishness, A Foreign Policy of Self-Interest: A Moral Idea for America , published by the Ayn Rand Institute.

I think Yglesias is right about this,

It seems to me (and to many others) that nothing could be less libertarian than the idea that the US government ought to undertake a massive program to use huge quantities of money and ample doses of coercive force in order to utterly remake the political and social order in the Middle East. Forget about the wrongness or rightness of such an undertaking, but what would lead a libertarian to believe that such a thing could possibly work? The neoconservative grand project would seem to be the largest central planning endeavor ever undertaken by the United States of America. On an even more general level, the larger project of maintaining American hegemony in the Persian Gulf in which the whole Iraq policy debate has played out isn’t a very libertarian sort of thing to undertake or defend.

but in the end draws the wrong conclusion. I like to think about the War in Iraq as a high modernist project, an idea conceived to map out a new reality that bears no resemblence to actual facts on the ground. Read James Scott, Seeing Like a State, if you haven’t already; he discusses a number of centralized projects designed to improve humanity that have failed because of a complete misunderstanding by policymakers of local conditions, traditions, systems of order, and so forth. In one sense, Matt is correct in arguing that libertarians should oppose such projects, because they require massive, centralized state activity. What I think Matt overlooks, however, is that libertarianism itself is a high modernist doctrine. It proposes to radically redesign existing political arrangements around a specific conception of natural right, ignoring local conditions, traditions, group affiliations, communal property rights, ethnicities, and what not. Moreover, libertarianism calls for the establishment of a type of state that has never existed anywhere but in fevered imaginings. The elements of libertarianism, including unregulated capitalism, also stink of a high modernist vision of the world, as Scott himself notes.

I see some contradictions between libertarianism and a hawkish foreign policy, but I also see a number of commonalities. The people who really should have opposed the Iraq War are the conservatives who should have no use for such revolutionary projects.

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