<i>Real</i> libertarians didn't


. . . support the war. This is the emerging meme, mostly, interestingly, among people who are not themselves libertarians. Stand by for my post tomorrow: real progressives won't vote for Hilary Clinton.

The central problem that libertarians sort of tried to grapple with, and then gave up in favor of shouting with each other, is how to reconcile respect for sovereignty with libertarian contempt for the state--particularly in states like Iraq, where respect for human liberty was nonexistant. The libertarian literature on non-intervention as a principle in the face of vicious states has always struck me as inherently unsatisfying, and particularly, far to heavily reliant on positing previous US interventions as the primary cause of, well, everything bad in the world.

Yes, there can be other libertarian arguments against war--practical, Hayekian ones, based on the state's administrative abilities. But only the sovereignty argument arguably compels a libertarian to be against the Iraq war in order to remain a libertarian. And the sovereignty argument simply has deep problems.

A real non-interventionist has to accept that the United States should not have entered into World War II. Yes, Japan attacked us, but they did so because we were encroaching on their sphere of influence. Had we actually kept the navy within our territory, Japan would never have attacked, and we would never have entered World War II. And no, I'm not convinced by arguments that our intervention in WWI brought about WWII; our role, other than urging France and Britain to mitigate their vengeance, was fairly minor. Moreover, since we're not starting from some blank, non-interventionist slate now, this is not a compelling argument against entering into World War II at the time of World War II.

Some libertarians do accept that (as does Pat Buchanan). Most, especially the more moderate breed nurtured post-Reagan, can't accept a philosophy which means we should have allowed more millions to die in concentration camps, left the Russians and British to starve without lend-lease, etc. Their minds also turn to wondering how the American Revolution might have turned out had the French government adopted a similarly modest foreign policy.

If you are not willing to posit that Americans should stay home even when millions are being senselessly slaughtered, then you end up in sticky pragmatic arguments about the possibilities of inherently untrustworthy state power to counteract even more noxious state power, and how much in the way of cost we can reasonably be expected to bear in order to advance liberty. I don't think there's an inherently libertarian answer to those questions. Libertarians should be inherently more suspicious of the American government's ability to make things better than other groups--but by the same token, it seems to me that they should be inherently more suspicious of repulsive states such as the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein.

That doesn't mean libertarians who supported the war got it right; but I don't think that what they got wrong was ignoring libertarian principles.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

The Time JFK Called the Air Force to Complain About a 'Silly Bastard'

51 years ago, President John F. Kennedy made a very angry phone call.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.


Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.


Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.


Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.


The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air



More in Business

Just In