Towards A Good Samaritan World

Tuesday, November 30, 2004


I liked Ryan Sager's TCS column "Rethinking Libertarian Minimalism," which I thought offered libertarians a way out of the hole they have dug for themselves on foreign-policy issues. A lot of people didn't. It's sparked a debate, and I guess I might as well put a word in. (Warning: it's not a particularly civil debate.)

So far, Justin Logan has a response to Sager on his blog; Max Borders responds to Justin Logan on his blog; and Justin replies. Meanwhile, Radley Balko of the Cato Institute puts a very long reply to Sager at TCS-- I'm amazed they gave him so much space!-- point by point, while sometimes missing the point. Sager responds on his blog.

So there's plenty to chew on.

I'll start with the synopsis of libertarian arguments on war and peace midway through Justin Logan's post.

Most libertarians believe, as Robert Nozick did, that: "Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights.)" I believe this, too. For me, this group of rights includes the right to one's own life. This right is possessed by all people, even Iraqis.

To save Iraqi lives seems a very odd reason to oppose the Iraq war considering the character of Saddam's regime:

The numbers [killed by Saddam] are fuzzy simply because they are so vast. The Shiite estimate of 6 million is considerably higher than previously published victim totals, but even the Arab press acknowledges that the death toll at the hands of Saddam's executioners numbers in the millions.

But Justin goes on:

This claim [the right to life] is not absolute, and can be overridden by other claims, such as the claims to protect a people from impending attack or to prevent a prior attacker from attacking again.

So we're not talking Gandhian pacifism here. Too bad; that's a much more intelligible and appealing position...

In my world, though, it does not mean that Iraqis' right to their lives can be overcome by Ryan Sager's (or President Bush's) ideology about how things need to be run in the Middle East.

But, it seems, Justin is willing to let Iraqis' right to life be "overcome" (in far greater numbers!) by Saddam's ideology about how things need to be run in the Middle East. Which is odd.

The U.S. government, for all the arguments that have been made to the contrary, is not responsible for those who were murdered by Saddam Hussein.

Well, responsibility is hard to trace. But we did help bring Saddam to power. We backed him in the war against Iran. The reason he didn't have WMDs when we showed up in 2003 is that we had effectively contained him through sanctions, but those sanctions also (from what I've read) caused the deaths of half a million children. (The link is to Madeleine Albright's disgusting statement that this was "worth it.") I would submit that a bit of angst is called for about whether we maybe were a little bit responsible for those deaths. Justin continues:

There are mediated consequences and unmediated consequences, and they are not of the same moral importance. When the U.S. government drops a bomb on an innocent Iraqi, his death is an unmediated consequence of the act. When Saddam Hussein murdered an Iraqi, the Iraqi's death was, at most, a mediated consequence of the U.S.'s failure to depose Saddam Hussein. Putting the same moral weight on the two is absurd.

Absurd? Let's have a bit of humility here: I suspect there's a "human life is human life" position available here that deserves not to be so easily dismissed. Anyway, I like Justin's "mediated"/"unmediated" distinction. It's a good response to the Lancet study finding that the Iraq war has caused 100,000 deaths, which is regularly spun into the claim that "coalition forces have killed 100,000 Iraqis." No, they haven't: most of those 100,000 are "mediated" deaths, including many killed by terrorists and insurgents. The number killed by coalition forces is certainly much lower, and the number of innocent civilians killed, of course, much lower still.

But for the sake of argument, let's call all the Iraq war deaths "unmediated" and all Saddam's murders "mediated." Justin is essentially asking us to let millions die in order to avoid getting the blood of 100,000 on our hands. I am reminded of Komarovsky's remark to Dr. Zhivago at the end of Pasternak's classic: "Is your delicacy so exorbitant that you would sacrifice to it a mother and her child?" Or in this case, hundreds of thousands of them. It strikes me as a "sanctimonious" position, in Max Borders' words. Chillingly sanctimonious. Elsewhere I've called this "the Pontius Pilate solution."

Much of Justin's post consists of banging on about how Cato was right all along. Stuff like this:

Well, it seems that in the wake of the sweeping warmaking principles put forth by the Bush administration, one might want to look back and see how things worked out.

Justin apparently presumes that "how things worked out" is, disastrously. Well, I disagree. Having read a lot of news sources including Iraqi bloggers over the past year and a half, with a bit of help from the fine film "Voices of Iraq," I have no doubt that life has gotten better for Iraqis as a result of the war, and not much doubt that it will improve dramatically in the future. And they know it. That's debatable, sure, but what's odd is that Justin Logan just takes his side for granted. It leaves me wondering, why is this so obvious to him? What are his evaluative criteria? My evaluative criteria are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The freedom to speak one's mind, to "live in truth," as Vaclav Havel put it, is of particular importance for me. I say, with Patrick Henry, or with the Fadhil brothers, to use a contemporary example, give me liberty or give me death! And in particular, the liberty to say what I believe, to speak my mind, to worship as I see fit. Iraqis lacked that for 35 years, now they have it. Of course, 1200 American soldiers have died. They are volunteers. They chose to risk their lives to fight for freedom. We regret their loss, of course. But they did not die in vain: on the contrary. They have brought freedom to millions. They are heroes, and we honor them. That's part of what soldiering is all about. And, of course, there is the chaos in the Sunni triangle and all that. Is security more important than freedom? For a libertarian?

Justin Logan and Radley Balko both get on Sager's case for seeming to ignore or not to have read some of Cato's output. They don't realize they are illustrating Sager's point about being written off, about the national debate passing them by. If people like Ryan Sager haven't read their stuff, this is a sign that their stuff isn't being read. Patrick Basham's repeatedly-mentioned paper "Can Iraq Be Democratic?" is an example. It's serious scholarship, sure, marred by the title. The question is too transparently rhetorical, if only because it comes from the Cato Institute. And it hints at the paper's irrelevance. "How America Can Improve the Chances for Iraqi Democracy" would be the title of a more relevant work, given that we're already there. The other thing is that the article is not libertarian. Claims like this one--

The building blocks of a modern democratic political culture are not institutional in nature. The building blocks are not elections, parties, and legislatures. Rather, the building blocks of democracy are supportive cultural values--the long-term survival of democratic institutions requires a particular political culture.

are in a traditionalist, conservative tradition. And this claim--

Paradoxically, a more democratic Iraq may also be a repressive one.

shows scant faith in the libertarian credo that people want freedom.

As I see it, libertarians had two major contributions they could have made to the Iraq debate.

1. Legitimate government is based on consent of the governed. While this comes in various forms and degrees, in the case of Saddam's government, there was no consent, and Saddam's rule was based on murder and fear. That international law recognizes such a regime as legitimate is a travesty and a disgrace. Any free state has a right (though not a duty) to attack such a state and to remove the regime if it can.

2. Totalitarianism is bad. If you put it that simply, of course, the point sounds banal. But this should be libertarians' forte, and it's a point that deserves repetition. 1984 is a libertarian classic, yet, faced with a real live Big Brother, libertarians wanted to leave him in power.

If Cato had concentrated all its firepower on these two big points, it would be a highly influential voice in the foreign policy debate today. Nor would making these points have obligated them to support the Iraq war; they could have remained neutral, raising doubts about the right of the US government to spend taxpayers' money on the cause of liberation, however noble. But of course, this emphasis would have had the effect of supporting the war, even if Cato didn't make that its institutional position. So instead they chose to climb awkwardly on the anti-war bandwagon, along with UN-loving lefties, and they began to lip sync to the arguments of their new friends. The end result: if you care about liberty for Americans only, you won't find a better friend than the Cato Institute; but if you love liberty, full stop, George Bush is your man.


  • Fascinating. I haven't had time to click through all the links yet, but this is superb. I have noticed a decidely unlibertarian strand emerging among some who make claims to libertarian ideals.

    By Blogger MaxedOutMama, at 3:54 AM  

  • I agree with your points about the brutal Hussein regime. Does any libertarian disagree? The quotes you took from Mr. Logan appeared to be out of context. The question I, too, care about as a libertarian is what are the proper grounds for war. The United States, or any grouping of people, may have the right to overthrow a totalitarian regime, but as you point out it is not so obliged.

    Rather, the first obligation the U.S. government does truly possess is to protect its own citizens from foreign attack. Hussein's regime posed no such threat and never did. When posed with the real thrat of Al Qaeda, Dubya & Co. diverted us to an unnecessary war. Was it wrong because it violated Iraqi sovereignty? No, it was wrong because it made U.S. citizens less secure. Can a reasonable person disagree? Of course.

    I wouldn't call anyone who disagreed "unserious," however, which is what Sager did. And your suggestion that Cato essentially neuter itself in the public discussion is ludicrous.

    By Blogger Kevin B. O'Reilly, at 7:59 PM  

  • I don't know exactly what Kevin meant by "Cato essentially neutering itself in the public discussion." It seems to me that that is essentially what it has done. Cato has a tradition of extreme suspicion of the UN and of interventionist foreign policy abroad, yet they've made common cause with the peacenik camp that is by and large supportive of the UN. They've lost the chance to make distinctively libertarian contributions like the ones I mentioned-- and this would have been such an excellent chance to make the timeless libertarian points about consensual government and the evils of totalitarianism! Which, frankly, the world doesn't understand very well. They've alienated many of their own number, like Sager and Borders. The right no longer trusts them; the left never did, and sees them as "useful idiots" at best. A forthright attack on the legitimacy of Saddam's regime from the point of view of natural rights would have attracted interest from a lot of parties. It would have garnered interest for other foreign policy views (since you can mix popular and unpopular stances in the same article). As it is, I don't see who would have an incentive to read, or link to, Cato's stuff.

    I just don't understand the argument that the government can do anything to protect the homeland but nothing more. Is this part of the social contract somehow? How? Is America somehow morally obligated to sit still and watch a second Holocaust of the Jews? What if 95% of the American public was for protecting the Jews against an Arab onslaught? Would Cato still insist that we sit still and let them be slaughtered?

    If so, let's get to the deeper question: how is the "national interest" defined, and how is this definition justified? As far as I understand, it is legitimate for the US to defend an ally. To deny this would be to surrender a major tool of self-defense: making alliances with other strong free states. Are we then allowed to make alliances only on the basis of cold calculation, and never on the basis of moral sentiment? This is a difficult and unnatural distinction, and not one that has any place in the mental categories of your average American voter.

    A further question: what means can we use to defend against threats? I think it's clear that Saddam unleashed from the sanctions would have been a threat, in cooperation with al-Qaeda. (Don't even get me started on the silly claim that bin Laden and Saddam are too ideologically scrupulous to get in bed together, which has been disproven by the cooperation of Baathists with Islamist foreigners in Iraq, by bin Laden's recent videotape, etc., as well as by the most elementary logic and history of the Islamist movement...) We could contain Saddam only through sanctions, which were murderous and immoral, and far worse than the war since they killed children while leaving Saddam's regime in power.

    If libertarian foreign policy forbids the US to go on moral crusades, does it also forbid the US to let moral considerations influence the means by which the (so-called) "national interest" is served?

    By Blogger Lancelot, at 6:54 AM  

  • What I meant by your wanting Cato to neuter itself is that you suggested they should have essentially dropped out of the ought-we-go-to-war debate and simply repeated at length how terrible Saddam Hussein's regime was, and how terrible any totalitarian regime must be.

    But that's not the debate. Perhaps there is a debate in the Middle East about whether Hussein-like secular dictatorships are the best course but there's no debate about the matter here. I've got a pretty low opinion of the American political scene, but even I don't think that opposition to totalitarian regimes is a "distinctively libertarian" position. The debate here was over the war.

    Furthermore, who at Cato argued that Iraq's sovereignty was inviolable? What serious opponent of the war argued the grounds that the Iraqi regime was somehow legitimate. For Cato to take that position would have been to fight a straw man.

    You commit a fallacy by noting that Cato's position meant it was on the same "side" as the multilateralists and "peaceniks." Perhaps, but we don't get to choose our sides, and I don't recall any Cato analyst arguing that Iraq was a bad idea because war's always wrong or because we didn't have U.N. support.

    Sager, Borders and perhaps you may have been alienated by Cato's position, but why should the organization be interested in maintaining the favor of people who disagree with them on the most important foreign policy question in the last decade?

    Who should link to Cato's stuff? People who are interested in the truth. You may disagree with Cato's position on Iraq. You and many other libertarians, while still a minority, obviously have made a major departure from traditional libertarian thinking on foreign policy. That's fine. We obviously disagree. There's no need to reargue everything. What annoys me is the argument from adventurist libertarians that those libertarians who opposed the war are unserious or should just shut up about it. It's really ludicrous.

    By Blogger Kevin B. O'Reilly, at 1:59 AM  

  • Re: "even I don't think that opposition to totalitarian regimes is a "distinctively libertarian" position... Furthermore, who at Cato argued that Iraq's sovereignty was inviolable? What serious opponent of the war argued the grounds that the Iraqi regime was somehow legitimate. For Cato to take that position would have been to fight a straw man."

    Tons of people argued that the Iraqi regime was legitimate. I don't mean at Cato. But tons of people, worldwide, did. In Europe people were obsessed with how it was an "illegal war." It's not a straw man. It's the UN's view, so in a sense it's the official position of the world, and probably the actual opinion of most people in the world informed enough to have an opinion on the matter.

    A principled argument that no, sovereignty/legitimacy is not granted by the UN, but by the consent of the governed, would have been a unique and striking position, and one, moreover, that would have had broad appeal, to both right and left, to libertarians but also to non-libertarians. And it might have had the effect of drawing more interest to libertarian ideas, as opposed to the current stance, which forces people who feel quite close to libertarianism, but for whom anti-totalitarianism is the emotional heart of it, to question whether they really belong.

    Re: "Who should link to Cato's stuff? People who are interested in the truth."

    This really sounds like we're talking about some kind of church rather than a political tendency. Disclaimer: I'm a libertarian sympathizer, to be sure; I'm against the drug war, against immigration restrictions, against minimum wage, a strong proponent of free-market capitalism, I support voucher schools... but I'm not sure I'd be willing to take the plunge and say I'm "libertarian," because of I'm not sure what demands this "doctrinal" element raises. Having been raised in the Mormon Church and left it, I'm wary of getting tied into "doctrines." (Though I am a Christian.) That perhaps changes the debate a bit.

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