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May 6, 2003

Libertarians and War


by Harry Browne

I've been surprised by the number of libertarians who have supported the war against Iraq.

The two principal arguments I've heard from libertarian war-supporters are:

1. Saddam Hussein is a threat to the U.S. We must remove him from power before he attacks us or gives weapons of mass destruction to terrorists.

2. We libertarians should be the first to support the liberation of the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator.

The Threat

With regard to the first argument, supporting a politician's pre-emptive attack violates virtually every principle underlying libertarian thought – the simple truths that are taught in Libertarianism 101.

For example . . .

1. Non-aggression: Most libertarians believe you shouldn't initiate force against someone who has never used force against you. Force is to be used only in self-defense – not used just because you don't happen to like someone, or because someone doesn't like you, or because he might become dangerous in the future, or because some third party has attacked you and you want to prove you're not a wimp. The same principles must apply to our nation – that it shouldn't use force against a nation that hasn't attacked us.

2. Credibility of Politicians: The idea that Hussein posed a substantial threat to America is based entirely on claims made by the Bush administration. When did libertarians start believing anything politicians say? Politicians routinely lie about fictitious budget surpluses, "budget cuts," drug matters, crime statistics, and almost anything else. Remember the old joke?:

"How can you tell when a politician is lying?"

"His lips move."

The Bush administration has already been caught in numerous falsehoods concerning Iraq:

. . . and much more.

Even if none of these falsehoods had come to light, libertarians should always be skeptical of any claims made by politicians.

3. Government doesn't work: The federal government has devastated what was once the best health-care system in history, it is trashing our children's schools, its Drug War has pulverized the inner cities, it has left chaos in its wake in Afghanistan. In fact, you'd be hard put to think of a single government program that fulfilled the rosy promises made for it.

So why would you think the promises of Iraqi freedom and democracy will be fulfilled? This is the same government that's messed up everything else. Just because "national defense" is Constitutionally authorized doesn't mean the government will handle it effectively.

The Defense Department is nothing more than the Post Office in fatigues.

And beating up a third-world country after disarming it isn't something any self-respecting country should put on its résumé.

4. Power will be abused: The President has been given tens of billions of dollars to spend on Iraq as he chooses. Do you assume he'll use it wisely, without a hint of corruption?

The FBI and other law-enforcement agencies have been given enormous new powers to jail people without warrant and hold them without trial or legal counsel. Do you assume they will employ these powers only against America's enemies?

Do you really want to give government one more excuse to expand its size, its power, and its intrusions into your life?

5.Government programs never stand still: Every other government program has turned out to be far more expensive, far more intrusive, and extend into far more areas than proposed originally. Why should this war prove to be an exception?

Do you really think the regime-changers – after tasting the blood of innocents and the praise of the media and the citizenry – will go back to bickering about farm subsidies and school-lunch programs?

Or will they look for more "monsters to destroy" (as John Quincy Adams put it)?

6. Government is politics: Whenever you turn anything over to the government, it ceases to be a financial, medical, commercial, educational, or human-rights matter, and becomes a political issue – to be decided by whoever has the most political influence. And that will never be you or I.

Why should military matters be any different? Should we be surprised that companies like Bechtel and Haliburton have already received hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts to rebuild Iraq without competitive bidding?

Did you really think this war would be fought with no regard for political gain or abuse?

7. You don't control the government: You can look at the previous six items and say you would have handled some things differently. But who asked you?

No one.

And no one ever will. You don't make the decisions.

The politicians use your support as endorsements for them to fulfill their objectives, not yours – in their way, not yours.

That's true for health care, education, regulation – and it's true for military matters.

In Sum . . .

Government is force, and libertarians distrust force.

They know it will be abused, they know force won't produce the results promised for it, they know politicians will lie about the exercise of force, they know force will eventually be uncontrollable, they know that power is inevitably abused, and they know that no government program achieves its purpose and then goes quietly into the night.

On every count of libertarian principles, we should demand that the use of force against foreign countries be reserved for response to direct attacks – not to be used for "regime change," not for "democracy-building," not for pre-emptive attacks, not for demonstrations of strength.

Freeing People

The second argument offered by libertarians is that we should do anything we can to free other people from a brutal dictator.

I won't even deal with the fact that most of our knowledge of Hussein's brutality emanates from the U.S. government – hardly the place a libertarian would look for unbiased, authoritative information about anything.

I'll also ignore the point that, while condemning Hussein's brutal dictatorship, the U.S. government is aiding dictatorships in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Pakistan, and many other countries. We shouldn't be surprised if we're told someday that we must go to war against those dictatorships, to free the people our tax dollars are helping to enslave today.

Let's deal instead only with the idea that we have a responsibility to free people in other countries.

Is it your responsibility to enter someone's home and beat up the man you believe is abusing his wife?

Is it your responsibility to go into a dangerous section of your city and protect people from drug gangs that engage in drive-by shootings?

You might say the Drug War breeds those gangs and shootings, and thus you're working instead to end the Drug War itself – rather than trying to alleviate the symptoms of it.

Why then wouldn't you be working to end the causes of the profound anti-American sentiment that has swept the globe and provoked terrorist acts – rather than trying to alleviate the symptoms by supporting the attacking of Iraq?

Responsibility

The answer to the question "Is it your responsibility?" is simple: that's for you to decide.

Each of us must choose for himself what he feels responsible for. If you believe you have a duty to help those fighting for Iraqi freedom – perhaps even to go fight yourself – you should be free to make that choice, and no one should get in your way.

But what gives you the right to make that choice for others?

Why should you have the power or moral authority to decide which countries I must free, which countries warrant extracting money from me by force, which dictatorships warrant provoking terrorist attacks that put my life at risk?

And what libertarian would believe that George Bush should have that moral authority – plus the power to compel all of us to obey that authority?

You will face the consequences of your acts and I will face the consequences of mine. But George Bush won't face the consequences of his acts; you and I will. Is that the way it should be according to libertarian principles?

I think not.

And thus there is nothing George Bush can say that will make me believe I should put my faith in him to decide how many innocent Iraqis it's okay to kill, how many countries it's okay to attack and invade, how many Americans it's okay to put at risk, or how many libertarian principles it's okay to violate.

 

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Harry Browne is a best-selling author and two-time Libertarian Party nominee for president.

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