The Old Cause
by Joseph R. Stromberg

April 13, 2002

Liberventionism Rides Again


A while back I coined the word "liberventionism" as shorthand for "libertarian interventionism." I take the latter to be something of a contradictio in adjecto. Nevertheless, there are those who claim to be, and have been seen as, libertarians, who throw themselves into the breach to support this or that initiative of the U. S. Empire. They may not support each and every high-toned bombing raid on offer, but their support of any such philanthropies is a bit of a problem.

There is nothing like a good crisis to reveal the fault lines in any ideological movement. The present posture of a number of official libertarian foundations and publications has been more instructive than a thousand busy little seminars on de-municipalizing the garbage services (to paraphrase one of Mr. Buckley's anathemas from the 1960s). Reason magazine, never especially good on foreign policy, has suffered a major relapse into liberventionism, while the Cato Institute, dwelling in the belly of the beast, has taken up an imperial vision of "defense" with a vengeance.

So many self-named libertarians and classical liberals have taken up the warmonger's burden lately, that it will be no surprise if, fairly soon, they begin handing out freedom prizes and medals to every over-inflated warmonger who ever "served" in high office. Worse luck, they have taken to lecturing those who still warn of the perils of constant intervention, about the latters' sins, such as "anti-state libertarianism," lack of realism, excessive adherence to "creedal" positions, etc.


Symptomatic are the writings of Mr. Brink Lindsey, whose job at Cato Institute involves promoting world trade. His views on foreign policy, he insists, may not be those of his employers, and while that's all well and good, it is odd for someone keen on world trade to take the positions he does. "Isolationist" libertarianism, he told us on April 9 (scroll down), rests on "a failure to grasp the essential role of coercion in safeguarding freedom." Even worse, such libertarians are knee-jerk anti-statists, who incline towards – gasp! – free-market anarchism and "contend that making war beyond one's borders is inconsistent with the defense of liberty."

Well, I'm sorry, but I think we do grasp the role of coercion in the world and we have concluded that it has very little to do with safeguarding freedom. Quite the opposite. Analogies drawn between protection of persons and property by law enforcement, on the one hand, and global, mercantilist imperialism, on the other, are doomed to fail. The contradiction, not to say futility and immorality, of imposing world order by cruise missile so that trade may then flourish hardly needs much elaboration. These Cato people should read each other's work more. Messrs. Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz have done some very good writing on these issues, as has the (former) Ted Carpenter.

Some libertarians, says Lindsey, fail to "see the importance of context." I beg to differ. We have read some history, perhaps a bit more than he has, and find the context to be rather different than he imagines it to be. He poses some interesting rhetorical questions involving history.

"Is the world less free," he asks to know, "because European military power checked and repulsed the spread of Islam?" I answer that those parts of Europe threatened by Islam had every right to defend themselves and, yes, they were probably better off for having done so. It is hard to see how the world, as such, enters in to it. He asks, whether the world is "less free because the British challenged and eclipsed Spanish Sea power?" That's a tough one. Short of adopting the Black Legend, whereby Catholic Spain is seen as running an utterly Evil Empire, while Britain only entered the contest to spread common law and good breeding, it will be hard to give a definite answer. Just a footnote to these thoughts, one thing the British gained from those philanthropies was the asiento, the monopoly of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, very wicked of them, and I hate to be the one to point it out.

Next we are asked whether British success in chasing French imperialists out of North America left the world "less free"? The problems are similar and unless there is a clear-cut formula whereby British imperialism and mercantilism are always liberating, I would rather not adjudicate between these rival imperialist blocs. They had enough trouble with it in the 18th century. Further, counter-examples to the beneficence of British rule are hardly in short supply – Ireland could be mentioned – and if British rule was so wonderful, why did we have an American Revolution?

Other cases are adduced, which somehow add up to the claim that the world is more free because of the precise outcome of each situation named. Certainly, if the present is the best of all possible worlds, or indeed the only world that could exist, then everything leading up to it must, necessarily, have been good. Actually, that doesn't follow at all. It makes no allowance for accident, folly, stupidity, and getting away with criminal acts, all of which happen in history. Perhaps the Cato/Reason crowd would like to set out a systematic defense of all the atrocities, war crimes, and other lunacies which contributed to the overall fabric of the world as it exists today. Maybe not.

Well, it's very hard to sort out, much less answer to the World. It might be enough to keep one's own country free. There is reason to believe that crusading for the world's liberty undermines it in one's own backyard. Tricky business, that. It often kills off large numbers of people, with whom we might have dealt otherwise, but I leave that aside as a mere inconvenience of the art form.


Murray Rothbard and his associates did not arbitrarily seek to create a libertarian movement just for something to do. They had seen the conservative movement with its commitment to Cold War imperialism and intervention and decided that liberty deserved better defenders. Theirs was a systematic analysis of how foreign policy reflects back on a society, how it strengthens domestic statism, how it can risk pointless war, and so on. They did not go on much about the "glories" of war and empire.

If the Cato/Reason crowd – and there are others allied with them on these matters – no longer accept such an analysis, by all means let them join the Republican Party, let them lionize great warmongers of the past. But why must they keep up the pretense of believing in free trade, retrenchment, peace, and the other points of classical liberalism? Let them "reinvent" liberalism, once again; it's been done before, and the results were deplorable, but they were close enough for government work.


After all, sitting there in the Mother City of Empire, named for George Washington, it must be easy to forget what the real Washington advised his countrymen to do in their foreign relations. You know, the part about treating everyone fairly, not developing partialities toward particular nations, trading with everyone, while having no political connections with them.

Arguably, this was better for Americans, and, however indirectly, for the world. But I suppose that sort of thing is old hat for dynamists and market liberals.

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