01 December 2011

Is there a libertarian foreign policy?

Leon Hadar once served as the Libertarian Party's "shadow secretary of state," warning against American intervention in Somalia during the Clinton administration but generally having little impact on either Democratic or Republican foreign policy. Writing in The American Conservative, Hadar recalls being consoled by a fellow Libertarian with the shrugging assumption that "Libertarians in general are not interested in, and don't put a damn on foreign policy." Hadar thinks that there's more to the problem than that. He asks why libertarians haven't had the same influence over Republicans in foreign affairs that they've supposedly exerted in the economic realm. Part of his own answer is an admission that there seems to be no definitively libertarian foreign policy. While Hadar himself sympathizes with Ron Paul's non-interventionism, he concedes that some libertarians took the opposite stance, supporting the George W. Bush "Freedom Agenda" and neocon interventionism. He tries to account for this contradiction on the intellectual and the institutional level.

The war, after all, was orchestrated by a Republican administration that was also committed to free-market policies like cutting taxes and privatizing Social Security. And the same businesses that helped fund President Bush and other Republican politicians also provided financial backing to the leading libertarian think tanks.

Hadar writes on the assumption of a "cognitive dissonance" between libertarians' domestic opposition to Washington imposing its will on the rest of the country and the insistence of many libertarians that Washington ought to be able to impose its will on the rest of the world. He clearly believes that any advocate of limited government should be opposed to the sort of hegemonic interventionism the U.S. practices. He's probably right to attribute the contradiction to intellectual confusion, if not to a certain laziness about foreign policy.  But what if he himself, as well as his fellow libertarians, are even more fundamentally confused?

Writing about pro-war libertarians, Hadar speculates that they "rationalized the U.S. drive toward global hegemony in political-economic terms, arguing that creating an international system based on classical-liberal principles required a global power that had the diplomatic influence and military means to establish governing rules and institutions." In other words, the assumption may have been that a global free market required global hegemony for an entity capable of using power and reserving it for itself. Hadar's mistake may be his assumption that domestic politics somehow works differently. Libertarians idealize the reign of the free market as the absence, or at least the minimization or marginalization of political power. But what if the free market in any country -- what Hadar calls (in a strange imitation of Stalin) "Classical Liberalism in One Country" -- also depends on the existence of a hegemonic political power, an entity that holds the preponderance of power if only not to use it the way some other entity might? What if the libertarian utopia requires a political entity with absolute power, solely so no one else can have power to mess with the sacred Market? Wouldn't such an absolute power, practicing absolute reticence -- at least when it comes to the Market -- appear not to exist in the minds of its own acolytes?  But wouldn't only an absolute government be able to maintain the appearance of no government, by virtue of its ability to deny power to anyone else? Yet wouldn't it also appear to be no government only to those who benefit from its reticence, while appearing absolutely imperial to those who demand a share of power but are denied by every means at power's disposal? My implication is that those libertarians who didn't share Hadar's belief in non-interventionism as a good unto itself and endorsed neocon interventionism instead may have seen plainly on a global scale what they could not recognize, or couldn't bring themselves to acknowledge, in the domestic sphere: that to insure that the state does not interfere with the Market, the state (like the empire abroad) must monopolize power so that no one untrustworthy can use it. For them to be free, that is, the state must have absolute power, so that oppression, as they see it, cannot happen.

Meanwhile, I don't doubt Hadar's commitment to non-interventionism, nor the sincerity of his advice that anti-interventionist libertarians work with antiwar groups across the ideological spectrum, from paleocons to Naderite progressives. He may be right that doing so is the only way that libertarians can "do foreign policy," except for the possibility that libertarians and anti-interventionist libertarians may actually be two different things, and the possibility that the more one commits consistently to non-interventionism, at home as well as abroad, the less libertarian one may become.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I theorize that their thinking is: The government should not act to impede my ability to profit within the borders of the United States, but the government should act to keep others from impeding my ability to profit beyond the borders of the United States.