Antiwar Libertarianism

My friend and sometime mentor in matters libertarian Roderick Long responds to my post below about Michael Badnarik’s position on terrorism and 9/11.

The following three propositions are distinct:

a) The kind of interventionist foreign policy the U.S. regularly pursues is likelier to provoke terrorist attacks than to deter them.

b) The specific attacks the U.S. suffered on 9/11 were primarily a response to its interventionist foreign policy, and the further interventions with which the U.S. has responded are making future terrorist attacks more rather than less likely.

c) The U.S. would never suffer any attacks if it did not have an interventionist foreign policy. Note that (a) does not imply (b), and (b) does not imply (c). We antiwar libertarians have been defending propositions (a) and (b), but in doing so we are not committed to (c) — and no antiwar libertarian known to me has endorsed (c).

which is fair enough, as a response to the charge I literally made, which was that Badnarik emrabced

“silly Panglossianism about politics that says, ‘Any wrong must be traceable to another wrong; if only we never did anything wrong, no one would ever do anything wrong to us.'”

That said, I think the rest of Rod’s post illustrates my real point quite nicely.

Compare the following three propositions:

d) The kind of interventionist economic policy the U.S. regularly pursues is likelier to provoke economic crises than to deter them.

e) The Great Depression was primarily the result of the U.S. government’s interventionist economic policy during the 1920s, and the further economic interventions with which the U.S. government responded served mainly to lengthen the Depression rather than alleviating it.

f) The U.S. would never suffer any economic crises — i.e., there would be no earthquakes, no floods, no hurricanes, etc. — if it did not have an interventionist economic policy. Most libertarians accept propositions (d) and (e); but of course this does not commit them to the absurdity à la Fourier of (f). Isn’t accusing antiwar libertarians of Panglossian silliness a bit like accusing libertarians in general of not believing in earthquakes and floods?

Well, no. It’s fallacious to treat the cases as so closely analogous. Indeed, Rod has usefully offered one of the neatest accounts I’ve seen of the fallacy that leads people to treat strict non-interventionism as a matter of libertarian principle.

Politics is not economics, and international politics is really not economics, and terrorism is really, reallynot economics.

In economics, there are sound theoretical, impersonal reasons for very predictable relationships to hold between actions and reactions, between interventions and effects. Those effects don’t much depend on the decisions and agency and ideology of other people. Price controls set below the market price will limit the quantity supplied, whether the producers wish it or not; eventually they will not be able to afford to produce goods at a marginal loss.

Action-reaction relationships like thata re much rarer in international politics. The closest thing to an invisible hand/ equilibrium theory in IR is realist balancing, but the predictive value of realist balancing theory is much, much weaker than the predicitve power of basic supply-and-demand economics. And that’s with respect to states. With respect to non-state threats, there’s even less by way of an invisible hand theory. Terrorists do tend to be “produced” by corrupt states that are authoritarian but less than wholly totalitarian (though totalitarian states do support terrorist movements abroad, they don’t spontaneously produce internal terrorist threats). But they’re also “produced” by ideology, and by decision. Moreover, there’s no iron law that says that foreign intervention produces corrupt authoritarian regimes– and no law that the terrorists produced by such regimes will target the states that supported the corrupt regimes. Neither Australia nor Spain nor Turkey nor Morocco is responsible for the perpetuation of the Saudi regime; all have been targeted. Terrorism is other people making actual decisions about how to promote their own ends in the world; and neither their ends nor their choice of immoral means is mechanically produced by the actions of the states they target.

Badnarik says:

It was because of American troops in Saudi Arabia, lethal sanctions on Iraq, and other serious violations of International Law that 3,000 innocent Americans paid the ultimate price on September 11, 2001.

Now it’s simply untrue that the Iraqi sanctions prompted 9/11. The sanctions were wrong; that doesn’t mean that they were a wrong of any great importance to Bin Laden & co. That’s what I mean by Panglossianism– the thought that there’s any particular relationship between the rightness or wrongness of our policies and how other people decide to act on us. (It’s also not true that either the presence of U.S. troops nor the sanctions was a violation of international law.) There’s no invisible hand that leads the radical Islamists of the world to respond violently to our wrongs rather than our rights, or even more frequently to our wrongs than to our rights. And, as an empirical matter, I don’t think any such relationship holds in this case, much less for terrorism in general. People can differ on that empirical judgement without falling into fallacy. But it is a fallacy– one akin to if not quite identical with Panglossianism– to hold to the invisible hand explanation that terrorism is caused by the moral faults of the victims’ governments, that there’s some causal mechanism that links the moral wrongness of one state’s actions to the decision by other states or non-state actors to take violent action. And I think that fallacy often drives the empirical judgement that terrorism in this case was brought about by policies that the one had independent grounds for disapproving of.

As Rod alludes to, this has all been hashed out many times, mostly in the months following 9/11. I don’t expect to change many minds here. For that matter, I’m not (at this stage, anyway) trying to talk anyone else out of voting for Badnarik. I’m just offering my explanation of why I won’t do so. If Badnarik were to come in second with tens of millions of votes, or even third with two million and newfound LP credibility, I’d be delighted. But if he were to become President I wouldn’t be.


The Badnarik blog also responds. Rod rejoins. He gets the last word for now.

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