Libertarianism, the Iraq War, and the Division in the Friedman Household:

This interesting recent Wall Street Journal interview with Milton Friedman and his wife Rose (also a prominent libertarian economist) reveals a rare disagreement between them - over the Iraq War:

Mr. Friedman here shifted focus. "What's really killed the Republican Party isn't spending, it's Iraq. As it happens, I was opposed to going into Iraq from the beginning. I think it was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States of America ought to be involved in aggression." Mrs. Friedman--listening to her husband with an ear cocked--was now muttering darkly.

Milton: "Huh? What?" Rose: "This was not aggression!" Milton (exasperatedly): "It was aggression. Of course it was!" Rose: "You count it as aggression if it's against the people, not against the monster who's ruling them. We don't agree. This is the first thing to come along in our lives, of the deep things, that we don't agree on. We have disagreed on little things, obviously--such as, I don't want to go out to dinner, he wants to go out--but big issues, this is the first one!" Milton: "But, having said that, once we went in to Iraq, it seems to me very important that we make a success of it." Rose: "And we will!"

The dissension in the Friedman family would be unimportant if not for the fact that it mirrors a broader split within the libertarian community over the war. Just looking at the major libertarian websites and blogs for example, Instapundit and Techcentralstation have strongly supported the war (as have most of us here at VC), whereas Liberty and Power and others have opposed it. So too has the most prominent libertarian think tank, the Cato Institute. The commentators at Reason, probably the leading libertarian magazine, are internally divided among themselves.

Obviously, the war has also produced internal rifts among conservatives and liberals, but in each of these groups one side (pro-war among conservatives; anti-war among liberals) is clearly in the ascendancy and the other a small minority (though I wonder if more conservatives would oppose the war and more liberals support if it had been initiated by a Democratic administration instead of a Republican one). Libertarians, by contrast, seem much more evenly split, at least judging by the positions taken by prominent libertarian academics, pundits, and intellectuals.

I do not as yet have a definitive explanation for the intra-libertarian split. One possibly theory is that this disagreement tracks the longstanding division between those who endorse an absolutist interpretation of libertarian principle versus those who take a maximizing approach. Wars clearly lead to violations of rights to life, liberty, and property. If you are a deontological absolutist who believes it is always (or almost always) wrong to violate such rights regardless of consequences, then that gives you a logical reason to oppose virtually any war, possibly excepting a strictly defensive one, with "defense" defined very narrowly. By contrast, if you take a maximizing approach, you will be more willing to accept some rights violations now in order to reduce the total incidence of violations in the long run. For example, it could be argued that the War in Iraq, despite the carnage it has caused, saves a much greater number of innocent lives in the long run, as well as expanding personal and economic liberties for most Iraqis. However, it is not clear to me that the longstanding absolutist vs. maximizing division among libertarians fully accounts for the split or even that being absolutist or a maximizer is a good predictor of individual libertarians' positions on the war.

A second possible explanation is more autobiographical than ideological. It is possible that those libertarians who embraced the ideology primarily out of hostility to the various works of the US government are more likely to be antiwar than those who came to it primarily because of personal or familial experience with statist and socialistic governments elsewhere. Certainly, anecdotal evidence suggests that immigrant libertarians are more likely to be pro-Iraq War than native-born ones. So too with Jewish libertarians (who, even if native-born, may have a strong consciousness of their people's oppression by governments outside the US) as opposed to gentile ones, though Milton Friedman is one of many exceptions to the pattern. If you are highly focused on the evils of oppressive regimes and political movements outside the US, you might be more willing to countenance the use of American military power to destroy or contain them than if you have regarded the US government itself as the main threat to your freedom.

Obviously, most native-born libertarians are well aware that many other governments, including Saddam Hussein's. are much worse, in libertarian terms, than that of the US. Similarly, foreign-born and Jewish ones are still deeply hostile to the many nonlibertarian policies of the US government (I know I am!). However, there may be a visceral difference between the two groups as to which of these dangers to liberty seems more vivid and threatening and which engages our emotions more strongly at a subrational level.

I'm still not sure that this theory is the main factor behind the intralibertarian division over Iraq, and I can certainly think of many individual libertarians who are exceptions to it. But it does seem to have greater explanatory power than others I have heard. At the same time, it is certainly far from being the whole story.

To give credit where credit is due, I should note that the theory of a Jewish/immigrant vs. gentile/native-born intra-libertarian split was first proposed to me by co-blogger David Bernstein (though he bears no responsiblity for the content of this post).

NOTE: I'm not going to try to censor comments, but I suggest that it would be more productive if people focus on the narrower issue of the disagreement among libertarians instead of the broader issue of the justice of the war (which has already been debated ad nauseum both at VC and elsewhere).

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. THe Libertarian Split over the War II - Historical Roots:
  2. Libertarianism, the Iraq War, and the Division in the Friedman Household: