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America's Counter-Revolution
The Constitution Revisited

From the back cover:

This book challenges the assumption that the Constitution was a landmark in the struggle for liberty. Instead, Sheldon Richman argues, it was the product of a counter-revolution, a setback for the radicalism represented by America’s break with the British empire. Drawing on careful, credible historical scholarship and contemporary political analysis, Richman suggests that this counter-revolution was the work of conservatives who sought a nation of “power, consequence, and grandeur.” America’s Counter-Revolution makes a persuasive case that the Constitution was a victory not for liberty but for the agendas and interests of a militaristic, aristocratic, privilege-seeking ruling class.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Barnett Still Has It Wrong

In a follow-up comment to his pro-war Wall Street Journal article at the Volokh Conspiracy blog, “Antiwar Libertarians and the Reification of the State,” Barnett further exposes his deficiencies in thinking about libertarianism and foreign policy. The core of his argument is that “radical libertarians” can’t coherently all hold four principles he ascribes to them:
  1. War is Inherently Unjust
  2. Foreign Governments are Sovereign
  3. The illegitimacy of the United Nations
  4. The existence of fundamental human rights
One immediately smells a straw man. The trap is in 2). Here’s what he says:
[M]any radical libertarians who hold position (1) at the same time adopt a hyper-legalistic view of what constitutes a ‘war of aggression’ in which states are treated as though they were individual persons. In other words, they adopt the Westphalian view of nation states and sovereignty, which was devised to recognize and protect the autonomy of the government rulers ‘their’ territory. When making this argument, these radical libertarians treat foreign governments as ‘sovereigns’ to be respected (by the U.S. government) unless they commit or imminently threaten an act of aggression against the territory of another sovereign. Systematically violating the rights of their own subjects or citizens is a wholly internal domestic matter. In essence, these foreign governments are treated in principle as the just owners of the territories they govern. And their conduct is to be judged by the same rules of self-defense as are individuals…. One might say that, when dealing with issues of (American) foreign policy, these libertarians reify (foreign) states and treat them like individuals, with all the natural rights of individuals.
Now I’ve read a good bit of libertarian foreign-policy theory, and I don’t recall many references to the Peace of Westphalia (1648), which marked the end of the Thirty Years’ War and the Eighty Years’ War. According to Wikipedia, the two treaties comprising this event enshrined the doctrine of national sovereignty and nonintervention in the internal affairs of states. But the entry also notes that a revisionist view holds that “Neither of the treaties mention sovereignty.”

This historical controversy aside, what does it have to do with libertarianism and foreign policy? Not much. While it is true that the most substantial libertarian thinking about foreign policy embraces the principle of nonintervention in other countries’ internal affairs, libertarian noninterventionism is not founded on the principle of national sovereignty. How could it be?

Only the individual is sovereign. That being the case, no radical libertarian is guilty of reifying the state. Thus, there is no incoherence in the radical-libertarian position. Nice try, Professor Barnett, but no cigar.

If the reason for the prohibition on intervention is not national sovereignty, why have libertarian foreign-policy thinkers insisted that governments follow a strict noninterventionist principle? It shouldn’t be too difficult to discern the answer. Barnett of all people should know, given his long association with most of the heavyweight libertarian intellectuals.

Murray Rothbard, who did some of the most important work on libertarian foreign policy, summed up the answer in The Ethics of Liberty:
[T]he libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals, "foreign" and "domestic." The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area which it monopolizes, and not to aggress against other State-monopolists—particularly the people ruled by other States. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure ‘their’ respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.
As one can readily see, no principle of national sovereignty is needed to establish the noninterventionist principle. Governments don’t have rights over “their” territories or populations. Rather, they are ubiquitous threats to life, liberty, and property. But that is precisely why they must be kept from clashing with each other—when they do, innocents get slaughtered and wealth gets confiscated. This doesn’t mean that governments may properly aggress against “their” populations unmolested. They most certainly may not. It simply means that the method of opposing a given state’s aggression must be something other than interstate warfare. A libertarian cannot coherently advocate aggression in order to fight aggression.

6 comments:

Stephan Kinsella said...

Excellent analysis, Sheldon. Re this point: "This historical controversy aside, what does it have to do with libertarianism and foreign policy? Not much. While it is true that the most substantial libertarian thinking about foreign policy embraces the principle of nonintervention in other countries’ internal affairs, libertarian noninterventionism is not founded on the principle of national sovereignty. How could it be?

"Only the individual is sovereign. That being the case, no radical libertarian is guilty of reifying the state. Thus, there is no incoherence in the radical-libertarian position. Nice try, Professor Barnett, but no cigar."

Yes, quite. This is exactly why some of us libertarians oppose the War to Prevent Southern Independence--not because the South had some "sovereignty" or "right to exist"--but because the libertarian wants all states to be limited and unable to do things like wage wars on other countries, etc. It's the same reason many libertarians look favorably on the old doctrine of "states' rights"--not because states actually have rights, but because this is a useful structural mechanism to keep federal power more limited than otherwise. It's the same reason many libertarians oppose the centralization implied by the Fourteenth Amendment--not because we believe the states have some "right" to enact Jim Crow laws or to outlaw sodomy--but because there is no good reason to transfer the decision-making power about these topics further up the chain.

Matt said...

Mr. Richman-
I believe this was an excellent post on your part. It is hard to understand how a libertarian can not help to be a "radical" libertarian and oppose war? If we look at all the wars that were faught in our own history, war has only help to enhance the power of the state's power. So interfering within a foreign state would only enhance that state's internal hold on its people. Japan and Germany are perfect examples. Japan convinced their own citizens to to their lives in front of the American advancement. Germany killed their own citizens as they fled the destruction.

Mr. Kinsela's point about the War of Southern Independance is a great point of opposition of war. By challenging the citizens of the foreign countries to over throw their own state's power we have provided them independance. Had the war between the states never occured Northern Abolisionist would have continued force the intellectual and philosophical discussion of abolition.

Sheldon Richman said...

Thanks Stephan and Matt.

Stephan, the problem for us is that the 14th Amendment exists. We can no more rationally deny it than others can rationally deny the 2nd Amendment exists. What do we do about it?

Given that the Constitution itself was a move toward centralization (away from the decentralization of the Articles of Confederation), I see the 14th Amendment as just another step along a bad path.

Stephan Kinsella said...

Sheldon--I agree. The 14th is now part of the Constitution. And it did centralize. I just think it didn't centralize to the radical, broad extent its libertarian suporters say.

Darren said...

Sheldon,
Great post. I'm a new reader of your blog, and I like it so much I've added it to my own blogroll at No Coercion. Keep up the great work!

Sheldon Richman said...

Thanks, Darren! I'll check out No Coercion.