Nowhere in Barnett’s article does one find a hint that the leading, pioneering classical liberals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not just skeptical of the government’s war-making power; rather they were forthrightly antiwar, anti-empire, and pro-peace. These include Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, John Bright, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, and William Graham Sumner. This is no coincidence. These men were not ivory-tower theorists; they were historians as well as keen observers of contemporary events, applying libertarian principles to the historical conduct of politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats. It was Sumner, echoing many before him, who pointed out that "national defense" means "war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, political jobbery." The liberals unfailingly understood that war meant the mass murder of innocents and regimentation at home. Nothing is easier for a politician than conjuring up a "self-defense" justification for war, but the great classical liberals would have nothing to do with it. For one thing, they realized that the self-defense analogy is bogus. When an individual defends himself, he does not tax others to help him, conscript others, or bomb the attacker's friends and family, who may be completely innocent of wrongdoing. The state is not an individual. The rules are different.
I think this gets at an underlying flaw in Barnett’s case. He, like others, approaches libertarianism in a hyper-rationalistic, ahistorical way. If in his view a policy position cannot be reached deductively from libertarian first principles, he concludes that libertarianism per se has nothing to say about it. But his method is wrong. Libertarianism isn’t purely an a priori theory. It's a set of insights about human beings and a unique historical institution -- the state -- insights produced by centuries of experience. Libertarianism properly conceived is an interplay of theory and history, neither ever losing sight of the other. It is, as Chris Sciabarra notes, dialectical.
Barnett curiously combines his simplistic a priori approach to libertarianism with a vulgar dilettantism regarding current events void of detailed knowledge about the
And why are libertarian such as Barnett comfortable with this dubious methodology with respect to foreign policy? Because not far below the surface, they are nationalists. The nation is still a special unit of emotional value -- particularly the U.S. There's an implicit theory of exceptionalism here too. That accounts for their lack of interest in the history of U.S. intervention.
Cross-posted at Liberty & Power.