August 25, 2004 2:59 PM

Libertarians and War

Once upon a time, the U.S. overthrew a democratic government in Iran run by a prime minister named Mohammed Mossadeq. Our replacement was absolute rule by a guy named Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who styled himself the king of kings, and we spent a lot of effort keeping him in power. Eventually, people in Iran got fed up with him doing things like running torture chambers and operating the country as his own private piggy bank, and they overthrew him. Sadly they replaced him with a nutty theocracy run by a guy named Ruhollah Khomeini, but you couldn't really blame them — desperate people rarely pick the right revolution to fight for.

Did the U.S. say "hey, we understand that they're upset with us, we've got a long history of screwing them, lets leave them alone?"

Of course not, because we didn't even remember that they had a reason to be pissed off at us. The U.S. has about zero national memory of all the times we've screwed various third world populations to the wall in the name of "Realpolitik". We then act puzzled about why they might dislike us — the know-nothings in the White House go so far as claiming that the problem is that various people around the world "hate freedom", as though the murderous thugs in third world countries who torture their citizens with our funding were a form "freedom". (None of the 9/11 hijackers came from "free" countries as we understand the term, but they all came from countries that could claim to be strong allies of the U.S., and in many cases these countries are the recipients of lots of U.S. aid which funds the local dictatorship. I suppose that is how we show our support for "freedom".)

Anyway, back to our narrative. After the Iranian Revolution, we decided that one of Iran's neighbors, Iraq, was a great proxy for our war on them, so we handed that country's brand new dictator, a fellow named Saddam Hussein, lots of help. Hell, we sent Donald Rumsfeld to go and shake his hand, and tell him that it was okay if he went off and killed a bunch of his own people for good measure, so long as he attacked Iran. We knew he was a murderous thug, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Later he turned around and invaded one of our even more special friends, Kuwait, and we were forced to break off our good working relationship with him. Eventually, of course, we ended up deciding to get rid of him — why we picked the particular time we did is unclear, but the public excuse was that he had biological or chemical weapons, and that he'd been involved with terrorism against the U.S., although it turned out that neither was the case. Who have we paid off and propped up this time to help us meet our goal? Everyone in sight.

Meanwhile, recall that the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in the late 1970s. We could think of no better solution at the time than to hand lots of money, weapons and training to various "freedom fighters", such as a fellow named Osama bin Laden, who we hoped would take care of the Soviets for us. Eventually, of course, this lead to little problems like the Taliban taking over Afghanistan, and giving shelter to bin Laden and company, who turned out not to really be our friends. We decided to invade, but we didn't have any nearby bases. Did that stop us? No! Following our usual pattern, we found dictators in nearby countries like Turkmenistan who were willing to give us use of their military bases in exchange for our looking the other way and handing them a bunch of money.

Why has all this stupidity happened? Because the U.S. is run by a government, and governments pretty much always end up behaving stupidly. When a business acts stupid (and they all do eventually), the market punishes it by taking away its money and power. When a government acts stupid, there is no market mechanism to punish it, and no competing government to womp it in the marketplace, so it almost always perpetuates the stupidity instead of getting rid of it.

What I want to know, though, is not why governments act stupid — thanks to lots of good research over the years I think that's now fully understood. I'm not even asking why most people trust their governments — that just strikes me as a subset of the general question of why so many people believe utterly unbelievable things, such as the idea that the Bible is the perfectly accurate message of a supernatural being.

What I want to know is why so many seemingly rational people who claim to be libertarians are out supporting this madness. Take, for example, the folks over at Samizdata. Most of the time they seem to be perfectly reasonable folks, but for the last couple of years they've been seized by the notion that the war in Iraq is not merely justifiable but indeed laudable. I've seen this same disease afflicting many libertarians around the world. They ignore the hundreds of billions in forcible taxation needed to pay for the war, they ignore that the excuses for the war proved ultimately false, and they ignore all the innocents killed, all on the basis of various vague justifications like "fighting terrorism" (though there is no evidence that the war in Iraq has done anything at all to reduce the threat of terrorism) or the fact that Saddam Hussein was a ruthless dictator (fully ignoring all the other ruthless dictators we're actively supporting worldwide with money taken by force from U.S. taxpayers.)

Worse, these "libertarians" even forget straightforward libertarian principles about the use of force in acquiring resources. Sure, a person can decide he wants to support some "good cause" like cancer research or knocking off a third world murderer — but to a libertarian, no amount of "good" to be done by supporting a cause justifies taking money by force to pay for it. If a large number of Samizdata contributors (or anyone else) wanted to personally support efforts to depose third world dictators, that would be one thing, but what they advocate instead is that my money be used to achieve their goal, and that it be taken from me by force if I won't agree. Individuals can do whatever they want with their own resources, but they can't decide to commit other people's resources. That violates the Non-Coercion Principle.

So, at last getting to my question of the day, does anyone have a good explanation for what has gotten into these "libertarians" who are out cheering for the war? I'd be very curious to hear people's explanations. No, I don't want to hear more of their rationale for the war — I'm familiar with their arguments and I don't need them repeated. I'm interested into some sort of insight into their mental state. What takes a person who distrusts all uses of government to the point where they'll support something as indefensible to a libertarian as the Iraq war, and parrot obviously false claims like "this will stop terrorism"? (Some might say this happened because 9/11 deranged a lot of people, enraging them so much that they can't think clearly, but that seems like a poor explanation to me — I watched the Trade Center towers fall live and in person, with people I knew inside, and I'm not out arguing that we should invade randomly selected third world countries.)

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Categories: Politics