August 28, 2004 10:01 PM

Welcome, Samizdatistas and Friends

A thread has started over at Samizdata about my recent entries on foreign policy and national defense from a libertarian perspective. I welcome the opportunity to explore these issues further.

A few quick notes about some of the responses I received:

First, one gentleman over at Samizdata with the handle "veryretired" referred to my views as "pacifist". This is far from the case. I am not a pacifist. I believe it is fine to stop and punish malefactors with the use of force. He may note that I spoke favorably of the deterrent effects of heavily armed militias and nuclear arsenals — I suspect most pacifists would not be willing to call me one of their own.

However, although I am not a pacifist, I am indeed a libertarian, and as a libertarian, I believe that governments, if they should exist at all, should limit themselves to enforcing contracts and defending the citizenry from violence. Since I see no evidence that Saddam Hussein's regime was a threat to the United States or United Kingdom, I do not see a case for involvement by the governments of the U.S. or U.K.

Arguably, the situation in Afghanistan was different since the Afghanis were harboring a hostile force that had used violence repeatedly against U.S. targets. (Note I say "arguably" — the Afghani situation is quite complicated.)

Now, "veryretired" might then ask what is to be done about third world dictators if large foreign countries will not overthrow them. I will not spend much time here on noting how often the U.S. and U.K. have created third world dictatorships to suit their agenda in "the great game" — I've already done that in an earlier post, and it could easily be argued that at least a few of the dictatorships in existence in the third world are not the product of Western meddling. One must then answer how the poor inhabitants of the small number of remaining dictatorships could be helped.

As I have said, I do not feel that individuals are in any way constrained the way governments are. In a libertarian society, individuals are free to contribute their own resources to charitable causes even if governments are not. If "veryretired" is strongly concerned about the problem of tin-pot dictators, he may undertake personal actions towards eliminating them. He is, naturally, free to recruit others to join him, and to solicit their funds. What he cannot do, however, is to use the force of the state to compel others to contribute their hard earned money to your good cause.

"veryretired" also refers to my position as "amoral", presumably because I do not wish to use the forcible taxation power of the state to pay for the good cause of his choice. However, if "veryretired" claims to be a libertarian, presumably he does not see anything amoral in the state refusing to fund homes for the poor, public art, space exploration and numerous other "good causes". Why is this cause fundamentally different? Certainly people die because of third world dictatorships, but they also die for lack of medical care, and no libertarian would argue the state should provide for that. (If "veryretired" meant that I was being amoral in some different fashion, I welcome his clarification.)

"veryretired" also asks:

When would Metzger have had the US adopt a Swiss foreign policy? Give us a date, and examine honestly the conditions in the world and the likely consequences. I would very much like to see some specifics instead of all the airy theorizing that usually goes on about this subject.
The date? Well, the U.S. did not exist before July 4, 1776, so presumably thereabouts would have been good if I had a magic wand and a time machine. Sadly I have neither.

The likely consequences of this? I would suspect that we would not, today, be worried terribly much about attacks on the United States, and our rate of economic growth would be substantially higher. Both of these would be in the direct interests of the citizenry of the U.S., which is, after all, the group to which the U.S. government is accountable.

In another comment on Samizdata, Andrew Ian Dodge wrote:

The trouble with the pacifist libertarian response to Saddam is that is ultimately suicidal. Saddam (or at least his secret service) had links with Islamic extremists. After all he paid a bounty to Palestinian "martyrs". I think it would have been a costly mistake to wait until someone supported by Saddam attacked the US.
Again, let me note that I am not a pacifist, but I am thoroughly unconvinced that Saddam Hussein was any sort of immediate threat to the United States. More to the point is that if the U.S. had maintained a policy of armed neutrality in the past rather than one of constant interference in the affairs of other nations, there would be very little incentive for anyone to attack us. One can argue that adopting such a policy now is dangerous, but isn't it more dangerous to keep on going as we have?

An old friend of mine, Tim Starr, wrote to mention to me that the Swiss have not been entirely free of terrorist incidents. For example, Palestinian terrorists attacked an El Al plane in Zurich in 1969, and some Swiss tourists were killed at Luxor in 1997. However, I don't think that the Swiss were, per se, the target of such attacks. In the former case, Switzerland was merely a convenient place to attack Israelis, and in the latter, it appears that the Swiss tourists were not targeted for their nationality but as part of a campaign to frighten away foreigners of all nationalities. There have been several other incidents involving Switzerland, but I can't find any evidence that in any of them Swiss nationals were targeted because of their nationality.

Christian Dreyer, in Switzerland, responded to me in this blog entry. I'm afraid that I don't per se understand his point. He notes that the Swiss adopted neutrality more from necessity than from desire, but that does not impact whether the policy has been a successful one. Similarly, he says it would be bad for the U.S. to "withdraw into its own shell", but he doesn't explain why this would be bad for the citizens of the U.S., and that is, after all, the meat of the question. Lastly he notes that Switzerland is becoming less neutral these days, but again, that does not in any way tell us whether armed neutrality is the superior stance.

Posted by Perry E. Metzger | Categories: Politics