What’s Wrong with the Libertarian Case Against the War in Afghanistan?

Barry Cooper
June 22, 2009
Before we can see what is wrong with “ The Libertarian Case Against the War in Afghanistan ,” made by David R. Henderson, we have to understand what, if anything, is wrong with libertarianism.

What’s Wrong with the Libertarian Case Against the War in Afghanistan?

Barry Cooper
June 22, 2009
Before we can see what is wrong with “ The Libertarian Case Against the War in Afghanistan ,” made by David R. Henderson, we have to understand what, if anything, is wrong with libertarianism.
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Before we can see what is wrong with “The Libertarian Case Against the War in Afghanistan,” made by David R. Henderson, we have to understand what, if anything, is wrong with libertarianism. When we do, what is wrong with the libertarian case against the war in Afghanistan will be, if not self-evident, at least clear. But first: what is libertarianism? This interesting theoretical question is made doubly so because Henderson does not provide us with an account of what he means. He does, however, mention “public choice theory,” which, although it is hardly synonymous with most accounts of libertarianism, is close enough for our purposes.

Giving an account of libertarianism is a modest but difficult task. It is not clear whether it constitutes a describable subject-matter and if so, whether it has a definable history. We begin, therefore, with libertarian self-interpretation. Those who call themselves libertarian or who have used the term with an analytic purpose, intend a wide range of meanings. In the eighteenth century, for example, a libertarian was one who opposed determinism on the grounds that determinism was contradicted by free will. In the nineteenth century libertarians looked a lot like anarchists, especially in France, where the term may have been introduced to avoid prosecution under anti-anarchist laws. In his notable contribution to the even more notable 1911 edition of The Encyclopedia Britannica, Prince Peter Kropotkin, himself an anarchist, used the term more or less synonymously with anarchism.

A second genealogy relates the term libertarian to liberalism. But liberalism is hardly a stable concept. Like libertarianism it has a complex history chiefly because it represents a phase of stabilization in the centuries-long modern Western revolutionary movement. The first and relatively late use of the term in a political context has been traced to the liberales of the Spanish Cortes of 1812. The intellectual origins of liberalism lie in the more remote past, with Locke and the Glorious Revolution, and even with Hobbes and the Puritan Revolution. On such grounds one might identify the “age of liberalism” with the period of stabilization following the French Revolution. Later the national and international socialists revived the revolutionary transformation of the world begun in 1789. Later liberals, like the Spanish liberales, opposed both the revolutionaries and those who supported the restoration of the pre-revolutionary regime. The position between reactionaries and revolutionaries has posed a problem that liberals have had to deal with ever since.

The political and economic aspects of liberalism are the most important in the present context. Politically, liberals have sought to limit the encroachment of the executive on the judiciary and the legislature. That is, they oppose the old-style police state. They also oppose the social order of the old regime because it accords privileges to the clergy and to aristocrats. Moreover, the liberals do so in the name of the middle class, which proves to be a point of weakness when the working class becomes capable of directing this same liberal attitude against privileges in general toward the particular privileges of the bourgeoisie. Once liberals start attacking privilege, the attack can never end until the entire society is egalitarian. But we know, to use Aristotle’s formula, that human beings are equal in some respects and unequal in others and that, therefore, a simply egalitarian society is impossible. This, too, has posed a problem for liberals seeking to stabilize society and its regime against egalitarian revolutionaries. And likewise, the objection of liberals to the tie between church and state eventually turns into an explicit anticlerical movement.

There is a parallel economic argument. Initially, liberals objected to legal limits to free economic activity. They argued that, in principle, there should be no restraint on (enlightened) self-interest or what Toqueville called “self-interest rightly understood.” In practice, the qualifications of right understanding and enlightenment have tended to disappear for those who call themselves market liberals, classical liberals, and more recently, libertarians. The reason seems connected to the growth of the state as an institution that provided actual content to the otherwise abstract qualifications of right and enlightened understanding.

Particularly in the US and Canada, liberalism has been strongly associated with the state, both the federal state and the provincial state (or in the US, the state state). Moreover the embrace of Keynesian anti-cyclical economic theory by large numbers of federal politicians and bureaucrats along with the growth of large-scale, state-administered welfare policies has expanded the importance of the central government in both countries. In their standard textbook, my colleagues Mark Dickerson and Tom Flanagan have named this historical complex “reform liberalism.”

Beginning with the introduction into North America of the teachings of the so-called Austrian School of economics and the recovery of the doctrines of the nineteenth-century French economist and businessman, Frederic Bastiat, libertarianism was given a new lease on life and a coherent set of arguments against reform liberalism. From the 1930s until today, economists following the arguments of Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek have taken the position that the “collectivism” found initially in national and international socialism has become respectable in reformed liberal regimes. Despite that respectability, it still poses a grave threat to the liberty of classical liberals.

Into this already multi-layered intellectual mix combining anarchism, resistance to reform liberalism, and celebration of market liberalism, one can add the spiritual aspirations celebrated in the “objectivist” novels of Ayn Rand, especially The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957). Whether all objectivists are libertarians is not at issue so much as the fact that Rand’s spiritual and “philosophical” teaching looks to be compatible with libertarian economics. Mention must also be made of the question of American foreign policy because there the US libertarian movement has been (1) much larger than in Canada and so a source of Canadian libertarian opinion, and (2) has had for most of the postwar period (unlike in Canada) some serious foreign policy questions to consider. During the Cold War, the alliance between reform liberals, conservatives, and classical liberals or libertarians remained intact in opposition to the revolutionary international socialists, much as they opposed the national socialists (in an alliance with the international ones) during World War II.

Opposition to the Soviet Union was one thing; military intervention abroad (apart from Europe) was something else. The sixties, which combined aspects of the thought of Kropotkin and Ayn Rand, fractured the alliance of conservatives, liberals, and libertarians. Opposition to the Viet Nam War moved many American libertarians into the peace movements and organizations that are conventionally described as residing on the left – draft dodgers and Students for a Democratic Society, for example. On occasion the libertarians formed their own political organizations such as the Society for Individual Liberty and the Radical Libertarian Alliance. To reform liberals, the libertarian “antics,” to use a phrase of William F. Buckley, a conservative, looked a lot like the splits of the 1930s among international socialists.

Libertarians, finally, have developed their own ethical positions, which mirror liberal ones in terms of being either consequentialist or “rights-based,” called “deontological” by academic philosophers. There are also contractarian libertarians, the most famous of whom is Robert Nozick, who hold that the legitimacy of government, such as it is, does not come from the consent of the governed, which is a mainstream constitutional liberal or even reform liberal position, but from a mutually agreed upon contract. It is in this political context that the public choice school of economics, founded by Nobel laureate, James M. Buchanan, and espoused by David Henderson, is to be found.

These brief remarks indicate the context within which libertarianism must be understood. It is a complex and changing picture because libertarianism, like the liberalism from which it directly derives, and like its more remote antecedents such as anarchism, changes. Libertarianism changes, moreover, because it is not a body of timeless propositions about political reality or human nature. It does not aim ever to be political science. Rather, libertarianism is perhaps best described as a complex of attitudes and opinions that attains optimal clarity in a tightly argued theory such as public-choice economics but grows rather more obscure in the capacious and emotionally appealing objectivism of Ayn Rand.

Even the most coherent libertarian doctrines, however, are limited, notwithstanding their heuristic value in other respects. For example, the libertarian argument in favour of our freedom to sell a kidney on the open market does alert us to considerations about what makes us persons. If kidney sales are permitted, why not hearts? and eventually minds, or maybe just brains? Our present concerns, however, are less speculative. They are focussed on government and politics, including war.

Let me therefore summarize the libertarian understanding of politics, which, as is true of all such accounts, also reflects an understanding of human being or of human nature. In the language of political science, libertarians espouse a philosophical anthropology though it is not always explicit. We have already learned, for example, that in principle libertarians are comfortable with kidney sales by human beings. If there is a principled objection to the sale of hearts and minds by the legal person of an estate from a comatose human being, it is not obvious. That is what is meant by saying that all such doctrines provide an often implicit understanding of human being. For a libertarian, human beings constitute a class of beings for which kidney sales and possibly the sale of other body parts or even entire bodies (slavery) are worth considering. Of course, some libertarians – Robert Nozick, for instance – have objected to slavery. It is not clear, however, who he is trying to convince.

If we can summarize libertarian economic doctrine as the position that human activity, preeminently economic activity, should be as free from government control and oversight as is compatible with the orderly functioning of the market, libertarian political doctrine aims to extend this position to politics. That is, libertarians want to expand the market from economic life down to personal life and up to government life.

Libertarians, in the words of President Reagan, want to “get the government off our backs.” But what will they put in its place? Nothing.

Not conscience, because the teachings that form our conscience must come from elsewhere, not from the individual. Not responsibility either, and for the same reason. Harvey Mansfield, a political scientist, once described libertarianism as “the belief that a system of self-government does not require any self in the system to govern himself.”[1] What did he mean by this? First, that libertarians believe in the sovereignty of the self, but not in the self-government of the self. Here we find the anarchist stream of libertarianism, like a recessive gene, expressing itself. This is why libertarians are socially permissive but fiscally conservative. The “self” in the system who does not govern himself or herself is an “individual.” But libertarians forget that individuality is an achievement that comes from taking on responsibilities, usually by way of family and citizenship. They forget that an individuality that is merely presumed is also isolated and thus they forget as well what Aristotle said, that an isolated individual is either a beast or a god. Which non-human option of isolation do libertarians prefer?

There are some other curiosities that follow from the isolation that libertarians presume characterizes individuality. They cannot account for why humans are sociable, let alone political. The argument that sociability is a kind of insurance policy against having to put out a fire or a hedge against loneliness is likely to drive a commonsensical person, who may also be a genuine individual, to despair. The libertarian is unmoved by this commonsensical response because he or she (having read Ayn Rand) thinks compromise is a vice. They see no need to compromise with confused persons and their commonsense. True, they say they believe in limited government, as do constitutionalists, but the real question is: do they believe in government? The answer, so far as I can see is: people, these notional, isolated individuals, should be able to have what they want. So long as it isn’t government. And if big government is consented to, as it clearly has been in both Canada and the US, then such consent contradicted reason. But what if it was efficient? Or even necessary? Presumably then libertarians would say it was not consented to. This example indicates that libertarians certainly are armed with arguments, but –like Nozick– do they ever wish to persuade? That would be to adopt a position where their sovereign self was more sovereign than yours.

Before turning to Henderson’s libertarian case against the war in Afghanistan, let us consider rational choice (or rat choice, as its detractors say) as applied to peace and war. The first thing to note is that these theories are “formal,” by which is meant they are concocted without recourse to considering what actual human beings might have to say or, more generally, what the facts of the case may be. In this context, the aforementioned economist Buchanan and Gordon Tulloch have made up rules that a rational individual would follow in making choices, including the choice of a constitution.[2] They believe that compromise can be achieved in politics just as it can in economics so politics is not a zero-sum game. Politics is not like war, with winners and losers. But is this true? William Riker, another economist, argues that, unlike economics, politics is a zero-sum game.[3] If Stephen Harper wins, Stephane Dion and now Michael Ignatieff loses. If the Taliban wins, who loses?

The fact is, Riker is right and Buchanan and Tulloch are wrong: politics really is more like war than haggling over the price of a carpet. (This is, incidentally, why Clausewitz said that war is the continuation of politics with the admixture of other means – namely organized violence.) The reason why Riker is right is simple: you can derive peace from war (indeed, peace is the rational purpose of war) but you cannot derive war from peace. To put it even more simply, the peaceable exchange of economics is made possible by a more comprehensive political peace which results from the settlement of war. The economic exchanges that took place so impressively during the long nineteenth century, the golden age of liberalism, were made possible by the Royal Navy. Who guarantees freedom of the seas today? Off the horn of Africa during November of this year, defending freedom of the seas from pirates, the frigate, INS Tabar, was on the job.

Turning now to David Henderson’s libertarian case, I propose first to examine the two major parts of his argument and then examine his assumptions. The two parts of the argument are articulated into five sections: an introduction, two theoretical sections that also deal with examples, one hypothetical and the other real, and two sections that provide ancilliary “prudential” arguments as to why Canada should not be fighting in Afghanistan.

The introduction provides the context. Canada stood by its only significant ally following the terrorist attack of 11 September, 2001, and sent troops to Afghanistan. Initially special operations forces in the late fall of 2001 were deployed and then in February, 2002, light infantry. As the mission grew, so did Canada’s commitment, particularly regarding the exit date and the theatre of operations. This was and is chiefly a NATO mission and Canada has historically been a strong supporter of the alliance. In Afghanistan Canadians demonstrated their commitment to NATO as well as to their American ally when they left directing traffic in Kabul to the caveat-burdened Germans and French and moved south to the Taliban homeland, Kandahar, named for Alexander the Great who once passed that way. They also beefed up the capability and numbers of the battle group, adding tanks and M777 howitzers to the wheeled vehicles used to transport infantry into battle. Unquestionably the mission has expanded. This tends to happen in war. Henderson then introduced the question of whether Canada’s military presence should be extended past the promised exit date of 2011, or should we pull out before that. “To answer it, I propose that we step back and consider how good the case was for invading Afghanistan in the first place.”

He does not begin from the fundamental fact with which we began, that the United States is Canada’s only ally of consequence. He doesn’t begin with facts at all but with a hypothetical scenario designed, Henderson said, to clarify his “thinking about terrorism and war.” This first imaginary scenario involved a terrorist attack on country A masterminded by a man from country B who lives in a country C, which has no extradition treaty with country A. Country B does have such a treaty and tried to get country C to hand over the alleged mastermind. But they refused and the question was raised; “does country C’s unwillingness to extradite the alleged terrorist justify country B’s government bombing or invading country C?” Henderson says it did not because “thousands of innocent people” might die in an effort to apprehend one guilty person.

In case you were thinking about bin Laden, al-Qaeda, and Afghanistan under Taliban rule, Henderson cleverly explains that the facts of the scenario refer to a 1976 event. Country A is Cuba; country B is Venezuela; country C is the United States. The now no longer hypothetical question is: “would the Venezuelan government be justified in bombing or invading the United States and/or attempting to dislodge the government of the United States?” Such a question, Henderson admits is “ridiculous.” It is indeed ridiculous because of the simple facts of the case: Venezuela could not invade or bomb the US. This can be dealt with in his scenario by imagining the Americans are disarmed, thus making them vulnerable to the armed might of the Venezuelan military and returning the question to its hypothetical status, which is even more ridiculous. Henderson answers as he did before: such an impossible invasion would be unjustified because of collateral damage, in this case presumably the innocents of Florida and Louisiana. Then he returns to the non-hypothetical: if it is wrong for Venezuela to invade America in search of an alleged terrorist wanted for extradition, it is equally wrong for America to invade Afghanistan in search of bin Laden.

Worse, according to Henderson, the real American judges, despite the convincing evidence against the alleged Cuban terrorist, refused to extradite him because of the possibility of torture, whereas the Taliban judges simply asked for evidence against bin Laden, promising to turn him over if they were convinced. According to Henderson, President Bush refused to supply the evidence, unlike Venezuela, thus further damaging the American position.

Finally, Henderson maintains his “theoretical” position no matter how many alleged terrorists are involved, whether it is one, in the example of Venezuela’s hypothetical attack on America, or thousands in the example of America’s real attack on Afghanistan. Moreover, the fact that America is an “open democratic society” and Afghanistan under the Taliban was a “disgusting bloodthirsty regime” also cuts no ice. Again it makes matters worse for America because citizens of a democratic regime could “demand justice” and stop the attack by their government, whereas Afghans could not.

Before considering Henderson’s prudential arguments, we need to ask: what –besides some juvenile anti-Americanism– is going on here? I have called Henderson’s examples, whether hypothetical or real a “scenario.” The term, of course, comes from the world of the theatre, the world of the imagination, not the commonsense world where real human beings have to deal with facts. The attribute most noticeable in Henderson’s argument is that he combines facts, or rather, convenient facts, with fiction. Thus he moves easily between his hypothetical example and the real invasion of Afghanistan. This blending of fact and fiction is the very definition of a political scenario.

Of equal importance with the imaginary status of Henderson’s scenario is the assumption that the issue is chiefly legal. Thus, for example, Henderson soberly compares judges within the American justice system, weighing evidence and deciding upon its weight, with his expectations regarding the Taliban. Initially he appears to consider the possibility that they might respond to “evidence” turned over to them by the US government. Presumably the Attorney General of the United States would deliver a brief or a finding of some sort and the learned judges among the Taliban would weigh and consider the evidence. But even if the learned Taliban judge received the evidence from his learned and esteemed colleague, the Attorney General of the United States, then what?

Clearly we are moving into the higher reaches of fantasy land. Henderson acknowledges the essentially defactualized nature of his discourse because he allows the commonsensical observation that “of course, the Taliban may well have acted in bad faith, never intending to turn over Osama bin Laden, no matter what the evidence.” Really? But even so, we could have waited “a week or two for the Taliban’s response.” Indeed, we could have, but why? In real life, or factually, what existed between the United States and Afghanistan was not a legal dispute but the clear political question of one country, allied with the terrorists of al-Qaeda, giving them sanctuary. Such “evidence” was self-evident to the Taliban for the obvious reason that they were complicit in enabling al-Qaeda to conduct the 9/11 operation. Not for David Henderson. He ends his case with the following sentence: “Wouldn’t it be better simply to regard the 9/11 attackers and those behind them as criminals and to mount a serious attempt to bring those criminals to justice?” In fact, lawyers unleashed in South Waziristan or the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan would quickly become lawyers dead.

Henderson added to his argument about “evidence” the following argument. If the Taliban acknowledged the evidence against bin Laden and still did not turn him over to an agent of the American government – one of the lawyers, if any survived, or perhaps an FBI agent or a New York City cop – and if that hypothetical possibility were acknowledged as relevant to the US invasion of Afghanistan to destroy the regime that enabled the al Qaeda attack as well as to destroy the terrorist organization, then “it would follow that a Venezuelan attack on the United States was justified.”

No, it would not. The reasoning of the American judge was that the alleged Cuban terrorist living in America could not be deported under American law “because he faced possible torture in Venezuela.” It is preposterous to pretend that bin Laden would face torture in America and that such a possibility would ever be adduced by a learned Taliban lawyer as a reason why bin Laden would not be deported to America. Second, the United States has not been a refuge for a terrorist network headed by the Cuban-born, Venezuelan-alleged terrorist at the centre of Henderson’s scenario, unlike Afghanistan under the Taliban. Such a theory is intelligible only in the context of a defactualized imaginary scenario. To repeat, the reality is – and surely Henderson must know this – that the dispute between America (and Canada) on the one side and the Taliban and al Qaeda on the other is political or military, not legal. The kindest thing one might say is that Henderson’s theoryreflects an incomplete understanding of politics. This deficiency is made evident as well in the final two sections dealing with “prudential grounds” for opposing the invasion of Afghanistan.

The prudence introduced by Henderson is not Aristotelean phronesis, the capacity to judge and to do the right thing according to circumstances. Not at all. Henderson’s prudential grounds “come from some of the important literature in economics of the last fifty years, particularly from the public choice school of economics.” As he indicates, correctly, public choice applies models of economic rationality to political actors on the assumption that “voters, politicians and bureaucrats…are out to promote their own self-interest.” What does this mean?

Interests, a system of interests, and self-interest, however central to rational choice and public choice theories and scenarios, are not simply the reflection of a kind of watered down Machiavellian cynicism. An interest, in the sense used by public and rational choice theorists, is not something that is chosen by an individual. Someone else can choose it for you because you are imputed to be a “rational actor.” Everybody in your situation would “rationally” behave the same way, namely in their self-interest.

There are, however, some additional peculiarities about interests and rational actors that are often forgotten or overlooked by public choice theorists. For instance, the satisfaction of one’s interest especially when it is undertaken by another on your behalf, is entirely compatible with the loss of one’s liberty, especially when the exercise of one’s liberty is risky or costly. Why bother to work when pogey is available? Why bother to defend your liberty at all, especially if you can hire somebody else to fight for you? Why, indeed, bother to vote? This is a major puzzle for public choice economists because it is obviously in your interest to be a free rider. Henderson discusses this issue in the even more flaccid example of “rational ignorance.”

On the other hand the rationally ignorant, free-riding non-voter can never complain about the outcome of an election or about government policy. Voicing a complaint is an implicit claim that you could do better. In fact, maybe you could do better by ruling – and that is never in the interests of a free rider, not least of all because it is a bother. Henderson says (summarizing Buchanan) none of us has an incentive to “bell the cat,” by which he means constrain government power. It is true that mice cannot bell the cat, but citizens are not mice and government, for citizens of a democracy, is not a predatory carnivore. Moreover, it is not at all true that citizens respond only to incentives. They also have the ability to act out of self-respect and even out of pride. There is, in other words, nothing noble in acting in your self-interest. It might be excusable, but only because it stands in need of being excused.

It was not always thus. In the writings of Adam Smith, for example, it was clear that interests were opposed to pride, that what is a matter of pride is precisely what is not in your interest. For him, “sober undertakings” that provide a “solid and profitable” return on investment are preferable to “spirited undertakings” that promise “grand and marvelous” returns.[4] It is not Smith’s preferences that matter – he was, after all, an economist – but that he saw there was opposition between pursuing one’s interest through frugal industry and reveling in one’s pride by prodigal frivolity. Perhaps even more important, in real life, unlike the scenario presented by libertarian theory, before an individual can have an interest, she must have sufficient pride to stand up and be an individual. On the other hand, a concern solely for what is a matter of interest, which means avoiding risks and fights, leads to dependency. As Mansfield argued, “a system of interests, indeed, is nothing other than the rigorous definition of a nation of dependents.”[5]

The distinction between pride and interest is central to politics and to war. Following Riker, not only is politics about winning and losing, which is a matter of pride, but that is the chief reason why people go into politics in the first place. Political individuals want to be honoured and honour can be won only by victory. Political life is not like an investment account that waxes and wanes with the market. It is a contest and not the result of calculation. You enter politics to get into a fight, perhaps even to start a fight, not to avoid one. People go into politics because they are ambitious, because they think they are superior, even great. Of course, this is pretentious, but so what? Only to those who focus exclusively on interests, on fungible interests, and bargaining, is disturbing the peace pretentious and so offensive. This is precisely why Henderson’s account of Canada’s participation in the war in Afghanistan is so unsatisfactory. War is more a matter of pride than of interest. Always. That is why Canadians, even if they are not particularly friendly towards the United States, are proud that their country has kept its treaty commitments. They are very proud of their fighting men and women. And for good reason, too. That is why they mourn their deaths. That is why a stretch of the 401 between Trenton and Toronto is called the “Highway of Heroes,” by us, the non-heroes.

Finally, Henderson objects to taking part in the Afghanistan war because it will have unintended consequences. Of course it will. That is inherent in political action, which is practically by definition an innovation, an uncaused novelty that expresses the human capacity to create and to resist incentives and what we often call rational control. A world without unintended consequences would be a world without initiatives of any kind, even initiatives undertaken in support of one’s interests.

What is wrong with Henderson’s libertarian case, in the end, is that it is so unmanly. There is no room in his world for the volunteer – and all our troops and all the American troops are volunteers. They are individuals, genuine individuals, who have courted risk, have taken charge in a situation they were handed rather than one they chose or were incentivized towards. They do what they can precisely because they are not passive free-riders. They do not hang back and wait for others to do something for them. Clearly it is not in their self-interest to volunteer, especially for combat. But what kind of individuals are those who never volunteer? And what kind of a regime do we have when no one volunteers? As the lawyers say, the questions answer themselves.

  1. Mansfield, America’s Constitutional Soul (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1991), 59.
  2. Buchanan and Tulloch, The Calculus of Consent: Logical Foundations of Constitutional Democracy (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1962).
  3. Riker, The Theory of Political Coalitions (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1962), 22, 30.
  4. Wealth of Nations, 2:2-3.
  5. America’s Constitutional Soul, 214.

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