TCS Daily

Flying with Libertarian Hawks

By Max Borders - September 9, 2004 12:00 AM

And covenants, without the sword, are but words and of no strength to secure a man at all.

-- Thomas Hobbes

Is it possible for one to be libertarian about policies at home and neo-conservative about policies abroad? After all, isn't the principle of non-coercion incompatible with the interventionist policies of the current Administration? Simply put: is there such an animal as a libertarian hawk and if he exists, why do we so seldom hear from him?

There is a reticence among many libertarians to speak out about their bellicosity. You might say they're doves at the dinner table, perhaps worried they'll be shunned by their peers. But I think it's time we give some substance to what, at the moment, may be little more than an intuition, and speak up about our support for foreign policies that require armed conflicts -- even preemptive ones.

Most libertarians fall in line behind the superficial notion that domestic and foreign policies should be mirror images of each other, each reflecting classical liberal principles where self-defense is applied universally like some scriptural edict. Alas, were the threats of the twenty first century so simple to counter, the complexities of world so easily distilled.

The libertarian hawk takes her cues from Hobbes, not Locke, as the spaces mostly untouched by globalization are, in her view, like a state-of-nature. She sees threats that organize themselves in the shadows beyond civilization; operating, no less, in an age of deadly weapons proliferation. She fears the world's great, but nimble powers coalescing into a slothful and ineffectual global body -- where the toughest decisions of life and limb must be made in committee. She understands that freedom does not drop like manna from heaven, but is earned drop-for-drop and coin-for-coin by the sacrifices of blood and treasure.

And this is the crux of the libertarian hawk's position: "rights" as such, are not some Cartesian substance that animates the body in the manner of a soul. Rights are a human construct, just like money. The more we believe in them, the better they work. But there are situations in which the currency becomes, uh, devalued. Better said: there are limits to those on whom we can ascribe rights.

We get rights by virtue of some sort of social contract, not from our Creator. In this way, social contract theory splits the difference in many respects between libertarianism and conservatism. The social contract is an idea that people would rationally choose certain constraints on their behavior, constraints which culminate in certain reciprocal rules under which to live. I won't harm you if you won't harm me. We benefit through cooperation. And so forth. Those who would choose the rules enjoy the full benefits they confer.

Criteria of mutual benefit are embedded in the social contract condition -- which is devoid of: "natural rights" notions that have failed in the libertarian tradition on metaphysical grounds; the totalitarian-leaning "social" aspects which can creep into utilitarian theories (requiring individuals to be sacrificial lambs to the "many"); and of the stodgy moralizing that tends to weigh on domestic conservatism.

The overall beauty of social contract theory is that it offers us a justification for political liberalism and pluralism that rests neither on the foundational axioms associated with traditional moral theories, nor on the nihilism and disorderly assertions of the so-called Postmoderns. In short, social contract theory is a constructivist enterprise. And if you stand outside the covenants of Man, you are presumed "enemy."

In light of all this, I find it sad that so many otherwise bright libertarians seem so unreflective about war. Some of my favorite freedom-loving publications have steered their editorial styles into the hashish den of protest music and anti-Bush priggishness. Some of my favorite think tanks issue press releases almost daily, calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq, calling for the US to extend Constitutional privileges to enemy combatants, and claiming that it will be impossible to bring democracy and the Rule of Law to the Middle East.

Which brings me to what could be the best criticism against the current conflict in Iraq. Let's call it the Hayekian Argument. It can be summarized in the following way: a complex order, like a country, is very difficult to plan or impose upon a people. It emerges, a la* Hayek, "spontaneously." Under certain institutional conditions backed by years of tradition and certain entrenched cultural mores, civil societies can form. But these conditions simply are not in place in Iraq, so we may have gotten ourselves into a... (OK, here goes) ... a quagmire.

Much of the Hayekian Argument depends on considerations in complexity theory. That is, preference for "networks" over "hierarchies," as the former tend to do a better job of sustaining complexity among agents in a society. But further investigation along these lines may reveal something like a "feed-forward network" that is formed when inputs of a certain type allow a system is changed, in a sense, by example.

Of course, this is somewhat of a metaphor in the context of Iraq. And, of course, nation-building isn't an exact science. But I would have always preferred to hedge my bets that given enough of the appropriate initial conditions, Iraqis would find that -- in the absence of a dangerous dictator -- they would begin to form of the mutually beneficial relationships with one another that bring about prosperity and peace. I doubt they could've done this alone. I think the Coalition was right to help them towards a tipping point. And if we fail, the failure will have been a practical one, not a moral one.

My guess is that there are others who would like to see less of this accretion of libertarians around the Dove. I am one of those who doesn't fancy the idea of staring down the point of a chemical warhead before I decide to act. (Even if such warheads turn out to be a chimera today, they won't likely be tomorrow.) In the nuclear age, when the degree of certainty that you will be attacked is at fifty percent, you are as good as done for in terms of your ability to protect yourself. Thus, preventive action in a world of uncertainty is, unfortunately, the only reasonable course. In the meantime, it behooves us to try to make our enemies more like us... and then allow globalization to proceed apace. For the more like us they are, the more likely they are to enter into the tenuous human covenants that are our only means of having peace.

The author is a TCS contributing writer.

This was changed from the earlier version due to a helpful comment from a reader.





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