TCS Daily

Rethinking Libertarian Minimalism

By Ryan H. Sager - November 19, 2004 12:00 AM

Libertarians need to get serious about foreign policy.

That's the proposition I put forward earlier this week on my blog, Miscellaneous Objections, as part of a broader discussion of the future of libertarianism, and it has drawn a number of interesting -- and often heated -- responses.

Questions of foreign policy have always been difficult for those of us who espouse a philosophy of limited government domestically, and they have only grown more difficult, though at the same time more critical, since September 11, 2001.

Unfortunately, instead of reassessing their minimalist instincts when it comes to intervention abroad, many in the institutional centers of the libertarian movement -- principally at the Cato Institute and, to a lesser extent, at Reason magazine -- have remained mired in a pre-9/11 mindset.

Here, I would like to address some of the key arguments people are making against both the need for a coherent (or at least vaguely cohesive) libertarian foreign policy and the premise that one doesn't exist already.

"We're libertarians, we don't need to agree on anything."

The most common response to any call for libertarians to rethink their stances on foreign policy is that there's no reason that libertarians should all have to agree on one approach. True enough, if libertarianism is a debating club. But that sort of thinking is a bit facile if libertarians hope to have any impact on politics and public policy.

And we should want that. We are not powerless. This year, a Rasmussen survey estimated that libertarians make up roughly 10% of the electorate -- and that's just self-identified libertarians. People who share libertarian beliefs in small government and social tolerance likely make up another 10%-20% of the electorate.

In a 50-50 political landscape -- or even a 51-48 landscape -- that's real power. When libertarians are so united on domestic issues (taxes, Social Security, spending, drug laws, gay marriage, etc.), is it not worth it to begin a serious debate about what libertarians believe about foreign policy and what ideas we can offer in the War on Terror?

Foreign policy, with the focus right now on the war in Iraq, is the primary issue that dilutes the libertarian voting bloc. Since similar issue are likely to define the next few federal elections -- at the very least -- libertarians are going to have to reach a rough consensus of some kind. Otherwise, their votes will perpetually be split between the two parties, lessening their leverage with regard to each.

Libertarianism can, of course, continue to exist in such a state. But it would enjoy less sway within its traditional home, the Republican Party, while at the same time never making a full move to the Democratic Party.

That's why, for those of us who believe in a muscular foreign policy -- or at least a more-than-minimal one -- it is worth engaging our libertarian friends, to at least see how far apart we are.

What will not work is the current attitude in some libertarian circles that the focus can be kept on domestic issues -- where we agree with each other and have more experience -- while the national debate passes by us.

"What exactly do you mean by 'serious'?"

The first response of libertarians accused of not being "serious" about foreign policy is to suspect they are really being called wimps for not supporting the war in Iraq.

The question of Iraq is inextricable from this debate, but it is not central. People of good will and good judgment disagreed about the Iraq invasion before it happened, and we all have our various assessments of how it has turned out so far.

The question now, however, is how are libertarians dealing with the Iraq issue as it stands today? There is a strong temptation for them to say, "Hey, it's not our problem." But that's obviously not very helpful.

Nonetheless, that would be a fairly accurate description of the output of the Cato Institute foreign-policy staff since the war started.

* On Dec. 13, 2003 -- after the March 2003 invasion -- Cato published a policy analysis titled, "Iraq: The Wrong War." ("We told you so!")

* On Jan. 5, 2004, Cato published, "Can Iraq Be Democratic?" (Cato's answer: "No.")

* This June, Cato published the book, "Exiting Iraq." The book calls for a withdrawal date from Iraq of -- wait for it -- Jan. 31, 2005. (That's a little over two months from now.)

* Since the start of the war, Cato has also called for the United States to withdraw all troops from the Gulf region -- even suggesting that we reverse the long-standing policy of deploying a carrier battle group in the Persian Gulf. (Talk about a surrender. But at least terrorists have never taken Western withdrawal as a sign of weakness and an invitation to further attacks -- oh, wait.)

Now, libertarians are free to get all touchy when people think of them as less-than-serious when it comes to defense issues, but there's a reason their opinions are written off almost completely in this area, and have been for some time, by anyone even in proximity to power. And anyone who thinks that libertarian opinions on these matters are not written off in the rest of the Republican Party -- well, they're either out of touch, or they're not paying attention.

So, "serious," in this context, means forward-looking (not fixated on recrimination), based in a plausible reality (with at least some eye to political considerations) and with some appreciation of the nature of the terrorist threat (eschewing the appearance of retreat).

By and large, libertarians, under this definition at least, have been anything but serious when it comes to foreign policy lately.

"Libertarians don't have anything constructive to offer in the War on Terror."

The strangest thing about this argument is that libertarians are the ones making it. Basically, some say, any war -- on terror, in Afghanistan, in Iraq -- costs money and curtails civil liberties. The job of libertarians, then, is simply to whine about spending and assist the ACLU in opposing the governmental bad guys at home.

Now, don't get me wrong, libertarians do have an important roll to play in opposing the infringements on civil liberties that the Bush administration seems to think are allowed for in the Constitution somewhere (they're not, trust me, I've read it).

But libertarians, limiting themselves to the sidelines like this, are really doing themselves -- and not to sound too grand, but the country -- a disservice.

Libertarianism, in and of itself, does not in any way limit its adherents to a minimalist approach to foreign policy -- i.e. using the least amount of force possible to respond only to the most imminent of threats.

While aggressively pursuing empire or invading any country that looks at America funny would certainly not be in accordance with libertarian or classical liberal thinking, there is otherwise quite a bit of flexibility to be had.

Pro-war and anti-war libertarians don't have to get together on Iraq in retrospect. It's not going to happen, and there's not much to be gained by rearguing the last two years. But they should think about how they could congeal going forward.

If anti-war libertarians are as serious about fighting the War on Terror as those who favored the war, they're going to have to come up with a lot better than the John Kerry-esque line that we need to turn our attention back to finding Osama bin Laden and fighting al Qaeda.

Bin Laden is one man whose capture would be nice -- very, very nice -- but likely of little strategic import. And, well, we have been fighting al Qaeda aggressively; we could always kill more of them, but that's more of a truism than a policy proposal.

So, where can libertarians agree and what can they offer?

Where libertarians have a natural advantage, due to their quirky politics, is in being able to think creatively and take a step back from the partisan battles that define much of our public discourse.

* Libertarians could dedicate some of their intellectual firepower to supporting intelligence reform, for instance, and the strengthening of our human assets in the Middle East and the Arab world generally.

* Libertarians could delve into questions of nation-building -- all the better to help us disentangle ourselves from where we're entangled more quickly. What are the prerequisites of a free society? How can they be fostered? How can we turn over power to the people we've liberated? For instance, Cato has put out a few policy papers on how Iraq can set up a monetary system and deal with its debt; that's a start.

* Libertarians could also turn their attentions to the question of how we can help the Arab world liberalize on its own. Charles Paul Freund at Reason has written extensively on the power of Western culture to bring openness and modernity to Arabs hungry for change. Libertarians were knee-deep during the Cold War in efforts to sneak Western, democratic and free-market ideas into Eastern Europe -- something for which the peoples of those countries are deeply grateful today. Why now, with the West facing the threat of Islamofascism and millions of Arabs and others suffering under it, are libertarians suddenly so afraid to look outward?

Libertarians could be spearheading an effort like that during the Cold War to translate and transmit classics of liberal thought, bringing them to democratic-minded people trapped in repressive societies. They could be working to help these people get access to the Internet and to American radio and television broadcasts. They could be pushing for funding of pro-democracy movements. And they could be spearheading a push for an American free-trade initiative to bring economic opportunity to developing Arab nations.

These are, admittedly, just the most rudimentary of thoughts about the way forward for libertarians. We need to see where we're divided and see where we can find common ground. What won't work, however, is a continued attachment to minimalism in terms of our foreign-policy thinking.

Libertarians need more than that.

Ryan Sager edits the blog Miscellaneous Objections. He can be reached at


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