LR31: Stop Foreign Interventions

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Liberty Revealed Episode 31 Show Summary

Mike discusses why he opposes using the US military to intervene in other countries.

Listen to Liberty Revealed Episode 31

Liberty Revealed Episode 31 Show Notes

Welcome back to another episode of Liberty Revealed, the show dedicated to revealing personal liberty to all who listen. I am your host, Mike Mahony, and today I want to talk to you about why the United States should stop its constant interventions in foreign countries.

Over several decades, Libertarians have expressed opposition to United States intervention in foreign countries. We have offered alternatives that have been ignored by the leadership in Washington DC. Every election cycle the Republican and Democrat candidates claim they will bring peace and stability and never seem to do that. The American people are growing weary of this constant cycle of intervention. Is it now time for a Libertarian foreign policy?

Adam Smith taught that for there to be a tolerable government, there needed to be in place the essential ingredients of peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice.” War doesn’t make the list for good reason. It is probably the largest and most far-reaching of all statist enterprises. It\'s an engine of collectivization that undermines private enterprise, raises taxes, destroys wealth, and subjects all aspects of the economy to regimentation and central planning.

It also alters the citizens\' view of the state in a subtle way. \”War substitutes a herd mentality and blind obedience for the normal propensity to question authority and to demand good and proper reasons for government actions,\” the late scholar Ronald Hamowy writes in The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism. He continues, \”War promotes collectivism at the expense of individualism, force at the expense of reason and coarseness at the expense of sensibility. Libertarians regard all of those tendencies with sorrow.\”

Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman stated the issue more clearly. \”War is a friend of the state,\” he told the San Francisco Chronicle about a year before his death. \”In time of war, government will take powers and do things that it would not ordinarily do.\” The evidence is solid and irrefutable. Throughout human history, the government has grown during wartime, rarely surrendering its new powers when the guns fall silent. War is a means used for the government to increase in size and that’s not a good thing.

Some people make the claim that a particular threat to freedom from abroad is greater than anything we could do to ourselves in fighting it. But that is a hard case to make. Even the post-9/11 \”global war on terror\” — a war that hasn\'t involved conscription or massive new taxes — has resulted in wholesale violations of basic civil rights and an erosion of the rule of law. From Bush\'s torture memos to Obama\'s secret kill list, this has all been done in the name of fighting a menace — Islamist terrorism — that has killed fewer American civilians in the last decade than allergic reactions to peanuts. It seems James Madison was right. It was, he wrote, \”a universal truth that the loss of liberty at home is to be charged to the provisions against danger, real or pretended, from abroad.\”

Some would say the United States is an exceptional nation that serves the cause of global liberty. The United States pursues a \”foreign policy that makes the world a better place,\” explains Sen. Lindsey Graham, \”and sometimes that requires force, a lot of times it requires the threat of force.\” By engaging in frequent wars, even when U.S. security isn\'t directly threatened, the United States acts as the world\'s much-needed policeman. That\'s the theory, anyway.

In the real world, the record is decidedly mixed. This supposedly liberal order does not work as well as its advocates claim. The world still has its share of conflicts, despite a U.S. global military presence explicitly oriented around stopping wars before they start. The U.S. Navy supposedly keeps the seas open for global commerce, but it\'s not obvious who would benefit from closing them — aside from terrorists or pirates who couldn\'t if they tried. Advocates of the status quo claim that it would be much worse if the United States adopted a more restrained grand strategy, but they fail to accurately account for the costs of this global posture, and they exaggerate the benefits. And, of course, there is the obvious case of the Iraq War, a disaster that was part and parcel of this misguided strategy of global primacy. It was launched on the promise of delivering freedom to the Iraqi people and then to the entire Middle East. It has had, if anything, the opposite effect.

Libertarians harbor deep and abiding doubts about the government\'s capacity for effecting particular ends, no matter how well-intentioned. These concerns are magnified, not set aside when the government project involves violence in foreign lands.

In domestic policy, libertarians tend to believe in a minimal state endowed with enumerated powers, dedicated to protecting the security and liberty of its citizens but otherwise inclined to leave them alone. The same principles should apply when we turn our attention abroad. Citizens should be free to buy and sell goods and services, study and travel, and otherwise interact with peoples from other lands and places, unencumbered by the intrusions of government.

But peaceful, non-coercive foreign engagement should not be confused with its violent cousin: war. American libertarians have traditionally opposed wars and warfare, even those ostensibly focused on achieving liberal ends. And for good reason. All wars involve killing people and destroying property. Most entail massive encroachments on civil liberties, from warrantless surveillance to conscription. They all impede the free movement of goods, capital, and labor essential to economic prosperity. And all wars contribute to the growth of the state.

It is my own personal belief that when something isn’t working we should stop doing it. Clearly, this constant intervention into foreign issues is not working. We are not accomplishing the goals our leadership claims exist for these interventions. Instead, we are risking both American and foreign lives in a fruitless endeavor to be the police for the world community. While the concept may on the surface appear admirable, the end result is anything but. This is where a Libertarian foreign policy would change everything.

Now, as my regular listeners are aware, I am a pragmatic Libertarian. While I believe 100% in libertarian principles, I know that our society is fully entrenched in its current ways and any change is going to take time. There are a lot of political and structural impediments to the government doing less of anything. We face a problem when dealing directly with the American people. There\'s a strong bias among the American people that when you face some economic or social problem — from healthcare to education to welfare — the government should do something. When you say the government should do less or limit its response, many are skeptical.

When it comes to foreign crises, you\'re constantly faced with bad actors on the international stage — from dictators to ayatollahs. The argument that we should restrict intervention or avoid projecting strength often doesn\'t resonate with the public. What\'s interesting, however, is that you generally don\'t get both of these attitudes — government activism at home and abroad — from the same person. Those most likely to grasp that government is not the solution to every domestic problem are the most likely to be skeptical of that argument when it\'s presented in relation to foreign policy. And that really means that those advocating a libertarian foreign policy are men and women without a country. In our binary political system, there\'s no party or constituency that\'s really speaking for that viewpoint.

You can see the evidence of that in the congressional vote for the Iraq War. Among Republicans, there were only seven who voted against authorization. What\'s less well remembered is that half the Democrats in the Senate voted to authorize the Iraq War. The list includes Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry, Chuck Schumer, and Harry Reid. These are not \”back-bencher\” Democrats. They\'re some of the most prominent figures, including the supposed Peace Party\'s most likely next candidate for president of the United States.

That means that the parties really present an echo, not a choice. There\'s this \”me tooism,\” even when it comes to Democrats. In some respects, that makes sense because they\'re the party that believes in the government\'s ability to keep us safe all of the time and in every situation. But some of it is also a relic of politics from the 1980s and 1990s, when a lot of these people came of age at a time when the Democratic Party was seen as weak on foreign policy. A lot of Democrats internalized that critique and regarded it as a political liability. Ultimately, they tried to counter that liability by becoming more hawkish.

The odd thing about that is that it doesn\'t reflect many of the trends in public opinion, particularly those of rank-and-file Democrats. But politicians tend to stick with the ideas they adopted during their formative years. So you have a generation of hawkish Democrats leading a party of people who are hesitant to see such an outsized U.S. role in the world, and particularly in the Middle East. Thus a lot of the core assumptions that are being batted around by both parties in discussing the potential nuclear threat from Iran are very similar to the core assumptions that led us into the Iraq War.

So what do we do about this? There was a period when we were seeing real growth in the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, and some chastened conservatives seemed to be moving in that direction. But, again, it\'s easier to make those arguments when everything is going well. As soon as there\'s any significant instability in the world, it becomes much harder to make non-interventionist arguments in foreign policy. The Republican Party seems at the moment to be reverting to form.

But I don\'t think all is necessarily lost. True, the political incentives for even the best-intentioned libertarian-leaning Republicans are bad. They will be punished by the loudest voices on the right if they say anything that deviates from the idea of aggressively projecting strength. At the same time, there\'s been a lot of success framing a libertarian non-interventionism as President Barack Obama\'s foreign policy. Now I find it interesting that a president who escalated one war, launched two more without congressional approval, and proposed a fourth is any kind of non-interventionist. But there you have it. Our binary political system makes it difficult to have these debates in a nuanced fashion.

On the positive side, I\'ve always argued that we need to get people who are engaged in economics — those conservatives and libertarians who specialize in fiscal areas — to be a little more vocal on foreign policy. In private, you often hear a lot of conservative budget experts express their doubts about an ever-expansive military footprint abroad. There, of course, still needs to be some foreign policy expertise that comes from a less interventionist perspective on the right.

But, in the meantime, as we cultivate those voices, there\'s a vacuum that needs to be filled by people who are philosophically sympathetic to less intervention and yet specialize in other issues. They shouldn\'t let the wall of separation between budget gurus and defense hawks dictate what the Republican Party\'s foreign policy is going to be.

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