Friday, March 6, 2015

Bleeding Brain Libertarians

I have been staring, on and off, at this piece by Kevin Vallier posted at the oxymoronic site Bleeding Heart Libertarians: “On Attacking ISIS.”  If one wanted a perfect argument to totally discredit libertarian theory and demonstrate the complete ignorance of context and history of those who claim to wear the libertarian label…well, his post is for you.

I am dumbfounded.  I keep staring at the words in his article and cannot understand in the broadest possible definition of “libertarian” how anyone might consider this position to be a valid application of the theory.  I am dumbfounded because I cannot get past the two-year-old-child’s understanding of the context and history regarding the fight in the Middle East.

Did I mention I am dumbfounded?

Libertarians are rightly skeptical of military interventions.

In the context of his post, what Kevin means by “military interventions” is an attack on individuals that currently carry the brand “ISIS.”  For the remainder of my post, I will assume the possibility of minarchist libertarian theory – in reality an impossibility, but….

Libertarians aren’t merely skeptical of military interventions; such actions cannot fit in any interpretation of the non-aggression principle:

The non-aggression principle is an ethical stance which asserts that "aggression" is inherently illegitimate. "Aggression" is defined as the "initiation" of physical force against persons or property, the threat of such, or fraud upon persons or their property. In contrast to pacifism, the non-aggression principle does not preclude violent self-defense. The principle is a deontological (or rule-based) ethical stance.

Where is the self-defense in such military interventions?  To suggest some people 10,000 miles away – who have not harmed a single individual on US soil (which should be rightly an issue of crime, not war – a lesson lost on 911) – have initiated an aggression thereby justifying “self-defense” is a stretch.

Without self-defense, it’s just aggression – aggression, needless to say, being a violation of the non-aggression principle.  (And I await someone to suggest that self-defense also includes the possibility of coming to the defense of another.)

A simple reason is that military interventions tend to do more harm than good.

Well, the simplest reason is that such interventions violate the NAP, but take out the “tend to” and Kevin might actually be on to something.

This simple reason was enough to justify opposition to the war in Iraq. Saddam Hussein was horrible, but the prospects of instability and civil war were always high.

I guess that is one so-called libertarian’s opinion.  You see, once you decide that you are bright enough to move past the principle and into the mud, everything is possible.  There were other so-called libertarians who defended this invasion:

While many libertarians opposed the invasion of Iraq, Randy Barnett wrote a strong, libertarian defense of pre-emptive intervention.

Of course, the lesson of Iraq does not disabuse Kevin of the notion to try again:

The reason is that if we intervened against ISIS, we could probably destroy most of their organization, given that they are an essentially territorial movement.

Of course, if those who live in the region felt the need to destroy ISIS, they have more than sufficient resources to do so.  The Turkish military is almost 700,000 strong.  They have all of the most modern weapon systems available to a NATO partner.  They could crush the rebellion in a few weeks if they wanted to do so.

But pondering this point leads to so many dark corners.  Why doesn’t Turkey intervene?  Why not Saudi Arabia, another regional player with modern weapons?  Why does the US government fight against Assad, who could provide a significant force to fight ISIS with Syrian military strength?  What of the prior interventions that have made the soil fertile for ISIS?  What political philosophy led to rationalizing these past interventions?

Not a peep from Kevin on any of this.  Instead, he suggests playing the odds:

Further, and more importantly, while there will be blowback in the form of guerilla warfare, new terrorists, casualties, etc., it is hard to see how anyone worse would replace ISIS. If we “roll the dice” again with an intervention, even though the odds of coming out morally ahead are generally low, the odds of coming out morally ahead of having ISIS run parts of Iraq and Syria are probably pretty high.

It was also hard to see how anyone worse than Saddam or Assad or Kaddafi or (insert your favorite despot here) could have replaced these victims of past military interventions, yet it happened each time.  Ask those who used to live in these respective countries (those not now dead or homeless refugees).  They might have lived under a difficult regime, but at least they lived.

But Kevin won’t ask, instead he wants to “roll the dice,”  like it is just a game.

This is madness.  If one wanted an example to drastically muddle the libertarian message, Kevin has offered one.  If one wants to demonstrate the complete ignorance of context and history, see Kevin.

I remain dumbfounded…unless someone suggests that muddling the libertarian message is the purpose.


  1. Unfortunately, the "libertarian brand" is now damaged goods, much like the word "hacker" has been redefined to mean "criminal," and now essentially means a conservative who might be okay with someone smoking a joint now and then, or who wants to let people have guns and keep taxes a little lower. When someone like Glenn Back calls himself a "libertarian," you have to know that it's time to adopt a new term for the pro-freedom point of view.

    1. What's happening is a number of neoconservatives and other statists have come out calling themselves Libertarians pushing anti-libertarian bs dressed up in Libertarian rhetoric. It amounts to an assault on the brand These fake Libertarians espouse polices blatantly anathema to Libertarianism and when real Libertarians object to these patently un-Libertarian ideas they and opponents of Libertarianism accuse us of the no true Scotsman fallacy. They kind of have us in a box. It takes a sophisticated argumentation to uphold Libertarian ideals against counterfeit Libertarians and counter the no true Scotsman fallacy at the same time

    2. I would contend that the proper response is to call a spade a spade, and point out every faker who has wrongfully adopted the libertarian mantle with well reasoned arguments, evidence, and rhetoric that has been a trademark of the movement since before it even started moving. Time and time again, gentlefolk such as Bionic Mosquito, Lew Rockwell, and Ron Paul (to name just a few off the top of my head) have used these methods to blow apart pretenders, usurpers, and fakers. Those of us with half a brain take careful note of the tactics used in such debates just as much (if not more-so) than the content itself, as these things tell us quite a bit about which side argues from the stronger position.

      Giving up the high ground to take refuge behind yet another label in the constantly shifting shaky ground of politics will not be of any great benefit to libertarians, and will only serve our political adversaries by adding to the general confusion and erecting further barriers to understanding the libertarian message. Or so say I, anyhow. Your mileage may vary.

  2. I agree with what you wrote in this article (the substance, if not the rhetoric) but I'm curious about something. There is something called "interposition", which is the use of aggression to stop violations of someone's property rights. What is your opinion of this? So, for example, if you're attacked by a killer, would I be justified in using force against the killer?

    And if so, would the same principle apply to the US soldiers - who after all are volunteers - who will be sent to fight ISIS? If not, why not?

    1. “There is something called "interposition", which is the use of aggression to stop violations of someone's property rights.”

      As I wrote above: “And I await someone to suggest that self-defense also includes the possibility of coming to the defense of another.”

      Of course, providing for the defense of another is valid. However, it takes a creative imagination to describe what US soldiers do as something akin to coming to the defense of another.

      1) The US government has caused the situation in the first place.

      2) I cannot think of a single overseas adventure of the US military where coming to the defense of another was not one of the – if not the – prime excuse.

      3) The soldiers might be volunteers, the funding isn’t.

      4) For my minarchist audience, nothing in the Constitution authorizes the US military to come to the defense of people outside of the geographic borders subject to the Constitution.

      How is that for starters?

    2. Very good. #1 is perhaps not especially relevant (if we caused the mess, isn't it our responsibility to clean it up? etc.), although correct, but every other point is exactly right.

      In discussing the issue of military intervention overseas, I would give greater emphasis to the difference between individual action and state action. Sending GIs to kill ISIS is the State saying "lets you and them fight." Those same soldiers, as individuals, could go and voluntarily join the fight against ISIS, and be perfectly in accordance with NAP as long as they confined their aggression to ISIS militants who are hostile (ie no killing prisoners). Here, I think, is fruitful ground for libertarian discussion.

    3. Yes people have the right to hire third parties to defend their property with as much force as the property owners themselves have. But there are several issues in having the US Government order US Military into this conflict:
      1. Yes the soldiers are volunteers but I doubt that very many of them signed up wanting to fight a group like ISIS. Being a cured idealist, I voluntarily signed my oath thinking I would be defending the Constitution. I can not see how any of this ISIS foolishness is a near, medium or long term threat to the Constitution.

      2. Whose property rights are the soldiers defending? Did these owners acquire the property by legitimate means.

      There is one group who has had the property stolen from them and that is the USA tax payers who funded the military.

      3. How about we let the people who are defending their own property actually pay others to defend that property? There seem to me to be plenty of mercenaries from Former Soviet Republics who will welcome the opportunity to make some cash. The problem here is that these folks are expensive. It is much cheaper to cajole the US Government (Read US tax payers and Chinese Lenders) into paying for the military activities than having to spend your own money.

    4. "...if we caused the mess, isn't it our responsibility to clean it up?"

      My first stumbling block is the use of "we" when discussing such matters. But I will get past this.

      This isn't a question of personal responsibility, in which case there may be some justification for "cleaning up your mess" - sure, if you want to send Cheney and Bush and Obama to Syria and have them clean up their mess, I will even pay for the flight.

      It is an issue of government causing the mess that then calls for further intervention by government. The only way this ends is to stop intervening.

    5. "Mind you business and don't get involved."

      There's your answer.

    6. No sir. "Don't take what ain't yours" and "Don't hit people", there's your answer. It all boils down to those two things. The one and only exception is "unless they try to hit you, first."

    7. Please, pay attention. We know you want to puff your chest and blather on about "don't steal," "don't strike," etc. We all know that. But those weren't the questions. "Should you interfere?" That's what was being asked. Again, I say, "mind your business and don't get involved."

      Ultimately, resentment for interference breeds more and more enemies, conflict, and strife.

  3. (If this is published twice, you can erase one)

    Nice piece BM. David Gordon said on LRC that it was "worthy of Mencken." Great work!

  4. Congratulations on the high praise from David Gordon.

  5. I am humbled by Gordon's comments.

  6. Let them wipe each other out at their own expense. Go ahead... make my night!

  7. Your libertarianism has, for at least 60 years, been damaged goods. The NAP,the notion that Rockwell presents in his most recent book on agreeing to follow the NAP, was shot dowb by von Mises years ago when he stated that no one can tell another how to live. Rothbard took him to task in a review of one of Leo Strauss works, where Rothbard defended the theory of moral absolutes, noting that Strauss was right and Mises wrong on this.
    Thus difference allows for the so called libertarian to walk into the mud, as following Mises, he doesnt have to live under your idea of the NAP or anything else.
    And your idea that miniarchism as being non libertarian is Rothbards, but that doesnt invalidate Mises, or indeed, Ron Pauls miniarchist libertarianism
    And the idea that those at Cato or Bleeding Hearts are not kibrrtarians is your opinion
    this division among you will forever block you from setting up the true libertarian society
    You do so love the fraternal strife

    1. You read things into my post that I didn't write - I did not say that minarchism was not libertarian, I said it was impossible. Further, please point to where Ron Paul or von Mises advocated such interventions - if either has done so, then I guess they would be equally wrong.

      Beyond this, you suggest that I look forward to some form of common society with those such as Kevin. Why would you think this?

  8. How can they possibly square The Bush Doctrine with the Non Aggression Principle? Do people even read that site anymore after all the non-libertarian garbage it has spewed? If it does retain a minimal amount of readership the audience is not composed of libertarians, that's for sure.

    It just seems like another attempt to hijack the term libertarian for the establishment agenda, whatever that is these days. It is funny seeing warmongering coming from "Bleeding Heart Liberals" though.

    I turned on the radio the other day and heard NPR for the first time in ages. I was expecting to hear the usual tale of "journalists" observing the plight of Pan Africa as the people struggled to dig wells and not die of starvation. If only some nice Americans would approve a more liberal government... yadda yadda.

    But this isn't the old days, it's Rah Rah Go Army Kill Kill Kill. lol! I guess at this point you just have to laugh at the ineptitude of the Baby Boomer propaganda machine. Their whole shtick is wearing thin across the board, and nowhere is this more apparent than the mass media.

    If anyone is wondering why things are so screwed up, chalk it up to an incompetent Northeastern elite that thinks they still "run the country", when in fact they simply preside over the breakdown of systems made by people who actually did know how to devise a social engineering control scheme. But as someone explained to me, the competent generations have died and left the controls unattended, so every ego-tripping oldster thinks it's their turn.

    If left to their own devices, they'll wreck the "government" (system of slavery) with no help from evil libertarians and anarchists at all. Maybe these Northeastern Baby Boomer aristocrats serve a purpose after all. lol. =)

    Given that the world has evolved to the point where we are post scarcity in terms of material goods in a practical sense, and post scarcity with respect to energy in terms of individual needs for survival, perhaps we can simply shed the slavery system like a set of old stinky clothes.

    It's called societal evolution, something the Yalies and others vested in the old ways simply can't understand, and have done their damnedest to erase from the cultural lexicon. But it's coming nonetheless.

    Now if we can just avoid the inevitable wars they start when they find themselves in trouble...

  9. This is an interesting discussion of an important topic. One positive note, only in recent decades have we been bothered with fake or rogue "libertarians" since this is now becoming a normal and popular ideology.

    As for ISIS, the fact that the US set recent conditions for its creation doesn't mean that the US govt "created" ISIS (or daesh) since that is rooted in a centuries old sectarian division (Shia v. Sunni) in Islam. Destroying the Saddam Hussein regime only unleashed the sects, one of which is ISIS. So there is no true causal responsibility.

    As noted, there is no "self defense" rationale at work since ISIS, while perhaps wishing to retaliate against US military assets and government, has no means to do so. It is they who could have the self defense rationale at work, not the US.

    Libertarian principles do not permit (in the limited govt context) the commitment of government assets to meddle in the affairs of others even if we suspect aggression on one side or the other someplace else. The world has been and is full of aggression. Governments should not crusade around the globe merely because evil exists. There is no real libertarian rationale or argument for that. Individuals may choose to act on their own motives, but that doesn't commit the unwilling to act.

    The idea that the US military can intervene as mercenaries is absurd. Again, no basis for that and of course that isn't anyone's actual plan. The limited govt military isn't justified as some kind of armed Red Cross available for hire. US citizens are currently legally barred (supposedly) from serving as mercenaries.

    ISIS supposed Islamic State is like other states, born via conquest and force in territory previously controlled by others. It is primitive in philosophy and action, but that isn't our problem. It is no more illegitimate that other states, including the US which also exists at the expense of the former N. American inhabitants, few of whom survived the conquest.

    ISIS doesn't "menace" US citizens living here (menace is a legitimate but rare crime) so it should be left alone. If the local ISIS neighbors are threatened, that is their affair.

    Since libertarianism isn't a cult, there will always be arguments about what the libertarian view on something is. So we shouldn't be alarmed about such arguments, only that bad arguments not go un-refuted.

    1. Libertarianism is only the NAP and nothing else. There is no disagreement among actual libertarians, and the No True Scotsman nonsense does not convince anyone.

    2. Libertarianism is the belief in self-ownership/control of body, leading to a very strict and defined concept of property, individualism, and personal interactions. From which this frame work is the so-called "non-aggression principle" derived. The ideas on person and property come first.

      Please stop saying this, because it is foundationally wrong and gives ammunition to our opponents.

    3. JFF, can you point to something that expands on this point?

    4. Surely, BM.

      Here's a great conversation between Stephan Kinsella and Tom Woods on foundations:

      Kinsella also talks a bit about a nice, precise definition here:

      All of these ideas are consistent with a Misesian/Rothbardian/Hoppean framework. Humans consciously engage in actions via scarce/rivalrous resources to satisfy their wants/needs. Actors assign usage "rights" to the control, i.e., usage, or such resources, based on certain criteria. To "aggress" against an actor, i.e., restrict their usage of previously claimed scarce/rivalrous resources, including their bodies, is unjustified.

      To me saying "libertarianism is non-aggressions, period" questions begs, ultimately, "why?" or "why not?" If you come at it from a derived principle angle, or behavioral norm, then you've got a much better chance of making a coherent, logical argument, without wading into touchy-feeley "morals" waters.

    5. JFF, thank you for this. It seems simple / obvious in retrospect (perhaps why I never gave it much thought before), but I will try to write accordingly in the future.

  10. How does it give ammunition to the enemy? I have to wonder where you get the idea that the inborn NAP which all non-psychopaths possess requires explanation.

    There is no foundational requirement to the NAP, and setting up a bunch of hoops for people to jump through to arrive at the proper, anointed version of libertarianism that you demand is guaranteed to fail. Nobody likes a Bible thumper.

    Please stop leading writers down rabbit trails by demanding that they follow some misguided purity test. It's not necessary.

    The NAP is sufficient in and of itself. The rest is useless mental masturbation. But maybe that's the point, eh?