Randy Barnett’s Wall Street Journal column, “Libertarians and the War,” makes two indisputable points: Ron Paul is not the be-all and end-all of libertarianism, and not every libertarian opposes the Iraq war. At the same time, it lays bare the fantastical chain of logic a libertarian must traverse to come down in favor of this tragic misadventure.
On the first point, Ron Paul is a conservative libertarian of a certain stripe. I think he’s very wrong on immigration, for example. If his recent notoriety had come thanks to his strident opposition to birthright citizenship, I too would probably be writing missives noting that “Ron Paul doesn’t speak for all of us.”
It is a demonstration of how little understood libertarianism is — and how much disagreement there is among libertarians — that we are so concerned that a single figure could forever freeze in amber the public’s perception of what it means to be a libertarian. The truth is that anyone who insists on judging the whole of a political movement by the beliefs and character of one person is probably uninterested in really understanding libertarianism.
Comprehending this movement of ours means appreciating the diversity of viewpoints on even the most apprently black-and-white issues of the day, such as the Iraq war. But then why would we expect anything different? Liberals disagreed about Iraq, and so did conservatives. If it does nothing else, Brian Doherty’s “Radicals for Capitalism” illustrates that libertarians are a motley crew.
So when Barnett asks, “Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war?” the “No” answer should be pretty uncontroversial, in spite of Justin Raimondo’s contention that Barnett is a “fake libertarian.”
Even Jim Henley, in his harsh assessment of Barnett and other pro-war libertarians as, simply, “morons,” never denies them their libertarian credentials. Henley is on the right track, though. Barnett rightly notes in his column that “devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly.”
It was clear to most libertarians in 2002 and early 2003 that attacking Iraq was not a prudent form of self-defense and that in fact it was more likely than not to greatly add to the anti-American terrorist problem. Back then, the waters were muddied by baseless assertions that the Hussein regime was actively collaborating with Al Qaeda — really the only grounds on which a prudent libertarian would have jumped aboard the Iraq war express.
Any libertarian worth his salt asked, “Where’s the evidence?” and when it was not provided simply disregarded the argument. Barnett avoids that line, which by now has been so thoroughly debunked that he cannot even give voice to it on the Wall Street Journal’s opinion page. Instead he opts for the Iraq-the-model line. OK, so it’s a theory. I’ll give it that much. I don’t believe it is inherently inconsistent with libertarianism.
But that theory asks libertarians to ignore or discount the certain dangers of war — greater government spending, the deaths of soldiers and innocent civilians, blowback from at least a solid minority of the country — in exchange for the slim possibility that an invasion will yield a peaceful liberal democracy and reliable ally.
Real dollars paid by real taxpayers go to fund these wars. Real soldiers die. Real innocents are massacred. There’s no such thing as a free war, and you’ve to meet an incredibly high threshold before committing to the prospect. Elective war is a speculative act, and libertarians are not usually in the habit of supporting massive and deadly government programs for no better reason than … Gee willickers, they just might work!
The point is not that Iraq was bound to fail spectacularly, but that like any war it was a crap shoot and very well could blow up in our faces. And so it has — literally and figuratively. And why do that — why take that risk — for no damn good reason?
(Also posted to Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Blog.)