Waiting for debate

Brink Lindsey hates to do it, but he’s calling out the anti-war libertarians at Antiwar.com, LewRockwell.com, againstbombing.com and the Independent Institute.

He’s not bothering to make an argument, mind you, just pointing out that they dare to be anti-war, as if it were self-evidently ridiculous. You’ll find a lot of bad anti-war arguments coming from libertarians, that’s true, as you’ll find many bad pro-war arguments coming from libertarians as well.

So, to point to a few raving lunacies at LewRockwell.com (not a difficult task, I assure you, though Lindsey doesn’t even bother with that much) or wherever does not accomplish much. One could just as easily point to the many bloggers who think that invading Saudi Arabia is a dandy idea, or that a U.S. military presence could help the Palestinians and Israelis get along. One should tackle the opposition’s strongest arguments, not its weakest.

Lindsey reserves particular disdain for the Independent Institute, which is holding a forum at which leftists Gore Vidal and Lewis Lapham are featured. He writes:

What is going on? What’s wrong with these people? One can dismiss particular individuals or groups as disreputable or crankish, but the fact is that anti-war views similar to those held by the loonie [sic] left are not uncommon among libertarians these days.

Naturally, he doesn’t bother to specify what views those are, relying on ad hominem and a selected one-line quote from Lapham. Perhaps it’s because I’m not especially gung ho about the war in Afghanistan (but not opposed to it, either), but I don’t see every anti-war view coming from a leftist as being per se loony or idiotic. There are some good reasons to be opposed to the war (not that they necessarily carry the day, in the end) and some bad ones.

It seems most pro-war libertarian bloggers don’t bother to investigate the difference, or even acknowledge that there is one. Moreover, the debate right now isn’t so much about what’s been done in Afghanistan, but about where we go from here and what it means to the future of American foreign policy and the safety of the American people.

I don’t know exactly what Vidal (whose new book I have not read) and Lapham — along with respected libertarian historian Robert Higgs (among others) — will be saying at the Independent Institute forum Lindsey finds so offensive, but here’s the promotional blurb, with my comments interspersed:

Could the horrific events of September 11th be setting in motion a chain of events far more significant than the terrorist attacks themselves? After retaliating against the Al Qaeda terrorist network, and its Taliban enablers, the Bush Administration now speaks of “bringing justice” to an “axis of evil” countries not involved in the 9/11 attacks — all while Osama bin Laden and most of the major terrorist leaders have escaped.

Now what is so ridiculous about this? There is still no convincing evidence that any of the "axis of evil" countries had anything to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, and it’s absolutely true that while Dubya is trying to build up support for a war on Iraq, bin Laden and many Al Qaeda leaders remain at large. Seems like a reasonable question to raise: Will an expansion of the terror war distract from its core mission — ensuring that Al Qaeda and other anti-U.S. terrorist groups don’t strike again? But I guess that’s just loony.

Meanwhile, the Middle East may be teetering on the brink of a major war. World leaders in Europe, Asia, Africa, and elsewhere view U.S. military intervention with increasing alarm, and international opinion indicates that the United States may be more hated than ever. Could U.S. policies be provoking this hatred and the ever more ominous threats to the safety of Americans and people around the world? If so, how can we produce a safer world?

This teeters close to the thin line between asking a reasonable question and the "blame America" phenomenon, but if U.S. policies are provoking terrorism, isn’t it worth examining whether those policies are achieving goals which make them worth that risk? There are times when international opinion should be disregarded because the policy objective is so worthwhile. In this case, the very objective is to lessen the risk of another terrorist attack — and surely international opinion of the United States is at the heart of the matter.

On the home front, the U.S. government has acquired broad new police powers to systematically spy on and detain both American citizens and foreign nationals without due process. Will the USA PATRIOT Act — legislation still being written when it was passed by Congress last fall — really hinder terrorists, or will it simply enable militant fundamentalists to destroy American liberty as the U.S. itself shreds the Bill of Rights?

All perfectly reasonable questions, which pro- and anti-war libertarians should find worth debating.

Lindsey also seems to think that only anarchist libertarians could oppose the war. It is true that anarchists of any stripe are likely to oppose war, regardless. But not only are there plenty of minarchist libertarians who oppose the war, but the noninterventionist principle Lindsey eschews does not in any sense forbid action in response to the Sept. 11 attacks (as he seems to think). It’s precisely in response to such a direct attack the noninterventionist principle dictates that military action is permissible.

Lindsey writes that no general principle can guide us in foreign policy. While I don’t claim that the noninterventionist principle (like the nonaggression principle) is flawless or applicable everywhere at all times, I think it’s a principle worth hanging our hat on. And many of Lindsey’s colleagues at the Cato Institute seem to agree — e.g., Ted Galen Carpenter, Ivan Eland, Doug Bandow. Perhaps Lindsey should defer to their expertise.

Why libertarians are important

Interestingly, Lindsey finishes up by explaining that anti-war libertarians should be tossed so that worthwhile ideas such as vouchers and Social Security privatization aren’t weighed down by anti-war "baggage."

Virginia Postrel takes issue with that last bit, while agreeing with his otherwise "excellent posting," saying:

We’re important because we raise essential, long-term objections — both pragmatic and principled (a dichotomy I don’t entirely accept) — to giving the cause of "security" a free pass to do whatever happens to be on someone’s state-expanding wish list.

Hmm. Isn’t this precisely what anti-war libertarians are doing? They believe that many are using the laudable goal of security to widen the scope and size of government in the sphere of foreign policy. Does public choice analysis disappear the moment we hit international waters?

Just as many might disagree with libertarians about restrictions on civil liberties, many disagree with anti-war libertarians about the necessity of war. Does that make their opposition de facto unnecessary or unproductive? I don’t think so. It depends on the arguments offered. And the best arguments are worth considering, even if we ultimately reject them.