What Syria Tells Us About Libertarianism

Richard Elliott September 5, 2013 2
What Syria Tells Us About Libertarianism

With the recent alleged use of chemical weapons in Syria, we have seen the heavy-hitting countries amongst the international community, such as Britain, the US and Russia, fortify their respective foreign policies, whether in favour of the Assad regime or in opposition to it. The political commentary which has followed has cut no clear distinction between left and right, yet the response to the incidents in Syria by the libertarian platform of political commentary has been without a doubt the political orientation providing the clearest position of all; that is, opposition to military reaction and/or intervention. One key example of this unanimity has been this fine magazine itself, The Backbencher. Regular readers will no doubt have noticed the near-universal agreement of opinion amongst regular columnists that intervention would be a poor idea, albeit for different reasons. I confess to you that I have not fallen down on either side of the debate whether to support military action or not; the point of this article is to clarify a key philosophical standpoint of libertarianism itself.

The argument over humanitarian intervention is where the respective political ideologies of neoconservatism and libertarianism meet the twain. Falling into the same camps over fiscal conservatism, social liberalism, the merits of the free market and many more, the kingpin of disagreement between these positions regards foreign policy and military aggression. Libertarian conduct towards foreign policy is broadly to uphold the non-aggression principle, the principle that highlights the illegitimacy of acts of aggression against others owing to the violation of the rights of the individual that aggressive acts inherently perform. The clearest derivation of the non-aggression principle to modern libertarians comes from John Locke, who contended that once you assumed that as individuals are protected as both equal to you and being entitled to their own autonomy (Locke used the word ‘independence’) under law, any act of aggression can have no legitimate justification. This ethos has, by and large, carried through to the modern day as the key libertarian argument for non-intervention.

Modern arguments for non-intervention combine the sentiment of Locke’s with modern commonly held conventions on the rights of the human; namely, that we are all bestowed with the right to self-determination and autonomous action. We see these modern arguments in the libertarian sphere of discourse within, to name a few, the philosophy of Ayn Rand, the work of political scientists such as Murray Rothbard, and the economist Milton Friedman, for which the Lockeian sentiment comprises the first premise of each of these individual doctrines.

Such a heavy philosophical justification makes non-aggression and its logical application to military intervention seem counter-libertarian by definition. There is, however, just as much of a historical narrative within the framework of classical liberalism and other precursory roots of libertarianism to warrant a libertarian case for military interventionism. The notion that interventionism as a component of foreign policy is ruled out in every circumstance is only one thread of libertarian thinking, I contend; there is another legitimate genealogy of libertarianism which says otherwise.

Can someone be a libertarian and support humanitarian intervention? It depends on how you define the line of political and philosophical thinking which has led to libertarianism. While the majority of libertarian thinking favours the non-interventionist stance, one need only scan the figures of the history of classical liberalism to see otherwise; the two examples I am thinking of, though they are not the only examples to be sure, are Jefferson and Mill.

First, Mill. Much of Mill’s philosophical commentary concerned rights and duties within the social sphere. Although Mill recognized the great importance of individual rights and the right to autonomy, he defined these concepts in a much looser way than Locke did, such as in On Liberty, where he expresses that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” We can easily see a root derivation of a political justification for military intervention in Mill’s statement here. Mill, although assuring us of the primary importance of upholding individual rights to autonomous action, suggests that should others pose a valid threat towards those rights, we in turn have a duty, or perhaps are given license, to restrict that threat. Now, this begs the question of what you define as a ‘threat’; Mill seems to suggest, by his use of the word ‘prevent’, that pre-emption is warranted in order to avert from real harm.

Second, Jefferson. There is no question that Jefferson advocated an interventionist foreign policy. The first war which America engaged in as a sovereign entity was a militarily interventionist affair, namely, against what were crassly referred to as the ‘Barbary’ states of the Ottoman Empire in North-west Africa. In response to the arcane tradition of Muslim imperialists taking American settlers hostage for the purpose of enslavement, Jefferson constructed the United States Marine Corps at the end of the 18th century, to engage in what Christopher Hitchens in his book on Jefferson calls “a reckoning with the Barbary corsairs”. Six years later, the Stars and Stripes flew atop a flag pole in Tripoli.

The nod to history often absolves us of unilateral thinking on various issues: this occasion is certainly one of them. Though the events in Syria as of yet offer us no clarity regarding who to root for and whom to oppose, there at least exists the contention that both options are validated by a recognition of the precursory figures of libertarianism.

Is it the purpose of this article to support Syrian intervention? No; far from it. Instead, my contention is that military intervention, depending on where one’s own libertarian principles are derived from philosophically, is not ruled out de facto as a non-libertarian position.

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