Wednesday, June 08, 2005

More on freedomism, part one


Professor R.J. Rummel has invited continued discussion of his doctrine of "freedomism." This is part one of my reply to his response to my initial foray.

Professor Rummel's response narrows down and separates out the terms of the argument well, so I'll simply address his points one by one, and top each point with a title. If the discussion continues, that may make it a little easier to follow.

1. "Kinds of libertarians"

Professor Rummel has abandoned the word "libertarian" as a self-description in favor of "freedomist." In exploring why, I attempted to segregate his beliefs by type from those of some other libertarians; i.e. I noted that he did not seem to be an Objectivist, an anarchist or a Rothbardian. Professor Rummel elaborates a bit on that. No argument there -- I wasn't trying to make a taxonomic argument as such, but rather to separate his particular "brand" of libertarianism from other "brands" which might not accurately describe his beliefs.

2. "Isolationism"

We remain at odds on this point. Professor Rummel describes libertarians who oppose an interventionist foreign policy (particularly, but not necessarily only, with a military component) as "isolationists." I took issue with that, noting that Professor Rummel himself described libertarians as favoring "free trade and free commerce."

In his reply, Professor Rummel cites the Libertarian Party's platform plank on foreign policy. I have no problem with treating that document as nominally representative of the beliefs of most libertarians, LP members and non-LP members alike. And the plank is, indeed, strictly non-interventionist. I think it's a fairly settled issue, and I hope that Professor Rummel will agree, that a majority of self-described libertarians oppose intervention, particularly military intervention, as foreign policy, and that a substantial minority disagree with that majority.

What we have here is an argument over the meaning of the term "isolationist." "Isolationism" is, indeed, non-interventionist, but that is not its only attribute. Considered as an historical/political movement and as a current reality, isolationism generally also includes opposition to free trade and usually to open immigration. The foremost isolationists on the American political scene today are probably Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan. Most libertarians, non-interventionist and otherwise, disagree with isolationists on questions of trade and immigration.

Perhaps this is just a semantic quibble, however -- or perhaps I'm flat wrong. I consider the disctinction important in many respects, but it may not be important to the discussion at hand.

3. "Promotion of freedom abroad"

From Professor Rummel's response:

"From my reading, talks to libertarians, and exchanges of emails, a majority of libertarians are not only negative on the American war against Hussein, but also are against an active policy of promoting democratic freedom abroad, and seem not to understand that we are involved in a war against terrorism that requires military aid and troops in many countries, such as the Philippines and Afghanistan, and an active homeland security. If the National Libertarian Party had its way, we would essentially leave ourselves defenseless at home and abroad."

Leaving aside, for a moment, the possible difference between "freedom" and "democratic freedom," I believe that Professor Rummel was wrong in his original, and continues to be wrong. Libertarians are all for promoting freedom abroad, as the existence of numerous international and internationalist libertarian organizations and efforts establishes (in this, I include a number of individuals I have known who have personally and privately financed, and even traveled abroad to fight in, various wars against tyranny, including but not limited to the fights against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan and the Sandanistas in Nicaragua). What most libertarians oppose is promotion of freedom -- or anything else -- abroad by the state, and particular in the form of military intervention in the affairs of one state by another.

While it is hypothetically possible that a state could eventually arise which is financed by purely voluntary means, no such state exists, or ever has existed. The state as we know it operates substantially through mechanisms of coercive taxation. Therefore the freedom of any state's citizens is inevitably diminished by every state activity, since it will have to steal the money it uses to do those things from those citizens.

With domestic activities, there may be some argument that the theft is partially repaid, completely repaid, or even repaid with interest, i.e. that the activity being undertaken enhances the citizens' freedom by more than the coercive taxation diminished it. I don't generally buy such arguments (and I reject the logic that says it's okay to mug me if you come back later and tell me you bought a six-pack of beer with my money, and that you will share it with me), but I'll admit that they can be made. However, once the state's activities move into foreign intervention -- and especially into non-defensive wars -- then such arguments become increasingly untenable. When the state which claims to be acting on my behalf takes my money and spends it somewhere else, on someone else, it's more difficult to convince me that this enhances my freedom. As a matter of fact, the only argument I'll accept is a credible argument that the expenditure was made in active defense of my freedom against an actual threat to that freedom.

With respect to the particular conflict/s which brought about Professor Rummel's decision to abandon the title "libertarian," it does not, for the most part, pass that test. A limited war in Afghanistan -- and wherever else necessary -- to destroy al Qaeda's infrastructure, kill its leaders and kill or disperse its operators, would have been fully justified in the wake of 9/11 (although it would have been even better had the US government responded appropriately in 1992 when it was told that the continuing presence of US troops on Saudi soil and in other Muslim nations would be treated as a casus belli and thus avoided the whole mess).

The US did not, however, fight a limited war in Afghanistan to destroy al Qaeda's infrastructure, kill its leaders and disperse its operatives. As a matter of fact, it did precisely the opposite: US forces spent six weeks "promoting democratic freedom" in Afghanistan's lowlands -- settling the ongoing war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance -- while al Qaeda boxed up its gear, moved its headquarters operations and made a leisurely exit to safer environs from whence it could continue its war on the US.

To the extent that Abu Sayeff, MILF, Jemaa Islamiah and other groups in the Philippines (which Professor Rummel specifically mentions) and other countries such as Indonesia (which he does not mention, but which are presumably implicitly included in what he describes as a "war on terror") are allied with al Qaeda and/or engaged in operations targeting the United States, there may be legitimate cause to classify the fight against them as a defensive, rather than interventionist, activity.

However, the real "war on terror" which such operations would compose has taken a back seat to "promoting democratic freedom" in a country whose government did not pose, had never posed, and under almost no foreseeable circumstances ever could have in the future posed, any threat whatsoever to the United States (unless one believes in the "Saddam was behind the OKC bombing" theory -- but the US government denies that theory, and thus cannot use it as justification for its actions): Iraq, the secular bulwark of the Middle East, the single regime, with the possible exception of Israel, most opposed to and most loathed by al Qaeda and by Islamists in general.

Thus far, the US government has spent half a trillion dollars and nearly 1,700 American lives in a non-defensive, non-preemptive war in Iraq which has damaged the security of the US by degrading the capabilities of its fighting forces and distracting them from the job of countering the real threats. In the process, it has opened up a nation of 24 million as a recruiting and fundraising pool for al Qaeda. Where al Qaeda operatives were once persona non grata, mercilessly hunted and their lives forfeit, now al Qaeda's car bombs detonate daily -- sometimes killing Americans, sometimes Iraqis. This is the "democratic freedom" the US has brought to Iraq -- at least until the country is turned over to its new Shiite Islamist government so that it can become part of Greater Iran.

Professor Rummel argues that "[i]f the National Libertarian Party had its way, we would essentially leave ourselves defenseless at home and abroad." I argue that "we" -- or, rather, the US government -- has done precisely that by wasting American dollars and American blood in a non-defensive, non-preemptive war of aggression which has not brought, and will never bring, freedom -- of the "democratic" or any other variety -- to anyone.

The above is part one of my response. Part two is going to take more work, as it moves into more theoretical issues such as the nature of democracy, government and the state. I hope to complete it before the end of the week, but I'm not making any promises.

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