Libertarian Wars

One of libertarianism’s more admirable traits is its spiritedness, a welcome addition in a grey world. My blogging colleague Mike Rappaport adds thoughtfulness to spiritedness in his various elaborations on libertarianism. Lately he has asked what a libertarian immigration policy  might be and has responded to Michael Lind’s provocation that there are no libertarian countries.

Mike’s responses raise questions fundamental to the adequacy of libertarian thinking. I speculate that a kind of universalism originating in the Declaration of Independence underlies his thinking, but that a decisive Lincolnian correction is needed.

In arguing that principled arguments for liberty extend to persons regardless of nationality, he admits,

I find myself a bit in the middle. I do not believe that people in the United States should intrinsically count for more than people in other countries. But I do believe that people in the United States may secure certain claims from taking actions that benefit the country, such as serving in the armed forces especially if they are drafted. I don’t favor entirely open borders, but I do favor very liberal immigration.

But why not “entirely open”? Does he disfavor an open city foreign policy of the sort mocked by Stephen Knott in his reflections on the war of 1812? The domestic equivalent of an open city is a country based on the principles of the Declaration unable to prevent secession. (Thus, it won’t do to argue that as the colonies rightly revolted from Britain, so States could legitimately secede from the Union. The two situations aren’t comparable.)


John Stuart Mill

The issue of national defense and national identity comes up again in responding to Michael Lind’s provocative question, why are there no libertarian countries? Rappaport’s first answer is that people don’t understand or appreciate the benefits of libertarianism. (If we were only philosophers!) His second, more powerful argument is that people are self-interested, and don’t see how liberty can benefit all, not just one’s own. Citizenship appears to count for little or nothing in this calculus. He appears to stand for a Kantian rejection of the love of one’s own. “Another answer is that people often do not want libertarianism because they believe they are better off with restrictions on liberty – but they make this judgment without considering the benefits to other people from liberty.”

But I would take Rappaport’s ignorance/stupidity argument and his self-interest argument even further. Let’s posit a nation swelling with prosperity due to its libertarian principles. What will it do when threatened with foreign conquest or exploitation? Who would defend such a country or even want it to continue—see Lincoln,who describes such a situation in his Perpetuation Address.  The principles of the Declaration that would enable such a defense are inaccessible to a libertarian without the addition of corollaries to liberty. The duties articulated in the Gettysburg Address reestablish the Declaration’s universal principles in a particular nation.

If there were a completely principled libertarian country, it would fall to foreign conquest or domestic division. There can’t be a libertarian country for the same reason that there hasn’t been a Marxist one either, though there are free countries that profess civil and political liberty and tyrannies that profess Marxism. Both pure libertarians and Marxists hate politics and reject the notion that man is by nature a political animal.

One ideal country relies on the collective wisdom of free individuals, the other on wise and powerful bureaucracies, both of which look for a conversion of human nature from its political element. With the founders’ wisdom of The Federalist unappreciated, America has blundered into a Progressive compromise in politics-hating enlightened administration—see this month’s Liberty Forum. Its grip on our lives is one reason free and civilized nations need an enlightened libertarianism more than ever. Libertarian enlightenment might begin with John Stuart Mill’s defense of despotic rule for barbarians.

Ken Masugi

Ken Masugi is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute. He teaches in graduate programs in political science for Johns Hopkins University and for the Ashbrook Center of Ashland University. He has edited Interpreting Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, co-edited The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science, and co-authored and co-edited several other books on American politics and political thought. In addition, he has worked ten years in the federal government as a speechwriter and on policy issues, at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was a special assistant to Chairman Clarence Thomas, and the Departments of Justice and Labor.

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  1. Stefono says

    I’d love to see and live in a libertarian country…. It’s a pitty the mass are tought to be self-centred.. :(

  2. John Ashman says

    “If there were a completely principled libertarian country, it would fall to foreign conquest or domestic division. ”

    I disagree with this.

    For one thing, this is precisely why we have a Constitution. The problem is in keeping it from being abused. Secondly, I don’t find anything that prevents us from having a strong defense that is anti-libertarian. Libertarians undertand that freedom must be defended. Again, it’s about keeping defense exclusively about defense.

  3. John Ashman says

    One of the issues we have is that we use the government to distribute the costs of doing things over those who don’t want the service.

    So, when I call the cops to tell them about a loud party, they don’t charge me $100 for doing my job for me. Once government starts providing “free” services, rather than simply acting as a court arbitrator, we start to want all the free services we can get.

    But again, it’s why we have the Constitution.

  4. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Dr. Masugi writes: “Thus, it won’t do to argue that as the colonies rightly revolted from Britain, so States could legitimately secede from the Union. The two situations aren’t comparable.”

    This strikes me as correct. But it also strikes me as something of a straw man. I know of no one who makes such an argument, nor can I imagine grounds from constitutional thought or political theory to make such an argument plausibly.

    With the exception of the colony of Virginia (which drew up its state constitution a month prior to Congressional action), all of the colonies declared independence consequent to the Declaration. Thus, there is some legitimacy to Lincoln’s argument that the colonies separated from Great Britain jointly, via action of the Continental Congress, and not separately. The best treatment of this of which I am familiar is Kenneth M. Stampp, “The Concept of a Perpetual Union,” Journal of American History 65:1 (June, 1978), 5-33.

    When the new states together, through the coordination of Congress, drafted a continental frame of government, they explicitly forbade secession. Since the framers of the United States Constitution at no point took action to change this particular feature of the Articles of Confederation, and since the purpose of the new Constitution was to create “a more perfect Union,” it is hard to argue that there is any license for secession derivative from the text of the Constitution.

    On the other hand, all of the states ratified the United States Constitution through legal instruments, drawn up consequent to ratification conventions that voted to ratify the new frame of government. (There are two special cases–those of North Carolina and Rhode Island. But neither diminishes the force of the argument I am advancing here.) In some instances–the case of Virginia is very clear on this–the instruments of ratification were conditional on the proper conduct of the newly empowered Federal government. This implies a legitmate and limited right to secession, at the very least until 1869. On this, the best recent treatment is Kevin Gutzman, VIRGINIA’S AMERICAN REVOLUTION: FROM DOMINION TO REPUBLIC, 1776-1840 (Lexington Books, 2007). Note, however, that this right of secession does not derive from the circumstances of the American Revolution, but rather from the circumstances of ratification.

    Finally, it is worth noting that in the aftermath of the Civil War, the Supreme Court in Texas v. White (1869) rejected the notion of a unilateral right of secession. Some constitutional lawyers, however, have argued that the Court left open the possibility of secession, provided that it has the blessing of the other states in the Union. To my reading of the text of the decision, this is a plausible reading, and might be grounds for a peacable separation of one or more states from the Union.

  5. Kevin R. Hardwick says

    Re Guelzo’s argument at Heritage. Note first that Guelzo wishes to let Lincoln off the hook for expanding the scope and scale of the Federal Government. But that is not quite the same thing as arguing that the war itself did not cause significant expansion in the national government.

    Second, Guelzo’s own statistics, or at least one set of them, do not support his arguent. Compare the expenditures of the Federal government that he cites for 1860 with those for 1865 and 1871. If we compare 1865 and 1871, what we see is a significant decrease in federal government expenditures. But of course, if we are looking for a rough yardstick by which to measure the causality of the war with regard to rising expenditures, these are not the figures to compare. Rather, we should compare the pre-war expenditures with those of 1871–and what we find when we do so is that in 1871, those expenditures were almost twice those of 1860. By that yardstick, there is greater plausibility that something important happened as a result of the war.

    Finally, Guelzo’s argument fails to contend with the strongest arguments for the other position–those of Richard Bentzel in his fine 1990s book YANKEE LEVIATHAN. If anyone has interest, you can find the brief description of that book at amazon here:

    I don’t think we should dismiss Guelzo’s argument out of hand–he is a fine historian, and he adduces warrants for his contentions that merit attention. But I do want to suggest that Guelzo’s heritage essay should not be taken as the last and final word on the matter. Bentzel’s discussion of American state formation is formidable, and should not lightly be dismissed.

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