The Ethics of Interventionism

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With the US government’s current attempt to carry out some kind of military intervention in Syria as a result of the alleged use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, libertarians once again face the question of what their correct stance towards such a proposal should be.

To be libertarian is to believe that the initiation of violence, in any circumstance, is inherently immoral. This belief, termed the non-aggression principle, we have discussed and justified elsewhere. Libertarians recognise, of course, that this does not proscribe the right to self-defence, or the right to provide defence services towards someone else who is the victim of aggression. There are two key elaborations to make to this principle. First, libertarianism itself does not state that someone has the violently enforceable obligation to defend himself or to rush to the defence of other people. There may, however, by some other standard be a moral obligation to do so but this obligation cannot be violently enforceable as this would itself breach the non-aggression principle. It is quite consistent, therefore, to state that someone should help a person who is the victim of aggressive violence but that he should not be forced to do so. Secondly if you do decide to respond to an act of aggression then you do not have the right to inflict aggressive violence on any other person, whether it be forcing them to assist you or by making them the victims of so-called “collateral damage”. One would not launch a nuclear warhead and slaughter the population of entire landmass in order to neutralise a single murderer, for example.

It is these aspects that must be remembered by the libertarian in any debate concerning the ethics of interventionism. The mainstream debate is an all or nothing question – should we all intervene or should we all not intervene. Libertarians for too long have been seduced into accepting the terms of this debate and the resulting lack of unity from the libertarian (or the generally freedom-oriented) camp owes itself to the fact that, on the face of it, the question can be answered on either side from a libertarian-veneered point of view. Let us discuss briefly the problems with each of these responses.

Those who answer in the affirmative, that we should intervene, have rightly recognised that defence may be used in such a situation because the non-aggression principle has been violated by another party. But what they are overlooking is the fact that the funds to be directed towards military intervention are extracted forcibly by the government through tax revenue – in other words, that people are being forced to fund intervention. They are mistaking the right to intervene with a violently enforceable obligation to do so. But this violently enforceable obligation itself is a breach of the non-aggression principle and is, therefore, anti-libertarian and immoral. Such people are most welcome to criticise other people from the point of view of moral standards that are separate from, but compatible with, libertarianism. When, for example, William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, stated that any non-response by “the world” to the use of chemical weapons would be “alarming” he is quite welcome to hold that view (in spite of the fact that there has already been wide scale bloodshed in Syria for two years and that Western governments seem to be remarkably selective on what they choose to be outraged by). Indeed he is most welcome to contribute his own legitimately earned wealth (if he has any) and that of everyone he can persuade to join him voluntarily in the venture towards intervening in Syria. But what he does not have the right to do is to force other people, to extract funding by taxes (or to enforce conscription, if it ever came to that), for the same.

Those, however, who answer in the negative – that we should not intervene – rightly recognise that we cannot force people to participate in intervention. But now they seem to be making the opposite mistake of preventing people who do want to intervene from doing so. If someone is genuinely outraged by the infliction of violence by one person against another and believes that assistance against such heinous acts is a worthwhile devotion of his own funds then he is quite within his rights to contribute those funds accordingly, or even to voluntarily join a defence group and personally provide defence support for the victims. To stop someone from doing this if that is what they want is as much an affront to the non-aggression principle as forcing them to do so if they do not want. Once again we must emphasise that it may not be a good thing, by some standard exogenous to libertarianism, for a person to engage in intervention but that does not mean that he may be violently prevented from doing so.

The correct libertarian position, then, can be summarised as follows:

  • No person has the right to initiate violence (aggression) against any other person in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so;
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties, likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (security services) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

All of this is, of course, the most fundamental libertarian theory towards intervention and we have provided no detailed analysis of how “war is the health of the state” and so on. But these critical aspects must be remembered by a libertarian if he is to take the fundamentally, i.e. most basically correct moral position and serves to only form the bedrock of more elaborate analyses. Whatever he, in accordance with the last principle laid out above, believes of the merits of a specific act of intervention should be informed by and exist in harmony with these principles.

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Liberty in our Lifetime

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Perusing many libertarian and “Austrian” oriented websites, podcasts and newsreels, it is very easy for one to lapse into despair when considering the possibility of ever achieving a world of liberty. The stories and the commentary are always the same – of collapsing economies, increasing government interference in our private lives, and the increased propensity for war and conflict. Indeed, at times, the state can seem so overwhelming in its march towards total domination that the typical libertarian, normally isolated as he is, can only sink into despondency over how any of this may be stopped let alone reversed.

There are, however, five reasons to be optimistic for the prospect of gaining liberty, even in our lifetime. Furthermore these are not mere fleeting trivialities but, rather, relate directly to aspects that are pertinent and essential to the existence and strength of government. Let us consider each of them in turn.

1. Government is Small

As government is parasitic upon the productive element of the economy it can never, in its totality, consist of more than a mere fraction of the total population. If the majority become the parasite and the minority the host then the latter will simply collapse under the weight of the burden. Government cannot continue to siphon labour and capital from the productive sector and divert it to the unproductive. Even if we live in an era when all of our emails and telephone calls are stored, the government will always be in the position of having only a handful of people who will be able to scrutinise and read these emails. It takes even more than that – talent and intelligence – to analyse these communications and to put two and two together. In short there will never be enough man-hours in order for the government to manage and spy on the lives of everyone from dawn until dusk. Even before we had mass electronic communication and had to rely on snail mail the government still failed to crack down on black markets, drug shipments, smuggling, and all of the other free market responses to the non-crimes that it created, the circumvention of which was successful because it served the needs of the majority. Government will forever be burdened by the fact that it is in the minority and this is a major obstacle towards both its growth and the effectiveness of its meddling.

2. Government is Stupid

Why was Great Britain the biggest imperial superpower of the nineteenth century and why was that role taken on by the United States in the twentieth? By contrast, why did the Soviet Union fail to make any headway at all in international dominance after World War II up until the point it collapsed? Both Great Britain and the US were internally liberal countries in their respective eras, both accumulating a massive amount of capital that enabled a vast number of goods to be produced and the resulting standard of living to rise. There was, therefore, a plentiful store of wealth into which the government could tap in order to fund its foreign ventures. The Soviet Union, on the other hand, with its centralised, socialised economy, could not produce the wherewithal necessary to enable it to enforce itself imperialistically on foreign nations. In other words, government relies on keeping the society on which is leeches relatively free in order to guarantee the productivity that will enable government to expand its operations. In contrast, government itself, as has often been said, cannot even run the post office. Indeed government has failed to invent anything valuable or worthwhile during its entire existence and is only able to take over and operate industries that were kindled and developed in the private sector. This is true of every government operation that is, today, taken for granted – roads, healthcare, communications, utilities, and so on. The only thing that government has ever been able to do with modest efficiency is construct gallows and develop nuclear weapons, i.e. to invent the machinery that kills millions of people. Because of the absence of prices, profits and losses, totally socialised societies failed to harmonise the stages of production that is necessary in order to produce a vast amount of wealth, and very quickly these societies had to revert to at least a kernel of market activity. Indeed, it was a running joke among Soviet economists that they needed at least one country to remain free of international socialism so that the planners and bureaucrats would know what the prices of goods should be. Government without the free market is blind and stupid, unable to generate the resources it needs to carry on its overreaching activities. Therefore, if government was to extend itself to an all-encompassing dominion the only thing it could be certain of achieving is suicide.

3. Government is Greedy

Libertarians often point out that what is often forgotten in mainstream discussion of government is the fact that it too is populated with human beings who have desires, choices and ends and that they will happily use the legitimated violence through the mechanism of the state in order to achieve these ends. It follows, therefore, that as soon as that system fails to enable them to grab the wealth and riches that they desire, then they too, the government officials and the bureaucrats, will lose faith in their own organisation. One of the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed is not because the people revolted but because the inner circle themselves began to see that the very system they were operating was not even giving them a particularly high standard of living. They were simply (to use a clichéd phrase) rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, playing around vainly with an ever diminishing pool of wealth on the path to destruction. It is, therefore, a mistake to suggest that any post-Cold War politician is a “socialist” or a “communist” in the true sense of those words. Rather, they have to keep the capitalist means of production going in order to blood suck from the wealth that is furnished by private industry. The most we are likely to get today is government partnership with big business, a form of fascism (minus, perhaps, the excessive nationalistic overtones of Hitler and Mussolini) rather than strict forms of socialism or communism. Ironically, therefore, government’s own greed for luxury and largesse will itself stop government from becoming too powerful and overreaching.

4. Government Cannot Risk Revolution

All governments, being a minority of the population, require, at least, the tacit acceptance of the majority of the population in order to remain in power. As soon as this acceptance is lost and there is active resistance then government ceases to function and will simply collapse. One of the reasons why the majority of the population today has become so tacit is because the standard of living, compared to previous ages, is so high. Although this standard would be much higher in the absence of any government at all, it is still the case that capitalist production and free exchange is able to both fund all of government’s boondoggles and also ensure that even an average wage earner in the Western world can live in relative comfort. It must be admitted that, on balance, in spite of the proportion of their productivity that is siphoned off by the government being at its highest point in history, people are relatively content. Although we are not yet quite as soma-induced as the inhabitants of Huxley’s Brave New World, the attractions of entertainment and leisure time that are made possible by capital accumulation through the free market provide a permanent and satisfying distraction from all of the nasty things that government is doing. Indeed some people’s thoughts never move much beyond analysis of the last football game or of the latest participants in The X Factor. The resulting apathy towards political and social matters, we might say, is the very bedrock of the tacit acceptance of government. Government, therefore, cannot risk destroying the origin of the production of the standard of living that makes this possible if it is to continue to gain its tacit acceptance. Whereas in previous ages there was nothing much to lose from the tightening of a king or emperor’s grip, today there will be a very marked change in the efficacy of production if the government’s tentacles strangle the capitalist system. Deprived of supermarket shelves stocked full of food, water that runs as soon as the tap is turned on, lights that illuminate with the flick of a switch, and televisions that flood their living rooms with Strictly Come Dancing, people would flock to overthrow the government that had so obviously failed. Indeed, it has been said that any nation is only three meals away from revolution but with our standard of living so much higher now it might not even take an empty stomach to arouse the masses. Hence any government worldwide could be less than a single day away from being toppled if its citizens are deprived of some comfort that was, hitherto, taken for granted. Food for thought, one might say, for any politician in power.

5. Government will be Out-Innovated

It is something of a truism amongst military historians that generals are always fighting the last war. They fail to adapt their methods of assault and defence to the new technologies and methods of fighting that have emerged since the previous conflict. Hence the mechanised horror and destruction of World War I made possible by twentieth century technology was met with strategies and tactics that dated from the nineteenth. This points to what is, perhaps, the biggest hope that we have for liberty in our lifetime – that government will not be able to keep up with the pace of free market innovation. The free market is necessarily heterogenous, decentralised and unbureaucratic whereas government is the precise opposite – big, unwieldy and burdened by procedure in a lengthy chain of command which always puts it on the back foot compared to the scattered mass of private citizens. We have already stated that government cannot create anything useful and must largely rely on the innovation of capitalists from which to draw its expertise and technological know-how. And further, we have also already pointed out that government has always failed to control black markets and underground trading that emerge in response to government induced shortages and prohibitions. These aspects can only accelerate in the technological age, when it is possible to transfer wealth and information to the other side of the world at the click of a button. Already innovations such as virtual currencies have emerged in response to the debt-laden and corrupt government-approved financial system and no doubt, in the wake of the scandal of the US’s spying program as revealed by a former NSA contractor and CIA operative, Edward Snowden, there will be increased market innovations to provide for privacy and security. Indeed we might even say that the internet itself caught government on the back foot – with a worldwide network of information and resources emerging and developing successfully before they were even aware of it, it’s difficult to believe that government wouldn’t want to turn back the clock and put strangleholds on such a boon to freedom. In short, government always has to react to the obstacles that are put in its way by innovative forces that are far superior. If the free market invents letter writing government has to find a way to intercept letters. If the free market invents the telephone it has to find a way to tap phone lines. And if the free market invents email then the government must determine how it can download and read these. The ultimate achievement will be when each individual person will be able, at very low cost, to protect his/her person and property from the aggression of others – perhaps through some kind of invisible force field or other such futuristic invention. The precise means are not as important as the concept; for if this could be achieved it would, in one fell swoop, eliminate both the means through which government leeches off its productive citizenry (force) and its very raison d’être – the production of security and the protection against private criminals and foreign, invading states. Indeed the latter might prove to be more important than the former given that the very justification of government for most people lies in the fact that society would be consumed by plundering and pillage in the absence of government. Take that alleged necessity of government away and what reason is left for it to exist? The fact that it would not even be able to exist in such a world where it would obviously be deprived of tax revenue might just be the icing on the cake.

Conclusion

Far from sinking into depression or despair at the state of the world today, we have demonstrated that there is, in fact, much to be hopeful for in the prospect for liberty. Furthermore, if the last point we noted above is true, then we should also be optimistic of the chances that there will also be very little violent revolution and we can look forward to a libertarian world emerging peacefully and with little bloodshed.

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Spying and Security

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The US government’s recent embarrassment over revelations of its surveillance program by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor/CIA employee, and their subsequent frustration in trying to apprehend him, has led to all of the usual outcry from libertarians about government spying, invasion of privacy and so on. However, a further interesting question is whether such acts are a necessary part of the deliverance of security. Would, for example, private security agencies have the need to spy on people’s private communications and, if so, how would this be regulated in a free society?

Security, like any other good, is an end that consumes scarce resources and its provision must therefore be valued like any other. Because a state is as an institution that enforces a territorial monopoly of the provision of law, order and defence funded by compulsory levies (taxes), it needs to provide a blanket security service and need never worry about “customers” leaving it for a competing service. As a result it is cut off from any communication, through the profit and loss system, of whether it has correctly allocated resources efficiently to provide for security needs and so it, alone, needs to judge the urgency of a particular security threat. This would not be the case on the free market, however, as private, competing, security agencies would not be able to apportion more resources towards the production of security than its customers were willing to pay for. In times, therefore, of relatively light or transient threats and normal, one-off acts of crime by individuals then security will not be a high priority and intelligence, which is linked almost wholly to such crime would have little purpose as there would simply be no data to gather. Indeed this would normally be the case in a free society. Most “organised” crime consists of the underground provision of peaceful and voluntary services that the government has outlawed and “terrorist” threats are political backlashes against the government. Even if there was the threat of invasion of a free society by, say, a neighbouring state, this would be much harder for that state to accomplish when defence provision is scattered and heterogeneous rather than concentrated and homogenous in the form of the government’s army, navy and air force. The closest you might get to any kind of organisation in crime in a free society is various forms of human trafficking, such as paedophile rings and kidnap for forced labour. It is therefore very unlikely that there would be the need for systematic intelligence gathering in a world free of the state. However, for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a genuinely serious and imminent threat of organised crime which commands a pressing need for intelligence of this threat by a private security agency in order to defend its customers. What could it do?

A security agency could certainly not invade the servers and networks of private providers of communication services. It could, however, negotiate contracts to monitor information that passes over these networks, with the specific nature of such monitoring subject to the corresponding nature of the threat. But the major difference between this and between government intelligence gathering is that it could never be secret and, if it was, it would be unlikely to last for long. From the point of view of the security providers’ customers, in an environment where there is a genuine threat then such monitoring is likely to be a selling point; while it may not be advertised quite as explicitly as “we will read other people’s emails to keep you safe”, if people, on balance, estimate any threat as being worth the while of this kind of action then they will be eager to provide custom to those security services that can offer it. On the other hand, if a threat is deemed not to be quite so serious to the extent that customers either do not care if other people’s communications are monitored or they would actively leave for an alternative provider to avoid it, could a security firm carry on the practice in secret? The answer is almost certainly no because this would cause the firm to incur costs that customers are not willing to pay for. Hence it would have to raise its prices. Such a firm would therefore see its customer base shrink to the advantage of suppliers who do not incur these deadweight costs. The practice would therefore be self-liquidating at the point when threats are no longer deemed to be worthy of the expense of intelligence gathering.

Furthermore, the monitoring of communications would need to have the consent of the customers of telecoms and internet providers. Again, the permissibility of this would be judged by these customers in the light the urgency of a threat. In the absence of such threats providers that do not invade the privacy of communications would receive custom and those that do would not. Moreover, in this environment, people themselves may be unwilling to deal with parties whose communications were not filtered through a monitored channel. But these services would also be tailored to specific regions that may be under threat or levels of monitoring could be targeted at specific groups based on their vulnerability or their propensity to commit an atrocity. There would not be the blanket monitoring of absolutely everybody and the provision of the same service to everybody regardless of who they are and where they are.

Would consent make intelligence gathering useless? Not necessarily. Between themselves, of course, criminals can use channels that are not subject to monitoring. But when the fear of a threat is perceived to be high channels offering absolute privacy would be difficult to come by and it is arguably the case that government is much easier to circumvent than private agencies. However, all criminal organisations must at some point communicate with the outside world (for purposes of supply, for example) and these latter communications would be subject to monitoring. While not perfect, therefore, it would not be impossible to piece together the movements and intentions of organised criminals.

The above is just a basic outline of what might happen in a free society and no doubt many more considerations could be added. But it is worth emphasising again the main point – that most of the need for intelligence gathering is generated by the government’s own avoidable acts and so, why it could conceivably be accomplished in a free society, it would almost certainly be unnecessary. The proper way forward, then, to end the world of spying, surveillance and secrets is to decriminalise victimless crimes and to stop the government from invading and bombing other countries and nurturing blowback. And we have of course assumed above that government is genuinely trying to protect its citizens; of great import also is the very convincing argument that government merely invents and exaggerates bogeymen for the very purpose of intruding into people’s lives and we need to consider the extent to which surveillance is the end rather than the means.

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