In our previous examination of Justin Logan’s article “Government, War, and Libertarianism,” we discussed Logan’s position that
the United States sits unchallenged atop the international order, with an unparalleled ability to shape it and with any potential peer competitor several decades away. This state of affairs is hugely beneficial to us; imperfect though it is, the United States should be working to preserve, not overturn, the existing international order.
Logan is not claiming here that the international order is optimal or just or even moving in the right direction; he is arguing that it is beneficial to us, and that we ought therefore to seek to preserve that order. Not acquiesce in injustices which we are powerless to remedy, but that we should actively work to preserve the existing international order—an order which includes what Logan with typical diplomatic euphemism calls “imperfections”: imperfections like laogai, or the Korean reeducation camps, or the fact that one out of every five human beings lives in a totalitarian dictatorship. Because America benefits from this situation, we ought to work actively to preserve it. This he characterizes as the libertarian position.
I argued that this position is profoundly immoral. If we ought to actively work to preserve unjust orders that benefit us, then why should we not, a fortiori, work to implement new injustices from which we would benefit even more? Why not work to expand unjust institutions from which we derive benefits? This argument is, simply, that might makes right.
I also observed that the position appears to have no logical stopping point and to be incoherent. If it is proper for us to work to preserve (or to expand) unjust institutions from which we benefit, on what grounds can we criticize those who act unjustly towards us when they benefit from those acts? Back in the early 19th Century, the British used to stop our Navy vessels and seize American sailors, “impressing” them into the British Navy instead. Britain benefitted from this order, “imperfect” as it was; what basis did we have to complain? What basis would we have to complain if the communist dictators in Beijing decided to invade a nearby democracy, an American ally, that has never been ruled by the PRC in its history, but which the PRC claims belongs to it? Oh, that’s right, I forgot: nothing. [Update: I meant to add here that the position is incoherent also because it makes no sense to speak of the state of international affairs being “beneficial to us.” The state of affairs is hugely beneficial to some people, and extremely detrimental to other people. So just who does Logan mean by “us”? Does he include refugees from foreign tyrannies who have fled to the United States but left family members behind? This morning on the radio I heard an Iranian immigrant whose brother is a student in Tehran; is the state of affairs beneficial to her? Even if we take the view that the relevant “us” is American citizens, this lady was an American to whom the international order was hardly beneficial. Or is “us” the United States “as a whole,” as distinct from its individual citizens? I would think a libertarian would hesitate before organizing his opinions around what is beneficial to a collective or a nation-state, but I can’t imagine what else it might mean to say that the state of international affairs is beneficial to “us.” I can only imagine it means, beneficial to those Americans who wield economic and political influence.]
And if this argument is valid in foreign policy, why is it not also valid in domestic policy? If one trade group benefits from a legal rule that forbids economic competition with them, raising costs to consumers and depriving entrepreneurs of the freedom to compete, should they not work to perpetuate that order, since they benefit from it? And what about racial or class groups: should they not also advocate for unjust rules from which they benefit?
But now let’s look at the second part of Logan’s article, where he criticizes libertarian legal scholar Randy Barnett. Barnett published an article in the Wall Street Journal in July, 2007 in which he pointed out that starting out from libertarian premises might lead people to different conclusions about the propriety of military intervention in particular cases, such as in Iraq. “While all libertarians accept the principle of self-defense, and most accept the role of the U.S. government in defending U.S. territory,” Barnett wrote, “libertarian first principles of individual rights and the rule of law tell us little about what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack. Devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly.” He then proceeded, with noteworthy evenhandedness, to describe the positions of those who favored, and those who opposed, the Bush Administration’s decision to go to war in Iraq.
But here is how Logan characterizes that article: “Barnett admits supporting the war even though he believed that it would go poorly.” In fact, nowhere in his article did Barnett do any such thing. One searches the article in vain for any statement at all about Barnett’s position on either the rightness or the potential outcome of the war. I actually don’t know what Barnett’s position on the Iraq War was (or is), but he certainly does not “admit [to] supporting the war” in this article. Logan’s statement has no factual basis in the article he purports to characterize.
He continues in this vein, writing “He [Barnett] concedes that...he is ‘disappointed, though hardly shocked, that the war was so badly executed.’” In fact, what Barnett wrote was, “Naturally, the libertarians who supported the war in Iraq are disappointed, though hardly shocked, that it was so badly executed. The Bush administration might be faulted, not so much for its initial errors which occur in any war...but for its dogged refusal to alter its approach...when it became clear that its tactics were not working.” Moreover, it was perfectly reasonable for any libertarian to feel both disappointed and unsurprised by anything the Bush administration did. Nor is there anything inconsistent in supporting a war while knowing that it will be a hard one and might include serious casualties and disappointing mistakes.
Logan also writes, “He [Barnett] argued that libertarians can and should think of the attack against Iraq as appropriate self-defense in response to 9/11. Further, he argued that libertarians should favor ‘a strategy of fomenting democratic regimes in the Middle East.’” But Barnett did no such thing. What he actually wrote was, “Other libertarians, however, supported the war in Iraq because they viewed it as part of a larger war of self-defense against Islamic jihadists who were organizationally independent of any government.” Barnett makes no mention at all in his article about the Iraq war being a response to September 11th.
Indeed, it is impossible for any honest reader to characterize Barnett’s article in the way that Logan does; one of Barnett’s points is that Iraq’s responsibility or lack thereof for September 11th is and was irrelevant to the decision to invade Iraq. Barnett is pointing out that many believed that the war in Iraq was part of “a larger war” and not mere retaliation for September 11th itself—precisely the opposite position to that which Logan attributes to him! The construction of this classic straw man allows Logan to trot out such soundbites as “The Iraqi government was not involved in 9/11, and attacking it devoted scarce resources to the wrong target”—but however clever this might look on the Internet, it does nothing to actually respond to Barnett’s claims.
There is a deeper sense in which Logan misrepresents Barnett’s argument. He complains that Barnett is advocating nation-building, and that given his familiarity with the knowledge problems famously articulated by Friedrich Hayek, Barnett ought to know better. “[H]ow is it simultaneously possible to oppose government involvement in education or health care on the grounds of the inherent lack of necessary knowledge, but believe that the federal government could invade Iraq and then unravel and reweave the fabric of a thousands-year-old society whose language we do not speak and whose tribal and confessional allegiances we do not understand?” challenges Logan.
Yet, again, no fair reading of Barnett’s article can lead one to think that he was arguing for such social engineering. In fact, if Barnett’s article can be read as advocating for American intervention in Iraq at all, it is an argument only for military intervention. His article is devoted almost entirely to the Bush Administration’s military strategy (or lack thereof), and observes,
there are those pro-invasion libertarians [Logan assumes here that Barnett means himself] who are now following the progress of Operations Phantom Thunder and Arrowhead Ripper. They hope that the early signs of progress in this offensive will continue, so that American and Iraqi forces can achieve the military victory necessary to allow the Iraqi government to assume responsibility for protecting the Iraqi people from terrorists, as well as from religious sectarian violence. They hope this success will enable American soldiers to leave Iraq even before they leave Europe and Korea....
Thus Barnett explicitly contemplates Iraqis planning the future of Iraq; not that America ought to engage in long-term rule over Iraq or that it should design the economy and government of Iraq. Logan himself may believe that “the objective of the war was a massive social engineering project,” but obviously Barnett does not concede this, and for Logan to simply rely on it without proof when challenging Barnett is to commit a fallacy. There is obviously nothing inconsistent in arguing for American military intervention, but against social engineering.
Thus in addition to arguing in favor of a profoundly immoral and incoherent approach to foreign policy, Justin Logan indulges in superficial analysis, mischaracterization, and distortion of the views of others. (Somewhat ironic, then, that Jason Kuznicki would fret about my possibly mischaracterizing Logan’s views....) This suggests that Logan’s views are based less on a consistent theoretical approach or on an adherence to actual facts and more on a blindfolded ideology, rooted in emotionalism, that is simply opposed to American intervention in foreign countries under any circumstances—or even to American leaders speaking in support of democracy and against tyranny.
In our next installment, we’ll look at the differences between prudence and pragmatism in international affairs.