From the Comments: The “Strong Defense” argument against libertarian realism

Dr Delacroix claims to have spotted a weakness in libertarian foreign policy theory (known as “liberal realism” in political science circles):

Millions of registered Republicans (like me) and independents (like younger people close to me) are unable to buy the Libertarian line because they see or sense that it contains a central inconsistency: I want less or much less government, government is crushing me, it’s inimical to freedom, but what I want can only be had within a strongly defended polity. Such a polity usually requires a powerful defense establishment. Such an establishment, in turn undermines the possibility of smaller government.

This type of argument has been repeated ad nauseum in popular discourse and here on the blog, so it is – as Dr Delacroix points out – fair game as far as debunking (over and over again) goes. I have just three things to add.

1. The fact that “millions of registered Republicans” believe in something does not make it true. Millions of registered Republicans also believe that a radical Jewish rabbi came back to life three days after being crucified by the Roman state.

Even if billions of people believed that something false was actually true it would not make the falsehood any less false. Free trade is another great example of this phenomenon. Billions of people falsely believe that free trade is a bad thing, including some very smart people.

2.  Big does not mean strong. In fact, bigness often leads to weakness. This is the point that libertarians have been making for hundreds of years. The US could conceivable cut its defense budget in half while Russia and China could double their defense budgets and the US would still outspend the entire world on defense. A large military is often overstretched and therefore unable or unwilling to respond to threats elsewhere. Libertarians do not advocate for a smaller state because it makes the state weak. Libertarians advocate for a smaller state so that it can perform the few duties ascribed to it (courts and diplomacy/defense) with a ruthless efficiency.

3. A more libertarian foreign policy would be one with a much smaller budget, a much smaller role for the military, and a much more serious role for the military. If a libertarian US were to go to war it would declare that war and fight the enemy until it surrendered completely. I’ve already dealt with this in “Would a libertarian military be more lethal?” and “A cheaper, stronger army?” Dr Delacroix is either arguing from ignorance or he does not read much outside of his preferred circles.

In a society dedicated to the freedom of the individual, war is the last resort in diplomacy. As such, it should viewed with the utmost seriousness and skepticism. Even if millions of people feel otherwise.

27 thoughts on “From the Comments: The “Strong Defense” argument against libertarian realism

  1. “Dr Delacroix is either arguing from ignorance or he does not read much outside of his preferred circles.”

    The two are not unrelated.

    A smaller military-industrial complex has many virtues. One is a move away from ‘Pax Americana’ where the US pretends to be the world’s policeman.

    • Thanks Dr Amburgey.

      A smaller military-industrial complex has many virtues. One is a move away from ‘Pax Americana’ where the US pretends to be the world’s policeman.

      Yes, and I’ve been thinking about how we can shrink the military-industrial complex (and eliminate the rent-seeking of European and Asian “allies”) without necessarily leaving Europe or East Asia.

      In this April 2012 comment I was thinking aloud with longtime reader Hank about Native American sovereignty but what came to me was the following nugget of insight:

      This leads to me to an odd-but-perhaps-pertinent musing: I am not so sure that the majority of Europeans, South Koreans and Japanese would want our troops to leave their states. Hear me out on this. Our military essentially provides for the defense of these states, and as a result their these societies are able to use resources that would otherwise go to military expenditures for welfare programs. As Americans, we can see why this is a bad thing, but the states we occupy militarily don’t necessarily think that it is such a bad thing.

      As a result, I would be open to our continued occupation of these states under one condition: that traveling, working, starting a business, living, moving, etc., etc. between the US and the states whom we subsidize militarily is as easy to do as it is here in the US. So, for example, moving/etc. from Connecticut to Hesse or Nankaido would be as easy as moving/etc. from Texas to South Dakota. If this were to happen, then I could accept a continued US presence in these regions.

      I, of course, got most of my insights from reading guys like Adam Smith and FA Hayek (along with David Hendrickson’s Peace Pact… and Edwin Wilmsen’s Land Filled with Flies…), but I think I’m on to something bad ass here.

  2. Brandon: I did not assert that what millions of Republicans believe is true is true because they believe it. I pointed out the obvious (again): Many conservatives have spotted the fact that a weak state (Somalia, Libya) is not conducive to progress in the direction of smaller government. This is a structural weakness in the libertarian rare external discourse.

    I don’t have a solution myself. I don’t need to have one to signal the contradiction. (I don’t wait until a chair becomes free before I get off from sitting a red hot stove.)

    The rest of your comment is rhetoric and not clearly related to anything I have said: Nearly everyone wants a smaller, neater, cheaper military capable of achieving miracles. It’s Pres, Obama’s project right now. It’s my dream too. The president and I agree on what’s desirable in that area, maybe only three or four really advanced drones.

    Your assertions that I don’t read outside my preferred circles is silly as well as borderline dishonest.

    Silliness: I don’t agree with you or with the house liberal so, it must be because I am ignorant. If I agreed with you, it would demonstrate that I read widely, right?

    Dishonesty: How can anyone defend himself against the accusation that he does not read widely enough? He is supposed to say, ” No, it’s not true; I read, I read a lot, I swear”?

    This charge against me is doubly absurd because my published work, my ongoing writing, my public presence amply demonstrate the absurdity of the charge.

    Brandon: Don’t you care about what you say?

    • Jacques,

      You are still knocking down straw men. Nobody has said anything about a “weak state” except you. A “weak state” is very different from a “limited state,” which is what libertarians generally advocate for.

      When people point to Somalia or Libya and cry “See! Libertarianism leads to poverty!” they are committing the straw man fallacy. Besides, Somalia and Libya aren’t even weak states. They are failed states. They shouldn’t even exist (see my posts on Somalia and Libya for more details).

      You may have read widely outside of your circles in the past, but your posts and comments as of late suggest otherwise (see my first paragraph above).

  3. Brandon: I think the real charge is that I have not read enough Christensen. Maybe guilty!

    It does not matter what words I use or misuse. The problem to which I draw attention remains: Pure libertarians seem to want a state that is incapable of nurturing the sort of society they wish for.

    (Si vis pacem, para bellum)

    You have tried to answer this criticism in the past on this blog. You ended up using words from the constitution that you did not understand at first: letters of marque. When I instructed you (charitably) you argued in favor of family-based collective punishment: Let our corsairs (holders of American letters of marque) pay themselves for their help to America from the vast fortune of the Bin Laden family.

    Aside from the fact that this is morally repugnant, how would you go about letting corsairs for America remunerate themselves for waging war against penniless enemies of the US?

    This is too absurd. I hope this discussion is useful to someone nevertheless.

    By the way, I could make a better argument than you about how to avoid having a standing army. (Reminder: I keep stating that I understand well that a standing army, an army of any sort, in fact, undermines the project of reducing government.)

    • Jacques,

      You are still strawmanning. For example: What is a “pure libertarian”? I ask because this position is ostensibly what you are criticizing, but you have never elaborated upon what you mean by the term.

      You commit the same fallacy when you write of letters of marque and reprisal. The scenario you construct is wholly a product of your imagination (something I cannot argue against). You are inventing an argument that does not exist, attributing it to me (or worse: to “pure libertarians”!), knocking down your imaginary construct, and then declaring victory. (Reminder: al-Qaeda is a stateless organization; I am more than willing to elaborate upon this argument if anybody asks, but please don’t force me to argue with your imagination).

  4. “You may have read widely outside of your circles in the past, but your posts and comments as of late suggest otherwise (see my first paragraph above).”

    Well, it’s somewhat understandable. I’m not sure when Jacques retired but I think it’s close to a decade since he’s published in an academic venue. He sometimes claims that he only accepts findings from peer reviewed outlets [hopefully double blind review]. Since he no longer faces strong selection pressure, his thinking has gotten flabby and he can confine himself to an ideological echo chamber.

    As a consequence, his claim that “…my ongoing writing, my public presence amply demonstrate…” a diversity of information sources doesn’t hold water. Jacques’ autobiography, while enjoyable, demonstrates only a knowledge of his own history. The only other ongoing writing I know of is his blogging…the very writing that raised the issue.

    I’m not sure how his public presence demonstrates a diversity of information sources. Based on his blog posts, his public presence seems to consist of loitering along the sunny streets of Santa Cruz.

    Jacques’ can claim a variety of information sources [He both watches Murdoch’s tv and reads Murdoch’s newspaper!] but the only thing outside of the teapublican echo chamber I’ve seen mentioned is NPR. I can only assume that he puts it on for his daily nap.

  5. Brandon: If you did not write what I said you wrote about letters of marque and Bin Laden, I agree that I have a problem and that my imagination is running too wild. If you did write what I said you wrote, don’t change the subject. Talk to it, not past it.

    If you did write anything resembling what I said you wrote, you might consider re-linking to it or making it very easy to access so others (If there are) may judge for themselves.

    Amburgey’s comment is pure venom that gives me a faith I never had before in Freudian analysis. I believe that 97% of psychoanalysts….

    In case anyone is reading this exchange, I need to remind you that I have only put up two comments of my own accord on Notes on Liberty (or maybe it’s three and I forgot one). Every other essay that appears here associated with my name was deliberately selected by Brandon (with my blanket permission). He is always free to ignore what I write. I am glad that he does not because sometimes my own libertarian leanings are helped here. There is also always the chance that some one else will pick up the ball and wonder if there are serious problems within the libertarian dogma.

    PS I have had an association of several years with the libertarian periodical Liberty Unbound. I have published seven or eight items in it. I even read it and I don’t think of it as slumming, as I do, for example when I listen to NPR

    • If you did write anything resembling what I said you wrote, you might consider re-linking to it or making it very easy to access so others (If there are) may judge for themselves.

      Um, I never wrote anything of the sort. I don’t think any libertarian anywhere, at any time, has ever written anything you attribute to “pure libertarianism.” Hence my point about you simply knocking down straw men. The burden of proof is on you.

    • Brandon: Your answer to my question seems to imply that you never wrote that holders of US letters of marque could eventually have remunerated themselves for protecting the US from Al Qaida by seizing the Bin Laden family fortune.

      Am I right that this is what you are saying?

      Or, do you mean only that you never wrote it on this blog or on any other blog?

      I ask because it’s possible that you did it in a private communication with me. I wish you would tell me which is correct, if either. This would save me from performing useless work researching my emails and I would be thankful for this.

      Of course, I would not publish the contents of a private communication without permission. (You, on the other hand are free to publicize anything I wrote to you.)

      If I dreamed up all this (letters of marque, the Bin Laden fortune), it’s good news and bad news for me. It’s bad news, of course that I am unable to distinguish fantasy from reality. It’s good new because my imagination is even more fertile than I thought. This discovery might even edge me toward trying my hand at fiction, perhaps a novel. (“The Libertarian Lover”?)

      While this quandary is being cleared up, you might think of answering a question that is germane to our discussion of the relationship between national defense and the libertarian project:

      Do you think letters of marque should be an important component of American national defense?

    • Wow. You can’t just make stuff up about somebody and then not have any proof to back it up, Dr J.

      You have a keen imagination, but I have never wrote anything you attribute to me. Your tactics are straight out of the Clinton political playbook, and that is, quite frankly, unfair to everybody here at the consortium. It’s rude, sloppy, dishonest, and a waste of time.

      Please don’t do it again. If you are unsure of something, you can always ask without making bizarre, sloppy, or dishonest claims about something you know nothing about. Case in point:

      I think letters of marque and reprisal is in serious need of contemporary legal and political scrutiny, and this is because it offers the West an important and (sadly) overlooked alternative to nation-building and drone killings that has so far gone ignored. So, yes, letters of marque (or, better yet, an updated version of the same thing) should be a very important component of US defense strategy.

      One thing that has gotten lost in all of this is the question of where terrorism comes from in the first place. Under a libertarian foreign policy, terrorist acts against the US state and perpetrated by foreign organizations and individuals would cease because of retrenchment policies that bring troops home from places where they are not needed (like Saudi Arabia).

      There is a way to keep US troops in foreign states without angering the locals or burdening the US taxpayer: Federation or confederation. This proposal is more than just a proposal, though. It is also a useful thought exercise. Suppose, for example, that you cannot imagine the United States federating or forming a confederation with a particular state, say Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. The reasons for such opposition on your part may be many, and they are not important for this thought exercise, but why on earth would you support US military bases being built and maintained in these same states, and not support more openness between your society and theirs?

      Your answer to this question will give you an answer as to why the US currently has so many enemies abroad, and also strengthens the argument for severe military retrenchment if closer political and economics ties cannot be formed between the US and its clients.

  6. “Amburgey’s comment is pure venom that gives me a faith I never had before in Freudian analysis. I believe that 97% of psychoanalysts….”

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. I apologize for suggesting that you only listen to NPR during your naps.

  7. PS: “Pure libertarian” is just a shortcut. I don’t apologize for it. It’s meant to differentiate between the millions who are attracted to libertarian ideas, on the one hand and the smaller number who more theoretically inclined true believers, on the other hand. The latter would include most of the Institute (which which I used to be loosely associated ), Ron Paul, and you, for example.

    There is clearly a gradation in strength of adherence to libertarian beliefs. It’s useful to distinguish between one end of the spectrum and the other. “Pure” is not an insulting term.

  8. Since Jacques is either too lazy to use google or doesn’t know and Brandon is too busy chasing young Texican ladies…..

    An interesting back-and-forth on letters of marque and reprisal. I would suggest that both of you go refresh your understanding by visiting Wikipedia before you start afresh but we know how Jacques feels about reading anything not in the teapublican echo chamber.

    This link is NOT for Jacques

    • Thank you Professor Amburgey.

      I was aware of that dialogue but did not link to it because I did not state – anywhere in that dialogue – “that holders of US letters of marque could eventually have remunerated themselves for protecting the US from Al Qaida by seizing the Bin Laden family fortune.” Dr Delacroix is knocking down yet another straw man with this charge.

      As I said in this thread, I don’t think there has been enough legal and political scrutiny on the letters of marque and reprisal lately (much to the West’s detriment). Debate on this legal, historically-sound concept would lead to fruitful endeavors on how to approach stateless enemies, which are only going to increase as the world continues to liberalize (liberalization tends to fragment weak polities like the ones found throughout the post-colonial world). The US could draw up a contract, for example, and Congress could set aside a sum of money rewarding the organization that brings heads to its august chambers.

  9. In my previous comment, I meant to name the libertarian “Independent Institute.” I used to be loosely affiliated with it through my publications in its scholarly journal, “The Independent Review.” (Oops, another senior moment!)

  10. “Letters of marque and reprisals” are mentioned in the US Constitution (Article I; section 8). The power to grand those belongs to Congress. This instrument of war was common at the end of the 18th century and beyond.

    The key distinguishing factor of this way of waging war is also that which makes it absurd to me in this day and age.

    Those who had been granted Letters were private entrepreneurs. They self-financed and paid themselves by obtaining their share of the value of the ships they captured. The fact that there was often a legal proceeding determining whether the capture had been performed in a legally valid manner does not change this basis fact: When there was no capture, or no valid capture, the entrepreneur received no compensation.

    It’s important to know that valid captures involved not only warships belonging to an enemy power (mostly tough nuts to crack) but also privately owned merchant ships flying the enemy nation’s flag. Today, it wold mean that if the US had a war with Canada, for example, all commercial freighter or tankers of Canadian registry, even fishing boats, would be fair game.

    Holders of letters of marque were therefore neither mercenaries not military contractors. They received no payment from their government. The reverse was true: The government took a share of the proceeds.

    Those who insist that the US government could issue letters of marque in replacement of part or all of the existing tax-based voluntary army would have to explain the following: Why would letters of marque against penniless terrorists, or even against North Korea be attractive to anyone in his right mind since there would be no way to recompense oneself?

    On a more personal note: Brian, whose younger memory I have to trust more than mine, insists that he never said what I contend he said with respect to letters of marque, collective punishment, and the Bin Laden family fortune. If he is right, I must have serious mental health issues that need urgent attending to. I am going to do it. So, I am severing any links with Notes on Liberty. It goes without saying that Notes is now not at liberty to reproduce any of my essays, past, present or future.

    I will continue to exhibit my insane ravings and the sad products of my overactive imagination on my blog: factsmatter.
    See you there.

    It has been fun. Thank you for your attention.

    • I understand that the concept of letters of marque and reprisal has some rust. I’m confident that other libertarians feel the same way. When somebody points out the obvious (that invading and occupying Iraq is a bad idea; that al-Qaeda is not Afghanistan) it is generally considered courteous to think about and propose alternatives (no matter how rusty). Jacques thinks that such alternatives are “insane” and “silly” because, you know, Iraq and Afghanistan (and Libya) are such rousing successes.

      Jacques summons arguments from deep within the bowels of his imagination, attributes them to an individual or a faction, and then proceeds to mock – not just criticize, but rudely mock – the individual or faction in question as if they were the ones who put forth the argument!

      Case in point is Jacques’s hypothetical scenario of a US war against Canada. Stop and think about this. An up-to-date letters of marque and reprisal would be a tool for dealing with stateless enemies of the republic and its allies (such as al-Qaeda). If the US and Canada were to go to war, why would Congress issue letters of marque and reprisal? Wouldn’t Washington just declare war?

      It would be one thing if Dr Delacroix was honest about his ignorance in regards to arguments that do not align with his thoughts about the world. It is quite another to create false arguments, attribute them to someone else, and then storm out of the dialogue because nobody will take him seriously anymore.

      Are you quitting Dr Delacroix? If so, I want you to admit it upfront so that you can’t claim to have been “run-off” by ideological zealots. As far as I’m concerned, you have full access to the blog. You even have a generous (and handsome) editor to help you along with the complexities of wordpress. If you quit, however, the move is wholly on your shoulders. It will be you who left because of ideological zeal (or, more likely, just plain ole’ intellectual laziness).

      The real question here is: Dementia, Alzheimer’s, or too much afternoon wine?

    • I m quitting. This is not the time to start another debate about why. (That would be not quitting.) Please, remove my name whenever it’s practical.
      Thank you.

  11. “You are embarrassing yourself again Dr. J. It’s okay, I have left-wing academics in my family who do the same thing around the Christmas dinner table. I’ll still hang out with you (speaking of which: are we still on for doing magic mushrooms together later this summer?).

    First, I didn’t realize that I would have to spell out the how mercenaries (or legal pirates, if you prefer) would get their money for getting bin Laden. Osama bin Laden is a billionaire. Mercenaries (or legal pirates) are protected by international law. Once the job was done, mercenaries (or legal pirates) would then have access, via whichever courts froze bin Laden’s assets, to his money.”

    I have a new theory about Jacques’ memory issues that involves large amounts of Psilocybe cubensis.

    I’m sympathetic towards proposals to utilize letters of marque and reprisal. I don’t have the same [imo] blind faith as libertarians in classic competitive markets but I think that markets can do wonders. I’m not sure why Jacques want’s to unleash the invisible hand elsewhere but not here.

    • Thanks Dr A.

      Just to be clear: You can see how my argument is very different from the one Jacques attributes to me, right?

      Also, letters of marque and reprisal (updated or not) is a tool of statecraft, so it’s not really accurate to describe it as market-based. Washington would play an extremely prominent role in such policies (being party to a contract, for example, or simply initiating a bounty). It would be more accurate to describe such a policy as more efficient rather than more market-based.

      Letters of marque and reprisal would, in addition to avoiding the pitfalls of nation-building, also avoid debacles like the Blackwater scandal (where mercenaries worked side-by-side with government agents). Washington’s role would be to initiate the contract and uphold its end of the said contract, but would have to be forbidden from providing support for the mercenaries.

      And, of course, such policies would be extremely rare as the US would have less enemies due to a smaller military presence around the world.

  12. I want to continue the discussion of the market based nature of letters of marque and reprisal [competition might be a better term]. But first I want to point to something I think both you and the departed Dr. Delacroix are overlooking. Reprisal.

    “A reprisal involved seeking the sovereign’s permission to exact private retribution against some foreign prince or subject. The earliest instance of a licensed reprisal recorded in England was in the year 1295 under the reign of Edward I.[9] The notion of reprisal, and behind it that just war involved avenging a wrong, clung to the letter of marque until 1620 in England, in that to apply for one a shipowner had to submit to the Admiralty Court an estimate of actual losses.”

    I think terrorism is a good venue for allowing victims to exact private retribution. More later.

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