NOL Foreign Policy Quiz, Part One

The goal of this post is to discuss the purpose of a NOL Foreign Policy Quiz. It is the first in a series of posts discussing the details of how to actually devise and distribute this quiz. Reader input is encouraged.

The Nolan Chart is a short political quiz developed by David Nolan, the Libertarian Party founder. The Nolan quiz plots individuals along two axes, asking them their preferences towards issues of personal and economic freedom (both Rick and Warren have blogged about the Nolan Chart here at NOL, too). Libertarians are those individuals who favor both personal and economic freedom.


The benefit of the Nolan Chart is that it moves us away from the left–right spectrum and towards a two-dimensional understanding of politics. The limitation of the Nolan Chart is that it only views politics through these two limitations. The Nolan Chart at best tells us what end policies we favor, but it fails to address how to achieve these goals.

This is problematic, as even political groups that agree on end goals differ substantially on how to best achieve them. Among libertarians, the largest debate is probably between those who believe a minimal state is needed (minarchists), and those who believe no state can be tolerated (market anarchists) to achieve maximum liberty. There is also, to a lesser extent, a debate on the form of government* and foreign policy.

It is possible to be a libertarian and believe that monarchy is superior to republicanism or democracy in upholding the law and maximizing liberty. Likewise, it is possible to be a libertarian and desire an active foreign policy beyond promoting free trade agreements. I know that I stir controversy with my latter comment, but give me a moment to defend it.

The standard libertarian foreign policy is one of non-intervention. It is a policy of wishing to sever military ties with foreign nations and instead promoting free trade with all. It is a policy consistent with the non-aggression principle.

However, this standard policy is not the only policy consistent with libertarianism. It is possible to believe that, although the loss of any human life is horrible and that the state is illegitimate, the best option to minimize human life and protect liberty is to attack, embargo, or annex another state.

I do believe that there are several tests that must be met before one adopts a foreign policy beyond the standard libertarian creed. Specifically:

  1. Loss of human life and liberty must be weighed for both sides.
    1. Discounting should not occur on national basis.
  2. All reasonable peaceful solutions must be acted on beforehand.
  3. The long-term consequences of the action must be considered and weighed for both sides.

Additionally, if actions are taken, then all precautions must be taken to minimize loss of human life and liberty on both sides.

Minarchist libertarians may see the state as a tool to maximize freedom, but I do not believe this grants them the authority to kill others. There may be a scenario where the murder of one man is outweighed by it leading to the protection of ten men, but the one man has still been murdered and his death must be felt as a regrettable action. The value of a man is not dependent on whether he was born in New York City or Tehran. A libertarian cannot be a jingoist.

At no point may a foreign policy action be taken if a reasonable peaceful action is still available. If a man enters your home with a gun and clearly intends to harm you, by all means it is justified to attack him, even if he has not yet shot or aimed at you.

And finally, the long-term consequence of a foreign policy action must be considered. Even if the first two rules are met, if there is not a long-term plan that is likely to succeed, no action should be taken.

For a long time, I wrestled with my stance on the Iraq war. I believed in the past that the first two requirements had been met and that the US invasion of Iraq was justified despite the loss of life and liberty on both sides. The Iraq war did not, however, meet the third hurdle. There was no viable long-term plan, and the latest consequence of this is the rise of ISIS and other militant groups in the MENA region.

Meeting these three conditions is difficult, but possible.

For example, I believe that expanding the US to include South Korea and Japan would be a proactive foreign policy stance consistent with my the rules I outlined above. Such an expansion would harm Okinawan residents, whose land is currently used for US bases. Such an expansion would also lead to retaliation from the PRC and North Korea. It would, however, lead to a net win for liberty. South Koreans and Japanese residents would have a stronger defense against a rising PRC seeking to dominate the region militarily. US residents would benefit from having defense costs, both in monetary and human life terms, more equitably shared. Although I am hopeful the PRC will liberalize in the future, its actions towards Hong Kong makes me doubtful that that will occur in the foreseeable future.

It is possible that I am wrong of course, and that adding South Korea and Japan would lead to a great loss of life and/or liberty. I am still a libertarian, however. I am not discounting the lives or liberty of non-US residents. I am not ignoring another peaceful solution – the current foreign policy scenario in East Asia is not sustainable for much longer, the PRC has clear intent to assert itself in the region, and it’s extremely doubtful that it will liberalize in the foreseeable future. I am considering the future: the PRC and North Korea are sure to retaliate, but I do not see either of them going to war over it. I do see the PRC being more likely to go to war over annexing Taiwan, even if not immediately, or otherwise I would promote Taiwanese annexation as well.

Hopefully I have successfully shown that it is possible to be a libertarian and favor a policy beyond the standard libertarian foreign policy. In which case, there is merit in discussing foreign policy beyond this standard.

There have been proposals to incorporate a foreign policy dimension to the extant Nolan Chart, but these proposals take it for granted that a non-interventionist policy is the only libertarian prescription. Over at FEE, Richard Fulmer proposes the following five questions:

  1. The United States should cease serving as the world’s policeman.
  2. The United States should not engage in nation building.
  3. The United States should not pledge to defend other countries.
  4. The United States should withdraw its troops currently stationed around the world.
  5. U.S. foreign policy should not be tied to that of the United Nations.

Unless one believes only a non-interventionist foreign policy is compatible with libertarianism, it is clear that these questions are insufficient. They also highlight that a NOL foreign policy quiz should seek to complement, but be independent of, the Nolan Chart. Otherwise, any attempt to add a foreign policy dimension will end with in fighting over who is a libertarian and who is a statist.

Again, the standard non-interventionist libertarian foreign policy view is a consistent and legitimate view point. It is however possible to favor foreign policy interventions under certain conditions and still be a consistent libertarian.

In the next post I will be proposing the foundation for a NOL foreign policy quiz.

Foot Notes:

*Even market anarchists who reject the need for a state debate on what type of organizations would exist and how the law would operate. For example, Murray Rothbard’s early vision for market anarchism presumed that a unitary law would exist, and that private defense associations (PDAs) would compete to best to carry out this unitary law. This unitary law would be based on ‘natural law.’ David Friedman’s vision for market anarchism does not presume a unitary law, and instead imagines competition for the law, as opposed to competition for the application of the law itself. My understanding is that there are also Rothbardians who have moved away from PDAs and towards dispute resolution organizations (DROs). It has been quite some time since I actively followed this debate among market anarchists, so I will defer to anyone who has more up-to-date information.

Further Reading:

Ian Bremmer’s American Foreign Policy Quiz [NOL Post] – The post that initiated the idea of a NOL Foreign Policy

A Three Dimensional Nolan Chart Extension Focusing on Form of Government (e.g. Anarchy v. Monarchy)


5 thoughts on “NOL Foreign Policy Quiz, Part One

  1. The ultimate libertarian position on political spectra is that everyone is looking at it wrong and we should have significantly more dimensions beyond the Nolan’s two.

    But more seriously: An important part of the justification for freedom is the Hayekian argument for epistemic humility… we’re dealing with complex phenomena that are beyond the comprehension or control of elites (even if they’re Austrian economists trained in data mining and wielding tyrannic powers as the heads of statistical agencies). This obviously doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make the world better… nobody wants a world where people don’t do that. But it does set a very high bar for *any* policy with long run decisions; and all the higher if that policy is hard to reverse.

    I came across a great quote in a book on Systems Theory that captures this:

    “The reader who is familiar with the First Edition will note, in the Second Edition, a very slight and subtle shift of focus, a change of emphasis, in the direction of Pragmatism. Some of the later Chapters, if read uncritically, could even lead to a sort of optimism regarding Man’s ultimate ability to take charge of Systems—those created by his own hand as well as those originated by Mother Nature. The reader is hereby warned that any such optimism is the reader’s own responsibility.” (

    I can’t remember why I wanted to link to this, so feel free to ignore it (tangent related to changing complex systems):

    • Yes I agree. The standard for intervention is particularly high.

      As for the bullying post. I suspect maybe the implemented program ending up having no significant effect after a short period or more careful analysis showed no effect? And this is a general warning about the need for humility in trying to change systems?

      • We’ll see how well the bullying program works long run (well, someone will), but it looks like as good a success story as one might hope in such a situation. A problem faced by a group of people who normally would mostly not care was reduced by targeted intervention recruiting key members (as determined by day-to-day life rather than caste or some artificial source of status) of that group.

        It lends credence to the idea that such problems might benefit from such interventions. But it could be argued that that intervention, for all its modern-liberal-warm-fuzziness, was a libertarian intervention. Nobody was forced to do anything, freedom was not curtailed, but value was created, social coordination was improved and conflict was reduced. Maybe the participating kids felt some pressure and it isn’t fair to say they weren’t (gently) forced into this, but (going back to your post) if this replaced the usual system of pointless assemblies, then the quasi-coercion added is significantly less than the more explicit coercion removed.

Please keep it civil (unless it relates to Jacques)

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