From the Comments: Why care about Syrians?

Dr Gibson notes:

I’d say the “big question” makes no sense. Surely some Syrians would be better off under ISIS and some under Assad.

And there’s a bigger question: who the hell cares? Few if any of us Americans have enough information to judge this issue nor should we. We have our own fish to fry. The Washington politicians have done incalculable damage with their ceaseless meddling in the affairs of the Middle East and elsewhere. Let the Syrians and their immediate neighbors sort this out.

I wanted to draw this excellent comment out for two reasons. Reason number one has to do with Dr Gibson’s first paragraph. Questions rarely make sense (which is why you ask people for help), but suppose you asked whether Syrians would be better off under capitalism or socialism. Some Syrians would be better off under socialism than capitalism, but that doesn’t mean it’s just as good as capitalism. Right? One of those systems is better for far more people than the other, and as an individual don’t you have a moral duty to support the more just system in some form or other? These are questions that libertarians, especially libertarians in the United States, should be asking themselves more often than not. There is a disturbing tendency among this faction of libertarians to lean in the direction of nationalist parochialism when it comes to matters outside of our borders. This brings me to reason number two for highlighting Dr Gibson’s (quite excellent) comment: Reminding libertarians and classical liberals that our creed is an international (and a humble) one.

War refugees represent the humblest of our species. The UN estimates that the war has affected nearly 12 million Syrians so far and, of course, that doesn’t include all of the people outside of Syria’s borders who have been affected. Russians, Europeans, North Americans, Syria’s immediate neighbors, and East Africans have all been affected by the ongoing war. How could you not be interested, especially from an individualist point of view?

I think the problem of the American libertarian’s parochialist nationalism stems from Murray Rothbard’s Cold War-era writings. Unlike F.A. Hayek and Ludwig von Mises, who were both big supporters of more international cooperation (but who both saw the glaring flaws in organizations like the UN and what is now the EU), Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs were heavily influenced by the fact that the world was dominated by two superpowers and that the government he lived under used lies and deceit to counter Moscow’s power plays. Rothbard’s world of bi-polar geopolitics is long gone. It doesn’t exist. It will not exist again in my lifetime. Ours is a world of multipolarity. Yet somehow Rothbard’s writings on foreign affairs (which descended into outright incoherence near the end of his life) still have a profound impact on the American libertarian movement.

Much of my work here at NOL is dedicated to eviscerating this long-expired mindset from the American libertarian movement. Isolationism is nationalist, plain and simple (just pay attention to the rhetoric of libertarians like Justin Raimondo or Doug Bandow if you need more convincing), but Warren’s point about Washington’s meddling in the affairs of other states remains pertinent. So perhaps a different question to ask (even if it doesn’t make sense) is what a more internationalist-minded, in the vein of Hayek and Mises and Adam Smith, US foreign policy would look like. (I’ve been asking this question for a while now.)

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7 thoughts on “From the Comments: Why care about Syrians?

  1. These problems exist today because the US destabilized the entire area through its military activities. We toppled Saddam and have attempted to do the same with Assad. We created a “power vacuum” in Iraq that eventually created ISIS. 9-11 was financed by a former citizen of Saudi Arabia over our “occupation” of areas that Muslims consider “holy” and not to be trespassed on by non-believers. We overthrew the democratically elected leader of Iran in 1953 and installed our own tyrant in his place. Who in turn was eventually overthrown by radicals in 1979. Our support of Israel since 1947 also has had its consequences. We were responsible for the overthrow of governments in north Africa that created refugees fleeing across the Mediterranean into Europe. Now we have even more refugees fleeing Syria and attempting to get into Europe. We have maintained a military presence in Afghanistan since 2002. We are now sending more of our military forces back into Iraq to battle ISIS.

    Effectively we have created for ourselves and others “forever war” in the Middle East.

  2. I think even the most internationalist foreign policy in the Hayekian or Misesian vain would still bear a lot more similarity to “isolationism” than you imply. Unlike the isolationism and parochial nationalism of many modern libertarians, of course, there’d be more refugees accepted, a much more robust pro-immigration policy than many Rothbardians (think Hoppe) would be comfortable with, and far more international diplomatic cooperation and economic trade than many libertarians appreciate. However, the central insights of foreign policy that’s often labeled “isolationist” would still be acknowledged; it would be a thoroughgoing peaceful policy that would, at times, verge on pacifism, there would be little to nothing in the way of foreign aid and intervention, nations like the EU and UN would, at the very least, have their influence significantly scaled back. See Mises’ criticisms of nationalism, imperialism, the League of Nations, and colonialism in the third part of “Liberalism in the Classical Tradition,” or Chris Coyne’s application of Hayek’s knowledge problem to foreign interventionism in his books (this paper is a pretty good taste of that: http://www.ccoyne.com/The_Fatal_Conceit_of_Foreign_Intervention.pdf).

    Of course, in an ideal world from my perspective as a Hayekian anarchist, there would be no problem of “foreign policy” because the concept of a “foreign nation”–or a nation-state in the first place–wouldn’t exist. The closest to these debates that would come are legal issues of polycentric laws between defense agencies and court systems, or diplomatic relations between organizations (in the Hayekian sense) in the micro-cosmos of society. But that’s entirely different issue than the second-best, real world of nation states we exist in.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply Zach. I want hone in on one specific segment of your argument, though, because I think it highlights well a big problem that American libertarians have when it comes to thinking about IR. You write:

      However, the central insights of foreign policy that’s often labeled “isolationist” would still be acknowledged; it would be a thoroughgoing peaceful policy that would, at times, verge on pacifism, there would be little to nothing in the way of foreign aid and intervention, nations like the EU and UN would, at the very least, have their influence significantly scaled back. See Mises’ criticisms of nationalism, imperialism, the League of Nations, and colonialism in the third part of “Liberalism in the Classical Tradition,” or […]

      There are two things I’d like to clarify here.

      First, “peace” is simply not what a classical liberal/libertarian foreign policy is based on. Liberalism is a creed based on the freedom of the individual, not peace. (Dr van de Haar’s recent book, as well as his blog posts here and his article in the Independent Review on this subject, are well worth your time if you’re interested in getting more in-depth on the topic.) Once this clarification is made, it is easy to see that an isolationist foreign policy does not necessarily coincide with libertarianism. Despots, juntas, warlords, and demagogues should fear us precisely because they are all enemies of individual freedom, for example. (It doesn’t follow that Western governments should undertake more of the policies mentioned by muskogeelibertarian above, of course, but it doesn’t mean Western governments or private citizens should ignore the gross violations of human rights that are routinely perpetrated by governments around the world, either.) The whole notion that libertarianism/classical liberalism be based on individual liberty domestically and peace abroad is incoherent, to say the least. Would you agree?

      Second, the EU and the UN are institutions, not nations. This is not me being pedantic. For instance, in Mises’ Liberalism there is a sub-section in the foreign policy chapter titled ‘the United States of Europe’ where he acknowledges the need for political reform in Europe but cannot grasp how this would be possible (Hayek flirts with the idea of a federated Europe, too, and comes to have many of the same reservations as Mises, but not the same resolute conclusion). Much of Mises’ confusion on the matter of federation has to do with his confusion about the concept of nation and its link to institutions. Check out what he (Mises) has to say about European federalism:

      The narrow-mindedness which sees nothing beyond one’s own state and one’s own nation and which has no conception of the importance of international cooperation must be replaced by a cosmopolitan outlook. This, however, is possible only if the society of nations, the international superstate, is so constituted that no people and no individual is oppressed on account of nationality or national peculiarities. (144)

      So far so good, right? (Digression: see if you can spot the influence of this quote in this old piece.) Mises then goes on to argue against what he believes is the only logical conclusion to be followed by the implementation of a suprastate in Europe (Hayek couldn’t perceive any other options either, but he left the door open for more exploration on the topic, unlike Mises): that while an international suprastate, a federation of states, is the best option in a world of second-bests, it will not work because the idea of being a part of a European nation is unheard of. He conflates ‘nation’ with ‘institution’. Most of this is because the vast majority of Europhiles at the time were arguing for a US of E in order to build up a protectionist trading bloc, but Mises’ short-sightedness nevertheless remains.

      A more libertarian foreign policy would be one where polities are free to enter and exit existing federations, and one where federations based largely on individual liberty make it crystal clear that sub-polities in illiberal states are free to choose.

      • Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think we’re mostly in agreement. I agree with you about allowing nations to enter federations/alliances, and I in know way wanted to defend “isolationism,” rather I was defending non-interventionism I agree with Mises’ quote there and am extremely cosmopolitan myself, however I am still extremely cautious about getting involved in foreign wars, nation-building efforts, and foreign aid for the reasons Coyne explores. I would, however, like to address this:
        “First, “peace” is simply not what a classical liberal/libertarian foreign policy is based on. Liberalism is a creed based on the freedom of the individual, not peace. (Dr van de Haar’s recent book, as well as his blog posts here and his article in the Independent Review on this subject, are well worth your time if you’re interested in getting more in-depth on the topic.) Once this clarification is made, it is easy to see that an isolationist foreign policy does not necessarily coincide with libertarianism. Despots, juntas, warlords, and demagogues should fear us precisely because they are all enemies of individual freedom, for example. (It doesn’t follow that Western governments should undertake more of the policies mentioned by muskogeelibertarian above, of course, but it doesn’t mean Western governments or private citizens should ignore the gross violations of human rights that are routinely perpetrated by governments around the world, either.) The whole notion that libertarianism/classical liberalism be based on individual liberty domestically and peace abroad is incoherent, to say the least. Would you agree?”

        First of all, I would argue that liberalism is (or at least should be) not just based on freedom of the individual for its own sake, but freedom of the individual for the sake of some higher good (a la Aristotle), but that’s another argument. Nonetheless, I would argue that peace is a necessary prerequisite to individual freedom. It is impossible to maintain a constant warfare state and individual liberty at the same time: besides the obvious liberty violations typically related to war, but also the latent effects such as the building of a military police state, privacy violations in the name of “national defense,” and the very fact that taxpayer money is being taken for ill-fated foreign aid projects. So no, it is not incoherent to say that it is based on peace abroad and individual liberty domestically because the former depends on the ladder; in fact, I would argue individual liberty abroad also depends on peaceful foreign relations.

  3. I do not mind a small percentage of them coming here after they are properly vetted. Use the same standard we use for other immigrant groups and do not give special consideration to one or the other.

    • I think some consideration is defensible. There’s an opportunity cost to our resources in vetting immigrants. A refugee who is faced with the choice of either being murdered or starving to death should probably be given some priority over a wealthy Indian college student who wants to attend a cushy Ivy League school.

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