Advice to Libertarian IR Theorists

LGF: This short article was published in the now extinct ThinkIR website on 11 October 2012. I decided not to make any corrections to the original text.

How can you be a Libertarian and theorise IR at the same time? We may tackle this question from a normative or descriptive point of view, but I don’t think you could separate one from another.

On the normative side, let’s face it: most political scientists believe in big government and some who claim that don’t, believe in it anyway. The Libertarian IR theorist will be less than sanguine about the status of normative assumptions in IR, to say the least.

On the descriptive side, IR was born statecentric and remains a statecentric discipline. Adding “new actors” will not do if we keep presupposing they don’t have their own character and are merely “parts” of a “whole” – Leviathan, of course. Starting from the descriptive side, therefore, is also a bit of a problem for the Libertarian IR theorist.

How to begin? I suggest an agenda that does a bit of both and, for the time being, doesn’t get “quite there” yet. There’s preliminary work to be done. More importantly, there’s a lot of “real world” nonsense to be stopped or prevented, and this is equally pressing.

On the one hand, the Libertarian IR theorist has to dispel the normative and descriptive Leviathanic myths bought and reinforced by the discipline of IR since its incipience. For all its attractiveness, though, myth-bursting doesn’t necessarily precede “real world” engagement. “All these theories yet the bodies keep piling up”. That kind of thing.

Back to the question: how to begin? Do a bit of normative, a bit of descriptive and a bit of engagement. One day, Libertarian IR theorists will get there. Meanwhile, merely shifting the conversation with this threefold strategy will open doors – even gates.

Fellow Libertarian IR theorist, there are essentially two ways of doing normative, descriptive and engaging thinking. The first is the way of dialogue. The second is the way of antithesis. Out of these two, a whole new school of thought may emerge. New to IR, that is.

When in dialogue, speak the language of the conversation. Understand it first. Master the key IR theories and arguments in every branch. Security studies, foreign policy analysis, world history, IR theory, IOs and, of course, international political economy.

A good starting point would be deconstructing this unhelpful term, “Liberalism”, which can mean “Wilsonian imperialism” as much as “Kantian federalism”. In the hands of current pundits, it often means “bomb anyone outside the West who refuses to bow to our big government institutions and policies”.

From clarification of the many uses of the term and how anti-liberal the most frequently employed meanings are, proceed to an analysis of possible dialogue with Classical Liberalism. The powerful tradition of Hume and Hayek, of Mises and the Manchester School.

Don’t stop at economics or political philosophy. Do the hard cases. What (if anything) would they say, for example, against realists? IR “liberals”? Constructivists? And, of course, Marxists.

Here the point is to “mine” for “international thought” (even in the Wightian fashion) bearing in mind the “family resemblance” between the rich tradition of Classical Liberalism and the Libertarian approach.

But go a bit further. Is there anything we can learn from realists or constructivists? Feminists, poststructuralists, postcolonialists and, why not, Marxists? If there is, please mine it as early as possible and preserve whatever spark of truth we may find in the established approaches in our discipline.

You may, of course, be even sneakier, wear the camouflage and employ the vocabulary of the mainstream. Why not talk “securitisation” but add to it a Libertarian twist? Why not, for example, challenge both “securitising moves” and “desecuritisation” on the same grounds that either way there’s a statist assumption that public policy is the “appropriate” sphere of security?

Wearing camouflage, depending on the situation, can be a good way of getting heard. If you manage to get attention and smuggle a bit of Libertarian principles behind the mask of the mainstream, well, congratulations: you’ve just shifted the conversation.

This is the way of dialogue. Let’s look now at the way of antithesis. It is a worthwhile endeavour, but we run the risk of sectarianism. Antithesis is important to draw the line, but potentially damaging if employed to police thought within the movement.

Care more about drawing the line between Libertarian and Liberal than Randian and Rothbardian. If you achieve considerable dialogue with realism, constructivism and liberalism – or with critical theory, feminism, whatever – antithesis will be important to teach us where to stop.

Is Libertarian IR critical? Yes, but for exactly the opposite reason that Marxists would consider themselves critical theorists. Is Libertarian IR liberal? In a sense, but this has to be defined by contrast.

Notice I haven’t shown anything of the substance of a potential Libertarian IR theory. I don’t mean to say little about such an important subject for mere “industrial secrecy”. The truth is that it’s hard to know the final result.

Don’t Libertarians often refer to “spontaneous order“? So, then: it’s hard to predict, let alone know what a Libertarian IR theory will look like in detail, before obtaining space for it in the discipline.

The ground-clearing exercise of dialogue and antithesis helps open up space for Libertarian IR, but it operates as a constraining and enabling mechanism. When we try to be understood by both statists and state-centrists, when we speak their language, we’ll see that we’re adding originality to the formulation.

It’s not a matter of transposing Hoppe or Spooner, Nozick or Murphy into IR. It’s not a matter of merely developing a “world politics” argument out of the initial approaches. It is, rather, a presentation to the IR audience.

After gaining space, Libertarianism will be speaking to IR, and not anymore to those who listened to it in a past age. Libertarian IR will be similar, but not quite the same.

In dialogue with the IR establishment, or even critical theories, it will be similar to them, but will also smuggle a bit more of liberty into the conversation. In antithesis, it will of course draw a line. In transposition from the initial context to our own discipline, it will be original.

Remember intellectual exercise isn’t enough. Even now, as you read, Leviathan plots against human life, liberty and property. We need scholars, entrepreneurs of theorising, as much as we need second-hand trade in ideas.

Be visible. Be active. Be in the conversation out there. The conversation goes beyond the microcosmos of the university campus. If asked about policy, talk policy. Go to the media. Blog. Talk to people. Influence by example.

Do normative argument, do descriptive theory and by all means make it engage with the general public. Do journalism, punditry, policy advice. Pursue the way of dialogue or the path of antithesis.

Shift the conversation. Give it a new direction.

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