The Lighthouse

“Enlightening Ideas for Public Policy”
Volume 10, Issue 4: January 28, 2008

Defending a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy

A foreign policy of military non-intervention, peace and free trade has been a hallmark of American libertarian thought for centuries, spanning from the Founding Fathers’ admonitions against “entangling alliances” on through the classical liberal tradition of the nineteenth century; from the Old Right disaffection with World War I to the campaign speeches of libertarian Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul today. One of the most common criticisms is that this foreign policy is too simplistic and ignores inconvenient lessons of history. It is along these lines that Bret Stephens recently criticized non-interventionism in The Wall Street Journal.

Replying to Stephens, historian Robert Higgs, an economist and Independent Institute senior fellow, argues that, in fact, history only reinforces a philosophical commitment to a peaceful foreign policy. Higgs critiques Stephens on the supposed necessity of the Barbary War, which forced U.S. taxpayers to subsidize trade in the Mediterranean, and points out that very rarely do “‘we’ Americans all have the same interest in knocking down some group of foreigners.” In World War I, for example, the “wealthy northeastern movers and shakers who finagled, intrigued, and politicked to push Woodrow Wilson into seeking a declaration of war against Germany in 1917 could hardly have been more unrepresentative of the general interest, and ultimately nearly everybody realized in retrospect that U.S. entry into this dynastic bloodbath had been a monumental blunder.”

Whereas critics often accuse libertarians of ignoring real evil in the world, Higgs asserts that “[l]ibertarians. . . fully recognize that some men are vicious, vainglorious, and imperious. Further, unlike Stephens, libertarians recognize that the dangers such men pose to society will be magnified enormously in the event that they gain government power.” And while the very active state is ostensibly necessary for the maintenance of international and domestic order, Higgs is unconvinced by the actual track record: “Americans now face terrorist threats in many parts of the world when they go abroad, the ‘blowback’ from various U.S. interventions; national-security outlays, all military-related things being included, of a trillion dollars a year loaded onto American taxpayers; unprecedented revulsion against Americans and their government around the world; oil selling at close to $100 a barrel; and political leaders who look forward with equanimity to keeping U.S. forces in Iraq for another hundred years.”

Higgs concludes that “the true lesson of history” is that “war, preparation for war, and foreign military interventions have served for the most part not to protect us, as we are constantly told, but rather to sap our economic vitality and undermine our civil and economic liberties.”

Libertarian Foreign Policy in the Hobbesian Crosshairs: A Reply to Bret Stephens“ by Robert Higgs. (1/18/08)

Depression, War and Cold War by Robert Higgs.

Opposing the Crusader State: Alternatives to Global Interventionism, edited by Robert Higgs and Carl P. Close.

Also see the Independent Institute’s Center on Peace and Liberty.

THE LIGHTHOUSE, edited by Carl P. Close, is made possible by the generous contributions of supporters of the Independent Institute. If you enjoy THE LIGHTHOUSE, please consider making a donation to the Independent Institute.

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