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Foreign Intervention

Apropos Randy Barnett's Volokh Conspiracy article about libertarianism and foreign policy, last week I was engaged in a conversation with some co-workers about the possibility of U.S. intervention in the genocide in the Sudan.

As a hawkish libertarian — not a "conservative", mind you — I'm something of an outcast among the orthodoxy at the LP and other hangouts, including sadly often the Mises Institute which sometimes seems more Rothbard- than Mises-inspired.

So what you're reading here is not the standard "big-L" Libertarian line. But I think they're wrong, sucks to be them, etc. This is the view from my ship. Arrr!

Disclaimers aside, I think it's important and useful to break down the question of foreign intervention into several more focused issues. This is not intended to be a comprehensive list; just what springs to mind quickly:

  1. Identification of evil
  2. Moral obligation
  3. Moral authority to intervene
  4. Legal authority to intervene
  5. Capability of intervention


1. Identification of evil

Libertarians support the non-initiation of force principle (NIFP), essentially that physical force should only be used in retaliation against those who have initiated its use. This is not strict self-defense; retaliation by proxy (e.g. police officers, the courts) is appropriate. So is action against threats of force.

A government that slaughters its own people is rightly recognized as evil. It is initiating force on a massive scale and is violating the (moral, if not legal) rights of its citizens instead of protecting them. Various Marxist nations went through this, and more recently we have the examples of Iraq and Sudan.

2. Moral obligation

This may vary considerably based on one's ethical system. I'm a consequentialist who thinks virtue ethics is necessary for reasons of mental economy (we need principles or we'd be stuck in analysis forever), but under this framework the misfortune of others does not necessarily create an obligation to help them unless altruism is one of your virtues. And if not, there may be plenty of self-interested reasons to intervene. (I hesitate to say that because someone's immediately going to think I mean oooooil — get a grip; there are many potential self-interested reasons.)

To support an intervention, you have to believe it's morally appropriate.

3. Moral authority to intervene

I'll crib this one from a previous article; see the quote at the end. It's morally acceptable to intervene against dictatorships when you intend to replace that government with one that respects individual rights. Or, if you're not feeling utopian, the government at least has to be improved so that it's not a dictatorship anymore.

4. Legal authority to intervene

For the United States, an act of Congress is required. (For Iraq, this was H.J.RES.114.ENR, an invocation of the War Powers Resolution.)

That's it. No approval from any international forum is required, period. The Constitution recognizes no higher authority. The rest of the world might bitch about it, but that's irrelevant from a legal perspective.

Besides, as Iraq demonstrated, they'll bitch about it even when you do get their approval. :) (Yes, I think 1441 was sufficient.)

5. Capability of intervention

This is the pragmatic consideration. "Don't pick a fight you can't win."

A related matter is one of setting priorities; if there are many places where intervention seems like a good idea, it isn't possible to do them all simultaneously. Pick an order. And, of course, there are the domestic economic effects of producing military goods instead of consumer or business goods. Resources are scarce, desires aren't.


Side issues:

I include the matter of deaths among your own forces in #5. It's a cost to be weighed against the benefits of success.

I include the accidental deaths of civilians under #1 — they're the moral responsibility of the aggressor, not the rescuer. On a smaller scale, think of a police sniper who accidentally hits a hostage. The criminal is morally responsible for that death because they're responsible for creating the dangerous situation.


Regarding Iraq, I believe all five criteria were met.

Regarding Sudan, I think today only #1 and #3 are met.

Are there any other criteria I should add to this list?

Tiny Island