Military Intervention in Libya – The Errors of Muscular Libertarianism, Sean Gabb, 22nd March 2011

Free Life Commentary,
A Personal View from
The Director of the Libertarian Alliance
Issue Number 206
22nd March 2011 

Military Intervention in Libya:
The Errors of Muscular Libertarianism
by Sean Gabb

Everything I thought relevant about our latest war in the Moslem world I said in a blog posting a few days ago. However, I have been asked to write at greater length. If I do not choose to begin again on the reams of commentary that I made on our earlier war in Iraq, I suppose I should say something about Libya.

Looking at the immediate issues, I am against intervention. It is none of our business what goes on in the Moslem world. Even if it were, there is no good that we are nowadays capable of doing there. I doubt if air strikes alone will prevent Colonel Gaddafi or his enemies from killing ordinary people. The logic of the intervention we have made may draw us into some kind of land attack – followed by some kind of occupation. And everyone ought by now to understand the likeliest outcome of military occupations in the Moslem world. Even if he is brought down with the help we are so far providing, I do not believe that whatever follows Colonel Gaddafi will be much better on the whole than he has been, or that it will be any more friendly to us. The most charitable view to be taken of the British and American Governments is that they are run by fools whose memory does not reach back even to 2003. The most sensible view is that military action is being taken for the benefit of special interest groups that cannot stand openly forward without bringing both governments into scandal and contempt.

That is my view of the war. Of course, it is possible that, this time, I and the trend within libertarianism to which I belong are mistaken as to facts. Perhaps this time, limited intervention will bring down a tyrant, and he will be followed by a stable and reasonably liberal democracy in Libya. I do not for a moment suppose that this will happen – or is actually desired by whoever is giving the orders. But let me assume that this is a possibility, and then take issue with a rival libertarian trend that asserts our right, and even our duty, to beat down tyranny wherever we can, and to raise up such constitutional government as the people there are able to support.

The main problem – specific facts aside – with this kind of assertion is the talk of “we” and “us”. Such talk made reasonable sense in the ancient democracies. When a treaty was made between Athens and Corcyra, for example, the Athenian ambassadors signed fully on behalf of the people of Athens. All policy was debated at meetings that every adult male citizen had the right to attend. Even allowing for slavery and the peculiar status of the metics, probably the majority of those who paid taxes were able to speak and vote on the weight and the use of the tax money. Certainly, everyone who might be called on to do military or naval service could speak and vote. Moreover, every effective office of state was filled either by direct election, for short periods and with the real possibility of impeachment, or by lot for short periods, so that the people as a whole, in every generation, would have a share in government. Obviously, there were always dissenters from whatever the majority decided. But, when the ancient historians say that “the Athenians” did this or that, they were making sense.

But neither England nor America is a democracy of this kind. In both countries, there is a much greater separation of state and people. To take the example of my own country, the British State comprises the Queen-in-Parliament, plus a mass of employed officials who themselves outnumber the whole population of ancient Athens; and it is influenced by a further cluster of usually corporate interests. Whether this machine is directed by six hundred or so elected representatives is beside the point – though it generally is not directed by them. These representatives are themselves members of a class separate from the people, whose only political function is to choose between them every four or five years.

To speak of actions taken by the British State as taken by “us” is a plain error. One of the reasons we moderns pay so much attention to constitutional safeguards is because we need them in ways that the Athenians mostly did not. We need them because we face a State that is separate from us, and that has interests that are often hostile to our own. We are not entirely helpless as we stand before the State. Elections aside, we are lucky enough to live in a country that still has a broadly liberal political culture, and where most organs of the State are directed by men willing to act with a certain restraint. But this does not mean that there is any specific identity between the interests of State and people, or that we should put too much meaning into the verbal convention that “we” went to war in Iraq, or that “we” must do something to help the people of Libya.

Because, for any number of reasons, we do not and cannot control the State, the best we can do is to keep insisting that those who direct the State should be guided by certain principles. The main principle is that they should not regard themselves in any sense as our parents, nor as our agents. They should regard themselves, rather, as our trustees.

Now, the duty of a trustee is to act in what any reasonable man might regard as the best interests of the beneficiaries. He should not use things for his own purposes that are not really his property. He should not simply take instructions from the beneficiaries. He should act with prudence and with restraint.

If we apply this principle to foreign policy, we see that all actions here should never go beyond a very cautious selfishness. The State has no money of its own. The rulers of the State do not nowadays do any fighting. In all cases, it is the people who pay and the people who fight. It is, therefore, not enough for David Cameron and William Hague to speak about the sufferings of the Libyan people. If they were to resign their offices and go off to fight, as many Englishmen did in the Spanish Civil War, that would be their business. It is not their business to spend our money and our lives on their crusade – and not even if they could find a temporary majority for doing so in a referendum. Their duty, as trustees, is to take such minimal actions as will safeguard this country from invasion. This might sometimes require them to go a little further. They might, for example, be required to intervene in an Irish civil war. They might also be required to gain and exercise a benevolent hegemony over countries like Holland and Belgium, and actively to conciliate the French and Germans. But, just as a trustee is not permitted to sell or mortgage assets to feed the starving in Africa or fund research into a cure for aids, the rulers of this country have no business to run about the world, involving us in foreign matters that we do not fully understand and cannot efficiently control.

There is a general benefit to behaving in this manner. When the governments of the main countries act purely in the reasonable interests of their peoples, foreign policies taken on a caution and predictability that is most consistent with enabling a peaceful intercourse between nations. Wars come about most often not from national selfishness, but from impulsive and unpredictable acts in furtherance of some abstract principle. And I say again that such principles will generally be a cover for the enrichment of some shameful special interest.

There is a fundamental difference, then, between a man who takes sides in some foreign dispute and goes out to act on his decision, and a State that intervenes in foreign disputes. There is also a fundamental difference between a man who acts by himself and a man who calls for a State to act on his behalf.

This is my view of how the British State should respond to events in Libya and the rest of the world. It would be my view even if I could be shown a record of success in the spreading of liberal democracy through the world. But there is no such record. The people who are now calling for “humanitarian” intervention in Libya are often the same people who called for the same in the Balkans. We bombed. We occupied. We are still occupying. The mountains of dead Albanians we read about in the newspapers were never found. Instead, the alleged aggressors suffered ethnic cleansing and what might fall within the legal definition of genocide. And Kossovo is now a gangster state that has exported criminals to every country in Europe. The same people told us that Saddam Hussein was feeding his enemies into plastic shredders, and had – or soon might have – “weapons of mass destruction”. So we invaded. Seven years later, perhaps a million Iraqis are dead. Iraqi Christians are persecuted as they never were under Saddam Hussein. Water and electricity have still not been restored in many areas of the country. Instead, below a thin veneer of constitutional rule paid for by the Americans, the country is a patchwork of jurisdictions based on tribe or religion, and hardly anyone is better off. Of course, none of the alleged weapons was ever found. Leave aside my own preference for how the British State should generally conduct itself – is it likely to be any better in Libya?

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13 thoughts on “Military Intervention in Libya – The Errors of Muscular Libertarianism, Sean Gabb, 22nd March 2011

  1. RandalM

    To speak of actions taken by the British State as taken by “us” is a plain error.

    And this should have implications for how we respond to the militarist impulse in our society.

    There is always a lot of talk about a “Military Covenant”. There is always huge pressure within British society to “support the troops”, buy poppies, respect minutes of silence, etc. This is generally the case in establishment circles, but is particularly strong for conservatives.

    Even as a non-pacifist, I can recognise the impact this stuff has in promoting the acceptability of military action by our leaders. As has often been noted, the best way to ensure support for a war is to start one.

    The answer must surely lie in a proper analysis, and wider understanding, of the distinction between military action in defence of the nation and military action for other purposes (intervention). This is not as simple an issue as it might seem, since the very concept of the nation (as opposed to the state) is problematic for libertarians, and furthermore it is rarely straightforward to classify military action as defensive or non-defensive, necessary or optional.

    Since the 1970s, in my opinion, the British military has only been used for one indisputably defensive international conflict (the Falklands), and one debatably defensive war of choice – the first Gulf war. (I am not including Northern Ireland, where they were used for internal security). Since 2000 it has been used repeatedly in interventionist wars for the benefit of various interest groups, and not in defence of the British nations.

    1. seangabb Post author

      Once you start looking for mathematical precision in defining England and the English and defence of the nation, you get into trouble. Even so, these three things do mean something.

      1. RandalM

        Once you start looking for mathematical precision in defining England and the English and defence of the nation, you get into trouble. Even so, these three things do mean something.

        Indeed, though I’ve had many a discussion with objectivists of various kinds denying the latter.

        Problematic, as I said.

      1. RandalM

        Perhaps we should try insisting that no British forces could ever go into action unless led by a Minister of the Crown?

        It’s a very tempting prospect, isn’t it? But in the case of an action such as Libya, we’d have to teach them how to fly a modern jet.

        Are any of them up to it?

        I recently suggested the following:

        Personally I’d rather have a compulsory Inquiry at the end of every conflict in which our armed forces are involved, made up of a few hundred randomly chosen British citizens and reaching decisions by majority vote.

        It should be empowered to have access to all material, regardless of secrecy, and to summon any witness to give evidence under oath, and it should be tasked with answering two questions:

        Was the government 100% honest and open in justifying the war?

        Was the war undertaken in necessary defence of the British people?

        If the answer to either of those questions is not yes, the death penalty should automatically be applied to all members of the Cabinet responsible for the decision to go to war.

  2. Simon

    It is the business of the media ensure that the gap between the rational, logical definition of the words ‘We’ and ‘Us’ and the purpose for which they are used – to invoke as real, an imaginary alignment between the actions of a ruling class and the wishes of the dominated group- is bridged via emotion. This is carried out via use of imagery, words and sounds used to stimulate an irrational part of the mind willing to transcend reason with imagined ‘feelings’ of empathy. This used to be achieved via the Church, now it’s the newspapers, radio and TV – watching the News or reading a Newspaper is no different to watching a film or reading a novel except that the fiction is presented as fact. The only way to attempt to counter this is via the uncensored media such as it is and to my mind, confirms the importance of bulletins such as this- and the utmost importance of circulating to as many folk as possible, forwarding via email, links, etc etc

  3. Anonymous

    To believe and support any sort of intervention one would need to have faith in the honesty and humanity of the politicians making these commitments. But since they are entirely lacking in these qualities and are in fact squalid and disgusting individuals it is impossible for anyone with any sort of integrity to give this support. Politicians like these are only motivated by the most base and contemptible of human motivations.

    Vanity is amongst their core characteristics. To strut and preen as the centre of attention is what suites them most. Also to believe anything they say is an act of naivety. The art of politics is in “inventing the truth”. May be in the catalogue of propaganda currently being deployed they may yet get round to telling us that Saddam Hussein hid is wmd in Libya. After all that was a lie that worked before and might bear repeating.

    I could add I have little time for those who do the fighting. Of course they will talk up the enemy to make themselves appear brave. Yet the reality is that they risk little and are doing what the European powers have done in Africa for decades now – and that is bomb tribesman who have no way of defending themselves against this superior weaponry.

  4. Anduril

    John Stuart Mill put it like this, in “A Few Words on Non-Intervention”: that complete non-intervention amounts to the miserable proposition that the wrong can support the wrong, but the right cannot support the right. Intervention to enforce non-intervention is always morally justifiable, if not always prudent.


    1. Oranjepan

      “It is none of our business what goes on in the Moslem world.”

      That’s a bit of a sweeping statement.

      What about the historic responsibility we have for drawing their borders? What about our current responsibility as a permanent member of the UN security council?

      What about all the arms we’ve sold to the Libyan state? What about all the arms the Libyans shipped to the IRA and the Lockerbie bombing?

      What happens on the other side of the world is not only our business in both literal and metaphoric terms, but in many cases is at least partly due to our relationships too. In addition extracating ourselves completely would not only be very difficult and lose a powerful means to have a positve influence where none other may be forthcoming, but can easily create a vacuum where greater chaos prevails. In fact it is highly arguable that western withdrawl from certain regions removed an important moderating influence on their (and our) politics which contributed to the explosive problems being experienced.

      So I cannot disagree more strongly with Sean when I say that ideological foreign policy choices are highly flawed because they fail to appreciate the actual situational requirements and tend to ignore narrow humanitarian and wider societal needs.

      There are principles of intervention, such as to prevent the wholesale slaughter of civilians, but how far these are applied is a different matter.

  5. ampers

    The awful thing is, politicians all want a war because they are under the impression that it will mean they get votes come the next election.

    The awful thing that I mentioned above is that, on the whole, they do get more votes when they get into a war. Although Blair's name is mud, at the time he was thought of as a hero.

    What does this say for the general British public?