Libertarians and Non-interventionism

When I used to hang out with Libertarian Party members around 15 years ago, one popular marketing slogan was “Libertarians — we’re pro-choice on everything!” Obviously, “pro-choice” in this context meant that libertarians tended to opt, wherever possible and to the extent possible, for enabling maximum individual freedom of choice. Example: why make it illegal for an adult to imbibe or smoke the substance of their choice if they can be allowed to make that choice and bear the consequences of their actions? One problem with the slogan was that a sizable minority of Libertarians have consistently come out against so-called “abortion rights” and have therefore come down on the “pro-life” rather than “pro-choice” side of that particular debate.

Today’s piece in Hit and Run by Matt Welch made me wonder if a better slogan for libertarians might be: “Libertarians — we’re non-interventionist on everything!” The asterisk would have to be that the context is government intervention. Remember that establishing a government is establishing a monopoly on the use of force against people, with the hope of bringing the use of force against people under the rule of law. Government intervenes (or should intervene) only when it is appropriate to use force to solve a social problem.

Libertarians can be defined as people who believe that the initiation of force by the government should be minimized as far as possible (which for some means eliminating it altogether).

Some guy is smoking weed? Okay. Is he posing an immediate threat to anyone else, such that the initiation of force against his exercise of liberty is appropriate? Government non-intervention seems a sane course.

A restaurant is serving some very salty soup to its happy customers? Hmmm. Is the restaurant posing some kind of threat that requires the use of government force to rectify? Seems highly unlikely.

Some community has just suffered a natural disaster? Individuals should be free to help out to the extent that their charitable impulse demands. But should the government use force against those who aren’t interested in helping, to compel them to help?

Someone doesn’t have enough food, clothing or shelter? People should be free to use social means to lend a hand, in whatever way seems best to them. Does it make sense for government to intervene (in other words, to use force, since that is what government is – force)?

A brutal dictator in the Middle East is oppressing his people who strive for freedom. Here it is more difficult for individuals and non-governmental organizations to help the oppressed, given that the dictator is at least trying to preserve his monopoly on force over his geographic area, and his people are located within that region. That often leads concerned citizens of other nations to call for armed intervention on behalf of the oppressed. Classic libertarian foreign policy non-interventionism would dictate remaining aloof.

The problem for libertarians, as the last few examples might indicate, is that people have a sliding scale when it comes to their desire for interventionism. Most people seem to consider the use of force against people, in “measured quantity,” to be acceptable to solve certain problems when a speedier or more thorough solution is hard (for them) to imagine arising through peaceful, voluntary action alone.

Libertarians often, and rightfully, object that there are unforeseen consequences to intervention in all of its various forms. But there are also unforeseen consequences to non-intervention. And people have a tendency, especially when led by professional altruists in the media, to demand that their government “do something” about a problem. Because “doing nothing” or “waiting and seeing” can seem flaccid, selfish, or just plain boring.

I conclude that libertarianism isn’t more popular than it is because a majority of people are comfortable with interventionism, and, whether or not it is marketed in the way I suggested above, these people deduce that libertarianism means non-interventionism.

So as long as people remain the way they are, and as long as they reward politicians based on conformance with their preferences, Matt Welch is probably right that the next President, even if he’s nominally a non-interventionist, will in fact intervene after the media altruists beat the drum loudly and frequently enough in a particular case. But Matt shouldn’t blame the “pro-interventionist idealists” lurking in the government bureaus for this outcome. He should blame the American people and their preferences — including their revealed preference for meddling in the affairs of others when they think the circumstances warrant it.

Meanwhile, the rest of us who lean libertarian should get about the business of educating our fellow citizens on the moral and practical benefits of non-interventionism in every sphere.

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