Classical Liberalism And State Schemes

Ilana Mercer, September 2, 2005

Sam Karnick, a conservative commentator (also a friend and a consummate gentleman), has suggested that classical liberalism and its belief in “a common human nature” is the appropriate metaphor or raison d’êter for the war in Iraq. “The common characteristics that all people share as a result of human nature” undergirds the President’s action in Iraq, says Sam. He also contends that conservatives against the invasion of Iraq have been brought up sharp against this tenet, as it forms part of their philosophy as well:

“In arguing, from conservative premises, against Western projects of nation-building in the ‘developing world,’ conservatives such as [Lawrence] Auster and [Spencer] Warren (and Buchanan, etc.) face a huge dilemma: their belief in a common human nature (though one that certainly permits a wide variety of human customs and organizing beliefs) is a strong argument against radicalism of the left, but it is not useful in refuting the logic of projects based on a belief in a common human nature, as Bush’s nation-building action in Iraq most certainly is.”

Sam assures me that Burke and Smith would have clashed with Hayek and von Mises over the compatibility with classical liberalism of such state “projects.” Much as he and I have. However, contra Sam, I’d emphasize that properly applying principles is far superior to pitting intellectual against intellectual. Classical liberals ought to avoid invalid Arguments From Authority, and, instead, advance valid authoritative arguments—the kind that espouse limited authority and republican virtues. Limited government is, after all, one of the cornerstones of classical liberalism.

Assume for now that there’s an immutable, scientifically affirmed “common human nature.” It’s one thing to proclaim the existence of this entity. But to use it as a lodestar for legislation is a leap unjustified in classical liberalism. For one, “projects” based on this nature lend themselves to ambitious adventures, compatible with the positive liberties of the welfare state, not with the “night-watchman state of classical-liberal theory” (in the words of the late philosopher, Robert Nozick). The latter must generally confine itself to upholding only the negative liberties of its citizens.

If anything, the commonalities in human nature ought to be the basis of government inaction. Consider acquisitiveness—it’s a feature of humanity. Even more universally human is the taste for free stuff. The welfare state is a monument to this appetite. In fact, the more the Transfer State has reinforced and rewarded this aspect of humanity, the more ingrained it has become.

“All redistribution, regardless of the criterion on which it is based, involves ‘taking’ from the original owners and/or producers …and ‘giving’ to nonowners and nonproducers,” writes Hans-Hermann Hoppe. The unintended consequences of this “project”? “The incentive to be an original owner or producer is reduced, and the incentive to be a non-owner and non-producer is raised.”

Subsidize individuals because they are poor, and you’ll get more poverty; subsidize them because they are unemployed, and you’ll get more unemployment; siphon taxes to support single mothers, and you’ll get more single motherhood, illegitimacy and divorce; subsidize the old by taking from the young, and the institution of the family—the intergenerational bonds between parents, grandparents, and children—is systematically weakened (to paraphrase Hoppe).

In short: the erosion of civilization itself.

Not only do government “projects” involve unethical takings, they are also mostly unsuccessful. The inverted and perverse incentive structure that characterizes these endeavors guarantees failure. As I’ve explained, “Wrongdoing and incompetence in government are seldom punished, but are, rather, rewarded with budgetary increases. A government department accretes through inefficiency. Failure translates into ever-growing budgets and powers and a further collectivization of accountability.”

Ultimately, “philanthropic” wars are transfer programs—the quintessential big-government projects, if you will. The warfare state, like the welfare state, is thus inimical to the classical liberal creed. Therefore, government’s duties in the classical liberal tradition are negative, not positive; to protect freedoms, not to plan projects. As I’ve written, “In a free society, the ‘vision thing’ is left to private individuals; civil servants are kept on a tight leash, because free people understand that a ‘visionary’ bureaucrat is a voracious one and that the grander the government (‘great purposes’ in Bush Babble), the poorer and less free the people.”

Still, there seems little I can do to convince conservatives. They remain so invested in redeeming Bush that they deny what classical liberals are obliged to decry: the unintended consequences of the Iraq “project.” So, let’s ignore Bush’s reverse Midas touch, and assume for the sake of argument that his “project” has not whittled Iraqi liberties (which I don’t for a moment believe). If indeed we’ve subsidized “freedom” for Iraqis and fought their battles—then we’ve also increased their impotence and diminished their initiative. (Who can deny that Iraqi demands from the U.S.—security and sustenance—indicate they consider themselves wards of the American state. And who can blame them?)

Now, what of the Iraqi people, don’t they have a right to life, liberty, and property? Indeed they do. However, despite the propaganda at the time of the invasion, Iraqis were not suffering the fate, say, of the non-Arabs of Darfur. Without necessarily supporting intervention, classical liberals ought to agree that there were far fewer reasons to mess with Saddam than there are with Sudan. The Arab Janjawiid—a government-backed, racial supremacist, Islamist militia—have butchered about 150,000 non-Arab Sudanese and have displaced 2 million, now dying daily in camps. Nor were Iraqi rights at the time of the invasion anywhere as imperiled as their rights are today.

Moreover, distinguish we must between their right to be free and our obligation to free them. We have a solemn [negative] duty not to violate the rights of foreigners everywhere to life, liberty, and property. But we have no duty to uphold their rights. Why? Because (supposedly) upholding the negative rights of the world’s citizens involves compromising the negative liberties of Americans—their lives, liberties, and livelihoods. The classical liberal government’s duty is to its own citizens, first. (The sights from New Orleans dispel any illusions about the kind of government Americans will tolerate.)

Finally, there’s also the matter of persisting in what is impossible to achieve. In the words of philosopher David Conway, “People can have no duty severally or collectively to do what is impossible for them to do.” Precisely because human nature is fickle, not fixed, and a democratic heart does not throb in every thorax, persevering in Iraq constitutes a transgression against our sacrificed soldiers and suffering taxpayers. Again, the duty of the “night-watchman state of classical-liberal theory” is primarily to its own.

Ideological wars like Iraq belong to the Jacobin—not Jeffersonian—tradition.

©2005 By Ilana Mercer
  Free-Market News Network
  September 2


CATEGORIES: Bush, Classical liberalism, Iraq, Political Philosophy, The State & Statism, War, Warfare State