“War is liberty’s greatest enemy, and the deadly foe of economic progress”.1
- Leonard Read
An essay in Policy by Edwin van de Haar (Autumn 2009) does a great job of explaining how libertarian principles apply to international relations. According to Haar, libertarians are opposed to international organisations, treaties and foreign aid. They also advocate free trade as a means of increasing cooperation between nations and reducing the likelihood of conflict.
And although Haar does not say this explicitly, libertarians are also hesitant about intervening militarily.
In Australia debate on issues of foreign policy is dominated by conservatives and social democrats, both of whom favour intervention overseas. The only difference between the two mainstream ideologies pertains to the particular instances on which they would intervene. Social democrats tend to be sympathetic towards so-called ‘humanitarian interventions’, while conservatives favour ‘police actions’ such as in Iraq.
But the libertarian rejects entirely the mainstream consensus surrounding intervention. Rather than assuming that states have a right to intervene and then quibbling on where and when, the libertarian draws upon the great tradition of non-interventionism, or neutrality, in foreign affairs.
Non-intervention was the hallmark of American foreign policy for nearly a hundred years, and has the advantage of avoiding all wars not essential to the territorial defense of a country.
The logic behind non-interventionism derives from a fundamental axiom of liberal thought that no person may aggress against another unless in self-defence. It becomes apparent then that all State wars are unjust, for they are financed through coercively acquired taxes, which are itself an act of aggression - and therefore forbidden.
But we need not go this far to a pure libertarian position to understand why non-intervention is beneficial. For libertarians the key rationale behind opposition to war is encapsulated in Randolph Bourne’s famous dictum that “War is the health of the State". It is during times of war that the government grows most swiftly. Thus it was liberals such as Richard Cobden, not those of the ‘left-wing’, who were among the first to rail against imperialism and colonialism.
There is a contradiction between claiming to support laissez faire on the one hand, and approving of foreign policy adventurism on the other. Self-described classical liberals who support war are actually going against the very philosophy they claim to espouse. Even if the cause is just, and even if one emerges victorious, the end result of war is usually a permanent increase in the size and scope of government.