Sean Gabb on the Libyan Intervention
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 down 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, 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 who 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?

8 responses to “Sean Gabb on the Libyan Intervention

  1. Sean, old man, you are of course most eloquent always in this matter. I’d love to be on a planet where a liberal polity, telling others what it is and how neutral and unthreatening it is providing everyone that wants to is not impeded from trading freely with it, is studiously left alone for its interests to be unviolated, while bad things go on elsewhere.

    However, I can’t ever get out from under the feeling that we, as liberals, having approximately solved the problem of how to remove pre-capitalist-violence from a society and replace it with discussion and contract, are confined despite ourselves inside what is still partly a raving madhouse, only part of which we managed to clean out before we were overwhelmed by the Forces of Darkness, again.

    This madhouse, which we are constrained for now to inhabit, still contains large numbers, currently increasing due to the efforts of many Western universities, of murdering pre-capitalist-unsocialised-barbarians (and I’m NOT specifically referring to any “religion” here either) that don’t either understand or like the idea of individual human creativity, thought or endeavour. Nor that individual humans should be able to rise above the status (I use the word advisedly, yes) of immobilised-and-un-moneyed-labour-serfs, and worse sorts too.

    Some of the more serious ones among them openly propose the worship of the planet by all humans, this to be enforced, coupled with the termination of the lives of most of the same. Really, we are talking about megadeaths of Incan and Mayan proportions here, only amplified by the means of modern deathmaking, called into being by what Churchill called correctly “the lights of perverted science”.

    The nasties have unfortunately trapped us, for now, into a sort of diabolic arcade-shooting-game. They keep spawning (and this is at least partly our fault for being asleep at crucial times) and we have to keep on hitting them down so as not to be swept away in a tide of blood and carnage. We could stop it, but we can’t easily because they are also now in charge of that part of the game-software that allows us to exist as “sprites”. Gramsci and the Frankfurt School, left un-assassinated, actually allowed them to get control of the game-engine while nobody was looking.

    I mean, what do you do about a fellow who freely shouts “you love life, but we love death!” What do you do about some one like Bill McKibben writing in the Guardian about how the Japanese earthquake highlights the pressing need to enforce more localism in food and energy production, along with much less of both? And that these people are allowed to affect policy in the very sort of state in which you say we ought to be living?

    I can’t see how to bring myself to sit by and watch the very few positive things Man has achieved – and it’s taken so long, and we have so little time – negated and nullified by thinking “oh, it’s next door, none of our business so long as they don’t make a mess on our side of the fence”. That may not be strictly libertarian as a strand of thinking, but I can’t help it at this time.

  2. Anyway, you argue the case excellently, even if I can’t agree.

  3. I am still looking for an argument that will bring you to agree with me. If I can persuade you into isolationism, getting myself made Lord Protector after the military coup will be no problem by comparison.

  4. We’ll just have to see, won’t we. Quite a lot of wine when we meet may help.

  5. (Sorry, that didn’t mean that you have to buy it all…)

  6. But we will bring some. Sadly, I had to stop making my own when BB began running her interfering little fingers over everything in reach. My winemerchant, Messrs Sainsbury, can be both interesting and economical.

  7. But he sends money to the StaliNazis! Just tell me how many gallons to supply, and I will engage the students. We have time.

  8. Julius Blumfeld

    I have to confess that although intellectually I know you are right, if it had been my finger on the button when Gaddafi’s forces were approaching Benghazi and thousands of people faced being arrested, tortured or shot, I would probably have pressed it.