Libertarians who hold fast to the non-interventionist theories of their philosophy are simply isolationists under another name.
The following is a rebuttal to Making the Case for Non-Interventionism and Free Markets by Taylor Millard.
Taylor Millard’s defense of libertarian ideology and its preference for both a non-interventionist foreign policy and free trade fails to resolve the contradiction between the two. Millard’s argument is a necessary one for self-styled non-interventionists deluding themselves into believing that they are not isolationists. As the devotees of Ron Paul and Gary Johnson frequently protest as if on cue, they are not isolationists because they favor trade with other nations.
But the “trade” defense is a one-line cop-out. Absent a strong American presence on the international stage, trade would wither.
Millard’s argument misunderstands the essential link between economic activity and political security. It is squarely at odds with historical experience, and with roughly 400 years of Western political philosophy.
Millard asserts that since commerce and free trade will thrive organically in the absence of American intervention, the U.S. need not concern itself with political developments abroad and should assume a disinterested posture. This ignores much of history. The modern world’s economic integration owes itself largely to Western imperialism, which may be thought of as capitalism spread at the end of a gun barrel. India, with its 1.25 billion inhabitants, owes its integration with the modern world to the British Empire. China, too, was forced open by British gunboats in the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century. Japan opened itself to international trade after a semi-threatening visit from the U.S. Navy in 1853. In Africa, nearly every state has been colored by the legacy of European colonialism.
Since World War II, international trade has been facilitated by the political stability brought to you by American military power. In Europe, American power kept the Germans down and the Russians out, and World War III never started. The American navy checks Chinese power in the Pacific. South Korea’s $1.4 trillion economy owes its existence completely to American troops. American naval dominance keep international shipping lanes open to commerce; and American influence in various international organizations facilitates the promotion of international legal norms. The resulting international prosperity speaks for itself. If, as Millard asserts, international trade somehow flourishes naturally regardless of international security considerations, then it is a curious sort of abstract truth that must have been discerned without reference to anything in our historical experience.
The foundational insights of our Western philosophical tradition also diverge sharply with Millard’s analysis. Thomas Hobbes, who was influenced by the English Civil War of the mid-17th century, observed the destruction of English civil society wrought by war and proposed the leviathan, a powerful state with a monopoly on the use of force that would bring predictability and stability to an environment of anarchy. Hobbes had carefully observed the discontents of political instability: violence, death , turmoil, and above all, the utter futility of all the pursuits that enable a vibrant economy:
In such condition there is no place for industry, because the fruit thereof is uncertain, and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea, no commodious building, no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force, no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time, no arts, no letters, no society, and, which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. [Leviathan, Chapter XIII]
Libertarians like Millard are characteristically vigilant about protecting economic liberty from government, but oddly nonchalant about protecting it from all the threats to it that arise in conditions of political anarchy. Consider Millard’s use of Syria to illustrate his point that trade will thrive even in the midst of anarchy.
How often have there been stories of soldiers or civilians running a black market. The Syrian black market is doing exceptionally well, right now. “There is so much demand from the Syrians side. There is deman for everything. Last time I was carrying paper napkins,” Mustafa Demir told Reuters in 2013. “I usually deliver to the Syrian rebels on the other side. They bring their own lorry and the transfer is done on the other side. And then I leave.”
This description of high demand in Syria for anything and everything is hardly a characteristic of a thriving free enterprise system. On the contrary, it is a description of an economy on life support, so devastated by war, anarchy, and state failure that it cannot deliver even the minimal amount of goods and services to sustain the basic needs of the population. In 2014 (roughly two and a half years ago), here is how Time summarized the economic state of Syria as a result of the war:
Capital flight, de-industrialization, looting and destruction of Syrian factories and businesses both large and small has seen GDP contract more than 30% each quarter of the last fiscal year, an unprecedented economic chute, says Jihad Yazigi, editor of the online economic digest The Syria Report. “You can’t even compare the destruction in Syria to Lebanon’s civil war, or Bosnia. This is on the level of World War II. We are seeing a reversal of decades of economic development, and I don’t know how, if ever, Syria will recover.
Millard selected a state with no political stability, scanned for signs of economic life, and upon finding extremely faint ones, deemed political stability irrelevant to a healthy economy. But Syria is an economic ruin! It doesn’t illustrate his point; it undermines it.
American involvement in Syria has been minimal at best. Though is could probably have removed Assad with a week of airstrikes in 2013, the American military stayed out, limiting itself to anti-ISIS operations far from the centers of conflict in the civil war. Aside from this, our involvement has been limited to non-lethal assistance and token amounts of training and military arms to Syrian rebel groups. The economic devastation that we have seen in Syria where American power is largely absent is a telling example of what a libertarian foreign policy might look like in practice. Observe how much “trade” we (or any other country) enjoy with Syria today (none) and consider the results of favoring international trade while totally disregarding its mandatory prerequisite of political stability.
Libertarians seem to believe that all the international economic integration of the past seven decades that has enabled so much economic expansion and prosperity has come about as if by some magic degault that would have transpired regardless of American power underwriting the stability of the international system. This is historically uninformed, philosophically bankrupt, and deeply delusional.
So go ahead: call them isolationists. Libertarians will protest. Let them. They are quibbling with semantic distinctions that have no practical difference.