Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Libertarians and Veterans Day

Sunflower Field in Kansas by Ted Duboise is licensed CC BY-SA 2.0
Libertarians have historically had a conflicted view, if not an openly contrarian one, regarding militaries in general and the US military in particular. There are a variety of reasons for this, some philosophical and some historical. From a historical standpoint, the Libertarian movement was birthed in the United States and is consequently focused on its own backyard - since Libertarians advocate non-interference in other countries' affairs, it makes sense for them to focus near-exclusively on the actions of their own country. Also, since the modern Libertarian movement was established in the late 1960's, its views on the foreign policy and the government of the United States are very consistent with many of the concerns people shared back then. Between the poor behavior of American troops in Vietnam, the discovery of Operation Northwoods and Project MKUltra, the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, and J. Edgar Hoover's notorious conflicts with the Civil Rights movement, it's not surprising in the least that leaders of the Libertarian movement of the time began to openly sympathize with the Soviet Union, a decision that many of us might understand under the circumstances but find regrettable today. Meanwhile, from a philosophical standpoint, Libertarians are naturally allergic to "aggression", which, in Libertarian circles, roughly translates into, "making someone do something they wouldn't otherwise do through threats or use of violence". Since a military's sole existence revolves around perfecting the use of violence to serve its ends, it's no surprise that Libertarians are more than a little nervous about the existence of a military, to say nothing of its use. Following the Civil War, for example, Lysander Spooner, widely considered the grandfather of the modern Libertarian movement, had this to say about Abraham Lincoln and the war effort:
Abraham Lincoln did not cause the death of so many people from a mere love of slaughter, but only to bring about a state of consent that could not otherwise be secured for the government he had undertaken to administer. When a government has once reduced its people to a state of consent – that is, of submission to its will – it can put them to a much better use than to kill them; for it can then plunder them, enslave them, and use them as tools for plundering and enslaving others. And these are the uses to which most governments, our own among the rest, do put their people, whenever they have once reduced them to a state of consent to its will. 
The idea that, although government should rest on the consent of the governed, yet so much force may nevertheless be employed as may be necessary to produce that consent, embodies everything that was ever exhibited in the shape of usurpation and tyranny in any country on earth. It has cost this country a million of lives, and the loss of everything that resembles political liberty. It can have no place except as a part of a system of absolute military despotism. And it means nothing else either in this country, or in any other. There is no half-way house between a government depending wholly on voluntary support, and one depending wholly on military compulsion.
This tradition of suspicion, if not outright hatred and hostility, of the government and the power it wields through the military continues today. Joseph T. Salerno from the Ludwig von Mises Institute demonstrates the tone:
All governments past and present, regardless of their formal organization, involve the rule of the many by the few. In other words, all governments are fundamentally oligarchic. The reasons are twofold. First, governments are nonproductive organizations and can only subsist by extracting goods and services from the productive class in their territorial domain. Thus the ruling class must remain a minority of the population if they are to continually extract resources from their subjects or citizens. Genuine "majority rule" on a permanent basis is impossible because it would result in an economic collapse as the tribute or taxes expropriated by the more numerous rulers deprived the minority engaged in peaceful productive activities of the resources needed to sustain and reproduce itself. Majority rule would therefore eventually bring about a violent conflict between factions of the previous ruling class, which would terminate with one group establishing oligarchic rule and economically exploiting its former confederates. 
The second factor that renders oligarchic rule practically inevitable is related to the law of comparative advantage. The tendency toward division of labor and specialization based on the unequal endowment of skills pervades all sectors of human endeavor. Just as a small segment of the population is adept at playing professional football or dispensing financial advice, so a tiny fraction of the population tends to excel at wielding coercive power. As one writer summed up this Iron Law of Oligarchy: "[In] all human groups at all times there are the few who rule and the many who are ruled." 
 Thus, a permanent state of war or preparedness for war is optimal from the point of view of the ruling elite, especially one that controls a large and powerful state. Take the current US government as an example. It rules over a relatively populous, wealthy, and progressive economy from which it can extract ever larger boodles of loot without destroying the productive class. Nevertheless, it is subject to the real and abiding fear that sooner or later productive Americans will come to recognize the continually increasing burden of taxation, inflation, and regulation for what it really is — naked exploitation. So the US government, the most powerful mega-state in history, is driven by the very logic of the political relationship to pursue a policy of permanent war.
The article continues in that general vein - read the whole thing if you're so inclined. Personally, I think it is a grand example of how some in the modern Libertarian movement learned a little too much from Communism, including the use of emotionally charged, polarizing hyperbole, and the embrace of a reductionist Marxist-style dialectic in which all of human and social history can be viewed through an idealized Libertarian political-philosophical lens and critiqued accordingly. However, that sort of thing is coin of the realm at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, among other venues - that's not what compelled me to write today.

No, what got my attention was "What Makes Someone a Hero", by Bleeding Heart Libertarian's Jason Brennan (quoting excerpts to get to the point - please read the whole thing):
Today is Veteran’s Day, yet another day when Americans are supposed to thank soldiers for their service. But are (some, most, all?) soldiers heroes? This depends on the facts. A hero–as we use the term in typical English discourse–is someone who voluntarily engages in rightful service to others, even though that service puts him at risk of harm, and who does so out of benevolence rather than a desire for personal gain. So, to assess whether soldiers are heroes, we’d need to know 1) what their motives are, 2) the degree to which they were at risk of harm, 3) whether they were rightfully serving others. The qualifier “rightfully” is important. After all, Nazi soldiers and Gulag guards served others, but they don’t serve the right ends, and they didn’t conduct their service in a morally permissible way. Superman is a hero not simply because he puts himself at risk on behalf of others, but also because he serves the right ends the right way. 
Whether you think the typical American soldier is a hero or not will depend a great deal on your view of American foreign policy. Some American wars are beyond the pale; no reasonable person could believe them to be justified: e.g., the various wars fought to exterminate and uproot Native Americans, the Mexican-American War, and the Spanish-American war. What about other wars and military incursions? I’ll lay my cards on the table and say that I think hardly any US military actions have been justified according to the correct theory of just war.
From a very narrow Libertarian-Anarchic philosophical sense, a sense that Brennan is adopting, there's no such thing as a "just war", at least in any view of "war" as we would recognize it, as the book Brennan links to at the end of the excerpt above discusses. Since, according to a particular vein of Libertarian philosophy, there's no such thing as groups - only individuals choosing to act individually or collectively as they deem fit - the only "just war" is one in which you defend yourself from someone who is quite literally walking up to you, gun in hand, and getting ready to point the trigger (I exaggerate slightly, but you get the idea). Anything short of immediate individual self-defense requires such a high moral and philosophical aversion to murder to overcome that it's virtually impossible to do so, especially at the level of an organized nation-state. Since it's also assumed that governments and states are openly antagonistic against individuals (see the LvMI post linked above), even an invasion by a foreign power wouldn't meet the necessary qualifications of a "just war" unless each individual was personally confronted violently by an armed soldier from the invading army - until that happened, each individual would be morally required to assume that the invading army was an enemy of the state, not of the individual, and should thus be morally compelled to assist the invasion to help overthrow the state, at least unless or until the invading army attempts to set up another state or government to replace it.

Though this certainly seems a principled approach to war, it's actually just the philosophical and deontological codification of the Worst Argument in the World:
"X is in a category whose archetypal member gives us a certain emotional reaction. Therefore, we should apply that emotional reaction to X, even though it is not a central category member."
To apply this to our current topic of discussion, X is the military, or the state, or government in general, and the archetypal member it belongs to is "murder". Let's sketch this out:
  1. Murder is wrong.
  2. Murder is defined as the killing of a human being by another human being, usually intentionally though not exclusively.
  3. In war, humans kill other human beings.
  4. Therefore, wars are conducted through murder, which is wrong.
  5. By the transitive property, war is therefore as wrong as murder, times the number of casualties.
Let's continue on this train a little farther...
  1. Wars are conducted by opposing militaries, which are trained to kill on command.
  2. Since the primary goal of a military is to successfully kill others in war, the primary goal of a military is therefore murder, which is wrong
  3. By the transitive property, militaries are therefore wrong.
  4. Due to #3, anyone who chooses to participate in a military, either by volunteering or by refusing to conscientiously object to participating if conscripted, is therefore a murderer
  5. Therefore, Veterans Day is a holiday explicitly designed to celebrate murderers.
If you ask most people about this line of reasoning, they'll instinctively flinch away from it, though they won't be able to tell you why. If you ask deontologically driven Libertarians why that's the case, they'll tell you it's because of cognitive dissonance, or just a general unwillingness to face the truth - the rules for moral human behavior are plain as day, after all, and here are people violating them in the worst way possible. I have a different hypothesis, however - emotions are the mind's way of communicating to us what our words cannot, and, for most people, even if they can't quite articulate it, this line of reasoning just feels wrong.

It should.

What most people are intuitively sensing is the same thing most people intuitively sense when faced with something like PIV is always rape, ok? - the feeling that, yes, there might be some logic to it, but there's so much wrong with it that it's not even wrong anymore, even if they don't possess the intellectual or rhetorical chops to meaningfully identify where the point of ultimate confusion lies. In the case of the deontological Libertarian critique of Veteran's Day, and militaries in general, the ultimate point of confusion lies in the fact that we have separate words for "soldier" and "murderer", separate words for "murder" and "kill", "war" and "mass murder", and so on. That we have separate words or phrases for these concepts suggests that there are distinctions between each of them, much as there are distinctions between "ice" and "water vapor" even though they are both technically "water". Just as the "PIV is always rape" article broadens the definition of rape so broadly that it's impossible to conclude that any sex involving a penis can't be rape, assuming you accept that author's definition of "rape", many Libertarians make the mistake of broadening the definition or "murder" so broadly that self-defense almost becomes murder itself[1].

In the case of soldiers, militaries, and war, versus murderers, gangs, and the like, the distinction ultimately comes down to who's ordering the killing and why. Wars, at least in principle, are supposed to ultimately benefit someone other than the people doing the killing, especially in the long term. Militaries obey the commands of their government - which, in principle, are supposed to derive their consent by the governed. Soldiers obey the commands of their military. This is why we view military service as a form of service worth honoring - for a limited but predefined period of time, in principle, an individual chooses to act in the interests of their society. By contrast, a murder kills merely to satisfy their own desires.

Now, I'll be the first to admit that there's a wide gulf between principle and reality. Soldiers, for example, are not just morally required to refuse to follow an unjust order - in many militaries, they're now legally required to refuse one as well, which is a consequence of some of the worst excesses of the two World Wars. Militaries, meanwhile, don't always obey their governments - oftentimes, they become the government, especially in places with otherwise weak public institutions. As for the benefits of war, they rarely accrue to everyone in the society that wages it, and they certainly never accrue evenly; however, it wasn't just arms suppliers that benefited from the Allies' successful prosecution of World War II, and it was a lot easier and considerably less bloody for America to overcome Jim Crow than it was to overcome slavery. Incidentally, even within the Bleeding Heart Libertarians community, there are some who see the glimmer of a difference.

Of course, that some wars have had some positive benefits for large groups of people shouldn't be used to excuse all wars, or all militaries, or all soldiers, or even all American soldiers. Some American soldiers behave badly. Some American military leaders give and follow morally reprehensible orders. Some American Presidents are power-hungry demagogues. However, it's important for all of us, as Libertarians or as Americans, to remember that, unlike a common murderer, a military, the soldiers that constitute it, and the government it serves are reflections of ourselves. They reflect our ambitions, our fears, our desires, and our needs. If our ambitions are violent, our government and its military will be at least as violent. If we are fearful and defensive, our government and its military will behave at least as defensively. If we prioritize our desires and needs over the desires and needs of our neighbors, so will our government and its military. Even so, despite our imperfect natures, there are those among us who voluntarily choose to grant us the power to control whether they live or die and whether they kill or demonstrate compassion, either by explicitly volunteering into our military, or implicitly by accepting its summons when conscripted, even though they know that the people they are granting control of their lives to aren't infallible or incorruptible. That's a bold choice, one that the rest of us should treat respectfully while we decide whether we should be allowed to have that sort of power over another human being to begin with.

With that respect in mind, while remaining skeptical of the institutions that we grant these powers to, and while remaining skeptical of the nature of power itself, I publicly wish our veterans a Happy Veterans' Day. Here's to each of us doing what we can to ensure that those of you that make the choice to become a soldier are ultimately placed in positions to act heroically, preferably filling sandbags instead of corpses, even though we all know that we will, at times, fail in this.


1. As things currently stand, our cultural norms on self-defense have shifted broadly enough toward a consensus that human life is sacrosanct. So sacrosanct that, in many states, you have to be able to assess the threat level of the intruder before you kill them in self-defense, even if they've violently entered your home and even if they're taking your belongings, since no personal possession is worth a human life. Back

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