Point: The Case For Non-Interventionism

Time for the inaugural Point/Counterpoint. The topic will be a debate between the philosophy of a non-interventionist foreign policy versus the policy of fighting the war on terror through an offensive military war to expand freedom in the Middle East. It’s been suggested that the case for non-interventionism should be the opening case, which I disagree with (I think non-interventionism is the more doctrinaire Libertarian position), but I’ll be arguing the point. I would immediately point out, though, that I am not arguing isolationism or pacifism. There are times in life, whether on a personal or national level, where force is justified. My argument is against the attempt to stick our nose into the internal business of other nations through military means or threats. Stephen Littau’s response is here.


My journey towards libertarianism, like many others, came from a pro-defense Republican standpoint. Thus, the idea that I’ve taken the charge to cover the non-interventionist point was almost a surprise to me. But for the life of me, it seems that the pro-interventionist Libertarians are falling victim to a fatal conceit: that man can shape the world around him according to his wishes.

Now, it all sounds wonderful. I’d like to believe that our government is capable of utilizing force in a fair and just manner to drain the swamps in Middle Eastern countries, put those countries on a path to democracy, and eventually transform our world into a much more peaceful place. Unfortunately, we’re talking about government, and I can’t say their track record of meeting their goals is quite exemplary.

The governance of most of the Middle East and Arab-Islamic world is desperately in need of a Reformation. It is a land dominated by secular and religious dictatorships, Sharia law, and all sorts of monstrosities unimaginable to those of us in the west. I used the term “swamp” earlier with a purpose. Nobody wants to live in a swamp. It’s miserable, and the people in that swamp might be a little upset about living in a swamp simply seeing people in the West basking in opulence that they cannot attain in a world without solid capitalism or private property rights.

But American foreign policy is not about trying to trade with the people of that swamp and raise their standard of living. It’s not about trying to create a rising tide to lift boats that even their own dictators are trying to sink. America’s foreign policy, at least over the last 60 years, has been a combination of propping up those dictators and dropping bombs on the swamp. For 60 years, we have been pursuing an interventionist foreign policy, and for 60 years we’ve watched as we haven’t seen any positive results in that part of the world. In fact, I think it’s clear that our interventionism has painted a big target on our backs, and yet hasn’t come close to improving our security among the nations of that part of the world.

Now, we’re being told that our way out of the mess we’ve gotten ourselves into is to throw more interventionism after failed interventionism. It’s couched in terms such as “spreading democracy”, by a President who doesn’t understand that allowing people who we’ve trained to hate us to vote will result in them voting for leaders who hate us. It involves putting our own citizens in the armed forces in harms way, trying to mediate an internal power struggle, smoldering and waiting to blaze into a true civil war. All through this, our leaders are telling us that we need to give up our liberties to remain safe from terrorism, when the best rationale that they can offer for this war in Iraq is that it will attract all the terrorists to Iraq to fight us “over there” instead of on our own shores. Yet at the same time they crow about all the terror plots they’ve foiled at home, suggesting the terrorists’ actions aren’t limited to “over there”.

My criticism of foreign interventionism is simple. Interventionism, when pursued by the government, is like any other government program: it’s going to cost more than advertised, it’s not going to achieve the stated objectives, and it’s going to be filled with mountainous unintended consequences that will make the original problem look like an anthill. And like any other government program, when it fails our politicians will tell us the only solution is more government. I’m not arguing against the goals of interventionism, because I see that the people in the swamp need help to drain the swamp. I just don’t see any reason to believe that government and military are capable of the task.

I say it’s time to stop. Extricating ourself from the situation we’ve created abroad is not going to be easy, but I believe we need to be looking for solutions which decrease our interventionism abroad, not increase it. There are problems all over the world, but when the US government can’t solve a single problem it tries to solve at home, why would we believe that we can solve the problems of other cultures, on the other side of the world, by sending men with guns?

Hayek used the term “fatal conceit” to describe socialists who believed they could remake society in order to how they believed it “should” operate. I fear that pro-interventionist libertarians have the same fatal conceit. Despite all evidence to the contrary on a wide host of issues, they believe that government will do what it promises when it comes to foreign interventionism. Government, though, is the reverse of King Midas: everything the government touches turns to shit. I think the burden of proof is on the pro-interventionists to explain why it will be different this time.