With recent concerns such as state-targeted terrorism and increased capabilities in genetic engineering, critics have attacked libertarian policies and their ability to handle the social problems of the future. Many pressing issues strike where libertarianism appears the weakest — the concern for public good and the need for collective action.
For example, Francis Fukuyama, in his article, “The Fall of the Libertarians” in The Wall Street Journal (May 2, 2002), criticizes the libertarian movement by identifying two areas in which the movement seems inadequate in presenting solutions: “...libertarianism is a far more radical dogma whose limitations are becoming increasingly clear. The libertarian wing of the revolution overreached itself, and is now fighting rearguard actions on two fronts: foreign policy and biotechnology.”
What happens when a national terrorist act demands a national response? What is a libertarian to do when the lunatic neighbor across the street raises mutant dog-children with bees in their mouths to protect her property? Have the world’s problems grown too large for individual initiatives to prevent or solve? To address such questions and maintain relevance to the current world, advocates of libertarianism must recall the values which justify their thinking and separate legitimate challenges from statist paranoia.
In evaluating libertarianism’s aptness for dealing with foreign policy and eugenics, one ought to be mindful of the source of the movement’s political appeal. While it is true that one cannot conceive of libertarianism without an underlying value for liberty, for most libertarians, liberty is not the final end. Rather, libertarians, as differentiated from anarchists, acknowledge the need for limited government intervention as soon as one’s freedoms encroach on another’s rights to life and property. Liberty is not the end, but only the precondition necessary for the end. It m e r e l y gives the opportunity for human beings to seek the best life. It is up to the individual to use that freedom for good.
Liberty itself is not enough, but freedom to live and a society conducive to life must exist as prerequisites before one can exercise other liberties for the sake of seeking the best life. The role of the libertarian government is protector of these prerequisite freedoms. Such a government is strong in what it is entrusted to do—because of the very limited number of concerns it is privy to. It is weak outside its allowed sphere of influence—because its boundaries are clearly marked by principle, and not by obscure practice. Such a structure protects the public from abuses of the government, because the state’s legitimate powers are limited. In addition, the elimination of discrediting excess creates a more acute sense of the necessity of the remaining duties of the state. Because of its commitment to fundamental human necessities, libertarianism has the potential to address the emerging problems of the near future with great success and stability. It only needs to be applied to current concerns by modern libertarians.
To best apply the benefits of libertarianism to current controversies, today’s libertarians must overcome their radical anti-statism and learn to distinguish between situations where the state is necessary for the protection of fundamental freedoms and situations where personal freedoms should be allowed to take their course.
For example, foreign policy is one area in which libertarianism has been accused of severe inadequacy. On foreign affairs, Fukuyama asserts, “Sept. 11 ended this line of argument [libertarianism]. It was a reminder to Americans of why government exists, and why it has to tax citizens and spend money to promote collective interests... The terrorists were not attacking Americans as individuals, but symbols of American power.…”
Many draw the immediate conclusion that the libertarian approach, with its anti-tax, antisolidarity, non-interventionist tendencies, cannot provide a satisfying response to threats aimed at a whole nation. However, such people forget that hostility directed against the general public is not a new phenomenon unique to today’s terrorist attacks, but an occurrence that the founding fathers of the United States frequently encountered. Libertarianism may be in fact the most pragmatic solution to the dangers in foreign affairs.
As a method, libertarianism provides many simple remedies for anti-Americanism in the world today: its non-interventionist stance alone would appease many enemies who resent America’s status as the world’s policeman. In addition, its official policy of separation between public governmental and private economic interests would ease the tension that the nation currently bears for its association with globalizing, “corrupt capitalist” firms. With fewer distractions in economic espionage or vendettas against particular sectors of the economy, the United States would possess the greater resources and focus to pursue potential threats to the nation’s general physical security.
Here is where today’s libertarians must identify the powers necessary to their vision of a life-affirming state and abandon reactionary anti-statism. They must realize that anti-tax or non-intervention stances do not imply anti-defense when the particular mode of attack, because of its collective target, calls for a collective response. Politically-motivated attacks such as terrorism necessarily involve a generalized target because of the type of message they seek to convey. Libertarians should rally around the state’s national defense— after all, this common defense is one of the few reasons why their state exists.
If the libertarian movement is able to adapt its policies to the security pressures of today, then the natural benefits of libertarianism would be realized. As mentioned above, such a government, by its limited responsibilities as a protector of life and property, would have greater recognition of legitimacy and trusting cooperation from the people.
Paradoxically, the lack of enforced solidarity and the benefit of freedom enjoyed by the populace in other sectors would bind the public into even greater solidarity in the few regions which require restrictions and a unified effort. Those who are secure in their autonomy in all other aspects will be more willing to give it up and understand the gravity of the exception to freedom that is made for the sake of mutual protection, much more so in a limited government than a more arbitrary, intrusive state.
In addition, the lack of an involuntary tax and conscription limits the libertarian government in the sense that it prevents the state from engaging in unnecessary wars which are fought without public support or need. The fact that contribution to the general cause is left as a voluntary act does not imply that the national defense would be underfunded or understaffed. As the great increase in recruitment and the countless hours and dollars of civilian help over this previous year show, a public that respects its way of life can rally around its country without a knife at its throat.
Rather, one appreciates particularly at times like these the power of obligation compounded with choice— the free media and the public spirit create a far more convincing and compelling force for the collective interest than any enforced decree.
With the three-pronged foreign policy of nonintervention in matters unrelated to security, a limited focus on security interests over political or economic ties, and a commitment to collective defense as a deliberate exception to the rule of nonintrusion, libertarianism provides the best answer to the immediate threats of terrorism that face the United States in the 21st century. All that remains is for libertarians to adapt their policy to the times. As with all good movements, libertarianism must preserve what is timeless, its commitment to fundamental freedoms, and adapt it to the context of a new era.
Hanna Chung is a freshman in Timothy Dwight College.