Libertarianism, Current Events

Some Principles

Recent events in the Middle East have prompted vigorous exchanges on this site. Definitive judgments regarding these matters depend on detailed historical analysis; and engaging in historical inquiry is not my comparative advantage—nor is it that, I suspect, of most participants in conversations here. I want to resist the temptation to engage in amateur historiography. Instead, bulding on the more general remarks I offered here about war some time ago, I’d like to suggest a move to a higher level of generality by articulating what I hope are some principles on which, as libertarians, participants in BHL discussions of recent events in the Middle East, and future of events of a similar nature, might be able to agree.

1. Racism is indefensible. Making blanket assumptions about people in light of their ethnic or cultural heritage is an unwarranted refusal to take seriously their particularity and to allow them to transcend stereotypes. Claims about what “the Jews” or “the Palestinians” want or do or believe or intend should be treated with persistent suspicion.

2. Ascribing collective guilt is never acceptable. Unjust acts are committed by particular people who are themselves responsible for their own actions. Groups don’t make choices or shoulder blame, so it’s unacceptable to denounce some people because of the misdeeds of others. There’s no general reason to imagine that a particular Israeli Jew is in any way responsible for the behavior of Israeli politicians or military personnel, or that a particular Palestinian is in any way responsible for the behavior of Palestinian politicians or military personnel.

3. Most people aren’t fundamentally motivated by bigotry and prejudice. Instead, when they engage in conflict, they’re pursuing comprehensible goals—for security, for prosperity, for redress—even when they’re employing clearly unjust means. Bigotry and prejudice are real, and despicable, but they’re not at the heart of most people’s choices.

4. Aggressive force is unacceptable. Initiating the use of force against others violates the minimum requisite of civilized interaction. Force may reasonably be used against people’s bodies or possessions only to prevent, defend against, or secure compensation for an unjust attack (and this means that only the minimum amount of force reasonably required for these purposes may be employed). By contrast, it may not reasonably be employed to exact revenge or to intimidate. Thus, deliberately targeting noncombatants is unequivocally wrong.

5. Discrimination in the use of force is essential. Even someone who is justified in using force—and I make no claims here about the justification for any instance of the use of force in the current conflict—acts unreasonably when failing to discriminate between legitimate targets—in general, those who are engaging or actively threatening to engage in the unjust use of force and who may thus reasonably be stopped—and everyone else. Failing to target noncombatants isn’t enough, however. It’s also essential to avoid imposing risks of harm on them unreasonably. For some libertarians, this will mean avoiding all collateral damage. But I hope that even those who do not take this position will agree that I act unreasonably in imposing the risk of collateral harm on others, even in the course of using force defensively, when I would be unwilling to see my loved ones or myself subjected to similar risk in comparable circumstances.

These principles hardly resolve disputes over the current conflict. I hope, though, that they can provide some common ground for participants in the conversation.

  • Donald_Cooper

    I don’t know that I buy #3. It’ll depend on how much work is done by the word “fundamentally.” It may be true that people, as a general rule, don’t initially dislike others or other groups based their race or ethnicity but rather based on some real or perceived wrong; however, after that initial wrong, in many people’s heads, I would imagine that the race or ethnicity of the wrongdoer (or perceived) wrongdoer becomes conflated with the actual wrong done – which, if true, could be problematic for #3.

  • i agree with 1 and 2. I would like to think that 3 is true, but it is an empirical claim and I would not stake money on whether it is true. I think 4 is true ceteris paribus; but there may be unusual circumstances in which deliberately targeting noncombatants is morally required (or, at least, permissible) in order to avoid a catastrophe.

    I agree with 5, apart from the last bit, which runs:

    ‘I act unreasonably in imposing the risk of collateral harm on others, even in the course of using force defensively, when I would be unwilling to see my loved ones or myself subjected to similar risk in comparable circumstances.’

    I think the question should be about right and wrong, not about what you are willing or unwilling to do, or even what is reasonable. I would agree with this formulation:

    ‘I act impermissibly in imposing the risk of collateral harm on others, even in the course of using force defensively, when it would be impermissible for my loved ones or myself to be subjected to similar risk in comparable circumstances.’

    For example, if there were circumstances in which all the peoples of Asia could be saved only if I kill my loved ones, that may make it permissible, or even morally required, that I kill my loved ones; but I may well be unwilling to do it, and perhaps I would not even be unreasonable in refusing to do it.

  • Sean II

    I’m afraid I can’t sign on to 1 or 3 as written.

    About 1 – When someone says “the Egyptian people are hungry for change”, that person is not guilty of racism, even though his statement clearly fails to describe all Egyptians. He’s merely guilty of approximation. Likewise, when someone says “there’s something about black people that makes them way better at being running backs in the NFL”, that person is not guilty of racism either, he’s guilty of being able to count.

    But it goes further than that. Some groups are more cohesive than others. Some groups are stricter at enforcing their norms than others. Some groups so insist on conformity that it becomes highly, even overwhelmingly likely that their individual members will accurately reflect the public stereotype of the group.

    We can be very sure, for example, that the percentage of feminists in the Cossack community circa 1912 was at or very near zero. One could not be a feminist and stay a Cossack, and one could not be a Cossack and stay a feminist. There is nothing in libertarianism nor in reason itself that could ever require a person to pretend he doesn’t know that. Any principle that requires the denial of common facts is a shitty principle.

    As long as there differences between groups, and as long as individuals approximate or strictly identify with those groups, it must be permissible to notice these things, and to discuss them. And let’s all hope for the day when societies will be open enough to let everyone who wants to transcend and escape those identities.

    About 3 – Speaking of indefensible, that statement is. I’m sure most people Gary Chartier knows personally aren’t motivated by bigotry and prejudice. Most people I know aren’t so motivated. But that has everything to do with where and especially when I happen to live.

    Draw a line on the map from Morocco eastward to Macau. In every place along that line*, bigotry against women is an essential feature of social life. Go back 100 years, and most of the people on earth were so prejudiced they didn’t even know there was an option to be otherwise. Bigotry and prejudice are the rule in history, and still to a great extent the rule in global geography as well. I think Gary’s giving “most people” way too much credit here, and I can’t imagine why.

    * The one partial exception worth mentioning is, of course, Israel.

    • Sean II

      In thinking about this further, I’m now more concerned with one thing that was not on list, than I am with anything on it. I think (or hope) that most libertarians would agree with the following:

      6. Whatever procedural limits one sets to control it, force used in collective self-defense can ultimately be judged ONLY in relation to the society it is intended to protect or establish.

      One way to apply the concept in our present case is this: imagine we find out somehow that tomorrow morning, one side in the Israel-Palestine dispute will step forward and unilaterally surrender. We don’t know yet which side it will be. If Israel capitulates, there will be a Palestinian state from Gaza to the Golan. If the Palestinians call it quits, Israel will dispense with Hamas, Fatah, & the PA in favor of directly rule over the whole lot. For the time being we have only our imagination to use, in working out how things may develop in one case or the other.

      First let’s say it’s the Palestinians who surrender. What would the new state of greater Israel look like?

      Well, most everything we libertarians hate about Israel is a direct result of its behavior in the conflict. Take that conflict away, and Israel becomes one more European style welfare state with a mixed-economy, except in this case it would include something Europe hasn’t seen in a while: a large, disenfranchised ethnic minority. To be fair, let’s assume nothing immediately changes in this respect, and that Palestinians in the new state continue to suffer discrimination, racial profiling, and even isolated pogroms from non-state actors in Israeli society. But let’s also assume they ONLY use non-violent methods to fight back.

      Given peace, and time, I believe – indeed I am convinced – that the liberalism (both latent and blatant) in Israeli society would quickly go to work clearing the blemishes, and mending the scars. I believe Israel would pass through a kind of civil rights era, not unlike that which changed the Unites State 50 years ago. I expect it would become fashionable among young people to have Palestinian friends, Palestinian cultural tastes, etc. I doubt it would take longer than a generation, if that, before we were talking about the success of the “Israeli model”, and before Jason Brennan was writing some paper about how the Palestinian case proves that voting rights are not the foundation of liberty.

      Now let’s consider what would happen if Israel surrenders instead.

      Our very best case scenario is that the new Palestinian state would come to resemble Jordan. That’s still a major step down in liberalism, but I will admit, not a complete disaster. But how likely is that? How many people here think we would end up getting best case scenario under Palestinian rule?

      Out worst case lies somewhere between revolutionary Iran and Afghanistan circa 1999. But however you imagine things on day one in Greater Palestine, it almost doesn’t matter, because the most probable feature of that society will be its tendency to stagnation. Day one will look a lot like day 1001, because there is no source of liberal values to drive progress. The resulting society would be traditional, highly religious, misogynistic, and if it’s like most other Arab states, it would somehow manage to combine instability with a lack of dynamism. It’s only too easy to imagine a dictatorship or a junta or a clerical council taking over in a matter of months. Indeed, it’s quite likely that Palestinians would end up with the same lack of voting rights under their own rule, as they would have as mere denizens of the Israeli state!

      Simply put: I believe the first scenario is clearly and obviously better for BOTH Israelis and Palestinians, and the second scenario is good for no one. These beliefs and expectations are a huge part of what has driven me to argue so intensely this past week, and they stand at the heart of my disagreement with Anthony Gregory and others. I believe he and his many supporters are simply ignoring an obvious and crucial qualitative difference between the two societies involved in this conflict, even as they strangely insist on applying ideal-world libertarian morality to the everyday details of the conflict. I believe they are so caught up in the presently-existing power disparity between Israel and Palestine, that they’ve forgotten to think about what would happen if the Palestinians got even a small fraction of the power they crave.

      They’ve taken the big picture of libertarianism and hung it where it doesn’t belong…inside the door of one of history’s filthiest outhouses.


        I think this is a useful thought exdperiment. I think the broader, philosophical point that it illustrates is that rights are not absolute, including the rights of innocent civilians [see my earlier comment on how defining “innocence” is not so simple]. I, and I think most libertarians, subscribe to the so-called deontological constraint: it is wrong to kill an innocent person even to save five other equally innocent ones. But few would say: it is wrong to kill one to save 5 billion. Somewhere we drawn the line [I don’t claim to know exactly where].

        The same idea shows up with respect to property rights. Imagine an affluent society where great wealth has been accumulated in a morally pristine way, i.e. no force or fraud and no illicit state assistance. Sadly, the only way to save certain innocent members of this society (those born with severe developmental disabilities, for example) from starvation is to tax each wealthy person $1 and then redistribute it to the truly needy.

        So, too, I think in war. If the difference between life in nation A (fighting a purely defensive war) if it prevails, and life under nation B (the aggressor) if it prevails is horrendous (e.g. death camps), the deontological constraint is relaxed. Now, if nation A winning the war also dramatically improves life in nation B for its citizens (in the long run), that also goes into the calculation.

        • Sean II

          Indeed I think it must go into the calculation. We’re supposed to be pro liberty here, not pro-democracy, and certainly not pro-Wilsonian ethnic self-determination.

          What the Palestinian people need is a nice hot bath of reason and a clean, fresh set of individual rights. A shiny new coercive apparatus with which to make tyranny and war is the very last thing they need. I don’t want them to succeed in gaining a state because I know it would be a humanitarian disaster, and I wouldn’t wish that fate upon them.

          I’m embarrassed I didn’t get around to emphasizing this point sooner, and I’m sorry to see this whole discussion seems to be dying out now.

          Anthony really roused the ranks with a lot of classic libertarian rhetoric, saying “Zionsim is statism, murder is murder – don’t talk to me about context, don’t talk to me about counter-factuals, don’t speak to me of messy, real-world moral compromises and hard choices between competing wrongs.”

          I used to be that kind of libertarian myself. If my niece asked me to tell her about history I would have said something like “Well, 12,000 years ago there was the neolithic revolution. Since then everybody has pretty much been a slave expect maybe not for a few years in Saga Iceland, plus a few more in the American West. Also, the difference between Churchill, Hitler, and Stalin is purely one of style and degree.”

          Technically true and perfectly idiotic. Deductively sound, and utterly useless. These are things the grown-up libertarian must take care to avoid.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’m with you, my man. The point that Steve Horwitz made a few posts ago about distinguishing between “anti-state” and “pro-liberty” is key. Given a choice between living in a liberal democracy (which is anathema to all libertarians) and disordered anarchy (where various tribes simply try to kill each other and take each other’s stuff), I will take the former, big ugly warts and all. And, contra Rothbard, not all states are equally bad. I also agree that the role of philosophers is to get beyond the knee-jerk “black/white,” argument by definition style of reasoning–to see the complexities that make the hard cases, well…hard.

  • good_in_theory

    I’m not sure that 3 really gets at the right issue. It’s rather simple to rationalize racist behavior such that one’s intention or motivation is not itself racist. Having non-racist intentions or motives is sort of besides the point, and sets a rather low bar. Insofar as what’s “at the heart” of people’s choices is their expressed will, and relatively few people expressly will bigotry nowadays, it’s really not what’s of interest.

    The problem is that many (most?) people act in ways that are bigoted and prejudiced, possibly even when they intend and are motivated by thoroughly anti-bigotry principles w/r/t some of the groups against which they enact bigotry and prejudice.

    As the famous Jay Smooth video goes, it’s not that you are (in your intentions and motivations and heart of hearts) racist, it’s that what you are doing is racist (in its effects).

    One should interrogate how their desires for success, security, &etc enable or produce structurally racist or bigoted conditions, not simply absolve themselves of responsibility for “social justice” so long as they perceive their hearts to be pure or facially neutral in intent.

    So the proposed counter to 3 is that most people *do* bigoted and prejudicial things, despite their intentions to do otherwise, and that what matters is holding people to account for seriously interrogating the effects of their actions, not simply purifying the intentions behind them.


    In #5, I question the limitation on the use of force only against “…in general, those who are engaging or actively threatening to engage in the unjust use of force and who may thus reasonably be stopped—and everyone else.” Perhaps I misunderstand what is meant here by “engaging…in the unjust use of force,” but this seems very vague and perhaps wrong.

    Suppose country X is engaged in a naked war of aggression against country Y, and is doing so in an utterly ruthless and vicious way. Do the civilian workers in X who make the munitions used to kill innocents in Y qualify? What about those refining the petroleum used to fly the airplanes and move the tanks? What about those growing and transporting the food that feeds the soldiers, and those making the uniforms, and other war materials, etc? What about civilians that support the aggression by buying war bonds, contributing their pots and pans as scrap metal, writing approving letters to soldiers, etc. What if these folks could flee X to a neutral country but elect to remain in X? It gets pretty complicated, doesn’t it? If Y can only stop the aggression by targeting people in these categories, is it wrong to do so? [Sean raised this earlier, but this is my spin on it]

    • SimpleMachine88

      No, the leaders are responsible, and the leaders of alone. That’s what’s so important about having a government, fewer people to get rid of when it does something wrong.

      Germany committed the Holocaust, for which the only possible punishment could be death. But Genocide is unacceptable. So you have the Nuremberg trials, because that’s a manageable number of people to shoot. And the German populace could condemn them, and suddenly pretend that no one had ever really been a Nazi, and The United States could forgive and rebuild the country. Perhaps it’s not entirely true, but that’s how peace is made.

      Representative democracy’s chief virtue is shifting responsibility to a smaller group of people. Part of the job of a President is sin-eater.


        I think you are mixing up guilt for purposes of punishment, and moral responsibility. You can have the latter without qualifying for the former. A civilian worker who makes bombs used in a naked war of aggression, has some responsibility, even if much less than the leaders, but they are not completely innocent unless they have absolutely no choice.

        I totally subscribe to the idea that we can’t kill one innocent person to save 5, 50, 500, 5000, 50,000… other innocents [I do think the line gets drawn somewhere]. But this is not necessarily the right moral impulse when the person to be sacrificed in not completely innocent and is a cog in a massive killing machine.

  • SimpleMachine88

    Revenge and intimidation are perfectly reasonable purposes of violence. Actually, they’re the only good reasons for violence. Revenge requires the person had it coming, and intimidation prevents violence. It’s the reason we don’t have crime or invasions, people are afraid of us.

    When violence is used only for revenge and intimidation, rather than for theft or just because people like killing, we call that civilization.

  • Pingback: Un enfoque libertario sobre la violencia « Disenso()

  • Eckhart

    Like others in the comments, I take issue with #3. But for me it isn’t so much as bigotry or prejudice per se, but the devaluation of “the other.” Although it bleeds over into race and nationality, it is the most human of instincts to try to protect the group we identify with against the other group. We see it in everything from sports (seriously, Raiders fans are jerks . . .) to politics (If the other party wins it will be a disaster), etc. And that feeling absolutely subverts rationality and comprehensive goals.

    In the issue at hand, I agree that it doesn’t help to call one side or the other bigots or prejudiced. But to say that they are pursuing comprehensible goals without irrationality is a step way too far.

  • Nicholas Geiser

    Dear Professor,

    You write in #2 that:

    “Ascribing collective guilt is never acceptable… [because] unjust acts are committed by particular people who are themselves responsible for their own actions. Groups don’t make choices or shoulder blame, so it’s unacceptable to denounce some people because of the misdeeds of others.”

    One of your premises here is that groups don’t make choices. I know this is a common argument among libertarians, but a simple thought experiment seems to show that it isn’t true. Suppose we have a group of three people, A, B, and C. The group is choosing (by a majority-vote decision rule) whether to support policy “p” and “q”. A and B support “p”, and A and C support “q.” But now the group supports “p and q”, even though only B, the individual member, supports “p and q.” It seems that the group choice is irreducible to the choices of the individuals within the group, which would show that groups can make choices in the proper sense of the term. It is very possible that I am misunderstanding something here, but this seems to refute your premise.

    • You actually show how the group choice is reducible to individual choices. But I suppose it depends what we mean by ‘reducible.’ The group choice is reducible in the sense that it can be explained or analysed in terms of individual choices. But it is not reducible in the sense that, if a group chooses ‘p & q’ then there are some individuals who choose ‘p & q.’

      Still, I think your point against Gary is a good one. Where there is a collective decision, a group is responsible. But the individuals in the group are also responsible – at least, in so far as they do not withdraw from the group because of the decision. However, in Gary’s defence I suggest that he was not thinking of genuine collective decision-making but of cases in which people are blamed for decisions in which they took no part, just because they belong to the same group as the people who did take part in the decisions.

  • Pingback: Libertarians and War: A Bibliographical Essay — The Libertarian Standard()