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Military Intervention in Libya: The Errors of Muscular Libertarianism

A very important article by Sean Gabb of the Libertarian Alliance.

Everything I thought relevant about our latest war in the Moslem world I said in a blog posting a few days ago. However, I have been asked to write at greater length. If I do not choose to begin again on the reams of commentary that I made on our earlier war in Iraq, I suppose I should say something about Libya.

Looking at the immediate issues, I am against intervention. It is none of our business what goes on in the Moslem world. Even if it were, there is no good that we are nowadays capable of doing there. I doubt if air strikes alone will prevent Colonel Gaddafi or his enemies from killing ordinary people. The logic of the intervention we have made may draw us into some kind of land attack – followed by some kind of occupation. And everyone ought by now to understand the likeliest outcome of military occupations in the Moslem world. Even if he is brought down with the help we are so far providing, I do not believe that whatever follows Colonel Gaddafi will be much better on the whole than he has been, or that it will be any more friendly to us. The most charitable view to be taken of the British and American Governments is that they are run by fools whose memory does not reach back even to 2003. The most sensible view is that military action is being taken for the benefit of special interest groups that cannot stand openly forward without bringing both governments down into scandal and contempt.

That is my view of the war. Of course, it is possible that, this time, I and the trend within libertarianism to which I belong are mistaken as to facts. Perhaps this time, limited intervention will bring down a tyrant, and he will be followed by a stable and reasonably liberal democracy in Libya. I do not for a moment suppose that this will happen – or is actually desired by whoever is giving the orders. But let me assume that this is a possibility, and then take issue with a rival libertarian trend that asserts our right, and even our duty, to beat down tyranny wherever we can, and to raise up such constitutional government as the people there are able to support.

The main problem – specific facts aside – with this kind of assertion is the talk of “we” and “us”. Such talk made reasonable sense in the ancient democracies. When a treaty was made between Athens and Corcyra, for example, the Athenian ambassadors signed fully on behalf of the people of Athens. All policy was debated at meetings that every adult male citizen had the right to attend. Even allowing for slavery, probably the majority of those who paid taxes were able to speak and vote on the weight and the use of the tax money. Certainly, everyone who might be called on to do military or naval service could speak and vote. Moreover, every effective office of state was filled either by direct election, for short periods and with the real possibility of impeachment, or by lot for short periods, so that the people as a whole, in every generation, would have a share in government. Obviously, there were always dissenters from whatever the majority decided. But, when the ancient historians say that “the Athenians” did this or that, they were making sense.

But neither England nor America is a democracy of this kind. In both countries, there is a much greater separation of state and people. To take the example of my own country, the British State comprises the Queen-in-Parliament, plus a mass of employed officials who themselves outnumber the whole population of ancient Athens; and it is influenced by a further cluster of usually corporate interests. Whether this machine is directed by six hundred or so elected representatives is beside the point – though it generally is not directed by them. These representatives are themselves members of a class separate from the people who choose between them every four or five years.

To speak of actions taken by the British State as taken by “us” is a plain error.

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