Video 10 of 12 of the Libertarian Public Policy guide (Download MP3 Version)

National Defense 17:00

National defense is a legitimate function of government, but military spending and the scope of military action tend to grow to excess.

Miron: Welcome back. Our next topic is national defense. This is an interesting difference from most of the previous discussion because national defense is one area where libertarians agree that some degree of government makes sense. There is likely a significant problem with trying to leave national defense purely to private mechanisms, to private provision. But at the same time, while libertarians are generally sympathetic in principle, they are certainly skeptical of a huge amount of what occurs under the label of national defense. And we urge very specific and strict scrutiny of what actually goes on. The notion that some national defense is good doesn’t mean all national defense or any amount of national defense is desirable; indeed, some can be extremely counterproductive. So we will look at both the arguments as to why some amount is probably useful to be done by government. But why the right magnitude overall is probably much smaller than we currently have.

I’ll first outline a review of the basic argument for government provision of some national defense. And then we’ll discuss a bunch of caveats, the ways in which national defense often seems to get excessive. We’ll discuss the war on terror. We’ll discuss preemptive interventions where a country attacks a country that has not yet officially or explicitly attacked it, talk about efforts to use the military to help other countries by overthrowing someone who might be an evil dictator, for example, and then a little bit on a couple of miscellaneous topics, the relationship between terrorism and the war on drugs, and some examples of recent practices that have generated lots of heated debate, such as aggressive detentions and torture and other techniques employed in the last 8 to 10 years in the United States.

The basic argument for national defense relies on the economic idea of public goods. Public goods means something that everybody likes and would like there to be some of, but individuals don’t have a clear incentive to produce because if they did so, everybody else would get to benefit from it. If one individual or a small group organized an army, paid for tanks and missiles and guns and all that, and protected the country from attack by some invading force, everybody would benefit that. But if everybody thinks that way, then maybe no one will actually undertake the effort to spend that money to protect the country, and the country will not be well protected. Only government can impose taxes on everyone and so force everyone to contribute to this public good and then undertake the activities, the hiring of soldiers, purchasing tanks, planes, ships, and so on, in order to protect the government. So that’s the standard public goods argument, and that’s the argument that libertarians, economists generally have always made for why government should be involved in national defense and why it probably would not be done well if left to purely private forces. That argument is completely reasonable as far as it goes and is probably right expressed at that level. But there’s certainly potential for excess, so we want to think about those next.

One example of potential for excess is the global war on terror that started in the U.S. after 9/11, after the U.S. was attacked by Al-Qaeda, and that has continued in varying ways since that time, both under the Bush administration and then under the Obama administration. The first thing to note is that the whole phrase is misguided. A huge amount of terrorism is not global in any meaningful sense. It takes place of course across the globe. There are terrorist acts waged by different groups in many, many countries. But virtually none of it, outside a few special cases that the U.S. has focused on has to do with a global organization trying to overthrow the United States or trying to overthrow the rich democracies or anything like that. A huge amount of it is groups in countries that have grievances with the governments of those countries. Basque separatists in Spain would be an example. And they don’t like something that that government is doing, and their concerns have nothing to do with Islam, they have nothing to do with the Middle East, they have nothing to do with the United States; they have to do with objections that those particular groups in those countries have against the governments of their countries. So referring to it as global, lumping all terrorism into this one, big bucket is so extraordinarily broad-brush as to be extremely inaccurate and not a useful way to think about the vast majority of terrorist acts that occur.

Another thing to recognize is that, although it’s unpleasant to admit, some of these terrorist acts might be rational from the perspective of the terrorists in the sense that they have grievances that they cannot easily achieve or make progress on in any way except by these terrorist acts. They don’t have armies. They don’t have enough people to vote for the policies that they want. They have little recourse if they’re going to try to make any progress other than the kinds of heinous acts that some of them commit, by bombing subways and things like that. It doesn’t make those things acceptable, but it tells us something about trying to understand them and therefore be able to reduce the number and prevent them. A terrorist may be doing the best they can do given their objectives, and we need to be aware of that and think about that.

Another thing to realize is that sometimes the demands are not totally unreasonable. I’m certainly not justifying any specific or the vast majority of such acts, but some parts of the grievances are objections to big governments. They’re objections by the people in one part of the country if the taxes are being laid disproportionally on that part of the country and they don’t like it. They may be in the most productive part of the country, but they don’t like the fact that they’re having to pay tons of taxes to support welfare policies in the rest of the country. They may be objecting to the fact that a particular religion is being imposed widely. That is the majority religion but not the religion of that particular part of a country. I may object to being forced to use a language that’s the majority language but not the local language and so on and so forth. So while the tactics that are being used to object to all of these policies are of course incredibly horrible. The grievances are not necessarily all bad. And in some cases, the ideal change is that the central governments cave on some of these policies, that they allow more freedom, they allow more flexibility and allow more choice at the local level of what people do in terms of paying taxes, of choosing their religions, of choosing the languages, choosing how they run their schools, and so on and so forth. So one way to reduce terrorism in some of these cases is to change the policies that are leading to the underlying grievances.

Second thing to consider in terms of excessive use of military force, excessive national defense activities, is preemptive actions. Many situations fall into the following type of area: Some country is nervous that it’s going to be attacked. It thinks that if it acts first, before the attack has actually occurred, it can improve its odds of forestalling such an attack, or at least weakening the attack. Therefore, it makes sense to do something first, even though the strict principles of self-defense would say you don’t hit until you’ve first been hit, or at least someone has attempted to strike at you. Is that a plausible case? Is that a reasonable case for military actions? Certainly, in a few cases, it’s a plausible argument. The example I can think that comes to mind is the Six-Day War. Israel had good intelligence – at least it thought it was very, very good intelligence – that surrounding countries were poised to invade it, that in fact the planes were basically about to take off. And it preemptively sent its own planes to bomb some of the military forces on the ground in Egypt in other countries, and thereby made the war very fast and short because it stopped many of the actions from the Arab countries in their tracks. So probably, there are cases where preemptive self-defense would be considered by libertarians justifiable when the attack is so imminent, is so close to taking place. The distinction between waiting until you’ve actually been hit versus you’re just about to be hit is probably not meaningful.

That said, the idea of preemptive self-defense can clearly be abused. A perfect illustration is the U.S. actions in Iraq. We convinced ourselves, but only via willful neglect of the evidence, that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. We convinced ourselves without compelling evidence that Iraq was likely to use them against the United States in the foreseeable future or use them against our close allies. We ignored the fact that Iraq had little incentive to use those weapons of mass destruction against us or against Israel because if it did so, it would be basically signing its own death warrant. And we ignored the fact that things had gone along with Iraq allegedly having these weapons for years, and yet they hadn’t done anything with them. So there was no good case that the attack was imminent. We basically made up a reason to justify an invasion. So the preemptive self-defense action is clearly open to abuse and has been abused. So it should always be subject to incredibly strict and careful scrutiny rather than just saying, “Well, these people are bad. They might attack us at some point in the future. So we’re just going to go and attack them now so they won’t ever do it.” That clearly could lead to all sorts of actions that are not defensible from a libertarian’s perspective.

A similar question is when we should use our military force to allegedly help the people in other countries. Consider an intervention that is clearly going to be costly to the U.S. but in principle would benefit the other country. One example of such an intervention, not in the national defense sector, is immigration. Immigration almost certainly helps the people who are immigrating. It may harm some of the people who are already here because their wages will be lowered by immigration.

It’s then a tough question. Should the U.S. spend its own resources? Should we make our own citizens worse off to benefit the citizens of some other country? I don’t have a great answer to that because there is a tough tradeoff there. But in fact, in the vast majority of cases, we don’t have to evaluate that hard question because the benefits to the other country are tenuous at best. In fact, most of the times that we try to go into allegedly helping other country, we have our own agenda. Helping the other country is just the cover. In fact, we’re likely to both make things worse or no better from the invaded country and incur substantial cost ourselves. Again, Iraq is a recent and telling example. There was an argument made that removing Saddam would benefit the Iraqi people, would lead to the blossoming of democracy and capitalism and peace in the Middle East, and so on and so forth. But any reasonable assessment of all past similar invasions would’ve suggested that our attempt to do that would have minimal chance of success. At a minimum, there was a substantial risk that sectarian tension would blossom, that only if we imposed a huge amount of our military for an extended period could we possibly maintain peace in Iraq for any length of time. So the calculation was not convincing. There was not a convincing case that we were going to help Iraq. And clearly, we were going to incur cost to ourselves in terms of the lives of our soldiers and the injuries to our soldiers, the expenditure for all the equipment and so on, the negative attitudes generated from people living in the Middle East towards the United States and so on. So is there ever a case that a country should use its military might to help others? There could be, but he bar for such intervention should be incredibly high. In vast majority of cases, it’s probably not even close to convincing.

There are just a couple other things to discuss under excessive use of the military. One is the war on drugs. One kind of terrorism that occurs in a bunch of countries – in Afghanistan now and historically in Columbia, Peru, some other Latin American countries – is that there are groups that don’t like the existing central government. These tend to be groups that are left-leaning. And they have grievances. They would like the government to be different. What they have done is formed alliances with the drug traffickers in those countries because the drug traffickers have the guns and the ability to carry out the violence. So the drug traffickers have in effect been buying protection from these terrorist groups. So there’s a symbiosis between waging the war on drugs and supporting terrorist activities in countries like Peru, the Shining Path, or the FARC in Columbia. If there were no war on drugs, the drug traffickers wouldn’t have the income to pay these terrorist groups to provide protection for them. Therefore, there would be both less violence associated with the drug wars, and the terrorist groups would be much less able to carry out the violence that they commit in those countries.

One other topic is the unusual detentions and torture techniques and other extreme measures the United States has been using since 9/11, since the war on terror began. Again, you can make an argument that says any technique, no matter how unappealing – such as extreme sorts of torture – could in principle pass some cost-benefit test if it helped you to save hundreds of thousands of innocent people. Imagine all the scenarios that you see in TV shows like 24, where there’s some ticking time bomb, and there’s some terrorist who’s been captured, and this terrorist allegedly knows how to stop the bomb or can give you the information that’ll allow you stop the bomb. Is it okay to torture this one person, even in a vile, evil way, if it saves a million lives? Of course, most people would end up saying yes, even if they had previously said they were opposed to torture in all circumstances. But in fact, that’s never the real scenario. That’s what happens on TV. In reality, the people have been captured, their evidence is old, they have no idea where the bombs are, they don’t know how to help you defuse the bombs, there may or may not even be a bomb there. So all of the assumptions you would need to make for it to be a rational cost-benefit to accept the torture don’t apply in the vast, vast majority, probably any of these situations. So what the aggressive torture and detention techniques do is in fact exacerbate negative feelings toward the United States in the countries where we have undertaken these activities, without having any meaningful impact on the incidence of terrorism.

To sum up, the libertarian view is that national defense is in principle absolutely a legitimate function of government, but it certainly needs strong limits. Preemptive actions, humanitarian actions, while not necessarily to be ruled out completely a priori should face incredibly strict scrutiny. A lot of current effort undertaken by the U.S., other militaries is unnecessary, not just the sorts of things I mentioned but more mundane things of having our troops stationed all over Europe as part of NATO. Libertarians would say let Europe defend itself. Cut expenditure, take all those troops home, and gradually reduce the size of the military. We’re not getting any obvious benefit from that. Let the Europeans do it on their own. It is not obvious that the U.S. can make itself a lot safer. There are probably going to be terrorist acts no matter what we do. There are limits to what you can accomplish because these are rare. These are unusual events. But some things maybe would plausibly go in the right direction. Most importantly, not interfering so much in the Middle East unquestionably has contributed to some of the attitudes that tend to support terrorism against the U.S., plus doing other good things that support peace, prosperity around the world – such as legalizing drugs, increasing immigration, supporting free trade, and the like. Thank you very much.

Topics Public Policy