Hawk Logic

Aeon Skoble, something of a libertarian hawk (who is right to say that lib-hawkishness is a theoretically heterogeneous view), takes issue with my reply to Max below. First of all he thinks that rights are natural, not conventional. I agree with Max that he’s wrong about this, but we need not get into it here (it does affect the form of the argument, though.)

Wilkinson’s main objection (and this seems to be the view of some of my co-bloggers) seems to be that American taxpayers shouldn’t have to pony up the cash to pick up the tab for overthrowing someone else’s dictator. Well, that’s true – but then, from a radical libertarian perspective, American taxpayers shouldn’t have to pony up the cash to pick up the tab for anything if they don’t want to. Saying the overthrow of Saddam wasn’t obligatory doesn’t mean it was unjustified. (Deontic logic, people!) An act may be permissible but nonobligatory. A subcategory within that group is the supererogatory. Maybe the Iraq war was one of these. It didn’t violate the rights of American taxpayers any more than anything else they spend our money on. It certainly didn’t violate the rights of the Baathist regime there. Ditto terrorists: Wilkinson writes “the fact that there are terrorists, murderers, and illegitimate regimes out there who have forfeited some or all of their moral standing does not begin to imply that the United States of America may swoop in and see that justice is done.” Sure it does – anyone may. Whether it’s mandatory, or prudent, are separate questions. But libertarians who prefer the “letters of marque” approach need Wilkinson to be wrong here just as much as the Pentagon does.

I thought I was making a point about deontic logic. If Trisha has a right, then she is entitled to a certain kind of forebearance from others, and we are obligated to forebear. If she loses her right, she is no longer entitled to forebearance, but this does not imply that we are no longer obligated to forebear, because there may be other grounds for obligation to restrain ourselves other than Trisha’s right. We may, for example, have strong reasons, based in the general interest in the integrity of our own rights and civil peace, to place procedural constraints on the manner in which people who have lost their rights are to be treated.

Aeon’s claim that “anyone may” sweep in to do justice is just flat wrong, and I think everyone recognizes it.

I think Aeon’s screwing up the quantifiers. If a regime like Iraq is illegitimate, then, perhaps, there is someone or other that is justified in overthrowing the illegitimate regime. But it doesn’t follow that that somebody is us, or even any state. (If it’s true that somebody loves you, that doesn’t mean that I do, or that everybody does.) Iraq, like Trisha, is not entitled to our forebearance. Iraq, or the Baathist regime, would not be wronged if we invaded. But that doesn’t entail that we, or anyone else in particular, may invade. The state may be obligated to forebear for other reasons, namely, that the war is not in the interest of its citizens, and the actions of the state can only be justified in reference to the interests of its citizens. Otherwise, it’s just a huge welfare transfer, no different in principle from sending hundreds of billions abroad to relieve hunger. The citizens who pay the taxes are wronged, even if the Baathists aren’t. Seems sort of obvious to me.

I am not a radical libertarian. I think that states can be legitimate, and that citizens can have obligations to pony up for genuine public goods. So there is no room here for an argument to the effect that radical libertarians don’t think the state ought to do anything, but the state does all sorts of stuff anyway, so they might as well do this, too. I’m saying that the state ought to do some things, and, by the same logic used to say what the state ought to do, they ought not to have gotten into this war. Our obligations to pony up are grounded in the benefits derived by the citizens. We cannot be obligated to pony up for deposing other states’ dictators unless doing so is indeed in the our interests. So, for me, the whole argument comes down to this nuts and bolts empirical squabble: was Iraq a threat? The answer, as far as I can see is “No.”