Liberty Begins at Home
By Duncan Whitmore
“The great rule of conduct for us, in regard to foreign nations, is, in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connexion as possible […] ‘Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.”
– George Washington, Farewell Address (1796)
The biggest threat to an individual’s freedom is likely to be that person’s own government. Realisation of this fact was becoming more widespread at the culmination of two years of draconian COVID restrictions; as time rolled on, it became increasingly difficult for states to paint a respiratory disease as the common enemy. Taking hold instead has been the notion that COVID is a mere excuse to implement permanent mechanisms of control and surveillance, with such fears coming to a head in February during the Canadian “Freedom Convoy” that occupied Ottawa’s Parliament Hill. For one thing, the resulting invocation of wartime powers to deal with a protest was so obviously partisan given that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau happily “took the knee” for the Black Lives Matter protests. Worse, however, the extremity of the response was so far outside of the orbit of the original issue – ameliorating the effects of a virus – that a basic libertarian insight became obvious: the interests of the state and those of the people are fundamentally antagonistic, and that obtaining your subjugation is a higher political priority than your welfare. Even before all of this, however, 2019 was hardly a golden age. It was still the case that it was our own governments who were crushing free speech; it was our own central banks printing our money into oblivion; it was the leftist infiltration of our own institutions that was telling us there are fifty genders, and which has been stoking antagonism and resentment so as to paint the picture of an oppressive, Western patriarchy suffocating selectively defined minorities. COVID merely accelerated what was already there.
At the geopolitical level, this fundamental gulf between the state and the people does not change. It does, however, tend to be forgotten owing to the fact that other players are now involved. Even in relatively tranquil times, the understandable identification with our own countryfolk ahead of foreigners tends to instil the belief that if our leaders are gaining power and influence on the so-called “world stage” then this must be “good for Britain” or, more specifically, for the British people. This is in spite of the fact that these are the very same clowns whom we are happy to disparage as incompetents, liars and thieves when it comes to domestic political wrangling. The worst scenario, however, is when the state instils amongst its people the spectre of a foreign adversary. In this case – never matter how odious and incompetent their leaders may have been previously – the citizenry tends to rally round with obedience under the assumption that they are being protected from some grave, overseas threat presented by those who are not like “us” and who do not share “our” values. In other words, amongst ourselves, we may grumble about the quality of the local football team, but when the away side visits we still don the colours before cheering on our own players.
Unlike football, however, statism in the global arena is just as destructive and just as inimical to the interests of the typical citizen as much as it is at home, if not more so. Whether it is between or across existing political borders, peace and prosperity between people who can deal with each other only at arm’s length results primarily from the mutual benefits to be gained from voluntary trade and exchange. The whole zero-sum game of power, control, and wealth redistribution frustrates or even destroys this process. A successful rolling of the die in this game may serve, as it does at home, to enhance the personal wealth and status of politicians, together with that of all the private grifters puckered on as appendages to the state’s teat. But no part of the game at all becomes a boon to the average Joe simply because it is elevated from the domestic to the international arena. In particular, if our attention is being drawn to “foreign threats” then either the real danger is to the power and prestige of our protected political elites rather than to us, or such threats serve as a convenient distraction from domestic political woes. As we shall see during the course of this essay, the typical citizen is likely to be better off if his government reduces its global footprint as much as possible, regardless of whether that government is striding around as a peacemaker or as a warmonger.
International Trade and Foreign “Dependence”
To begin with, states often make a great deal of fuss over their “dependence” upon foreign owned resources. But what does “dependence” in this context actually mean? In the marketplace, it amounts to a hill of beans once we realise that each and every one of us is “dependent” upon the productivity of others to fulfil our needs. I own no supermarkets or petrol stations but I am able to take advantage of their services because of my willingness to pay an acceptable price to their owners in exchange. Most people are utterly “dependent” upon a single source of income, yet they scarcely question this circumstance; actually, in a genuine free market, it would carry much less risk than it does today when states are creating an artificial scarcity of jobs through employment regulations and the mispricing of labour. Thus, there is nothing wrong per se with “dependence” under the division of labour. In fact, our standard of living owes itself to the fact that most of us do not have to spend time owning and operating supermarkets and petrol stations but can, instead, focus our time on producing one or a few things in which we can specialise.
None of this changes in principle when it comes to trade and exchange with foreigners. If, as a whole, we in Britain are better at specialising in a handful of industries and trading our products for other things we need from overseas, then both us and those foreigners with whom we trade are made better off as a result.1 There may, of course, be additional costs or risks associated with sourcing a particular supply over a distance given that disruption is more probable during geographically longer supply chains.2 It is also possible for people to prefer domestically produced goods for perceived reasons of quality or local/patriotic pride (in which case the location of production, as with “British Beef”, becomes a marketed feature of the product rather than simply a means to an end). However, the discovery of these preferences, and finding the optimal level of risk that can be borne with regards to foreign supply, are themselves part of the market process. The cost of ameliorating such risks has to be balanced against any possible benefit, as with any other cost of production. Should those risks materialise, then firms that have foreseen them with contingencies will be awarded with profits; firms which have not will incur losses. The opposite will be true if a firm has spent too much money on planning for risks which are never realised. Either way, political borders – lines drawn on a map – will present no physical barrier in all of this so long as state choose not to interfere.
States, however, can and do exacerbate the risks and costs of foreign trade, not only by exerting direct control over resources within their territories but also through their domestic policies (such as protectionism and environmental regulations) that cripple the ability to exploit those resources economically. This, however, only scratches the surface of the basic problem: that, because statism is fundamentally antagonistic and eliminative, the needs of potential conflict are always likely to take the highest priority, with no state wishing to find itself dependent upon the resources of a possible enemy.
Such circumstances can induce the fear of powerlessness in the both domestic citizens and companies, particularly when it comes to resources deemed to be critical (such as energy supply). As frustrated as he may be with his own government, a typical Briton probably has at least some faith in the willingness and ability of his political leaders to act in his interests, and, in any case, he can threaten to vote for an alternative at the next election. Foreign governments, however, have no such restraint – there is little that our individual can do if a foreign parliament votes through regulations or policies which, overnight, can make sourcing supplies from overseas prohibitively more expensive, even impossible. This is exacerbated by the fact that politicians are highly susceptible to short term thinking and kneejerk reactions that can cripple the entirety of a business’s supply chain with the stroke of a pen. Thus, it is with the introduction of states and state interference that “dependence” upon foreign resources can become especially risky. Yet, perversely, a number of statist solutions become seductively attractive.
Interstate Trade Blocs
One such option to ameliorate these risks is for states to sign treaties and agreements with each other – in other words, attempt to become friends/allies rather than enemies. However, such agreements sold as being in “our interest” can do only two things.
First, they do not, in and of themselves, solve any naturally occurring problem. Boring a tunnel through a mountain or improving the speed of cargo planes clearly serve to overcome obstacles placed in our way by nature. Interstate agreements, however, can only remove the artificial barriers to trade that each state has erected unilaterally.3 In this instance, any resulting boom to cross border trade may well be better than the prior regime, but it is hardly an “achievement” on the part of the ratifying parties – it is simply allowing that which would already be happening if the states hadn’t meddled in the first place. As is usual with the state, its can increase general prosperity only by legislating itself out of existence.
Second – and more likely – states will use the opportunity not to recede into the background, but to erect a complex architecture of rules, regulations and oversight commissions that hamper genuine trade and prosperity for the benefit of themselves and of large, politically connected corporations. In the case of NAFTA, for instance, the blueprint for this bureaucracy runs to around 1200 pages.
An important lesson from this is that it is not only the prospect of interstate conflict that burdens the average citizen. If states are co-operating with each other they are unlikely to be doing so to benefit us; rather, they are serving to enhance their raison d’être of exploitation. We may have to endure fewer wars involving guns, bombs and boots on the ground, but the war doesn’t really go away; instead, it is turned inwards upon all of us. Buildings may not blow up and bullets may never fly, but there will still be very real destruction in the form of the misallocation of investment, fewer jobs, lost productivity and declining living standards.
The logical extent of these treaties and agreements – as with statism in general, incidentally – is greater political centralisation and consolidation across state borders into supranational institutions. However, as Britain learnt recently during its excruciatingly drawn out extraction from the European Union, trading blocs and global bodies do little to resolve the problem of interstate conflict in the long run; they simply institutionalise it. If a zero-sum game becomes bigger then so too does the number of losers in that game, and they won’t stay silent forever.
Thus, instead of becoming entangled in agreements, treaties and trading blocs, it is far better for states to rescind, unilaterally, all of their own roadblocks to trade at the stroke of a pen, even if foreign countries refuse to do the same. Any notion that a country would be throwing down its “defences” through such an act is a hangover from mercantilist thought, which considers trade to be practically a tool of war conducted for the benefit not of everyday people but of governments and favoured industries. Actually, the prosperity of a country adopting a policy of unilateral free trade would skyrocket on account of the fact that it would become one of the best places in the world to do business. For even though other countries may continue to stifle trade with their own meddling, the scrapping of domestic tariffs and onerous import regulations is, in and of itself, the removal of an enormous, unnecessary cost. Companies would, therefore, have a greater ability to source their supplies from the cheapest possible places, encouraging large amounts of investment in domestic industries, and the plentiful creation of jobs.
Autarky and War
Turning now, then, to more explicit forms of interstate conflict, problems intensify when states weaponise the economic resources at their disposal – as is the case with the imposition of sanctions and trade embargoes – or otherwise stifle trade between them in an attempt to harm each other.
One result of such circumstances is the drive towards autarky, either within the borders of a single state or within a bloc of relatively friendly nations.4 On the one hand, this will serve as the economic equivalent of moving yourself outside of your enemy’s range of fire; obviously, you can’t be shot if the bullets will never reach. On the other hand, it comes with enormous costs for the reason that voluntary trade is not inherently akin to warfare. In the latter, the gains of one party necessarily come at the expense of another; but with trade, all parties expect to benefit. Thus, any country choosing this path of self-sufficiency would have to forego what it could receive in trade, diverting some of its labour force and capital equipment to the production of goods which would otherwise be uneconomical to manufacture. As a result, the production of other goods which would be economical to manufacture is reduced.
For instance, say that a country is most economically suited to producing timber while, at the same time, it is cheapest to import textiles from abroad. If it was to cease importing textiles as part of a drive towards self-sufficiency in clothing, it will have to divert some of the resources used in timber production to producing its own textiles. As a result of this, the supply of timber would reduce, raising its price, while the textiles produced will be of lower quality and/or higher price than of textiles which could be purchased from overseas. Everyone becomes materially poorer as a result. Indeed, it is the equivalent of trying to manufacture everything you need for yourself within the confines of your own home, a state of affairs that would clearly lead to the decimation of your standard of living.
While autarky clearly impoverishes the domestic citizenry – which, in and of itself, can pile political pressure upon governments – it is indirectly limiting for states too given that they now have a smaller pool of goods from which they can leech. Moreover, it may simply be impossible to produce certain goods domestically; one cannot legislate to create deposits of oil or coal, or for acreages of fertile farm land. Thus, it is no surprise that a state can be tempted to exert greater power and influence beyond its borders, either over foreign resources directly or over the regimes that control them. Such ambitions plant the seeds of war, as was the case when Nazi Germany sought lebensraum in Central and Eastern Europe, in part so as to reduce its reliance upon food imports.
Indeed, as an important tangent, the dangers posed by autarky may increase as we approach what is likely to be a post-globalist (or, at least, a multipolar) era. The biggest threat to liberty during the age of globalisation has been the consolidation and centralisation of state power across political borders, both into explicit supranational institutions (such as the UN, EU, IMF, World Bank, etc.) and/or under a de facto hegemony. Either way, state power has been exerted extensively over global financial and economic networks, in addition to the subordination of local cultures, customs and traditions in favour of universal liberalism. Unravelling all of this in order to accomplish political decentralisation and a renewal of localism naturally goes hand in hand with states and territories decoupling from the regime of globally hampered international trade.
Unfortunately, the failure to realise the lesson we are imparting here – that the interests of states and those of its people are not the same thing – can lead to the erroneous conclusion that a reduction of political interdependence between states must go hand in hand with a reduction of economic interdependence between peoples. This is exacerbated by the fact that, owing to neoliberal abuse of the term, the existing, globalist regime is often mistaken for “free trade” – i.e. the economic distortions we are suffering from today are deemed to have their origins in too much freedom and not enough control.5 Should these misunderstandings persist, the likely result is that the accomplishment of political localism will be accompanied by a rejection of genuine free trade, the hostility towards foreign production, an increase of protectionism, and a shrinking of the division of labour into the confines of political borders. For instance, part of the counter-globalist effort is likely to involve the fostering of parallel networks to avoid centralised control of finance, and to ease the choke-hold of “big tech” tentacles around the flow of information. However, the aim of such endeavours must be to create options rather than silos, otherwise the resulting reduction in living standards and the lack of basis for any international relations could end up driving us back to war and conflict rather away from it. As the saying goes, if goods don’t cross borders, armies will.
A greater risk of this outcome occurring is presented by the biggest global players. Until now, the American-led West has seldom shied away from using its dollar hegemony as a weapon. Given that the vast majority of international trade is settled in US dollars, the inability to access dollar-based financial networks can cripple a nation’s ability to trade. Thus, large states such as Russia and China that are continually at loggerheads with the West have been setting up their own networks and institutions so as to insulate themselves from the effects of US overreach. Such a movement towards multipolarity and the demise of American led exceptionalism, power and influence has the potential to foster a more peaceful geopolitical balance. However, a severe lack of economic interdependence may serve to prelude rather preclude future conflict, which, given the military capabilities of the actors involved, could be disastrous.
Nevertheless, even when a foreign-based resource is deemed to be critical, there is no immediate case for suggesting that our government rolling in the tanks so as to wrest control over that resource is the cheapest option for you and me. For example, let us assume, for the sake of argument, that America’s wars in the Middle East have been concerned primarily with gaining access to oil for American consumers. If so, Americans will first have to forfeit billions of dollars worth of their taxes that will be spent on bombing and invading the oil rich countries. That, however, is just the start, as oil doesn’t simply fall into the average American’s lap once his government has taken control of the land; instead, it has to be drilled for, refined and shipped, all of which requires investment in (and the operation of) heavy industrial infrastructure. Not only is much of the pre-existing infrastructure likely to have been destroyed during the invasion, but warfare, political turbulence and a hostile domestic population will send fresh, private investment running for cover. Thus, even more tax dollars (usually lent to American corporations) will have to be spent on rebuilding everything from scratch, in addition to the cost of maintaining what could be a permanent, peacekeeping operation. This is before we get into the matter of the number of people who would be killed or maimed through such a hostile venture (hundreds of thousands for the Iraq War alone). So even if, therefore, access to that foreign oil would be a benefit in principle, if securing that access comes with such a hefty price tag – the entirety of which must be incurred before a single drop of gasoline reaches American pumps – then it may be the least viable course of action. Moreover, all of this is assuming that any war will actually be won. The costs of defeat could be far, far higher.
Even if, therefore, we were to descend into relative autarky (or if foreign resources otherwise seemed out of reach) the only long term option that benefits the people is for each country to focus unilaterally on maximising its own productive capacity by removing as many of its domestic taxes, barriers and regulations as possible. Eventually, this would would generate surpluses for domestic firms which could then be offered to foreign nations as a source of investment in their resource production, an offer that would eventually become too generous to resist. A peaceful and friendly international environment would therefore be rekindled as cross border trade begins to increase once more.
Even in the absence of any specific or immediate goal, the mere attempt of a state to maintain a global “status” is itself a burden upon its citizens. In other words, the very process of achieving the stature of our so-called statesmen on the “world stage” – their influence over foreign governments, and their direct control over economic resources overseas – comes at a cost to you and me. Should a state strive to become a “great power” so as to wield undue influence in international diplomacy or conflict, such a supposedly enviable status would entail a strong government with a large military budget and ready access to private resources. The United States, for instance, accounts for a whopping 39% of global military expenditures, maintaining outposts and bases in more than a hundred foreign countries. This can be achieved only by diverting production from other needs and priorities that people may have, rendering them poorer than they otherwise would be. None of this military infrastructure need be involved in any actual conflict – it is simply the muscle which America can flex so as to back up its words. As Lew Rockwell has remarked, “you can’t run an empire on the cheap”.6
Foreign power and influence serve few genuine needs of the majority of people but they do, on the other hand, serve to enrich large military contractors and other favoured corporations who can dip into the spoils of conquest. As a result of this, maintaining that power becomes an end in itself requiring an elaborate degree of subterfuge. If “needs” are not manufactured afresh then genuine problems have to be made worse before the state can swoop in and save the day. Ulterior motives are camouflaged either as angelic humanitarianism or as genuine security concerns; the latter, however, is made easier by the fact that creating enemies is, for the state, a self-fulfilling exercise. Objectives measured in terms of power, control and influence must necessarily come at the expense of the same for other countries, and so it is no surprise if you turn them against you. Indeed, as we have seen with Islamic terrorism, managing the blowback alone has become a full time concern. Thus – in the same way that the domestic welfare state exacerbates poverty, and socialised medicine makes us sicker – the great irony of most of the state’s largesse is that it serves to address problems created by its own existence. Further, we have seen how military alliances coupled with the notion of “collective security” can escalate minor skirmishes between pin-sized states many thousands of miles away into world war.
Wartime too, of course, results in the direct and often permanent loss of freedoms, given that government controls are scarcely rolled back in full once the conflict subsides. The Cold War threat of Soviet communism beget a ceaseless military industry, while Islamic terrorism saddled us with a permanent spying and security state, institutions that have proven to become a far greater threat to the freedom of the people than the foes they were ostensibly set up to defeat. War truly is the “health of the state”. Moreover, when the state and its people are deemed to be one and the same thing, there are few barriers towards designating civilians as legitimate targets (or, at least, as acceptable “collateral damage”). The mass bombings during World War II are some of the most egregious examples, but non-military responses such as economic sanctions, boycotts and the expulsion or internment of private, foreign citizens are not a million miles away from the same kind of thinking.
The “Rights” of States
The assumption that the rights and interests of the state and those of its people are one and the same leads to analytical errors when discussing foreign affairs. Such an assumption is not dissimilar to the ignorance of methodological individualism when discussing the effects of domestic economic policies. For instance, debating taxation and redistribution in terms of the “collective good” and the “public interest” will fail to grasp the fact that the benefits and costs of such acts are shared disproportionately between different individuals. Usually, the lion’s share of the benefits is accrued by state employees and cronies, while the costs are heaped onto everyone else.
One obvious example in the foreign realm is treating a state’s foreign policy as a reflection of the attitudes of its people. By grouping everyone into large, homogenous classes each of which is deemed to act as a single unit, one eradicates from examination any question of whether the behaviour and motives of state politicians differs from that of the people suffering from their rule. If, for instance, “Britain” was to declare war on “France” tomorrow, such an act will be accompanied by a barrage of anti-French propaganda, and the British government may well succeed in instilling widespread Francophobia amongst the populace. But absent that propaganda, the British people wouldn’t necessarily have any bone to pick with the French people or vice versa (and even if they did it wouldn’t necessarily follow that war would be the best option for them). Instead, like any good historian, we would search for the cause of the war in the particular geopolitical context, the motivations and incentives acting upon the particular politicians that have brought the differences between themselves to military conflict, in addition to the dubious input of financiers and military contractors who have a tendency to profit from serving the needs of conflict.
To go the opposite extreme, if we were to reach the wonderful day when the British government ceased to be part of any international alliance, body or treaty, promising to keep its nose out of the affairs of other nations, such a policy would be derided as “isolationism”. One can imagine the leftist-liberal press screaming with rage about how Britain is “turning its back on the world” by raising the drawbridge across the English Channel. But this policy would entail only the (wholly desirable) “isolation” of the British state. It is only our politicians, supposed diplomats and state minions who would, in their official capacity, be prevented from poking their nose into the business of other states; it would in no way mean that British citizens and companies should have nothing to do with foreigners. Instead, they would still be free to trade across borders with citizens and entities based in other nations on terms agreeable to themselves, and, in fact, they should be encouraged to do so. Moreover, nothing would prevent individual citizens from taking a view on the affairs of foreign governments, even up to the point of committing either themselves or their own assets in fighting overseas conflicts or addressing humanitarian concerns.7 The failure to realise this difference between state and people is one of the reasons why Remainer critics never grasped the essence of the Brexit vote. The complaint of “Leave” voters was with the supranational governance of our nation and with the institutions of the European Union; it was not motivated by inward-looking provincialism, xenophobia or the desire to restrict trade and co-operation with European people, much less with the wider world.
Another problem with treating states as the most fundamental unit in the global arena is the assumption that they possess the same kinds of rights and obligations between themselves as individual people do in domestic society. But states are not like private individuals entitled to the rights to self-ownership and to own property; by definition, states maintain control over their territories by force, with all of their activities funded by taxation. At any one time, it may be the case that the interests for which a particular state is fighting are more or less congruent with the freedom of the people than the interests for which another is battling; some states may also be more brutal than others, and so on. Fundamentally, however, anything that any state does is prima facie illegitimate.8 Thus, at the global level, there is no foundational reference point for who is right and who is wrong, or who is the victim and who is the aggressor, of who should be punished and who should be absolved. At best, we can discuss in terms only of better and worse.
To illustrate, take the notion of “sovereignty”, which is often a favourite talking point when discussing international affairs. Expressed through the rights to self-ownership and private property, sovereignty is something which, in a free society, belongs to individuals. If person A invades the person or property of person B, then, unless A is acting in self-defence, we can say that A has violated the sovereignty of B. Consequently, we can quite clearly identify A as the aggressor and B as the victim, justifying, in turn, the need for B to make restitution to A (and/or the subjection of B to punishment).
When it comes to states, however, sovereignty over a territory is not something to which any state, large or small, has any fundamental right at all. All of them are illegitimate occupiers of property which should be owned privately. At best, therefore, the concept of state sovereignty is an heuristic that can be deployed only in terms of what is better or worse for the sovereignty of the citizens. It may, for instance, prove to be a useful concept when resisting the consolidation and centralisation of states into global institutions, or when a given territory is seeking to unshackle itself from a union to which it does not wish to belong (as with Brexit). Indeed, when libertarians promote secession and decentralisation, our championing for the breakaway region by reference to its “sovereignty” owes itself to the fact that the achievement of political independence is likely to promote freedom better than keeping that territory handcuffed to a larger, unified state. Similarly, if country P invades a portion of country Q, P has technically breached the “sovereignty” of Q. But the inhabitants of the occupied territory may generally welcome the new arrangement, especially if they are ethnically, linguistically and/or religiously aligned with P, while their political union with Q was an historical anomaly. If so, the outcome is probably a better state of affairs.9 If on the other hand, the region has long been a part of Q, with a majority of the people having no wish to be annexed to P, then the invasion has probably made things worse. There is no justification at all for treating political borders – which, incidentally, have been drawn and redrawn with frequency throughout human history – as having the same legal ramifications as the outline of an individual’s body or as the boundary between one person’s house and that of his neighbour. Should this be doubted, consider the fact that, as private individuals, we each have the right to defend our property from invasion, but we have also the right to invite into our own houses anyone we like; an aspect of ownership is that we do not have to keep people out if we do not want to. But it seems absurd to suggest that “state sovereignty” should means that states too have this kind of choice; as we have argued before, states should have no right at all to invite the entirety of the world to settle in their countries as a result of “open borders” immigration policies.
Of course, the reason why states regard themselves as perfectly constituted is that such a notion serves as an ideological defence against a) outside invasion, and b) breakaway regions within their own borders seeking greater independence or outright secession. With regards to the latter, for instance, the notion of a “perpetual union” was a contested matter during the American Civil War. Nevertheless, even if we accept the concept of state sovereignty as having fundamental value, it is an empirical fact that a state is quite happy to ignore the sovereignty of others if it is in its own interests to do so while maintaining that its own sovereignty (or that of its allies) should be respected – i.e. sovereignty for me but not for thee. This can be anything from meddling in the internal affairs of other countries all the way to full invasions of other countries. Especially when a state is a big player, it has nearly always perpetrated the very same atrocity it is accusing an enemy state of doing right now. Indeed, to point this out in the case of the United States and its ventures into Vietnam, Iraq, Libya and elsewhere is fast becoming a blunt cliché, although no less true.
It is true, of course, that a typically aggressive state isn’t necessarily wrong to point out that the aggression of other states is a bad thing. Certainly, the fact that P has done something bad in the past does not mean that Q is free to commit the same act in the future with impunity. But there are grave problems if P expects to be taken seriously as an authority on the matter. Not only, as we suggested earlier, is P likely to have dubious motivations for persecuting Q, but the complaints of P are unlikely to be coupled with any attempt at introspection, remorse or recompense for P’s own past misdeeds. Thus, trusting P to act as a neutral arbiter of justice is like asking an unrepentant serial killer to adjudicate murder trials. Indeed, the effort to avoid any scrutiny of itself is one reason why P’s discussion of world affairs is likely to descend into cartoonish terms of “goodies” and “baddies”. Foreign leaders may well be responsible for terrible atrocities, but our narratives tend to expunge from them any trace of nuance and humanity so as to render them without comparison. In fact, it is not enough, in this endeavour, to simply label them evil; rather, they must be uniquely, irredeemably and unmitigatedly evil to the extent that, unless stopped, they will conquer the whole world.
The kind of impunity with which states demonise others for perpetrating the very same atrocities that they have themselves committed in the past is, in part, a consequence of the attitude of exceptionalism. Liberal democracies, in particular, seem to think that, because they view themselves as basically good (or because their crusades are for a cause they have deemed to be just), the ends justify the means. But such exceptionalism surely has a deeper origin in the fact that states claim explicit exemption from rules and morals that they expect their own citizens to follow. It is OK, for example, for the state to steal through taxation, but that same state will lock us up if we attempt any kind of theft for ourselves; it is alright for the state to point guns at us so that we conduct our business in ways to its liking, but if we were to do that then it would be called “racketeering”; it seems to be perfectly fine for the state to run monopolies, but companies which do the same are denounced as “greedy” and “anti-competitive”; social security and state pensions can operate as de facto Ponzi schemes, but woe betide any private investment fund that copied the same model. Moreover, when the state – a property invading property protector – has a monopoly of jurisdiction over all conflicts including those involving itself, we cannot expect justice to be fair, impartial and principled.
This factor is simply magnified when a powerful state such as the US strides around as a policeman on the world stage. It seems to be OK for “democracies” to bomb and invade other countries to achieve their objectives, but Russia, China or Iran are the epitome of evil if they do the same. There seems to be no problem with the US pressuring foreign governments to engage in economic policies beneficial to the US, yet if any blacklisted foes of America attempt the same then they stand accused of “imperialism”. No one in the West batted an eyelid when Trudeau resorted to draconian measures to shut down the truckers’ convoy, but there is a deluge of media coverage when protests are crushed in Moscow or Hong Kong (but, not, curiously enough, in Saudi Arabia). States do not really care about invasions of sovereignty, war crimes, the bombing of civilians, or economic imperialism any more than they really care about the morality of private theft; their only issue is whether someone else is getting away with it. St Augustine encapsulates this attitude by reference to one of history’s greatest figures:
[A]n apt and true reply […] was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor”.10
In any case, regardless of what is right and wrong between states, it could be argued that the most pressing concern is (or should be) the avoidance of catastrophic consequences, particularly when a large and powerful state is involved. To be clear, this is not an endorsement of the notion that “might makes right”, nor are we suggesting that there should be no attempt to minimise the size of state militaries and their arsenals of weaponry. Rather, the issue is what should be done if a state’s destructive capacity has to be taken as a given, with the chance that disagreements and disputes can escalate into major shooting wars costing a severe loss of life and the utter devastation of vast swathes of property. In this case, riding in on your high horse with guns blazing is unlikely to be the most prudent option.
Some private situations may help to illustrate. For instance, let’s say that a burglar smashes his way into your home before threatening to kill you unless you hand over your valuables. Should you lack any effective means of defence, the fact that you have the right to keep your cash and jewellery is probably farthest from your mind at that point. Thus, in spite of your rights, you are likely to do whatever it takes to ensure that you are not consigned to an early grave – which probably means letting the burglar take whichever of your possessions that he wants. Now this does to mean to say that there is no value in standing up against criminals, even in the face of all of the odds and even if the costs could be grave. Indeed, you may be even be celebrated as a hero if you do so. But the prospect of such laudation diminishes if you risk not only your own life but the lives of other people as well. It is one thing to refuse to give in to a burglar if he threatens only you; it would be quite another if he was to threaten to execute your entire family also.
Similarly, few of us are likely to provoke an invasion of our rights, even if the method of provocation is perfectly non-aggressive. For example, I have the right to walk up to a two-hundred pound bodybuilder before hurling insults and other forms of verbal abuse at him; that person does not have the right to punch me in the face as a result of the exercise of my rights. However, I shouldn’t be too surprised if I end up with a broken nose. The fact that we each have rights does not mean that it is wise to behave as though they won’t actually be violated, and especially not if we risk the rights of others in the process. Indeed, each of us demonstrates awareness of this fact every day when we lock our front doors; any failure to do so would rightly be condemned as foolish in the event that a burglar walks straight into your home.
The same considerations are in play when it comes to international relations, but given the expansive nature of the issues involved, it is easier to become myopic, focussing only on the concerns of a particular incursion or atrocity while remaining ignorant of the bigger picture. Moreover, politicians and hawkish pundits are gambling not with their own rights but with the rights and welfare of everybody else. If they wish to martyr themselves for a righteous cause then we could easily leave them to it; but there is no heroism at all in risking – at worse – the incineration of the rest of us in a nuclear holocaust.
From all of this we can see that the biggest threat to freedom is most likely to be posed not by any foreign dictator or regime, however odious as they may be. Rather, it is by our own states, for good or for ill, gallivanting around on the world stage. If, therefore, we have to assume the existence of states, the only foreign policy likely to maximise freedom of the individual (in the absence of a direct and compelling aggressive threat) is as simple as it is uncompromising: we must extract our state from any and all foreign entanglements without question. This includes abstinence from any military or security alliance, followed by a unilateral policy of free trade so as to unshackle all economic parties from both help and hindrance in order to conduct commerce on their own terms. In the words of Thomas Jefferson, “honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none”.
Ensuring this, however, can come only from the people. In particular, it is high time that we the resisted our state’s attempts to use repeated bogeymen – whether its viruses, terrorists, or foreign dictators – in order to manufacture consent to the confiscation of more of our rights and freedoms in the name of fighting them. Overseas actors may well be despicable, but we must keep a closer eye on the wolf that is within.
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1None of this, however, should be read as a blind endorsement of the actual distribution of industries and specialisations across the world today, which, more often than not, is a product of state interference.
2This does not mean to say, however, that reliance upon local supply is necessarily less risky; for instance, a local disaster, such as a flood or earthquake, could cripple the entirety of local production.
3There can, of course, be interstate agreements to bore mountain tunnels, or to invest in infrastructure; but if these endeavours are economically viable then they would have been done anyway, and probably far quicker, through purchase of the relevant property rights on the free market. The need for the blessing of states simply adds an extra hurdle in the process.
4This was a partial effect of the oil embargo of the early 1970s, when affected countries sought to diversify their energy sources away from the OPEC nations. Today, it is seen far more distinctly in the attempt by China, Russia and others to decouple from dollar based trade and financial networks.
5A contemporary example is the reaction of this article to the recent sacking of around eight hundred crewmembers by P&O Ferries. The sudden, callous nature of the redundancies is ascribed, at least in part, to too much foreign ownership, with “rootless, global capitalism [having] no regard for locality or place”. The fact that P&O’s Pride of Hull was built in Italy and the Pride of Kent in Germany, with both ships being registered overseas, is the ironic icing on the cake.
But the author, after reeling off a list of sales of “UK industrial assets”, never asks why foreign investors have been continually able to outbid potential British owners for these assets. One reason, as we explained before, is that countries such as the UK have the dubious privilege of being able to print heavily demanded, reserve currencies, allowing them to run continuous trade deficits. Such deficits, if not closed, must eventually be settled by the export of assets – hence the sale of domestic productive capacity to foreigners. The solution, therefore, is to scrap paper money and return to a commodity standard instead of calling for government restrictions on foreign ownership (a policy that amounts to capital controls). Thus, while acknowledging the “rigged system of contemporary capitalism”, the author fails to grasp the heart of the problem, opting instead to repeat left wing clichés about private companies pursuing their own interests above those of “society”.
6Quoted in Walter Block, Toward a Libertarian Society, Ludwig von Mises Institute (2014), 16.
7If they were to do so, however, then it would be entirely at their own risk.
8Even if a state rushes to the defence of another, it must be remembered that – however legitimate that defence may be in principle – it is doing so with tax funds that have been confiscated from its people.
9The opinions of P’s own citizens are relevant too – they may or may not want the occupied territory to be annexed to their own state, particularly if it is likely to be a welfare drain.
10St Augustine (tr. Rev. Marcus Dods), The City of God, in Phillip Schaff (ed.), Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers Series, Vol. II, WM B Eerdmans Publishing Company (1886), Book IV, Chapter 4, 165.