Libertarian Hawks

Max Borders over at TCS attempts to deploy contractarian reasoning in the service of that unlikely composite creature, the libertarian hawk. Max argues the lib-hawk is no impossible monster, like the gryphon. More like the liger, although, sadly, more feracious and no less ferocious.

Insofar as Max is attempting to justify a doctrine of preemeption in general and the Iraq war in particular, he fails, and he fails on contractarian grounds.

Max writes:

The libertarian hawk takes her cues from Hobbes, not Locke, as the spaces mostly untouched by globalization are, in her view, like a state-of-nature. She sees threats that organize themselves in the shadows beyond civilization; operating, no less, in an age of deadly weapons proliferation. She fears the world's great, but nimble powers coalescing into a slothful and ineffectual global body — where the toughest decisions of life and limb must be made in committee. She understands that freedom does not drop like manna from heaven, but is earned drop-for-drop and coin-for-coin by the sacrifices of blood and treasure.

According to the contractarian, rights are conventions justified by their role in mutual benefit. Your entitlement to protection against the agression of others is conditional on your compliance with the convention. If you fail to heed the convention, then you cannot be expected to gain its benefits.

. . . if you stand outside the covenants of Man, you are presumed “enemy.”

This is all by way of establishing that terrorists lack “moral standing.”

Let's just say all this is fine. But at this point, we've barely even approached a case for preemptive war or for the invasion and occupation of Iraq. If my neighbor, Grover, kills his roommate Getrude in cold blood then he in effect opts out of the social contract and loses moral standing. May I therefore go next door and slay him at will? No, I may not.

Grover may have forfeited his rights, but I am not therefore at liberty to do whatever I like to Grover. Another element of the social contract is the prudent restriction of the power of citizens to bring criminals to justice. We leave it the relevant authorities, who are required to follow strict procedures in order to ensure that coercive sanctions are not abused. That Grover has lost his moral standing does not give just anyone permission to mete out punishment.

Similarly, 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.

Bizarrely, Max fails to even ask the contractarian question before accusing his friends and colleagues of being “unreflective.” Would well-informed, rational people who have their own interests in mind choose to empower their state with a doctrine of preemptive warfare? Well, it's certainly not obvious that they would, even if there are bad guys out there who don't deserve not to be killed. And if they would agree to such a doctrine, it seems likely that they would put such stringent conditions on use of preemptive war that Iraq would unlikely qualify.

If you're a contractarian libertarian then you think that counterfactually wise parties to an imaginary agreement would wish to restrict the power of the state to the minimum necessary to provide the public goods for which voluntary action is insufficient. Security is surely one of those public goods. But surely a libertarian contractarian, understanding the tendency of those with military power to use it to enlarge the domain of their political power (and dimish the scope of our liberties), will want to implement very strict standards for going to war. Here's a not very strict standard: the target state (or whatever) that the government wishes to go to war against must be an actual threat to the citizens. If it's not, then the state is simply wasting the “blood and treasure” of its citizens in violation of the terms of the social contract, becomes criminal, and loses its legitimacy.

The argument whether Iraq was anything more than a notional threat to the US has already been won. It wasn't. The US government is now wasting our money, and wasting soldiers' lives. Maybe there are good humanitarian reasons for the war, but they have nothing to do with the contractarianism Max espouses.

There's more to say here. The US's near-unilateralism is a problem for reasons a contractarian ought to appreciate. By demonstrating a willingness to bear almost any cost in what we take to be our own defense, we encourage others to free-ride. (Indeed, so many states (hello Canada!) have been free-riding off American defense for so long that American taxpayers don't even know to be indignant at this incredibly lavish scheme for redistributing wealth outside our borders.) And when others are encouraged to free ride, they do. As an auxilliary benefit to them, they become less visible to the enemy, providing even further motive to free ride. Of course, the ugly flip side of their benefit is our peril; we loom ever larger in the minds of our enemies. The absence of a serious coalition (in terms of leadership and cost-sharing) may in the end make more or less unilateral action against terrorists counterproductive, endangering the lives of US citizens, as attacks escalate agains us, the main antagonist of the bad guys. As anti-American animosity rises, and more and more groups plan attacks, the ability of our stretched-thin intelligence agencies to more or less singlehandedly detect all the chemical warheads that Max “doesn't fancy staring down the point of” is dangerously diminished.

These considerations, even if not decisive, would certainly be entertained by a community of rational agents deciding what they would like their defense policy be. I don't believe being persuaded by these considerations reveals any lack of reflection (even among the denizens of those “hashish dens of protest music and anti-Bush priggishness). If it turns out that engaging in wars like the one we're in, besides wasting money and lives, puts our citizens in even greater peril, then you can bet that rational citizens will be against them, and an ideal social contract will rule them out.

It's not clear to me that there is anything whatsoever about contractarian reasoning that supports the kind of hawkishness Max likes. Certainly not the kind of contractarian reasoning that leads to libertarian conclusions about the scope and powers of the state. As far as I can see Max simply jumps from the fact that terrorists cannot reasonably expect the protections of civil society (true) to the claim that the Iraq war was justified (false). I can barely even see how the two points are supposed to be related.

Maybe more later about Max's response to the Hayekian argument against nation-building, which I thought made almost no sense.

[Update: Yglesias fully admirably and unmisguidedly chimes in.]