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Henderson on Epstein on War and Libertarians

David Henderson, writing over at Antiwar.com, does a beautiful job countering Richard Epstein’s case for an interventionist U.S. foreign policy.

At first, I planned to include David’s essay in my next “Some Links” post, but because of the special importance of the topic (exposing the hubris, dangers, and immorality of U.S. militarism*), as well as because of Richard Epstein’s justly prominent role in libertarian scholarship, I’ve decided to single out David’s excellent essay.

Here are some slices (original emphases and links):

People abroad who attack other people abroad are not clearly engaged in “foreign aggression” against the United States. And recall that it is the protection of “our nation,” not other nations, against foreign aggression that Professor Epstein thinks is a legitimate function of the U.S. government.

There’s a much older tradition in the United States that I would have thought Professor Epstein, a strong believer in and defender of the US Constitution, would harken to. George Washington expressed that tradition in his farewell address. Washington wrote:

Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground? Why, by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humor, or caprice?

Note that Washington wanted not to be involved in conflicts in Europe, an area from which most Americans or their forefathers hailed. Imagine what his view would have been of getting involved in an even more remote region – namely, the Middle East.


Washington’s worry was understated. The largest violations of freedom in the United States have tended to occur during wars. During the Civil War, both North and South used military conscription, and the United States had conscription throughout World War I, World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. Short of slavery, military conscription is one of the most extreme violations of freedom, as I think Professor Epstein would agree.


When governments intervene in the domestic economy, they almost always do damage. One of the main reasons is that they don’t have – and can’t have – the information they would need to plan the economy well. As Nobel Prize winning economist Friedrich Hayek argued in a classic 1945 article, “The Use of Knowledge in Society,” the information that matters most for economics decisions is held in the minds of the hundreds of millions of market participants.

Similarly, when governments try to intervene in other countries, they are even more ignorant about those countries than they are about their own. This can have disastrous consequences. Consider the Middle East and ISIS. Where did ISIS come from? As President Reagan used to say, let’s take a trip down memory lane.

In 2003, President George W. Bush invaded Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to “finish the job” that, 12 years earlier, his father had promised “would not be another Vietnam.” Keep in mind that Saddam, as President George H.W. Bush liked to call him, was a Sunni. Kicked out of power by the invasion and the occupation government, Sunni tribal leaders and remnants of Hussein’s army launched an insurgency that turned the entire west and north of the country into a lawless territory. Al Qaeda used this territory to train a generation of bin Ladenite, Salafist jihadists, the same ones who helped to solidify the turn toward full-blown sectarian civil war in 2005-07, which killed hundreds of thousands and displaced millions more.

Do, please, read the whole thing.


(All that appears below in this post is written by me, Don Boudreaux.)

* One of the greatest dangers of war – a danger that is simultaneously both a cause of war and a consequence of war – is the stupid anthropomorphism of collectives: “Us” versus “Them.”  Individuals are lost sight of; they become invisible.  All that is seen are the mentally-constructed wholes (usually, but not always, represented by governments that do indeed claim to be the living embodiments of their peoples).

“They” are “Our” enemy, so any damage, even if it’s “collateral,” to any of “Them” is proper, even good – and sometimes downright glorious.  “We” treat “Them” as the Bad; “They” treat “Us” as the Bad.  And because “We” must spare no effort to defeat “Them” the Bad, “We” turn on each other if and to the extent that any individuals amongst us dare to not join in “Our” crusade against “Them.”

We rightly are appalled that savages in foreign countries kill, maim, behead specific individuals from our ranks – kill, maim, behead these individuals only because these unfortunate individuals are from our ranks, share our culture, worship our gods (or don’t worship their gods), and look more like us than like them.  We rightly get furious that beasts in human form brutalize individual human beings based on nothing other than those human-beings’ birthplaces, native languages, or citizenship….  And then we fall into the same gross stereotyping and uncivilized habit of seeing only “Them,” as if “They” are all responsible for the commission of these brutalities.

And yet to speak this truth is to risk condemnation and ridicule.  I stand with Mark Twain.