Perhaps the most compelling argument for supporting the U.S. government in using military force when no state of war exists is the “humanitarian war” argument. As much as “humanitarian war” sounds like an oxymoron, the argument is actually grounded in good intentions. It asserts that all human beings, regardless of what country they were born in, have the same right to freedom as U.S. citizens. Therefore, when the people of another nation are being oppressed, the U.S. government should step in and fight to defend them. This is the argument being used for the latest overseas war.
At first glance, the argument seems consistent with both the non-aggression principle and the theory of limited government. There are victims whose lives, liberties, or properties are being harmed. Even for those who would limit the role of government most narrowly, the government should use force against aggressors in defense of their victims. Assuming that what is reported about Qaddafi’s regime is true, the U.S. government is doing precisely that in Libya. It is fighting a brutal dictator and defending freedom.
As with so many other arguments for government intervention for humanitarian or philanthropic ends, there is a vital component missing to this analysis. Namely, it is the Forgotten Man, who is no better remembered when it comes to foreign policy than he is when making domestic policy. For those not familiar with William Graham Sumner’s classic essay, the Forgotten Man is the taxpayer, the man who pays.
For all of the bravado of politicians who wish to appear noble and heroic to Libyans, it is the taxpayer that actually makes warfare possible. Without money to pay for weapons, equipment, and soldiers, there would be no war. Yet, unlike private society, the “purchaser” of these warfare services doesn’t have a choice of whether he will buy or not. He must pay or suffer the violence of the state himself. So, the real question to be asked is, “Does the state have the legitimate authority to tax U.S. citizens to defend Libyan citizens?”
The theory of limited government contends that all power exercised by the government is derived from the people. The people delegate to government those powers that they would otherwise exercise individually to protect their lives, liberties, and properties. The “limit” on government is what is delegated. Whatever power the people have delegated, the government can legitimately exercise. It may not exercise powers not delegated. In this way, no citizen is subject to power that he has not (in theory) consented to. While written constitutions and representative elections are never unanimous, the will of the majority of the people substitutes for unanimous consent.
Of course, in order for “the people” to delegate a power to government, they must first possess it themselves. One certainly cannot delegate a power that one doesn’t have, just as one cannot give away tangible goods that one does not first possess. Since it is assumed that, in terms of power or authority over others, all human beings are created equal, then each individual must possess equal power over other human beings. It is generally recognized that individuals only have the right to exert this power – i.e. use violence or the threat of violence – in defense of their lives, liberties, or properties against aggression by others. Individuals delegate this power to government in all situations where their lives are not in immediate danger. In those situations, individuals retain the right to exercise that power themselves to preserve their lives.
So, not only is the government limited to those powers delegated to it by the people, but the people are limited in what powers they can delegate to government. They can only delegate those that they each possess as individuals.
There are many that would agree up to this point and then assert, “But I do have the right to defend Libyans as an individual. Furthermore, I believe that it is my duty to defend those whose right to liberty is being violated. Therefore, the government is correct to wage war against the Qaddafi regime in defense of the oppressed people who suffer under it.”
While this argument may be genuinely rooted in good intentions, it is not based upon reason. The question here is not whether any individual has a right to defend Libyans, either directly or by paying professional soldiers to do so. The question is whether any one individual can force his neighbor to defend Libyans in like fashion. Let us consider a simple example.
If you and I were walking past a bus stop and saw a mugging taking place, there would be three questions to answer:
- Do I have a right to violently intervene on behalf of the victim and fight off the mugger? Yes.
- Do I have the right to force you to intervene on behalf of the victim and fight off the mugger? No.
- Do I have the right to force you to pay someone else to intervene on behalf of the victim and fight off the mugger? No.
As conscription is no longer being practiced by the U.S. government (at least for the time being), its policy is consistent with the answer to the second question. No one is being forced to personally fight on behalf of the Libyan rebels. However, it is obvious that its policy is inconsistent with the answer to the third question. People are being forced to pay for the defense of Libyans. Therefore, the government is exercising a power that not only has not been delegated to it by the people, but a power which the people cannot delegate to it even if they wanted to. It is a power that no one individual possesses and therefore no group of individuals possess.
Indeed, our Forgotten Man is not only being forced to pay for the defense of Libyans, but Europeans, Koreans, Japanese, and citizens of hundreds of other countries. As is the case whenever government begins violating rights instead of protecting them, this leads to a myriad of disastrous results. The U.S. government budget is freakishly lopsided toward military spending, which not only drains the private sector of capital that would otherwise be put to productive use, but also contributes to the national debt, which crowds out credit in the private market. Without a clear line of demarcation as to where military spending is no longer justified, one can only imagine the outlandish size that the military establishment might achieve if it were not for the imminent bankruptcy of the whole corrupt system.
As for our Forgotten Man, he is told that he is lucky to have been born in “the land of the free.” But what does that mean? For him, it means that he has somehow become financially liable for the freedom of everyone on the planet, while his counterparts in other countries do not have any financial liability for his. He must wonder if there is still a chance to be born somewhere else.
© Thomas Mullen 2011
Photo by Africa