Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Liberal Hawk

Tibor R. Machan

Professor Alan Wolfe, the well known and widely published political scientists from Boston College, has written an interesting essay on liberal interventionism in the journal World Affairs (Winter 2009), arguing that this "species" is now endangered. In the course of his discussion he makes a point that is worth pondering, namely, that "Liberals believe--I believe--that we are under a moral obligation to help people who are oppressed." An apparently very straightforward if troublesome statement, this is.

Moral obligations attend to individuals, in answer to how they ought to live their lives. Mostly they vary a lot since individuals are not all alike, face different options and are differently constituted--a father has different moral obligations from someone who has no children, for example. The claim laid out by Professor Wolfe is full of ambiguity, despite its apparent directness and clarity, although it does smack of altruism, the moral doctrine that our lives must be devoted to helping others. It modifies this sentiment somewhat by imploring us the help only those who are oppressed.

Of course, just because liberals--or some of them--believe something it doesn't follow that it's right. On this score, as on others, liberals may well be wrong. (And Wolfe is here speaking not of classical liberals, today's libertarians, but of welfare state, domestically interventionist liberals who are on record with their belief in the "buttinsky" state!) Altruism itself is full of problems as an ethical doctrine. Why should the well being of others be our priority when others are in essential respects like us and we surely know better our own situations--needs, wants, abilities, options--than that of other people? It calls to mind that famous quip from W. H. Auden, "We are here on earth to do good for others. What the others are here for, I don't know."

Now if one is serious about following altruism, one is almost necessarily going to embrace the liberal view on military policy. This, however, is still a thesis about what individuals should do, not what we should do collectively or what the role of government ought to be. In a civilized society, force is supposed to be a last resort to solving problems and mostly to be avoided. Indeed, in the older, classical liberal tradition good behavior was supposed to be encouraged but not mandated, with government providing the protection of everyone's right to choose how to live, or everyone right to be free.

While it is quite right that when government becomes oppressive it has abrogated its duty to protect the rights of the citizens, it doesn't follow from this that other governments are now authorized or obligated to intervene. This is not because the oppressive governments enjoy sovereignty, so they may oppress their populations or do other violent things. Once they are oppressive, they have lost their legitimacy and may be opposed, even forcefully. The reason other governments may not interfere unless the oppressors have attacked them is that governments must serve the people who have established and maintain them. Just like body guards serve their clients, governments serve their citizens. Going off to serve the oppressed in other countries would in effect amount to going AWOL, leaving their proper posts.

There can be situations, of course, when governments ought to attend to oppressive foreign governments, namely, when those governments pose a clear and present danger to the citizens whom they must serve. (This, by the way, is why it was so vital to the Bush administration to find weapons of mass destruction--such weapons do pose a clear and present danger when possessed by a hostile foreign country, one that's on record aiming to do damage.) Also, if one government, in a peaceful country, has entered into agreements with others to share one another's defense, this, too, would serve to justify taking action against another government if it has attacked or poses a clear and present danger against the friendly country with whom such an agreement is in place. Mutual defense alliances are all about such circumstances.

None of this, however, amounts to becoming the guardian angel of the world. Just as ordinary citizens have no moral obligation to seek out oppressive neighbors and involve themselves--except perhaps in some very dire cases and when this is something they are capable of doing without neglecting their own families--so governments are bound to defend their own citizens, first and foremost. But while governments are duty bound to stand by to defend their own citizens, the citizens themselves may embark on measures that will help oppressed people abroad. Still, they, too, do not have a general moral obligation or duty to do so. What could possibly motivate their lending a hand is generosity, compassion, empathy, and other virtues of civilized people. Self-sacrifice or the unqualified moral obligation to help people who are oppressed, however, isn't such a virtue. Any help would have to come from a sense of fellow feeling, of camaraderie, not a sense of duty!

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