Monday, June 20, 2011

Self-defense vs. Isolation

Tibor R. Machan

Where the idea comes from is not really relevant--it could be neo-conservatism, imperialism, compassion, whatnot. But it is right that it should be debated, especially by Republicans who aren’t beholden to the legacy of Woodrow Wilson in matter of foreign relations. Republicans, especially those with conservative leanings who are committed to preserving America’s ideal of using force against other countries only when those countries embark upon an aggressive foreign policy toward American citizens or allies, need to take a renewed close look at their country’s basic principles, including those pertaining to dealing with foreigners.

It was, after all, George Washington himself who, in his farewell message, warned the country against getting entangled in foreign wars. Yes, that was many years ago but the principle still holds, just as it holds in the criminal law: using force on others is only justified in self-defense. (Principles, if sound, don't change much over the centuries--not in physics, biology, or public policy!)

Admittedly the country’s domestic public affairs have long abandoned this idea. The US government now routinely coerces its citizens for all kinds of purposes. Except for a few steps in the right direction, such as the abolition of the military draft, most public policies are based on the practice of imposing burdens on citizens that they have not assumed freely. Even if one buys the notion that some taxation is justified, which is actually not true, the massive confiscation of private property by means of taxation is way out of line with the principles of the American political system. Just consider that one’s rights to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are supposedly unalienable. That is part of the Declaration of Independence and has made it into, at least indirectly, the laws of the land (e.g., the Fifth Amendment).

Yet courts over the decades have given the go ahead to politicians and bureaucrats to proceed as they wish with the task of raising funds for government’s innumerable expenses--most of them unconstitutional by the tenets of a sensible reading of that document and only legal by virtue of corrupt rulings by the US Supreme and other courts--by extorting them from the citizenry. And then there are prohibitions galore, such as the war and drugs, thousands of regulations that in fact amount to prior restraint (imposing burdens the regulated haven’t been shown to deserve via due process), etc., all the way down to local blue laws!

All of these have pretty much made it an insidious but widespread policy to treat US citizens by coercing for various alleged public purposes cooked up by special interests. In light of this, it is no surprise that so many people hold that embarking on coercive foreign policies is just fine--if what the government of Libya or any other country is doing is wrong, it is the business of the American government to intervene.

But is this right? Is this how human beings, including those in governments, ought to conduct themselves? If one tests this by applying the standards of ordinary morality and even much of the criminal law, the answer is in the negative. No one is authorized to invade a next door neighbor for misconduct, not unless that misconduct consist of attacks on oneself or one’s family. As a private citizen one may have reason to subdue a violent neighbor but even that is only justified if the authorities to whom this job is delegated are unavailable--e.g., as in a citizen’s arrest.

None of the wars the US is conducting now can reasonably be considered defensive. One need not hold to any kind of isolationism to appreciate this fact. Indeed, there ought to be a category of foreign affairs policy that’s called “defensivist.” It could justify some military action but all of it would have to be in defense of the citizens of the country. In fact, some of the hurdles still on the books, although mostly ignored or evaded by the government, basically imply that this outlook on when America may engage in a war is still the ruling framework or paradigm. But only in spirit, unfortunately.

Now that some of those in the limelight are raising questions about whether America’s aggressive stance toward some other countries is justified, it may be possible to arrive at a rational philosophy of foreign involvement. If some argue that it is isolationist to stick to self-defense--national defense properly understood--it needs to be replied that it is no isolation to be ready to fight when attacked or when some more subtle ways of initiated violence is directed at one’s country. Isolationism is irrational since others may drag one into a fight that should not be tolerated without proper resistance. But a defensive stance is perfectly rational, indeed the only one morally acceptable and conducive to promoting peaceful solutions.

The case for interventionism may rest on widespread precedence in our society of the uses of coercive public policies but that doesn’t justify it. It used to be the norm for most countries to attack their neighbors in the name of territorial expansion, need for resources, etc. It didn’t make it right. Nor is it for the US to play the role of global police.

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