Should libertarians favor foreign intervention

Do libertarians contradict themselves by opposing foreign intervention?

By Perry Willis
In this article…

  • How libertarians might be contradicting themselves about foreign intervention
  • The underlying reason libertarians are not contradicting themselves when they oppose a certain kind of foreign intervention
  • How the libertarian approach might have prevented the Iraq invasion, fostered an end to the Rwandan genocide, and delivered a more cost-effective F-35.

Doesn’t the Zero Aggression Principle require libertarians to favor foreign intervention?
Libertarians constantly stress the difference between initiated force and defensive force.

  • Initiated force is when you threaten or use physical violence against someone who has not threatened or attacked you.
  • Defensive force is violence used to counter a threat or retaliate against an attack.

Defensive force is legitimate. Initiated force is a crime, both for an individual and for any group, including a government. But…
What about using violence to defend others?
That’s okay too, so long as the violence is proportional to the threat or attack. Then…
Why do nearly all libertarians oppose foreign intervention?
That’s an excellent question. Shouldn’t libertarians be the primary advocates of military intervention to defend foreign people from oppression? At first glance, it looks like libertarians are contradicting themselves. But the seeming contradiction is superficial. Look deeper and you’ll see that…
What libertarians really oppose is foreign intervention by The State.
Statist intervention suffers from two flaws…

  • It’s tax funded
  • It’s politically managed

Tax funding is…

  • Immoral because it uses threats of violence to make people pay for things they don’t want or that their consciences abhor. (This flaw is already enough to make most libertarians oppose statist intervention.)
  • Impractical because it removes the need to perform well — the money comes whether the service provided is good or bad.

Tax funding also implies political management, which makes statist foreign intervention doubly impractical. Randolph Bourne observed that “War is the health of The State.” The great libertarian scholar Robert Higgs showed in his book Crisis and Leviathan that Bourne’s observation is true. War causes The State to grow and politicians to gain new powers. In other words…
Politicians benefit from war even when no one else does.
These factors suggest that tax funded and politically managed foreign interventions almost always do more harm than good. I’ve tested this claim in seven articles that review all the major U.S. wars and interventions between 1812 and WW2…

I asked the following questions about each conflict…

  • Did it defend freedom?
  • Did if defend America?
  • Did it make the world better?

The evidence deployed in these articles pointed the same way for every question for every conflict. U.S interventions have not…

  • Defended freedom
  • Defended America
  • Made the world better

Please understand, my claim is not that U.S. interventions have never achieved anything good. My claim is that the bad has always outweighed the good. If you doubt this, please review the evidence presented in the articles above. You’ll discover that the history you were taught in state schools is inaccurate, incomplete, and self-serving — it’s propaganda by The State for The State. A more honest evaluation of history suggests two things…
One, foreign interventions will not reliably serve a defensive purpose so long as they are…

  • Tax funded
  • Politically managed

Two, you might get better results from foreign intervention if our military was voluntarily funded.
This post-statist approach would give you and your fellow citizens control over the purse strings for proposed foreign interventions. You, personally, could pump more money into good interventions or deny funding for interventions that appeared ill-conceived. Seen in this way…
Many libertarians might actually be pro-intervention, as long as the intervention isn’t using some form of initiated force, such as taxation or a military draft.
I understand that this must seem like a bold new idea, but it isn’t really. It’s actually how the most important parts of your life already work. Consider…
Would your housing, food, or entertainment be improved if you were compelled to buy them from only one provider, and pay the price set by that supplier, whether you wanted the product or not? Of course not. You would expect things to be worse, not better!
So is it really so strange to suggest that the military and foreign interventions should be funded in the same way? The big concern that comes to mind is…
What if voluntary payments didn’t generate enough money to do the job?
This begs the question, how do we know the tax-funded system is providing the right amount of funding? Maybe the amount being spent is insufficient? Or perhaps it’s too high? Or maybe the amount is correct but it’s being spent in the wrong way, on ineffective things. There’s nothing to guarantee that the scheme imposed on us by the politicians is the correct one. In reality, opinions differ, even among the politicians. In addition…
People are more careful with their own money than the politicians are with other people’s money.
For instance, the Pentagon has misplaced several trillion dollars and is infamous for wasting money on boondoggles. Given that, isn’t it possible, and perhaps even likely, that we would get better answers through crowdsourcing — letting 200 million taxpayers make their own individual spending decisions? For example…

  • Might the Iraq invasion have been prevented because citizens withdrew funding
  • Might we have intervened to stop the Rwandan genocide because citizens clamored to fund that mission?
  • Might the F-35 have been less costly if Lockheed had needed to worry more about continued citizen support?

Maybe we’ve had things upside down all this time.
Maybe the real answer to the question of how much money we need for the military is not whatever the politicians want to impose on us, but rather, what we as individuals are willing to voluntarily provide?
Voluntaryist or post-statist libertarians certainly think so. We’re working hard, through the Zero Aggression Project, and by other means, to bring about such a world. We hope you’ll participate by…

  • Subscribing to our free email newsletter using the form in the right column
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  • Sharing this article with others using the social networking tools in the right column

In the meantime, let this be clear…

Perry Willis

Perry Willis

  • Libertarians are not contradicting themselves by opposing foreign intervention
  • Libertarians are being consistent because tax-funded foreign intervention is initiated force, not defensive force
  • Voluntary funding could result in better security and foreign interventions that actually do more good than harm.

Copyright (c) 2016 by Perry Willis and the Zero Aggression Project. Permission to distribute this blog post for educational Copyright Symbolpurposes is granted, if done with attribution to the author and the Zero Aggression Project. Permission to use for commercial purposes is denied. You can find a full explanation of our copyright policy here.

Show Comments 7


  1. Non-interventionism is not derived from Libertarianism. It is a separate philosophy, like vegetarianism.

    “Aggression” means, force-initiation or siding with the force-initiator.
    “Intervention” means, taking sides in a dispute.

    If the US sides with the aggressor, that is aggression.
    If the US sides with the victim, that is not aggression.

  2. Great article, Perry.

    A 3rd problem with foreign intervention consists of the harm done to the innocent residents of the country intervened in, sometimes euphemistically referred to as “collateral damage.”


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    2. Every President since Eisenhower has committed seditious acts of war without a declaration of war.

  3. Perry Willis should be applauded for this improvement.

    Permit me to ask, what does he mean by “politically managed”? After all, government amounts to the organization of force in support of a legal code. By definition, it is inherently political. We should not conflate good government (i.e. funded by user fees and prohibited from initiating force) and bad government (which organized initiatory force). Or good politics with bad politics.

    There is also the issue of prudence; a government may be within justice to intervene in a particular case, but doing so would be unwise due to factual concerns. Such as, quixotic interventions might be net harmful to the intervening party. But the US does not have to be the only agency protecting Americans, and the US could protect the interests of others if paid to do so.

    A protective agency is not obligated to see that justice is done in every case, and may choose to not intervene. Unless obligated by treaty.

    User fees should replace taxes as a means of financing rightful government.

    These issues are explored at great breadth and depth in the FB page, “Libertarian Party Defense Caucus”.

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      Voluntary funding is the main thing. It would remove the moral taint and improve performance, all at the same time.

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