Natural Rights Libertarianism and Foreign Policy

Libertarianism is generally associated with what is traditionally called an “isolationist” stance in matters of international relations. At the extreme edge, the anarcho-capitalists regard all states, of whatever form and function, as intrinsically evil. Therefore, they (following Rothbard) tend to see little distinction between the desirability of living under the authority of one state relative to others, and their foreign policy prescription will be to simply to devolve all states, while urging what is virtually a pacifist foreign policy.

Even those libertarians who accept the necessity of the minimal state (such as Ron Paul, I think) tend to be deeply suspicious of what they regard as foreign policy adventurism. Their regard international military bases, foreign aid, and defensive alliances like NATO as unwise and not in the best interest of the citizens of the U.S. The general idea seems to be that peace-loving states should respond militarily only to direct attacks on their territory or to other unambiguous acts of war (e.g. unjustified naval blockades, attacks on vessels in international waters, etc.). Let us call such provocations “classic causes of war” or “CCW” for short.

This policy is typically justified on a number of grounds, including the possibility of harm to innocent civilians or neutral parties; the cost of maintaining a military capacity consistent with non-CCW missions; the damaging economic effects of war; the general incompetence and venality of state officials; and the tendency of the authorities to use armed conflict as an excuse to encroach on civil liberties. While all of these considerations are reasonable, and not to be dismissed casually, none of them represent a decisive moral argument against non-CCW interventions, particularly if there is a strong countervailing reason for undertaking such missions.

In other words, assuming that non-CCW actions can be justified from the moral perspective, the arguments in favor of a purely defensive stance do not appear to rule out such interventions on a categorical basis. Is there, then, a legitimate moral basis for non-CCW interventions, and what are the practical benefits? I believe the answer is found in the state of nature analysis offered by John Locke.

Note first that the international sphere closely resembles Locke’s state of nature because there is no single power that can claim a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. Rather, there are a large number of states, all acting in what they perceive to be their self-interest, with varying degrees of ruthlessness and willingness to resort to unprovoked violence. Locke held that in a state of nature any peaceful party may justly punish those who violate the natural rights of other people, even though the aggressor has not specifically acted against him/her. He reached this conclusion on the grounds that an unpunished aggressor represents a clear and present danger to the entire community. See Second Treatise, Chap. III, sec. 16-8. I think Locke’s reasoning is sound.

An unconstrained aggressor imposes two serious costs on those who wish to abide by what Locke called the law of nature, i.e. showing due regard for the equal rights of other persons. First, a party willing to take the life or property of one innocent victim is not likely to stop there. Accordingly, criminals cause fear in even those not directly harmed by their aggression.

Second, the persistence of criminality imposes significant material costs on peaceful parties. Because of the anxiety referenced above, blameless persons will be required to beef up security for themselves and their loved ones. Individuals wishing to conduct mutually-beneficial trade may be prevented from doing so because the goods or the payment will be stolen. Farmers may not plant crops because thieves will seize the harvest, and so on.

Given these considerations, if peace-lovings persons in an idealized state of nature are entitled to punish a criminal who has not attacked them directly, then it also seems clear that they may band together in defensive alliances to deter, resist or punish aggressors in a coordinated way. On this same logic, the right to punish and deter aggression (with military alliances, bases, etc.) should also apply to peaceful contemporary states, that also operate in a lawless environment.

Having said this, it is obviously the case that great care must be taken in exercising this right for the reasons noted above. Just because we have just cause to punish, form defensive alliances, etc. there may be a variety of prudential reasons why we should elect not to do so. Thus, I regard the foreign policy question as essentially one of cost/benefit analysis, and reject the idea that there is any doctrinaire libertarian foreign policy prescription.

The above analysis does not consider the justifiability of non-CCW interventions on humanitarian grounds, which I will leave for another occasion. Obviously, the above discussion only at best scratches the surface of this subject, and much more needs to be said. Thus, as always, I welcome all thoughtful comments.



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8 Responses to Natural Rights Libertarianism and Foreign Policy

  1. Rajiv says:


    You draw an analogy with Locke’s state of nature. In there every individual has the right to punish. I think that is correct. However it does not follow from this that states have the right to punish other states.

    I don’t think the analogy between states and individuals in the state of nature helps. I think the proper analogy is with associations and companies. They are created for a particular purpose and cannot act beyond that purpose. Individuals of course retain the freedom to do anything they want but they do that qua individuals and they cannot use the resources of the association/company to do that what they want to do (if it is beyond the scope of the association’s power).

    Minimal state libertarians believe that States exist for only limited purposes. Intervention (in cases other than self defence) in other countries would then be ultra vires. That’s why they are wrong from a libertarian point of view.

    Now to be fair all this argument establishes is that as a matter of municipal law states should not intervene in other states. It does not affect their right to do so as a matter of international law. But a doctrinal libertarian position need not go that far, saying that the State should not do it as a matter of municipal law is enough.


    • Mark Friedman says:

      Hello, and thanks for the thoughtful comment. However, you provide no real argument as to why my analogy fails. As stated in the post, the international realm resembles Locke’s state of nature because no party can claim a legitimate monopoly on the use of force. Thus, both in a state of nature and in the international sphere, actors are required to fend for and protect themselves, subject only to the dictates of the law of nature.

      Because we are concerned here with the moral right of actors to punish aggressors, and not with legal niceties, I do not find the analogy to municipal law convincing. In any case, many nations are run by dictators and thus have no charter or legal constraints of any sort. Moreover, our constitution has never been held to restrict the executive from interventing in what I called non-CCW situations, and we have done so many times, so your argument wouldn’t work for the U.S. and many other states.

  2. Rajiv says:

    Sorry Mark I should have been clearer.

    I think the analogy fails because in the state of nature individuals have all the power/rights/liberties/immunities which the law of nature gives them.

    States however have (this is a normative have) limited (moral) power, i.e. the power they have is limited by both the law of nature and by the power/rights/liberties/immunities they have been “given” (I use the term loosely) by the individuals under their jurisdiction.

    (To put the point another way, individuals may do whatever they want unless it is prohibited by the law of nature. States however can only do what they are allowed to do.)

    Whilst States would not act in breach of the law of nature they would be acting beyond the powers they have been granted by individuals under their jurisdiction.

    The references to municipal and international law were normative. What I meant was that as a matter of libertarian international law there would be nothing wrong with States going to war for purposes other than self defence (but wars of aggression would of course be wrong). However, as a matter of libertarian municipal law what is wrong with that is the fact the State is acting ultra vires.

    With regards to States that are currently non libertarian (and whose non libertarian elements are not based on actual consent) the libertarian complaint goes as follows:

    P1 The State cannot breach the rights of its citizens
    P2 Only a nightwatchman State does not breach the rights of its citizen
    P3 A nightwatchman State does not have the power to intervene in other states (except to defend itself)
    C1 The State cannot intervene in other states (except to defend itself).

    In the case of wars of aggression there is an additional libertarian complaint

    P1 No individual may initiate aggression against others
    P2 A collection of individuals may not do what the individuals that compose it cannot do
    C The State cannot wage wars of aggression.

    I hope that makes my point clearer.

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Hi Rajiv,
      Thanks for the clarification, which was helpful. However, for the reasons outlined below, I remain unconvinced.

      Recall that I started my argument with the premise that in a state of nature an unpunished aggressor represents a threat to all peace-loving persons. Similarly, in the international sphere an unpunished aggressor state also presents a threat to all peaceful nations, and it may be in their interest to punish such a rogue state even absent a direct attack on one of them. This premise seems entirely reasonable to me, but I admit that if you reject it, the rest of my argument fails. However, if you accept my premise I believe it dooms your argument.

      This is because your “libertarian municipal law” (I am not clear on how you are so sure of its contents) would require libertarian states to refrain from actions that would be in their own interest. This fact would constitute a clear reason to reject the existence of any such law, rather than to reject my argument. It would be a strange and implausible moral law that would require us not to protect ourselves, unless the action in question would violate the rights of others. But since we are by hypothesis speaking of aggressor nations, this exception does not apply.

      The same conclsion applies to your premise “P3,” since this would again require states not to do things in their own self-interest.

  3. Rajiv says:

    Thank you for your reply Mark.

    I think I can see where our disagreement lies.

    I think we both agree that the State would have both external constraints (which I identified by “libertarian international law”) and internal one (which I identified by “libertarian municipal law”).

    The external constraints do not prohibit intervention. We both agree on that.

    I stated (but did not argue) that the internal constraints would prohibit them. I said so on the basis of the standard statement of the functions of a nightwatchman state. Of course that’s hardly an argument and I am sceptical that an argument for it can be provided. I actually believe in a classical liberal state which would have the power to coerce (and tax) its citizens provided they consent or no individual citizen is made worse off (there are other constraints, my argument for that principle is essentially the same as Richard Epstein – see his “One Step Beyond Nozick’s minimal state” in Social Philosophy and Policy).

    With such a constraint intervention other than in self defence cases may very well be justified, though this is an empirical question. I am sceptical that it could but this is an empirical question. That however is what you claimed in your post. So I have to concede 🙂

    PS: I understand that in your book you defend a principle somewhat similar (but more limited) to Richard Epstein’s. I have not read it yet. My library, despite being a copyright library, does not seem to have a copy. Has it been published in the UK? Also is there an ebook version I can’t find one at continuum’s website ( Any plan of a Kindle version? (Sorry for harassing you with questions about it)

    • Mark Friedman says:

      Hi Rajiv:
      OK, your position is now much clearer, and I think I understand your argument. And, I agree with your analysis about the empirical nature of the disagreement. Your skepticism about the pay-off from foreign interventions certainly has a solid basis in the historical record, and I do say in my post that many of the concerns I am sure you have are “reasonable” and not to be lightly disregarded. I guess I worry about the extreme case, something like WWII. Although we were officially “neutral,” we took many steps in support of Britain and Russia before we were actually attacked. I think these steps were inconsistent with a purely defensive strategy.

      Thanks for your interest in my book. I think what you are referring to is my defense of a “libertarian principle of fairness” in which I try to justify on moral grounds the coercion employed by the minimal state in funding national defense and law enforcement. Very briefly, my argument is that these functions are necessary to safeguard our rational agency, and thus stand on a different moral footing than coercion employed to fund other public goods. I have read Epstein’s excellent book Simple Rules for a Complex World, and as you know, his argument is consequentialist.

      My book has been published in the U.K. (since March), but is only available in an expensive hardcover edition. The paperback won’t be our for about a year (sorry). Continuum is in the process of e-publishing their entire philosophy catalog, but are starting with the oldest first, so it is not yet available. Perhaps you could beg your library to order a copy for their collection. If you don’t mind my asking, are you a graduate student in philosophy? In any case, I am glad to make your acquaintance.

      • Rajiv says:

        Hi Mark,

        Sorry for having been a bit unclear. My position was initially a bit unclear in my mind and interacting with you has helped me clarify it.

        One situation in which the empirical conditions might be satisfied is in the case of a defence treaty between various relatively equal states under which if one is attacked then the others would defend the attacked state. It seems that ex ante such an arrangement makes each state (and everyone in each state) better off.

        I am not a graduate student in philosophy. I have a BSc in Maths (though I studied some pol phil) and I am about to start my second year of law at Cambridge. My interests are in normative jurisprudence and pol phil.

        I’m very glad you wrote that book. Ever since ASU I read ASU I was very sympathetic to it and thought it was a bit unfortunate that Nozick had almost no followers (I’m not sure whether I am a Nozickian but I’m certainly very close to him).

        If the book has been published in the UK then Cambridge is entitled to a free copy (unlibertarian privilege of being a deposit library) so it should not be too hard to get them to order one (once I figure out how to request it).

        Nice to make your acquaintance 🙂

        • Mark Friedman says:

          Hi Rajiv,
          Your comment about Nozick not having any followers is very interesting, because that is precisely why I was motivated to write this book. I am not an academic philosopher but a retired attorney who had time on his hands. After delving into the literature, I thought many of Nozick’s actual arguments were not getting due consideration. So, while there is some original thinking in my book, the core of it is simply elucidating and defending Nozick’s reasoning, much of which was either misunderstood or unfairly dismissed without actually coming to terms with his logic. Best of luck with your studies!

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