Objectivism and the War on Terrorism

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Objectivism and the War on Terrorism

by Ari Armstrong, November 28, 2001

Note: The following two articles are based on posts I recently sent to the objectivism@wetheliving.com list.

"They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety." -- Benjamin Franklin

"Be it never forgotten that the cure for evil and disorder is more liberty." -- Alexander Berkman

Some Objectivists have been neutral about national ID cards, suggesting they cannot be discounted out of hand if they can be proven to increase safety without significantly harming liberty. There are a couple of "common sense" reasons to oppose national IDs, meaning reasons based on information that practically everybody has access to.

Are IDs effective at stopping terrorists (or any other criminal, for that matter)? No. In fact, the terrorists of 9/11 had forged documents. If we assume the ID system will work as billed, we step into utopia, into a "perfect model" theory of government.

Are IDs likely to be used to restrict the rights of peaceable Americans? Yes. I agree that this is not a philosophical question, but certainly it is a question of history. There are some fairly obvious examples of misuse of IDs, yet I cannot name even one example when such an ID system was implemented but not abused.

I oppose most gun restriction laws for similar reasons: they aren't effective at stopping criminals, but they are very effective of stripping peaceable citizens of their rights.

Objectivism is a philosophy; libertarianism is a political philosophy. It is possible to be one without the other. Objectivism has little to say about IDs, but libertarians argue IDs are a mere illusion of security, an illusion for which we shall pay dearly.

I wish commentators with the Objectivist Center were more willing to explore ways the U.S. government could alter policies in order to reduce the threat of terrorism.

Bob Bidinotto, in a generally excellent article in the October *Navigator*, over-simplifies his case when he writes, "[D]ay-after commentaries... desperately tried to trace the 'root causes' of these horrors, laying them at the doorstep of U.S. foreign policy [etc.]... of anything except the murderous *choices* of those who committed the acts." Bidinotto says "paleo-libertarians" engaged in "finger-pointing" and alleged "*we* were responsible, *America* was at fault."

It is true that many people of various persuasions blamed America. However, I did not read a single libertarian who did so (though I'm sure some did). Instead, all the libertarian commentaries I read mentioned our aggressive foreign policy as a contributing factor to the terrorism, even while assigning moral culpability to the terrorists themselves.

Surely we can point to contributing factors without being branded determinists. For instance, in the same article, Bidinotto discusses bad philosophy as a contributing factor. Other Objectivists have listed our appeasement tactics as a contributing factor.

George Reisman said America's energy restrictions have caused a reliance on Middle Eastern oil, a contributing factor to the funding of the terrorists.

Sheldon Richman noted America's drug war also results in funding for terrorist organizations.

Of course, anyone who fails to blame the terrorists for their evil acts is irresponsible and down-right insensitive. But blaming the terrorists does not preclude criticism of U.S. policies.

I'll repeat an analogy I've used elsewhere. If an attractive woman walks down a dark alley in a dangerous city at night, wearing scant clothing, with no protection and no escort, and without looking around her in awareness of her surroundings, and then she gets raped, whom do we blame? We blame the rapist, of course. The criminal is *morally* culpable for the crime. However, would anybody on this list therefore recommend to their daughter or wife that they ought to walk down such an alley under such conditions? I would hope not.

Similarly, the fact that the terrorists are morally culpable for their evil act does not excuse us from our responsibility to take precautionary measures.

Rather than impose unworkable anti-freedom laws on the American public, I think we should change our energy policy, end the drug war, restore the right of self-defense, stop appeasing terrorists, promote good philosophy, and pull back from our "entangling alliances." (My understanding is that we have troops in well over half the nations of the world.)

The cure for evil and disorder in the world is more liberty. I believe that down to my core.

Donway's False Choice

In his article "Choosing Sides," Roger Donway of the Objectivist Center reviews reactions to the September attacks from progressives, liberals, conservatives, and libertarians.

(http://objectivistcenter.org/pubs/rdonway_choosing_sides.asp)

Donway argues that each of these camps is divided into two opposing sides: one that advocates using military force to defeat the terrorists, and one that advocates changing U.S. policy to make terrorist attacks less likely. Of course, the suggested policy changes differ by group: libertarians call for a less interventionist foreign policy, while religious groups call for greater domestic support of religion.

Donway's comparisons are fascinating. However, the tentative conclusions Donway draws don't hold up.

"Personally, I suspect the source of these divisions goes deeper than politics," Donway writes. He concludes:

I put forward as a suggestion-it is nothing more-that the common source of these splits can be traced to people's belief (or non-belief) in man's ability to use coercion rationally, even in the realms of security and justice.... Among liberals, the largest number of opponents [of the war] seems to be found in the academy, where the anti-rationality of postmodernism shapes the culture most fully, leading our modern intelligentsia to assert that ideas are mere camouflage for motives of power. Among conservatives, the most full-bodied opponents are found among the paleo-conservatives, who place their reliance chiefly on faith and tradition and who dislike the rationality of modernity and the market. Among libertarians, opponents apparently come from those who do not trust the government to act rationally, perhaps because they subscribe to Friedrich von Hayek's theories concerning man's "fatal conceit," perhaps because they subscribe to James Buchanan's Public Choice theory regarding the behavior of government officials...

If this analysis has merit, then the events of September 11 may offer us an opportunity to bring about the most significant cultural realignment since the late Enlightenment, when men's belief in the efficacy of reason was shaken by the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, David Hume, and Immanuel Kant... G.W.F. Hegel... opposed the Enlightenment epistemology of individualist empiricism.

If our own time follows a similar course, then we may be on the verge of rediscovering the wisdom Ayn Rand expressed when she protested that she was not primarily an advocate of capitalism, nor even of egoism, but of reason. And we may find ourselves in new alliances, where politics are considered minor differences that may be overlooked for more fundamental similarities based on tenets about the metaphysical nature of man and reality.

Donway makes several errors. First, just because a libertarian calls for a less interventionist foreign policy, doesn't imply the libertarian opposes a war against terrorism. For instance, the Libertarian Party has been a strong opponent of foreign interventionism. Yet the November 2001 issue of the party's newspaper reports, "The Libertarian National Committee has passed a resolution endorsing military action against the terrorists responsible for the September 11 attacks..." I too believe it necessary to use military force even as we review our foreign policies. (As I have argued elsewhere, those who seek to change U.S. policies cannot automatically be accused of "blaming" America; it is both possible to place moral blame entirely on the terrorists for their horrendous acts and also call for reforms in U.S. policies to make terrorist acts less likely. Fortunately, Donway doesn't seem to suggest libertarians who advocate policy changes thereby "blame" America for the attacks.)

Donway looks rather far beyond the facts when he suggests fundamental differences in metaphysical views explain the division he finds. Those who advocate U.S. policy changes, whether or not they support military action, basically fall into two camps: religious circles who see America's alleged moral decay as a contributer to the attacks, and those who see America's aggressive foreign policy as a contributer. (Of course, leftist theories of economic exploitation differ markedly from the libertarian stance of free trade without political entanglements.) Some members from each of these camps support military action.

Clearly, some conservatives and religionists support military action for reasons other than that they trust "man's ability to use coercion rationally." Some religious people support military action because they believe God has specially sanctioned America to do so. Some conservatives support military action for essentially traditionalist reasons.

But Donway's most serious error is his conflation of libertarian theories with those of postmodernists and religionists.

Donway mentions libertarians might be "opponents" of the war because they accept Hayek's notion of the "fatal conceit" or they accept Public Choice arguments about political failures. Again, the first obvious point is that it is possible to accept those libertarian arguments and still support military action, as I do. Many libertarians argue that the concerns Donway lists are reason to limit government action precisely to national defense.

However, even genuine opponents of the war -- those who think war won't be effective or who think the side-effects of a war will be worse than the benefits -- ought not be automatically assigned the label of "anti-rationality."

An obvious parallel is the free market. Libertarians with a scientific, pro-technology, pro-reason point of view argue that markets cannot be controlled by a central government agency. Donway's argument is akin to accusing opponents of socialist planning of being anti-rational. In fact, libertarians who advocate the free market make an excellent case that their point of view is more rational than that of the socialists.

Of course, it's possible to favor a generally free market but a centralized, government-controlled system of national defense. (Some libertarians argue that the former is dependent on the later.)

But even anarcho-capitalists need not merit Donway's characterization. Here's a possible example. Suppose a libertarian believes national defense should be conducted by a voluntarily organized and funded military. Let us say this libertarian fully believes the terrorists are evil and should be attacked with military strength. However, because the current U.S. military is in the hands of corrupt politicians, a military action would be used more to further the interests of the state than to actually go after terrorists. Thus, the libertarian opposes military action, in the present context. Our libertarian could be a total advocate of science, reason, and technology, and still hold this view.

I do not hold the view outlined above. While I remain interested in the possibility of a voluntarily organized and funded military, in today's context I'm all for using U.S. military might to hunt down known terrorists. And I call for a less interventionist foreign policy, as well as a number of other changes in domestic policy I believe would reduce the threat of more terrorist attacks.

In short, Donway's analysis is factually incorrect and his conclusions are unwarranted. I do appreciate the tentative nature of his comments, and he deserves credit for chasing down an interesting theory. Yes, metaphysics and epistemology are of fundamental importance. But in this case, they don't explain the divisions Donway has found.


In a November 27 article, Mike Littwin of the Rocky Mountain News interviewed Sheik Omar Bakri, leader of a Muslim group called al-muhajiroun.

Bakri said, "This is the real conflict between civilizations -- a civilization based on sovereignty and supremacy of almighty God as opposed to a civilization which calls for sovereignty and supremacy of almighty man."

I choose the separation of church and state.

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