Knap Responding To The Freedomist Challenge

[First published June 6, 2005] [Thomas L. Knapp has met my freedomist challenge (link here) and posted it on the Free-Market News Network (link here). I am including it in full below, and will respond as soon as time permits. He then can rebut me as he will. Note that this is not a debate with a winner and loser, but an engagement in an effort to clarify the issues, bare the differences, and persuade. After all, we all are in favor of freedom; the rest is epiphenomena.]


June 6, 2005
Power kills; absolute power kills absolutely.

Thus does R.J. Rummel’s website on democide (the killing of people by governments) introduce itself — and if the notion now seems self-evident or strikes one as common knowledge, that’s largely due to Rummel’s work in documenting the phenomenon in two dozen books and several hundred articles and esssays over the last 30 years.

One does not lightly pit one’s arguments against those of a man with three decades of research invested in a subject — a man who has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his work and who has, without a doubt, contributed greatly to our understanding of the results of tyranny. However, earlier this year, Professor Rummel issued a challenge.

“I will turn over a page on this blog to any libertarian who wishes to make a reasoned argument for isolationism, or from a libertarian perspective, an argument against our war in Iraq. I will respond in a page, and then the libertarian will have a page to rebut me.”

Now, any number of articles have been written in support of non-interventionist foreign policies (which is what Professor Rummel is presumably referring to when he uses the word “isolationism” — he acknowledges in the post from which the above challenge is excerpted that libertarians favor “free trade and free commerce,” which are antithetical to a general “isolationist” position). And, of course, many libertarians have authored arguments against the war on Iraq. In rising to Professor Rummel’s challenge, it seemed to me that rather than re-inventing those wheels just for a shot at a spot on his blog, I should frame my arguments with reference to his specific, contrary perspective, which he dubs “freedomism.”

This is a short article, at least when stacked up next to 24 books and numerous essays. I don’t believe that it is possible to debunk the body of Professor Rummel’s work in one article — nor do I believe that most of his work requires debunking. It is, however, quite likely that even within the narrow slice of subject matter to which I address myself, I will leave many of Professor Rummel’s previous arguments unanswered. To the extent that those arguments may require an answer (or that they may be unanswerable), I hope that Professor Rummel, or others familiar with his work, will help me to either perfect my critique or to understand where my own error lies if Professor Rummel turns out to be, after all is said and done, correct in his “freedomist” arguments.

Let us proceed, then. Except where otherwise specified, all quotes come from “Freedomist vs. Libertarian — A Debate challenge,” the blog post to which I am responding, and which is archived here.

Professor Rummel: “[I]n the early 1970s I gave up the socialism for democratic libertarianism under the hammer blows of von Mises, Hayek, and Milton Friedman. And libertarian is what I called myself until recently. I remain libertarian in domestic policy, which is to say the more domestic freedom from regulation, government control, taxation, and oppressive laws, the better up to a point. I am not an anarchist, but believe social justice means minimal government consistent with protecting and guaranteeing all have equal civil and political rights.”

Context is, of course, always paramount, and what “kind” of libertarian Professor Rummel formerly considered himself to be is relevant, since it goes to what he once accepted and what he has now chosen to reject. From the quote above, we glean some information as to what Professor Rummel is (a minarchist favoring democracy) and what he is not (many things, including but not limited to an Objectivist, an anarchist, etc.). Below we’ll learn that he is also not of a Rothbardian or other non-interventionist school (something that we might have already gathered, but this confirms it):

“However, on foreign policy the libertarian, with some exceptions, is an isolationist, fundamentally opposed to foreign involvements and interventions. Let international relations also be free, the libertarians say, which means free trade and commerce, and freedom for other countries to do whatever they want with their people. Not our business.”

[It occurs to me that, at this point, I may appear to be putting words in Professor Rummel's mouth: He does not, as quoted, state that he disagrees with a non-interventionist form of libertarianism; he merely implies it. However, I'll ask that the reader bear with me and operate on the assumption that, no too much farther on, Professor Rummel will be conclusively shown as rejecting non-interventionism]
Professor Rummel seems to suggest that there has been some long-existing divide between his own previous conception of libertarianism and the conceptions held by all other libertarians — a divide which was only revealed by emergence of “the war question.” I find this suggestion untenable. Professor is not the only person who calls — or, rather, called — himself a libertarian but who, after the invasion of Iraq, found himself on one side of the question while others who also claimed the title found themselves on another side. This is not, in other words, a case of “one man against the tide,” if foreign policy is the sum and substance of the divide.

While the anecdotal evidence suggests that supporters of the war on Iraq are a minority among those who describe themselves as libertarians, Professor Rummel is hardly an isolated case. Many of those claiming the title “libertarian” share his views on the Iraq war. It follows, then, that there must be some other element — either instead of, or in addition to, “the war question” — driving his decision to dissociate himself from the “libertarian” designation.

What is that element? I believe that it is Professor Rummel’s advocacy of democracy as the standard against which states are to be judged. In his online “book as blog,” Freedom’s Principles, Professor Rummel states:

“Even libertarians, although they are the most ardent proponents of the maximum freedom, and believe that government is evil, generally accept that it is necessary or inevitable. But not just any government will do. It must be one that not only commands obedience to its laws, but in its very organization embodies what being free means. This is democracy.” [emphasis Professor Rummel's]

“The war question” opened up an issue which is separable from — and relevant aside from — intervention per se. It brought to the fore the question of whether differences between states are differences of degree or of kind, and the subsidiary question of whether or not, if the former, democracy differs in degree enough from other forms of state for it to merit special status and possibly even possess a mandate for its own spread versus other forms of state. Professor Rummel makes no bones about his belief in democracy as a superior form of state, and is clearly on record as regarding democracy, which he has been careful to define[1], as possessed of such a mandate:

“[Freedomism] is a belief not only in freedom at home, but unlike the libertarian, democratic freedom abroad. This is not only for the sake of advancing freedom for others, but also to protect our own freedom.” [emphasis mine]

Professor Rummel’s characterization of libertarians as eschewing advocacy or action for freedom outside the borders of the countries in which those libertarians live is blatantly and irrefutably false, as the existence and work of (to name but three of many organizations) the International Society for Individual Liberty and Libertarian International Organization establishes. In the wake of the Soviet Union’s collapse, libertarians and libertarian organizations — in person and with monetary and moral support — flocked to Russia and eastern Europe to encourage the flowering of freedom. A political movement whose members were unconcerned with freedom outside the borders of the states from which they hailed would not hold international conferences, fund new think tanks in countries emerging from dictatorship, raise funds to publish — often without any prospect of profit — libertarian texts in the native languages of countries other than the authors’[2], and so forth.

Given the falsity of the characterization, it is clear that there must be some missing facet of Professor Rummel’s objection to libertarianism. He does not object to libertarianism because libertarians don’t believe in “freedom abroad.” He objects to libertarianism, per the above, because libertarians (as he sees them) don’t believe in “democratic freedom abroad.” And, more specifically, he obects to libertarianism because libertarians (or at least those libertarians whom he paints as representative of libertarians) don’t believe that democracies are justified in expropriating the wealth of their citizens, sacrificing the lives of their soldiers, and engaging in the killing of innocents in order to bring about said “democratic freedom” in any particular place where some less desirable form of state may hold sway.

When Professor Rummel says “the more domestic freedom from regulation, government control, taxation, and oppressive laws, the better up to a point,” the point he’s referring to, without explicitly defining it (for obvious reasons) is the point at which the state ceases to be empowered to lie to, cheat, steal from and kill its own citizens and others abroad in order to bump off other states and reproduce itself in their place.

At one time, Professor Rummel held that “[t]o eliminate war, to restrain violence, to nurture universal peace and justice, is to foster freedom (liberal democracy).”[3] It is apparent that, at some point since, he has drastically altered that conclusion: For he now holds that war and violence, even at the cost of peace (an obvious cost in any war) and justice (arguably a cost at least in the particular war at issue), are acceptable methods so long as they have the effect of spreading democracy.

In fairness to Professor Rummel, he advances his new argument along two axes: The imperative of spreading democracy, and the notion that not to do so endangers existing democracies:

“[I]n an age of readily transportable biological weapons, such as anthrax, and nuclear weapons, no longer can a country like the U.S. sit back and ignore what goes on elsewhere in the production and deliverability of such weapons. In the hands of those who hate the democracies and their libertarian values, democracies have too much vulnerability to attack. Now, involvement and intervention in the rapacious affairs of thug regimes is of necessity a protection of democracies, not to mention advancing human rights and the freedom libertarians praise.”

Given the professor’s dual lines of attack, I must perforce launch dual counterattacks to match; I choose to deal with his weakest argument first and quickly, and then to move to the more involved case of whether or not democracy as such is worthy of defense.

The existence of “readily transportable biological weapons, such as anthrax, and nuclear weapons” is a fact of life. Professor Rummel ignores the fact that the largest stockpiles of such weapons are held by: Democracies, particularly the United States, which is the only nation on the face of the earth to have ever used atomic weapons on another nation. While I agree with Professor Rummel that democracies as he has defined them are, in general, less prone to launch wars (especially when unprovoked) than dictatorships, Professor Rummel does us the service of hoisting himself with his own petard by advocating that they do exactly that. And, once a war has been launched, the imperative of victory makes it much more likely that these particularly nasty weapons will be used, whether the hands holding them are “democratic” hands or not. War as such clearly does not enhance the security of any nation, democratic or otherwise — which is why it is an activity that should be reserved for circumstances of dire necessity rather than of perceived benefit to either to a democracy or to those whom a democracy’s leaders propose to liberate.

A precondition of freedom is life. Do the innocents who are inevitably killed in any war care that it was a “democratic” daisy-cutter rather than a “dictatorial” sarin shell which killed them? “The dead know only one thing: It is better to be alive.”[4] War is antithetical to life and to freedom — to the lives of those expected to fight it and to the lives of the innocents caught in the crossfire, and to the freedom of those who are expected to bear the costs. It is a pursuit which those who claim to value freedom can only properly advocate as a response to exigency. One does not sacrifice what one values as a matter of policy, but only when there is no other choice.

Of course, Professor Rummel does not advocate war solely for the purpose of pre-empting attacks on democracy. He advocates it as a method for spreading democracy. And that begs the question of whether democracy is worth spreading, especially at the cost which he holds must be paid for the privilege of doing so.

Once again, I agree with Professor Rummel that democracies have a measurably better record than dictatorships with respect to democide. I disagree, however, with the conclusion that he implicitly draws from that fact — that “liberal democracy” is sufficiently different in kind from other forms of state that its practice may be considered a criterion of, or a standard for measuring, freedom.

With the possible exception of some forms of direct democracies — and even then, I’d limit it to those forms which require unanimous consent, consensus or overwhelming super-majorities in order to reach binding decisions — the primary imperative of states is the preservation and continuation of their own existence. This is true of representative democracies and brutal dictatorships alike: Their subjects are considered means, not ends. While America was founded on a contrary notion — “That to secure these rights [life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness], Governments are instituted among Men” — it didn’t take long for our own state to assert the primacy of its existence, with its purported purpose relegated to secondary status, when it was to be acknowledged at all.

What makes democracies unique is not that they regard their subjects as ends in themselves, but that they regard them as means which are more profitably exploited by leaving them relatively free: Extracting only a portion of their (renewable) productive value instead of demanding total sacrifice of all value (and, ultimately, of all life). Except, of course, when in Professor Rummel’s estimation, it’s time for the operation to liquidate some of its stock and launch a hostile takeover.

Democracies and dictatorships both treat their subjects as cattle. Over at Saddam’s Rockin’ I, they run beef (castrate’em and kill’em); across the pond at George’s Lazy W, it’s “round’em up morning and evening, milk’em dry and put’em out to pasture.” While, given such a choice, I’d certainly have a preference — and, moreover, believe that most people would share that preference — I think I’ll direct my energies toward living as a human being, thank you very much. To state that one is preferable to the other is not the same as stating that either is a substitute for true freedom; nor does it constitute a case for expanding one at the expense of the very virtues which allegedly make it preferable.

Res Publica Delenda Est!

1. In Libertarian to the Barricade, Professor Rummel cites the Polity IV Project’s definition of democracy as the standard used in his own research.

2. Into evidence I offer, as one of the foremost examples, Ken Schoolland’s wonderful Adventures of Jonathan Gullibel. This fine introduction to free market ideas has been published in 30 languages, from Albanian to Urdu — and if you care to have a look, you’ll find that many of those editions are free downloadable ebooks, on which neither author nor publisher can reasonably expect to make so much as a dime. Why are these editions offered, if profit is not a factor? Could the motive, perhaps, be a desire to see an international spread of the ideas which engender freedom?

3. Offered as the conclusion drawn from Professor Rummel’s five-volume study Understanding Conflict and War in his online biography .4. From The Short-Timers, by Gustav Hasford.

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One Response to Knap Responding To The Freedomist Challenge

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