Tag Archives: wars of liberation

Open borders and liberal interventionism

The Syria crisis was an expose of US war-weariness, weakness of will, and indecision, as Timothy Garton Ash, among many others, recently observed. The contrast between the US in 2003, when a large majority of the American public favored the liberation of Iraq, and the US in 2013, when…

Every one of the countless members of Congress I’ve seen interviewed on cable television news has acknowledged this, be they Republican or Democrat, for or against striking Syria. Only “three or four” of at least a thousand constituents he’s talked to favour military action, reports Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat and Obama supporter. Senator Rand (son of Ron) Paul, a rising star of the Republican party, says his phone calls are “100 to 1” against war.

… is remarkable, particularly considering that the administration’s proposed action in Syria, though vague, appeared to be much more limited, and motivated as an immediate reaction to a chemical-weapons atrocity. Of course, one can’t necessarily read the difference in public opinion as a barometer of where Americans stand on the “isolationism” vs. interventionism spectrum. I supported the Iraq war in 2003, though I foresaw it would lead to a bloody mess, because even anarchy is better than totalitarianism, and I have never repented of it. The closest I came to regretting it was in 2006, but I wasn’t that close, and after the success of the “surge” I became stronger in my retrospective agreement with myself. But I was skeptical of Syria intervention because the administration didn’t seem to have a plan that made strategic sense, let alone a will to follow through with it. Still, for the moment it looks like the eclipse of liberal interventionism:

Last but not least, there are still a few liberal, humanitarian interventionists, of the old 1990s genre, shaped by the experiences of Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. Obama has appointed as his ambassador to the UN an almost totemic representative of that persuasion, Samantha Power, the author of a 2002 book called A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. Well, Syria is a problem from hell, all right. These liberal humanitarian interventionists are not the predominant voice in an administration characterised by cautious, security-first pragmatism, but they’re still there.

Ash suggests that this episode of US “isolationism” (my libertarian-pacifist friends would object that it’s not really isolationism because it’s consistent with support for free trade, hence the scare quotes) may be more lasting than previous episodes:

“Isolationism” is the lazy term often applied to the attitude now found among Democrats and Republicans alike. It is true that the US has a history of periodically withdrawing into its own vast continental indifference, as it did after the first world war. But this time feels different. While the current withdrawalism undoubtedly drinks from some of those traditional wells, it flows through a country not brashly rising on the world stage but fearfully conscious of relative decline. Back in the 1920s, Americans were not worried about a rising China eating their lunch – and then buying the hamburger stall. They are now.

Maybe, though in the relatively “isolationist” 1970s we were worried about relative economic decline, too. Still, it’s plausible. The US share of the global economy has been in decline ever since World War II, but especially in the past decade, and there must be some limit to how far the US can decline in relative economic power while still playing a leadership role in the world. The subtitle of Ash’s article is “The nation is sick and tired of foreign wars, and may never play its role of global anchor again. We may live to regret it.” Ash is British, and not everyone would regard US leadership in the world as benign. But many would.

Now, here’s what must always be remembered in such discussions. Relative US economic decline, and the decline in military pre-eminence and global influence that is linked to it, is a choice. The US could easily restore its economic weight in the world by opening its borders to tens or hundreds of millions of immigrants. They want to come. Many are more or less pre-assimilated, English-speaking and familiar with American culture and liberal democracy. By letting them in, the US could have burgeoning cities, growing GDP, rising tax revenue, and more military recruits. The US could also diversify its array of global contacts still further, and exert remote influence via return migration and letters home. If the intelligence services were at all enterprising they could find useful information among resident expatriates from around the world. And accepting immigrants would, by itself, win goodwill around the world. That would put the US in a better position, in future, to stop tyrants like Assad.

If we’re still worried about the freedom and safety of Syrians, open borders could accomplish a lot of that directly, simply by giving Syrians somewhere to go. For the more adventurously inclined, open borders could contribute to freedom in Syria and elsewhere in another way. Before and during the liberation of Iraq in 2003, many anti-war types dodged being called pro-Saddam by saying that they were all in favor of Saddam being overthrown, but they wanted it to be done by Iraqis. I think I recall at least one libertarian adding that he’d be OK with a private war of libertarian against Saddam– think of idealistic volunteers forming a private army to overthrow the tyrant– but that he had a problem with the US government doing it, because the US government has a mandate only to protect US citizens, and even if liberation does benefit Iraqis, it is not entitled to use Americans’ tax dollars that way. Under open borders, Syrian rebels could come to the US and tour the country asking for donations to rid themselves of the tyrant.

Liberal interventionists are willing to sacrifice their own resources for the lives and liberties of foreigners. Good for them. But they really ought, then, to favor open borders, which will allow foreigners to save their own lives and liberties, whether merely by escaping, or perhaps by seeking support for their causes abroad, not through governments, but through the voluntary generosity of well-wishers of liberty.

Taking our humanitarian impulses seriously

Post by Paul Crider (regular blogger for the site, joined June 2013 as an occasional blogger, promoted to regular blogger July 2013). See:

The clamoring for intervention in the Syrian bloodbath has given Matt Yglesias an excuse to discuss the impressive cost-effectiveness of distributing mosquito-proof bed nets as a form of humanitarian foreign aid. He argues that if the unfortunate plight of foreigners really tugs on our heartstrings, the bed nets are a better deal than bombs by a couple orders of magnitude.

Ivo Daalder, America’s ambassador to NATO at the time, and James Stavridis, NATO’s top military officer at the time, bragged in Foreign Affairs about the extraordinary success of [the Libya] operation:

By any measure, NATO succeeded in Libya. It saved tens of thousands of lives from almost certain destruction. It conducted an air campaign of unparalleled precision, which, although not perfect, greatly minimized collateral damage. It enabled the Libyan opposition to overthrow one of the world’s longest-ruling dictators. And it accomplished all of this without a single allied casualty and at a cost—$1.1 billion for the United States and several billion dollars overall—that was a fraction of that spent on previous interventions in the Balkans, Afghanistan, and Iraq.

That is extremely impressive. What about the Against Malaria Foundation? What they do is provide long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets in order to protect defenseless civilians from a form of biological warfare known as the Plasmodium parasite which spreads via bites from insects of the Anopheles genus. According to The Life You Can Save, handing out these bed nets saves about one life for every $1,865 spent. That’s to say that if the United States was able to spend the $1.1 billion we spent on the Libya operation on long-lasting insecticide treated bed nets we could have saved almost 590,000 lives from almost certain destruction. America’s other allies in Libya spent about $3 billion in total together. That’s something to think about.

A similar argument can be made in favor of facilitating voluntary migration of refugees from the Syrian conflict to destinations of their choice in areas of the world where the risk of death or dismemberment by military violence is less, such as developed countries. (The more general argument has been made on this blog before.) This would be approximately free if the refugees were allowed to work and pay taxes in their newly chosen countries. While it probably wouldn’t be as cost-effective as insecticidal bed nets in terms of lives saved, those lives would be potentially radically improved in terms of expanded human capabilities. Of course bed nets and open borders don’t have to compete. It’s possible that open borders could even magnify the beneficial effects of bed nets in terms of quality-adjusted life-years.

This may seem like a facetious argument, or an impolitic way of roping a serious humanitarian crisis into the service of yet another argument for open borders. But just as my esteemed co-blogger recently argued with the case of sweatshops, if we want to take our humanitarian concerns seriously, liberalizing the immigration policies of the rich world needs to be part of the discussion. Collapsing factories and wars, like natural disasters, act as rare reminders that foreigners are human beings just like us, so these tragic events are the perfect time to press for policies that can do significant good in the world. A couple years ago on my personal blog, I suggested that another thing these events have in common is that their victims have done nothing to deserve their fates aside from running afoul of luck.

I claim that natural disasters and catastrophic misgovernance are morally indistinguishable. If a disaster strikes your country or you happen to be born in North Korea, both events are best described by luck. Unless you’re a Calvinist, you probably agree that bad luck has nothing to do with culpability or just deserts. Then if you accept the premise (perhaps a big if*) that we in rich countries owe some kind of aid to people in nations struck by disaster and that emigration is an optimal kind of aid, then I think it follows that we also owe similar aid to people fleeing grossly incompetent or malevolent governments.

* It’s a big if that a reader will accept the premise, but it’s interesting to note that natural disasters do tend to tug our heartstrings, empirically. You see this in the sudden, worldwide spike in donations to aid organizations and relief efforts when big tsunamis or earthquakes occur.

My asterisked comment is important. We humans seem to be a jumble of contradictions when it comes to recognizing the humanity of others living far away. We are often completely numb to the fates of foreigners when they even partially seem to obstruct our goals. Consider the bored way we skim over collateral damage reports, or the stubborn way we cling to our agricultural subsidies which directly harm the world’s poor. Yet we do appreciate the tragedies of natural disasters and atrocities of war. And it should be noted that even in as militarily adventurous a nation as the USA, wars and bombing campaigns are always presented to the public at least partially as acts of liberation or prevention of even greater violence.

I have argued that the world’s poorest individuals are constantly in the equivalent of a state of disaster and that open borders could help to ease that ongoing disaster. But it seems to be inconsistent with human nature to keep this fixed in the foregrounds of our minds. This is unfortunate but there isn’t much to be done about human nature. Perhaps another approach worth considering is advocating the voluntary immigration of refugees as an effective policy option for those times when we are already psychologically primed for humanitarian action. Every time some bloody dictator catches the world’s attention afresh, there are people who oppose military intervention out of the (quite reasonable) fear that the unpredictable consequences of interference may prove to be worse than non-interference. It’s time for skeptics to start offering the concerned public an alternative policy response: open borders for victims of foreign wars.

Wars of liberation versus open borders

Open borders advocate Bryan Caplan talks about good and bad arguments for pacifism in his blog post How Not to Be a Pacifist. The blog post talks about the Vietnam War and the morality of US intervention in the conflict. Caplan argues that while there were strong humanitarian reasons to oppose the communist regime in Vietnam, these ends would have been better served through a policy of open borders in the US for refugees from Vietnam. He bolsters his case by considering the 300 days of open borders between North and South Vietnam.

The case that emigration is an important weapon in the battle against communist and other tyrannical regimes has been made elsewhere as well, but Caplan’s argument adds a new twist by comparing open borders with wars of liberation. My paraphrasing of his argument would be that if you think that a humanitarian injustice justifies a military intervention (war of liberation) you should also think it justifies open borders for the victims of that injustice. With this in mind, let’s look at the chart of possibilities for a person’s attitudes towards wars of liberation and open borders:

Rows represent attitudes to wars of liberations, columns represent attitude to open borders for victims Support open borders for victims of tyrannical regimes Oppose open borders for victims of tyrannical regimes
Support wars of liberation Uncommon, but consistent. Found among some neoconservatives and internationalists (liberal and libertarian). Example: My co-blogger Nathan Smith (his views on Iraq) Common, but inconsistent. Include significant fraction of mainstream US conservatives
Oppose wars of liberation Uncommon, but consistent. Example: Bryan Caplan (blog post) Uncommon, but consistent. Found among paleoconservatives, some isolationist liberals. Example: Steve Sailer (article)

The top right quadrant — support wars of liberation but oppose immigration — is the most interesting because it seems prima facie inconsistent, yet is widely held by a large number of people who identify themselves as conservative in the United States. Unfortunately, I don’t have any convincing theory or idea to explain this inconsistency.

UPDATE: See also the immigration and wars of liberation page on this site and a related piece by Jacob Hornberger.