The challenge of libertarianism outside the United States

Something I’ve been thinking about for just over 9 years—since the invasion of Iraq by US-led forces—was how most of the French libertarians I read about supported the invasion. [I make no claims to have conducted an exhaustive review, although I believe that my sample was reasonably representative.] Some US libertarians did as well, although the majority view, and in my opinion the more correctly libertarian view, among US libertarians was opposition to the invasion. While French media had a different general angle on the invasion, the basic facts and common hunches were available on both sides of the ocean. I wondered why on the whole they supported something most US libertarians opposed? Shouldn’t libertarians the world over usually be in agreement on major issues? There were some arguments in favor of the war, so I don’t expect complete unanimity, but why was the ratio of support to opposition not at least vaguely similar to that in the US?

The answer that has always made the most sense to me has two parts. First, the US is the center of world libertarian thought, in part because of the relatively libertarian founding mythology and in part because the majority of libertarian thought these days comes from the US. Though the US is far from a libertarian paradise, the strength of that mythology keeps that image alive here and abroad. Thus, libertarians outside of the US tend to take pro-US positions, or at least give the US the benefit of the doubt.* Second, libertarians are almost always in opposition to the societies they’re in, as they’re always in the minority.

There is a perfect historical analogy here: communists and the USSR many years ago. The default position of the average communist, at least the average Western communist, was to support the USSR because of its history and public ideological commitment. However, in practice the USSR in many cases acted in ways that most governments of any stripe do, and moreover did plenty of things that honest communists thought were terrible and contrary to communism correctly interpreted. (Contrary to communism or not, any reasonable person can agree that a lot of what the Soviet government did was terrible.) But the general tone of communist discourse discouraged speaking too openly about it.

Whether those outlier communists were right is a subject for another day, though you can believe I have an opinion on it. The point here is that the default attachment to the USSR among the overall communist movement hampered their cause. I believe in a lot of ways that the default pro-US attachment of many libertarians worldwide may be hampering theirs. The War, broadly conceived, and the Drug War are both libertarian nightmares, and in many parts of the world where libertarians could be more influential are rightly viewed with suspicion by non-libertarians. In Mexico, for instance, libertarians walk a fine line between supporting things in the abstract like free enterprise and a stable legal climate while the US government backs an undeclared war on their soil.

Fortunately, there are many places with relatively libertarian policies that non-US libertarians can point to in demonstrating the benefits of low taxation, the rule of law, and protections of justly acquired private property. Let’s highlight those and avoid getting entangled with war, prohibition, and the million and one other anti-libertarian policies you can find in the US. Libertarianism is a global idea.

* I exclude libertarian anarchists from this statement.

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Author: rfmcelroyiii

Student and instructor of economics.

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