Misesian Thoughts on the Libyan Crisis

Air assaults on Libyan targets have begun, as the US and its allies enforce a UN resolution passed on Thursday. UN Resolution 1973, approved by a 10-0 vote in the Security Council with 5 abstentions, imposes a no-fly zone over Libya. Specifically forbidding Libya’s occupation by foreign forces, the UN’s imprimatur is limited to the aim of protecting civilians from the ongoing hostilities between forces loyal to Colonel Muammar Gadaffi’s regime and the rebels.

Such was the polymathic range of Ludwig von Mises’ writings that we are able to cull a Misesian take on this latest development in the Libyan crisis. The key is to recognize that this is now about the UN’s competency in dealing with international conflict. We can begin by looking at Chapter 3, Section 10 of Liberalism: The Classical Tradition, where Mises discusses the League of Nations.

Established after World War I, this was the precursor to the United Nations. Hobbled from the start by the U.S. decision not to join, the League of Nations proved largely ineffectual.  World War II sealed its demise.

In Liberalism, Mises favored the idea of the League of Nations, though not its practical reality. As an idea, Mises saw a supranational body as the logical extension of the cosmopolitan outlook that distinguishes classical liberalism. Viewing the defense of property rights as the supreme object of politics, the classical liberal recognizes that the division of labour that emerges from the exercise of those rights is international in scope.

Since war impairs this global divison of labour, as well as its capacity to generate prosperity, the classical liberal is impelled to acknowledge the imperative of peace. And just like peace within nations is achieved through the institution of government, Mises argued that an international coercive agency is required to bring about peace among nations.

To do so, Mises emphasized, this supranational body must not heed the concept of state sovereignty. There is nothing sacred about national borders that permits a state to do anything it likes within its territory. In saying this, however, Mises had the issue of national self-determination in mind. Well-known to Canada in its experience with Quebec, this issue arises whenever a  national minority within an existing state aims to redraw political boundaries in order to have its own government.

Mises didn’t say anything about humanitarian concerns being a justification for disregarding state soveregnty — although, once that is no longer considered inviolable, foreign intervention in a state’s territory for humanitarian reasons becomes a logical possibility. From the Misesian point of view, the question becomes whether such interventions tend to be conducive to global peace.

In the late 1920′s, when he wrote Liberalism,  Mises recognized that the League of Nations was not meeting the international challenges of the day. Mises cited a number of factors, but his overarching argument was that the nations constituting the League were not animated by classical liberal principles. They persisted in the fallacious notion that their national interests required the fettering of global free markets through such policies as tariff barriers and immigration restrictions.

By the time Mises published Human Action in 1949, he was able to speak to the UN, which had just recently been founded. In Chapter 24 of his magnum opus, Mises continues to hold that this new international organization, like its predecessor, will only succeed if all nations subscribe to the principles of classical liberalism.  But Mises no longer draws the parallel between international and national governments in forging peace. Indeed, he says:

What is needed to make peace durable is neither international treaties and covenants nor international tribunals and organizations like the defunct League of Nations or its successor, the United Nations. If the principle of the market economy is universally accepted, such makeshifts are unnecessary; if it is not accepted, they are futile. (Human Action, Chapter 24)

So where does all this leave us with respect to Libya? Following Mises, we cannot have much faith in the UN as an organization that legitimates the use of force. Then, too, there is the very complex question whether, as a general rule, such force for humanitarian purposes serves to further the goal of international peace.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.