Air assaults on Libyan targets haveÂ begun, as the US and its allies enforceÂ a UN resolutionÂ passed on Thursday. UN Resolution 1973,Â 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 inÂ dealing with international conflict. We can begin by looking at Chapter 3, Section 10 of Liberalism: The Classical Tradition,Â where Mises discusses the League ofÂ Nations.
Established after World War I, this was the precursorÂ to the United Nations.Â Hobbled from the start by the U.S. decision not to join, the League of Nations proved largely ineffectual.Â 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 sawÂ aÂ supranationalÂ bodyÂ as the logicalÂ extension ofÂ the cosmopolitan outlookÂ that distinguishesÂ classical liberalism. Viewing the defense of property rightsÂ asÂ theÂ supremeÂ 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 warÂ impairs this globalÂ divison of labour, as well asÂ its capacity to generate prosperity, theÂ classical liberal isÂ impelled to acknowledge the imperative of peace. And just like peace within nations isÂ achieved through the institution of government, Mises arguedÂ that an international coercive agency isÂ required to bring about peace among nations.
To do so, Mises emphasized, this supranational body must notÂ heed the concept of state sovereignty. There is nothing sacred about national borders that permits a state to do anything it likesÂ 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,Â this issueÂ arises whenever aÂ Â national minority within an existing stateÂ aims to redrawÂ political boundariesÂ in order to haveÂ its own government.
Mises didn’t say anything about humanitarian concerns being a justification forÂ 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.
InÂ the late 1920′s, whenÂ heÂ wrote Liberalism,Â Â Mises recognized that the LeagueÂ of Nations was notÂ meetingÂ the international challenges of the day.Â Mises cited a number ofÂ factors, but his overarching argument was that theÂ 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 asÂ tariffÂ barriers and immigration restrictions.
By the time MisesÂ published Human Action in 1949, he was able to speak to the UN, which hadÂ just recently been founded. In Chapter 24 of his magnum opus, Mises continues to hold thatÂ this newÂ international organization, like its predecessor, will only succeed if all nations subscribe to the principles of classical liberalism.Â Â 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 usÂ with respect toÂ Libya? Following Mises, we cannot have muchÂ faith in the UN as an organization that legitimates the use of force. Then, too, there is the veryÂ complex questionÂ whether, as a general rule, such force for humanitarian purposes serves toÂ further the goal of international peace.