Sovereignty, Exit Rights and Libertarianism

One of the arguments against the recent war in Iraq was that to invade another country that had not attacked us first would be a violation of that country's sovereignty. Prior to the war, retiring House Majority Leader Dick Armey summed up the argument this way: 'As long as he [Saddam] behaves himself within his own borders, we should not be addressing any attack or resources against him." The same argument has been made wherever U.S. security interests were not directly at stake, e.g. Kosovo. In fact, the modern state system is built on the premise that nations don't interfere in each other's internal matters.

What should a libertarian think of this argument? After all, libertarians believe in individual sovereignty, not state sovereignty. Since states are, at best, necessary evils and, at worst, outright criminal enterprises, why feel any reluctance to intervene in another state, especially when there is a real chance of increasing the liberty of the people who live there?

In a recent article, Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey makes the case for an interventionist libertarianism. He argues that a world of free commercial republics will be better, morally speaking, and safer for the free societies that already exist. His reasoning is that the more free nations there are, the less conflict there will be, and the more resources we can devote to peaceful commercial integration. As long as tyrannies and failed states exist, he argues, a costly and liberty-threatening domestic security state will be the inevitable result. As Bailey puts it:

'So I believe that libertarians need to devise a foreign policy aimed at building a free world sooner rather than later. The true ultimate aim of such a policy would be to guarantee our liberties at home by removing the justifications for an intrusive national security apparatus.'

Looks like a win-win situation: greater freedom and prosperity all around. For Bailey, these considerations trump the notion of state sovereignty that has all-too often been used to justify repressive regimes.

Before embracing this idea, though, let's think through what would be required to actually carry it out. The agents of the interventionism Bailey supports will not, one suspects, be private firms or voluntary associations. Presumably, the U.S. , acting alone or with another 'coalition of the willing,' will be the primary engine of this freedom revolution.

This has a troubling implication: What we are seeing is not the undermining of state sovereignty in the name of individual freedom, but the overriding of a multiplicity of sovereignties by the unitary sovereignty of the United States .

Think of it this way. The condition of the individual under any government is one of the classic double standard: the state can do things to you that you can't do to it. This is what it means to be Leviathan.

Now, we are seeing the beginnings of a similar double standard on the world stage. If the U.S./UK/EU/UN/whoever takes it upon itself to override national sovereignty, whether in the name of human rights or 'preemption,' it will create a de facto over-arching sovereign order that trumps all smaller and more local authorities.

Why should libertarians worry about this? After all, only individuals count, right? Nations are just collectivist illusions, aren't they?

Well, be that as it may, defending national integrity may have its upside. One of the hallmarks of freedom is what political philosopher Jeffrey Jordan calls an 'exit right.' Jordan defines an exit right as 'an exemption from some legally mandated practice, granted to a person or a group, the purpose of which is to protect the religious or moral integrity of that person or group.'[i] Examples of exit rights include conscientious objectors and home schoolers who have sought to be excused from state mandated activities.

But we could expand the notion of an exit right to mean an exemption from a state mandated system of regulation and practice. The right to exit from a system that one finds tyrannical or that violates one's moral convictions was offered as the justification for the American colonists' separation from Great Britain .

Such a right recognizes that no system of law is a perfect or closed system. There has to be room for experimentation and for dissent, and even for secession, individual or collective.

The problem is that global interventionism, even in the name of libertarianism, will create a closed system, one from which there is no exit. If the terms of local sovereignty are contingent upon the good graces of the globalists in Washington , London , New York , or Brussels , there effectively is no local sovereignty. The right of exit, like the right of revolution, is one of the ultimate safeguards against the abuse of power. The erosion of national sovereignty in favor of supra-national entities threatens the very existence of this right.

This is not to say that libertarians should make an idol of the nation as an end in itself. Ideally, sovereignty should be devolved to the state, local, community, and ultimately individual level. But until that happy day, national sovereignty should be defended from the depredations of those who feel called to run the world, even in the name of noble ideals.

[i] Jeffrey Jordan, 'Is It Wrong to Discriminate on the Basis of Homosexuality?' in Morality and Public Policy, eds. Stephen M. Cahn and Tziporah Kasachkoff ( Upper Saddle River , NJ : Prentice Hall. 2003), pp. 117-129.

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Lee McCracken lives in Philadelphia and works in publishing.  He has also written for