Why internationalists should be libertarians

There are people who want to reduce the role of government in society (i.e. libertarians). There are other people who want to reduce the role of citizenship in moral calculations (i.e. internationalists). To what extent are these two goals related? If I want more liberty, does that imply that I should be more or less patriotic? If I want people to treat each other equally regardless of nationality, should I favor an interventionist state or a policy of laissez-faire?

The reason I ask these questions is that it seems intuitive to me that the less the government does for its citizens, the less they notice it, and the less they care about who is under the government’s jurisdiction and who isn’t. If the functions of government are limited to naming streets, declaring holidays and doling out medals, then whether or not you’re a member of the government is of no real significance.

If the government is responsible for its citizens’ education, hospital bills, unemployment insurance, and defense, then whether or not you are a member of that government is a big deal. I think this partly explains why there is such strong opposition to the U.S. policy of automatically giving citizenship to children born in the country regardless of the immigration status of their parents. If the government didn’t perform so many functions for its citizens, receiving birthright citizenship would be as meaningful as earning an honorary degree from Moo U.

Returning to the earlier question of whether libertarians should embrace patriotism, I think the answer is no. The reason why was articulated well by George Mason University Law Professor Ilya Somin. Somin noted that nationalism often buttresses arguments for protectionism, discrimination of minority groups and suppression of dissent. More importantly, he argues that such positions are logically required by a nationalist ethic:

Somin: Nor are these abuses simply the result of misinterpretations of nationalism by unscrupulous rulers. To the contrary, if you genuinely believe that we have special obligations to members of your ethnic or national group that sometimes trump universal principles, consistency requires that you be willing to sacrifice the rights of other groups to benefit your own, at least sometimes.

Ok, so there is some reason to think libertarianism should shy away from nationalism. But what about the converse position? Is there any reason to think an internationalist is logically obligated to be a libertarian?

As stated earlier, awarding only the citizens of one nation lucrative benefits hurts the cause of internationalism by making national distinctions more salient in the public’s consciousness and in public policy. There are two ways of remedying this problem for internationalists. One solution is to make the national government irrelevant by turning over its functions to private corporations, or in some cases eliminating its functions altogether (such as drug control). The other solution is to take the functions now done by the national government and give them to a world government.

The biggest problem I see with the world government solution is that all existing international bodies, such as the United Nations, are simply organizations of nations. If decisions at this level are made by the government of each nation casting a vote, as is now the case in the Security Council and the General Assembly, we will not have solved the problem of the citizen – non-citizen distinction that internationalists seek to abolish. The distinction between people of different nationalities will remain and may even grow stronger as decisions that affect the whole world are decided by one group of nations acting against another. This does not figure to promote global goodwill as the internationalists intend.

Corporations, in contrast to governments, have no reason to pay attention to national borders. Corporations will go to where they can make a profit, whether that’s in Denver or Dubai. As consumers, we are no different. We care about what a product can do for us and not about who makes it or where it comes from. In the free market, people consummate mutually beneficial exchanges with strangers on a daily basis without regard to those strangers’ nation of origin. This is the very kind of cooperation internationalists seek to foster, and is much preferable to the conflict and resentment that characterize the political sphere.

P.S. For those who are interested in how a society would function with no government, see David D. Friedman’s book, The Machinery of Freedom.


One Response to “Why internationalists should be libertarians”

  1. Ben Olson Says:

    I think an even better book is Bruce L Benson’s “The Enterprise of Law: Justice Without the State”, a real favorite of mine.

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