A few weeks ago, Slade Mendenhall published a pair of articles on our nation’s miserable record of dealing with the Islamic Republic of Iran. “Iran: A Legacy of Failure” was the first of the two which outlined our foreign policy since the Islamic Revolution if 1979 to the present date in which the UK and Israel are preparing for the possibility of war while the US remains indecisive. In “A Libertarian Error,” Mendenhall responded to two of the main objections which libertarians1 raised against the first piece. He refuted those objections sufficiently and they need not be reviewed. Instead, I want to respond to another philosophic shortcoming that both liberals and libertarians demonstrate in relation to this issue: false conceptions of a nation’s legitimate privilege to its own sovereignty.
Generally, the form of this argument is as follows: “Americans believe that the United States has a right to sovereignty and self-determination. Iran also believes that it has a right to sovereignty and self-determination. Ergo, in the ‘Golden Rule’ spirit of mutual respect and understanding, we should not interfere with Iran’s own choice of government.”
I displayed it here as a formal fallacy so that all its implications can be fully understood:
A is C.
B is C.
Ergo, A is B.
Because the United States of America and the Islamic Republic of Iran share a similar desire, the defenders of this irrational nonargument attempt to demonstrate that both nations and the situations under which they desire sovereignty are one in the same, and so too are their privileges to that sovereignty by extension. To the defenders of logos, such an assertion is as reasonless as the proposition that because a fire truck and a ladybug are both red, fire trucks and ladybugs are actually identical. Though it only takes one counterargument to invalidate the entire form of a deductive argument, the true origin of a nation’s sovereignty and the reasons for the illogic in this particular assertion deserve some expansion.
First, it should need little repetition here that the ultimate origin of all legitimate rights is metaphysical reality – of existence and of man’s life as the ultimate value in his existence. They are limitations on initiated force by others against oneself which are necessary in order for man to fully pursue his own life as an ultimate value. Because each man’s life is his own ultimate value, the rights are universal and apply to all men, and no man can have the “right” to violate the rights of other men lest such a “right” violate the Law of Identity and the Law of Noncontradiction as they apply to man’s rights. For a fuller discussion on the matter, I will direct you to my essay “A Brief Overview of Just Law.”
Voluntary associations of men possess, by extension, the same rights as their members – no more and no less. Groups of men are merely collections of individual men, and as such, hold the same rights as individual men. This is where the legal idea of corporations (or, as it should be, any other business) as persons originates – they are not organic entities that exist in nature independently of man but are, instead, the product of a legitimate exercise of liberty on the part of their human components. In turn, an injury against the rights of the whole is an injury against the rights of the members.
On the other side of the coin, a violation of rights by the whole against its members or against others is an illegitimate and unethical action. It is an initiation of force that ought to be stopped through the just use of retaliatory force. A religious cult, for example, can practice any manner of sadistic rituals it so desires provided that all members consent or are able to consent, but the moment a cult oversteps its authority and refuses an individual’s request to leave and to practice his own right to sovereignty, it destroys the very basis of its own rights and forfeits them. Thus, another moral group is validated in interceding on behalf of the injured parties and in interfering with the actions of cult. Andrew Bernstein explains this succinctly in his book Capitalist Solutions: A Philosophy of American Dilemmas when he states, “Therefore, when an innocent victim cries for help, or even when he struggles silently, every good Samaritan has the moral right to defend him” (150; emphasis added in rejection of the libertarian argument that one must first ask for help before receiving it in repelling an assailant or toppling an oppressor). In civil societies, groups exist that produce objective standards for the halting and punishment of violations of rights. These groups are called governments.
Governments, or nations if we are to include the citizenry, are a peculiar class of groups in the sense that there can be only one over a given jurisdiction (excepting, of course, a federal system in which there are multiple governments, each allotted different functions at different levels). The reason for this is that law, if it is to be an objective standard for which actions are permissible and impermissible in a society, cannot be in conflict with other bodies of law. One cannot simply choose which body of law to follow (unless they move into the jurisdiction of another government), but this does not mean that the law itself is to be held as the absolute source of right and wrong — morality dictates the law, not vice versa. No law is just which violates the very principles on which law should be founded, meaning the protection of individual rights and justice when those rights are violated.
In the event that an unjust law or any other policy is enacted, a just government provides options for its citizens to reverse such overextensions of governmental authority against them. The three largest paths for remediation of governmental violations in the United States are the impeachment of public officials, civil challenges in the court system, and elections to replace the officials responsible for statist policies. These are not a fail-safe to prevent tyranny – as populations so rife with irrational philosophies could still elect a tyrant of their own – but options for recourse are a necessary factor of a truly free society. It must be remembered that safeguards against tyranny are the products of a free society, not the cause.
So what happens when a government, elected or imposed, violates the rights of its citizens, or for that matter, the rights of the citizens of other nations? Initiated force must be met with retaliatory force, but from whom will the retaliatory force come if the government has removed the possibility of any internal legal remedy? As it is, there are two options for recourse: a revolution on the part of those within the country, or retaliation on the part of free countries.
This is where the aforementioned liberals and libertarians tend to react harshly: “But what gives us the right to tell them how to live? Just because they’re doing something that I think is wrong doesn’t mean I should infringe on their sovereignty as a nation to stop it – it’s their choice to pick the government they want.” Though this is yet another exemplification of the subjectivist trends within libertarian ideology, the focus here is their false assertion that statist nations actually have any right to sovereignty.
Because these nations deprive their citizens of their individual liberty, i.e., individual sovereignty, even if a majority of citizens agrees to this deprivation, the governments over these citizens forfeit their own sovereignty. Individuals can enter into any voluntary contracts which they deem worthwhile in the context of their own lives, but they cannot under any circumstances initiate force against their neighbors in order to compel them to do the same. Perhaps this notion has never been expressed more clearly than in the immortal words of our Declaration of Independence which firmly declares that all men possess “certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — unalienable, meaning incontrovertibly inseparable. At any point in which a government attempts to deny man his unalienable rights, it forgoes the moral mandate for its own existence and it becomes the “Right of the People to alter or abolish it.” Which people? All people — because “all men are created equal,” all men have the right to intercede and stop the initiation of force against themselves or others.
A moral government allots to its citizens the full range of action permitted to them by their unalienable rights while simultaneously defending those same citizens from internal and external violations of said rights. When it does this, it too possesses the full range of action permitted to it by the privileges inherent in any moral government – to raise armies and navies, to technologically advance said armies and navies, to enter into treaties with other nations, to defend its citizens from initiated force (including the right of its citizens to trade freely with any other moral individuals as they so choose), and to take all just measures to halt initiations of force. Governments which violate their own moral mandate for existence forgo these privileges, while free nations retain the authority to intervene on behalf of their own citizens and the subjected classes of statist regimes.
Unfortunately, that is not the end of these fallacies. The objection is then raised that if this philosophy were practiced consistently, we should invade the People’s Republic of China, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and many others as they too have forgone the privilege of sovereignty. The flaw here is that the individuals arguing for this stance make no distinction between what we may do and what we should do. Simply because nations have the ethical liberty to take a particular course of action does not mean that said action is self-interested. The sole purpose of a government is to defend the rights of its own citizens, not to liberate other individuals from foreign oppression, especially not at the cost of the lives and treasure of its own citizens. However, this does not preclude the possibility of situations in which the threshold of rational self-interest has been met for a certain kind of intervention and, as such, that intervention should be taken. The libertarians especially reject this notion, instead taking the course most commonly pursued by the United Nations: pacifism, “even in unequivocal cases of self-defense.”
In fact, self-defense is that which is most often overlooked in cases such as Iran’s. Despite the fact that our sovereignty, the direct product of our nation’s relative freedom and recognition of the rights of its citizens, has been violated, retaliation is still unacceptable according to these libertarians. Any assertion that the subversive deposition of some elected government over two generations ago and that the institution of a statist government which ended over one generation ago somehow gives the Islamic Republic of Iran the privilege to respond in some “retaliatory” manner is completely negated by the current regime in power and the ideology which it practices. There is no rational basis from which one can argue that the Islamic Republic of Iran is merely retaliating to the violation of its own sovereignty when, in fact, it is indisputably the current initiator force and forgoes those privileges, and has done so for over three decades. This, however, goes beyond simply misrepresenting the concept of a nation’s sovereignty and instead leads into libertarian subjectivism.
Sovereignty on an international scale is not as difficult a concept to understand as some make it appear. Though there is no such thing as international law (despite irrational liberal defenses of the UN to the contrary), that does not mean that moral law is nonexistent on the international stage. In fact, it is my hope that one day free nations will reject the United Nations as the immoral body for which it is and instead unite in a manner which will lead to the eventual end of statism around the world. To do so would require free nations to address their own infringements upon liberty so that they may serve as a consistent moral authority on the international stage. Such corrections alone would be incredible achievements, but creating a confederated union of free nations around the world would most certainly be the proverbial “Holy Grail” of capitalism — the death knell for statist regimes everywhere. In fact, the idea of an international confederation of free governments goes back as far as James Madison who, when praising the remedies for disputes between states as presented in the Constitution, exclaimed this wish fervently in The Federalist, No. 43: “Happy would it be if such a remedy for its infirmities could be enjoyed by all free governments; if a project equally effectual could be established for the universal peace of mankind!”
Regardless, at present such a union of free nations does not exist, and it falls on philosophically sound individuals to elucidate the path which free nations ought to take in order to protect the rights of their own citizens; this requires an understanding of sovereignty and the conditions which must be met in order to earn it. As such, I will correct the deductive form of the argument from above:
If and only if C, then D.
A is C.
Ergo, A is D.
B is not C.
Ergo, B is not D.
Translated into words, this logical form goes as follows: “If and only if a nation respects the rights of its citizens, then that nation has the privilege to its own sovereignty. The US is a nation that respects the rights of its citizens. Ergo, the US is a nation that has a privilege to its sovereignty. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a nation that respects rights of its citizens. Ergo, Iran is not a nation that has a privilege to its sovereignty.”
To quote Madison once more, “How difficult it is for error to escape its own condemnation!” (The Federalist, No. 41).
1Like Mendenhall, I recognize the amorphous nature of both the term “liberal” and “libertarian.” I speak here, however, only of a dominant trend within both ideologies.