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Friday, April 25, 2008

Should the U.S. arm rebels in Zimbabwe?

James Kirchick, the guy at the New Republic who helped break open the story about the racist newsletters published in Ron Paul's name, had a column in the Wall Street Journal yesterday.

The title of the column is simple and to the point: Arm Zimbabwe's Opposition. Kirchick points out that even after (probably) losing in recent elections, Robert Mugabe, the current president of Zimbabwe, seems unwilling to give up power. Not only is Mugabe trying to rig the election results, but he's also persecuting just about everyone who opposes him.

Kirchick cites a report by Human Rights Watch claiming that Mugabe has constructed "torture camps" for those who support the opposition. According to CNN, farmers are being attacked for not voting for Mugabe in the recent elections. In addition, Mugabe's agricultural reforms have plunged the country into famine.

The Chinese are trying to send weapons to Mugabe and have probably armed him before. At least two shipments of guns, RPGs, and other munitions from China -- the first in South Africa last week, and the second in Angola on Friday -- have been intercepted and will not make it into the hands of Mugabe and his band of thugs.

In his column, Kirchick is not proposing that the U.S. or anyone else invade Zimbabwe, but he does advocate arming the opposition. Is this the kind of thing a libertarian should condone? I try to answer the question myself below the fold.

Libertarians typically think most government expenditure is illegitimate because the government's revenue is taken from people by force. Roads, police, courts, and national defense are sometimes considered legitimate government projects, often because it is believed that these are goods the free market is not able to provide on its own. But, outside these exceptions, libertarians typically hold that there is no moral justification for other government projects and programs.

Thus, for these reasons among others, many libertarians will believe it would simply be illegitimate for the government to arm the opposition in Zimbabwe. I'm going to set that argument aside: not because I think it is a bad argument, but because it provides no specific reason to reject arming the opposition. I can think that everything the government does is bad, while maintaining that some of the things it could do would be worse than others.

Would arming the opposition be especially bad, bad in a way all the other illegitimate stuff the government does is not? Or, in contrast, would arming be the opposition be slightly more acceptable than expanding SCHIP, the state children's health insurance program? What are the relevant variables that make some of what the government does better than some of the other things it does -- even if none of those factors add up to a wholesale justification of the government's activities?

Posted by Terrence Watson on April 25, 2008 | Permalink


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It is hard to know what variables make some spending merely bad and others worse from a libertarian POV. On the one hand, if the government is taxing and spending, it would be nice to see some positive return for the money. So if they must tax and spend, spending it on health care or education seems more defensible than spending it on funding the arts. Just as non-libertarians who would support taxing and spending for all of those causes would identify health and education as higher priorities than the arts, a libertarian might see that as less bad spending.

On the other hand, a libertarian might think that if the government must tax and spend, it is best that it spend the money in ways that promotes libertarian thinking, thus making future taxing and spending less likely. On that way of viewing things, spending public money on pro-libertarian arts (like financing a film version of "Atlas Shrugged", maybe?) or pro-libertarian PSAs might be more justifiable than spending it on basic health or education needs.

The first way of looking at it suggests that something like SCHIP might be the lesser evil and the second way suggests that arming freedom fighters might be the lesser evil. But there is one further variable to consider.

A libertarian might reasonably demand that if the government must tax and spend that the beneficiaries of that spending should be the people taxed. So spending it on SCHIP is far better than spending it on nets to prevent malaria in Africa, even though both are health initiatives and arguably the latter is the more crucial to saving lives. Even non-libertarians are often less impressed with spending on foreign aid than domestic programs, so this is not a libertarian-specific impulse. But insofar as it is a consideration, it would suggest that spending money on arms for people in Zimbabwe is to make the beneficiaries people other than those who were taxed, and thus is a greater evil than even funding the arts where a domestic audience will enjoy the results.

So in the end I don't think a libertarian can justify spending money on arms for Zimbabwe. This is in keeping with the kind of foreign policy that Ron Paul argued for in his election campaign, too. The libertarian answer should be that if the cause of liberty in Zimbabwe is one that people are moved to care about, they should be encouraged to freely make donations to some private organization that wants to fund arms for the opposition. That way no one is forced to help if they don't want to.

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-04-25 9:30:42 PM

Hey Fact Check,

Excellent response! There is one additional thing to consider, though: as far as I know, U.S. law would prohibit someone like, say, Bill Gates from spending his own money to arm the rebels. Wouldn't the Logan Act apply?

I'm not sure if that makes a difference. Of course, in the perfect libertarian world, there wouldn't be a Logan Act to begin with. At the same time, it looks like that legislation blocks the best avenue libertarians have to help out genuine freedom fighters around the world.

Hm. I'll have to think some more. Thanks again for your thoughtful response.



Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-04-25 9:38:20 PM


It is not clear (to me, anyway) if US law would prevent funding arms for Zimbabwe's Opposition. Certainly a lot of US citizens gave a lot of money to fund IRA activities in years gone by. Furthermore, the all-knowing wikipedia says that "there is no record of any convictions or even prosecutions under the Logan Act."

More interestingly, it gives the text of the act as this:

"Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both."

Now I suspect that even an opposition party could be considered "government" (just as opposition MPs here are members of the government, broadly construed), but since the cause in Zimbabwe is internal and not one "in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States" it looks like the Act would not be violated.

You are right that in a libertarian's ideal world there would be no law against such private funding. And if the Logan Act does not apply, there might be some other law that does.

But having said all that, who cares about US law? Shouldn't we be discussing if a libertarian would want the Canadian government to intervene in Zimbabwe and whether Canadian law allows it? I think you have been away from home too long.... :)

Posted by: Fact Check | 2008-04-25 10:08:10 PM

I think people are ignoring another fundamental libertarian principle; who are we as a nation to decide which side of a foreign state's internal conflict is the righteous/correct/proper side to support? Unless this decision is going to be unanimous within our nation, this is not something we should be sending coerced funding (read, taxes) to one side or the other for. If supporting one side or the other were desired amongst the citizenry and not unanimous, private contributions should be sent instead if citizens felt that this was such an important issue that they're money should be given away for it.


After rereading the article, I think this is the argument the author set aside. Even without case specific points for the Zimbabwe conflict, I think this generality is more than enough evidence to show that we should not use taxes to coerce our populace into funding a particular side of a foreign civil war.

Posted by: omegis13 | 2008-04-26 3:02:34 AM

I remember when THE WEST abandoned Rhodesia. It has never been stable since.

Posted by: Bob | 2008-04-26 5:21:50 AM

Normally I don't allow others to do my speaking for me, but in this case the point was so elegantly made I simply can't improve on it: "Let Africa sink."

The only way Africans will ever have a stable and peaceful continent is if they build one for themselves. Europe a thousand years ago was little different, and it certainly didn't have the benefit of outside help during the long climb upward. (Arab scholars bequeathed some important knowledge, but had little influence politically.) Nor has Africa always been the tribal-warfare cesspit it is today.

Give Africa time. It'll either get better or it'll get worse, and not overnight, either. America should only intervene if its own interests are at risk, and then only if that risk is not outweighed by the inherent risks of taking sides and arming guerrillas. Firearms have a service life of decades and who knows what wars they'll end up in once this one is over.

Posted by: Shane Matthews | 2008-04-26 9:54:13 AM

It's quite refreshing to read the above comments where all agree that Africa is pretty much beyond any reasonable help. I have been saying that for many years. I think Africa has a lot further down the rabbit hole to go before anything good happens there.

The West has more than it's hands full right now with the effects of global economics nipping at our heels and the continuing Islamic Jihad occupying our military and all other security forces.

When I first heard Ron Paul, I thought he came across as a bit kooky, but I now think that man had most of it right. We really need mind our own business and be extra tough on those who meddle in ours.

World is filled with urgencies at this time and most of them will resolve themselves in time as suggested by other commenters.

The question remains ... Can our opportunistic politicians ignore the pleas of various global interests to "do the right thing" and interfere with things we should rightly ignore?

Regarding Zimbabwe. Mugabe is old and will die soon enough. I have lived long enough to have witnessed the replacing of one big bad monkey with another. This has happened in South and Central America as well as in Africa. So it is better that we not have a hand it what might well be a waste of effort anyway.

The West really need to start applying the tough love to the rest of world by simply leaving it on it's own.

Posted by: John V | 2008-04-26 10:25:07 AM

Mr Watson, you are new to the whole idea of libertarianism, aren't you? Even one casually acquainted with the concept of radical liberalism, or anarcho-capitalism would recognize you as a neoconservative. I see you hold Kirchick in some sort of regard...even for a slimey left wing piece of work he is a lightweight, hardly worth engaging. Your silly, effete antipathy for Ron Paul is also noted. I am not sure I would want one as emotionally overwrought and silly as yourself subscribing to the libertarian viewpoint -- and I am one continually accused of being a proseleytizer!!!

Posted by: Scott Wallace | 2008-04-26 12:52:00 PM


I'm not sure how you inferred my opinion of Kirchick from this post. Did you take exception to this part of the post?

"James Kirchick, the guy at the New Republic who helped break open the story about the racist newsletters published in Ron Paul's name, had a
column in the Wall Street Journal yesterday."

But Kirchick is the guy who helped break the story open. Even Lew Rockwell and his devoted acolytes couldn't disagree with this statement of fact (although they might disagree with my assessment of the newsletters -- not surprising since the rumor is that Rockwell is behind the worst of them.)

Thanks for noting my "effete antipathy" to Dr. Paul, Scott. But, in fact, I'm quite vigorous in my opposition to Ron Paul (peace be upon him.)

For example, in Ohio, I convinced several people (who undoubtedly convinced others) not to vote for Ron Paul. Not that I'm responsible for his crushing defeat in the primaries (his supporters can take responsibility for that), but I contributed to it in my own energetic, eccentric way.


Terrence C. Watson

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-04-26 1:49:24 PM

Terrence: Please don't refer to yourself as a libertarian. We'll have a branding problem.

Posted by: abc | 2008-04-26 3:51:38 PM

Have I stumbled upon another smug libertarian-light anti-Paul site? Yawn. Why is it that "effete" wannabe-urbane neo-conservative types ALWAYS like to pose as libertarians? If you like the suit, BUT it, don't just strut around in it. I really despise guys like this Terrence Watson. He sounds all sincere and earnest but in reality is either clued out or is in fact a malicious poseur. Any body on this planet who could take a James Kirchick seriously is not a serious thinker him or herself. Ron Paul is a decent man who made a courageous effort against the modern brand of fascists who call themselves conservatives. And he did the very best he could against hostile and stupid MSM and websites like this one. Terrence Watson is a douch bag. Sorry, but one incivility begets another. Yankee go home.

Posted by: Mackleberg | 2008-04-26 4:35:04 PM


There are Ron Paul supporters who contribute to the Shotgun. I'm just not one of them and make no effort to hide my opinion (although I didn't think it really came through in my initial post.)

"I really despise guys like this Terrence Watson. He sounds all sincere and earnest but in reality is either clued out or is in fact a malicious poseur."

Either "clued out" OR a "malicious poseur"! Man, that's one sharp dichotomy you've constructed there. Are you sure there isn't room for a third, more reasonable position? I'm just asking -- you know, sincerely and earnestly.


Mackleberg, seriously, are you just upset that you wasted so much of your time and money supporting Ron Paul? Did you know that he is not really the messiah of libertarianism? It's true! You should check out the Cato Institute or the Institute for Humane Studies, two great libertarian organizations I have been involved with at one time or another.

I do not know if my longstanding involvement with libertarian organizations and thinkers counts as "buying the suit" or just "strutting around in it." Why don't you tell me, Mackleberg? What else must I do to buy the suit of libertarianism? I hope that wearing it will make me look less like an effete libertine, because earlier today someone claimed that I must be one because I don't support Ron Paul.

Was it a friend of yours? Do you guys wear matching libertarian suits to Ron Paul rallies and bowling alleys so that you look appropriately manly and freedom-loving? I hope you do not strut arm in arm -- people might accuse you of being effete or something.

Kind and gracious regards,

Terrence C. Watson

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-04-26 5:56:21 PM

Play nice, kids!!

Ron Paul brought the cause of freedom to the forefront. He isn't perfect but he did freedom a favor and took on an uphill battle. For that, I respect him and hope his ideas get traction.

Terrence doesn't seem to pretend to a libertarian. He's just a Neo-Con who never learned the value of freedom, despite having had ample opportunity to do so. I don't think he's a phoney, I just think he doesn't catch on all that fast.

Posted by: abc | 2008-04-26 6:26:45 PM

Abc, his words to the contrary, the only kind of freedom Ron Paul ever stood up for is the freedom of the mob to tell individual citizens how to run their lives.

I believe in individual rights. I believe government -- any government -- must respect those rights. Frankly, you're either ignorant or an idiot if you think Ron Paul cares for individual rights to any great extent. You're probably a bit of both.

Ron Paul opposes the 14th Amendment! Do you even know what that means? I'm not going to educate you in the role the 14th Amendment plays in limiting government power. You can check out my blog. But I suppose the 14th Amendment, and the way the courts have used it to strike down oppressive laws -- as they did in the case of Lawrence v. Texas.

I support the individual against the mob. That's enough to make me a pretty good libertarian.

But why am I bothering to tell you this? Ron Paul supporters tend to fall into two categories: stupid people who know little to nothing about the Constitution, or evil racists and bigots who do, and like Ron Paul because he would weaken the constitutional protections that prevent them from pursuing their wicked projects.

I have a feeling you fall into the first category and Mackleberg and Lew Rockwell fall more into the second.

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-04-26 6:36:26 PM


"I support the 14th Amendment, etc" instead of "I suppose, etc"

Posted by: Terrence Watson | 2008-04-26 6:39:15 PM

Terrence: Why would I visit your neo-con blog? You haven't said anything on this site worth reading. You're like some kind of wannabe priest that doesn't understand catholicism, yet you ponificate as some kind of faux intellectual.

You can't even get your head around RP's simple message. The last I checked, Ron Paul spoke against the mob and FOR the individual. Do you know, oh great thinker, what the 2nd amendment is? Do you understand that RP spoke for it and many other unpopular (anti-war) positions? If he spoke for the mob, he may have won the GOP race, but he stood for the principles that he always has. He has a long and distinguished track record. You should google him sometime. But, puhleeeease, don't call yourself a libertarian.

Posted by: abc | 2008-04-26 6:57:15 PM

Terrence Watson,

You comment that Lew Rockwell and a poster on this thread-board is a racists and bigots. This is nonsense.

You choose personal attackings instead of reasoning arguments to persuade. Your commentaries reflecting a socialist and neoconservative points of view that are discredited more and more.

Also you call peoples "stupid" as a debating technique. This is what is "stupid". Why do you represents yourself as a libertarian to the world and on this website? Is it to chase away people who would like to learn more of liberties?

I feel sorrow for such "libertarians". Neoconservatives are ruining debates on the important issues.

Posted by: Ivar S | 2008-04-27 8:52:53 PM

Sure. Though I would suggest that blowing stuff up in the Sudan would be a higher priority, since the Chinese have extensive oil interests and thousands of troops there.

Indeed, looking at a map, the Sudan seems like a good place to start bloodying up the Chinese a little bit.

Posted by: Adam Yoshida | 2008-04-27 10:57:47 PM

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