Sunday, 27 February 2011

How would a libertarian government handle Libya?

On the Eurotunnel back from France I picked up a copy of the FT. It featured this picture of Tony Blair's "hand of friendship", extended to Muammar Gaddafi on 24 March 2004.

I also read Norman Tebbit's latest article, bemoaning the fact that private British companies had to arrange the evacuation of their employees from Libya:
After all, there are plenty of airlines with under-utilised aircraft at this time of year, and if an oil company could find one, why could not HMG?
I found myself wondering how a libertarian government would have handled our relationship with Libya, and the current crisis.

Presumably there would have been no efforts by the government to promote trade with Libya (or any other country). This would have been left to private companies (the primary beneficiaries of such trade).

A libertarian government would not have done "all it could" to facilitate the release of Abdelbaset Al-Megrahi.

If British companies chose to do business in dangerous parts of the world, would a libertarian government deploy our armed forces to rescue expatriates who found themselves in trouble? For that matter, would it rescue British tourists who likewise found themselves in danger? Would it depend on whether the foreign aggressors were openly associated with a foreign government?

Like Palmerston [1], I'm attracted to the idea that
as the Roman, in days of old, held himself free from indignity, when he could say Civis Romanus sum; so also a British subject, in whatever land he may be, shall feel confident that the watchful eye and the strong arm of England, will protect him against injustice and wrong.
In practice, we no longer have this power (if we ever truly did). But is it right, in principle, for our compulsorily-funded military to protect the rights of private British citizens in foreign lands, irrespective of the cost? It seems likely that a strict libertarian government would constrain our military action to defence of the realm.

For the same reasons, a libertarian government would probably not be considering military action in Libya for humanitarian reasons. Again, I have mixed feelings about this, but we don't have the resources to save the world, and nobody would suggest that our past 'humanitarian' interventions have been prioritised according to the severity of the slaughter or oppression. There is always an ulterior motive, and it typically serves specific interests, rather than some hazily-defined 'national interest'.

If the government declines to act, should citizens be free to hire mercenaries? Perhaps with different parts of the British population supporting different sides?

Would a libertarian government allow its citizens to trade with countries that did not respect individual rights? In the extreme, would it allow trade with slave-owners?

Would a libertarian government allow the sale of weapons to tyrants, for aggression against their neighbours, or repression of their own people? What about trade in other goods that facilitates the purchase of weapons from third parties?

Who should decide where to draw the line?

It will be a long time before these questions get tested, but it's interesting to speculate.

[1] 25 June 1850, Hansard CXII [3d Ser.], 380-444

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