By Steve Horowitz
A recent discussion on my Facebook wall has prompted me to share a few thoughts about libertarianism and the Israel-Palestine conflict. Let me start with one point: I am no expert on the history of the area. Many, but not all, people whose knowledge of that history I trust share (I think) much, but not all, of what I’m about to say. But we shall see. In any case, my point is not to resolve the conflict, but to make some observations about how libertarians might approach it. My muse here is the large (at least that’s the way it seems) number of libertarians who think Israel is the clear problem here and think that their libertarianism puts them on the side of the victimized Palestinians against the aggressive Israeli state. I want to push back against that narrative on libertarian grounds by making a distinction between being “anti-state” and “pro-liberty.”
First, what can libertarianism say here? One thing seems to be to be clear: no matter one’s views on who bears what proportion of the blame, libertarianism demands that the US government keep its military and our money out of it. Nothing I say below justifies US military or financial aid to any of the parties to this dispute. If American citizens wish to donate their money, material, or time to any of those parties, go right ahead, or if they choose to boycott one or both sides, also go right ahead, but let’s leave tax dollars out of it as they have certainly been a contributor to the problem.
Beyond that, I’m not sure how much libertarianism, at least of a thin variety, can say. Simple libertarian moral principles do not apply simply to this conflict. This is not a neat story from an ethics textbook. One of the bad habits I see among many libertarians, especially young ones, is the apparent belief that one reading of, say, The Ethics of Liberty, gives you the passe-partout with which you can solve every real world political/moral dilemma in a Facebook comment. Just as a read of Human Action doesn’t give you the answer to every economic issue, this strategy won’t do. The conflict in the Middle East is the residue of centuries of history, culture, language, and religion, and it is a tangled mess of claims and counter-claims of God’s will, property, and colonialism. There is no simple assignment of blame or corrective process. There is blame to go around for all parties. To really understand it, we need a much thicker libertarianism that actually goes out and reads a whole lot of history and tries to carefully untangle the knot.
However, saying that all parties have moral culpability, does not mean that all parties have equal moral culpability. Just because it’s a
mess, doesn’t mean we can’t come to some tentative conclusions about who bears more or less of the blame. And more important: even if libertarians agree that “all states are bad,” that does not mean that all states are equally bad. The US government is bad, and so was Stalinist Russia. But you know what? I’m pretty comfortable thinking that Stalinist Russia was a hell of a lot worse state than the US was then or now. When I see libertarians throwing their total sympathy with the Palestinians because Israel is the “aggressor state,” or arguing, as one did yesterday, that Palestine is close to the anarcho-capitalist utopia because it is “fighting off the aggressor Israeli state,” I can only shake my head sadly at the refusal to engage in serious comparative institutional analysis, not mention some other forms of ignorance.
This brings me to my key point. One problem with too many libertarians, and this is true of a variety of issues, is that they are “anti-state” before they are “pro-liberty.” What I mean by that is that their intellectual-political reflex is to oppose vigorously anything governments do without doing the double-entry moral bookkeeping required to know whether opposing this state action will actually, over time, forward the thing we supposedly care about, which is liberty. (I think this problem is in play in libertarian objections to government recognition of same-sex marriage, but I leave that as a problem for the reader.) In the context of the Middle East, I think it plays out in vigorous condemnations of Israel without ever asking both the comparative questions and exploring possible unintended consequences.
Let me be blunt: there is one and only one state in the region that rests on broadly classical liberal values and that is Israel. It has the rule of law, an independent judiciary, a more or less market economy that protects private property, not to mention a higher degree of ethnic/religious inclusiveness in its political institutions. It is far from perfect, but it is the most classical liberal game in town.
Libertarians who demonize it as if all the states in the area were equally bad, and who think that the solution to the conflict does not include Israel, need to be asked one simple question: if Israel disappears, what will we be left with? The Rothbardians and others can light fireworks and celebrate the demise of a state, but does anyone really think that what emerges from its rubble will be equally or more liberal in the classical liberal sense? Even the most cursory glance at Israel’s neighbours should tell you the kind of repressive, authoritarian, medieval state you are likely to get, and it will be even worse for women.
Ending a state is not the same as creating the institutions of liberty. When all we do is root against states, we will sometimes end up destroying liberty in the process.
If we really care about classical liberal values and liberty, we have to recognize that only one player in this game even talks the talk of those values and of human liberty as we understand it. Wishing for Israel’s demise is to be an enemy of liberty and liberal values. Again, none of this is to ignore or excuse the ways in which Israel does not live up to those values. It is, however, to recognize that just because all states are bad, it does not mean all of them are equally bad. And I do believe there is more than a difference in degree between Israel and its neighbours along these lines. If anyone can show me how those states take liberal values with near the seriousness that Israel does, I will gladly entertain the argument.
Is this a counsel of despair? Is it to wave flags for Israel? I don’t think so. What it does suggest is that simplistic stories of Israel aggression and solutions that eliminate Israel don’t cut it. Rather than wishing for Israel’s demise, I think there’s another tactic and it’s right out of Martin Luther King’s playbook in “Letter From Birmingham Jail.” The reason King’s “Letter” remains a masterwork of rhetoric is because he attempted to hold white southerners accountable to their own values: Biblical, Western, and American. His argument was that if they really believed in those values, then they should be on the side of civil rights.
I think that is the proper strategy for dealing with Israel. We should hold Israel to its self-proclaimed values and call the Israelis on it every time we think they violate them [to be clear: with respect not just to their internal politics but especially their treatment of the Palestinians and others – SH]. I would add that those values are not just those of classical liberalism, but also of Jewish ethics! I think Jewish-Americans can play an especially powerful role here in trying to hold the Israeli leadership accountable for violations of both liberalism and Jewish ethics. In the long run, Jewish-Americans can do far more for peace by doing that than by sending money to the Israelis or completely siding with the Palestinians. Rather than lobbying the US government for more aid to Israel or more intervention in the region, Israel’s defenders should be lobbying the Israeli government to live up to its own stated political and moral values. And, again, boycotts and the like are all in play here if one thinks those values have been violated.
Of course what those values are and how they will apply in any specific situation will be a matter of dispute. And that’s fine. As I said at the start, the lines here are not clear and libertarianism doesn’t provide any easy answers. But we do the cause of liberty no good whatsoever when all we as libertarians do is talk about the evils of the Israeli aggressor against the innocent Palestinians and conclude that the solution is one that does not include Israel.
Yes, we all dislike the state, but sometimes the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. Ending the state is not the same as building the institutions that safeguard liberty. A free society is more than just one without a state; it is one with the rule of law, protection for private property and contract, and equal political rights for all. Only Israel comes close to having that, and the alternative Israel-free Middle East would be a net loss for liberty.
*This article was previously published on Bleeding Heart Libertarians
Steve Horwitz is Charles A. Dana Professor of Economics at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY and an Affiliated Senior Scholar at the Mercatus Center in Arlington, VA. He is the author of two books, Microfoundations and Macroeconomics: An Austrian Perspective (Routledge, 2000) and Monetary Evolution, Free Banking, and Economic Order (Westview, 1992), and he has written extensively on Austrian economics, Hayekian political economy, monetary theory and history, and the economics and social theory of gender and the family.