Pragmatic Libertarianism, Autonomous War Machines and International Relations: Part I

Defining Libertarianism and a Libertarian IR Theory

In determining the contours of a libertarian theory of international relations and how it engages with sovereign states and the liberal system of international governance, the axioms of libertarianism should first be outlined and understood. “The libertarian creed rests upon one central axiom: that no man or group of men may aggress against the person or property of anyone else”[1]. According to this central axiom, the non-aggression principle, is the primary determinant of libertarian ethics and as a result a significant constraint on the extent to which any system of governance can control or dictate the actions of the individual.

Extending this to states and interstate warfare, Rothbard sees states as entities to be constrained, confining their activities to specifically circumscribed activities that they monopolise. This leads the libertarian to a position of “condemnation of any State participation in war”[2] as any other position would contradict the non-aggression principle. However, such a binding constraint presents two problems, 1. a simplistic analysis of what a state is. 2. an overly restrictive definition of libertarian goals that limits real-world engagement.

On the first point, states should not be viewed as monolithic blocks that monopolise areas and thus limit private actions and individual agency. States instead are evolving series of processes and transactions that both construct and deconstruct their governing logics. Such a perspective moves beyond private-public or voluntary-coercive dichotomies that artificially divide interrelated activities and structures, instead relating the emergence and dynamics with their context. This concept of “statification”[3] has parallels with Deudney’s structural-materialist framework, which embeds security issues in their material context, noting how this interacts with “limits imposed by political arrangements”[4]. Such interactions and transactions produce states of varying characters and underlying structures, making the nature of analysis more complex than Rothbard’s schema.

This then feeds into the second problem, that Rothbard’s use of the non-aggression principle creates an overly restrictive set of goals that limits the extent of real-world engagement libertarianism has in politics and international relations. Such restrictive definitions have the potential to become utopic, as the causes of war are multiplicitous, born of the desire to quickly shift wealth, ethno-linguistic differences and/or economic nationalism[5], as well as developing due to the extremities of patriotism or human passions. Going further, such causes are also born of a fundamental requirement for security from violence, with war being a primary method of internal organisation to limit intra-competitive violence (amongst families, tribes or nations) and instead externalise violence (onto the frontier or the periphery) so that the forces of war would not become uncontrollable.

Such conditions become an ur-freedom that precedes and undergirds Rothbard’s non-aggression principle, as the construction of non-aggression requires the development of juridical structures for its control. This then becomes one of the primary forces or interactions that induces warfare and its governance, meaning libertarian engagement with the force of war must go beyond a simplistic desire for peace between nations. The contextual nature of commerce and trade as extensions of and interactions with the force of war become paramount in understanding how a libertarian theory of international relations can develop. Such a theory would widen the axioms of libertarian thought, using Hirschman’s schema of voice, exit and loyalty as a more useful corollary than Rothbard’s non-aggression principle. Such a schema would look to expand the means for exit and voice within international relations, seeing the forces of commerce, exchange and war as mechanisms for increased autonomy of individuals and sub-sovereign groups, and thus maintaining the link between libertarian goals of greater voluntary cooperation with the existing context of international relations and states.

Looking at the IR theories of the classical liberals, there was a strong desire for a limited state centred around a rule of law and negative rights, constraining its capabilities to extend aggressive action and instead allowing for the development of a commercial sovereignty that focused upon the rights of the individual and developed a set of binding relations centred around natural rights and just war theory. However, as Deudney notes, this commercial sovereignty is contingent and variable in relation to other social forces and governance systems. Variable climactic conditions and access to sea routes created the conditions for greater commercial interconnection and limited autarky or significant territorial conquest. The emergence of a European patchwork or “polycentric sovereignty”[6] was dependent upon the geographic constraints of European terrain. The mountainous terrain of Switzerland limited the capabilities for invasions or territorial expansion into their territory. The Pyrenees formed a natural limit to full imperial expansion into Europe from either Spain or France (even under Napoleon Spanish control was difficult due to the expansive terrain and the logistical difficulties of land access).

In relativising commercial sovereignty, libertarian theories of IR are themselves made contingent upon the surrounding forces of geopolitics. Salter & Young’s analysis of polycentric sovereignty showed a reliance on multiple, multi-scaled governing systems interacting, from aristocratic land-tenure systems and religious orders to city-states, trading leagues and guilds. Polycentricity made geopolitical sense in a world of such variety, with no determinate force that could enforce a controllable field of coercive violence. However military technologies changed this context, becoming able to exploit or overcome terrain-based constraints through the growth of large navies in Spain and England which limited independent commercial traffic across seas and the development of weapons of speed (muskets, cannon and bayonets) that superseded the siege engines, forts and city walls, as well as logistical innovations (particularly the development of independent standing armies that were paid through taxation, thus limiting the power of independent militias and autonomous military orders). “The centralized territorial state eventually triumphed over decentralized and non-territorial governance systems because the state was an effective institutional technology for monopolizing coercion. In brief, the changing nature of economic arrangements and military technology rendered local authorities unable to defend their rights-claims against nascent sovereigns, whether kings or parliaments”[7].

In such developments, polycentricity became redundant as a primary mechanism of governance as contiguous nation-states could better combat their military challenges and exploit their vulnerabilities. A world of centralised states necessitated new avenues of action for the development of a commercial sovereignty that emphasised trade, exchange and decentralisation. This context provided the grounds for the innovations of American federalism as a challenge to unaccountable centralised authority. The “Philadelphian interstate order”[8] meets the contextual criteria, developing a sovereign innovation combining both the coercive power of a central state and a decentralised system of decision-making, both vertically as localities and states have their own codified powers and horizontally as the three main branches of American government exist in constant tension, neither of them holding a monopoly on force.

Libertarian IR theories, in conceiving commercial sovereignty that moves centrifugally, are part of adversarial relations with other geostrategic theories of territorial organisation. Classical liberals like Hayek and Mises saw in post-World War I balkanisation the emergence of harder borders and reduced cultural and economic exchange[9]. Weak empires such as the Austro-Hungarians and Ottomans put in place decentralised juridical systems that both regulated the relations of the subject with government but also regulated their relations among each other, creating through things like the millet system an interrelated set of judicial practices that were ensconced within each constituent communities’ ethics and culture. No one single legal system predominated, as each nested within the other, conferring to higher authorities in the cases of disputes through use of neutral arbiters. The loss of these imperial structures allowed for significant increases in nationalist feeling, particularly in the Balkans, as well as greater irredentism amongst Albanians, Germanic-speaking peoples and others. The interconnected juridical structures were giving way to closed linguistic communities who viewed their ethics and culture through an ethnic stance.

Such concerns with territorial organisation are still prevalent today, particularly in the evolutions from the embedded liberalism or Pax Americana of the post-war era through the unilateral order of the 90s and 21st century. However, the issues now do not revolve around balkanisation and dispersal toward linguistic or ethnic communities. Instead, as Deudney notes, the unilateral order of US supremacy is facing enemies of a new kind, from the emerging civilisation states of China and Russia through to the stigmergic, loosely organised structures of terrorist organisations, tribal groups (in Afghanistan and Syria) and criminal networks that have created a new geography of conflict, one premised not on land but on what Bratton calls the cloud, or what I term the geo-informatic plane. The control of information through cyberspace but also within national territories and borderlands is the nomos of conflict. “If the space of planetary-scale computation (the geo-informatic plane) is a new kind of ‘free soil,’ then that ‘soil’ is land, sea, and air all at once, equally tangible and ephemeral”[10]. Central to this is the importance of propaganda, hearts & minds, and controlling the flow of information (whether through the Great Chinese Firewall or the use of fragmented mobile and mesh networks for terrorist and criminal planning).

In this era of conflict, we have moved from Pax Americana and unipolarity, with the failures of nation-building in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, through to Pax Indeterminatum as US geopolitical policy disengages from direct conflicts (relying on special forces and targeted operations) and where no determinate central actor fills the void. This isn’t just multilateralism re-emerging, but multi-scalar geostrategy as the scale of territorial and informatic conflicts ranges from the local (of civil wars and intermittent engagements) to the transnational as terrorist and criminal networks do not recognise established territorial boundaries and emerging actors transcend the Westphalian order of territorially integrated nation-states. The libertarian adversary now then is not the forces of disintegration as they were in the post-imperial 1920s and 30s, but the growing forces of centralised control that attempts to maintain a failing order of international relations (represented by both the US’s expansive military power and by the growing expansion of Chinese and Russian military power).

Within this context, the interstate federal tradition cannot seriously combat the growth and expansion of governmental power. As Vermeule has noted[11], the limits of division of powers and conflictual relations amongst branches has led to situations of gamification of the wider system, through court-packing and developing ideological communities that can supersede the power of balancing and division. Higgs notes[12] this regarding the expansion of powers during the New Deal, as ideologically sympathetic judges and legislators helped influence the process of constitutional authorisation, thus getting round the division of powers between the legislator, judiciary and executive. Similarly, the growth of quasi-autonomous governmental and non-governmental organisations that make up an increasingly complex governmental bureaucracy have now developed their own self-referential legal systems, limiting accountability and undermining the idea of a balance of powers, as these agencies supersede the three branches of government in their actions.

Going wider, the question of engaging with sovereignty or working around it is a false dichotomy. States and sovereignty are not processes of totalisation that result in a monolithic leviathan that is either endowed or constrained. States are processes of transactions and exchanges of legal power and political negotiation, forming methods of statification that form variable and multiply constrained sovereign entities. They are neither totalisations nor purely divisible, instead being evolutionary assemblages of various forces that vie for limited control. Thus, the emergence of administrative law from the balancing of power in the US federal system, as the bottlenecks of federal subsidiarity and the deadlocks caused by conflictual branches of government created conditions for their supersession. These deadlocks that have emerged from federal governance are contextual developments that allow for the smooth functioning of governance in the face of bottlenecks. In terms of libertarian engagement with this, it is about exploiting those very same bottlenecks and entering the relations and transactions of statification, producing ideological communities and power blocs that can influence the direction of transactions. This contrasts with interstate federalism, that ignores the exponential growth of government power within federal structures and its supersession autonomous bureaucratic administration.

Neither polycentric sovereignty nor interstate federalism answer the needs of a libertarian IR theory as neither fully relates to the modern context, that of a growing segmentarity of power as international institutions and sub-sovereign entities grow in strength. Instead, at the intersection of polycentric democracy (as a system of variable exit) and agorism there may exist a contextual solution to the systemic constraints of modern international governance that can push forward a new commercial sovereignty. Salter & Young note this dynamic when discussing the limits of polycentric sovereignty and state capacity. “The production possibilities frontier details the technological possibilities for producing goods”[13]. It is at the frontier, at the edges of a contiguous system of governance where the potentials for innovations that extend heterogeneity and the means for exit exist.


[1] Murray Rothbard, For a New Liberty

[2] Murray Rothbard, The Ethics of Liberty

[3] John Protevi, Edges of the State

[4] Daniel Deudney, Bounding Power

[5] Edwin Van de Haar, Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory

[6] Alexander William Salter & Andrew T. Young, Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations

[7] Alexander William Salter & Andrew T. Young, Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations

[8] Brandon Christensen, Reviving the Libertarian Interstate Federalist Tradition: The American Proposal

[9] Edwin Van de Haar, Classical Liberalism and International Relations Theory

[10] Benjamin Bratton, The Stack

[11] Adrian Vermeule, Optimal Abuse of Power

[12] Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan

[13] Alexander William Salter & Andrew T. Young, Polycentric Sovereignty: The Medieval Constitution, Governance Quality, and the Wealth of Nations

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