It is hard to top Richard Epstein when it comes to thinking through the strengths and weaknesses of classical liberalism (his preferred term to “libertarianism”), and his book last year, The Classical Liberal Constitution, is a treatise for the ages. (But if you don’t have time for this long a book, get his very short and very excellent How Progressives Rewrote the Constitution.) Actually, at the risk of offending a lot of brilliant friends, can I just declare Epstein to be the smartest man in American and just get it over with?
Anyway, when Epstein speaks about Rand Paul, it is worth sitting up and taking notice. Here’s an excerpt from Richard’s latest post at Hoover’s “Defining Ideas” essay series on “Rand Paul’s Fatal Pacifism“:
It is instructive to ask why it is that committed libertarians like Paul make such disastrous judgments on these life and death issues. In part it is because libertarians often have the illusion of certainty in political affairs that is congenial to the logical libertarian mind. This mindset has led to their fundamental misapprehension of the justified use of force in international affairs. The applicable principles did not evolve in a vacuum, but are derived from parallel rules surrounding self-defense for ordinary people living in a state of nature. Libertarian theory has always permitted the use and threat of force, including deadly force if need be, to defend one’s self, one’s property, and one’s friends. To be sure, no one is obligated to engage in humanitarian rescue of third persons, so that the decision to intervene is one that is necessarily governed by a mixture of moral and prudential principles. In addition, the justified use of force also raises hard questions of timing. In principle, even deadly force can be used in anticipation of an attack by others, lest any delayed response prove fatal. In all cases, it is necessary to balance the risks of moving too early or too late.
These insights help shape the serious libertarian debates over the use of force. Correctly stated, a theory of limited government means only that state power should be directed exclusively to a few legitimate ends. The wise state husbands its resources to guard against aggression, not to divert its energies by imposing minimum wage laws or agricultural price supports on productive market activities. Quite simply, there are no proper means to pursue these illegitimate ends.
In contrast, self-preservation and the protection of others form the noblest of state ends. The late economist and Nobel Laureate James Buchanan always insisted that a limited government had to be strong in the areas where it had to act. Perhaps his views were influenced in his time as an aide to Admiral Chester Nimitz in the Pacific theater during World War II. In responding to aggression, the hard questions are strategic—are the means chosen and the time of their deployment appropriate to the dangers at hand? Move too quickly, and it provokes needless conflict. Move too slowly, and the situation gets out of hand.
Senator Paul errs too much on the side of caution.
Some other time, by the way, someone—maybe me—will need to go over the evolution of Epstein’s thought over the years. I think you can trace out some changes in this thinking since his famous breakout book Takings in the 1980s.