Another Terrible Debate Reveals an Opening for Libertarian Ideas

by | Oct 20, 2016

Another Terrible Debate Reveals an Opening for Libertarian Ideas

by | Oct 20, 2016

Bad politics and worse policies made for an exceptionally disappointing presidential debate. But it also showed that the path is open for a libertarian alternative to failed status quo.

To see this, we’ll examine a few different areas where Clinton and Trump once again bickered about varying versions of awful, and then briefly present a libertarian position on it.


Trump argued for building a wall, deporting immigrants (violent criminals first), and accused Clinton of supporting amnesty (allowing undocumented immigrants to stay)–which is apparently supposed to be a sin of the highest order.

Clinton stressed her support for border security (not obviously different than Trump’s wall) and called for comprehensive immigration reform including a pathway to citizenship. In the debate, Clinton had to defend herself after the moderator read out a quote from her (from the leaked speeches revealed by Wikileaks), in which she called for open borders. Clinton couldn’t run away from that idea fast enough. So while she may be marginally better than Trump on deportations and the citizenship aspect, the difference is still a matter of degrees. Both of them certainly agree on the need to deport criminals immediately–though how loosely “criminals” might be defined for this purpose is not immediately clear.

Libertarians offer a marked and welcome contrast to both of these views. To libertarians, “illegal” immigration is another example of a victimless crime. If someone immigrates to the US, with proper documents or without, no American is harmed by that process. Yes, it’s true the immigrant might be one more competitor in the market–bidding up the price of housing and bidding down the price of labor–but the same could be said for an American citizen who moves to your city from out-of-town. It’s true that some immigrants, legal or illegal, may commit crimes–so do American citizens. Is it really worse if your wallet gets stolen by an illegal Canadian immigrant rather than, say, a drifter from San Francisco? You lost your wallet either way. So why should we treat them as entirely separate problems?

Granted, an immediate transition to a purely laissez-faire immigration would be dangerous so long as the US government’s deadly foreign policy endures, and continues to endanger the American people. But if the only job of US immigration agents was to perform a basic security check–rather than to verify the legitimacy of marriages, ensure immigrant students aren’t working off-campus, or ensure immigrants aren’t taking a job that could be filled by an American, all of which immigration agents are tasked with now–it stands to reason they would have plenty of time to evaluate the possible threats with a high degree of proficiency. More focus on the things that matter and fewer restrictions on poor people who want to come to America in search of a better life. You’re not going to hear that position from a Republican or a Democrat, but it’s a much better way forward.

Iraq and ISIS

Publicly, Clinton seems to view ISIS as a kind of spontaneous phenomenon that sprang forth out of thin air. Force is the only message they understand. So the War on Terror will need to continue indefinitely as long as bad people exist. But in Clinton’s War on Terror, as with Obama’s, US troops need to be minimally involved. We can’t have flag-draped coffins coming home to undermine presidential approval ratings after all.

If Clinton’s public position is worthy of ridicule, Trump’s might be even worse. Because while she typically offers no real explanation for the origin of ISIS, Trump offers an origin story that makes little sense. In his telling, he blames Clinton for the rise of ISIS. Not because she supported the invasion of Iraq, but because she withdrew the troops in 2011, leaving a power vacuum.

While the power vacuum story has some merit, the problem is it was clearly not Clinton’s or even Obama’s decision to withdraw troops. This timeline was negotiated under President Bush, and President Obama was unable to extend the US’s stay, in spite of his efforts to do so. Trump’s narrative says, implicitly, that the US should have stayed in Iraq indefinitely after the invasion.

Libertarians can be honest about the origin of ISIS because they bear no responsibility for creating it. Properly understood, ISIS should be blamed equally on the Republicans and Democrats. We could go back further, but the 2003 invasion of Iraq under Bush was the real watershed event that set Iraq on the path to the constant dysfunction it knows today. After the invasion, the US proceeded to stay and fight on the Shia side of an internal sectarian civil war. The Shia-dominated government in Iraq had no reason to share power or make compromises with the Sunni tribes so long as they had guaranteed protection from the US military.

So they did not.

The Sunni continued to suffer persecution and backstabbing at the hands of the Iraqi government and Shia militias, and the resentment built up over a period of years. By the time US troops were largely withdrawn from Iraq, the situation was unsustainable. And because the US presence helped create that state of affairs, there’s little reason to believe that staying a few more years would have produced a remedy.

Combine this unstable situation with the US decision, along with its allies, under the Democrats to back radical Sunni groups in Syria against President Assad, and ISIS was a predictable result. In effect, the US and its allies were pouring more money and weapons into a region that already had deep resentment. ISIS is not a spontaneous phenomenon. It is a direct result of US meddling in the Middle East for years.


Publicly, Clinton supports a no-fly zone in Syria which she claimed would “save lives”. Privately, as we wrote about earlier this week, Clinton acknowledges that imposing a no-fly zone would be very difficult and would involve killing a lot of Syrian civilians. Clinton also implied in the debate that Iranian and Russian support for Assad in Syria are the cause of terrorism there–the implication being that Assad must be overthrown before Syria could be stable.

Trump emerges with a much better position on this subject though his logic is questionable. He is skeptical of arming rebels in Syria because “we don’t know who they are”–which is the correct position. And he makes the point that if Assad were overthrown, the end result is likely to be far worse. But while Trump’s current actionable beliefs seem reasonable, he is a far cry away from principled noninterventionism.

In Trump’s telling, Syria, Iran, and Russia all outwitted Clinton and that’s how we got here. He even goes so far as to imply that President Obama should have intervened against Assad after the false flag chemical weapons attack in 2013 that was blamed on Assad by the US but appears to have been actually carried out by Al Qaeda. Does that mean it would have been okay to overthrow Assad then? Why wouldn’t the same logic apply?

The Syrian quagmire ends up being a perfect example of why the libertarian approach of nonintervention is superior to the usual US approach of case-by-case meddling. In Syria as in Iraq, the US played a significant role in creating the problems it now seeks to address.

Of course, there is little doubt that Assad is a terrible person. But in spite of what Hillary Clinton might have us believe, that is not the only factor that is relevant to the decision of whether a no-fly zone is appropriate. Much more pressing is the fact that Russian troops are commingled with Syrian ones. Thus, imposing a no-fly zone comes with a near certainty that US forces will directly attack and kill Russian soldiers. This, in turn, means that the world’s two largest nuclear powers will be involved in a direct shooting war–a level of tensions not reached even in the worst of the Cold War.

Moreover, even if the escalation of tensions with the Russians could be miraculously avoided during the imposition of the no-fly zone, it would still be a terrible idea. We’ve seen this movie before. In Libya, the intervention that ultimately overthrew Qaddafi started out as just a no-fly zone. The end result was utter chaos that exists to this day, and almost certainly more civilian suffering than would have occurred in the absence of NATO’s “humanitarian” bombing. The same story would be likely to play out in Syria–and that’s the best case scenario.

Given this reality, nonintervention is the only option. It is not an endorsement of the status quo. It is an acknowledgement that there are many ways additional intervention is likely make the situation even worse than it is already.


In short, libertarians aren’t shackled by the failed legacy of the two dominant political parties. That means we don’t have to lie about history to cover up our role in creating present-day problems. We also are not trapped in the increasingly ridiculous orthodoxy of mainstream political opinion in the US. We can reject all of it–and offer an alternative that puts peace and liberty front and center.

And no matter which candidate emerges victorious on November 8, chances are good that the American people will be primed for some radical alternatives by the time the next election comes around.

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About Eric Schuler

Eric Schuler is a contributor to The Libertarian Institute, with a focus on economics and US foreign policy. Follow his work here and on Twitter.

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