Classical liberals and libertarians have often applied the morality of the individual to the collective. By that I mean they argue, and I think persuasively, that the collective is bound by the same moral principles as the individual. This was articulate nicely by Frederic Bastiat almost 160 years ago in his essay The Law.
But I think there is an error that some libertarians fall into regarding this argument. We see this error in the arguments of some of the pro-war libertarians and pseudo-libertarians. One argument may go something like this:
Joe is sitting at home. Joe hears his very nasty neighbors plotting how they will come into his home and murder him and his family. He looks out the window and sees one of them loading a rifle. Another has pulled out a bayonet. Joe grabs his pistol. He realizes that there are several of them. He can't afford to wait until they actually get into his home. Nor does he have time to call the police. He takes aim through his open widow and shoots all, of the neighbors. They fall dead on their lawn, never having actually reached Joe's property line. Joe had every right to pre-empt his neighbors before they actually got into his home. While he technically fired first, it was in self-defense.
At this point they make the jump. If the individual has the right to fire the first shot in self-defense then a nation has the same right. The war in Iraq is warranted because Iraq was a threat to the safety of Americans and the prime function of government is protecting the life, liberty, and property of the individual.
But how does the state differ from the individual? Shouldn't we consider those matters as well?
The individual who acts and fires the first shot would expect that the police would arrive quickly and disarm him. He would expect that a full investigation is going to be carried out. He, as an individual, made a choice and he will bear all the consequences of that choice. If the evidence shows that the neighbors were going to attack, or that it was reasonable to assume they would, he will be vindicated and it is not likely he will face charges. But, if he was in error, he can expect to go prison. In some states he might expect the death penalty.
Consider how the state does not, and cannot, act like an individual. Consider this point from the article The Peace Principle.
It is well known that in collectives individuals can lose moral restraint. A lynch mob will kill, although as an individual each member would be horrified at the thought. Likewise, state power is a collective power in which the individuals who participate in decision-making lose their normal sense of responsibility for their actions. In fact the law often explicitly denies individual culpability in those who wield power.
Many of the restraints on individual action are entirely missing. The state is not so much like an individual as it is a lynch mob. Each decision-maker and functionary in the state apparatus is merely one small clog in a giant system. No one individual feels fully responsible for the actions of the system. Moral restraints that individuals would normally obey are loosened or abandoned completely. The history of the world proves this to be true.
Libertarians are fully aware of how the state apparatus leads to bad decisions in one policy after another. Why is that? Is it that the bureaucrats themselves are merely evil or inept?
Ludwig von Mises, in his masterful little gem, Bureaucracy, argued that the problems with bureaucracies are systemic problems. The bureaucratic system has incentives that distort information. Functionaries have to respond to the incentives and disincentives that are inherent in the system. This distorts their actions.
There is an entire school of economics, the Public Choice School, which explores the economics of the political system. They look at how incentives operate and how perverse incentives exist within the system which often lead to results which no wanted at the start.
The State is not an individual. It behaves very differently. Not only does it lack the moral responsibility that individuals face in their daily life but it also operates within a system of perverse incentives. State action is too easily manipulated by special interest groups. The very ugly reality of politics is never far from even the most serious issue faced by the State. And what happens when the State acts wrongly? What if the evidence used to justify the pre-emptive attack is bogus, false, misunderstood, misinterpreted, etc? Nothing.
In the end the decision-makers are not held individually liable for the actions of the collective. There is no independent judge who looks at the facts. There is no trial. There are book deals for the major players, pensions for all of them, and often cozy jobs waiting for them when they leave their office.
And consider the potential damage. An individual who makes a mistake and "defends" himself against the wrong person inflicts a tragedy on someone, possible on several people. A powerful state inflicts damage on millions of people and has the ability to inflict harm on billions. Certainly there are few people in the world who have not felt, to some degree, the damage done by the Iraq invasion, if only at the gas pumps. But thousands of Americans lost their lives; hundreds of thousands lost a loved one or a friend. And hundreds of thousands died in Iraq and continue to die there. The entire world is less stable than before and the war inspired homemade terrorism in Western countries.
The individual's errors are quickly caught and stopped. They are arrested and tried for them. State errors become institutionalized and linger on, sometimes for decades or centuries, in one form or another.
To reason from the example of the individual to the state, in this matter, is to ignore that one is comparing apples and oranges. The individual lives under a completely different set of rules and incentives. If we removed all responsibility from the individual, so he could launch preemptory strikes on flimsy evidence and suffer no legal sanctions for doing so, I suggest libertarians would be opposed to such individual actions as well. Individuals, thankfully, operate in a different universe. And that shouldn't be forgotten when the issue of preemptory strikes are considered.
From start to finish the State is entirely different from the individual.
Does that mean that a pre-emptive strike is never justified? I wouldn't say that. But I would say that the evidence for the pre-emptive strike has to be overwhelming. The burden of proof for state action must be far more onerous than for the individual. And that proof has to be made public for the electorate to judge, which is why the Wikileaks issue is so important.
It is not enough that I, put in the same situation, as an individual, might act preemptively. More is required. When I act, I act alone. I have no power to coerce anyone. I have no ability to conscript or tax. If someone wishes to help me they have to do so on their own and they can stop any time they wish. They are held to the same legal responsibilities that I am. I cannot attack innocent people; if I do I am prosecuted. I cannot strip my neighbors of their liberties because I want to feel safer. The State has none of these restraints. In the end the State must be held, not just to the minimum standard of individual action, but instead to a much higher standard.
That an individual would be morally justified in acting in a particular way does not necessarily justify the State doing so.