Libya, Limited Government, and Imperfect Duties

Glenn Greenwald observes that we’re hearing a familiar false dilemma from advocates of intervention in Libya—the same one that was trotted out so frequently in the run-up to the war in Iraq: Either you support American military action, or you must be indifferent to the suffering of civilians under Qadaffi. Bracket for a moment the obvious empirical questions about the general efficacy of bombs as reliable means of alleviating suffering. What I find striking is the background assumption that whether the United States military has a role to play here is taken to be a simple function of how much we care about other people’s suffering. One obvious answer is that caring or not caring simply doesn’t come into it: That the function of the U.S. military is to protect the vital interests of the United States, and that it is for this specific purpose that billions of tax dollars are extracted from American citizens, and for which young men and women have volunteered to risk their lives. It is not a general-purpose pool of resources to be drawn on for promoting desirable outcomes around the world.

A parallel argument is quite familiar on the domestic front, however. Pick any morally unattractive outcome or situation, and you will find someone ready to argue that if the federal government plausibly could do something to remedy it, then anyone who denies the federal government should act must simply be indifferent to the problem. My sense is that many more people tend to find this sort of argument convincing in domestic affairs precisely because we seem to have effectively abandoned the conception of the federal government as an entity with clear and defined powers and purposes. We debate whether a particular program will be effective or worth the cost, but over the course of the 20th century, the notion that such debates should be limited to enumerated government functions largely fell out of fashion. Most people—or at least most public intellectuals and policy advocates—now seem to think of Congress as a kind of all-purpose problem solving committee. And I can’t help but suspect that the two are linked. Duties and obligations may be specific, but morality is universal: Other things equal, the suffering of a person in Lebanon counts just as much as that of a person in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Once we abandon the idea of a limited government with defined powers—justified by reference to a narrow set of functions specified in advance—and instead see it as imbued with a general mandate to do good, it’s much harder for a moral cosmopolitan to resist making the scope of that mandate global, at least in principle.

An analogy with private ethics seems instructive. Most people would probably agree that the well-off have some obligation—as a matter of personal morality, if not “social justice”—to use some portion of their wealth to help the less fortunate. But with respect to humanity in general, we generally treat this as an “imperfect duty,” to use Kant’s phrase. That is, someone might well say: “You really are so rich that you ought to be giving a larger percentage of your income to charity.” But as we scarcely expect anyone to contribute to every worthy cause, any dispute here would properly be about what is an adequate total amount to give, and what general priorities that giving should follow. Someone who gives far less than they could easily afford might be charged with “not caring enough about the badly-off” in general, but it would be bizarre to charge someone with indifference to the plight of Steve in Albuquerque if their (otherwise adequate, by whatever standard you accept) charitable giving did not include an earmark to help poor Steve with his medical bills. Steve’s friends and relatives might owe him a specific duty of assistance, but for everyone else, the only legitimate question is whether they’re doing as much as ethics requires on the whole. With that in mind, The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait seems to me to be rather missing the point in this blog post:

Why intervene in Libya and not elsewhere is a question that needs to be asked. But it’s not a question that needs to be asked to determine the wisdom of intervening in Libya. Should we also spend more money to prevent malaria? Yes, we should. But I see zero reason to believe that not intervening in Libya would lead to an increase in in American assistance to prevent malaria.

Why not intervene in Burma or Yemen or elsewhere? I would say the answer is prudential: for various political, geographic, and military reasons, the United States has the chance to prevent slaughter in Libya at reasonable cost, and does not have the chance to do so in Burma.

But suppose there’s no answer whatsoever. Does it matter? If it were the 1990s, and the Clinton administration were contemplating an expansion of children’s health insurance, would it be important to determine exactly why we’re covering uninsured children but not uninsured adults? No. The question is whether this particular policy intervention is likely to succeed or fail.

Chait is surely right that our failure to intervene in other cases, or to prevent global suffering by other means, doesn’t exactly prove anything about this case. Perhaps those other cases are different, for either practical or moral reasons, or perhaps we simply fail to act in many cases where we ought to. But he’s surely wrong—and I think tellingly wrong—to reject the implicit demand for a general principle to govern those interventions, whether military or otherwise.

Stipulate, purely for the sake of argument, that Americans do have some collective obligation to prevent suffering elsewhere in the world, and that this obligation is properly met, at least in part, via government. (Perhaps because governments are uniquely able to remedy certain kinds of suffering—such as those requiring the mobilization of a military.) Given that we have finite resources, surely the worst possible way to go about this is by making a series of ad hoc judgments about particular cases—the “how much do I care about Steve?” method. The refusal to consider whatever global duty we might have holistically is precisely what leads to irrational allocations—like spending billions to protect civilians and rebel troops in Libya when many more lives would be saved (again, let’s suppose for the sake of argument) by far less costly malaria eradication efforts. Unless there’s an argument that we have some specific or special obligation to people in Libya—and I certainly haven’t seen it—then any claim about our obligation to intervene in this case is, necessarily, just a specific application of some broader principle about our obligation to alleviate global suffering generally. The suggestion that we ought to evaluate this case in a vacuum, then, starts to seem awfully strange, because if we are ever going to intervene for strictly humanitarian reasons (rather than to protect vital security interests), then the standard for when to do so has to be, in part, a function of the aggregate demands whatever standard we pick would place on our limited resources.

Reading between the lines slightly, here’s what I suspect is behind Chait’s rejection of a more holistic approach. (I hate putting words in people’s mouths, and encourage people to read the full post and judge for themselves, but I don’t think I’m stretching very far here.) Politically, we seem to be rather perversely amenable to pursuing putative humanitarian goals when this entails dropping bombs at massive cost—at least in cases that trigger our collective attention for whatever reason—than we are to more prosaic (and less lethal) interventions, even when these save more lives at lower cost. Chait infers—perhaps correctly—that Americans would reject any general, cost/benefit sensitive principle of intervention that could possibly justify action in this instance. Since Chait thinks Americans aren’t sufficiently willing to risk lives and money on behalf of foreigners as a general matter, but will occasionally go along with an insanely expensive intervention in particular stirring cases, he’d rather not have to generalize explicitly, because the ad hoc approach gets us closer to the level of assistance he thinks is morally required than any politically viable neutral rule.

Those of us who cherish the principle of limited government sometimes conflate it with our specific conception of what the limits should be—we have in mind a particular set of functions that government is uniquely qualified to take on, for one reason or another. But implicit in these last few paragraphs, I think, is a distinct and more abstract argument rooted in a particular ideal of democratic deliberation—one that is in theory equally compatible with any number of different views about the proper role and functions of government. We all know that individuals often make quite different choices on a case-by-case basis than when they formulate general rules of action based on a longer view. We routinely make meta-choices designed to prevent ourselves from making micro-choices not conducive to our interests in the aggregate: We throw out the smokes and the sweets in the cupboard, and even install software that keeps us from surfing the Internet when we’re trying to get work done. Faced with a Twinkie or a hilarious YouTube clip, we may predict that we will often make choices that, when they’re all added up, conflict with our other long-term goals. Marketers, by contrast, often try to induce us to make snap decisions or impulse purchases when, in a cool hour of deliberation, we’d conclude their product isn’t the best use of our money.

Following a diet or a budget is one form of choice; so is the impulse buy or the fast food snack. The meta-choice about which kind of choice to make depends on a judgement about which best comports with one’s ideal of rational autonomy given the facts of human psychology. A marketer who hopes to trigger an impulse buy can legitimately say he’s giving consumers what they choose, but there’s a clear sense in which someone acting in accordance with a general rule, formulated with a view to long-term tradeoffs, often chooses in a more deliberative and fully autonomous fashion than someone who does what seems most appealing in each case unfettered by such rules.

Something analogous, I want to suggest, can be said about democratic deliberation. A polity can establish broad and general principles specifying the conditions under which government may or should act, or it can vote on individual policies and programs on a case-by-case basis (with many gradations in between, of course). Both are clearly in some sense “democratic”; the proper balance between them will depend in part on one’s theory about how democratic deliberation confers legitimacy, just as the weight an individual gives to different types of “choices” will turn on a view about the nature of rational autonomy. Limited government is sometimes painted as constraint on democracy—an obstacle to what a majority might favor at a particular time. But political elites, like marketers, understand how the frame and scope of a choice may radically affect what the very same person or polity would choose—and claims by either that only one counts as true “choice” or “democracy” ought to be viewed with due skepticism.