Imperialism and classical liberalism are incompatible

Imperialism is not, as Karl Marx asserted, the pinnacle of capitalism.

August commemorates the beginning of the carnage that followed the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the formation of Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan. Even though, as Christopher Booker argues, the former colonial authority did endeavor to keep its old colony intact, the anniversary prompted much intellectual self-flagellation in the United Kingdom.

Libertarians, in general, are opposed to forcing Western norms on people in other countries, even if we agree that political and economic liberties are desirable and helpful. That has been the case for a long time. Richard Cobden believed that free trade and non-interventionism in foreign affairs should go hand in hand, whereas Adam Smith was a staunch anti-imperialist who thought empires were "a waste of money."

“So far as our commerce is concerned,” Niall Ferguson quotes from Cobden in his 2004 book Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, “it can neither be sustained nor greatly injured abroad by force or violence. The foreign customers who visit our markets are not brought hither through fear of the power and the influence of British diplomatists; they are not captured by our fleets and armies; and as little are they attracted by feelings of love for us… It is solely from the promptings of self interest that the merchants of Europe, as of the rest of the world, send their ships to our ports to be freighted with the products of our labor.”

Why is it necessary to revisit this ostensibly old history? Because libertarians and classical liberals aren't the only ones who oppose imperialism. While disregarding the massive imperial realm that the Soviets constructed for themselves in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, communists and their allies have taken up the anti-imperialism baton and used it to label proponents of free markets as neo-imperialists. Indeed, one of the most insidious misconceptions in economic development literature is that capitalism abuses the many, such as colonies, while benefitting only the few, such as colonial powers.

The myth's origins may be traced back to Karl Marx, who believed that under capitalism, competition would drive down profits, demanding more worker exploitation. The mistaken theorizing of the German economist (real average global income per person rose by factor of 10 over the last 200 hundred years) was then updated by Vladimir Lenin in his immensely influential 1916 pamphlet, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism.

The revision was required since, by Lenin's time, workers in western industrialized nations were unmistakably better off than they were when Marx authored Das Capital (1867). As a result, the Soviet Union's first ruler devised a new theory. Contrary to Marx, Lenin maintained that the living conditions of western workers continued to increase as a result of the wealth that poured to the West from oppressed colonies. Generations of Third-World leaders have been influenced by Lenin's theory, rejecting capitalism in favor of some version of socialism. Most of the developing world is still less economically free than the majority of the Western world.

Colonialism and the developing world's reaction to it have led to much misery, but the West has not escaped its imperialist past unscathed. In his new book, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity and Islam, the British writer Douglas Murray explains how colonial guilt undermines Western confidence and makes Westerners uneasy about the morality (i.e., justice) of the global distribution of wealth.

But, as Deirdre McCloskey shows in Bourgeois Dignity: Why Economics Can't Explain the Modern World, “colonial wealth accumulation” cannot, mathematically speaking, account for the 16-fold increase in the Western standards of living since the early 1800s. Similarly, the Nobel Prize-winning economist Angus Deaton and University of Maryland philosophy Professor Dan Moller, have shown that Western prosperity preceded Western imperial expansion (i.e., Western imperialism was an outcome of rising property in the West, rather than the reason for Western prosperity).

Overall, imperialism is a poor notion, and we should avoid it at all costs. Imperialism, on the other hand, does not and cannot explain the origins or breadth of Western affluence.

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