In an ancient home of civilization, with a long and storied history and culture, it was the end of an era, the end of a great war. The superpowers whose influence had maintained stability withdrew, and sure enough, in the name of nationalism and self-determination, the local people, unused to and unprepared for true self-government, divided along tribal lines led by “big men” and began to brutally slaughter each other. The crimes committed were truly horrible, including ethnic cleansing, mass civilian slaughter, and even mass rape camps. Even after decades, peace and stability have been elusive, as has true democracy. And while glimmers of economic success have lately emerged, the region’s name is still synonymous in the Western public consciousness with backwardness, tribal strife, and the specter of perpetual conflict and Western intervention.

I’m talking about the Balkans. What were you thinking of?

I recently had a long Twitter debate with Bryan Caplan plus some monarchist dude (seriously – see Noah Smith for more) about whether anti-colonialism was evil because after the colonial powers left a lot of very bad things happened in Africa.* Without looking at the broader picture of just how demented a perspective this is, what I want to hone in on is the simple fact that, at least by Caplan’s libertarian, there just is no way to justify the kind of rule that characterized colonialism in principle even without delving into colonialism in practice (which was pretty terrible from start to finish). It also doesn’t engage with the counterfactual of the likely consequences of attempting to maintain colonialism – for the benefit of the natives, surely! – after the colonized had clearly and strongly expressed their preference for self-government. Caplan’s view seems to be that, after a century of some of the most brutal rule known to history, well, now there was penicillin, and self-government might bring conflict, so let’s muddle through the status quo. It just wasn’t possible. And more to the point, why would public choice theory, which Caplan and other libertarians so dearly love for making a maximalist case for every potential tyranny in American federal regulatory agencies, provide any support the benevolence of colonial government? And if colonial government was good for the colonized, wouldn’t that suggest that perhaps Western governance is also good for Westerners, even with all its regulations and taxes and welfare? If you’re a libertarian, and you sound indistinguishable from neoreactionary monarchists, you might want to reconsider!

Let’s put it this way – on the question of immigration, even though Caplan may be sympathetic to the same fact set as neoreactionaries, he still supports freedom of movement whereas monarchists are diametrically opposed. It seems natural that the same dynamic should prevail on the question of ending colonialism, and I don’t know why it doesn’t.

I am well aware of all the failures of analogy between the Balkans c. 1990 and Africa c. 1960, but the ways they are analogous points out just how patronizing and blinkered the pro-colonial viewpoint is. I’ve never heard anyone argue that the instability and conflict that followed the collapse of the USSR therefore mitigates in favor of perpetuation of the Cold War and Soviet dominance of Eastern Europe (though whether that would have prevented or softened the implosion of Yugoslavia is also debatable), but yet the case is made that if only Europe had retained control of Africa things would have been better, for reasons. There isn’t any evidence for this in the historical record, and certainly nobody has a plan for how the same countries that committed vast crimes and sins in Africa, devastated its ecosystem and bled it of resources, would then somehow re-establish the kind of civil society and norms of politics and governance that could have led, at any point, to a peaceful transition to self-rule. What happened after 1960 was almost certainly carved in stone in Berlin in 1885.

*I tried to figure out Storify but it was more complicated than I thought and I am busy.

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