Libertarians Shouldn’t Accept the Case for Colonialism

“The Case for Colonialism,” written by Professor Bruce Gilley, became the center of controversy as soon as it was published in the Third World Quarterly (TWQ), a reputable journal of international studies. Gilley notes that numerous Third World countries are poorly governed because they lack resources and knowledge. Since a majority of them were colonized, he advocates reinstating colonial governance, arguing that recolonization will allow rich western countries to be more fully engaged and committed to improving governance without the burden of anticolonial rhetoric and policies. From his perspective, anti-colonialism has done more harm than good by 1) labeling colonialism as primarily harmful, 2) converting it into an illegitimate form of rule, and 3) deeming it incompatible with today’s contemporary society. Instead, both western and non-western countries should embrace the “colonial toolkit,” which consists of colonial-era political and economic dominance of colonized societies as the primary means of ending instability in the international order. 

Scholars from across disciplines, not just postcolonial studies, were swift to respond (including myself), criticizing the article for being historically and empirically inaccurate while 15 members of the editorial board resigned. Controversially, the editor of the journal published the article after it was rejected in the review process. Some observers accused him of angling to get attention, labeling the article “clickbait with footnotes.” Gilley’s call to “build new Western colonies from scratch” is especially problematic for libertarians, who value freedom, individual liberty, and free markets, and have long disparaged nation-building in U.S. foreign policy. Libertarian principles counter Gilley’s recolonization argument in three ways. First, libertarianism highlights the fundamentally exploitative nature of colonial rule, which is a kind of foreign occupation specifically designed to strip away rights and liberties of the colonized. Second, libertarianism showcases the weaknesses in colonialism’s alleged positive economic impact on the markets, and how in reality colonized markets are not free. And third, libertarianism staunchly opposes the repressive nature of colonialism and the avenues it provides for gross violation of human rights.

In this essay, I explain why libertarians should be concerned by Gilley’s argument, and then go on to explain the positive—and unintended—consequences of his article for libertarian thought.


Gilley’s Argument for Recolonization

Gilley’s argument has three points, each of which contradicts libertarian principles.

The first point of his recolonization argument is to call for replicating colonialism by reinstating the “colonial agenda.” The colonial agenda differs from the current “good governance” agenda, which emphasizes the ability of postcolonial states to self-govern. Good governance focuses on streamlining administrative development and economic liberalization, and helping postcolonial states reconcile with their colonial past by promoting political pluralism. Gilley’s colonial agenda goes further. In addition to providing political and administrative support, the colonial agenda “borrows” ideas and notions of “governmentality” from the state’s colonial past to close the gap caused by lack of capacity and knowledge that so many postcolonial states continue to suffer from. Unlike the good governance agenda, the colonial agenda’s mission is to improve postcolonial societies and embrace “a civilizing mission” that “resurrects the universalism of the liberal peace and with it a shared standard of what a well-governed country looks like.” 

The second point focuses on the role of western states as the implementers of this modernized colonial agenda. According to Gilley, the wealth of western countries enables them to help poor postcolonial states. For example, rich western states will be more effective at improving the governance of continuously poor postcolonial states that so desperately need foreign assistance in both their private and public sectors. More importantly, western injections in key sectors like business, civil society, and the public sector will ensure that these postcolonial states do not revert back to old, “indigenous” practices that have failed at the basic task of governance. Gilley uses the example of Indonesian customs officers that were replaced with a Swiss firm to illustrate the usefulness of a western state in improving an aspect of the public sector. He also uses the World Bank and U.S. “co-signatory” arrangements in Liberia and Chad in the 1990s as an example of how foreign actors can build and improve government bureaucracy.

The third and final point of the recolonization argument is to build new colonies run by western countries. Gilley envisions these new colonies as “charter cities,” as articulated by economist Paul Romer. Romer uses Hong Kong as a model for his unusual project and states that charter cities would unburden poor countries by allowing richer countries to govern a chunk of their land. In other words, poor countries would be giving up their decolonized territory and sovereignty for potential (not guaranteed) prosperity. Unlike Gilley, Romer does not call his idea colonialism, a term he labels as “emotional.” But like Gilley, Romer’s idea showcases his lack of knowledge of imperial history. For Gilley, these cities are the new and improved version of colonies, and will be devoid of “oppression, occupation, and exploitation.” Considering that the residents of these charter cities would come from poor countries and the leaders would be selected by rich countries, and not the residents, it remains unclear exactly how this version of colonialism would be better than its former self. After all, Colonialism 2.0 is still colonialism. 

A Libertarian Case against Recolonization

All three of these proposals conflict with libertarian principles of freedom from foreign rule, free markets, and individual liberty. Gilley’s manipulation of the literature, along with his failure to productively engage interdisciplinary approaches to colonial legacies, paints colonialism as a political system that promoted market economies, encouraged pluralistic political orders, and enforced individual rights. Yet colonialism first and foremost was about mercantilism, an economic system that prioritizes the state’s ability to accumulate wealth, not on the people’s access to this accumulated wealth. In principle, mercantilism is also a type of protectionism, and hence, conflicts with free markets. The exploitative colonial economic system also gave rise to a political system that manipulated religious, ethnic, and linguistic tensions, reinforced racial hierarchies and abuse, and in some instances, wiped out entire indigenous populations. Above all, colonialism denied subject peoples’ individual rights, which eventually sparked riots across colonies.

Moreover, western states are past colonizers. Indeed, some would argue that they are still colonizing. Kwame Nkrumah, the first president of Ghana, coined the term “neocolonialism” in the 1960s. He called it the last stage of imperialism as he witnessed the effect of decolonization of African states on the former colonial powers. Neocolonialism captures the paternalistic—and often troubling—relationship that European countries have with their former colonies. Proponents of neocolonialism argue that even though investments for development have increased in postcolonial states, the gap between the rich and the poor has continued to expand because financial power continues to rest with the developed, western countries rather than the developing, postcolonial countries. China’s excursion in African countries is a good example of how neocolonialism is manifested by new players today.      

Gilley’s belief that past colonizers will be more benevolent during their second (third? fourth?) round of colonization is misguided and alarmingly naïve. While libertarians can also point to historical evidence that weakens Gilley’s argument, the more effective counter to recolonization is libertarian philosophy itself. Libertarianism is a collection of political philosophies that upholds liberty in the highest regard and is skeptical of state authority. Libertarians believe the state should be strictly limited in size and scope, and should be instituted in order to secure the basic rights of citizens and defend national territory from foreign attack, but little else. American libertarians in particular use the American Revolution, a colonial rebellion against unjust foreign rule, as a key frame of reference to ground their beliefs about the role of government. Gilley’s call for western governments to recolonize the third world, therefore, is fundamentally inconsistent with libertarianism.

Gilley poses three questions to policymakers: 1) how can the populations that need to be colonized be convinced that colonization is good for them? 2) how can western states be convinced that they should embrace colonialism again? and 3) how can colonialism result in lasting, positive outcomes? Gilley’s answers to these questions are: 1) create an accurate historiography of colonialism that showcases how colonialism was accepted by “politically salient actors,” 2) make colonialism economical by making the colonized pay the colonial states for their governing services— “colonialism for hire” if you will, and 3) ensure that colonial governance embraces both the political and social natures of the colonized.

Yet colonization can never be legitimate because it is fundamentally a system of exploitation where the people are subjected to foreign rule and cannot exercise their fundamental rights to liberty and representative government. Calling for the return of colonialism as a vehicle to foster free markets ignores the fact that free markets can emerge, and have emerged, without colonialism. Also, the notion that colonialism is in the state’s self-interest—the “reversal of fortunes” thesis—is subjective and dubious on empirical grounds. The “rational policy processes of European colonizers” that Gilley reveres are actually avenues by which the colonized can be dehumanized, paving the way for gross human rights violations, which of course no one should support.


Unintended Benefits of the Recolonization Argument

Gilley’s article, however, has been beneficial because it has sparked a myriad of much-needed historical, philosophical, and policy debates. In this era of “alternative facts” and fake news, these debates are not only in high demand but have also become a necessity, especially in the United States, where the American people are grappling with the current state of their democracy.

There is a constant push to rewrite history, and many states, such as South Korea, China, India, Russia, and even the United States, are engaged in changing textbooks in an attempt to change their historical narrative. Consider Japan  denying until 2006 the crimes committed by Imperial Japan in the late 1930s in Nanking, China; the Cambodian opposition leader’s claim in 2013 that Khmer Rouge prisons are a Vietnamese fiction; and Pakistan’s negating the atrocities it committed in East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). These are just a few examples of this phenomenon. Gilley’s article is an attempt to rewrite the impact of colonialism, and as critical thinkers, we should be wary of such whitewashing.

Evidence is key for scholarship and policy both: poor empirics lead to weak scholarship and bad policies. The immediate backlash to Gilley’s piece highlights the strong tradition of valuing sound empirical information but also highlights the need to ensure that misinformation does not become the norm. Hence, there is a need to decolonize International Relations and other literatures, an agenda that libertarians can appreciate. Gilley also states that terms like “shared sovereignty,” “conservatorship,” “proxy governance,” “transitional administration,” “neo-trusteeship,” and “cooperative intervention” are all colonialism, and should be called that “because it would embrace rather than evade the historical record.” This point that these terms can serve as euphemisms for colonialism is valid, and it highlights the need for libertarians to take a more prominent position in these discussions. The United States has voluntarily engaged in nation-building exercises too often, and these have resulted in failure, as has been the case in Afghanistan and Iraq. Writing about U.S. Special Forces in Afghanistan in 2002, Michael Ignatieff, the former president of the Liberal Party of Canada, stated, “Nation-building isn’t supposed to be an exercise in colonialism, but the relationship between the locals and the internationals is inherently colonial.” Libertarians have been at the forefront of highlighting the hypocrisy of contemporary nation-building. The same criticisms can and should be applied here.

In a way, Gilley’s article and the debates it restarted are actually an opportunity for libertarians to assert themselves and further their credentials as champions of military restraint and emancipation.



Gilley’s research, regardless of how flawed it is, did not just come out of nowhere. Academia and the policy world are still struggling with colonialism and its social, economic, and political impacts. Arguments like Gilley’s that call for reinstating an oppressive system like colonialism should motivate us all to reevaluate our history and policies. And market liberalism has a unique role to play in this conversation. For what it’s worth, Gilley’s article has sparked an important debate centered on nation-building and state-making. And libertarians should be front and center, leading the call for restraint and liberty.  

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sahar Khan argues that classical liberal and libertarian political commitments weigh heavily against the supposed case for colonialism. No matter what affinity we may have for startup societies, colonialism as a historical phenomenon was a gross violation of individual rights. From mercantilism to outright genocide, the various aspects of the colonial project are not worth emulating or reconstructing in the modern world. Rather, we should re-emphasize the case against military intervention abroad in all its forms.

Response Essays

  • Berny Sèbe reviews a few of the key points of the ongoing historical debate about colonialism, from Bartolomé de las Casas through Frantz Fanon. The intellectual case for colonialism has never been strong, he concludes, but there is yet another reason to reject colonialist ideology today: It would be impossible to replicate institutions that were the products of historical conditions we no longer experience. Colonialism is best left in the past for this and a host of other reasons.

  • James Stacey Taylor disagrees with Sahar Khan on only one point - foreign rule, he says, can sometimes be legitimate, though he stresses that in practice it almost never is. He then explains what was really wrong with Bruce Gilley’s case for colonialism - not that it gave offense, but that it misused sources. He cites several examples of sources whose words and actions do not bear out the claims that were made of them, including Michael Hechter, Jan Henryk Pierskalla, and Patrice Lumumba - who was Congo’s first president and a staunch anti-colonialist.