Murray Rothbard is one of the intellectual giants of the 20th century, as a philosopher, political theorist, and economist. His publications number in the high hundreds or even thousands, and his thoughts cover nearly every persevering social issue from the founding of America until today. As a preface to this post, I would recommend the simple though lengthy Anatomy of the State, which may forever change the way you look at the function of government.
But the topic of today is once again war, and Rothbard wrote on the topic a few times during his 68 years. His essay War, Peace, and the State can be found printed in full at Mises.org, but I thought it appropriate to share an abridged version here, running with the anti-war theme that I have so persistently tried to hammer home of late on this blog. With that said, here is Dr. Rothbard, explaining why the machinations of war are as dangerous to freedom as the economic restraints of socialism or the human rights violations of totalitarianism…
The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another. In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.
Let us set aside the more complex problem of the State for awhile and consider simply relations between “private” individuals. Jones finds that he or his property is being invaded, aggressed against, by Smith. It is legitimate for Jones, as we have seen, to repel this invasion by defensive violence of his own. But now we come to a more knotty question: is it within the right of Jones to commit violence against innocent third parties as a corollary to his legitimate defense against Smith? To the libertarian, the answer must be clearly, no. Remember that the rule prohibiting violence against the persons or property of innocent men is absolute: it holds regardless of the subjective motives for the aggression. It is wrong and criminal to violate the property or person of another, even if one is a Robin Hood, or starving, or is doing it to save one’s relatives, or is defending oneself against a third man’s attack. We may understand and sympathize with the motives in many of these cases and extreme situations. We may later mitigate the guilt if the criminal comes to trial for punishment, but we cannot evade the judgment that this aggression is still a criminal act, and one which the victim has every right to repel, by violence if necessary. In short, A aggresses against B because C is threatening, or aggressing against, A. We may understand C’s “higher” culpability in this whole procedure; but we must still label this aggression as a criminal act which B has the right to repel by violence.
To be more concrete, if Jones finds that his property is being stolen by Smith, he has the right to repel him and try to catch him; but he has no right to repel him by bombing a building and murdering innocent people or to catch him by spraying machine gun fire into an innocent crowd. If he does this, he is as much (or more of) a criminal aggressor as Smith is.
The application to problems of war and peace is already becoming evident. For while war in the narrower sense is a conflict between States, in the broader sense we may define it as the outbreak of open violence between people or groups of people. If Smith and a group of his henchmen aggress against Jones and Jones and his bodyguards pursue the Smith gang to their lair, we may cheer Jones on in his endeavor; and we, and others in society interested in repelling aggression, may contribute financially or personally to Jones’s cause. But Jones has no right, any more than does Smith, to aggress against anyone else in the course of his “just war”: to steal others’ property in order to finance his pursuit, to conscript others into his posse by use of violence, or to kill others in the course of his struggle to capture the Smith forces. If Jones should do any of these things, he becomes a criminal as fully as Smith, and he too becomes subject to whatever sanctions are meted out against criminality. In fact, if Smith’s crime was theft, and Jones should use conscription to catch him, or should kill others in the pursuit, Jones becomes more of a criminal than Smith, for such crimes against another person as enslavement and murder are surely far worse than theft. (For while theft injures the extension of another’s personality, enslavement injures, and murder obliterates, that personality itself.)
Suppose that Jones, in the course of his “just war” against the ravages of Smith, should kill a few innocent people, and suppose that he should declaim, in defense of this murder, that he was simply acting on the slogan, “Give me liberty or give me death.” The absurdity of this “defense” should be evident at once, for the issue is not whether Jones was willing to risk death personally in his defensive struggle against Smith; the issue is whether he was willing to kill other people in pursuit of his legitimate end. For Jones was in truth acting on the completely indefensible slogan: “Give me liberty or give them death” surely a far less noble battle cry.
The libertarian’s basic attitude toward war must then be: it is legitimate to use violence against criminals in defense of one’s rights of person and property; it is completely impermissible to violate the rights of other innocent people. War, then, is only proper when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to the individual criminals. We may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have met this criterion.
It has often been maintained, and especially by conservatives, that the development of the horrendous modern weapons of mass murder (nuclear weapons, rockets, germ warfare, etc.) is only a difference of degree rather than kind from the simpler weapons of an earlier era. Of course, one answer to this is that when the degree is the number of human lives, the difference is a very big one. But another answer that the libertarian is particularly equipped to give is that while the bow and arrow and even the rifle can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot. Here is a crucial difference in kind. Of course, the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors. Nuclear weapons, even “conventional” aerial bombs, cannot be. These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction. (The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area.) We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a sin and a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.
This is why the old cliché no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace. For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner. Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake. And if we will indeed use our strategic intelligence, we will see that such disarmament is not only a good, but the highest political good that we can pursue in the modem world. For just as murder is a more heinous crime against another man than larceny, so mass murder – indeed murder so widespread as to threaten human civilization and human survival itself – is the worst crime that any man could possibly commit. And that crime is now imminent. And the forestalling of massive annihilation is far more important, in truth, than the demunicipalization of garbage disposal, as worthwhile as that may be. Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant about price control or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders at or even positively advocate the ultimate crime of mass murder?
. . .
It is time now to bring the State into our discussion. The State is a group of people who have managed to acquire a virtual monopoly of the use of violence throughout a given territorial area. In particular, it has acquired a monopoly of aggressive violence, for States generally recognize the right of individuals to use violence (though not against States, of course) in self-defense. The State then uses this monopoly to wield power over the inhabitants of the area and to enjoy the material fruits of that power. The State, then, is the only organization in society that regularly and openly obtains its monetary revenues by the use of aggressive violence; all other individuals and organizations (except if delegated that right by the State) can obtain wealth only by peaceful production and by voluntary exchange of their respective products. This use of violence to obtain its revenue (called “taxation”) is the keystone of State power. Upon this base the State erects a further structure of power over the individuals in its territory, regulating them, penalizing critics, subsidizing favorites, etc. The State also takes care to arrogate to itself the compulsory monopoly of various critical services needed by society, thus keeping the people in dependence upon the State for key services, keeping control of the vital command posts in society and also fostering among the public the myth that only the State can supply these goods and services. Thus the State is careful to monopolize police and judicial service, the ownership of roads and streets, the supply of money, and the postal service, and effectively to monopolize or control education, public utilities, transportation, and radio and television.
Now, since the State arrogates to itself the monopoly of violence over a territorial area, so long as its depredations and extortions go unresisted, there is said to be “peace” in the area, since the only violence is one-way, directed by the State downward against the people. Open conflict within the area only breaks out in the case of “revolutions” in which people resist the use of State power against them. Both the quiet case of the State unresisted and the case of open revolution may be termed “vertical violence”: violence of the State against its public or vice versa.
. . .
If one distinct attribute of inter-State war is inter-territoriality, another unique attribute stems from the fact that each State lives by taxation over its subjects. Any war against another State, therefore, involves the increase and extension of taxation-aggression over its own people. Conflicts between private individuals can be, and usually are, voluntarily waged and financed by the parties concerned. Revolutions can be, and often are, financed and fought by voluntary contributions of the public. But State wars can only be waged through aggression against the taxpayer.
All State wars, therefore, involve increased aggression against the State’s own taxpayers, and almost all State wars (all, in modern warfare) involve the maximum aggression (murder) against the innocent civilians ruled by the enemy State. On the other hand, revolutions are generally financed voluntarily and may pinpoint their violence to the State rulers, and private conflicts may confine their violence to the actual criminals. The libertarian must, therefore, conclude that, while some revolutions and some private conflicts may be legitimate, State wars are always to be condemned.
Many libertarians object as follows: “While we too deplore the use of taxation for warfare, and the State’s monopoly of defense service, we have to recognize that these conditions exist, and while they do, we must support the State in just wars of defense.” The reply to this would go as follows: “Yes, as you say, unfortunately States exist, each having a monopoly of violence over its territorial area.” What then should be the attitude of the libertarian toward conflicts between these States? The libertarian should say, in effect, to the State: “All right, you exist, but as long as you exist at least confine your activities to the area which you monopolize.” In short, the libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals. The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area which it monopolizes and not to aggress against other State-monopolists. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure “their” respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.
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Let us see how libertarian theory applies to the problem of imperialism, which may be defined as the aggression by State A over the people of country B, and the subsequent maintenance of this foreign rule. Revolution by the B people against the imperial rule of A is certainly legitimate, provided again that revolutionary fire be directed only against the rulers. It has often been maintained – even by libertarians – that Western imperialism over undeveloped countries should be supported as more watchful of property rights than any successor native government would be. The first reply is that judging what might follow the status quo is purely speculative, whereas existing imperialist rule is all too real and culpable. Moreover, the libertarian here begins his focus at the wrong end – at the alleged benefit of imperialism to the native. He should, on the contrary, concentrate first on the Western taxpayer, who is mulcted and burdened to pay for the wars of conquest, and then for the maintenance of the imperial bureaucracy. On this ground alone, the libertarian must condemn imperialism.
Does opposition to all war mean that the libertarian can never countenance change – that he is consigning the world to a permanent freezing of unjust regimes? Certainly not. Suppose, for example, that the hypothetical state of “Waldavia” has attacked “Ruritania” and annexed the western part of the country. The Western Ruritanians now long to be reunited with their Ruritanian brethren. How is this to be achieved? There is, of course, the route of peaceful negotiation between the two powers, but suppose that the Waldavian imperialists prove adamant. Or, libertarian Waldavians can put pressure on their government to abandon its conquest in the name of justice. But suppose that this, too, does not work. What then? We must still maintain the illegitimacy of Ruritania’s mounting a war against Waldavia. The legitimate routes are (1) revolutionary uprisings by the oppressed Western Ruritanian people, and (2) aid by private Ruritanian groups (or, for that matter, by friends of the Ruritanian cause in other countries) to the Western rebels – either in the form of equipment or of volunteer personnel.
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We cannot leave our topic without saying at least a word about the domestic tyranny that is the inevitable accompaniment of war. The great Randolph Bourne realized that “war is the health of the State.” It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society. Society becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies, rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort, happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest. Society becomes an armed camp, with the values and the morale – as Albert Jay Nock once phrased it – of an “army on the march.”
The root myth that enables the State to wax fat off war is the canard that war is a defense by the State of its subjects. The facts, of course, are precisely the reverse. For if war is the health of the State, it is also its greatest danger. A State can only “die” by defeat in war or by revolution. In war, therefore, the State frantically mobilizes the people to fight for it against another State, under the pretext that it is fighting for them. But all this should occasion no surprise; we see it in other walks of life. For which categories of crime does the State pursue and punish most intensely – those against private citizens or those against itself? The gravest crimes in the State’s lexicon are almost invariably not invasions of person and property, but dangers to its own contentment: for example, treason, desertion of a soldier to the enemy, failure to register for the draft, conspiracy to overthrow the government. Murder is pursued haphazardly unless the victim be a policeman, or Gott soll hüten, an assassinated Chief of State; failure to pay a private debt is, if anything, almost encouraged, but income tax evasion is punished with utmost severity; counterfeiting the State’s money is pursued far more relentlessly than forging private checks, etc. All this evidence demonstrates that the State is far more interested in preserving its own power than in defending the rights of private citizens.
A final word about conscription: of all the ways in which war aggrandizes the State, this is perhaps the most flagrant and most despotic. But the most striking fact about conscription is the absurdity of the arguments put forward on its behalf. A man must be conscripted to defend his (or someone else’s?) liberty against an evil State beyond the borders. Defend his liberty? How? By being coerced into an army whose very raison d’être is the expunging of liberty, the trampling on all the liberties of the person, the calculated and brutal dehumanization of the soldier and his transformation into an efficient engine of murder at the whim of his “commanding officer”? Can any conceivable foreign State do anything worse to him than what “his” army is now doing for his alleged benefit? Who is there, 0 Lord, to defend him against his “defenders”?
Love this guy…
I’ll leave the rest of the week somewhat free so you can catch up on the LONG posts…