War

War, Peace and Libertarians

Murray Rothbard and contemporary foreign affairs

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With wars raging in the Middle East, it seems like a good time to revisit a classic work by Murray Rothbard (1926–1995), the economist, historian, and political philosopher who had a lot to do with the birth and evolution of the modern libertarian movement. His "War, Peace, and the State" is something that all peace advocates — not just self-conscious libertarians — ought to be familiar with.

I love the way Murray opened this essay, originally published in 1963, during the Cold War. (It was later included in his collection Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays in 1974.) He began by agreeing with conservative magazine editor and author William F. Buckley, who had reprimanded the libertarians of their day for spending more time on how to "demunicipalize the garbage collectors" than on big issues like war and peace. Buckley had a point, Murray said, but not quite in the way the conservative icon meant it:

There is a sense in which libertarians have been utopian rather than strategic in their thinking, with a tendency to divorce the ideal system which we envisage from the realities of the world in which we live. In short, too many of us have divorced theory from practice, and have then been content to hold the pure libertarian society as an abstract ideal for some remotely future time, while in the concrete world of today we follow unthinkingly the orthodox "conservative" line. To live liberty, to begin the hard but essential strategic struggle of changing the unsatisfactory world of today in the direction of our ideals, we must realize and demonstrate to the world that libertarian theory can be brought sharply to bear upon all of the world's crucial problems. By coming to grips with these problems, we can demonstrate that libertarianism is not just a beautiful ideal somewhere on Cloud Nine, but a tough-minded body of truths that enables us to take our stand and to cope with the whole host of issues of our day.

So Murray turned to the matter of war and peace, observing with his signature humor, "Although, when he sees the result, Mr. Buckley [a virulent cold warrior] might well wish that we had stayed in the realm of garbage collection."

Murray's subject was war between nation-states — governments — but he believed that  such interstate warfare could not be understood without focusing first on individuals and the violent conflicts between them. After all, governments are groups of individuals that have their status as governments in virtue of their specific relationship to their subject populations. There is no independently existing entity called "the state." So Murray wanted to examine "war" between individuals as such, with the intention of applying the derived principles to the matter of interstate war. This is a good approach, because most people who think about these matters treat governments and their wars as things to be judged by special moral principles not applicable to private individuals.

"The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory," he wrote, "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." (I discuss how Murray derived this principle here and here.)

From there Rothbard established that an individual who is threatened with aggression or who has already been the victim of aggression (which would include theft or destruction of justly held possessions) may use defensive force, if necessary, to repel the threat or to rectify the damage. For most people, that's uncontroversial. But he went on to emphasize that the victim may not aggress against third parties even if his only purpose is defense against the aggressor.

So the victim may not grab money or other possessions from bystanders or "draft" them into his service. As in all other matters, he must rely on persuasion if he wants goods or services from other people. This gets us close to the subject of the ethics of emergencies — a difficult subject for another time — and Rothbard realized it. He understood that someone might have a good motive for aggressing against an innocent party, but he insisted that this still could not be regarded as anything other than aggression. However, he added this:

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.

Murray inched closer to what happens in interstate warfare when he summed up, "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 state, of course, is unique in society in that it claims a legal monopoly on the use of aggressive force, beginning with taxation, the most basic government power of all. How does libertarian thinking about freedom and aggression apply to war between states?

The first thing to notice, Murray said, is that when states go to war, they intensify the violations of liberty that they already commit against their own populations. They may raise taxes, enact new regulations, infringe on freedom of the press, and institute military conscription — the draft. If they borrow the money to pay for the war, the resulting debt and the central bank's likely fiat-money expansion will take their own toll by, say, prompting a hike in taxes later to repay the debt or by robbing the population of purchasing power through inflation. Thus, Murray noted, the first acts of aggression that occur in interstate warfare are against each government's respective "home" population.

While Murray did not approve of any government, he recognized that they weren't going anywhere soon. But he wanted aggression minimized in the meantime, and to that end he advised that states "at least confine [their] activities to the area which [they] monopolize." In other words, avoid war against other states.

Interstate war of course also involves aggression against foreign populations as well as against home populations. While one can paint scenarios in which only actually guilty individuals are attacked during a defensive war, things don't often work out that way in the real world. Even "smart" bombs and Hellfire missiles from remotely controlled drones kill people universally recognized as innocent noncombatants. The disgusting term "collateral damage" was coined to whitewash the inevitable and foreseeable killing of innocents during war. (Murray condemned nuclear weapons precisely because they can't even theoretically be pinpointed at aggressors only. Thus he supported nuclear disarmament at the very least.)

These considerations led him to implore that "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."

Murray opposed the principle of collective defense, as embodied in the United Nations, because it encourages piling on and the widening of wars — precisely the opposite of the cordoning off of wars that he favored. He also endorsed the old "laws of war," which respected neutrality:

In short, the libertarian tries to induce neutral States to remain neutral in any inter-State conflict and to induce the warring States to observe fully the rights of neutral citizens. The "laws of war" were designed to limit as much as possible the invasion by warring States of the rights of the civilians of the respective warring countries.

As you can see, Murray's concern was to minimize aggression when states go to war if efforts to avoid war fail. He didn't think peace had to wait until the world was libertarian.

In condemning all wars, regardless of motive, the libertarian knows that there may well be varying degrees of guilt among States for any specific war. But the overriding consideration for the libertarian is the condemnation of any State participation in war. Hence his policy is that of exerting pressure on all States not to start a war, to stop one that has begun and to reduce the scope of any persisting war in injuring civilians of either side or no side.

This essay contains much else of interest — on revolution, foreign aid, and more — so I highly recommend it, as well as Murray's other writings on war. I don't say that he anticipated and addressed every hard question. (Here are supplemental readings by Bryan Caplan in which he argues "it is nearly impossible to wage war justly, i.e., without trampling on the rights of the innocent," and his reply to critics.) But "War, Peace, and the State" is a great start.

This column originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

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  1. Sometimes man you jsut have to run with it, thats all dude.

    http://www.AnonToolz.tk

  2. In wars between representative democracies, differentiating between the belligerent state and its “innocent” citizens by whose consent the state exists and conducts its aggression is kind of a strange conundrum. Richman doesn’t seem to have any trouble acknowledging that fact when he’s justifying terrorism against US and Israeli civilians as legitimate retaliatory actions against aggressive states. I guess that door has a one-way hinge.

    1. citizens by whose consent the state exists

      Not my consent

      And where is he justifying terrorism against US and Israeli civilians in this article?

      I will say however, that all retaliatory actions up to, but not beyond, the degree of aggression committed by the aggressors, whether it’s a private citizen or agent of the state, are justified.

      1. I will say however, that all retaliatory actions up to, but not beyond, the degree of aggression committed by the aggressors, whether it’s a private citizen or agent of the state, are justified.

        Bullshit.

        1. So you think it’s ok to burn someone’s house down, or kill them, if they sold you a fraudulent item?

          1. Well, I can see burning their house only if the amount they fraudulently took was equivalent in price

            1. Fraud is not aggression, fraud is fraud.

              1. Fraud is deception.

              2. Fraud is theft and theft is aggression.

            2. You can? In what way would that be a remedy to your injury?

      2. And where is he justifying terrorism against US and Israeli civilians in this article?

        He’s not in this particular piece, but it’s a regular part of his shtick.

        A problem with your construction is that who is the aggressor in any given conflict is often a matter of intense contention between the very parties doing the fighting. Especially in long-term, ongoing conflicts with periodic belligerence. Who started it? Who escalated it? But who escalated it this time? Richman, for his part, handily avoids this problem by ignoring any history that is more than 24 hours old and/or conflicts with his preconceived narrative.

        1. One side in the Israeli-Arab conflict wants the other to die die die because they’re JOOS, the other wants to not die.

          1. Well, except for extremist Zionists who do, in fact, want Arabs to “die die die”.

            1. Yeah those guys nowhere near the Israeli mainstream.

              1. And your evidence that Hamas is the Palestinian Mainstream is, what?

                1. THE ELECTION THEY WON

                  1. Bullshit

        2. It’s pretty hard to determine who started “it” in Palestine if you consider history.

          It seems like everyone has forgotten about the Stern Gang and Irgun or perhaps they think that terrorism is just fine when “our side” does it.

          Something to think about:

          In 1940, the idea of the Final Solution was still “unthinkable”, and Stern believed that Hitler wanted to make Germany judenrein through emigration, as opposed to extermination. In December 1940, Lehi even contacted Germany with a proposal to aid German conquest in the Middle East in return for recognition of a Jewish state open to unlimited immigration.

          1. Actually, it’s still pretty easy to see who started it: homocidal Arab maniacs. They could have not tried to exterminate the Jews and Israel in 1948, but they chose to. To equate some tiny acts by Irgun-which was shut down by the Israeli state-to attempted genocide is sick lunacy.

            Terrorism is just fine when it is necessary to preserve civilization, freedom, and one’s own survival in a sea of homocidal backwards maniacs that want to kill you for not accepting the 2nd class status awarded to you based on race. It’s not even terrorism in such circumstances.

            1. Gee whiz, I just gave you examples of Jewish groups who were out to exterminate the Arabs before 1948 and you still insist that “it’s all because of the Ayyrrrabs”.

              1. Yes, because you have failed to demonstrate that those evil Jewish groups play a significant role in perpetuating ongoing violence or even initiating it. Critical thinking: how does it work?

            2. They could have not tried to exterminate the Jews and Israel in 1948, but they chose to.

              Right, because the conflicts over land in that country suddenly appeared out of nowhere in 1948.

              Yes, because you have failed to demonstrate that those evil Jewish groups play a significant role in perpetuating ongoing violence or even initiating it.

              Huh–the result of a bunch of non-native migrants to a foreign region is that a multi-decade ethnic war ensues. Imagine that.

              1. No, that conflict was centuries of oppression of semites brought to a head. Bad guys: still Arabs. And they still could have not chosen to exterminate them.

                the result of a bunch of non-native migrants to a foreign region is that a multi-decade ethnic war ensues. Imagine that.

                Um 1) immigration seems to not lead to war elsewhere 2) that war was a result of Arab genocidal tendencies and nothing else. Can’t believe I have to spoon feed this to people.

                1. Um 1) immigration seems to not lead to war elsewhere

                  Right–just ignore roughly 400 years of North American history.

                2. No, that conflict was centuries of oppression of semites brought to a head. Bad guys: still Arabs. And they still could have not chosen to exterminate them.

                  Again demonstrating you don’t know jack shit about Middle Eastern history.

                  that war was a result of Arab genocidal tendencies and nothing else.

                  Yes, Cyto–get that AYRAB hate on!

        3. Now, what is stupid is Hamas (and Hezbollah) lobbing rockets (inneffectively) into Israeli territory believing that somehow (perhaps with Allah on their side) they are going to win.

          Sorry, Hamas and Hezbollah, but the best trained and equipped (not to mention the best educated and the ones with a worldview closest to reality) are the one’s who are going to win in the end. Partly because once you choose terrorism as your route, they are going to practice it most effectively.

          And believe me, the Israeli government (and its antecedents the Stern Gang and Irgun) has demonstrated it is prepared to practice terrorism far more effectively than you can.

          Best you accept some “status quo ante” since 1967. You will never get the Ottoman Empire again.

          The anti-semites in the west are determined that they want “those people” living “there” rather than in their own countries so you might as well give up.

          1. The anti-semites in the west are determined that they want “those people” living “there” rather than in their own countries so you might as well give up.

            Your butthurt is delicious.

          2. The anti-semites in the west are determined that they want “those people” living “there” rather than in their own countries so you might as well give up.

            You are thoroughly full of shit.

            The Jew haters of the West are extremely vocal Palestinian supporters, often making comparisons between the Israelis and the Nazis. They are hardly Zionists.

  3. I mentioned it in the thread that was reposted from July 1, but:

    James Garner, 1928-2014 🙁

    1. Bummer. The Rockford Files is still one of the best TV series ever.

      1. Is Mike Post the best theme music composer or THE best theme music composer?

        1. Lalo Schifrin may disagree with that one.

          Neal Hefti probably would, too.

          1. Bah! One hit wonders in the theme music department. Mike Post is equal in quality and has them beat on quantity.

      2. Yeah, I loved Rockford Files too.

  4. Mosul: Church burned as Christians flee

    “Mosul’s Christians fled the city en masse before a Saturday deadline issued by the al-Qaeda-inspired Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) for them to either convert to Islam, pay tax, leave or be killed….

    “Witnesses said messages telling Christians to leave the city by Saturday were blared through loudspeakers from the city’s mosques Friday.”

    http://english.alarabiya.net/e…..Mosul.html

    1. Fled en masse before Saturday so they aren’t in Mass on Sunday?

    2. You damn Christians and your persecution complex…

      1. The interesting thing is that the thing that American christian extremist favored the most (ie the overthrow of Saddam Hussein) has resulted in the worst possible outcome for Iraq’s Christians.

        Mind you, Iraq’s Christians were some kind of Sand Nigger Catholics so they probably don’t really count as Christians.

        1. That’s unfair, of course, since most Americans Christians are probably utterly unaware of the Christian communities that existed in Iraq (and Syria for that matter).

          They’re probably not aware of the Jewish ones either.

          Wait, did I just defend people over the harm they have caused because of policies they’ve advocated due to the abject ignorance of geography.

  5. JOOOOOOS!

    1. My experience is that the most pro-Israel people I know favor the “Jewish State” so that they won’t have to have any of “those people” as their neighbors because they will be living “over there”.

      1. Hell, it might be some kind of self-selection but most of the Jews I know (small sample size, admittedly) are anti-Zionists.

      2. ‘Your experience’ = horse shit.

        1. I rarely agree with the Canadian chickenhawk, but he has your fucking number dialed Kreel.

  6. ISIS calls for the death of ‘The 99? creator

    The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the jihadist group better known by the acronym ISIS, has put out a call for the assassination of Nayef Al-Mutawa, creator of the superhero comic The 99.

    1. Examples from this extreme, to other western govts using restrictions on speech for petty oppressions ( ex. the French govt mandating language on restaurant’s menus for cronyist protectionism) make our own POTUS’s failure to see the importance of protecting freedom of speech seem doubly fuckwitted. He is either a fuckwit or he is just fine with all that curtailing speech brings.

    2. But if you believe they hate us for our freedoms, you’re a neocon poopyhead! /peacenazi

      1. Yes, you are.

  7. Peace? That’s just loony talk.

  8. His “War, Peace, and the State” is something that all peace advocates

    The fact that Richman believes himself to be a “peace advocate” is ipso facto evidence of his senility. In a more sane and compassionate world, Richman would have already found eternal peace through a cocktail of sodium thiopental, pancuronium bromide, and potassium chloride.

    1. Heh. That is too harsh!

      Ok, maybe not.

  9. So after much deliberation the best foreign policy he could come up with is “war is bad”. Fucksakes, fighting is bad but it’s not a helpful axiom when somebody’s kicking your teeth in.

    We regularly enlist 3rd parties, how the hell would we protect children?

  10. Most arguments on this subject assume that we go to war for the reasons we’re told, ignoring the fact that the instigators invariably have something entirely different in mind.

    1. Rightly so, because it is firstly wrong to say that all wars are based on such a premise, and secondly bad argumentation to assume bad faith on the part of the other side without evidence.

      It is best to argue based on the case presented, rather than what you wish to be true.

  11. “War sucks” is fine as a fundament of foreign policy (certainly better than “war is good”), but stopping there leaves one with little recourse when war is the only expedient to avoid even worse atrocities. Which is why statements like these are not only unhelpful, but harmful in the creation of foreign policy:

    These considerations led him to implore that “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.”

    You can always have peace — always. It only entails submitting to your adversary’s terms of surrender. If we are to always submit to those terms without question regardless of the terms and justification for such because war is bad, I would submit that you have substituted the temporary tyrannies of your state during wartime for the permanent tyrannies that foreigners wish to impose.

    In short, millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.

    1. In short, millions for defense, not one cent for tribute.

      Say. Weren’t we fighting Islamics when that came up?

  12. Oh God…a combination of Richman and Rothtard converging on foreign policy. It’s the perfect storm of derp. No need to read it.

    Murray Rothbard (1926?1995), the economist, historian, and political philosopher who had a lot to do with the birth and evolution stagnation and impotence of the modern libertarian movement.

    FTFY

    1. Lol, why u so mad tho?

  13. “…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.”

    If in the act of self-defense others are killed or injured, the moral blame belongs to the one who initiated the force, not the threatened or injured party that was defending themselves.

    Germany & Japan were existentialist threats to America. America was within it moral rights to destroy the threat including fire bombs and atomic bombs cities to eliminate the threat. The moral responsibility for these deaths lies with the German and Japanese governments.

    Murray is wrong on this issue.

    1. existential not existentialist

      also, …dropping fire bombs and atomic bombs on cities…

      It would be nice if this posting system had editing capabilities.

    2. THIS

      Murry was a moral degenerate.

      1. Lol, so butthurt.

    3. If in the act of self-defense others are killed or injured, the moral blame belongs to the one who initiated the force, not the threatened or injured party that was defending themselves.

      Show me how you come to this conclusion. How does carpet bombing washington with nukes because there’s a drone operation working out of it place the moral blame of the incineration of 600.000 people on the drone operator rather than those who committed the bombings?

      Germany & Japan were existentialist threats to America. America was within it moral rights to destroy the threat including fire bombs and atomic bombs cities to eliminate the threat. The moral responsibility for these deaths lies with the German and Japanese governments.

      How were the people of nagasaki an existential threat to ‘America’?

      1. How were the people of nagasaki an existential threat to ‘America’?

        War industry and a major port.

        Are people who build weapons and ship them innocent victims in a war too?

        I’m hardly a hawk, but FFS some anti-war types really are delusional. It puts me in uncomfortable company agreeing with Cyto, but he is right and you are wrong.

        1. “War industry and a major port.”

          War industry and a major port in a nation that was beaten. A nation that was so desperate for fuel they were trying to make their planes run on coconuts and soy beans.
          An industrial city with a large port in a nation that doesn’t have the capacity to send a dingy across the pacific? That’s not an existential threat.

          “Are people who build weapons and ship them innocent victims in a war too?”

          They’ve generally been considered civilians and thus non-targets, yes. Just like the farmers who produce the food that runs the soldiers are not considered combatants and viable targets.

          “I’m hardly a hawk, but FFS some anti-war types really are delusional. It puts me in uncomfortable company agreeing with Cyto, but he is right and you are wrong.”

          You’re both wrong, and you’re both idiots.

    1. All of your comments are meaningless pablum and lies.

  14. Israelis know that having a Jewish state carries with it the obligation to conduct themselves as Jews. The people who received the commandments must be vigilant in applying them ? even to themselves.

    Herein lies the Israelis’ weakness. The Islamist extremists are operating under under a completely different set of Commandments.

    Makes you wonder why people as intelligent as the Jews would take on such an enemy.

    1. Makes you wonder why people as intelligent as the Jews would take on such an enemy.

      You might want to revisit who started every single war between the Israelis and the neighboring Arabs before implying that it was the Israelis.

      If by “take on” you mean “act in self defense”, if the alternative to “taking on” your enemies is being slaughtered by them, what would you do?

      Why they stick around in such conditions instead of emigrating — OK, that would be a fair question.

    2. Makes you wonder why people as intelligent as the Jews would take on such an enemy.

      Holy shit you are fucking stupid.

      Not ignorant.

      Not naive.

      No, FUCKING STUPID!

  15. One of the better features of a Richman article featuring Rothbard is that it brings all the crypto-fascists masquerading as libertarians out of the woodwork and allows them to identify themselves.

    Thanks, Sheldon.

    1. The only good feature of a Richman or Rothbard article is brings out the peacenazi tards masquerading as ‘true’ libertarians.

      1. butthurt detected.

  16. I’m curious on you guys’ thoughts on this hypothetical. Say we lived in an alternate universe where the US wasn’t already in debt, and somewhere else in the world, a larger country invades a small peaceful country in an attempt to take over. The smaller country asks for the US’ help. Would you support an intervention on the part of the US? There is no draft and we’re not in debt.

  17. War is politics by other means. Rothbard leaves that TOTALLY out of his calculation.

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