Libertarian History/Philosophy

The Anti-Militarist Libertarian Heritage

As expressed by philosophers like Herbert Spencer


With the United States on the verge of another war in the Middle East — or is it merely the continuation of a decades-long war? — we libertarians need to reacquaint ourselves with our intellectual heritage of peace, antimilitarism, and anti-imperialism. This rich heritage is too often overlooked and frequently not appreciated at all. That is tragic. Libertarianism, to say the least, is deeply skeptical of state power. Of course, then, it follows that libertarianism must be skeptical of the state's power to make war — to kill and destroy in other lands. Along with its domestic police authority, this is the state's most dangerous power. (In 1901 a libertarian, Frederic Passy, a friend of libertarian economist Gustave de Molinari, shared in the first Nobel Peace Prize.)

Herbert Spencer, the great English libertarian philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th century, eloquently expressed radical liberalism's antipathy to war and militarism. His writings are full of warnings about the dangers of war and conquest. Young Spencer saw and cheered the rise of the industrial type of society, which was displacing what he called the militant type. The industrial type was founded on equal freedom, consent, and contract, the militant on hierarchy, command, and force. Yet he lived long enough to see a reversal, and his later writings lamented the ascendancy of the old militant traits. We have a good deal to learn from the much-maligned Spencer, who is inexplicably condemned as favoring the "law of the jungle." This is so laughably opposite of the truth that one couldn't be blamed for concluding that the calumny is the product of bad faith. As Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long writes,

The textbook summary is absurd, of course. Far from being a proponent of "might makes right," Spencer wrote that the "desire to command is essentially a barbarous desire" because it "implies an appeal to force," which is "inconsistent with the first law of morality" and "radically wrong." While Spencer opposed tax-funded welfare programs, he strongly supported voluntary charity, and indeed devoted ten chapters of his Principles of Ethics to a discussion of the duty of "positive beneficence."

Spencer jumped on the issues of war and peace right out of the gate. His first book, Social Statics(1851), contains a chapter, "Government Colonization," that examines the effects of imperialism on both the home and subjugated populations. While formal colonization has gone out of style, many of its key characteristics have been preserved in a new form; thus Spencer's observations are entirely pertinent.

He starts by pointing out that the "parent" country's government must violate the rights of its own citizens when it engages in colonial conquest and rule. Spencer advocated just enough government to protect the freedom of the citizens who live under it (although the first edition of his book included the chapter "The Right to Ignore the State," which he removed from later editions), and he claims that the money spent on colonies necessarily is money not needed to protect that freedom. He writes,

That a government cannot undertake to administer the affairs of a colony, and to support for it a judicial staff, a constabulary, a garrison, and so forth, without trespassing against the parent society, scarcely needs pointing out. Any expenditure for these purposes, be it like our own some three and a half millions sterling a year, or but a few thousands, involves a breach of state-duty. The taking from men property beyond what is needful for the better securing of their rights, we have seen to be an infringement of their rights. Colonial expenditure cannot be met without property being so taken. Colonial expenditure is therefore unjustifiable.

Spencer proceeds to demolish the argument that foreign acquisitions increase the wealth of the parent society, as though such acquisitions are analogous to voluntary trade relations. He writes,

Experience is fast teaching us that distant dependencies are burdens, and not acquisitions. And thus this earliest motive for state-colonization — the craving for wider possessions — will very soon be destroyed by the conviction that territorial aggression is as impolitic as it is unjust.

Any true economic benefits from dealing with foreign populations can be obtained through free trade, he says. He invokes the law of comparative advantage to argue that the parent society loses, not gains, when the government coercively creates artificial foreign markets for products the society can't produce as efficiently as others can.

As for those on the receiving end of colonial policy, Spencer was blunt: "We … meet nothing but evil results. It is a prettily sounding expression that of mother-country protection, but a very delusive one. If we are to believe those who have known the thing rather than the name, there is but little of the maternal about it." While the worst practices, he adds, were less common in his time, "kindred iniquities are continued."

We have but to glance over the newspapers published in our foreign possessions, to see that the arbitrary rule of the Colonial Office is no blessing. Chronic irritation, varying in intensity from that of which petitions are symptomatic, to that exhibited in open rebellions, is habitually present in these forty-six scattered dependencies which statesmen have encumbered us with.

He condemns "the pitiless taxation, that wrings from the poor ryots nearly half the produce of the soil" and "the cunning despotism which uses native soldiers to maintain and extend native subjection — a despotism under which, not many years since, a regiment of sepoys was deliberately massacred, for refusing to march without proper clothing."

Down to our own day the police authorities league with wealthy scamps, and allow the machinery of the law to be used for purposes of extortion. Down to our own day, so-called gentlemen will ride their elephants through the crops of impoverished peasants; and will supply themselves with provisions from the native villages without paying for them. And down to our own day, it is common with the people in the interior to run into the woods at sight of a European!

Spencer wonders,

Is it not, then, sufficiently clear that this state-colonization is as indefensible on the score of colonial welfare, as on that of home interests? May we not reasonably doubt the propriety of people on one side of the earth being governed by officials on the other? Would not these transplanted societies probably manage their affairs better than we can do it for them?

No one can fail to see that these cruelties, these treacheries, these deeds of blood and rapine, for which European nations in general have to blush, are mainly due to the carrying on of colonization under state-management, and with the help of state-funds and state-force.

Spencer was keenly aware that such criticism of the government was regarded as unpatriotic. In 1902, near the end of his life, he turned his attention to that charge.

In an essay titled "Patriotism," included in his collection Facts and Comments, he begins, "Were anyone to call me dishonest or untruthful he would touch me to the quick. Were he to say that I am unpatriotic, he would leave me unmoved."

England may have done things in the past to advance freedom, Spencer says, but "there are traits, unhappily of late more frequently displayed, which do the reverse."

Contemplation of the acts by which England has acquired over eighty possessions — settlements, colonies, protectorates, &c. — does not arouse feelings of satisfaction. The transitions from missionaries to resident agents, then to officials having armed forces, then to punishments of those who resist their rule, ending in so-called "pacification" — these processes of annexation, now gradual and now sudden, as that of the new Indian province and that of Barotziland, which was declared a British colony with no more regard for the wills of the inhabiting people than for those of the inhabiting beasts – do not excite sympathy with their perpetrators.… If because my love of country does not survive these and many other adverse experiences I am called unpatriotic — well, I am content to be so called.

"To me the cry — 'Our country, right or wrong!' seems detestable," he continues.

Spencer gave no ground on this matter, which he made obvious with a story he relates toward the end of his essay.

Some years ago I gave my expression to my own feeling — anti-patriotic feeling, it will doubtless be called — in a somewhat startling way. It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be "our interests," we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenæum Club a well-known military man — then a captain but now a general — drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying — "When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don't care if they are shot themselves." [Emphasis added.]

Spencer was second to none in his antimilitarism and anti-imperialism, that is, his love of universal individual liberty and all forms of voluntary social cooperation. With heads held high, libertarians can claim him as one of their own.

This article originally appeared at the Future of Freedom Foundation.

NEXT: 3 Reasons to NOT Fight ISIS

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  1. Experience is fast teaching us that distant dependencies are burdens, and not acquisitions.

    He probably wrote this while enjoying a lot of free oil from Iraq.

    1. Thats pretty good. Who wrote it?

  2. His was such a pure and radical Libertarianism that he burned only that oil which could be pressed from the carcasses of recently deceased monocle polishing orphans.

  3. Theory, craiginmass is joefromlowell.


    1. *howls at the moon*

      You may be on to something.

    2. Well, Lowell IS in Massachusetts.

    3. No. Joe wasn't the moron Craig is. I think Joe has too much self respect and respect for his cause to create and operate such a stultified persona to argue on it's behalf.

      Craig is, however, an example of the backward pig-ignorant superstitious thinking that passes for common sense here in the Commonwealth.

      1. Are you joking? Joe is massively stupid and incredibly stultified. And also a failed city planner and failed substitute teacher. Oh, and failed husband. And short. HA!

        1. But the saying is: on a scale of one to Craig. And not: on a scale of one to Joe.

    4. "Theory, craiginmass is joefromlowell."

      Nah, far be it from me to sign up under different aliases!

      But, heck, why discuss the article when we can all act like pre-teens and talk about someone whose views we don't agree with? That seems to be "the proud heritage" that y'all are giving libertarianism!

      So back to reality. The article makes reference to this long proud heritage of anti-imperialism, etc. etc. blah blah blah.

      Can y'all point out actual leaders of states CAPABLE OF MAKING WAR AND USING IMPERIALISM who were libertarian and showed us the proper way to govern?

      Or, is this "proud heritage" limited to BSing and writing academic tomes?

      In short, are Libertarians Men of Action, or are they as described "like college students who stay up until 2am solving the problems of the world"? (with empty words, of course!).

      Also, are those "True Libertarians" posting here actual real life examples of their causes? That is, are they living their lives using all possible principles from their philosophy - or, is this a "no entry fee" pie-in-the-sky cobbled together world view?

      I suggest the later and every single indication I have seen from libertarians over the past 40 years bears this out. Old Rand Paul is just the newest - and perhaps the largest - hypocrite in this fashion (not standing for anything when real life gets in the way).

  4. So Spencer was warning us about the teh Kochtopus and BOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSH that would later seek to enslave the populace, and could only be stopped by MOAR LAWZ, right?


  5. OT: Man bites dog...

    Why the Secret Service didn't shoot the White House fence-jumper

    "A more important consideration may have been the presence of tourists at the mansion's north fence line, where Gonzales entered the compound. Uniformed agents worked to clear the area quickly, but officers responding to the incident likely pondered the potential of a stray shot or a through-and-through in which a bullet could pass through the target and hit a bystander.

    "You're accountable for every round. You need to think about not just the target but what's behind the target," the insider said."

    1. That's pretty good of them to take into account the possibility of the PR damage that could result from not just murdering someone for jumping a fence, rather than just arresting them, but for taking out random bystanders, too.

      Because they can't have bad press. That would be wrong.

      1. Whatever works, I say.

      1. Iraq! Booosh's fault!

      2. and a ratbagging teacfucker.

  6. we libertarians need to reacquaint ourselves with our intellectual heritage of peace, antimilitarism, and anti-imperialism. This rich heritage is too often overlooked and frequently not appreciated at all.

    Because people who are not libertarian seem to want to keep bombing Mideastern participants in a several thousand year long civil war, people who ARE libertarian need be be hectored about overlooking the obvious?


    1. Because Sheldon's shtick is that libertarians are too Right-Wing and focused on how evil Government Regulation and welfare are and how they have forgotten the mythical 19th Century Era past where liberals, socialists and anarchists were all proto-libertarians.

  7. OT,MSNBC is touting the fact 7,3 million on the exchanges for Obama care.All this for a small percentage of the population.Oh,and I heard the phrase 'the money the federal government is giving' also. Full on stupid

    1. "the money the federal government is giving"

      Obama Stash!

  8. Spencer was closely associated with the terms "survival of the fittest" and "law of the jungle" in reference to his support of capitalism and free markets. Libertarians need to be ready to defend themselves against being advocates of social Darwinism when they identify Spencer as an intellectual ally. You know it is coming.

    Social Darwinism is used to smear capitalism as a dog-eat-dog political system--where the strongest survive and the weak are allowed to die. The implication is that capitalism allows the strong to use physical force against others in their domination of them. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Business dominate other business by offering a better service, product or price so customers will VOLUNTARILY do business with them. If other's are unable to compete, it is because someone else provides a more valuable product. They always have the option of going into another business, or going to work for the better producer, etc. No one dies or is forced to do anything. In actuality, it is the enemies of capitalism that use force against people--through taxes, regulation, political pull, etc. This needs to be emphasized.

    Richman's citation of Spencer without reviewing this common criticism of him is a serious oversight in this article.

    1. Libertarians should embrace and redefine the phrase social darwinism. Institutions and organizations within society should face competition and grow, shrink of cease to exist as a result of that competition.

      What's the alternative? To defend and subsidize organizations no matter how crappily they perform. That's preferable because why?

      1. From the time the concept of capitalism came into common use, it has been argued that its "social Darwinism" has to be modified with systems "social justice". George Bush and Obama both have used this arguments. Both concepts are loaded with preconceived misconceptions and straw men and one must be properly armed intellectually to give capitalism the moral arguments it deserves.

        1. Social Darwinism was an effective slur at the time because the population was overwhelming practicing christian. That's no longer the case, most people that heard that phrase wouldn't have any inherent negative association with it.

          So the intellectual defense against it is to own the term and ridicule those using it as a slur as creationists, which they are.

    2. That's rather silly. Does every mention of Milton Friedman need to contain an elucidation of his connection to Pinochet? Even when writing an article about the draft?

      Spencer's argument for the free market is not the focus here. This is about his views on militarism and colonialism. It'd be pretty strange (and, I think, damning) to suddenly starting explaining and defending his "social Darwinist" language.

      1. You may have a point, but I still think that Spencers association with the concept is so strong it needs to be clarified at every opportunity. Also, a refutation of social Darwinism could have been easily integrated into Spencer's hypothesized non-militarism.

      2. "Does every mention of Milton Friedman need to contain an elucidation of his connection to Pinochet? "

        Why the hell not? When Friedman got his praxis, it filled sports stadiums full of people to be wiped out.

        That's not a footnote.

      3. Just as it is verboten to discuss any of the work of Harry Elmer Barnes without always preceding his name with the term "Holocaust denier" and engaging in a fitting act of ritual atonement for citing him.

        Even though that was, what, 0.01% of his otherwise excellent work?

    3. "The implication is that capitalism allows the strong to use physical force against others in their domination of them. "

      I think, rather, that capitalism is a system which rewards ambition, intelligence, manipulation and acquisitiveness. There are many ways besides physical force to dominate others.

    4. It won't come as any great shock to realize that if there is any group justifying the label social darwinist, it's the progs who supported eugenics.

      Another case of progjection.

      1. "it's the progs who supported eugenics"

        Hitler was a prog?
        How about Winston Churchill?
        Kellog (7th day adventist)?

        Keep in mind that the "conservative" angle on American and some other political systems didn't even exist in a historical context - so if many great men were "liberal and progressive", it's not like there was another side to the coin back then other than perhaps ignorant, uneducated or condoning slavery or a return to the feudal system.

        be real.

        1. Doesn't Bill Gates support eugenics? And the founder of Planned Parenthood? I vaguely recall hearing an interview with her on Democracy Now talking about it.

        2. You really are a dumb fuck craigjoe. Progressives WERE NOT and ARE NOT liberals. Progressivism was and still is fundamentally anti-liberal.

    5. "They always have the option of going into another business, or going to work for the better producer, etc."

      So your claim is that the 100's of thousands of steel plant and foundry workers and similar could go to China and work for the "better producer".?


  9. Standing on the sideline while one group slaughters another isn't a vote for peace. The entire argument is a straw man because the US isn't trying to colonize ISIS.

  10. Hitler would have loved you libertarians.

    1. Not every scumbag barbarian group is the Nazi's. ISIS does not pose the same threat as Nazi Germany. If there is an argument to be made for annihilating ISIS, this is not it.

      I am from a less pacifistic wing than of the movement than what is espoused by ol' Sheldon who commits the truly egregious sin of erroneously putting Libertarians in the same Jacobin gene pool as the socialist fucktards.

      That said, I am not on board at all with the interventionist US foreign policy since the end of the cold war. The term "new world order" makes my skin crawl.

      Paul is trying to make an argument. It is not convincing, your "yous guyz is stoopit, like HITLER!" argument makes Paul look like Demosthenes in comparison. Try again.

      1. "That said, I am not on board at all with the interventionist US foreign policy since the end of the cold war. "

        Were you on board with US interventionism in the ME before the end of the cold war? Wonderful times to be sure, Presidents and Sheiks walking hand in hand, but chickens have a habit of returning to the roost to reap what they've sewn.

        1. Great question. Family escaped from Stalinist Eastern Europe. No shit. Crossed into Italy from Yugoslavia. Was raised on the evils of Socialism-Communism-Collectivism. Was raised on how great this country is in comparison to all others. This place was paradise to the generation that made it here; they experienced Hitler and Stalin.

          I saw the Soviets as an existential threat to the first world. Supported the idea of NATO as a counter balance. Served in the USMC. Not keen on the bullshit we did in South America and Africa. Saw deals with the Sheiks as a necessary evil

          Chickens indeed. All that said, after the Soviet empire fell, I expected a devolution. Instead I heard the term from Shrub The Elder, "New World Order." Really?! Fuck you and your order.

  11. Ha ha. An article on Herbert Spencer.

    Number of mentions of Spencer's racism: zero.

    Number of mentions of his eugenics advocacy: zero.

    Number of mentions of his twisted notions of slavery as benefit to the poor: zero.

    Site where essay published: pet website of heavily-subsidized oil billionaires.

    Degree of surprise at this weak smokescreen hack job in 2014: zero.

    Ha ha.

    1. How does one reconcile slavery with the Law of Equal Liberty?

      As for the Racism ... the world was racist back then. Not right, but it was in the air everyone breathed.

      The Eugenics is another matter. That is Racism^2. That was the purview of the progressive-forward twits of that century

    2. It is verboten to mention Herbert Spencer without slinging ritual mud at whatever eugenicist racist social Darwinist things one can cherry pick from his work.

      Got it.

      Can we also ban those white supremacist books by Mark Twain and Jack London from polluting our precious chiiillldren? I'm really concerrrned that they are still being sold without a big warning sticker on each one alerting the peepul that those books are RACIST RACIST RACIST.

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