A Libertarian Theory of War

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The libertarian
movement has been chided by William
F. Buckley, Jr.
, for failing to use its “strategic intelligence”
in facing the major problems of our time. We have, indeed, been
too often prone to “pursue our busy little seminars on whether
or not to demunicipalize the garbage collectors” (as Buckley has
contemptuously written), while ignoring and failing to apply libertarian
theory to the most vital problem of our time: war and peace. 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.

Let us then,
by all means, use our strategic intelligence – although,
when he sees the result, Mr. Buckley might well wish that we had
stayed in the realm of garbage collection. Let us construct a
libertarian theory of war and peace.

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.[1]
In short, no violence may be employed against a nonaggressor.
Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire
corpus of libertarian theory.[2]

Let us set
aside the more complex problem of the State for a while 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

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.

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

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

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.[3]

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 a difference only 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.[4]
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

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 modern 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?


There are some libertarians who would go even further and say
that no one should employ violence even in defending himself against
violence. However, even such Tolstoyans, or “absolutist pacifists,”
would concede the defender’s right to employ defensive violence
and would merely urge him not to exercise that right. They, therefore,
do not disagree with our proposition. In the same way, a libertarian
temperance advocate would not challenge a man’s right to drink
liquor, only his wisdom in exercising that right.

We shall not attempt to justify this axiom here: Most libertarians
and even conservatives are familiar with the rule and even defend
it; the problem is not so much in arriving at the rule as in fearlessly
and consistently pursuing its numerous and often astounding implications.

Or, to bring up another famous antipacifist slogan, the question
is not whether “we would be willing to use force to prevent the
rape of our sister,” but whether, to prevent that rape, we are
willing to kill innocent people and perhaps even the sister herself.

William Buckley and other conservatives have propounded the curious
moral doctrine that it is no worse to kill millions than it is
to kill one man. The man who does either is, to be sure, a murderer;
but surely it makes a huge difference how many people he kills.
We may see this by phrasing the problem thus: after a man has
already killed one person, does it make a difference whether he
stops killing now or goes on a further rampage and kills many
dozen more people? Obviously, it does.

This article
is excerpted from “War, Peace, and the State,” originally published
in the Standard (April 1963). The full essay is included in
as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays
and The
Myth of National Defense: Essays on the Theory and History of
Security Production
(2003), edited by Hans-Hermann Hoppe
– now available in ePub.

from Mises.org.

N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and chief academic
officer of the Mises Institute.
He was also editor — with Lew Rockwell — of The
Rothbard-Rockwell Report
, and appointed Lew as his
literary executor. See
his books.

Best of Murray Rothbard

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