Libertarians Must Never Warm to the Warfare State

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Review, August 1977, pp. 10–12

The July
issue of Reason has a new format, which improves the layout
of the publication. But what about the content? Unfortunately,
on that ground, the new Reason seems to be worse than the

Let us examine
some of the articles in Reason’s July issue to see what
they are all about. First, one John Kizer attacks Thomas Szasz’s
libertarian denunciation of involuntary mental hospitalization.
Kizer analogizes that just as the unconscious victim of an auto
wreck can be justifiably "involuntarily" treated by
a doctor, a treatment that will be really voluntary after
the patient wakes up, so too can the schizophrenic or paranoiac
be involuntarily – "really" voluntarily –

Except that
the schizophrenic and paranoiac are awake and conscious, thank
you, and are clearly not assenting! And, should an opponent of
medical therapy wake up from his accident and demand out, his
demand, however odd, must be granted. But what of the similar
demand of the mental patient? At any rate, whether sound or unsound,
the point is that Mr. Kizer’s article is explicitly antilibertarian.

Then there
is the crazed article from Canada, by one A. Michael Keerma, which
Red-baits to an extent that would not even be tolerated by National
Review or Human Events. First, there is the ludicrous
charge that the Parti Québécois and Québec
Premier René Lévesque are Communists run by the
Soviet KGB. There is not even a coming to grips in the Keerman
article with the libertarian view that secession is a per se libertarian
act, being the dismantling of a State into constituent parts.
But just when I thought that Keerma would be calling for an all-out
defense of the Canadian nation-state against the Québec
separatists, I find that the author’s Red-baiting has boxed him
into a peculiar corner. For, according to Keerma, Canadian Prime
Minister Pierre Trudeau is himself a Communist and KGB

It is incredible
that this sort of drivel can appear in a responsible magazine. The
truth is that neither Trudeau nor Lévesque is a Communist
or a Soviet agent; they are simply, like nearly every other politician
in the "free world," moderate socialists, which is bad
enough, but hardly a call for the United States to become embattled,
in Keerma’s words, in "a war to determine the fate of the free
world." Or are we to nuke Britain, run by moderate-socialist

But we have
not yet come to the heart of this issue of Reason, which
is supposed to present both sides of the interventionism-noninterventionism
debate. At first sight, this aim seems a legitimate, even a noble
one, suitably democratic and free-inquiry-ish. But, on second
thought, what gives here? Why are there no debates in Reason
presenting both sides of the issue on abolishing OSHA, price controls,
the draft, and whatnot? Why is there no article praising Communism?
After all, Reason is not supposed to be a debate magazine,
but a journal devoted to liberty, that is, a journal committed
to a certain world outlook. Would it publish a debate on the merits
and demerits of mass murder? But then, of course, it has now done
just that, with more space and passion devoted to the pro–mass
murder side.[1]

Earl Ravenal’s
proisolationist article, "Non-Intervention: A Libertarian
Approach to Defense," is brilliant and persuasive, but it
is an account that gets neither into the historical background
and current nature of the Cold War nor into the philosophic principles

To counter
Ravenal, there are not one but two articles. R.J. Rummel’s
"Wishful Thinking is No Defense: A Political Scientist Challenges
Libertarian Foreign Policy Myths," is a hopped-up, ranting,
boobish replay of the most absurd myths of the Cold War. The second,
"Permissible Defense," by philosopher Eric Mack, is
a lengthy, confused, rambling article that, in the manner of all-too-many
libertarian philosophers, discourses on important empirical problems,
though armed with no facts whatsoever. One conclusion emerges
from the Mack morass – that isolationism is not, must not,
cannot be, a principle of libertarianism.

Eric Mack
uses a device employed by all too many libertarians – of
holding the ideal free-market anarchist system or a limited government
as virtually equivalent to the current State-ridden system. Thus,
he points out quite correctly that isolationism makes no sense
as a principle for a free-market protective agency; he leaps from
there to the conclusion that, at least for an anarchist, it cannot
be a binding principle for the State either. But for an anarchist,
the existing State is not a benign if a bit overly cumbersome
surrogate for a free-market protection agency. The State is organized
crime, murder, theft, and enslavement incarnate. And even for
laissez-faire liberals the existing State should be tarred
with the same dire labels.

is not a principle for free-market defense agencies because there
would be no nation-state and therefore no foreign policy for anyone
to worry about. But we live, unfortunately, in a world of nation-states,
in which each State has arrogated to itself a monopoly of the
use of violence over its assumed territorial area. Therefore,
to limit the aggressive use of the State, to limit State violence
over innocent people as much as possible, the libertarian, be
he an anarchist or a laissez-faire liberal, necessarily arrives
at the view that at least each State should confine its operations
to that area where it has a monopoly of violence, so that no interstate
clashes, or, more importantly, injuries wreaked by State A on
the population of State B, will be able to occur. The latter point
is particularly important in the days of modern technology when
it is virtually impossible for State A to fight State B without
gravely injuring or murdering large numbers of civilian innocents
on both sides.

"isolationism" – the confinement of State violence
to its own territory – is an important libertarian precept,
whether for an anarchist or not. Limiting government to its own
territory is the foreign-policy analogue of the domestic injunction
of the laissez-faire liberal that the State not interfere with the
lives of its own subjects. And isolationism becomes all the more
important in our modern age of advanced technological weaponry.

There is
an important philosophical error that Mack makes about free-market
defense agencies that is quite relevant to our concerns. He maintains
that if A uses B as an innocent shield to aggress against C, it
is perfectly legitimate for C to shoot B. The problem here is
that Mack forgets about the rights of B. Suppose, after all, that
B has hired his own defense agency sworn to defend his life and
property, and that, for some empirical reason, the agency can’t
get to A; would it not then be perfectly legitimate for B or his
agent to shoot C in self-defense? The answer, of course, is yes.
The error committed by Mack is to concentrate on one person, C,
and to worry about what C’s moral course of action may be, while
forgetting about B. On a deeper level, Mack’s error – also
engaged in by many others, of course – is to confuse morality
and rights, that is, to be concerned about what actions of C may
or may not be moral while ignoring what the rights are of the
various parties in the given situation. To put it succinctly,
it may well be that in the shield situation, it is moral for C
to shoot B in order to save his own life; but even though moral,
it is also murder, and a violation of B’s rights. This error stems
from Mack’s unfortunate view that rights as such all disappear
in emergency, "lifeboat" situations.

Thus, the political
philosopher should not be concerned with morality per se; he should
be concerned with that subset of morality dealing with rights.

More specifically,
in pondering various situations, real or hypothetical, the political
philosopher should be solely concerned with the question, Where
is it legitimate to use force, and by whom? Or, which use
of force is a criminal invasion of rights, and which a legitimate
defense of rights? The political philosopher is, or should be,
a sort of "Lone Ranger," or a surrogate for a Universal
Defense Agency, called upon by X and Y to enter into each of their
defenses in a violent or nonviolent dispute. The Political Philosopher/Universal
Defense Agency must ponder, who is using aggressive force, and
who is defending himself, in this situation? Or rather, whom must
I defend against whom? In the above situation, he determines that
A is an aggressor violating the rights of B and C, but that if
C decides to shoot B, then the Political Philosopher/Universal
Defense Agent is duty-bound to defend B against C’s aggression,
even if C’s action may be considered moral on another level.

It should
be noted that no local police force acts on Mackian premises;
no police agency not considered monstrous, for example, sprays
an innocent crowd with a machine gun in order to shoot a criminal,
or bombs an entire block where it knows a criminal is hiding.
But, at any rate, even if Mack were right on this point, it would
not be relevant to our foreign-policy theme, since one of the
major points of an isolationist policy is precisely that it is
the only one to minimize and avoid injury to innocent civilians.

We turn from
confusion to rant, and dangerous rant at that. In the name of
"realism," R.J. Rummel pulls one fantastic blooper after
another. There are so many it is difficult to know where to begin.
There is the spectacle of an alleged foreign-policy expert claiming
that East Germany had a developed economy before 1945, or that
North Vietnam was less economically developed than the South.
There is the usual statistical baloney of claiming that Soviet
military expenditures are higher than ours by using dollar rather
than ruble comparisons. There is the unusual baloney of claiming
that the American nuclear arsenal, which can kill most of the
population of the Soviet Union in a second strike, could only
kill four percent of that population. There is the breathtakingly
casual dismissal of historical causation, Rummel claiming that
it doesn’t matter if the United States were largely responsible
for launching the Cold War, since we are now threatened by Russia.
But if US actions were responsible in the first place, then perhaps
our actions can end this alleged threat.

Worst of
all is Rummel’s equivocal and misleading use of language,
which for an alleged libertarian is unforgivable. Bear in mind
that if libertarians understand anything, it is the conceptual
distinction between an initiation of aggressive violence, and
the use of propaganda or persuasion. Then let us turn to R.J.

were we attacked by Soviet military forces our government would
have to be given more power to counter this threat and defend
the freedoms we do have. We could not wait for private initiatives:
adequate defense would require our accepting more centralized
State government command and control.

We are
precisely in this situation. We are under attack, although by
all means short of nuclear war. And we are losing.

Now what
in the world does this mean? Under attack, by all means short
of nuclear war, eh? Have you heard of conventional bombers dropping
bombs recently on San Francisco, Chicago, or New York? Have our
ships been attacked by Russian planes or battleships? What is
this drivel?

Later in
his piece, Rummel, perhaps explaining this alleged "war"
situation, states that the "Soviet elite constantly reiterate
their goal of defeating capitalism everywhere (which goal they
call peaceful coexistence.)" Rummel apparently has no inkling
of the meaning of the rather charming term "peaceful coexistence."
It means that the Soviets will refrain from military aggression
across borders, relying on the supposedly inevitable internal
shift to Marxist regimes within each of the other countries –
i.e., relying on propaganda rather than interstate military clashes.
In short, there is no "war," in any sense that the libertarian,
indeed, that any rational person, would find meaningful.

Let us dwell
a bit further on Rummel’s obscene willingness to hand over still
more power to the American state. In addition to the above quotes,
he writes, "In the short term, we may need to increase the
state’s power in some areas to preserve our ability to move eventually
toward the libertarian goal. This is seen no better than in foreign
policy." Since Rummel likes to dwell on Reds under the bed,
I might point out that this gibberish was precisely Stalin’s rationale
for maximizing State power in Russia while supposedly on the road
to the state’s "withering away." This is the imbecile
dialectic: Yes, of course, we want the State to wither away, but
that’s only in the long run (very long); in the meantime, in order
to achieve that goal, we have to increase State power sharply. Rummel,
meet Stalin.

There is more,
much more, in Rummel. There is the standard Wilsonian nonsense that
dictatorships are always aggressive in foreign affairs while democracies,
or freer countries, are not – simply not true either way, and
an example of a priori history at its worst. There is Rummel’s
horror at the idea of the "gradual Finlandization" of
the world, which, characteristically, he equates with satellization
or absorption into the Soviet Union. But what’s wrong with being
a Finland? Indeed, Rummel could profitably study the Finnish case,
if he should ever come to think that modern history is important.
For the Russians occupied Finland after it joined Germany in attacking
Russia, just as the Soviets occupied the rest of Eastern Europe
after World War II for the same reason. Yet how is it that Russia
pulled out of Finland, and left it be, while the rest of Eastern
Europe became Sovietized? Did the Soviet Devil nod when considering
Finland? Did diabolism sleep? The actual answer is that, in contrast
to the other Eastern European countries, Finland, under the direction
of Julio Paasikivi, was willing to renounce anti-Soviet foreign
adventurism loud and clear. Given that commitment, the Soviets didn’t
really care about the domestic systems of the various countries.
Unfortunately, there was no equivalent statesman in Poland, Hungary,
et al., to give a similar commitment.

Also, Rummel,
a supposed libertarian, comes out not only against Western governmental
aid to Russia, but also against trade – presumably he is
in favor of outlawing such trade, again not realizing that trade
benefits both parties to an exchange.

And in claiming
a total power for terror tactics, in asserting that majority support
is no longer needed for a state, Rummel fails to explain why it
is that Batista terror, why South Vietnamese terror, backed up
by the murder of over a million Vietnamese peasants by American
bombers, why that terror failed to work. Anyone who understands
the principles and history of guerrilla warfare knows that the
essential condition for guerrilla victory is support by the mass
of the population; lacking that support, the population informs
on the guerrillas, and, as in the case of Che Guevara in Bolivia,
the battle is swiftly over.

The central
error in this farrago by Rummel is his repeated assertion that
statism equals Communism, and that therefore the central confrontation
of our time is between liberty and Communism. In fact, however,
the single most important enemy of liberty is mass murder. Communist
governments murder their citizens, but nuclear warfare would murder
far, far more, indeed the entire human race itself. And so the
greatest enemy of liberty in our time, our realistic enemy,
if you please, is nuclear war, by whichever State launches it.
And, empirically, every consideration – from the continuing
refusal of the United States to abjure first use of nuclear weapons,
to our refusal to agree to our own proposal for mutual general
and complete disarmament (with inspection) after Russia accepted
it in 1955, to the chilling fact that the United States and only
the United States is developing precise nuclear missiles that
could be used for a first nuclear strike – leads to regarding
the US state, rather than the Soviet Union, as the major nuclear
threat to the life and liberty of the world’s population.

are two essential policies, therefore, for libertarians to push
upon the American state: a policy of "isolationism," of
nonintervention into the territory of other states; and to pressure
it into genuine negotiations, at long last, for mutual nuclear disarmament
with inspection. The fact that Soviet Russia butchers many of its
own citizens is monstrous and important but is irrelevant to
the question of foreign policy and to the threats to human liberty
that lie in such policies.

For it is
not the function of any state, including the United States, to
right the sins of the Decalogue, to spread fire and devastation
in order to bring freedom around the globe – as we murdered
countless Vietnamese in the name of their "freedom."
And, above all, we must realize that nuclear war is a far bigger
threat to liberty than Communism. How’s that for libertarian

In short,
libertarians must realize that just as, for them, liberty must
be the highest political end, in the same way, peace and
the avoidance of mass murder must be the highest end of foreign

We may hope
that this issue of Reason does not prove a harbinger of
its future course. Reason has long had an unfortunate tendency
to define the scope of libertarianism so broadly and so fuzzily
as to leave it drifting in a zone somewhere between libertarianism
and conservatism. Yet, as the case of foreign policy demonstrates
so well, in issue after vital issue, libertarianism is not somewhere
near conservatism, but its polar opposite and mortal foe. It is
high time for libertarians to sharpen their knowledge of the critical
gulf between themselves and conservatism.


N. Rothbard
(1926–1995) was dean of the Austrian
School, founder of modern libertarianism, and academic vice
president 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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