Our Anti-Imperialist Heritage

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N. Rothbard (1926-1995) was just one man with a typewriter, but
he inspired a world-wide renewal in the scholarship of liberty.
During 45 years of research and writing, in 25 books and thousands
of articles, he battled every destructive trend in this century:
socialism, statism, relativism, and scientism – and awakened
a passion for freedom in thousands of scholars, journalists, and

in New York, Las Vegas, Auburn, and at conferences around the
world, Rothbard led the renaissance of the Austrian School of
economics. He galvanized an academic and popular fight for liberty
and property, against the omnipotent state and its court intellectuals.

one and two of his magisterial history of economic thought appeared
just after his death, published by Edward Elgar. Whereas other
texts pretend to an uninterrupted march toward higher levels of
truth, Rothbard illuminated a history of unknown geniuses and
lost knowledge, of respected charlatans and honored fallacies.

A large
collection of Rothbard’s best scholarly articles appears later
this year in the publisher’s "Economists of the Century"
series. In addition, there are unpublished manuscripts, articles,
and letters to fill many more volumes.

Like his
beloved teacher, Ludwig von Mises, Rothbard wrote for the public
as well as professionals. "Civilization and human existence
are at stake, and to preserve and expand it, high theory and scholarship,
though important, are not enough," he wrote in 1993. "Especially
in an age of galloping statism, the classical liberal, the advocate
of the free market, has an obligation to carry the struggle to
all levels of society."

theory was his practice. He was involved in nearly every political
and social development of his time, from Robert Taft’s presidential
campaign to the 1994 elections.
His last article, appearing in the

Washington Post
, warned that Newt Gingrich is more likely
to betray the revolution than lead it.

Q: Why,
in your view, is isolationism an essential tenet of libertarian
foreign policy?

A: The libertarian
position, generally, is to minimize State power as much as possible,
down to zero, and isolationism is the full expression in foreign
affairs of the domestic objective of whittling down State power.
In other words, interventionism is the opposite of isolationism,
and of course it goes on up to war, as the aggrandizement of State
power crosses national boundaries into other States, pushing other
people around etc. So this is the foreign counterpart of the domestic
aggression against the internal population. I see the two as united.

The responsibility
of trying to limit or abolish foreign intervention is avoided
by many conservative libertarians in that they are very, very
concerned with things like price control – of course I agree
with them. They are very, very concerned about eliminating taxes,
licensing, and so forth – with which I agree – but somehow
when it comes to foreign policy there’s a black out. The
libertarian position against the State, the hostility toward expanding
government intervention and so forth, goes by the board –
all of a sudden you hear those same people who are worried about
government intervention in the steel industry cheering every American
act of mass murder in Vietnam or bombing or pushing around people
all over the world.

This shows,
for one thing, that the powers of the State apparatus to bamboozle
the public work better in foreign affairs than in domestic. In
foreign affairs you still have this mystique that the nation-State
is protecting you from a bogeyman on the other side of the mountain.
There are "bad" guys out there out trying to conquer
the world and "our" guys are in there trying to protect
us. So not only is isolationism the logical corollary of libertarianism,
which many libertarians don’t put into practice; in addition,
as Randolph Bourne says, "war is the health of the State."

The State
thrives on war – unless, of course, it is defeated and crushed
– expands on it, glories in it. For one thing, when one State
attacks another State, it is able through this intellectual bamboozlement
of the public to convince them that they must rush to the defense
of the State because they think the State is defending them.

In other
words, if let’s say, Paraguay and Brazil are going to get
into a war, each State – the Paraguayan government and the
Brazilian government – is able to convince their own subjects
that the other government is out to get them and loot them and
murder them in their beds and so forth, so they are able to induce
their own hapless subjects to fight against the other State, whereas
in actual practice, of course, it is the States that have the
quarrel, not the people. The people are outside the quarrels of
the State and yet the State is able to generate this patriotic
mass war hysteria and to call everybody up to the colors physically
and spiritually and economically and therefore, of course, aggrandize
State power permanently.

Most conservatives
and libertarians are very familiar with – and deplore –
the increase in State power in the American government in the
last 50 or 70 years, but what they don’t seem to realize
is that most of these increases took place in giant leaps during
wartime. It was wartime that provided the crisis situation –
the spark – which enabled the States to put on so-called
"emergency" measures, which of course never got lifted,
or rarely got lifted.

Even the
war of 1812 – seemingly a harmless little escapade – was
evil, and also in the domestic sense, in that it ruined the Jeffersonian
Party for a long time to come, it established Federalism which
means monopoly State-capitalism in essence, it imposed a central
bank, it imposed high tariffs, it imposed domestic federal taxation,
which never existed before, internal taxation, and it took a long
time to get rid of it, and we never really did get back to the
pre-War of 1812 level of minimal State power.

Then, of
course, the Mexican war had consequences of slave expansion and
so forth. But the Civil War was, of course, much worse –
the Civil War was really the great turning point, one of the great
turning points in the increase of State power, because with the
Civil War you now have the total introduction of things like railroad
land grants, subsidies of big business, permanent high tariffs,
which the Jacksonians had been able to whittle away before the
Civil War, and a total revolution in the monetary system so that
the old pure gold standard was replaced first by greenback paper,
and then by the National Banking Act – a controlled banking
system. And for the first time we had the imposition in the United
States of an income tax and federal conscription. The income tax
was reluctantly eliminated after the Civil War as was conscription:
all the other things – such as high excise taxes – continued
on as a permanent accretion of State power over the American public.

The third
huge increase of power came out of World War I. World War I set
both the foreign and the domestic policies for the twentieth century.
Woodrow Wilson set the entire pattern for foreign policy from
1917 to the present. There is a total continuity between Wilson,
Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson and Nixon – the same thing
all the way down the line.

Q: You’d
include Kennedy in that?

A: Yes Kennedy,
right. I don’t want to miss anybody. Every president has
been inspired by Woodrow Wilson. It was reported that Richard
Nixon’s first act when he came into the White House was to
hang a picture of Woodrow Wilson in front of his desk. The same
influence has held on domestic affairs. As a matter of fact if
I had to single out – this is one of my favorites pastimes
– the biggest SOB in American history in the sense of evil
impact – I think Woodrow Wilson is way, way at the head of
the list for many reasons. The permanent direction which Woodrow
Wilson set for foreign policy included the permanent collective
security concept, which means America has some sort of God-given
role to push everybody around everywhere and set up little democratic
governments all over the world, and to suppress any kind of revolution
against the status quo – that means any kind of change in
the status quo either domestic or foreign. In the domestic sphere
the corollary was the shift from a relatively laissez-faire economy
– corrupted as it was by the Civil War subsidies it was still
and all a relatively laissez-faire capitalism – a deliberate
shift to in essence a so-called corporate state, what openly became
a Corporate State in Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany.

Q: As
of what time?

Well, the Progressive period begins around 1900 with Teddy Roosevelt
and so forth. Woodrow Wilson cements it with his so-called reforms
which totally subject the banking system to federal power and
with the Federal Trade Commission, which did for business what
the Interstate Commerce Commission did for the railroads. In other
words, he imposed a system of monopoly capitalism, or corporate
state monopoly, which we now call the partnership of the government
and of big business and industry, which means essentially a corporate
state, or we can call it economic Fascism. It culminated in World
War I economic planning, for the war consisted of a totally collectivized
economy headed by the sainted and revered Bernard Mannes Baruch,
head of the War Industries Board.

The economy
had a central board and each industry was governed by a committee
from the industry – say the iron and steel industry was governed
by the Iron and Steel Board, the heads of the board were deliberately
selected from the biggest firms in that particular industry and
they would negotiate with committees of industry set up by the
government, and the government would encourage trade associations
in the industries to set up committees and negotiate with these

So what you
have is the so-called commodity sections – the government
boards selected from the biggest businessmen in the industry and
they fixed prices and production and priority and everything else
with other committees set up by the same big firm, and everyone
loved it. Big businesses loved it, the government loved it and
the Progressive intellectuals – as they were called then
– said, this is a magnificent third way, a "middle way"
as they called it – to battle the old laissez-faire capitalism
on the one hand, and the new Proletarian Marxian socialism on
the other.

didn’t like the idea of Marxian socialism because it was
messy, emphasized class struggle, and led to a revolution perhaps.
What they saw here was a new order – and this was a vision
held by Baruch and Hoover and all sorts of Progressive intellectuals
from the universities and so forth – they saw a beautiful
new order with big government controlling the economy, regulating
it, subsidizing it, largely staffed by big businessmen in collaboration
with unions, which were deliberately encouraged as disciplinary
agents for the labor force, and which were practically created
by the war labor system. All this of course was staffed and apologized
for by the Progressive intellectuals, who acquired prestige, power,
and a great sense of accomplishment pushing people around in their
government bureaus.

So we have,
then, this unholy partnership of big government, big business,
big unions, and intellectuals, and it was developed so much in
World War I planning that the business leaders and the government
leaders who pushed the thing were very reluctant to see it end.
They saw in it not just a wartime measure; this was the model
they wanted for the permanent peacetime economy. They wanted to
end all messy competition. As one big business writer said, "As
General Sherman said ‘war is Hell, competition is war, and
therefore competition is Hell.’" They wanted to eliminate
competition, and to establish a system of industrial "cooperation"
monopolies. And they were very sorry to see the War Industries
Board scrapped when the war was over.

As a matter
of fact, it almost wasn’t scrapped. Wilson finally decided
to scrap it, but it was touch and go. Then afterwards the same
people – Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Bernard Baruch, all
the people who had earned their stripes in World War I mobilization
planning – for the rest of their lives tried and then succeeded
in reestablishing World War I planning – it was known as
war collectivism – as a permanent peacetime set up. Herbert
Hoover during the 1920s was trying to use the power of the government
to encourage and support trade association cartel agreements,
and Franklin Roosevelt also. When Roosevelt and the New Deal got
in, they used not only the same agencies as World War I collectivism,
but the same people.

In case after
case the people were brought back to do for the economy what had
been done in war, to treat the depression in a military manner,
and then World War II, of course, finishes it. In World War II,
we have another big quantum leap – enormous government spending
and military-industrial pump priming, and the permanent cold war,
and so we then have the plans for a permanent peacetime welfare-warfare
state – a corporate state – pushed through of course
by partnership of these powerful forces plus intellectuals, done
by means of wartime crisis.

Q: The
notion of collective security is something that many Americans
today take for granted as desirable and essential.

A: Well I
think the concept of collective security is (1) a disaster and
(2) anti-libertarian. Viet Nam again brings this thing to the
fore, in the sense of masking imperial interventionist policy
on the part of the American government in the rhetoric of the
cloak of righteousness and moralistic pieties. Let’s take
two hypothetical states – this is the technique von Mises used
to use, I think, with good effect – take the hypothetical states
of Ruritania and Waldavia, somewhere off in the Balkans or whatever.
The Ruritanian State invades the Waldavian State. The collective-security
view is that this constitutes aggression, it’s evil per se
– an evil State attacking a victim State, the Ruritanian
State being the aggressor in this case, and then it becomes the
duty of every other State in the whole wide world – the United
States being somehow the divinely appointed chief and almost sole
pourer out of resources in this effort – to step in to defend
the so-called victim, and crush the aggressor.

Now this
has very many important consequences. One is that every crummy
little interstate conflict anywhere in the world becomes escalated
and maximized into world wide global conflict. With this kind
of policy it means that no dispute anywhere, however trivial,
can ever be kept trivial or kept isolated to the parties of the
dispute, as they become globalized and bring everybody else into
the holocaust. The second problem is that the whole idea of the
aggressor State and the victim State is based on the phony analogy
of the individual citizen – individual person – suffering
an aggression against him.

You remember
the big argument President Truman used about Korea – he said,
"We are not engaged in a war, we are engaged in a police
action, a UN police action against the North Korean aggressor."
Now when he said that he was not just using peculiar and phony
rhetoric. The rhetoric came out of the Wilsonian collective security
ideology, which was: if you see armies crossing frontiers somewhere,
this constitutes aggression. It means that in the same sense as
if he sees Jones beating up Smith on the street, the policeman
on the block rushes to his defense, and so therefore the United
States and the United Nations become the policemen rushing to
defend the victim.

Now there
are several problems in this. One is that even in the case of
Jones and Smith, the presumption is if you see Jones beating up
Smith that you should rush to Smith’s defense. However, there
might be certain mitigating circumstances. Smith might have just
beaten up Jones’s kid, and Jones might be retaliating; in
other words, Smith might have started the fight – you don’t
know that without historical investigation so to speak of the
Smith-Jones relationship.

In the case
of States, you have a completely different situation because this
ideology assumes that the Waldavian State and Ruritanian State
are somehow the rightful owners of all their territory, just as
Jones owns his watch and Smith does, too, and then Smith beats
Jones up or takes his watch away from him, this is aggression.
The analogy then becomes, if Ruritania invades Waldavia, this
means that Waldavian territory, Waldavian property, rightful property,
has been taken away from them by the Ruritanian aggressor.

Now the point
is for the libertarian that none of these States have any rightful
property, that the Ruritanian government does not properly and
justly own the entire land area of the country – the property
should be owned by individual citizens, the State apparatus has
then no title, no just claim. So if the Ruritanian State crosses
the frontier and fights the Waldavian State, this does not make
the Ruritanian State any more of an aggressor than the original
Waldavian State. Both of them are aggressors over their subject
populations. Considering that and the whole idea that every other
government should rush in and defend Waldavia means that not only
is every small conflict escalated to a global scale – it
also means that every small aggression is maximized in the global

In other
words, since all governments aggress against their citizens through
taxes, through conscription, through mass murder called war, the
more governments that enter into the picture – the more the
United States, Britain, or whatever rushes in to defend Waldavia
– the more innocent civilians get killed, the more innocent
people are forced to pay taxes, the more innocent people are conscripted.
So the way to minimize aggression when you are dealing with States
is to agitate and press for nobody to enter into any conflict
at all – hopefully for no government to go to war with any
other government – and if any government does go to war,
for the third, fourth, and fifth party to stay the blazes out.

Apart from
all this, the boundaries of each State – Waldavian, Ruritanian,
American, French, British – since they are not justly owned
by any sort of process of capital investment or homesteading or
anything else, since all State boundaries have always been the
result of previous conquests – so in many cases the so-called
aggressor state has a better claim than the so-called victim state.

For example,
suppose that Ruritania is "aggressing" and declares
war on Waldavia and starts seizing the Northwestern part of Waldavia.
Well, it’s very possible that the Northwestern part of Waldavia
is ethnically Ruritanian, had Ruritanian customs, and that 100
years ago, the Waldavian State had conquered it and now the Ruritanians
were taking it back. This is a perfectly legitimate claim, so
the point is, then, that all interstate wars intensify aggression
– maximize it – and that some wars are even more unjust
than others. In other words, all government wars are unjust, although
some governments have less unjust claims in the sense that they
might have. Well, let’s put it this way, in the case of the
Ruritanian-Waldavian thing, when the Ruritanians are simply taking
back ethnically Ruritanian territory and the Ruritanian masses
were yearning to rejoin their homeland – then libertarians,
it seems to me, would say that war would then be just if the following
conditions were satisfied: (1) There were no taxes imposed; (2)
No innocent civilians got killed; (3) Nobody got conscripted –
in other words, it was a purely voluntary fight. Obviously to
meet these conditions, it would be almost impossible but there
are different gradations – you know, real life wars, approaching
this. A "just war" would be for all these conditions
to be met.

Q: What
is your view of the applicability of the concept of collective
security to, say, a situation involving a private nongovernmental
band of pirates?

A: Well I
wouldn’t call it collective security. First of all, I don’t
like the word "collective." Collective implies some
sort of nonexistent collectivity that acts – has a being
and acts; only individuals exist, only individuals act. So that
if private people get aggressed against by pirates I would certainly
be in favor of and certainly support the right of these individual
victims to defend themselves against piracy by banding together,
or by hiring other agencies to defend themselves. I don’t
like to call that collective, because collective implies some
sort of coercive totality.

Q: Let’s
assume, then, you have some type of mutual defense pact entered
into by private individuals to defend themselves against a band
of private nongovernmental pirate. Let’s say that it would
be probable that there would be innocent victims of the tactics
that were most appropriate in defending private interests. What
would be your view on the propriety of such tactics?

I think – first, one of the points that I should have mentioned
about wars, why I am opposed to all of them – is that in
modern times the scale of weaponry that’s used is escalated
so that it’s almost impossible not to murder innocent civilians.
Part of the reason for this is not only the march of technology,
the fact that if you use a bow and arrow you can pinpoint it against
the enemy army, you can pinpoint it at the retinue of a king.
If you use H bombs or B-29s or whatever, of course, you can’t
pinpoint the warring soldiers and officers – you have to
start the mass murdering of civilians.

another reason for this: the State apparatus gathers to itself
the entire population of its territory. If you happen to live
in France you as a French citizen, even though you might hate
the war that France is conducting against Portugal, you are committed
to it by the very nature of the state system. So that if the French
government goes to war with the Portuguese government, the Portuguese
government would undoubtedly bomb, if it could, the French civilian
population. So, in other words, the very nature of interstate
war puts innocent civilians into great jeopardy, especially with
modern technology.

if you didn’t have State war, if States were eliminated or
if you are only talking about private marauders versus private
defenders, then the situation completely changes. Then you don’t
only have one state and one geographical area secure in its home
base, and the other state somewhere else in its geographical area
on its home base. In other words, to put it bluntly, you are not
going to have either the marauders or the defenders bombing each
other because they are only perhaps five blocks apart. So the
result of this is that you only use H bomb and mass murder –
commit genocide against an enemy – if they are way out there
somewhere and you can’t see them. The beauty of nonstate
– interprivate, if you want to put it that way, warfare is
that it has to be pinpointed – it has to be, in order not to
commit suicide in the process – and so that the scale of weaponry
has to be reduced to, say, machine-gun level.

In that situation,
I don’t see why civilians have to be injured at all. After
all, look at private crime now: suppose somebody beats somebody
over the head and steals his pocketbook and runs down the street.
The police right now do not spray machine-gun fire on the entire
crowd in order to shoot down the criminal. The principle is that
no innocent person can get killed, and if the criminal escapes,
it’s tough luck, because the most important principle for
the libertarian and among the domestic police is not to use force
against noncriminals. There’s an ancient maxim that it’s
more important to let a hundred criminals escape than to injure
one innocent person, so (1) I would be totally opposed to injuring
any non-criminals and (2) if you shift from State war – interstate
warfare – down to private warfare, the likelihood of doing
that, of pursuing this kind of libertarian non-injuring of civilians,
will be greatly increased.

Q: Do
you care to comment on the view that the only war in which the
United States has been involved which could be justified is the
Revolutionary War?

A: Yes, I
agree 100% with that! The difference between the Revolutionary
War and an interstate war is that, in the first place, an interstate
war is a war of one government against another – it’s
a war that aggresses against the innocent civilians of the opposite
government, it’s a war that increases taxes at home, and
conscription usually, to pay for it. Revolutionary war is a war
against the state apparatus, a war from below by the armed public.
It doesn’t have to injure innocent civilians, and it usually
doesn’t. It often does not involve taxes or conscription
– if it does, it does so on a very small scale.

The American
revolutionary effort didn’t have any taxation even on a state
level for the first few years of the Revolutionary war. In other
words, put it this way – when you have a revolutionary war
against the existing state apparatus – say the American people
against the British Crown and their collaborationists at home,
the guerrilla revolutionary effort can pinpoint their attacks
against the State apparatus. They do the pinpointing, and they
have to do the pinpointing. They can do it and they have to do
it – in other words, they don’t spray innocent people
with machine guns, they don’t H-bomb if they have the H bomb,
their object is to zap the forces of the existing government of
the Crown – the Crown officers and so forth.

On the other
hand, the reason why they don’t injure civilians is usually
not just from moral reasons, but from basic strategic ones –
that is, that no revolutionary, no people’s war can succeed
unless it has the broad support of the mass of the population.
Mao tse Tung and Che Guevara, of course, enunciated this –
as "The guerrillas are to the people as fish are to water."
But actually Charles Lee saw this much earlier – he was the
brilliant Revolutionary theorist who was the second in command
to George Washington for the first few years of the American Revolution.
He was a British soldier of fortune and libertarian and wandered
all over the world picking up military insights. As soon as the
American Revolution broke out, Lee rushed to the United States
to help out in the war effort, and was made second in command.

Lee set the
pattern for the American victory, not Washington – well,
I won’t go into that, but Lee set the pattern by pointing
out that the American Revolution could only succeed as a people’s
war from below – a guerrilla struggle, it you will –
against the superior fire power of the British government. The
government’s lacking the essential popular support, the guerrillas
therefore become the people, and people became the guerrillas
in the old battle grounds of Lexington and Concord, which victories
were the first great American guerrilla action. The British, just
as the Americans now in Vietnam, had very great difficulty distinguishing
between the peasants and the guerrillas. They say they all look
alike – well, they are alike, they are them. In other words,
peasants in the daytime pick up the guns at night and pop the
British soldiers.

Joey Rothbard:
Not the British soldiers.

Well, in the American Revolution, it was the British soldiers,
in the Viet Nam war, it is the American soldiers, but the principle
is the same. The interesting thing is that on the other hand,
the counterrevolutionary forces, in other words, the Government
battling against the Revolution, has to do just the opposite:
they have superior fire power for various reasons, they have the
official army, but they don’t have the support of the population
– so in their kind of warfare, they have to amass genocidal
terror against the civilian population, they try to break the
morale of the civilians, try to cut their support off from the
guerrillas and so forth. The Americans have done this with the
infamous strategic hamlet policy in Viet Nam, herding the peasants
into hamlets so that they couldn’t support the guerrillas;
the British did it in the Boer War in the early 20th century;
the American government did it in the Philippines in the early
part of the 20th century; and I think the British would have done
it in the Revolutionary war if they had had the resources to do
so. The British actually did some of this, you know, though they
had not carried counterrevolutionary warfare to its present height.
But the principle is there so that if you have a revolution against
the State apparatus, the revolutionary warfare – apart from
the goals of the revolution or the counterrevolution – is
almost necessarily libertarian and the counterrevolutionary warfare
is almost necessarily genocidal or anti-libertarian.

Q: What
are the basic elements of a proper libertarian foreign policy?

A: Well,
the basic elements of any libertarian foreign policy is to pressure
the government to do nothing abroad, just to pack up shop and
go home. General Smeadly Butler, one of my great heroes, formerly
of the Marine Corps, in the late 1930s proposed a constitutional
amendment in The Woman’s Home Companion. His article was
a sensation for awhile but of course the amendment never was adopted
and has now been forgotten. But it was kind of a charming constitutional
amendment – I recommend that everybody read it. In essence
it says something like this: no American soldier, plane, or ship
shall be sent any place outside America. In other words, complete
abstinence from any kind of American military intervention and
political and economic intervention.

Q: You
would be referring to American government planes, I assume –
what about commercial flights?

A: Oh yes,
you know, abstinence from government intervention. It was the
idea of isolationism. The sneer against isolationism always was
that isolationists were parochial, narrow-minded characters who
don’t know that there is a world out there and want to hide
their heads in the sand. In fact it’s the opposite –
the true principle of isolationism is that the government should
be isolated, the government should do nothing abroad and people
who trade, interchange, and engage in voluntary travel, migration,
and so forth should be allowed to peacefully do so. The idea is
to isolate the government, not to isolate the country.

another aspect, of course; this would apply to any government,
but the thing is there is also an extra aspect – empirically
it so happens that the American government since the days of Woodrow
Wilson has been the main threat to the peace of the world, the
main imperialist, the main embarker on a policy of meddling in
every conceivable country every place in the world to make sure
their government shapes up properly. So that the policy of American
isolationism is more important for libertarian principle than
any other country’s isolationism.

~ Antiwar.com:
These edited extracts, from an interview in the February 1973
issue of Reason magazine, first ran in the June 1999 issue
of The Rothbard-Rockwell Report, published by the Center
for Libertarian Studies. The introduction is taken from "Murray
N. Rothbard: A Legacy of Liberty," by Llewellyn H. Rockwell,
Jr. and is reprinted with the permission of the Center for Libertarian

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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