Immanuel Kant: Democratic Warmonger?

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Dim Peace

in the early 1980s, a number of writers have taken to accusing
the Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) of having
been a friend of democratic imperialism. Actually, that's not
quite right, since these characters believe they are paying Kant
a compliment. A cynic might say they seek to steal Kant's prestige
for a project of their own making.

The project
in question is of course the much-mooted u201Cdemocratic peaceu201D theory.
Here, on the claim that u201Cdemocracies never fight other democracies,u201D
certain scholars have undertaken major – and one suspects, state-subsidized
– projects to find empirical confirmation of this alleged fact
and to build causal theories to explain the happy correlation
between democracy and peace. The empirical worth of these studies
seems a bit undermined by fairly constant shifting of the definition
of u201Cdemocracyu201D so that the data may fit the theory.

The whole
thing looks more and more like a very costly exercise in the true
Scotsman fallacy.

it turns out, are loveably open, transparent, responsible and
responsive to their publics, and never attack one another. They
do, it is conceded, attack non-democracies quite often, but this
is taken to be further proof of their essential goodness and virtue.
Thus the democratic u201Cpeaceu201D consists not so much in the absence
of warfare, as in the extension of the heroic u201Czone of peaceu201D
obtaining between or among the sainted democracies – by force
if necessary.

The division
of the world into two zones is a dire accusation when leveled
at Soviets, Gnostics, Muslims, and the like.

The utopian
goal, then, is the extension of democracy everywhere in the world,
at which point there will never again be war, since democracies
don't, etc. That, or there will be a good u201Ctestu201D of this rather
implausible imposture. But I have said enough about this subject
for now. (See my column, u201CKantians
With Cruise Missiles

Suffice it
to say that u201Cdemocratic peaceu201D is everywhere lately, even if rumors
of its total intellectual triumph are somewhat exaggerated. The
theme has become central to official US lucubrations on foreign
policy, the nature of man, and the meaning of life. It is very
noticeable in the various reports on Homeland Security (1998–2002),
to which I hope to return soon.

The Appeal
to Kant

Right now,
what interests me is the claim that Kant would have sung in this
opera and is, indeed, its inventor. Commenting on the claim by
German national socialists that Kant was a positive advocate
of war, Ludwig von Mises wrote: u201CIt is nonsensical to consider
Kant a precursor of Nazism. Kant advocated eternal peace between
nations. The Nazis praise war u2018as the shape of higher human existence'
and their ideal is u2018to live always in a state of war.'u201D


So much for
one attempt to hijack Kant into the instrumental war camp.

It is true,
of course, that Kant is not the clearest fellow. He works on many
levels at once. He focuses on the ways in which our practical
reason allows us to arrive at transcendental moral truths, such
as the Categorical Imperative – the injunction never to use a
fellow human being solely as a means. Further, he is concerned
with how such moral truths, derived in this fashion, can be implemented
in the real world. Stuart M. Brown, Jr. complained, some forty
years ago, that Kant tries to derive a moral theory directly from
his epistemology and grafts that theory onto political life; since
this is unworkable, says Brown, all Kant does in practice is to
juxtapose high-toned moral imperatives alongside his own ad
hoc opinions about political affairs.


But even if Kant's (possibly) undemonstrated opinions dangle in
mid-air disconnected from his overall system of thought, these
views were not that uncommon in his day, and other liberal writers
had given them sound grounding. In any case, far and away the
best thing to do is to read Kant's essay, u201CPerpetual Peace,u201D


rather than depend on today's global democrats to interpret
it for us. That essay, I think, gives scant, and possibly no,
support to the program for which Kant is being claimed.

u201CPreliminary Articles for Perpetual Peaceu201D

Kant lays
his argument out in the form of a treaty. The first article reads:
u201CNo treaty of peace shall be held valid in which there is tacitly
reserved matter for a future war.u201D This seems straightforward
enough, if a bit high-minded.

Second article:
u201CNo independent states, large or small, shall come under the dominion
of another state by inheritance, exchange, purchase, or donation.u201D


Third article:
u201CStanding armies (miles perpetuus) shall in time be totally

It would
be rather hard to carry out the global democrats' program of aggression
under this restriction.

Kant gives
a number of reasons for this prohibition. Standing armies u201Cincessantly
menace other states by their readiness to appear at all times
prepared for war; they incite them to compete with each other
in the number of armed men, and there is no limit to this. For
this reason, the cost of peace finally becomes more oppressive
than that of a short war, and consequently a standing army is
itself a cause of offensive war waged in order to relieve the
state of this burden.u201D There is also a moral problem: u201CAdd to
this that to pay men to kill or to be killed seems to entail using
them as mere machines and tools in the hand of another (the state),
and this hardly seems compatible with the rights of mankind in
our own person.u201D

Kant expresses
a preference – not surprising in a republican – for citizen militia,
since u201Cthe periodic and voluntary military exercises of citizens
who thereby secure themselves and their country against foreign
aggression are entirely different.u201D

Given standing
armies, other difficulties arise. Any u201Caccumulation of treasureu201D
in the hands of the state will necessarily seem u201Ca threat of waru201D
because of the importance of money in making war possible. By
now Kant seems very much a u201Clow-tax liberal,u201D to borrow a phrase
from the 1980 libertarian presidential campaign of Ed Clark.

Fourth article:
u201CNational debts shall not be contracted with a view to the external
friction of war.u201D Kant is certainly up-to-date in his understanding
of the 18th-century state-financial revolution. He
also displays a grasp of some associated economic issues.

Thus he writes:
u201Ca credit system which grows beyond sight and which is yet a safe
debt for the present requirements – because all the creditors
do not require payment at one time – constitutes a dangerous money
power. This ingenious invention of a commercial people [England]
in this century is dangerous because it is a war treasure which
exceeds the treasures of all the other states; it cannot be exhausted
except by default of taxes (which is inevitable), though it can
be long delayed by the stimulus to trade which occurs through
the reaction of credit on industry and commerce.u201D It follows,
that u201Cto forbid this credit system must be a preliminary article
of perpetual peace all the more because it must eventually entangle
many innocent states in the inevitable bankruptcy and openly harm


Such notions
were classical liberal commonplaces, and Kant sounds, in this
connection, just like Destutt de Tracy, John Taylor of Caroline,
Thomas Jefferson, and many others. And note the link made between
fractional-reserve banking, business cycles, and war!

One could
scarcely get many crusades for global-democracy-by-bomber-and-cruise-missile
off the ground, were this article adhered to.

Even more
inconveniently for global democratic campaigns, Kant writes in
the fifth article: u201CNo state shall by force interfere with the
constitution or government of another state.u201D This holds even
if a state has done some evil and u201Cits lawlessness should serve
as a warning.u201D The only exception Kant allows is the case of two
armed factions, each contending to be the government of a state.
Here it might be reasonable for a neighbor to support one
side out of prudential considerations.

I suppose
this might seem a loophole for covert democratic crusading through
backing a regime's internal enemies. But Kant shuts this door
in his sixth article: u201CNo state shall, during war, permit such
acts of hostility which would make mutual confidence in the subsequent
peace impossible: Such are the employment of assassins (percussores),poisoners
(venefici), breach of capitulation, and incitement to treason
(perduellio) in the opposing state.u201D

Good heavens!
No assassinating: This would appear to rule out bombing the restaurant
where, say, Saddam Hussein is fancied to be dining, to say nothing
of blowing up the cooks, dishwashers, and waiters – a matter that
stirred hardly a ripple of interest in the American press. Forbidding
poisoners might have a chilling effect on the use of depleted
uranium. No u201Cbreach of capitulationu201D might hinder the u201Carrestu201D
and indefinite incarceration of a defeated enemy's civil and military
leadership. Lastly, forbidding u201Cincitement to treasonu201D would really
cramp the democratic crusaders' style. No more u201Cexileu201D leaders
and spokesmen, and folks like Mr. Chalabi would have to go back
to their normal business, whatever it is.

After all,
says Kant, u201C[t]hese are dishonorable strategies.u201D Finally, still
under article six, Kant condemns u201Cthe use of spies,u201D for here,
u201Cone employs the infamy of others (which can never be entirely
eradicated) only to encourage its persistence even into the state
of peace, to the undoing of the very spirit of peace.u201D


u201CEven into the state of peaceu201D – is this perhaps an anticipation
of one form of blowback?

Not very
realistic, you will say. Poor Kant could never sit through an
American action film, or even a James Bond one, could he? Perhaps
so, but on the other hand, the real Immanuel Kant hasn't done
much, so far, to legitimate crusading – by means of aggressive
war – for democracy as the key to lasting peace. 

Kant's u201CDefinitive
Articles for Perpetual Peace Among Statesu201D

Kant now
presents another set of articles or propositions. He introduces
the notion that peace u201Cmust be establishedu201D to overcome
the perils of the state of nature.

The first
article reads: u201CThe civil constitution of every state should be
republican.u201D This is because u201C[t]he only constitution which derives
from the idea of the original compact, and on which all juridical
legislation of a people must be based, is the republican.u201D


Of course hisintroduction of social contract theory is not
especially helpful, for reasons too numerous to go into here.

institutions, he thinks, hold out u201Ca favorable prospect for… perpetual
peace.u201D Kant gives these reasons:

if the consent of the citizens is required in order to decide
that war should be declared (and in this constitution it cannot
but be the case), nothing is more natural than that they would
be very cautious in commencing such a poor game, decreeing for
themselves all the calamities of war. Among the latter would be:
having to fight, having to pay the costs of war from their own
resources, having painfully to repair the devastation war leaves
behind, and, to fill up the measure of evils, load themselves
with a heavy national debt that would embitter peace itself and
that can never be liquidated on account of constant wars in the


He next distinguishes
between form of sovereignty and form of government. The forms
of sovereignty are autocracy, aristocracy, and democracy. The
form of government is more important and, here, there are
only two kinds: u201Crepublican or despotic.u201D He writes: u201CRepublicanism
is the political principle of the separation of the executive
power (the administration) from the legislative; despotism is
that of the autonomous execution by the state of laws which it
has itself decreed.u201D If follows, that u201Cdemocracy is, properly
speaking, necessarily a despotismu201D because, there, u201Ceveryone wishes
to be master.u201D


Oops! Another
doubt creeps in about Kant the Global Democrat. Kant adds, in
fact, that u201Cthe sovereignty of oneu201D would be u201Cthe most bearable
of all forms of despotism.u201D


In other words, absent a republican constitution, monarchy
would be better than democracy. It bears remarking, too, that
if u201Cautonomous execution by the state of laws which it has itself
decreedu201D is despotism, all modern democracies – with their
meddling, activist judges, bloated bureaucracies, and administrative
u201Clawu201D – seem to come under Kant's ban.

The second
article in this section runs: u201CThe law of nations shall be founded
on a federation of free states.u201D This sounds promising. Maybe
the u201CKantianu201D imperialists can ground their program on this one.

Kant expands
here on his understanding of social contract theory. Savages – and all men before the social contract – act without restraint
and are constrained, finally, to agree to live in an organized
community under law. Brown sees a problem here: u201CThe state of
nature argument is designed to make the case of submitting to
positive law look like the case of keeping promises and returning
borrowed goodsu201D thereby making it possible for Kant to bring civil
law under his overall system of morals. But, says Brown, u201Cwe do
not voluntarily decide to live under the system of positive laws
to which we are born subject.u201D


Kant continues
with the observation that, despite the claims of those u201Cirritating
comfortersu201D Grotius, Pufendorf, and Vattel, states do not live
under law and are thus like men before the social contract. For
Kant, war does not decide right, nor does the notion u201Cof a law
of nations as a right to make war… really mean anything.u201D Thus
the solution is this: u201Cthere must be a league of a particular
kind, which can be called a league of peace (foedus pacificum),
and which would be distinguished from a treaty of peace (pactum
pacis) by the fact that the latter terminates only one war,
while the former seeks to make an end of all wars forever.u201D


Now u201Cfoedusu201D
means an agreement or pact. It is the root of the word u201Cfoederalu201D
(u201Cfederalu201D), which always carried with it the notion of agreement
or treaty, at least until Mr. Lincoln got a good many u201Cof his
own peopleu201D killed in order to redefine the word for us.

Kant is keen
to get everyone u201Cunder law,u201D and thinks that, just as men have
agreed to be under separate states for their protection, so will
states come to agree over time, even if the compulsion of Nature
plays a role in the process.

This does
not seem altogether wrong, but I do not think it will get the
u201CNeo-Kantianu201D imperialists where they want to go.

As Kenneth
N. Waltz has written: u201C[Kant's] u2018universal International State,
or Union of Nations,' turns out to be u2018a voluntary combination
of different States that would be dissoluble at any time,
and not such a union as is embodied in the United States of America….u201D
One might well differ with Kant's understanding of the American
union as something non-federal, but for present purposes the key
point is Waltz's conclusion that Kant is, u201Cin contrast to Mazzini
and Woodrow Wilson… a non-interventionist liberal.u201D


The third
article in this section reads: u201CThe law of world citizenship shall
be limited to conditions of universal hospitality.u201D This means,
u201Cthe right of a stranger not to be treated as an enemy when he
arrives in the land of another. One may refuse to receive him
when this can be done without causing his destruction…. It is
not the right to be a permanent visitor that one may demand.u201D


No open borders,
it would seem, for Kant – in agreement, once again, with Tracy
and most of the American u201Cfounders.u201D

Kant shares
the view of other classical liberals that the growth of international
communication and trade is all to the good. But here he makes
an interesting observation: u201CBut to this perfection compare the
inhospitable actions of the civilized and especially the commercial
states of our part of the world. The injustice which they show
to lands and peoples they visit (which is equivalent to conquering
them) is carried by them to terrifying lengths. America, the lands
inhabited by the Negro, the Spice Islands, the Cape, etc., were
at the time of their discovery considered by these civilized intruders
as lands without owners, for they counted the inhabitants as nothing.u201D


he writes, u201CChina and Japan (Nippon), who have had experience
with such guests, have wisely refused them entry, the former permitting
their approach to their shores but not their entry, while the
latter permit this approach to only one European people, the Dutch,
but treat them like prisoners, not allowing them any communication
with the inhabitants.u201D


It looks
like Kant, if he were here today, would not be likely to sign
up for the much-advertised projects of u201Chumanitarianu201D neo-colonialism
or the Open Door. In other words, Kant sees that trade is beneficial
but denies the right of western powers to impose it on
other peoples. Since battering down barriers to trade set up by
states and peoples everywhere is a key to u201Cfree tradeu201D as defined
by history's winning Anglo-American coalition, it seems possible,
at least, that Kant would not endorse it under that definition.

First Supplement

In a supplementary
section, Kant elaborates his vision of a possible, future peace.
Here he sketches out a sort of conjectural natural history of
human society, including war. In not-quite-Hobbesian fashion,
he reasons that life is completely insecure in a state of nature,
forcing men to put themselves under law enforced by states. He
believes that similar considerations will drive states to the
peaceful u201Cfederationu201D he has already described.


This federation,
however, is not a world state. The existence of separate states,
even though it permits war, u201Cis rationally preferable to the amalgamation
of states under one superior power, as this would end in one universal
monarchy, and laws always lose in vigor what government gains
in extent; hence a soulless despotism falls into anarchy after
stifling the seeds of the good.u201D Even so, u201Cevery state, or its
ruler, desires to establish lasting peace in this way, aspiring
if possible to rule the whole world.u201D


There is
more here on how the gap between morality and practice is likely
to be bridged, but I think we have covered the essential points
of Kant's essay.

A Not
Terribly Pure Critique of Kant's Reasons

As Stuart
Brown, Jr., noted, Kant's deployment of social contract theory
may not help his case; nor does the rather strained analogy between
the internal order of states and a new order among states. Things
may in fact work the other way around. States, however they came
into being, might just see fit to make agreements to reduce the
occasions for war. Whether these states came into being by force
or contract need not enter into it.

Kant's program
seems far more compatible with Hague conferences and Geneva accords
than with any formal world organization – League or UN – with
pretensions to act as a private club of self-defined u201Cpeacefulu201D
nations making war in the name of peace.

Kant's advocacy
of republicanism as the key to peace seems entirely suspect, two
centuries on. There is by now plenty of empirical, historical
evidence against the notion, as well as theoretical considerations
advanced by Hans-Hermann Hoppe.


History, in short, has falsified Kant's assumptions about
how republics would function in foreign affairs.

Wars have
proven popular and, in any case, the day-to-day operations of
foreign policy bureaucracies in democracies or republics are as
effectively oligarchical and secret as in non-democracies. Greater
subterfuge on the part of leaders is necessary from time to time
in a democracy, but various great men have risen to the occasion
and had their wars, whether the voters wanted them or not. The
advantages of democracy in this respect have been exaggerated
to the level of mythology.

John Norton
Moore, a guru of National Security studies, would disagree of
course. Indeed, he is on the cutting edge of those who believe
that, with an appropriate dose of public choice economics, the
democratic peace theory can be made fully u201Cscientific.u201D Thus he
claims, for example, that democracy and u201Cdeterrenceu201D (of non-democrats
by democracies) u201Cinternalize the costs to decision elites of high-risk
behavior leading to major war.u201D


This looks
to be a weak reed. What real costs did the US political elite
suffer once the War in Vietnam became u201Cunsoldu201D? LBJ bowed out
of the presidential race. Nixon resigned for reasons not directly
related to the war. Robert McNamara went to the World Bank.

Not getting
reelected may mean a lot to politicians, but it hardy seems enough
to restrain them from foreign policy adventurism. Moore's framework
assumes a one-sided morality play in which democracies will u201Cdeteru201D
bad non-democrats. Judgment is already made in favor of the former.

Who, then,
will u201Cdeteru201D US leaders, presiding over the Last Remaining Super-Power,
from the normal temptations of power, not to mention u201Chigh-risk
behavior leading to major waru201D? I must leave this question to
another time. Meanwhile, we must rely, I guess, on the good breeding
and manners of unelected, post-constitutional foreign affairs
bureaucrats and their political minders.

Wars for Peace

Kant, even
if he is all wet in the areas just treated, has said some very
interesting things – things that do not – pace Roger Scruton,
Anglo-American apologist


– seem to justify bombing people into u201Cliberal democracy.u201D
It is fashionable lately to say that the great project of liberal
imperialism is to bomb the u201Cbadu201D leaders and not the (sentimentally)
u201Cgoodu201D people. The proviso is then added – usually by Michael
Novak – that u201Cof courseu201D there is u201Ccollateral damage.u201D

u201CFog of waru201D
no doubt.

An unsupported
assumption of some sort of right to kill those who do get
killed, looms up here, however much it is spun as a simple math
exercise or a theorem in consequentialist u201Cethics.u201D This is on
par with defending a proposed bank robbery on the basis of one's
intentions to uplift the poor with the stolen funds – and so what
if a few tellers are shot? Think of the net good.

Quite bracing,
to be sure, but where is Immanuel Kant in all this?

On our u201Cnaveu201D
reading of his famous essay, Kant has sprung forth as a classical
liberal, who 1) opposes standing armies, 2) believes that overstuffed
state treasuries lead to war, 3) opposes public debt connected
with foreign affairs, 4) opposes intervention in other states'
internal affairs, 5) condemns assassins,poisoners, breaches of
capitulation, and incitement to treason in opposing states, 6)
rejects free immigration, and 7) rejects the Open Door of imposed
trade while praising commerce.

Since liberal
imperialism – or u201Cdemocracyu201D by invasion – relies on
all or most of the items on the above list, Kant makes a pretty
poor forefather to that cause. His two articles – onrepublicanism
and the u201Cfederation of nationsu201D – whereby the democratic
peace warriors claim Kant as their prophet – won't hold the
weight. Naturally, we can't utterly rule out the possibility that
a secret reading of Kant by a qualified Straussian or some beltway
Hermes Trismegistus could square this circle.

An Internal
Split Within Liberalism

If Kant was
less than absolutely clear, he was not alone. The problem of war
was a serious one for those who wished to realize the liberal
program of freedom, peace, and prosperity, and the problem became
more acute as time went on. One group of liberals reasoned, on
the dubious analogy with domestic law enforcement, that only world
government could reduce or eliminate the scourge of war. From
William Gladstone to Woodrow Wilson, down to Lionel Robbins and
many others, this misplaced analogy and a failure to look deep
into their own imperialisms betrayed liberals into collective

Having taken
up world organization as the u201Cnew international lawu201D (see my u201CThe
United Nations Charter and the Delusion of Collective Security
liberals stoutly refused to face up to the paradox of making war
in the name of peace.

Another line
of liberals – from Richard Cobden, Frdric Bastiat, and Gustave
de Molinari, down to John Bassett Moore, Edwin Borchard, Herbert
Hoover, and Robert A. Taft – called for fleshing out the system
of international agreements, with no final military enforcement
mechanism. They thus chose the seemingly slow path of foedus,
that is, compact, very much in the spirit of Kant.

If the devotees
of US imperialism need a u201Cliberalu201D pedigree, they are much better
advised to start puffing up the reputation of the muddled John
Stuart Mill, who was indeed an interventionist. (See my u201CJohn
Stuart Mill and Liberal Imperialism

The debate
is hardly u201Cover,u201D even if liberal imperialists, liberventionists,
and the democratic peace mob, have had a good run lately in crafting
ideological cover for the foreign policies of certain English-speaking
state oligarchies.

democratic peace theory very nearly reverses the insight of liberals
like Cobden, namely, that constant warfare tends to undermine
freedom and democratic procedures at home. Instead, the peace
bombers posit u201Cdemocracyu201D as an eternal essence of particular
states, states favored by them, which can only become more
democratic, not less. The notion of institutional blowback is
thereby taken off the table and may never petition for redress
of theoretical grievances.

The final
paradox, if this nonsense – theoretical and applied –
long continues, will be a less-and-less democratic United States
imposing bogus democracy worldwide. You couldn't blame Kant for
that, even if Monty
's charges against him were true. As for democratic
peace mongering, it will take another essay to do justice to that.



Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent
(New Haven: Yale University Press, 1944),
pp. 140–141.


Stuart M. Brown, Jr., u201CHas Kant a Philosophy of Law?u201D,
Philosophical Review, 71, 1 (January 1962), pp. 33–48.


Immanuel Kant, Perpetual
, ed. Lewis White Beck (New York: Bobbs-Merrill,


Ibid., pp. 3–4. In quoting Kant's u201Carticles,u201D I have
removed italics, except for Latin terms, as well as capitalization
of ordinary words.


Ibid., pp. 5–6.


Ibid., pp. 7–8.


Ibid., p. 11.


Ibid., pp. 11–12.


Ibid., pp. 13–14.


Ibid., p. 15.


Brown, u201CHas Kant a Philosophy of Law?u201D, p. 46.


Ibid., pp. 16–18.


Kenneth N. Waltz, u201CKant, Liberalism, and War,u201D American
Political Science Review, 56, 2 (June 1962), p. 337.


Kant, Perpetual Peace, p. 20–21.


Ibid., pp. 21–22.


Ibid., pp. 22–23.


Ibid., pp. 24–32.


Ibid., p. 31.


See Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Democracy,
the God That Failed
(New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction
Publishers, 2001).


John Norton Moore, u201CSolving the War Puzzle,u201D American
Journal of International Law, 97, 2 (April 2003), p. 287.


Roger Scruton, u201CImmanuel
Kant and the Iraq War
,u201D February 19, 2004.

25, 2004

Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
] is holder of the JoAnn B. Rothbard Chair in History at
the Ludwig von Mises Institute
and a columnist for
and See his War,
Peace, and the State

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