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This talk was delivered at the Burton S. Blumert Conference on Gold, Freedom, and Peace.
As Murray Rothbard explained in “The Anatomy of the State,” the state cannot persist and expand through force alone; it needs the tacit consent of the people.
Nothing bamboozles the people out of their consent like a war.
People disagree on what the proper roles of government are, but the one that virtually everyone agrees on, in vague terms, is the defense of life, liberty and property against aggressors. In respect to foreign policy, practically every American believes that the government should have one. In other words, there is near universal acceptance of the idea that the government should have a military and should, at times, deploy it abroad for one reason or another.
The classical liberal movement is not totally immune to this widely held belief. In fact, there have always been liberals — for example, John Stuart Mill — who believed that active foreign intervention was a desirable function of the political system. And many or most libertarians do not believe that the government should completely remove itself from national defense the way it should from healthcare, education, drug policy or business regulation.
Now, just to be clear, it is one thing to support, as a necessary evil, a government role in mobilizing American forces to repel an invasion. It is quite another to side with the military industrial complex, its legions of foreign bases, standing armies and imperial reach; to defend a full-blown military invasion, bombing, and occupation of a country that didn’t ever threaten America; or to champion a long-term national project of tearing down foreign states and building new, friendlier ones in their place.
The reason that even many skeptics of the state will make exceptions for war is mostly obvious, indeed, superficial. No one really wants America to be taken over by foreign tyrants and terrorists. No one thinks that destroying the World Trade Center and the innocents in it was a good thing. Those concerned with liberty and justice want to see the monsters who attacked America on 9/11 caught and punished.
Add to the legitimate case for self-defense the real and perceived evils of the Enemy, and we see why faith in the warfare state is so pervasive. The U.S. government, after all, fought the Nazis and Communists, and is now posing as the defender of the free world against terrorists said to be bent on obtaining weapons of mass destruction and killing as many innocents as it can in a demented mission to conquer the free world and set its clock back several hundred years.
This is pretty scary stuff.
We know how much people will tolerate from government if they think it’s protecting them from common criminals, or even from less concrete threats such as global warming, drug abuse, illiteracy, racism or inequality. A leftist who thinks the government is protecting him from high ATM fees, low wages, or dirty drinking water tends to feel indebted to the state and willing to take its side over liberty and the free market. A conservative who thinks the government is locking up hooligans and keeping undesirables out of society will likewise side with power over freedom in all too many cases. And anyone who believes that the government is the only barrier standing between the American Dream and the fall of civilization into the hands of fanatics, determined to convert us all to their religion and behead those of us who resist, will predictably give the government far more leeway than it deserves.
If it weren’t for the tendency of people to put up with government growth and abuses during war, it would be hard to explain why politicians are quick to call any domestic pet project a war on something. Declaring a war on drugs, illiteracy or poverty is such a common rhetorical device because the partisans of state power know that there is something about war and the language of war that compels people to tolerate greater abuses of freedom than they otherwise would. When FDR launched his New Deal, he asked for all the powers that he would normally be given during war precisely because he knew that the paradigm of war would inflate his administrative authority like nothing else. And yet, no matter how horrific the domestic metaphorical wars, foreign wars are worse for liberty and healthier for the state. No matter how much cultural and material devastation we can lay at the feet of the war on poverty, and regardless of the millions of lives wrecked by the totalitarian drug war, both almost seem like good government compared to what evils and transgressions a foreign war is capable of producing.
People advised by utilitarianism and convinced that the U.S. government is all that has stood in the way of a Nazi, Communist, or terrorist takeover, will conclude that their own government can do practically anything to them and especially to others as long as it is not as bad as what the Nazis, Communists or terrorists would do. Wartime nationalism has been instrumental in making Americans abandon the skepticism of political power at the heart of our national heritage. It has turned mainstream America into a statist culture, and it threatens to do so for all but the most resistant to the temptations and promises of power. Even many Americans who seem to understand individualism and the wonders of spontaneous order in the market will side with collectivism and central planning on the issue of war.
We have seen since 9/11 a startling number of presumably pro-freedom advocates defending some of the worst violations of liberty in our time. They have made excuses for detainments without trial, for shutting down the opposition, and for enormous government secrecy. They will take the administration at its word, echo the government’s account of the war as the truth. To question whether the Iraqi people are better off, to wonder if the U.S. occupation really is liberation — these are considered uncivil thoughts even by many who claim to love freedom.
But to take the government at its word — to assume uncritically that the state is the source of anyone’s liberation — this is not the mark of a person eternally vigilant and jealous of his liberty. It is the mark of a person who has succumbed to the principal components of statist ideology.
Reason magazine contributing editor Cathy Young, who recently expressed optimism that the 2,000 American dead in Iraq might prove to be worth it, defended new government surveillance powers after 9/11, saying, “[A] free society is not a suicide pact.” Radio personality Neal Boortz advocated federal spying on the antiwar movement, and on his blog made light of a protestor who, confronting a police officer with her peace sign, got clubbed in the face. “WHAM!” Boortz said. “Wish I could have been there to see that.” P.J. O’Rourke perpetuates the myth that libertarians are just Republicans who know how to party, in his columns and his new book Peace Kills: America’s Fun New Imperialism. Larry Elder has spent more of his time bashing the antiwar movement and praising Bush than any self-identified libertarian probably should. R.J. Rummel, the scholar who has amassed so much research on the history of government acts of mass murder, came out explicitly for censorship this year, suggesting that World War II-era command control of the media is only appropriate, given how much our enemies hate our freedom and want to take it away. The Randians were split in the last election mostly over which guy would wage war more aggressively. There are entire pro-war libertarian Web rings and message boards. Throughout cyberspace and beyond we have seen libertarians compromise on one issue after another for their war on terror.
When even libertarians are this trusting and forgiving of the state, we see how dangerous warmongering can be in cultivating statism. They say it’s because the state is protecting our lives and, as Cathy Young put it, “even in the Declaration of Independence, the right to liberty is preceded by the right to life.”
Objectivists, in particular, have come to embrace the warfare state as the source of their freedom and well-being. On a message board recently, John Hospers, the LP’s first presidential candidate, invoked Ayn Rand’s statement that an 80% tax rate would be quite tolerable if it were for defense spending. And of course, most of them think this war is defensive. I asked one of them what government actions he’d tolerate at this time of war, and he said anything, so long as it kept him alive. This is a more common view among supposed individualist thinkers than some in this room might imagine. What was once the libertarian, indeed the American, slogan, of "give me liberty or give me death" has now become "take whatever you want — just please don’t let me die!"
So we know that war is tempting, even for people who are otherwise predisposed to question the state’s role in society. It is largely because of this universal acceptance of foreign wars as a normal part of our existence that the state is so quick to rally the public behind a war. War is popular. It is easy to get people behind a war, and war makes it easy for the state to grow.
The phenomena of increased statism and government growth during wartime have been thoroughly examined by Robert Higgs, senior fellow at The Independent Institute and author of such books as Crisis and Leviathan and his forthcoming Depression, War, and Cold War. Never else does government grow as it does during war. And Americans tolerate it, for their ideology has moved from one of Jeffersonian skepticism of central power to an embrace of it, and especially its imperial executive. People have been scared into clinging onto the state, onto Daddy government, for the alternative is presented as certain death and enslavement at the hands of another people who threaten our way of life.
During Lincon’s War on the Southern States, the federal government implemented conscription for the first time, an income tax, and censorship in the form of locking up thousands of war critics and closing down hundreds of newspapers. During World War I, even criticizing the flag was deemed a crime, and dissidents were imprisoned and even deported. During World War II, America saw censorship and Japanese Internment, today defended by some on the more warmongering right. In the Cold War era, the feds spied on war protestors and conscription returned. We are seeing erosions of civil liberties today, with the war on terror, including in the suspension of habeas corpus to cage alleged terrorists, many of whom have been freed for their innocence, and many of whom have not but probably should be. In every case, the state only commits such acts with the tacit consent of many Americans.
The ideology of wartime statism, and what it leads people to tolerate, is well demonstrated in conscription, which Higgs refers to as the "keystone" of leviathan. As Higgs points out, during World War I the Supreme Court would argue that because it deemed conscription to be constitutional, given the necessity of the war, it could not logically overturn any lesser expansion of government into civil society. The Supremes were being somewhat consistent here, and pragmatic. If you can get people to defend military slavery — which is of course what the draft is — you can get them to defend practically anything the government will do to its subjects. And only war seems to make so many people open to slavery.
We can summarize the diagnosis for economic freedom simply by saying that war and the free market are totally incompatible. Even the most defensible war one can imagine — to repel foreign invasion — presumably involves taxation when the government plays a role. This alone makes every warfare program as much an attack on the taxpaying class as welfare. Last time I checked, we were still paying McKinley’s telephone excise tax for the Spanish-American War, though I hear there are plans to repeal it.
Particularly devastating to the economic well-being of Americans, especially the poor and middle class, is the central bank inflation that typically accompanies any serious-sized war. Every major war in American history has depended upon the power of the state to monopolize the money supply and counterfeit dollars in mass to finance its slaughter. It is fair to say, then, that to support war, to advocate war, is to support this grand larceny.
No one who favors the warfare state can disown the methods by which it’s financed. It is no less economically collectivist to root for war than to root for any other government program. If a socialist told you he wants universal healthcare, but he does not favor the taxation and coercion to fund and implement it, you would quickly point out his naked contradiction. Every warmonger is an inflationist and a taxmonger, whether he knows it or not.
To accept war is to accept the warfare state, and to accept the warfare state is to accept all the fundamental premises of statism — the collectivism, the aggression, the ability of central planning to succeed.
It was war that made so many opponents of the New Deal become allies of Franklin Roosevelt once the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor. It was war that transformed the right from a coalition of anti-government Americans in the 1940s into bloodthirsty partisans of the military establishment, its spying on antiwar protesters, its war in Vietnam, its totalitarian bureaucracy at home and abroad. It is warmongering that has largely changed anti-Clintonian conservatives of the 1990s, who had at least some things in common with us, into full-blown supporters of the imperial executive.
Ten years ago, middle America was replete with conservatives who, whatever their faults, seemed to have a general distaste for statism and even imperialism run amok. They resented Clinton’s contempt for Constitutional limits on his power and his abuses of civil liberties without due process. They despised the media for toeing the administration line. They expressed a hatred for anything having to do with governmental globalism and the U.N. Although some of their current “red-state fascism,” as Lew Rockwell so well puts it, can be attributed to simple partisanship, it’s clear that the war on terror is the largest factor in turning them into such state-worshippers. And so they do not protest Bush’s total disregard for the Constitution and his abuses of civil liberties without due process. They now despise the media for being too critical of the administration. And they even uphold Bush’s rationale for war that Saddam Hussein failed to obey United Nations resolutions. And since when was the conservative movement dedicated to enforcing U.N. dictates? Why, since it could be done with a good old-fashioned war! It’s obscene, but what the right once regarded as the ultimate statism of U.N. hegemony is now seen as part of a legitimate U.S. foreign policy.
Looking at the explosion in central administration during these last five years, from the LBJ-style bloated augmentation of Medicare to the current deliberation of a new New Deal for the Gulf States, we can safely say that Bush is getting away with such socialist and corporatist projects largely because as a war president even his more fiscally cautious supporters don’t want to fundamentally criticize him. If I had a dollar for every time I heard a right-winger say that the war on terror is all that’s keeping him from withdrawing his enthusiastic consent from the president — well, let’s just say I would be pushed into the top 1% of the people that the left thinks Bush doesn’t tax.
Consider all Bush has done on the home-front to expand statism. His spending increases in education, his unprecedented farm subsidies, his steel tariffs, his No Child Left Behind, his record deficits, his ID cards, his homeland security bureaucracy — the conservatives and warmongering libertarians look the other way, at least more so than they would if a peacetime president pushed these through. If the president is protecting you from terrorists, after all, how can you complain when your pocket is picked? How can you complain when he picks the pockets of others?
Whether we look at economic policy, civil liberties, or any other indicator, America got its big, consolidated government during Polk’s war, Lincoln’s war, Wilson’s war, FDR’s war, Truman’s war, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon’s war, and the two Bush wars, far more than it got leviathan during peacetime. Even the domestic Progressive Era and peacetime New Deal looked like golden eras of laissez faire when contrasted with the wars that soon followed them. Madison said that tyranny would come to this land only under the guise of fighting a foreign enemy. One hundred ninety-three years after his unnecessary war with Britain, I must say he was right.
We can trace the decline of liberty, the rise of collectivism, and the advent of the current regime in this country, and see the principal role that war has always had in advancing the state. To love all the big wars of America’s past is to love the current leviathan. To seek more war for the future is to wish for the state to grow.
This faith in the warfare state, as bad as it is in allowing for domestic government criminality, is even worse in desensitizing people to the horrors of war that they can’t see. When we’re up against evil incarnate such as Osama bin Laden or a new Hitler such as Saddam Hussein or Milosevic, Americans will remarkably acquiesce to nearly any atrocity committed in their name — as long as it has a humanitarian veneer, perversely enough. The idea is that if, for example, the imperial Japanese government is brutal and murderous, it is somehow justifiable to firebomb sixty of their cities and drop two nuclear weapons on hundreds of thousands of civilians. If the U.S. government is fighting the evil Korean or Vietnamese communists, it is allowed to kill hundreds of thousands in strategic bombing of civilian targets and indiscriminate napalm attacks on villagers. If the U.S. government is combating Milosevic’s ethnic cleansing, it can kill as many innocent Serbs and Albanians as necessary. And if it’s uprooting Saddam’s regime, virtually any number of innocents killed by U.S. tactical missiles and shootings is tolerable, so long as Saddam killed more.
During the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, how many conservatives shrugged it off as nothing, seeing as how Saddam treated his people worse? How many don’t care about U.S. chemical warfare on Iraqis, since Saddam gassed more? Once there’s a war, the standard is not individual life and liberty. The new standard is the real and perceived evils of the enemy you’re fighting. And those evils, the war party never ceases to remind us, might as well be those of the Devil himself.
But even Saddam allowed the people of Baghdad to have firearms that the U.S.-allied puppet government deemed verboten and rounded up violently. Where was the outrage among the pro-war libertarians and the Second-Amendment conservatives? Well, until the U.S. government secures freedom there, the rights of individual Iraqis can hardly count for anything, right? This is the explicit line of argument of many conservatives, so-called libertarians and Objectivists. Sometimes, to build a democratized omelette, you have to break 10,000 eggs.
And democracy has, for many free-market hawks, become the new goal. There is a theory about democracies never fighting each other, and how peaceful it would be if the world became more democratic. Most believers in the theory believe that the U.S. government should democratize the world, even if through war, so as to secure peace. There are many little problems with imperial democratic peace theory — the shifting definitions these theorists use, the near unfalsifiability of it, the terrible track record the U.S. has in actually promoting democracy — but we can only stand baffled by the general notion of perpetual war for democracy and perpetual democracy for peace. Since when did libertarians and conservatives equate freedom and democracy? Since when did they conflate elections with freedom, and think foreigners were free if they could vote? Since when did any of us think that a so-called free country could slaughter foreigners in mass numbers, so long as it is to minimize non-democratic aggression in the long run?
Say what you will about these arguments, but they run counter to the essence of libertarian philosophy. Why would a libertarian trust this crude calculus of minimizing mass murder through mass murder with the bureaucratic central planning of the state? To do so elevates the U.S. to the status of an omniscient and omnipotent Godlike entity, capable and ethical in its determinations of who should live and who should die everywhere on the planet. It presumes that the state should grant liberty to the world, that it should manage not just one domestic industry, but the entire evolution of global humanity towards a more civilized end. For the adherents to this belief, freedom is just one more big government program.
And of course, all those wars have not been good and necessary for liberty, and there were always intolerable atrocities committed without even a pragmatic justification. When Wilson and his allies starved German civilians, when FDR and Truman dropped terror from the skies on innocents in Europe and Asia, when LBJ napalmed Vietnam and Nixon torched Cambodia, when Bush’s army raped Fallujah — none of these acts were necessary, or defensive.
Furthermore, the U.S. government has a stunning legacy of teaming up with freedom fighters today that become Satan’s vanguard tomorrow. The U.S. allied with Stalin during World War II and was at times quite obliging of him, such as with Operation Keelhaul, when the U.S. and other allies forced 2 million refugees onto planes, boats and boxcars and shipped them back to certain slavery and death under Stalin. Then the U.S. turned around and said Stalin’s evil empire justified the expansion of an American empire. Fighting in the Cold war for some reason involved financing, funding and training various two-bit dictators, including some of the tyrants, despots and terrorists who are now considered worth inciting orgies of death abroad to combat.
Even if you don’t like the methodological individualistic view that the U.S. government shouldn’t be allowed to dispose of some liberties and lives for the sake of saving others, a look at the historical record should dissuade you from favoring war. It does seem, however, that most who reject the moral arguments also reject the practical ones. They have made up their minds. The state is on their side, and in return they will look the other way when it is revealed that intolerable evil has been committed on their behalf.
But it is these intolerable evils that have put America at risk. The 9/11 hijackers acted in response to a foreign policy that had killed many thousands of innocents in the Middle East. This should have been the main point made by all friends of liberty immediately following the attacks — not only to point blame at the U.S. warfare state, but also to show the way to actual security. As long as the U.S. empire continues to butt its nose into the affairs of other countries, we are in danger. These wars undermine our liberties and our national defense. For all these reasons, we must count our blessings for institutions such as LewRockwell.com, Antiwar.com, The Mises Institute, The Independent Institute, and the Future of Freedom Foundation; and for every libertarian who opposes the warfare state as the greatest threat to our freedom and safety.
War is, as Randolph Bourne put it, the health of the state. Moreover, advocating for war, mongering for war, apologizing for war — these are the health of statism. Nothing else can so make an otherwise libertarian mind tolerate the wholesale theft of taxation and inflation. Nothing else can so make an otherwise skeptical mind, wary of environmentalist hysteria and bad economic thinking, trust the state with his liberty and money and the lives of thousands of others. Nothing else can so lead a person who claims individualism to favor the mass butchery of innocent people he’d have no quarrel with otherwise. And while it is sometimes tempting to favor and difficult to oppose, nothing else destroys property like war. Nothing else threatens liberty like war. Nothing else dispenses with lives like war.
We must stand firm against the government’s wars of aggression. We must substantively attack the collectivist concept that violating the rights of foreigners is an acceptable way to defend their freedom, and our own. We must relentlessly defend civil liberty and the free market against the incomparably rapacious destruction of the warfare state. We must demonstrate at every proper opportunity that the imperial war machine is aggressive by nature and inimical to freedom in practice.
If warmongering is the health of statism, loving and championing peace are at the core of libertarian thinking. The very essence of freedom is, in fact, peace — to be at peace to live your life as you see fit, without the politicians milking your bank account dry, sponsoring economic interests against you, or condemning you to a jail cell for personal and peaceful behavior. Once you embrace peace and call into question the warfare state, which is the primary justification for leviathan and its growth, the entire philosophy of statism falls under scrutiny. If the state is not even just and effective in protecting you from and slaying the world’s monsters, what good is it at all?
As libertarians, we must embrace peace. We must reach out to other opponents of the war and explain that statism is the ideology of war, and liberty is its only remedy. Some think such outreach is futile or counterproductive, given the leftist views of so many other doves. Well, whatever we might say about the collectivist beliefs of many peaceniks, we know that America cannot have liberty while it is at a constant state of war, and we know that no program for liberty can succeed so long as it makes the gaping exception for the international socialist project of mass murder known as modern war. Just as war is the enemy of a free civilization, so too is warmongering the enemy of a libertarian disposition, and of a rational mind. It is the health of statism, and if statism is to be opposed — and it is — then we must confront the warmongers and their arguments with all the passion, energy and sincerity with which we approach any other deed in the struggle for liberty.
Anthony Gregory [send him mail] is a writer and musician who lives in Berkeley, California. He is a research analyst at the Independent Institute. See his webpage for more articles and personal information.