Controversy on war and foreign policy still persists within some libertarian circles. The apparent difficulty seems to come with the assumption that the proper antiwar libertarian position is just too easy, just too simple — there has to be more to it than this. This assumption is implicit in such arguments for intervention as the ones seen in Randy Barnett’s widely criticized Wall Street Journal article from July.
Libertarians are accustomed, when arguing against domestic policies, to point to the practical as well as the moral issues involved. While many libertarians see themselves as primarily "consequentialist," on the one hand, or "moralist," on the other hand, all libertarians enjoy the benefit of a political philosophy with very strong arguments both practical and ethical. It is a beauty not just of libertarianism, but of human nature and the world around us, that what is moral is so very often what works. If slavery were actually economically efficient for society as a whole — which it isn’t — it would make for a sadder world and a harder time for libertarians. If property rights were efficient but ran counter to any consistently applicable ethical theory, it would also pose problems.
It is a wonder, then, that many who favor liberty, spontaneous order, voluntary human action, free trade and markets, and as little government as humanly and practically possible, do not see the full force of both the ethical and practical arguments against an interventionist foreign policy. In war, many friends of liberty have been tempted into siding with big government, with central planning, and with collectivist, rather than individualist, ethics. This exception to libertarian theory and ethics in the realm of foreign policy is a peculiar blind spot, and one that unfortunately has serious and negative implications for our work for liberty, since the warfare state has most likely been the biggest, most dangerous, most expansive and most disastrous government enterprise in modern American history.
Libertarian Ethics, War and Foreign Policy
Libertarians believe that individuals have a right to live their lives according to their own free will, so long as they do not initiate force on other individuals with the same right. From this moral first principle flows our entire social and legal theory — property rights; the right to self-defense; opposition to the modern leviathan state; and respect for civil liberties, due process and other checks on expansive government. Self-ownership and free self-determination form the ethical buttress of our case for free markets, free trade and personal liberty.
Because of our stern support for private property, libertarians view expropriation and trespass to be violations of human rights. Most people accept the basic premise that you should not steal from or trespass against your neighbor, but libertarians apply this ethic to the state. Taxation, being a coerced extraction of wealth, ultimately at the point of a gun, is a form of theft, and thus morally wrong from a libertarian standpoint.
Many government programs do not violate liberty in themselves — few people are forced, for example, to go to a public library or a government-funded university. However, even such relatively peaceful programs are funded coercively, through tax dollars. Libertarians oppose government spending on social programs, by virtue that it is government theft from individuals. We might even favor what a social program is attempting to achieve — a library is hardly objectionable to most people, in itself — but we must oppose the power of the state to forcibly seize the rightful property of some and give it to others. Even those of us who believe in a minimal government believe its taxing power should be shrunk as much as possible, with the ultimate ideal of eliminating it and replacing all taxation with voluntary financing.
War is typically an expensive government program. Estimates for how much the Iraq war alone will come to cost the American people range from about $400 billion to a trillion or more. According to economist Robert Higgs, the defense budget is even far larger than we might think, since so much of the warfare state’s costs are hidden as expenditures in other department budgets or "off-budget" items. Furthermore, Americans are still paying the debt for past warfare state spending. We are looking at more than a trillion dollars a year spent on the warfare state — almost 10% of the economy’s yearly output. At other times, the warfare state has cost much, much more as a percentage of the economy. During World War II, it was at about 40%.
By what moral principle can libertarians defend these enormous tax expenditures? More than $3,000 per American per year is being taken by force for the warfare state, no less than if that money were spent on libraries, food stamps or other public projects libertarians oppose. Every American taxpayer who opposes the war, for moral, religious, practical or whatever reasons, is being compelled to fund something against his conscience and judgment. This alone — the taxing side of the warfare state — presents huge problems for any libertarian who continues to attempt to reconcile his libertarian ethics and support for a large military establishment.
But when it comes to foreign policy, the moral issues go far, far beyond those of tax dollars. People — many innocents included — are killed in war. The government bombs neighborhoods knowing that it will kill hundreds or thousands of innocents. Infrastructure, private and public but in no case owned by the attacking government, is destroyed. Homes are invaded and blown to bits. Children are slaughtered. This isn’t all just what happens when particularly criminal soldiers commit atrocious individual crimes of rape, violence and torture — which also predictably happens to a grotesque degree during war. Most of the killing is just part of the policy. Bombing Baghdad or Belgrade has what legal theorists might call a "substantial certainty" of killing innocent people. Modern war is in fact in practically every case an example of mass murder. It must be opposed by the libertarian first and foremost for this reason. For not just Americans have individual rights to life, liberty and property; so too do all foreign non-aggressors, and so killing them, which is a predictable outcome of today’s typical military tactics, is gravely immoral according to libertarian ethics.
Some argue that when the fight is against a truly ghastly foreign regime, any innocents killed by the supposedly "good" government of the U.S. are "collateral damage." The true aggressor, according to this argument, is the enemy regime, not the U.S. government, which is acting in supposed defense of Americans.
One response is that historically, in most of its wars, the U.S. government has invaded or attacked a country that never attacked or credibly threatened to attack Americans on U.S. soil. Even by a collectivist analysis, whereby we look at nations, rather than individuals, when assigning guilt, the U.S. has more often than not been an aggressor.
However, to the libertarian, this is all of secondary importance. Libertarianism concerns individual rights and individual actions. States, nations, communities and so forth are abstractions and social constructs which do not act independently of the individuals they comprise. Only individuals act and only individuals have ethics or rights, and so it is a violation of an innocent person’s rights to bomb him, even if the government he lives under is aggressive and tyrannical. Certainly, the U.S. government was itself quite aggressive in the Middle East before 9/11, yet that in no way legitimized the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which killed innocent Americans for the crimes of their government. So, too, is it immoral to bomb a country with the substantial certainty that it will kill innocent foreigners, even if their government is aggressive.
Central Planning and War
Many will argue that these high moral principles are just impractical to the question of war, and that, furthermore, the U.S. government’s wars in particular have on balance protected more than violated the lives and liberty of a greater number of individuals, including foreigners "liberated" by U.S. wars. This is a collectivist ethical calculus and incompatible with libertarian ethics, but it also neglects the powerful practical libertarian arguments against government intervention and central planning. In fact, as experience and economic theory both show, the government is no more competent at centrally planning the protection of freedom and peace worldwide than it is at producing effective solutions to social problems in the domestic sphere.
Socialism fundamentally doesn’t work, as Ludwig von Mises revealed, because the state, as owner of the means of production, cannot make rational economic calculations. Without private ownership and exchange, there are no prices, and without prices there is no effective means to determine how and where to divert resources to their most urgent use. Mises also pointed out that one intervention in the economy often causes distortions that are later addressed by further interventions, causing yet more problems, and so forth.
The U.S. government’s attempts at collective security on the grand scale seen throughout the last century have amounted to a gigantic socialist experiment, and have revealed in foreign policy the failings of central planning that Mises identified as endemic in domestic intervention. The United States entered World War I and tilted the war toward the allies with great force, encouraging the harsh treatment of Germany after the war, leading to the backlash in Hitler’s rise to power and indeed the rise of fascism and communism — rather than a world safe for democracy — for the next decade. In World War II, the U.S. gave enormous support to its ally, the totalitarian Soviet Union, which ended up expanding and supposedly justifying the U.S. government’s horrifying actions in the Cold War. During the Cold War, the U.S. government supported anti-Communist strongmen regimes throughout the world, including dictators and future U.S. enemies, such as Saddam Hussein’s secular dictatorship, which became an enemy after the Cold War, and the Muhajadeen fighters in Afghanistan who became enemies after 9/11. The U.S. has found itself supporting Saddam against the Iranian theocrats, only later to oust Saddam to the benefit of the very same Iranian extremists. Now the U.S. is contemplating supporting Sunni thugs, once again, to counterbalance the Shiite threat. The madness goes on and on.
To believe that the U.S. government can bring about liberty and peace worldwide is to have a faith in government planning — in socialism — more impenetrable to individualist reasoning and historical experience than we can find even at the most leftwing college campuses in America. It is fitting, then, if still ironic, that conservatives and even some self-identified libertarians have defended the Iraq war on the basis of how many schools, hospitals and other civil infrastructure the U.S. government has helped construct in Iraq — after it destroyed what was there before, of course. People who oppose government intervention in the U.S. economy somehow believe in government intervention in the Iraqi economy, trusting that what the Iraqis need is more U.S. socialism. This adds up, insofar as buying into the warfare state leads one to inevitably have more faith in government planning per se.
Which raises another point. The advent of the warfare state means a reduction of economic liberty, an attack on free markets and a general move toward state power and away from freedom. With war come crushing taxes, business regulations, trade restrictions, new bureaucracies, myriad erosions of fundamental civil liberties, and even, at times, a nationalized, enslaved labor market in the form of the military draft.
The Effects of War on Liberty
The largest and most troubling expansions of government in America were mostly not the result of social programs. The Progressive Era and even the New Deal did not do as much as war to move America away from its relatively libertarian heritage of limited, checked and balanced government, free markets and individual liberty. The Civil War brought with it draconian censorship, a draft, inflation, the suspension of habeas corpus and a consolidated national government that signaled the end of true federalism. World War I introduced even wider censorship, conscription, deportations and spying. World War II gave us food rationing, conscription, citizen surveillance, censorship, and Japanese Internment. With the War on Terror, we have practically lost the Fourth Amendment and seen habeas corpus once again suspended. These are no light matters. The end of habeas corpus is itself a repudiation of a nearly millennium-long tradition in the Common Law. It was not terrorists who set the clock back to pre-Enlightenment times for American liberty — it was the warfare state.
In the economic world alone, war has been a terrible disaster for American liberty. The so-called "American System" of corporate subsidies and economic nationalism, championed by Hamiltonians in the early years of the republic, finally became implemented during the Civil War. World War I saw the advent of thousands of new federal bureaus and regulatory agencies, some important ones of which were resurrected for the domestic New Deal. The national public university system is largely an outgrowth of the post—World War II military industrial complex. Price controls, medical socialism, income tax, central banking and so many other economic evils made their debut during, or came around to stay largely due to war.
Aside from the violations of civil and economic liberties, war also brings about a moral debasement of the warring culture, which in turn weakens the people’s resistance to more government and more general incivility. As the moral standards become lowered as they usually do with war, utilitarianism takes hold and nearly anything is considered permissible so long as it is not as evil as the enemy, whose wickedness, for that matter, is often exaggerated. Imperialism and war have done more than anything to propel the collectivist ideologies characteristic of the 20th century. Once a people come to tolerate torture and chemical warfare against a country that has never even attacked them, they will generally be less vigilant when it comes to other government and private evils.
In practice, U.S. war has been a plague on the lives, liberty and property of millions upon millions of Americans and foreigners. The inability of the state to centrally manage human affairs is no less prevalent in global crusades against evil or humanitarian nation-building adventures than it is in run-of-the-mill domestic matters. The failure of the Iraq war is not a consequence of bad management or unique incompetence in the Bush administration; it is representative of the expected failings of military socialism.
This all should make sense to the libertarian. The moral principles of individual liberty that are so obviously compromised by the vociferous taxing, regulating and mass killing of the warfare state are complemented by libertarian economic and practical arguments against war. Not only is war a violation of the rights of the individual — which we must always oppose on moral grounds — but on balance, it has failed to produce security, much less peace and liberty, for most people it has touched.
The libertarian bias, therefore, should always be against the next government war. History reveals a pattern of lies, deceit, abuse and tyranny surrounding virtually every U.S. war, yet many friends of liberty, who generally don’t trust politicians’ words or their power to do good in domestic affairs, for some reason trust them when it comes to war, the biggest and most corrupting of all government programs. Free-market theory explains why government projects usually fail to achieve their advertised goals, even when undertaken with good intentions. Libertarian morality tells us it is wrong to aggress against individuals, to trespass against their property rights or do them bodily harm if those individuals are not attacking us. The libertarian case against foreign intervention, the warfare state, and global governmental crusades for democracy or against evil is not, as some would have it, weaker than the libertarian argument against drug laws, the minimum wage or Social Security. Indeed, the libertarian case against war is clear, multifaceted and harmonious, internally consistent and reinforced by history. It is also the best case against war there is, which is why we must keep making it, in the name of peace and 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.