Peace and Freedom: Rothbard on War and Foreign Policy

At a time when many people’s support of or opposition to the current war seems to be based on whether they "trust the President," it’s a good time to consider a systematic approach to war and foreign policy based on principles that don’t change depending on whether "our guy" is in the White House.

Building on medieval Just War theory, the libertarian theory of the State and the republican ideals of the Founders, Murray N. Rothbard (1926—1995) developed just such a systematic approach. Though a glance at his academic output suggests that Rothbard may be remembered primarily as an uncompromising free market economist and libertarian political philosopher, his emphasis in practical politics was very often on resisting interventionist foreign policy and opposing wars he saw as unjust (almost all of them). In fact, despite his own emphasis on the central importance of a free market, he often would support a candidate who he saw as less interventionist on foreign policy even if the candidate was interventionist in his economic policies. More importantly for our purpose, this stand was not just a personal preference or a fashionable pacifist pose but the practical outcome of a carefully thought out philosophy of human interaction built on the core values of justice and human liberty.

To understand Rothbard’s system of thought, we must first understand that Rothbard’s non-interventionism was not divorced from his understanding of economics but intimately tied to it. As an economist, Rothbard understood that voluntary cooperation was not just one way of doing things among many but the very wellspring of civilization, the reason that our lives are not "nasty, brutish and short." To override the free choice of individuals and use force to get what we want is unjust, uncivilized and destructive. In contrast to the social Darwinism that glorified the clashing of nations during World War I, Rothbard saw society as a win-win scenario. Through peaceful cooperation and exchange, everyone can be better off: "the distinguishing features of the contractual society, of the unhampered market, are self-responsibility, freedom from violence, full power to make one’s own decisions (except the decision to institute violence against another), and benefits for all participating individuals."

What stands in the way of ever-increasing social cooperation, wealth and fuller development of civilization? The initiation of violence. But Rothbard made a further important distinction, and this is where his analysis begins to take a unique and radical turn. We can divide the violence in society into two parts: illegitimate and legitimate. The criminal initiates sporadic illegitimate violence and theft against which society puts up a concerted resistance. But there is another form of violence that is usually considered more or less acceptable, and even "legitimate," that is the violence systematically initiated by the state as it taxes, regulates and fights wars against it’s people and other states. The definition of the state as a monopolist of "legitimate" violence is fairly widespread and not particularly controversial. What separates Rothbard out is that he argues, first, that this monopolization is not constructive or necessary and is in fact destructive of social cooperation. Secondly, he argues that state violence is a greater threat to social cooperation and liberty than criminal violence. After all, the criminal strikes and moves on, but the state settles down and robs again and again, year after year. Rothbard further argues that the state has an inherent tendency to grow in its power and predation, sucking the life from its host.

So, obviously, Rothbard’s view on war and foreign policy starts from a very different place than most political analysis. Rather than seeing "our state" as primarily a protection from aggressors foreign and domestic, he sees our state as the primary danger to our lives, liberty and property. Furthermore, adding in Randolph Bourne’s observation that "war is the health of the state," Rothbard recognizes that states have an incentive to start wars. After all, during a war the state is able to have the further justification of a war emergency to seize even more property, limit liberties further and generally grow its power. At the very least, this should cause us to cast an extremely suspicious eye on any war urged upon us by the state.

Is there any just war? Rothbard argues that there is in his essay: "America’s Two Just Wars: 1775 and 1861." He makes the distinction in this way: "a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them." Rothbard adds the important caveat though that, "A group of people may have rights, but it is their responsibility, and theirs alone, to defend or safeguard such rights." It is definitely not just, then, for our state to coercively take our money and our young people to go fight a war for someone else’s freedom.

Living for Peace in a World of States

So how does this theoretical framework play out in real life where we live under these predatory states which are regularly seeking to sell us various wars? The first priority, given the literally anti-social destructionist nature of war is to avoid war at (nearly) all costs. Even a just war is better avoided if any options for negotiation present themselves, because war is death, destruction, the growth of states and the decline of civilization. In the case of an unjust war (typically an invasion of some sort) our role is clear: oppose it uncompromisingly.

But what about once a war, regrettably, has started despite our best efforts to prevent it? In For A New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, Rothbard writes, "…so long as the war continues, the scope of assault upon innocent civilians must be diminished as much as possible. Old-fashioned international law had two excellent devices to accomplish this goal: the ‘laws of war,’ and the ‘laws of neutrality’ or ‘neutrals’ rights’." It is interesting that general opinion now seems to have almost turned upside down this idea of "laws of neutrality" which seeks to limit the war to the combatant nations. President Bush disallowed neutrality with his statement that "You’re either with us or against us." Internationalist U.N. lovers are not much better as they push for a worldwide "coalition" so that as many nations as possible are involved with all conflicts everywhere. The ancient practice that Rothbard endorses seeks to keep as many people out of the fight as possible. An excellent example of why this principle is so important is World Massacre I, in which the assassination of an Austrian duke in a backwater of Eastern Europe led to global warfare as interlocking alliances dragged one nation after another into what could have been a minor affair.

The "laws of war" focused on limiting hostilities to the armed forces involved in fighting and leaving civilians out of it. Thus, the distinction that we hear so much about but that is so often ignored in practice between combatants and non-combatants. Again, the point is to limit the destructiveness of the war. Rothbard points out that the first major modern deviation from this principle was the strategic bombing of civilians in World Massacre II by Britain.

The practical implications are clear. If it’s not our fight, our state shouldn’t get involved (though we as individuals may voluntarily put our own lives and property on the line for a cause we think worthy). When there is a war, civilians should not be targeted.

Murray Rothbard’s system of thought on foreign policy and war leaves little wiggle room for justifying wars. No sane doctrine would. War is too destructive, and the state too eager for war for a relaxed, vague standard. We must bind the state down with a strong, consistent, principled opposition to unjust wars, foreign interventions, alliances and subsidies. If we truly love freedom, we must love peace.