War, Secession, and Libertarianism

Usually libertarians tend to agree that war bolsters nationalism, props up taxes, and distorts the economy in a multitude of ways. There is also an increased probability of conscription and of the loss of civil liberties. Over the last couple of weeks, however, I have witnessed something that I never thought possible: the open and apparently completely unprincipled support of war — by libertarians.

Take a look at the following recent blog posts and especially the follow-up comments and discussion:

One would expect a principled, radical libertarian to oppose war. Indeed, I’d say most tend to be solid on the war issue: they oppose the destruction of life and property by the US government and by various other governments across the globe, not to mention the constant deterioration of international affairs.

As expected, we saw some defections of the less principled, more moderate types at the beginning of the Iraq war (many of them recanted and crawled back when things went bad; we can only imagine that many of them would now be crowing that a pragmatic approach is best, had there been a quick American victory). What’s the shocking thing is that even hardcore antiwar types seem to have exceptions to their usual antiwar stance if the results are "worth it."

When it comes to wars of secession, and in particular the American Revolution, all bets are off. You see, because the war was heroic, the argument goes, that war is fine. Unlike every other war in the history of the United States, the American Revolution and the war it unleashed had as its objective the political separation of the colonies from the British Empire. And that’s fine, right? Such a view is virtually compelled if one is wed to the idea that the early American nation was a near-libertarian utopia, or the closest the world has ever come. But was it? And was the Revolutionary War justified?

As libertarians, we favor peace, property rights, and voluntary interaction based on contract and consent. We are therefore against the invasion or trespass of property rights; we recognize such actions as crimes and those carrying them out as criminals. It does not matter whether the person committing a crime is a thief wearing a ski mask or wearing a uniform of a county with a patch stamp on the shoulder. Bastiat calls state action against property rights legal plunder:

But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

Thus, we libertarians oppose and condemn both "private" and "public"/government crime. In many — if not most — cases, war is the most immediately destructive force that a state can unleash not just on those beyond its borders but also on those within.

$40 $30 It’s hard to deny that war invariably requires a state, taxation, and even conscription. The Continental Army resorted to taxation and states often resorted to drafting. And when recruitment was down, slaves were drafted to fight in the war (to add insult to injury).

So let me get this straight. In order to fight that most evil of persons, the King, we must empower an aristocrat such as Washington (oh sorry — a local aristocrat … is this better now?) to lead an army composed of doubly-enslaved folks, and funded by theft. An army in which deserters were often held and executed without trials. And if you had the audacity to hide or protect them from searching officers, you could have been subjected to a flogging.

It looks to me like the war of secession was more of a traditional war for power than an act of secession from evil tyrants. The Revolutionary War did not even enjoy widespread support; the majority either did not care or was against it. Sure, some of the reasons for the war sound libertarian: freedom from monarchs, lower taxation, self-determination. But what about the means? War, as the saying goes, is the health of the state. We are told that George Washington was a war hero. Yet the same person, in collaboration with very evil Hamilton, would later on be ready to crush anti-tax rebels in Pennsylvania. Come to think of it, it’s almost as if the United States was conceived in tyranny! (See this article by William Marina for the not quite libertarian origins of the United States.)

Unlike war, secession is legitimate, libertarian and — depending on the circumstances — can be a bloodless or mostly bloodless way to separate politically. Take a look at India, the several former Soviet bloc nations, and East Germany. Granted, there were statist efforts here as well, but these did not involve mass murder and mass taxation. Both Lincoln and Davis, for example, were brutal — both resorting too all kinds of violations of rights. (My view on this issue is that I wish both sides would have lost, and that The Confederacy, like the Union was also an economic basket case. See Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation.)

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"But what if secession can’t succeed without resorting to war?" it will be asked. So what? War is war. And though libertarians are not generally pacifists, it’s one thing to favor self-defense and another to favor aggression. Otherwise we, too, would have to join the ranks of those who clamor for "war for peace." What if the free market "doesn’t work" to alleviate poverty or to provide health care? From the fact that something might not work if we leave it to the market does not follow that we should put aside charity and favor welfare, or that we should put aside true market health care and favor government action. Besides, laws can be changed without aggressive (and even defensive) violence. I’m not even referring to the political system but instead to things like civil disobedience, outreach, communication and other forms of activism.

To have to write this article is itself somewhat of a concern. If libertarians of all people are not good on war, taxation, conscription, and slavery, what good are they? What’s worse is that some of the more principled and radical libertarians have come to the defense of the Revolutionary War because it "allowed" a small government to protect our freedoms, turning the US into the best experiment* for liberty. Minarchy, after all, is the belief that the free market should be protected by a socialist monopoly. Go figure.

Libertarian warmongers! Amazing. What next, voluntaryists for taxation!?

*Even supporters of the Constitution should realize that, at "best," as Dale Everett puts it, "it was a noble effort, but the founding fathers were misguided to expect a magic scroll to protect their contrived republic." I’d say that this is perhaps a bit too optimistic still, for those "efforts" involved the creation of a (more powerful) state, supposedly controlled by the Constitution compared to the Articles. And at least the political aspect of the Revolution was not anti-state but pro-local state. Down with the king! Down with the republic!