Undefending the Defendable

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.

“The right of self-defense is the first law of nature…”

–          George Tucker

Most libertarians live within the intersection of these three ideas; leave it to Murray Rothbard to point out where and why this is not always valid.

Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, and Other Essays, by Murray Rothbard.

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This chapter is entitled “War, Peace, and the State.”  I have read and used portions of this essay in some of my past work (here and here, when reviewing the book “Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism”); I have not previously gone through the entire chapter in detail.

I am not sure how to properly phrase this: this might be my favorite work of Rothbard’s (of what I have read).  It is on the single-most important topic for libertarians to consider, and Rothbard introduces a wonderful method of deconstructing the use of weapons – one that runs counter to the intersection represented in the above three statements.

Rothbard introduces the reason why he decided to tackle this subject:

The libertarian movement has been chided by William F. Buckley, Jr., for failing to use its “strategic intelligence” in facing the major problems of our time. We have, indeed, been too often prone to “pursue our busy little seminars on whether or not to demunicipalize the garbage collectors” (as Buckley has contemptuously written), while ignoring and failing to apply libertarian theory to the most vital problem of our time: war and peace.

Rothbard gleefully takes on the challenge, suggesting that, once complete, Buckley might regret making such a challenge.

Let us construct a libertarian theory of war and peace.

The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress”) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of another.

In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.

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There is nothing earth-shattering in this; however, it is necessary to state as Rothbard demonstrates that this simple axiom can then answer the most complex problems of man – and turn the defendable on its head!

Rothbard suggests that we set aside the issue of the state initially; what of relations between private individuals?  Is it permissible to commit violence against an innocent third party when one is taking action against the guilty second party?  The unequivocal libertarian answer is no!

Even during the criminal act, the victim may not spray bullets into a crowd in an effort to stop the guilty party.

If he does this, he is as much (or more of) a criminal aggressor as Smith is.

And from this, the application to the issues in war are evident.  Group of people A are going after group of people B for some violation of person or property.  Is it permissible for group A to blow up village C in an attempt to harm B?  Again, the libertarian answer is a clear no!

The libertarian’s basic attitude toward war must then be: it is legitimate to use violence against criminals in defense of one’s rights of person and property; it is completely impermissible to violate the rights of other innocent people. War, then, is only proper when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to the individual criminals. We may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have met this criterion.

Not many, however it should be noted that there were times when war was conducted by the principles and not the commoners – this (generally) during the European Middle Ages.  It was also true for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for European countries (and those with European heritage) when fighting each other; the system broken by Lincoln and the North in the American Civil War, and then in Europe with the Great War.

And this brings us to the key insight, the reason why I so appreciate this piece by Rothbard: the weapons of modern technology – nuclear bombs, gas, pretty much everything fired from an airplane or ship – are different from their predecessors not only in degree, but also in kind:

Of course, one answer to this is that when the degree is the number of human lives, the difference is a very big one. But another answer that the libertarian is particularly equipped to give is that while the bow and arrow and even the rifle can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot.

Yes, the bow and arrow or rifle can also be used aggressively – the point is that these can be used against the specific target.  Inherently today’s modern weapons – best represented by nuclear bombs – cannot; inherently, such weapons can only be used indiscriminately.

These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction….We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a sin and a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.

Maybe not as important, but also inherently a violation of the non-aggression principle.

This is why the old cliché no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace.

Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  Yet here is Rothbard, undefending this seemingly very defendable statement.

For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner. Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake.

Sure, the nuclear bomb kills no one if it is not launched; yet it can do nothing other than initiate aggression against tens-of-thousands of innocents when launched.  The weapon itself is undefendable via libertarian theory (to say nothing of general moral conscience).

And if we will indeed use our strategic intelligence, we will see that such disarmament is not only a good, but the highest political good that we can pursue in the modern world.

So…if liberty is the highest political end and nuclear disarmament is the highest political good, it seems to me that libertarians (myself included) might spend more time focused on nuclear disarmament and war and less time on…well, I will let Rothbard tell it:

…the forestalling of massive annihilation is far more important, in truth, than the demunicipalization of garbage disposal, as worthwhile as that may be. Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant about price control or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders at or even positively advocate the ultimate crime of mass murder?


In other words, maybe we should spend more time undefending the defendable.


Rothbard continues next by introducing the state into the equation.  As this post has run long enough, I will continue this examination in a future post.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.