Rothbard on A Priori History

Murray Rothbard is well-known as one of the greatest exponents of praxeology, which operates through a priori reasoning. He was careful, however, to distinguish praxeology from history. The latter could be studied only through empirical investigation. In this week’s column, I’d like to discuss some observations he makes about this in For a New Liberty, which was published fifty years ago.

In the section called “Avoiding a Priori History,” Rothbard warns against the assumption that because democracies are “better” than dictatorships, they are necessarily more peace loving. Of course, Rothbard wasn’t a supporter of democracy and wrote eloquently against its defects; indeed, he does so in this book. But we can say, at least for the purposes of the argument, that a government with relatively free elections and civil liberties is better than a dictatorship with little freedom. Even if a democracy really is “better” than its authoritarian rivals in this sense, this says nothing about how often it will go to war.

Rothbard writes:

In short, libertarians and other Americans must guard against a priori history: in this case, against the assumption that, in any conflict, the State which is more democratic or allows more internal freedom is necessarily or even presumptively the victim of aggression by the more dictatorial or totalitarian State. There is simply no historical evidence whatever for such a presumption. In deciding on relative rights and wrongs, on relative degrees of aggression in any dispute in foreign affairs, there is no substitute for a detailed empirical, historical investigation of the dispute itself. It should occasion no great surprise, then, if such an investigation concludes that a democratic and relatively far freer United States has been more aggressive and imperialistic in foreign affairs than a relatively totalitarian Russia or China. Conversely, hailing a State for being less aggressive in foreign affairs in no way implies that the observer is in any way sympathetic to that State’s internal record. It is vital—indeed, it is literally a life-and-death matter—that Americans be able to look as coolly and clear-sightedly, as free from myth at their government’s record in foreign affairs as they are increasingly able to do in domestic politics.

Rothbard’s target here needs to be specified. He isn’t attacking so-called democratic peace theory in this passage, although he opposes this also. According to democratic peace theory, democracies are unlikely to go to war with other democracies. This is a different question from whether democracies are on the whole more warlike than other states. Even if democratic peace theory were true, it could still be the case that democracies are more warlike because they go to war with dictatorship more often than dictatorships do with other dictatorships.

The extent to which a state is dictatorial has little if anything to do with how aggressive it is:

Many dictatorships have turned inward, cautiously confining themselves to preying on their own people: examples range from premodern Japan to Communist Albania to innumerable dictatorships in the Third World today. Uganda’s Idi Amin, perhaps the most brutal and repressive dictator in today’s world, shows no signs whatever of jeopardizing his regime by invading neighboring countries. On the other hand, such an indubitable democracy as Great Britain spread its coercive imperialism across the globe during the nineteenth and earlier centuries. . . .

What we have said about democracy and dictatorship applies equally to the lack of correlation between degrees of internal freedom in a country and its external aggressiveness. Some States have proved themselves perfectly capable of allowing a considerable degree of freedom internally while making aggressive war abroad; other States have shown themselves capable of totalitarian rule internally while pursuing a pacific foreign policy. The examples of Uganda, Albania, China, Great Britain, etc., apply equally well in this comparison.

Rothbard gives an illustration of his point that many readers will find controversial. He is a Cold War revisionist and argues that the United States was for the most part the aggressor in its struggle with the Soviet Union. The Soviets aimed to get back the territory that had been held by tsarist Russia and to ensure that no neighboring hostile state was in a position to invade it. He writes:

Since their victory over German and associated military aggression in World War II, the Soviets have continued to be conservative in their military policy. Their only use of troops has been to defend their territory in the Communist bloc, rather than to extend it further. Thus, when Hungary threatened to leave the Soviet bloc in 1956, or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets intervened with troops—reprehensibly, to be sure, but still acting in a conservative and defensive rather than expansionist manner. (The Soviets apparently gave considerable thought to invading Yugoslavia when Tito took it out of the Soviet bloc, but were deterred by the formidable qualities for guerrilla fighting of the Yugoslav army.) In no case has Russia used troops to extend its bloc or to conquer more territories.

Suppose you disagree with Rothbard and think that the Soviets were more expansionist than he does. You must still take account of a vital point that is particularly relevant in our own times, when neoconservatives urge confrontation with Russia:

We are not saying, of course, that Soviet leaders will never do anything contrary to Marxist-Leninist theory. But to the extent that they act as ordinary rulers of a strong Russian nation-state, the case for an imminent Soviet threat to the United States is gravely weakened. For the sole alleged basis of such a threat, as conjured up by our cold warriors, is the Soviet Union’s alleged devotion to Marxist-Leninist theory and to its ultimate goal of world Communist triumph. If the Soviet rulers were simply to act as Russian dictators consulting only their own nation-state interests, then the entire basis for treating the Soviets as a uniquely diabolic source of imminent military assault crumbles to the ground.

Russia today no longer is a Communist state. However expansionist you deem Vladimir Putin to be, he poses no threat to the United States.

Note: The views expressed on are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.