Today, wars rage in the Ukraine and Middle East. What attitude should libertarians adopt toward these wars? Is it consistent with libertarian principles to support whatever side you think has the better case? Can you urge that side to go all-out for victory? Murray Rothbard, the greatest of all libertarian theorists, did not think so. And this is true even if you have assessed the conflict correctly. Let’s look at what he says in his great book The Ethics of Liberty.
As you might expect, Murray doesn’t begin his analysis by taking conflicts between states as the starting point. He asks what individuals involved in a conflict could properly do in an anarcho-capitalist society. Here is what he says:
“Before considering inter-State actions, let us return for a moment to the pure libertarian stateless world where individuals and their hired private protection agencies strictly confine their use of violence to the defense of person and property against violence. Suppose that, in this world, Jones finds that he or his property is being aggressed against by Smith. lt is legitimate, as we have seen, for Jones to repel this invasion by the use of defensive violence. But, now we must ask: is it within the right of Jones to commit aggressive violence against innocent third parties in the course of his legitimate defense against Smith? Clearly the answer must be “No.” For the rule prohibiting violence against the persons or property of innocent men is absolute; it holds regardless of the subjective motives for the aggression. lt is wrong, and criminal, to violate the property or person of another, even if one is a Robin Hood, or is starving, or is defending oneself against a third man’s attack. We may understand and sympathize with the motives in many of these cases and extreme situations. We (or, rather, the victim or his heirs) may later mitigate the guilt if the criminal comes to trial for punishment, but we cannot evade the judgment that this aggression is still a criminal act, and one which the victim has every right to repel, by violence if necessary. In short, A aggresses against B because C is threatening, or aggressing against, A. We may understand C’s “higher” culpability in this whole procedure, but we still label this aggression by A as a criminal act which B has every right to repel by violence. To be more concrete, if Jones finds that his property is being stolen by Smith, Jones has the right to repel him and try to catch him, but Jones has no right to repel him by bombing a building and murdering innocent people or to catch him by spraying machine gun fire into an innocent crowd. If he does this, he is as much (or more) a criminal aggressor as Smith is. The same criteria hold if Smith and Jones each have men on his side, i.e. if “war” breaks out between Smith and his henchmen and Jones and his bodyguards. If Smith and a group of henchmen aggress against Jones, and Jones and his bodyguards pursue the Smith gang to their lair, we may cheer Jones on in his endeavor; and we, and others in society interested in repelling aggression, may contribute financially or personally to Jones’s cause. But Jones and his men have no right, any more than does Smith, to aggress against anyone else in the course of their “just war”: to steal others’ property in order to finance their pursuit, to conscript others into their posse by use of violence, or to kill others in the course of their struggle to capture the Smith forces. If Jones and his men should do any of these things, they become criminals as fully as Smith, and they too become subject to whatever sanctions are meted out against criminality. In fact, if Smith’s crime was theft, and Jones should use conscription to catch him, or should kill innocent people in the pursuit, then Jones becomes more of a criminal than Smith, for such crimes against another person as enslavement and murder are surely far worse than theft. Suppose that Jones, in the course of his “just war” against the ravages of Smith, should kill some innocent people; and suppose that he should declaim, in defense of this murder, that he was simply acting on the slogan, “give me Iiberty or give me death.” The absurdity of this “defense” should be evident at once, for the issue is not whether Jones was willing to risk death personally in his defensive struggle against Smith; the issue is whether he was willing to kill other innocent people in pursuit of his legitimate end. For Jones was in truth acting on the completely indefensible slogan: “Give me liberty or give them death” —surely a far less noble battle cry.”
Murray next argues that because you may never harm the innocent, nuclear war is always wrong, because there is no way of confining the damage these weapons do to legitimate targets. Murray makes this point unmistakably clear:
“lt has often been maintained, and especially by conservatives, that the development of the horrendous modern weapons of mass murder (nuclear weapons, rockets, germ warfare, etc.) is only a difference of degree rather than kind from the simpler weapons of an earlier era. 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 a particularly libertarian reply 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. Here is a crucial difference in kind. Of course, the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors. Nuclear weapons, even “conventional” aerial bombs, cannot be. These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction. (The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area.) We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification. 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. 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. Indeed, of all the aspects of liberty, such disarmament becomes the highest political good that can be pursued in the modern world. For just as murder is a more heinous crime against another man than larceny, so mass murder—indeed murder so widespread as to threaten human civilization and human survival itself-is the worst crime that any man could possibly commit. And that crime is now all too possible. Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant about price controls or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders at or even positively advocate the ultimate crime of mass murder?”
Murray has so far been talking about what individuals and private protection agencies in a libertarian society are permitted to do.
“In the existing world, each land area is ruled over by a State organization, with a number of States scattered over the earth, each with a monopoly of violence over its own territory. No super-State exists with a monopoly of violence over the entire world; and so a state of “anarchy” exists between the several States. And so, except for revolutions, which occur only sporadically, the open violence and two-sided conflict in the world takes place between two or more States, i.e., what is called “international war” or “horizontal violence.” Now there are crucial and vital differences between inter-State warfare on the one hand and revolutions against the State or conflicts between private individuals on the other. In a revolution the conflict takes place within the same geographical area: both the minions of the State and the revolutionaries inhabit the same territory Inter-State warfare, on the other hand, takes place between two groups, each having a monopoly over its own geographical area, i.e. it takes place between inhabitants of different territories. From this difference flow several important consequences: (1) In inter-State war, the scope for the use of modern weapons of mass destruction is far greater. For if the escalation of weaponry in an intra-territorial conflict becomes too great, each side will blow itself up with the weapons directed against the other. Neither a revolutionary group nor a State combatting revolution, for example, can use nuclear weapons against the other. But, on the other hand, when the warring parties inhabit different territorial areas, the scope for modern weaponry becomes enormous, and the entire arsenal of mass devastation can come into play. A second corollary consequence (2) is that while it is possible for revolutionaries to pinpoint their targets and confine them to their State enemies, and thus avoid aggressing against innocent people, pinpointing is far less possible in an inter-State war. This is true even with older weapons; and, of course, with modern weapons there can be no pinpointing whatever. Furthermore, (3) since each State can mobilize all the people and resources in its territory, the other State comes to regard all the citizens of the opposing country as at least temporarily its enemies and to treat them accordingly by extending the war to them. Thus, all of the consequences of inter-territorial war make it almost inevitable that inter-State war will involve aggression by each side against the innocent civilians-the private individuals-of the other. This inevitability becomes absolute with modern weapons of mass destruction. If one distinct attribute of inter-State war is inter-territoriality, another unique attribute stems from the fact that each State lives by taxation over its subjects. Any war against another State, therefore, involves the increase and extension of taxation-aggression against its own people. Conflicts between private individuals can be, and usually are, voluntarily waged and financed by the parties concerned. Revolutions can be, and often are, financed and fought by voluntary contributions of the public. But State wars can only be waged through aggression against the taxpayer. All State wars, therefore, involve increased aggression against the State’s own taxpayers, and almost all State wars (all, in modern warfare) involve the maximum aggression (murder) against the innocent civilians ruled by the enemy State. On the other hand, revolutions are often financed voluntarily and may pinpoint their violence to the State rulers; and private conflicts may confine their violence to the actual criminals. We must therefore conclude that, while some revolutions and some private conflicts may be legitimate, State wars are always to be condemned. Some libertarians might object as follows: “While we too deplore the use of taxation for warfare, and the State’s monopoly of defense service, we have to recognize that these conditions exist, and while they do, we must support the State in just wars of defense.” In the light of our discussion above, the reply would go as follows: “Yes, States exist, and as long as they do, the libertarian attitude toward the State should be to say to it, in effect: ‘All right, you exist, but so long as you do, at least confine your activities to the area which you monopolize.”‘ In short, the libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals, “foreign” and “domestic.” The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area which it monopolizes, and not to aggress against other State-monopolists particularly the people ruled by other States. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure “their” respective States not to attack one another, and, if a conflict should break out, to negotiate a peace or declare a cease-fire as quickly as physically possible.
The libertarian objective, then, should be, regardless of the specific causes of any conflict, to pressure States not to launch wars against other States and, should a war break out, to pressure them to sue for peace and negotiate a cease-fire and a peace treaty as quickly as physically possible. This objective, incidentally, was enshrined in the old-fashioned international law of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, i.e., the ideal that no State aggress against the territory of another-which is now called the “peaceful coexistence” of States.”
What happens if a war does break out? Then, Murray says, there should be no foreign aid to any of the parties involved.
“One corollary of the libertarian policy of peaceful coexistence and nonintervention between States is the rigorous abstention from any foreign aid, aid from one State to another. For any aid given by State A to State B (1) increases the tax aggression against the people of country A, and (2) aggravates the suppression by State B of its own people.”
Let’s do everything we can to follow Murray’s principles in all the terrible conflicts that the world faces today.