Libertarianism For and Against War
Libertarian Reasons Against War (in no particular order):
1. War requires aggression.
It’s simply irresponsible to speak of war without innocent casualties. Given the weapons, tactics, and scale of modern warfare, civilians are inevitably put in harm’s way. To separate modern warfare from innocent deaths seems to rely on an unrealistic conception of how war actually is in the real world. The notion of “defensive war” is long outdated. All wars are aggressive. Even ones that are supposedly fought in response to some sort of aggression end up killing innocents.
But what if those civilian casualties are merely a side-effect of defending against an aggressor, the actual goal of so-called defensive war? The killer didn’t mean to kill those people. They died as an unintended consequence of the war. Simple collateral damage. Well so what?
The killer knew innocent deaths would be an unintended consequence of their decision to pursue war with near absolute certainty. They actively took steps that would result in the foreseen deaths of innocents, even if their other ends were good. If I shoot at a crowd of ten people because I think one of them stole my wallet, any deaths are still my fault even if I was just trying to stop the person who took my wallet. I caused those deaths. Good intentions don’t justify ignoring known, but unintended consequences. Wanting nice things doesn’t grand one a license to pursue mass murder.
But suppose that the would-be killer didn’t know that civilians were going to die because of his actions. Again, so what? Aggression doesn’t always involve moral culpability. We can still say the act of war was wrong in hindsight because of the innocent deaths and that the aggressor owes restitution to the victim or their family and friends. If I’m shooting at a thief who stole my wallet and one of the bullets ricochets and kills someone else completely away from the incident, it doesn’t look like I’m morally culpable for that person’s death. I didn’t know my actions would have that result so how could I be guilty? Nonetheless, I’m responsible for the instance of aggression and owe them or their loved ones restitution. Ignorance is also not a justification for mass murder.
War inevitably rests on aggression. Conflicts of international scale with the technology and weaponry available in today’s world cannot escape civilian deaths and other instances of aggression against innocent people. Therefore, there is no such thing as a war of self-defense. If force is only to be permitted in self-defense, war is unacceptable.
In addition to the above, war also relies on taxation and monopoly, which are sustained through systematic government violence. The institutional factors that give rise to war are themselves based on one group (the government) warring against another (the citizens). War, then, is an example of evil means and evil ends.
2. War makes everyone less safe.
War causes blowback. War naturally creates ideological and emotional conflict between the people of the warring regions. With every blow, more and more people of the targeted region (often innocent civilians suffering due to a sanction or other forms of economic terrorism, or worse, the loss of a loved one due to a bombing or other forms of military violence) are incentivized to deliver a blow back to the aggressor for reasons often completely unrelated to the initial conflict, such as self-interested defense, hostile revenge, or even newly sparked nationalism. These victims then often turn to militaries or their own cooperative efforts to carry out their blowback. The initial attack, even if motivated by self-defense, inadvertently caused innocent victims, and more and/or increased threats to the attacker.
War, then, escalates conflict. War is a never-ending circle of violence, continually sowing the seeds for more war. Both sides take turns delivering punches to the other, each one more powerful than the last. Neither region ever benefits since even the attacking region lays the ideological foundations for its doom. Even so-called “victorious” attacks are merely temporary victories. They achieve a short-term loss, but create more hostility, hate, and eventually violence than the attack stopped. War leads to blowback, which leads to more war, which leads to more blowback, and so on. The unintended consequences and side effects of war make each region less safe as it only feeds into more violence, hatred, bigotry, and, well…war. Each region becomes increasingly less safe until one side finally crushes the other for good (usually paving the way for further conflicts and wars) or they both collapse.
States thrive on war. War has served as an excuse for some of the worst rights violations in American history. It has gone hand in hand with the systematic degradation and destruction of both economic liberties and civil liberties, as well as the increase in size and scope of the government.War is ultimately an excuse for the state to extort more, kidnap more, spy more, torture more, and murder more…some of the state’s favorite things according to history. If people believe they need protection from some terrible, overseas enemy, that gives the government more leeway in pursuing even worse policies than it usually does in the form of higher taxes, more spending, increased inflation, and faster military expansion. The effects of militarization internationally have even spilled over to domestic police forces. Government grows rapidly in times of war (and other “emergencies”), but it rarely ever shrinks back down to size. It is the single largest government program. It always has been and it always will be.
4. War suffers from an incentive problem.
People in government are not special: they are primarily interested in their self-interest, not the public interest. Like any government program, the institutional factors leading up to war are likely to include conniving, evil, power-lusting parasites looking around for the teat of their loyal representative in Washington. It’s simply utopian to think regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and military leaders are benevolent public servants with the well being of the people even near the top of their subjective value scales. At the top of their value scales, like most people, are dollar signs. Even if you came up with some sort of ideal, defensive, unintended-consequence-free war proposal, the ability to implement that amazing plan depends upon very real and very fallible human institutions. And human institutions, like the humans they consist of, are very prone to corruption, collusion, secrecy, and manipulation. As a government program, the incentive alignment is all off. Government officials are generally more likely to respond and cater to rent seekers and special interests, especially in war when the potential profits are so high, than to the will of the people. The incentive to provide for the general welfare is almost always outweighed by the incentive to provide for general warfare. Even wars started with good intentions are inevitably going to become manipulated by special interests and hence because a disgustingly catastrophic tragedy. The mass murder industry simply has high returns on production.
5. War suffers from a knowledge problem.
The government faces an impossible knowledge problem when it comes to planning the economy, and it similarly faces an impossible knowledge problem when it comes to solving international conflict. Like any government program, the institutional factors leading up to war are likely to include well-dressed, bumbling idiots unaware of basic economics, history, sociology, or ethics trying to solve problems half way around the world. It’s simply utopian to think regulators, bureaucrats, politicians, and military leaders are competent public servants with the necessary knowledge to solve the world’s problems. The local and tacit knowledge required to solve conflicts overseas and to effectively combat aggressors thousands of miles away without causing disastrous unintended consequences is simply not available to the ignorant and fallible Washington “experts.” Like the humans they consist of, human institutions are not omniscient. As a government program, the knowledge is simply not there. Considering the horrible track record of war in causing massive death, destruction, rights violations, and unintended consequences, it’s far from obvious that it’s a better solution to international conflict than diplomatic talks, peaceful resolution, mediation, third party arbitration, lead by example, changing current policies, rectifying injustices from past policies, or simply doing nothing. Military tactics and plans are often developed far away from the actual problem and so lack the relevant knowledge to be consistently, or even usually, effective. Furthermore, the specific resource allocation in war are likely rife with calculational chaos, inefficiency, and waste.
6. War has no commonsense case.
1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful. Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side. If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.
2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain. Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace. But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors. You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.” In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences. One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.
3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs. I call this “the principle of mild deontology.” Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people. For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1. (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).
Pacifism, similarly, is the radical notion that before you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences.
7. War violates, “first, do no harm.”
Political actors, including voters, activists, and leaders, are often ignorant of basic facts relevant to policy choices. Even experts have little understanding of the working of society and little ability to predict future outcomes. Only the most simple and uncontroversial political claims can be counted on. This is partly because political knowledge is very difficult to attain, and partly because individuals are not sufficiently motivated to attain it. As a result, the best advice for political actors is very often to simply stop trying to solve social problems, since interventions not based on precise understanding are likely to do more harm than good.
As a general rule of thumb, it’s reasonable, in light of the complexity of policy issues, to err on the side of passivity. And what is more complex than war and foreign policy? The constantly shifting relationships, dynamics, alliances, and policies of the entire international community is absurdly complicated and difficult to keep up with. Considering the vastness and complexity of this web of information and the general ignorance of do-gooders, a well grounded, logical, and actually beneficial foreign policy might imply a passive approach.
8. War subsists on and promotes collectivist, authoritarian, bigoted, and violent cultural norms.
The basest aspects of human beings are brought out during war. And not just on the battlefield where the war machine sends masses of bodies to either fall victim to the “enemy” and come out the other side in a coffin or emerge victorious and come out the other side as more suited for violent conflict than civil society. Our most base features are also brought about at home. War rests on and further reinforces the diseases of nationalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of collectivist bigotry through the use of pervasive manipulation and propaganda designed to breed hated and hostility towards some “enemy.” The violent and disgusting norms that become commonplace during wartime often spill over to those not even engaged in combat. A region with a government that is in constant war, endlessly expanding its empire and killing machine, will naturally have a culture that is an outgrowth of that empire. The cultural undercurrents and social trends that define society are inevitably stirred by such large-scale events as war, both in the creating of support for the conflict, but also in the reentering of people involved in war-activities into civil society.
War is the epitome of anti-individualistic, authoritarian central planning, and so has detrimental effects on the intellectual climate of economics in a region. Taxes, regulations, controls, and laws are necessarily involved in war. This “trickle-down” effect often causes the rationalistic mindset behind war to pervade other political and intellectual leaders of society, and eventually all of civilization is being run like an army with a general handing orders down in a hierarchy of coercion and exploitation. Once measures x, y, and z are justified for war, it’s much more difficult to avoid them during peace because of the basic institutional nature of government, how it operates, and how it effects cultural trends.
Obedience to authority is a specifically terrible value that is revered in war. Authority only has power insofar as people believe in it. This is what makes propaganda such a vital tool for the state. Like the value of federal reserve notes, the state’s authority only exists to the extent that people believe it exists (by it, I mean the state’s claim to authority). As I’ve written elsewhere, “If people support the troops, pay their taxes, follow the law, use American dollars, the power structure is kept running. The so-called upright citizen is the Man’s best friend, while also being the Man’s best slave. As long as the “upright citizen” keeps treading the hamster wheel of state capitalism, the military industrial complex thrives.” The state requires obedience for its survival and insofar as it can manipulate culture, the state can produce obedience.
The worst aspects of human nature are rewarded in war and it’s not unusual for the rest of society to follow suite.
9. War destroys economic prosperity.
War is incompatible with the market economy. The popular myth that war can generate economy prosperity is merely an example of the broken window fallacy. On the contrary, the material well being afforded by free exchange relies on stable rules, predictable institutions, and personal safety. War, in its direct effects, its unforeseen side-effects in the form of blowback or cultural shift, and its very method of funding and production is in tension with all three requirements for a reliable market economy. The division of labor is primarily an effort at peace making. Self-interested people naturally pursue nonviolent alternatives to solve disputes over scarce resources, often in the form of mutually beneficial trade. To the extent that that trade is interfered with (either through the expropriation of the resources to be traded, regulation on who can trade what and to whom, destruction of the resources to be traded, or simply killing the people involved in the trading), economic prosperity is strangled. From an economic point of view, war is nothing but a gigantic waste of resources for the purpose of setting economic progress back, not forward.
It just is.
Libertarians Reasons For War (in no particular order):
I couldn’t think of anything for this section.
Cory Massimino is a fellow at the Center for a Stateless Society, a Students For Liberty Senior Campus Coordinator, and a Young Voices Advocate. His writings have appeared in such publications as Town Hall, Counterpunch, The Daily Caller, The American Conservative, Antiwar.com, and The Guardian. Cory also studies philosophy in central Florida and contributes to the Students For Liberty blog and The Circle Molinari, a student-run left libertarian blog. When he’s not eating pizza, he’s working to spread the freedom philosophy one slice at a time.
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