The anti-war movement desperately needs libertarian leadership. And the libertarian movement urgently needs to be strongly anti-war. So in this essay I will offer some chief reasons for every libertarian to be 100% non-interventionist and actively engaged in the cause of peace.
Libertarianism embraces the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property. The meaning of these rights have been intentionally distorted by some, but they originally meant the right not to be murdered (life), not to be enslaved (liberty), and not to be robbed (property). What distinguishes libertarians is that we apply these principles comprehensively, making no exception for the government. It is not okay for the government to steal and call it taxation, to enslave and call it incarceration, or to murder and call it war.
As private murder is a worse crime than private kidnapping and theft, so should war (mass murder by the government) be a paramount concern for libertarians, surpassing even many issues involving the police state and economic planning/redistribution.
Moreover, the government crime of war is what enables the government’s other crimes. War, as economist Robert Higgs has put it, is the master key of the State. The terror, hate, and urgency stimulated by war causes the populace to become as conformist and docile as a herd. Rulers know this very well, which is why they so frequently manipulate and drag their people into wars. Both the domestic police state (the garrison state) and domestic economic planning (war mobilization) grow rapidly during wars and cold wars. War, as Randolph Bourne wrote, is the health of the State. By this he meant that foreign wars nourish domestic tyranny.
For example, see the cartelization of the U.S. economy emerging out of the World Wars, the national security state emerging out of World War II and the Cold War, and the expansion of the police state (mass surveillance, the militarization of the police, etc) throughout the War on Terror.
War is also self-reinforcing, and does not lead to long-term peace and security as some of its defenders claim. This is because war is an inherently collectivist undertaking, wholly incompatible with libertarianism’s individualistic notions of justice. War targets, not individuals for the enforcement of restitution, but whole populations for pure destruction. War destroys the lives and livelihoods of countless undeserving victims, including innocent children, who are dismissively chalked up as “acceptable losses” and “collateral damage.” These victims, whatever their culture, are real human beings with hopes, fears, and inner lives, the same as me, you, your niece, or any of your loved ones.
And when they are assaulted, they or their loved ones will desire redress, just as you or I would. If they are beset with the same collectivist notions of justice that their victimizers had, then they may seek or support collectivist retaliation against the “enemy population,” whether through conventional warfare or terrorism (asymmetric warfare). This will incur civilian casualties on the other side, which will elicit still more collectivist retaliation, incurring still more civilian casualties, and so on. Thus war tends to self-perpetuate in a cycle of unjust violence (aggression). Any ethic that justifies “collateral damage,” if applied universally, is an ethic of mutual extermination.
Libertarianism, on the other hand, confines retaliation to coercing restitution from individual perpetrators. Such violence is inherently self-containing, because it deters against aggression while not gratuitously generating grievances through indiscriminate destruction. The libertarian repudiation of war (collectivist violence), therefore tends toward security for all, whereas war tends toward insecurity for all.
For example, the 9/11 attacks, as Ron Paul famously stressed, was blowback from decades of intervention in the Middle East. Those attacks on civilians provoked massive Western wars on the Middle East. Those civilian-slaughtering wars in turn have engendered a massive increase in terrorism. And that terrorism is being used to justify still further war.
War is often waged for the stated purpose of “liberating” a country from tyranny. Waging war for freedom is just as counterproductive as waging war for security.
Often the hostility begins with a “cold war,” limited to sanctions and subversion. This is intended to impel reform by “punishing” the regime, or to induce revolution by causing misery for the people. This usually backfires, because it is easier for the tyrant to scapegoat the “foreign enemy” for suffering of the people than for the enemy to scapegoat the tyrant. This provides cover for the tyrant’s misrule. The foreign enemy also provides the tyrant with a useful bogeyman for terrorizing the people into rallying around the regime. Again, war nourishes domestic tyranny, and cold wars are no exception. Thus, cold wars intended to weaken or depose tyrannical regimes actually tend to strengthen them.
For example, since the 50s, the US has never relented in its hostility toward the communist regimes in Cuba and North Korea. Yet a half-century later, the Castros and the Kims have a firmer grip on power than ever. In contrast, in the 70s, the US accepted detente with the communist regimes in China and Vietnam. Since then, those countries have seen tremendous liberalization.
If the hostility escalates to a hot war, it makes things even worse. If the targeted regime survives the war, it will emerge from it with an even stronger grip on power. And if the regime is toppled, that is no guarantee of “freedom” for the people either. The conquerors may install a stable puppet regime. But puppet regimes tend to be even more repressive than demagogic tyrants, because they rely on foreign, not domestic support, and so need not fret over alienating their people with brutality.
Another possibility is that the overthrow creates a failed state in which several factions tear the country apart in a chronic civil war. This is another distinct likelihood, because foreigners do not have the local knowledge or the right incentives to establish a stable compromise among the country’s interest groups. Libertarians, who are rightly skeptical of the government’s ability to plan its own society’s economy, should be doubly skeptical of that same government’s ability to plan another society’s institutions.
See for example, the post-9/11 western regime-change interventions throughout the Middle East, which have created six terrorist-infested, civil-war-stricken failed states in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia.
In any conflict between a more free country and a less free country, some libertarians are apt to assume that the more free country must be “in the right.” They assume that the worst tyrants are also the worst foreign aggressors. However, the opposite tends to be true. Tyranny breeds poverty, and an impoverished populace cannot provide much in the way of tax revenue. So tyrannical regimes tend to be too poor to afford a successfully belligerent foreign policy.
On the other hand, freedom breeds wealth, and a rich tax base can support a tremendous military budget. So it is actually less domestically tyrannical governments that tend to be more imperialistic.
See for example, the globe-spanning empire of Great Britain, the original “Land of the Free,” and the current global hegemony of the British Empire’s successor, the United States of America.
Perhaps the greatest obstacle to becoming thoroughly anti-war is that it involves casting America’s warlike history and the very nature of our government in an entirely new light. It is difficult, even for libertarians, to accept that the government you have known all your life is not the benign institution you thought it was, but one of the greatest engines of mass murder, destruction, and suffering that has ever existed.
However, keep in mind that the very same institution that has waged these wars has also been in control of your education since your early childhood and throughout most of the waking hours of your formative years. Thus your government has decicively shaped your perception of its actions and role in the world. It is only natural that you would be taken aback at a perspective that runs entirely counter to a message that you’ve imbibed throughout all that. But just because something is hard to accept, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true.
So don’t avert your eyes, and don’t be silent in the face of evil. Start learning the truth about the empire and its atrocities, and start speaking out against war.