Why Libertarians Oppose War

by , September 10, 2010

This article is excerpted from Libertarianism Today, by Jacob H. Huebert.

Libertarianism and war are not compatible.  One reason why should be obvious: In war, governments commit legalized mass-murder.  In modern warfare especially, war is not just waged among voluntary combatants, but kills, maims, and otherwise harms innocent people.  Then, of course, wars must be funded through taxes, which are extracted from U.S. citizens by force – a form of legalized theft, as far as libertarians are concerned.  And, historically, the U.S. has used conscription – legalized slavery – to force people to fight and die.  In addition, an interventionist foreign policy makes civilians targets for retaliation, so governments indirectly cause more violence against their own people when they become involved in other countries’ affairs.  Plus, war is always accompanied by many other new restrictions on liberty, many of which are sold as supposedly temporary wartime measures but then never go away. 

War Involves Mass Murder

Today, people mostly accept that innocent civilians die in wars, and it doesn’t seem to bother them too much as long as it’s happening to other people on the other side of the world.  The military calls this "collateral damage," and the American media mostly ignores it, but libertarians call attention to it and call it what it is: mass murder. 

Historically, war didn’t necessarily involve killing innocents on a large scale.  War was always terrible and undesirable, but by the eighteenth century, Europe had developed rules of "civilized warfare," and wars were generally fought only between armies, with civilians off-limits.  From the libertarian perspective, this type of war is not so much of a problem; if people choose to engage in mortal combat with each other, that may be foolish, self-destructive, and even immoral, but it’s not aggression in the libertarian sense.  (Of course, those wars still have objectionable ends – generally, the right to dominate a particular territory – but at least the means aren’t so offensive.) 

Modern warfare is another story.  Modern governments, including but not limited to democracies, claim to represent "the people," so modern wars are seen as being fought, not just between rulers, but between whole peoples.  By this way of thinking, it’s not two governments fighting; it’s "all of us versus all of them."  This is how politicians and some conservative pundits talk: either you are rooting "for America" or you "want America to lose" –  they don’t distinguish between the country’s government and its citizens.  If their view is correct – if governments really do represent the people – then it follows (more easily) that the people are fair game in war.

Of course, libertarians reject this view of government and democracy.  Governments don’t actually represent their people – they prey upon their people.  Many people in any given country, democratic or otherwise, don’t support all of their government’s policies, and don’t deserve to be punished, let alone killed, for what their government does.  But many are unwillingly implicated in their government’s crimes through taxation, conscription, and other ways in which they’re forced to directly and indirectly support the war effort. 

The United States led the way in destroying the historic prohibition on targeting civilians.  In the Civil War, with Abraham Lincoln’s approval, General William Tecumseh Sherman unleashed "total war" in the South, burning cities and towns to the ground and destroying huge amounts of civilian property – food, housing, tools – mostly for no reason except to terrorize the "enemy" population. 

Britain also played its part, thanks to Winston Churchill.  In World War I, as First Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill implemented a blockade that caused about 750,000 German civilians to die of hunger or malnutrition.  In World War II, Churchill urged the deliberate bombing of civilians in German cities, which killed 600,000 people and severely injured some 800,000 more.

President Harry S. Truman contributed as well, killing more than 200,000 people with the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki – the first and so far only nuclear attacks by any country.  The U.S. also killed over 100,000 more civilians in raids on Tokyo, including one major raid that took place after the atomic bombs had been dropped and Japan had indicated its willingness to surrender.  Libertarians would consider the killing of all those civilians to be an unjustifiable war crime in any event, but libertarian historian Ralph Raico has argued that, contrary to popular belief, the atomic bombs weren’t even necessary to save American soldiers’ lives or win the war.

In the Cold War, the U.S. (and the Soviets) continued to produce and accumulate nuclear weapons, which, if used, would destroy enormous civilian populations.  Even now, as it condemns other countries for wanting even one nuclear weapon, the U.S. maintains a huge nuclear arsenal, with nearly 4,000 nuclear missiles ready to use.  Unlike guns and other traditional weapons, nuclear weapons have no legitimate defensive purpose; they can’t even theoretically be limited to target only enemy combatants.  True, they serve as a "deterrent" without being detonated, but this provides little comfort, since it assumes that the President of the United States is, in fact, ready, willing, and able to bring a nuclear holocaust upon millions of people if put to the test.  For these reasons, libertarianism calls for immediate, total nuclear disarmament.  Libertarians might also point out that the very existence of nuclear weapons provides a powerful argument against large governments.  Without big government, there is no reason why these weapons, which have the potential to destroy the entire human race, would exist. 

Sometimes the U.S. foreign policy kills people indirectly.  For example, from 1990 through March 1998, sanctions against Iraq kept food and medicine out of that country and caused at least 350,000 excess deaths of Iraqi children under the age of five ("excess deaths" meaning deaths above the normal death rate).  In 1996, when asked on 60 Minutes whether it was worth allowing hundreds of thousands of children to die to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals, Madeline Albright (the future Secretary of State, who was then U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations) infamously said, "We think the price is worth it."

The Iraq war itself has also killed many thousands of people, causing at least 90,000 documented Iraqi civilian deaths by October 2009.  Other estimates put the figure much higher, such as an October 2006 study from the medical journal The Lancet, which estimated that the war had caused, directly and indirectly, more than 650,000 excess Iraqi deaths.  For perspective, one might recall that the September 11 attacks that led – quite indirectly – to the Iraq war killed 2,976 Americans.

War Is Anti-Market

Many on the right see no contradiction between their (nominal) support for capitalism and their support for war.  Many on the left believe capitalism and militarism go hand in hand.  Libertarians say they’re both wrong because war interferes with the free market. 

War and the Economy

War disrupts the market by directing society’s resources away from productive uses and toward destructive uses, or at least toward things that people didn’t voluntarily demand.  Nonetheless, the myth persists that war is good for the economy.  For example, many people still insist that World War II ended the Great Depression, but libertarians have pointed out why this is false. 

The idea that war makes for prosperity is an instance of the "broken window fallacy" that the great libertarian economist Frederic Bastiat identified in the nineteenth century.  We mentioned this concept briefly in chapter one: if a window breaks, this "creates jobs" for the people who make and install windows.  But if the window hadn’t broken, the window’s owner could have spent his or her money on something else instead – and society would be wealthier because we would have not only the unbroken window, but also the additional goods and services produced. 

War is nothing but "breaking windows" on a massive scale.  It creates jobs for the people doing the breaking, and for the people who do the cleanup – but if there were no war jobs, those people would do something else that would be creative instead of destructive.  Yes, unemployment plummeted during World War II, but ending unemployment is easy if you draft millions of people into the military.  Slavery is indeed a "full employment" program, but not a very desirable one, especially when it can get you killed.  And it’s difficult to see how American soldiers were economically better off for being sent into the line of fire, or how their families were made better off by having fathers and sons sent away, possibly never to return.

Merchants of Death

Wars are not good for the economy, but they are good for some businesses: those that produce military equipment and weaponry, such as Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman; those that provide "infrastructure" in occupied territory, such as Halliburton and KBR; and those that provide "private" military services, such as Blackwater.  These "merchants of death" are not "free-market" entities; without a government buying their goods and services to wage war, they would not exist as we know them.  They are economic parasites, who take society’s resources but do not produce anything for civilian use in return.  Libertarians have consistently echoed President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the dangers of the "military-industrial complex" – a warning that Republican and Democrat politicians have almost universally ignored as the war profiteers successfully lobby them year after year. 

Read the rest of this chapter in Libertarianism Today.

Copyright (c) 2010 Jacob H. Huebert.   Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, CA.

Read more by Jacob H. Huebert