Until the longest war in U.S. history ends, substantive liberty will not return to American soil. Nothing is more important to freedom than to oppose the militarization of society because the two social models cannot coexist. Inevitably, one will overthrow the other.
What Is War? What Is Libertarianism?
The root of the conflict is expressed in the definitions of "war" and "libertarianism."
War is traditionally defined as the situation in which one state officially declares open hostility against the territory and people of another. Sometimes the word "war" is replaced by euphemistic terms such as "police action" but this is sophistry.
The purpose of war is to defend the alleged ‘rights’ of the state(s) involved: territorial sovereignty, control of resources, treaties, spheres of influence, or a specific political system such as monarchy. War does not defend individuals or their rights except as an occasional and unintended consequence. Instead, a warring state deliberately violates the person and property of individuals within its own territory by using them as resources in the war effort; those who dissent – by refusing to register, for example – are punished. At the same time, a warring state destroys the people and property of an enemy nation as a matter of strategy or as acceptable collateral damage.
By contrast, libertarianism holds individual rights as primary and the initiation of force as anathema to them.
The two definitions are diametrically opposed and yet some libertarians defend war, at least in theory, on the basis of self-defense. Is this approach valid?
War as the Antithesis of Self-Defense
The so-called libertarian argument for war runs as follows: individuals have a right to self-defense, which means they can assign their self-defense to an agency in the same manner as signing a power of attorney. If necessary, an individual can properly use deadly force in self-protection, which means the agency can acquire that right as well. The agency involved in war is the state. But the foregoing argument is self-contradictory and otherwise objectionable on several grounds.
First, the objections. Pro-war libertarians assume war is an extension of individual self-defense. But a cursory review of history shows that wars are overwhelmingly fought to profit politicians, the military, specific industries and related corporations. Generally the higher ranks of society – the elite – are the beneficiaries with the lower ranks – the people – paying a savage price.
The argument also assumes that war places a population at less and not more risk of attack by both the enemy and by its own state. The opposite is true. ‘Enemies’ who are bombed and watch family members die are more likely to retaliate than to extend a hand of good will in response. Domestic resisters are persecuted.
But, even ignoring these objections, war as an assignment of self-defense is self-contradictory. In fact, it is the usurpation of self-defense in at least two ways.
First, individuals cannot refuse the so-called assignment of rights or withdraw it as they can a power of attorney. The state demands obedience and property from the individual, consenting or not. And it usurps the many choices that every individual properly makes about his or her own self defense. The decisions include:
- When is self-defense (or war) justified?
- Whose version of disputed facts should be believed and who decides?
- Against whom should reactive violence be directed?
- Against whom should it be withheld?
- How is the self-defense to be conducted?
- How much force is justified by the nature of the harm?
- What circumstances end the matter?
- What compensation is just?
The state stakes out a monopoly on all the questions surrounding self-defense.
Second, if the collective right of a nation derives from individual ones, then the collective right should also break down to individual ones. It doesn’t. For example, the state claims a collective right to aggress against ‘enemy’ civilians who have committed no harm. Declaring an entire nation to be guilty is comparable to a wronged individual demanding restitution from strangers in the street rather than from the actual aggressor. And, yet, that’s what a warring state does in retaliating against a population rather than against specific guilty individuals, perhaps through assassination.
It does not matter if the harm to innocents is an unintended consequence or something the aggressor regrets. Being unintentional does not mean a consequence was unpredictable. If I fire a machine gun into a crowd in order to kill an aggressor hiding there, then injury to bystanders is unintended but predictable. A libertarian theory of self-defense does not embrace the right to attack innocent people. The iconic Murray Rothbard placed that principle at the heart of the movement; "no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory." And, yet, the ‘right’ and propriety of harming innocents is asserted by the state in war.
The 19th century British Quaker Jonathan Dymond observed, "They who are shocked at a single murder on the highway, hear with indifference of the slaughter of a thousand on the field. They whom the idea of a single corpse would thrill with terror, contemplate that of heaps of human carcasses mangled by human hands, with frigid indifference." The vicious double standard means the alleged collective right of the state does not break down to individual ones; it is not derived from them.
A warring state does not and cannot act as a duly authorized defense agent of individuals.
Antithesis of Methodology
Libertarianism embodies a specific approach to society through concepts that are closely associated with "anything that’s peaceful." War also destroys this libertarian framework.
Individual rights is the libertarian concept most often discussed as a casualty of war but there are more subtle violations in play.
Individual rights rest on the assumption of a natural harmony of interests between people, which leads to universal rights. That is, my freedom of speech or conscience does not violate your equal freedoms which makes it possible to live together in peace. But war says my life necessitates the death of innocent others. War creates a world which is the mirror image of a natural harmony of interests.
Libertarianism also assumes the primacy of the individual, which is called methodological individualism. The concept is not anti-social but a recognition that a cooperative society is the sum total of its voluntary and individual acts. In war, the collective becomes all-important with the individual subordinate to its will and its demand for obedience, if not patriotism.
Individualism holds people responsible for their own actions and for restituting the damage they inflict upon others. During war, when individuals called soldiers put on a uniform, they are held harmless for killing innocent civilians on the grounds that they are "obeying orders." Sometimes the soldiers receive medals and promotions for doing so.
A free society functions according to spontaneous order; that is, societal order emerges naturally from the actions of multitudinous individuals who pursue their own interests and coordinate with others in the process. The opposite of spontaneous order is the centralized, planned society that characterizes a totalitarian state. Nothing is more centralized than wartime coordination and the military apparatus.
Free markets are an expression of individual rights in property and in a person’s own labor. The wartime state commandeers production, property and labor to be used for its own purposes. Just as the centralization of truth leads to censorship, the commandeering of the free market is confiscation and slavery.
Thus war is not only the anti-definition of libertarianism, it also shatters the tradition’s framework.
Self-Defense Is Always Individual… But It Can Be Assigned
Methodological individualism should be applied to war as surely as to other interactions. All aggression and self-defense are individual. All aggression can be reduced to one person attacking another in some manner even if the person is standing in military ranks or directing a drone from afar. The libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick said that some bucks stop with all of us. One of those bucks is the responsibility everyone has for his or her own actions, especially when the act wrongs an innocent human being. Responsibility does not disappear when a soldier dons a uniform. The collective ‘right’ claimed by a warring state is a sleight-of-hand to avoid the responsibility that each facilitator or agent of war bears on an individual level.
The right to self-defense can be assigned to an agency that acts to secure the shared or collective safety of a community of contracting clients. The agency can repel invaders and pursue criminals. What the agency cannot do is to assume more powers than the individual clients themselves possess; that is, it must be a private agency, not a state one.
Wendy McElroy is an individualist anarchist and individualist feminist who has written or edited over a dozen books, scripted dozens of produced documentaries, worked as a writer for FOX News for 5 years and published in periodicals ranging from Penthouse to The Hill. Her latest book is Rape Culture Hysteria: Fixing the Damage Done to Men and Women.