Libertarianism Is Antiwar

[Chapter 9 of Libertarianism Today by Jacob Huebert. Reproduced with permission of ABC-CLIO, LLC, Santa Barbara, CA.]


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 are “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 more than 5,000 nuclear warhead 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 [.pdf]. 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, Madeleine 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 more than 100,000 documented Iraqi civilian deaths by the end of 2011. Other estimates put the figure much higher, such as an October 2006 study from the medical journal The Lancet [.pdf], 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. As Bastiat observed, 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” [.pdf] 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.

The government’s extensive use of outside contractors to carry out the Iraq war has helped sully the idea of “privatization.” True privatization, which libertarians advocate, just entails getting the government out of some business that it’s in. An example would be abolishing the U.S. Postal Service’s monopoly on mail delivery and allowing any private carriers to compete freely to deliver letters and packages. It would not be true privatization if the government were to maintain the Postal Service’s monopoly but turn operation of the Service over to a “private” company. In that case, the activity would maintain its monopolistic, governmental character and just be under different management. And so it is with war contracting: the underlying activity of warfare is not private at all, and with so-called privatization, it’s just being carried out by people who are nominally employed by a third party. This false privatization may be especially pernicious because, unlike regular soldiers who fear for their lives and have some sense of justice, contracting firms don’t have any incentive to question the war’s merits; fighting wars is their business, and when there’s a war, business is good. The substitution of private contractors for regular troops also allows government to make it appear as though it is withdrawing troops and scaling back the war, when it is not actually doing so.

Paying for War

Governments pay for the military and wars through taxes, of course. The amounts are not trivial, especially in the U.S., which spends about as much on its military as all other countries combined spend on theirs. The President’s proposed defense budget for fiscal year 2009 was $515 billion (not counting war funding), plus an additional $70 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the first part of the year. As economic historian Robert Higgs has observed, these numbers don’t even include many other parts of the federal budget that pertain to defense and war, such as the Department of Homeland Security’s budget, and parts of the Justice Department’s budget. As of late 2011, America’s wars have cost over $1.2 trillion since 2001.

Governments also pay for war by borrowing and printing money. Libertarians see this as a form of theft, too — one that impoverishes the country and can lead to economic disaster. Funding war in this way hides the costs of war. As Ron Paul has put it, “If every American taxpayer had to submit an extra five or ten thousand dollars to the IRS this April to pay for the [Iraq] war, I’m quite certain it would end very quickly.” On the other hand, when the government funds its wars through inflation and debt, people who don’t understand monetary economics don’t see the connection between the economy and the war.

Other Economic Intervention

Wars also tend to include many other interventions into the economy. For example, economic historian Robert Higgs describes some of the interventions that accompanied World War I:

[The federal government] virtually nationalized the ocean shipping industry. It did nationalize the railroad, telephone, domestic telegraph, and international telegraphic cable industries. It became deeply engaged in manipulating labor-management relations, securities sales, agricultural production and marketing, the distribution of coal and oil, international commerce, and markets for raw materials and manufactured products. Its Liberty Bond drives dominated the financial capital markets. . . In view of the more than 5,000 mobilization agencies of various sorts — boards, committees, corporations, administrations — contemporaries who described the 1918 government as “war socialism” were well justified.

After the war, the government repealed many of its worst intrusions into the economy — but some stuck around in some form, and the precedent was set for the government to pursue a similar interventionist route when the next crisis, the Great Depression, arrived.

When World War II came, the New Deal had already greatly expanded government, but the war led to even more economic intervention. The government set price controls and imposed rationing for a wide range of goods deemed to be “necessities,” such as gasoline, tires, coffee, canned foods, meats, sugar, and typewriters. As we saw in chapter five, it imposed wage controls, including maximum wages on employees of private businesses. (So much for wartime prosperity.) Once again, most of the economic interventions were repealed when the war ended, but not all were. For example, as we saw in chapter five, the tax code remained skewed after the war in a way that pushed people to favor health insurance over direct payment for health services, which has led in turn to today’s high healthcare costs.

Another policy introduced in World War II was the withholding of taxes from paychecks. This began as a supposedly temporary wartime measure, but of course it was never repealed, and today people take it for granted. Income-tax withholding helped the government grow as it did during and after the war; because automatic withholding spreads the pain of tax payments out over a year, people are less likely to feel the burden of taxation as much as they would if they had to write a big check on April 15. This helps mask how much government steals from people, and it even makes people feel like they get a “gift” from the government when they receive a refund check.

Conscription Is Slavery

Libertarians oppose conscription — a military draft — under any circumstances, and call for a permanent end to every form of it. As long as conscription does exist, libertarians view draft-dodging and military desertion not as crimes, but as heroic refusals to participate in government crimes.

For the libertarian, forcing anyone into any kind of slave labor is bad enough, but military conscription is especially objectionable. The draftee is not forced into just any job, but one that requires him to take unconscionable actions, experience extreme psychological trauma, and face a high risk of death or severe, permanent injury. And, as with many government policies, the poor and powerless (especially African-Americans) suffer first and most, while the rich and powerful suffer last and least, because the poor are less likely to receive college deferments or have other connections or opportunities that would help them escape.

Through most of the twentieth century, the U.S. relied on conscription to have enough men to fight its wars. For example, in World War I, the government forced 2.8 million men to serve in the military, and conscripts made up 70 percent of Army troops. In World War II, the government forced some 10 million men into service, and conscripts made up about 62.5 percent of the troops. In the Vietnam era, the government forced 2.2 million people to serve. These numbers include only people who were actually drafted. Many others undoubtedly joined the military “voluntarily” because of the threat of being drafted; by doing so, they could at least choose a specialty and type of service that would hopefully keep them off the front lines. Some scholars estimate that during the Vietnam War as many as four million men “voluntarily” joined the military for this reason.

How Libertarians Helped End the Draft

Today, the worst type of conscription no longer exists in the United States. Young men who don’t volunteer for the military don’t have to fear being forced to fight. For this, they owe thanks in part to libertarians, who played a critical role in ending the draft.

Free-market economist Martin Anderson suggested this idea to Richard Nixon (himself no free-marketer) as one of Nixon’s economic advisers during the 1968 presidential campaign. Nixon liked the proposal because he wanted to end domestic unrest over the draft if it were economically and militarily feasible. So in 1969, Nixon set up a commission to study the issue, which included among its fifteen members Milton Friedman, free-market scholar W. Allen Wallis, and Ayn Rand associate Alan Greenspan, who had not yet completed his fall from libertarian grace.

Reportedly, Friedman played a critical role in winning over skeptical Commission members. When General William Westmoreland, commander of U.S. Vietnam operations from 1964 through 1968, told the group that he was not interested in leading “an army of mercenaries,” Friedman asked him, “Would you rather command an army of slaves?” Westmoreland replied: “I don’t like to hear our patriotic draftees referred to as slaves.” Friedman then responded: “I don’t like to hear our patriotic volunteers referred to as mercenaries. If they are mercenaries, then I, sir, am a mercenary professor, and you, sir, are a mercenary general; we are served by mercenary physicians, we use a mercenary lawyer, and we get our meat from a mercenary butcher.” The group unanimously recommended that the government end the draft, and Congress did so on July 1, 1973.

Conscription Today

Despite that victory for freedom, conscription is not dead in America. All men between 18 and 25 must still register with the Selective Service System or face criminal penalties. This system continues for one reason: so the government can easily begin drafting troops for combat again if those in power deem it necessary.

Also, even if a person voluntarily joins the military, he or she is thereafter enslaved. In most regular jobs, you can simply quit and be done. Some people have an employment contract in which they promise to work for some specified period of time, but the law still allows them to quit, though they may be liable to the employer for damages if they do. Under the law as it applies to regular employment contracts — and under libertarianism as most libertarians understand it — you cannot sell yourself into slavery.

In the military, however, you can’t quit, so you do effectively sell yourself into slavery. There, quitting is crime called desertion and, in wartime, it’s theoretically punishable by death. In practice today it is punished by imprisonment. Since 2001, some 20,000 soldiers have left their posts because they decided the war was illegal or unjustified, because they became conscientious objectors, or because they simply decided it was no longer what they wanted to do. Of those, the military prosecutes about ten percent, some of whom are sentenced to prison terms of a year or more. The military also forces many soldiers to stay longer than they bargained for through “stop-loss” orders that require them to stay for up to 18 months beyond their original enlistment term.

Politicians occasionally suggest reinstating the draft, but this seems unlikely to occur soon; the government does not want to face the same sort of massive resistance and flouting of its laws that occurred during Vietnam, since this tends to undermine respect for government in general. Nonetheless, large-scale conscription could make a comeback in the form of mandatory “national service.” For example, former White House Chief of Staff (now Chicago mayor) Rahm Emanuel has proposed three months of compulsory national service for all Americans ages 18 through 25. The Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act, which President Obama signed into law in April 2009, provides for greatly expanded voluntary service opportunities, but, as Ron Paul has noted, the Act could provide federal funding for state or local programs (which already exist) that require young people to perform community service to graduate from high school, itself a form of conscription. Libertarians find such programs objectionable on a number of grounds — for example, they require compulsory funding, imply that government-approved “service” is somehow superior to participating in the private sector, and imply that young people owe something to the State. Above all, however, libertarians are concerned that a voluntary service program, like a voluntary military, could become non-voluntary.

War Makes Civilians Targets

When a government goes to war, it kills civilians in another country, but it also puts its own civilians at a much greater risk of being killed by an enemy’s retaliation. Governments also do this to their citizens when they intervene in other countries’ affairs without actually going to war. For example, if the U.S. enters an alliance with another country such as Israel (to pick a non-controversial example), Israel’s enemies will now see the U.S. as an enemy as well. Likewise, if the U.S. supplies monetary and military aid to a foreign government, people who hate that government may then hate the U.S. — and U.S. citizens will be put at risk as a result.

The U.S. has not technically suffered many civilian casualties in its wars because the U.S. mostly only fights countries with little or no means of retaliating. (Americans were fortunate, of course, to survive the Cold War, which put everyone at risk.) But libertarians would point out that Americans have suffered greatly as a result of U.S. foreign intervention in the Middle East, especially on September 11, 2001. As Ron Paul noted in a 2008 Republican presidential debate, referring to the history of U.S. intervention in the Middle East, “They attack us because we’ve been over there…. We need to look at what we do from the perspective of what would happen if somebody else did it to us.” To this, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani replied, to applause from the GOP faithful, “That’s an extraordinary statement . . . that we invited the attack because we were attacking Iraq. I don’t think I’ve ever heard that before and I’ve heard some pretty absurd explanations for September 11.”

But Paul had strong support for his claim, and he was hardly the first to make it. In a press release issued shortly after the debate, Paul offered Giuliani a reading list of books that showed that the September 11 attacks were indeed “blowback” against America’s foreign policy in the Middle East, including the government’s own 9-11 Commission Report [.pdf], which noted that Osama Bin Laden was motivated in substantial part by U.S. troops’ presence in Saudi Arabia and by the sanctions against Iraq; former CIA consultant Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback; former CIA anti-terrorism expert Michael Scheuer’s book Imperial Hubris; and suicide-terrorism expert Robert Pape’s book Dying to Win.

Paul didn’t come up with this theory after the fact; he had been pointing out the likely consequences of America’s aggressive foreign policy for years before September 11. For example, when President Bill Clinton ordered four days of bombing in Iraq in 1998, Paul told a reporter that “our national security is more jeopardized by permitting this to happen because we’re liable to start a war… We’re liable to have more attacks on us by terrorists.“ On February 8, 2001, Paul warned Congress: “If one were truly concerned about our security and enhancing peace, one would always opt for a less militaristic policy. It is not a coincidence that U.S. territory and U.S. citizens are the most vulnerable in the world to terrorist attacks.”

None of this, of course, denies or mitigates the culpability of the September 11 attackers or of anyone else who retaliates against civilians; they are aggressors and have no justification for their actions. But the U.S. government could avoid such attacks on its citizens if, as libertarian urge, it simply stayed out of other countries’ affairs, militarily and otherwise.

War Is The Health of the State

Randolph Bourne’s famous quote, “War is the health of the State,” appears a lot in libertarian literature, with good reason. As we’ve seen, there are certain government interventions that are inherent in any modern war: killing, taxation, and often conscription. These, however, are just the beginning. Wars also allow governments to impose many other policies and programs, which are often introduced as temporary measures, but then never go away.

In his groundbreaking book Crisis and Leviathan, libertarian historian and economist Robert Higgs describes the permanent increase in government power following a war or other crisis as a “ratchet effect.” During a crisis, the government greatly increases its size and power as people demand that it “do something.” Once the crisis is past, the government’s powers shrink to some extent, but never back to where they would have been if the crisis hadn’t occurred.

According to Higgs, this happens because crises create “permanent shifts in the tolerable limits of the true size of government.” Government expansion during war changes people’s ideological perspective and creates a precedent in favor of big government, as it leads people to think that government isn’t all bad and can get things done. But much of this popular belief is a product of the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy: “we won; therefore government’s collectivist war policies must have been necessary and proper.” Also, special interests take advantage of government expansions during a crisis, and once they have their programs in place, they’re difficult to get rid of, and government becomes permanently bigger. Today, government leaders are consciously aware of their ability to exploit crises to increase power in this way; Rahm Emanuel, for one, has noted, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste… This crisis provides the opportunity for us to do things that you could not do before.”

War Hurts Liberty at Home

One way government expands at home during a war is through increased restrictions on civil liberties.

For example, in World War I, President Wilson signed the Espionage Act and the Sedition Act, which made it a crime to speak out against the draft or the war and sent people to prison just for exercising their free-speech rights. Charles T. Schenk, for one, was sentenced to sixth months in prison for distributing pamphlets that argued that the draft was unconstitutional, and Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs received a ten-year sentence for criticizing the war. In their book Who Killed the Constitution?, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. and Kevin R.C. Gutzman relate some other examples of how government attacked free speech:

A movie about the American War for Independence called The Spirit of ’76, which portrayed the British in an unflattering light, got its makers in trouble with the law: since the United States was now allied with Britain, such images could promote discontent in the American armed forces and interfere with recruitment. They received a prison sentence of ten years. A Christian minister in Vermont was sentenced to fifteen years for writing a pamphlet, which he distributed to five people, arguing that Christ had been a pacifist and that Christians should not participate in war. . . . A man was arrested under the Minnesota Espionage Act for saying in reference to women who knitted socks for soldiers, “No soldier ever sees these socks.”

Despite the First Amendment, the Supreme Court approved of this as it upheld the prison sentences of Debs and Schenck. (The relatively libertarian President Warren G. Harding freed Debs in 1920.) During World War II, the government perpetrated one of its most notorious attacks on the rights of peaceful people: the imprisonment of some 112,000 people of Japanese ancestry, most of whom were American citizens, in “relocation camps” for nearly two years. Once again, the Supreme Court allowed the Executive Branch of government to trample on Americans’ rights because the Court, like most everyone else, is willing to allow government more power in wartime. Free speech suffered again, too, as many newspapers were denied access to the mails under the Espionage Act (which was still in effect), some newspapers were banned entirely, and an “Office of Censorship” censored press reports and radio broadcasts as well as personal mail entering or leaving the country. In addition, the government put almost 6,000 conscientious objectors to war in prison for refusing to comply with the draft.

War and Liberty Today

Today’s so-called War on Terror has also harmed liberty. Following September 11, 2001, pollster John Zogby found that, as in previous wars, “the willingness [of Americans] to give up personal liberties is stunning because the level of fear is so high.” The government didn’t hesitate to take advantage of this.

There is one respect, however, in which this war is different from previous wars: there is no end in sight. Because the War on Terror theoretically may continue as long as there are terrorists in the world (i.e., forever), there is no foreseeable point at which the U.S. will declare victory and then begin to roll back its domestic interventions as it has after other wars. Instead, as with the drug war, the interventions only seem to increase over time (with occasional setbacks from the Supreme Court, which, to its credit, has not been quite as deferential as it was in the days of the Espionage Act and Japanese internment).

One way the government has infringed rights since 2001 is by spying on Americans. For example, President George W. Bush authorized the National Security Administration to spy on Americans through wiretaps without a warrant, probable cause, or notice. When legal scholars attempted to challenge this program in federal court, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit dismissed the case because the scholars couldn’t show that they were actually victims of the program. Of course, no one could show this because the wiretaps were secret — which meant that Americans had no way to challenge this intrusion upon their privacy and their rights in court. The NSA suspended the program in 2007, but in 2008, Congress passed the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which immunized telecommunications companies from liability for their complicity in government wiretaps, authorized the government to conduct surveillance of a person for up to a week before getting a court order, and eliminated any requirement that government agents seeking permission to conduct a wiretap specify what they’re looking for.

The government has also violated citizens’ privacy under the Patriot Act by sending hundreds of thousands of “National Security Letters” to businesses, demanding information on their clients. The clients never learn of this invasion of their privacy because the law prohibits businesses that receive these letters from stating that they received the letter or turned over the customer’s information. The Patriot Act also authorized “sneak-and-peek” warrants, which allow law enforcement to break into homes and search them without notifying the occupants. Though introduced as necessary to fight terror, they have since been used extensively to investigate other crimes, mostly drug offenses.

TSA Transgressions

Americans who travel suffer violations of their privacy and liberty when they are forced to submit to intrusive searches by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) before boarding an airplane. People take off their shoes, follow orders, and submit to pat-downs — and they mostly do so with minimal complaint, knowing that asking questions may only lead to more hassle, a missed flight, or even criminal charges. Frequently people have their property confiscated or are barred from boarding a plane for arbitrary reasons.

On top of all this, the TSA recently added another indignity: Americans at many airports must now walk through “millimeter-wave scanners,” which allow TSA agents to see through their clothes and essentially view their naked bodies. Originally, the TSA promised that these scanners would only serve as an option for people who set off the metal detector and didn’t want to submit to a pat-down search. In 2009, however, the TSA predictably changed its policy [.pdf], and now everyone is forced to submit to scans (or opt for extremely intrusive pat-downs) as a matter of course. The TSA has promised to blur facial images on the scans, and not to save the images to computers, but given the TSA’s track record, Americans have little reason to believe this promise will be kept or that TSA employees will reliably follow any such policy. Indeed, TSA employees have become notorious for taking passengers’ personal belongings for themselves.

Despite all these intrusions, there is little evidence that the TSA has made anyone safer by scanning shoes or confiscating fingernail clippers, shampoo, and the like. Indeed, one 20-year-old college student put the system to the test by successfully smuggling box-cutter components and fake bomb-making materials onto planes. (After notifying the TSA of their failure, he was charged with a felony and ultimately received probation.)

While the majority of Americans just do as they’re told, libertarians have been among the TSA’s most vociferous critics. Andrew Napolitano, a Fox News legal analyst, did so in his book with the fitting title A Nation of Sheep. James Bovard, a libertarian journalist and prominent critic of war-on-terror measures generally, has also done so in books and articles and on his blog. Libertarian writer Becky Akers has also decried and discussed the TSA’s offenses extensively in articles at and elsewhere. So have Robert Higgs and other writers at the Independent Institute.

Libertarians say the government should exit the air-security business entirely and allow airlines to impose whatever precautions they deem appropriate. After all, the planes’ owners have the strongest of incentives to keep them from crashing and to avoid potential lawsuits from passengers or their families. And unlike the TSA, the airlines would have an incentive to find methods of screening that work without excessively inconveniencing innocent passengers.

Libertarians’ objections to the TSA are about far more than travel hassles or what will keep planes safest. Libertarians find the TSA so disturbing in part because it accustoms Americans to obeying orders from uniformed government agents without question and to submitting to gross violations of privacy and dignity. If a government agent can search you before traveling on a plane, why not let him do so on the street? Or in your house? Libertarians hope their fellow Americans draw the line now so that never becomes an issue.

Kidnapping, Detention, and Torture

It’s well known that the government in the post-9/11 era has also disregarded both the Constitution and international law in kidnapping, detaining, and torturing alleged terror suspects who have not been convicted of any crime, some of whom are certainly innocent. For most of three years, the Bush Administration believed it could declare U.S. citizens it suspected of involvement with terrorism “enemy combatants” and detain them indefinitely at its prison at Guantanamo Bay without any hearing or trial. After that, it attempted to use military tribunals to declare non-citizens “enemy combatants” and then hold them indefinitely without a hearing or trial at Guantanamo. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ended this practice in 2008, when it declared in Boumediene v. Bush that detainees were entitled to seek habeas corpus relief in federal courts. (That is, the prisoners were allowed to go to court to force the government to show that it had a lawful basis for holding them.) Once the prisoner in that case, Lakhdar Boumediene, finally received his hearing, a court determined there was no credible evidence to justify holding him and he was released — after nearly seven years of imprisonment and torture.

Despite this favorable development, anyone who thinks that the Boudmediene decision and the election of Barack Obama put an end to such concerns would be wrong. The Obama Administration has claimed the right to do essentially the same thing that the Bush Administration did — hold prisoners indefinitely without any opportunity for judicial review, ever — only at the Bagram Theater Internment Facility in Afghanistan instead of at Guantanamo.

The libertarian view is that the government has no right to lock up anyone whom it has not proven guilty of a crime, regardless of whether they’re American, what they’re accused of, where they were arrested, or where they’re being held. It would be a crime for any private citizen to abduct and imprison someone whom he or she merely suspect of wrongdoing, and so it is for government. Could such a policy result in some would-be terrorists going free? Of course. A free society always entails that risk; the only alternative is to preemptively put everyone in prison.

More Military at Home

Americans also face the specter of more liberty violations as the military increasingly threatens to interject itself into their lives. From its passage in 1878 until 2006, the Posse Comitatus Act barred the military from deploying troops to enforce the law within the U.S. In 2006, Congress changed this and authorized the president to deploy troops domestically when he deems it necessary to respond to an emergency. Congress repealed that provision in 2008, but the military has proceeded with plans to deploy troops in the U.S. anyway. In late 2008, the Washington Post reported that the military “expects to have 20,000 uniformed troops inside the United States by 2011 trained to help state and local officials respond to a nuclear terrorist attack or other domestic catastrophe.” This prospect troubles libertarians because soldiers are not trained to be police but are trained to be warriors, meaning they are trained to kill, and it is difficult to imagine a country that is both dominated by the military and free.

Can Any War Be Libertarian?

Is there any war a libertarian can support? In theory, perhaps, but in practice, almost no U.S. war has satisfied libertarian criteria for a justified war, and few wars could.

Just War Theory

Libertarians who believe in minimal government for defensive purposes would say that a genuinely defensive war is just. A person may defend himself against an ordinary criminal with violence, so people may band together to defend themselves against an attack by a foreign invader. But to be consistent with libertarianism and avoid the problems we’ve discussed above, a war would have to be fought with, as Murray Rothbard put it, “(a) weapons limited so that no civilians were injured in their persons or property; (b) volunteer rather than conscript armies; and also (c) financing by voluntary methods instead of taxation.” In addition, many libertarians would say that a war should satisfy the principles of traditional Just War Theory. Ron Paul takes this view, and summarizes those principles as follows:

1. War should be fought only in self-defense.

2. War should be undertaken only as a last resort;

3. A decision to enter war should be made only by a legitimate authority;

4. All military responses must be proportional to the threat;

5. There must be a reasonable chance of success; and

6. A public declaration notifying all parties concerned is required.

America’s Wars

Applying these criteria, very few if any of America’s wars have been justified.

The American Revolution is the probably the least objectionable war because it involved casting off an oppressive government and was targeted at that government, not at civilians back in England. Even the Revolution, though, relied on inflation, economic controls [.pdf], and conscription [.pdf].

Following the Revolution, the libertarian policy of non-intervention and neutrality was the American norm. Although the U.S. did assert a right to intervene in the Western Hemisphere under the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, few interventions came of it until the late nineteenth century. America’s foreign policy wasn’t perfect in the early Republic, but as libertarian historian Joseph Stromberg has put it [.pdf], “the lapses were deviations.”

This changed over the course of the nineteenth century, most notably with the Civil War. Although no libertarian could endorse the Confederate government or its protection of slavery, the Union did not fight the Civil War in self-defense; it invaded another country that had, like the colonies in 1776, declared its independence and wanted to be left alone. Some may argue that the Confederacy wanted to be left alone to do something evil — protect the institution of slavery — but of course all governments do things that harm their citizens. The Union, for one, did not have clean hands, even with respect to slavery — after all, slavery was legal under the Constitution (and even in several Union states during the Civil War), and the Union’s courts upheld the Fugitive Slave Act. Another country’s bad domestic policies are not enough, in the libertarian view, to justify a war against it. Regardless of its merits, the Civil War was exceptionally bloody, killing over 600,000 soldiers between the two sides — more American deaths than all other U.S. wars combined. As noted above, the Union Army also killed innocent civilians and destroyed private property on an unprecedented scale. And the war came with large liberty costs, as Abraham Lincoln violated civil liberties and dramatically increased the federal government’s power through, for example, suppression of free speech, suspension of habeas corpus, and his insistence on federal supremacy over the states. (Lincoln has been a favorite target of many libertarians since economic historian Thomas DiLorenzo exposed his misdeeds in his 2002 book, The Real Lincoln.)

Over the nineteenth century, America began fighting wars to expand its territory in North America and overseas because of popular belief in Manifest Destiny and the idea that expanding into new territory was necessary for economic prosperity. These wars — for example, those against Mexico, Spain, and the Philippines — were wars of aggression with no libertarian justification. (Probably few Americans today know that their government temporarily possessed the Philippines and then killed some 220,000 Filipinos when the country demanded its independence.)

World War I had no libertarian justification, either, because the U.S. faced no threat at all from the fight between European powers. World War II was essentially a result and an extension of World War I. After the Great War, the Allies punished the Germans in the Treaty of Versailles by, among many other things, taking territory away from Germany that was populated by German-speaking people who wanted to be part of Germany. This humiliation and loss of territory helped set the stage for Hitler to take power in 1933. Though Hitler’s evil was great, he posed no imminent threat to the United States. In fact, he could not even succeed in his attempt get past the English Channel, let alone across the Atlantic, and even his wildest fantasies of eventual world domination didn’t involve attacking the United States until about 1980. Had Britain and the United States not intervened when Hitler attempted to expand Germany’s territory eastward, Hitler and Stalin might have fought each other to the death, bringing a relatively swift end to both Nazism and the even more murderous Soviet regime.

The lack of justification for more recent U.S. wars has perhaps been more obvious to more people (though still too few people, too late, to prevent the wars from happening). Vietnam posed no direct or indirect threat to the United States, and the “loss” of that war did not harm the American people. Afghanistan and especially Iraq, about which more below, posed no threat to the United States that would justify a war, either.


Despite everything we’ve said in this chapter about liberty and war, some libertarians nonetheless believe that modern wars, even present U.S. wars, may be justified. Most prominently, a 2007 Wall Street Journal op-ed by Randy Barnett (whom we mentioned in chapters four and eight) declared: “Ron Paul doesn’t speak for all of us.

Barnett’s article asked: “Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war? The simple answer is ‘no.’” He explained his view:

[Some libertarians] supported the war in Iraq because they viewed it as part of a larger war of self-defense against Islamic jihadists who were organizationally independent of any government. They viewed radical Islamic fundamentalism as resulting in part from the corrupt dictatorial regimes that inhabit the Middle East, which have effectively repressed indigenous democratic reformers. Although opposed to nation building generally, these libertarians believed that a strategy of fomenting democratic regimes in the Middle East . . . might well be the best way to take the fight to the enemy rather than solely trying to ward off the next attack.

Many of Barnett’s fellow libertarians were shocked and disappointed that he would take such a view and were quick to disavow it. Anyone who has read this chapter so far can imagine why. For one thing, as Walter Block explained, Barnett’s description of the Iraq war as defensive made little sense:

To construe our invasion of Iraq as “defensive” is so totally to misconstrue what “defense” is as to violate not only libertarian principle, but even common sense. Iraq, as opposed to the perpetrators of the unjustified bloodbath of 9/11, not only never attacked us, they never even threatened to do so. For us to initiate an invasion of their country was thus not defense; it was offense.

Preemptive war of the sort advocated by . . . Barnett is the foreign analog of domestic preventive detention. I note that males between the ages of 15 and 25 commit a disproportionately high number of crimes. Why wait to “ward off the next attack” by this age sex cohort? Why not take the fight to (this domestic) enemy? Can I as a libertarian advocate that we lock up every male in the country at age 15, regardless of whether they have committed a crime, and set them free at age 25? I cannot, and still remain a libertarian. Well, then, neither can Barnett….

Libertarian writer Sheldon Richman noted that Barnett’s position is “ahistorical” in that it makes assumptions that ignore both the history of libertarian thought and the history of the world:

Nowhere in Barnett’s article does one find a hint that the leading, pioneering classical liberals of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were not just skeptical of the government’s war-making power; rather they were forthrightly antiwar, anti-empire, and pro-peace. These include Frederic Bastiat, Richard Cobden, John Bright, Herbert Spencer, Auberon Herbert, and William Graham Sumner. This is no coincidence. These men were not ivory-tower theorists; they were historians as well as keen observers of contemporary events, applying libertarian principles to the historical conduct of politicians, bureaucrats, and diplomats. It was Sumner, echoing many before him, who pointed out that “national defense” means “war, debt, taxation, diplomacy, a grand governmental system, pomp, glory, a big army and navy, lavish expenditures, politically jobbery.” The liberals unfailing understood that war means the mass murder of innocents and regimentation at home. Nothing is easier for a politician than conjuring up a “self-defense” justification for war, but the great classical liberals would have nothing to do with it.

Barnett’s article also claimed that “libertarian principles tell us little about what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack.” The Cato Institute’s Gene Healy found this questionable, asking whether libertarianism is “really a political philosophy that tells you what to think about mandatory recycling and restrictions on the interstate shipment of wine, but has virtually nothing of interest to say about when it might be morally permissible to use daisy cutters and thermobaric bombs.” Richman pointed out that even if libertarian principles didn’t say much on the appropriate methods of legitimate self-defense, they certainly do “tell us what constitutes inappropriate ‘self-defense’ after an attack.” Specifically, libertarian principles offer the following guidance: “don’t commit mass murder, don’t destroy a people’s infrastructure so they will die of starvation and disease, and don’t violate the rights of the people allegedly being defended. The principles also provide guidance in how to avoid attacks and the need for self-defense in the first place. Such as: Don’t prop up and arm dictators, don’t overthrow elected regimes, don’t aid those who oppress others….” Of course, U.S. policy toward Iraq before and during the war violated all these principles.

Barnett was not the only person in the libertarian camp (broadly defined) to endorse the Iraq war. The Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey, for example, strongly supported the war at the outset. Objectivists such as Ayn Rand Institute founder Leonard Peikoff and president Yaron Brook have favored war, even urging that the U.S. not be squeamish about killing civilians, apparently on the ground that saving our own lives is more important than respecting anyone else’s.

Such views, however, are the exception. Most libertarians have vehemently opposed the war for all the reasons we’ve reviewed in this chapter. Indeed, some antiwar libertarians such as Block would argue that people who take the pro-war view cannot even be called libertarians because supporting a war of aggression such as the Iraq war goes too far. Whether that’s an appropriate judgment or not, one can safely say that the pro-war position is in direct opposition to libertarianism as we’ve defined it in this book, as most libertarians define it, as most leading thinkers at major libertarian organizations define it, and as nearly all of the major libertarian thinkers of the past have defined it. In sum, support for the Iraq war is deviation from libertarianism.


In fact, libertarians have been the most consistent opponents of war, particularly since September 11, 2001.

It is tempting to say that Republicans support wars started by their presidents, and Democrats support wars started by theirs, but this really hasn’t been so. Rather, both parties overwhelmingly support almost all wars, regardless of who starts them. For example, Democrats supported the Iraq invasion from the outset. (Barack Obama, an Illinois state senator at the time, was an exception.) Once the war turned disastrous, Democrats were happy to scold George W. Bush for supposedly fooling them with faulty intelligence, but they made no serious push to withdraw the troops.

And what about Obama? He ran as an antiwar candidate, proudly contrasting himself with the unabashed hawk, Hillary Clinton. Obama’s popular support among young people was based in no small part on their assumption that he opposed President Bush’s war; at this writing, one can still see cars displaying campaign bumper stickers on which the “O” in “Obama” is a peace symbol. In practice, however, Obama’s conduct has been nearly as aggressive as Bush’s. As a candidate, Obama promised troops out of Iraq within 16 months of taking office. Three years into Obama’s presidency, troops are still there. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan escalated under Obama. In Pakistan, unmanned drones have bombed targets and killed many innocent people — but Obama has faced little outcry from most of the liberals who hated Bush so much for his wars. And conservatives need not have feared that Obama would capitulate to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; despite Obama’s receipt of a Nobel Peace Prize, the U.S. has continued to threaten Iran and move toward another war.

Republicans, for their part, have not taken their defeat in 2008, or the intense interest Ron Paul received, as a sign that anything was wrong with their foreign policy. They criticize Obama for his profligate spending, but not for the hundreds of billions spent on the military and war. If they mention war at all, it is only to call for even more of it. There are no signs that the Republicans will return to the less interventionist stance they took when they opposed President Clinton’s war in the Balkans, or when Bush promised “no nation building” in his 2000 campaign.

If Democrats and Republicans both support war, who does this leave to oppose it? It leaves a handful of principled paleoconservatives and far-left liberals, and it leaves libertarians. Libertarians, with the exceptions we’ve noted, never fell for Iraq war propaganda because libertarians are inherently less susceptible to believing any propaganda. If you think government is a criminal organization, why would you believe it when it tells you it needs more money and maybe also your life to go fight some other criminal? Also, libertarians tend to be aware of America’s history of going to war based on flimsy pretenses, from the sinking of the Maine (which probably was not attacked by the Spanish) to the Gulf of Tonkin incident (which was entirely fabricated). And even if the worst of the Iraq war propaganda had been true — if Saddam Hussein had possessed weapons of mass destruction — this still would not have satisfied the criteria for a just war.

If many libertarians aren’t the type one sees holding signs at antiwar protests (though some are), they more than make up for this through writing and online activism. We noted some leading writers on the War on Terror above. In addition, the popular antiwar website, led by founders Eric Garris and Justin Raimondo, has published antiwar news and commentary since 1995; the writers come from varied political backgrounds, but its mission statement proclaims that its politics are libertarian. Also, in the days and years following September 11, several libertarian organizations held especially firm against war hysteria: the Ludwig von Mises Institute; the Independent Institute, a think-tank based in Oakland, California; and the Future of Freedom Foundation, an advocacy group based in Fairfax, Virginia.

To succeed in convincing their fellow citizens to roll back the warfare state, libertarians will need to sway members of the right and the left to the antiwar view. They will need to get past many conservatives’ extreme distaste for Islam and belief in the righteousness of war to convince them that “big government” schemes to invade other countries are no less costly, problematic, or socialistic than proposals for, say, universal healthcare. And they will need to convince liberals that wars are no less atrocious, no less painful for their victims, when carried out by Democrats. All of this persuasion will, of course, have to be at the grassroots level because most Washington politicians are beholden to the merchants of death and will not disappoint their patrons unless seriously threatened by the voters.

If libertarian ideology alone won’t push voters in the antiwar direction, the economy might. If foreign governments stop lending to the U.S., the government will have no way to finance its wars except to raise taxes on Americans who are already financially strapped, or it will have to resort to the printing press, which will further wreck the economy. If reality at last disciplines the government, or awakens people to the combined destructiveness of its foreign and monetary policies, we could see a rare historic case where freedom, not government, advances in a time of crisis.


John V. Denson, ed., The Costs of War: America’s Pyrrhic Victories, 2d ed. New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 1999. This volume collects essays, mostly by libertarian scholars, showing how most of America’s wars have been extremely costly and unnecessary.

Ivan Eland, The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed. Oakland, Calif.: Independent Institute, 2008. Eland describes the U.S.’s expansion into an empire and the threat it poses to Americans.

Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Higgs shows how the U.S. government has exploited crises, especially wars, to permanently increase its power.

Andrew P. Napolitano, A Nation of Sheep. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2007. The libertarian Fox News legal analyst and former judge examines the many attacks on Americans’ liberty since the War on Terror began.

Ron Paul, A Foreign Policy of Freedom: Peace , Commerce, and Honest Friendship. Lake Jackson, Texas: Foundation for Rational Economics and Education, 2007. This book collects many of Paul’s speeches in Congress opposing foreign intervention.

Author: Jacob H. Huebert

Jacob H. Huebert is the author of Libertarianism Today. He is also an attorney, Adjunct Professor of Law at Ohio Northern University College of Law, and an Adjunct Scholar of the Mises Institute. Visit his website.