Murray N. Rothbard on States, War, and Peace: Part II

This timeless article (see Part I) first appeared on June 20, 2000

I promised last week to go further into what the late Murray Rothbard (1926-1995) teaches us about foreign policy, peace, and war. Those who keep up with such things will have noticed that there exists a colossal and ever-growing body of writing on “what Marx really meant.” I wish these folks good luck. In a hundred some years they will doubtless have worked out Marx’s “real views on everything.” I don’t think the results will be all that interesting or different from what we now know. I mean, a load of bad theory, acute journalistic observations on current events, and a nihilistic yearning for the thorough destruction of everything may not add up to a “system” commanding our attention or respect, and in time, one can hope, Marxism may come to be seen as of merely historical interest. Oh happy day.

Things should work out differently with Rothbard’s works. A body of thought which builds on sound economic theory and integrates that with history and philosophy without inventing a lot of dubious causal relations and directional “laws of history” is likely to give better results than various garage-sale syntheses like Marxism and fascism, with all their clever joinery, welding, and baling wire. In addition, Rothbard’s writings have a marked clarity. There’s no mistaking What Rothbard Really Meant. Thus, instead of writing essays on what Rothbard meant, we can spend more time on developing his insights or – for those who must – disagreeing with him. Oh, yes. Rothbard didn’t change his views much or often. Hence, the Single Rothbard Theory.


An especially important essay is Rothbard’s “The Anatomy of the State,”1 first published in 1965. Rejecting the state as a genial philanthropic enterprise, Rothbard followed Franz Oppenheimer, who, building on the classical liberal insight into politics-as-plunder,2 held that there are only two paths to wealth. These are the “economic means” (production and trade) and the “political means” (seizure of wealth created by others). Oppenheimer accordingly defined the state as “the organization of the political means to wealth.”

In this scheme, production was “logically prior” to plunder. Sociologists would really hate that formulation, but then sociology has never come to grips with the most elementary of economic insights, namely the distinction between voluntary and coerced exchange.3 It followed, for Rothbard, that if production was logically prior, 1) states had not always existed, but had come into being at specific times and places, and 2) states, living by plundering actual producers, were inherently anti-capitalist. The search for a radically anti-Marxist worldview need go no further.

The inherent “anti-capitalism” of the state did not blind Rothbard to the fact that at any given time some capitalists will be found in happy symbiotic alliance with the state. The state – the actual personnel making up the state apparatus – makes up a very small portion of the population found within its bounds and needs allies and friends. These allies and friends profit from state market-rigging in their favor. There is no great mystery here, requiring the services of Dr. Marx and his cotton-manufacturing sidekick, Frederick Engels. So the state’s posture is enmity towards free markets, a stance entirely compatible with feeding and watering a class (or “caste”) of privileged, state-connected businessmen. Not surprisingly, Rothbard was a great critic of modern American corporatism/neo-mercantilism.4


If states are, in some important ways, “outside,” “above,” and “opposed to” what we might (following John Locke) refer to as “civil society,” we have to wonder how states maintain their rule and power; how they keep the public from learning, and then acting on, an analysis of political plunder/spoliation. (One might add “oppression,” but the Left has taken out a patent on that one.) This brings us to one of Rothbard’s most important concepts.

In his magnum opus, Man, Economy and State, Rothbard wrote that “in all countries the State has made certain that it owns and monopolizes the vital nerve centers, the command posts of the society.”5 Such “command posts” include defense (territorial monopoly or near-monopoly of the legitimized use of violence), communications, “education,” the monetary system (central banking), ultimate say over land-use and ownership, control of rivers and coasts, and the post office. Other social thinkers who noticed this phenomenon shrugged, made reference to “natural monopolies” and such, and went on to other topics. Rothbard, intent on a critical understanding of state-behavior, did not.

Control of education and communication was central to the state’s peaceful existence, and here we find the relationship between states and intellectuals – a problem much larger, unfortunately, than a few art-phonies demanding state subsidies for their bad paintings. States everywhere have understood the need to “keep” intellectuals to spread the word of the state’s good intentions, nobility, supremacy, necessity, and so on. In the past, priesthoods sometimes filled this role. With the rise of state-monopoly school systems matters grew much worse. Add to this the state’s leverage over the airwaves and printed communication, and you have important command posts, indeed. No wonder the usual suspects want to police the web to protect us from all those private criminals out there.

This goes to what Rothbard called “the mystery of civil obedience”6 – or why do people put up with the various oppressions of states over the long haul? Part of the explanation is the role state-allied intellectuals play in shaping public opinion. Matters are even worse in so-called “democracies,” where bureaucrats and special interests reign supreme, while the people comfort themselves with the notion that, in some way, “we are the government” – a proposition that will not withstand the slightest serious inquiry.

The spectacle of the intellectuals rallying around the state, denouncing the “selfish” ordinary citizen as a slacker who fails to understand the heroic things the state is doing for him, is especially noticeable in wartime. The late Cold War, by blurring the distinction between war and peace, greatly heightened the process. Now, with constant demands that the American Empire invade and bomb all malefactors everywhere in the name of keeping “peace” – not to mention Universal Brother/Sisterhood – the distinction looks to remain blurred – quite deliberately, of course. If “war is the health of the state” – Randolph Bourne’s phrase which Rothbard often quoted – then permanent mobilization and endless “peacekeeping” are the perfect setting for long-run growth of state power as against “social power.”


This brings us, at last, to the state’s favorite and most characteristic activity – killing people, blowing things up, destroying accumulated capital, and generally wasting the moral and social goods built up through centuries of civilized life – that is to say, war. It is more than a truism to say, with Herbert Spencer, that the state had its origins in war and owes most of its current power and prestige to its waging of war. It follows that those who wish to preserve their freedom, property, and lives will wish to avoid war as much as possible; those who have other goals, will not.

Of course, war was not all peaches and cream, even for states. There was, after all, the danger that some neighboring “banditti of ruffians” (to use Tom Paine’s phrase) might defeat “our” state and impose their rule in its former territory. The state will want its people to identify their fate and happiness with its – the state’s – continued existence.

Under the old rules of war, observed to one degree or another from the Renaissance down to World War I, state functionaries tended to “target” their enemy counterparts. Ordinary people were not in principle expected to participate or even be inconvenienced by their betters’ little aristocratic contests, although getting in the path of some ruler’s armed swarm cannot have been pleasant, whatever the actual rules said. The rulers’ claim on their subjects’ loyalty was, by modern standards, rather undeveloped.


Those who know anything of the history of the American right wing during the late, glorious Cold War, may recall William F. Buckley, Jr.’s snide comments on libertarians as theoretically sound but narrow extremists obsessed with free-market lighthouses and privatized garbage collection. It was better to leave war and foreign policy to those with a knack for such things – interventionists and bomb-worshippers. We may dodge for now the question of whether those interventionists were themselves being subsidized, off-budget, by the state, and look at Rothbard’s answer to the challenge.

In “War, Peace and the State,”7 Rothbard built his case from the ground up – from the rights of individuals to defend themselves and their justly acquired properties from actual invaders. This characteristically “Austrian” approach, in which the “macro” analysis is only the “micro” analysis seen in a wider frame, yielded some interesting results. Would it be reasonable for the police to catch a thief “by spraying machine gun fire into an innocent crowd”? Rothbard thought not. By the same token, all modern weapons (need I add, “of mass destruction”?) were inherently criminal because they could not be “pin-pointed” against actual violators of rights and property (p. 73).

I can see that this might dishearten those who believe that good intentions themselves sanctify whatever means high-minded war-makers choose to use. But Rothbard wasn’t having any “collateral damage” rationales. His focus on aerial bombing campaigns as the prime example of modern wartime criminality can only take on increasing importance and relevance as the Remaining Super Power and its various sewing circles undertake more overseas charities and “peacekeeping,” since they propose to accomplish their good ends, as much as possible, through bombs, miss-aisles, rockets, and airplanes, assisted, as needed, by peaceful starvation blockades now nicely packaged as “sanctions.”

Using hypothetical states, “Graustark” and “Ruritania,” Rothbard looked at some of the causes of interstate war. Nationalism was one. Unlike so many Western thinkers after 1945, Rothbard never believed that nationalism was “dead” or, alternatively, inherently criminal where it still existed. Nationalism was simply a fact, of which notice should be taken. Thus, if a pocket of ethnic Ruritanians, whose lands were annexed centuries ago by Graustark, rise in rebellion, demanding reunion with their brethren, do we have here a “just war”? Do we all join Friends of Western Ruritania?

Not necessarily. If full-scale state-level warfare breaks out between the interested parties, both states will increase their assaults on person and property at home in the name of fighting the war. This is a net loss to society (meaning actual people). The worst case would involve widening the two-state war into some kind of cosmic coalition struggle in the name of “collective security” or some other abstraction. Damage – heretofore limited – is maximized and these higher costs will affect the societies involved, long after the nattily dressed foreign reporters have filed their upbeat, first-person propaganda pieces and gone home.


The comedian Martin Mull once wrote a little song, “Life is better than death.” In the same spirit, I think we can say that, nine times (or more) out of ten, peace is better than war. Living under states, as we do, we can see that “peace” isn’t exactly perfect, since the term normally refers to those times when the state confines its predations to an ongoing, low-intensity “war” against “its own people” – or “downward” as opposed to “outward,” in Rothbard’s terms.8 Since interstate war enables “our” state to do even more of what it wants to do anyway – to us – it follows that peace, however imperfect it may seem, is pragmatically better all around.

Given his views, it should surprise no one that Murray Rothbard opposed every war offered us by the state during his lifetime and extended his critique to most of the wars fought by the United States in its entire history. This consistent “isolationism” may puzzle some. For others of us, it seems the soul of wisdom. There is much, much more to Rothbard’s views on these matters – more than I could ever hope to deal with in this format.

It is enough to remark that, for Rothbard, the state’s claim to be “defending” us was on a par with the state’s other claims. Like a broken clock, it might be right for two minutes out of 24 hours, but was it therefore worth putting up with the other 23 hours and 58 minutes of state aggrandizement?


  1. Murray N. Rothbard, “The Anatomy of the State,” Rampart Journal of Individualist Thought, IV, 4 (Summer 1965), pp. 1-24, reprinted in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature, ed. Roy A. Childs (Washington: Libertarian Review Press, 1974), pp. 34-53.
  2. I have cited literature on classical liberal conflict theory previously in The Old Cause.
  3. See Kenneth H. Mackintosh, “Power and Exchange: Toward a Praxeological Reconstruction of Sociology,” Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, 2, 1 (Spring 1999), pp. 67-77.
  4. See, for example, Murray N. Rothbard, “Money, the State and Modern Mercantilism” in The Logic of Action, I (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 1997), pp. 321-336, and “The Great Society: A Libertarian Critique” in Marvin E. Gettleman and David Mermerlstein, eds., The Great Society Reader (New York: Vintage Books, 1967), pp. 503-511.
  5. Murray N. Rothbard, Man, Economy and State (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1993[1962]), pp. 826-828. Rothbard’s Power and Market (Menlo Park, CA: Institute for Humane Studies, 1970) fleshes out the whole command-post concept in great detail.
  6. See Rothbard’s preface to Etienne de Boetie, The Politics of Obedience: The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude (New York: Free Life Editions, 1975), pp. 9-35.
  7. Murray N. Rothbard, “War, Peace and the State” in Childs, ed., Egalitarianism, pp. 70-80, and see also, Ch. 14, “War and Foreign Policy” in For A New Liberty (New York: Collier Books, 1978[1973]), pp. 263-294.
  8. “War, Peace and the State,” p. 74.