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Commentary

Are Questions of War and Peace Merely One Issue Among Many for Libertarians?


     
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Most Americans express support for private enterprise. In this country, outright socialists are relatively rare, except on university campuses, and even progressives, who favor pervasive regulation and heavy taxation, often declare that they support a free-enterprise economy—they simply oppose “unbridled capitalism.” For many sincere friends of the free market, however, it shines as only one star among a host of others in their ideological firmament, and with regard to one critically important service, protection from foreign threats, they favor a government-monopoly supplier with an established reputation for recklessness and unnecessary ferocity. Thus, notable free enterprisers include both hawks (e.g., Thomas Sowell, George Shultz, Walter Williams) and doves (e.g., Thomas Gale Moore, David Henderson, Donald Boudreaux) in their views about U.S. foreign and military policy.

Among libertarians in particular, the U.S. invasion of Iraq has brought this difference to the fore more visibly than any previous event. Some professed libertarians have supported the U.S. attack and the ensuing occupation, others have opposed those actions, and still others have hedged somewhere in between. On October 22, 2004, for example, a well-publicized and well-attended libertarian conference at the Cato Institute, “Lessons from the Iraq War: Reconciling Liberty and Security,” gave the podium to advocates of each of these positions. (I was one of the invited speakers.) Supporters of “big tent” libertarianism have counseled that libertarians ought to steer clear of fratricidal conflict over this issue. After all, they say, we still agree on so many other issues.

Although I generally eschew quarrels with fellow libertarians over doctrinal matters—my crucial dispute is with the government, not with other libertarians—I draw the line at the question of war and peace. In my judgment this issue is fundamental; it well-nigh defines a genuine libertarian ideology. Professed libertarians who support an aggressive warfare state are, in effect, giving up the ship. They are making the same mistake that has long condemned conservatives to serving as de facto buttresses of Leviathan, no matter how much they might complain about high taxes and excessive regulation.

My claim is that those who give a free hand to the government in its foreign and defense policy-making will ultimately discover that they have handed their rulers the key that opens all doors, including the doors that obstruct the government’s invasion of our most cherished rights to life, liberty, and property. The war-making key is, so to speak, the master key for any government, because when critical tradeoffs must be made, war will override all other concerns and, as an ancient maxim aptly informs us, inter armas silent leges. Anyone who has looked into the actions of the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, knows that during wartime the justices have placed themselves on the casualty list by effectively rolling over and playing dead. Without at least a semblance of the rule of law and an independent judiciary, all hopes for the maintenance of a free society are in vain.

I have been researching and documenting the preceding claims for more than twenty-five years, and my books Crisis and Leviathan (1987), Against Leviathan (2004), and Depression, War, and Cold War (2006), among other published works, present a great deal of evidence and analysis that support the “master key” thesis. My recent book Resurgence of the Warfare State (2005) demonstrates that the characteristic relationships operative during the world wars and the Cold War are now operating in the so-called war on terrorism. The main conclusion of all this research is that when a nation-state goes to war or makes great efforts to prepare for war, all bets are off for preservation of the people’s liberties. As political scientist Bruce Porter concluded in War and the Rise of the State (1994), a study of the past five centuries in the West, “A government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of militarily vital resources. This centralizing tendency of war has made the rise of the state throughout much of history a disaster for human liberty and rights.” Hawkish libertarians would do well to ponder these conclusions. Not for nothing have dovish libertarians made a veritable mantra of Randolph Bourne’s declaration that “war is the health of the state.”

An obvious response by hawkish libertarians appeals to an axiom of classical liberalism: we need the state to protect us from genuine foreign threats; moreover, provision of such protection is the state’s most basic responsibility. Unfortunately, this reply, which rests more on wishful thinking than on a hardheaded understanding of the state, raises more questions than it answers (and, incidentally, reveals a fatal flaw in the doctrine of classical liberalism).

First, what makes anybody think that the state will protect us, as distinct from the state’s leaders and its apparatus of rule? For more than a century, nearly all of the U.S. government’s military activities have been devoted to protecting someone or something other than you and me (or, earlier, our forebears). Spain did not threaten Americans in 1898, and the Filipinos did not threaten them between 1899 and 1902. Germany did not seriously threaten any genuine American right in 1917—the right to travel unmolested in a war zone on munitions-laden British or French ships does not qualify, despite Woodrow Wilson’s tortured logic—and the Kaiser’s government made conciliatory efforts repeatedly to maintain peaceful relations with the United States from 1914 until 1917. Germany did not seek war with the United States in 1940 and 1941 (until its alliance with Japan tipped it into a declaration of war on December 11, 1941); indeed, Hitler’s regime, hoping to keep the United States at bay, displayed remarkable forbearance in the face of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s attempts to provoke a war-justifying naval incident in the North Atlantic. In more recent decades, North Korea, North Vietnam, Panama, Serbia, and Iraq, among others, did not threaten American rights before the U.S. government launched wars against them. If, in making war, the government intends only to protect Americans from foreigners who threaten their lives, liberties, and property here on our own territory, then we must conclude that the government has displayed astonishingly bad judgment in choosing its targets. Why would anyone want to rely on a protector who manifestly does not shoot straight?

Second, even if we do need the government’s protection from foreign attack, can the government deliver the goods? Did it prevent the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor? Did it prevent the terrorist attacks of 9/11? Of course, state officials constantly tell us that they are protecting us, but talk is cheap, and in their case, often untrue, especially when it pertains to matters outside our common experience and therefore beyond our power to verify easily.1

To pose an even more fundamental question, we might ask: why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in the first place? Had the U.S. government, perhaps, initiated economic warfare to put the Japanese economy into a stranglehold from which the Japanese government could extricate it, given the U.S. ultimatum regarding the Sino-Japanese war, only by a humiliating withdrawal from Japan’s gains on the Asian mainland or by breaking free of the U.S.-British-Dutch economic embargo by taking risky military countermeasures? More recently, what had the U.S. government done in the Middle East to make so many Muslims willing to die for the sake of taking revenge against the United States? Anyone who has followed the news or dipped into the historical literature understands that the U.S. government has been vigorously meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, making enemies right and left in the process, for more than half a century.

U.S. government officials always tell us, of course, that it is as pure as driven snow in its dealings with people abroad, that we Americans are invariably minding our own business and dispensing nothing but sweetness and light to everybody on earth regardless of race, color, or creed when crazed foreigners attack us for no reason at all, except that they harbor an insane hatred of our way of life. Even a superficial exposure to the pertinent facts exposes the government’s official line as the sheerest fairy tale. Far from protecting us, the government has now spent more than a century busily making enemies for Americans around the globe. Some protection. If the government were a private security guard, we would have fired him in 1898 and never purchased his trigger-happy services again. Americans desperately need to clarify a basic distinction: protecting the just rights of Americans here in America and exercising a globe-girdling hegemony over other people are two different things.

These observations lead to an even more fundamental question: what makes anyone think that government officials are even trying to protect us? A government is not analogous to a hired security guard. Governments do not come into existence as social service organizations or as private firms seeking to please consumers in a competitive market. Instead, they are born in conquest and nourished by plunder. They are, in short, well-armed gangs intent on organized crime. Yes, rulers have sometimes come to recognize the prudence of protecting the herd they are milking and even of improving its “infrastructure” until the day they decide to slaughter the young bulls, but the idea that government officials seek to promote my interests or yours is little more than propaganda—unless you happen to belong to the class of privileged tax eaters who give significant support to the government and therefore receive in return a share of the loot. For libertarians to have lost sight of the fundamental nature of the state and therefore to have expected its kingpins to selflessly protect them from genuine foreign threats, much as a mother hen protects her chicks, challenges comprehension. Imagine: people who recognize full well that they cannot rely on the government to do something as simple as fixing the potholes nevertheless believe that they can rely on that same government to protect their lives, liberties, and property. One is tempted to conclude that by making this colossal mistake they have demonstrated that they were not libertarians in the first place.

In sum, the issue of war and peace does serve as a litmus test for libertarians. Warmongering libertarians are ipso facto not libertarians. Real libertarians do not expect pigs to fly: they do not believe the government’s lies about the multitude of foreign fiends poised to pounce on us; they do not credit the government’s promise to protect us from any real monsters that may exist beyond our borders; they do not even take seriously the government’s declaration that its primary objective is to secure our rights against foreign invasion or other harm originating abroad.

During wartime, governments invariably trample on the people’s just rights, propagandizing the abused citizens to believe that they are trading liberty for security. Yet, time and again, after the dust has settled, the U.S. government’s wars have yielded the net result that Americans enjoyed fewer liberties in the post-bellum era than they had enjoyed in the ante-bellum era. This ratchet effect must be expected to accompany every major military undertaking the U.S. government conducts. In every war with a decisive outcome, the people on both sides lose, the government on the losing side loses, and the government on the winning side wins. What sort of libertarian wants to swallow that kind of poisoned Kool-Aid?

Note

  1. Consider the government’s recent, highly publicized announcement that it had arrested the members of “a homegrown terrorist cell” in Miami, thereby preventing them from blowing up the Sears Tower in Chicago. Even before the government had completed its high-profile press conference, peals of laughter were ringing out across the land: the seven “terrorists” lacked explosives, training, contacts with any real terrorist group and, most of all, the wit to blow up a skyscraper. Deputy FBI Director John Pistole, describing the alleged plot as “aspirational rather than operational,” had to suppress his giggles. These men deserve, perhaps, a week in jail for the crime of flakiness, whereas the government agents, including the sting man who planted seeds in the men’s receptive but pathetically puerile minds, might justly be sentenced to ten years behind bars for abusing their authority. One has to wonder: if real terrorists threaten the American people, why are government agents wasting their highly-paid time and other resources in this fashion?

Robert Higgs is Senior Fellow in Political Economy at The Independent Institute and Editor at Large of the Institute’s quarterly journal The Independent Review. He received his Ph.D. in economics from Johns Hopkins University, and he has taught at the University of Washington, Lafayette College, Seattle University, and the University of Economics, Prague. He has been a visiting scholar at Oxford University and Stanford University, and a fellow for the Hoover Institution and the National Science Foundation. He is the author of many books, including Depression, War, and Cold War.

Full Biography and Recent Publications


  New from Robert Higgs!
CRISIS AND LEVIATHAN (25TH ANNIVERSARY EDITION): Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government
The size and scope of government power has grown in response to crises of war and economic upheavals. Such increased power remains long after each crisis passes, threatening both civil and economic liberties, all at the behest of special interest groups.






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