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Are Questions of War and Peace Merely One Issue among Many for Libertarians?
By Robert Higgs
This article appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of The Independent Review


Abstract

The U.S. government invariably tramples on the people’s rights during wartime and leaves the people with fewer liberties after peace returns. The issue of war and peace therefore serves as a litmus test for libertarians.


Article

Most Americans express support for private enterprise. Outright socialists are rare in this country, 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 (for example, Thomas Sowell, George Shultz, and Walter Williams) and doves (for example, Thomas Gale Moore, David Henderson, and Donald Boudreaux) in their views about U.S. foreign and military policy.

Among libertarians in particular, the U.S. invasion of Iraq brought this difference to the fore more visibly than any previous event. Some professed libertarians supported the U.S. attack and the ensuing occupation; others opposed these actions; and still others 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 counseled that libertarians ought to steer clear of fratricidal conflict over this issue. After all, they say, we still agree on many other issues, and we should not allow ourselves to be divided by a difference over a single issue.

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 without a fight. 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 policymaking will ultimately discover that they have handed their rulers the key that opens all doors, including the doors that might otherwise obstruct the government’s invasion of our most cherished rights to life, liberty, and property. The war-making key is, so to speak, any government’s master key because when critical trade-offs must be made, war will override all other concerns, and as an ancient maxim aptly warns us, inter armas silent leges. Anyone who has looked into the U.S. Supreme Court’s history, 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 thirty years, and my books Crisis and Leviathan (1987), Against Leviathan (2004), and Depression, War, and Cold War (2006), among many other published works, present a great deal of evidence and analysis that support the “master key” thesis. My 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 the preservation of the people’s liberties. As political scientist Bruce Porter concluded in War and the Rise of the State, 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” (1994, xv). 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” (n.d. [c. 1917–18]).

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 provides 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 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, notwithstanding Woodrow Wilson’s tortured logic—and the kaiser’s government repeatedly made conciliatory efforts 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, Iraq, and Libya, among others, did not threaten American rights before the U.S. government launched wars against them. If in making war the government has intended only to protect Americans from foreigners who threaten our 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 September 11, 2001? 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.

Consider the government’s highly publicized announcement in 2006 that it had arrested the members of “a homegrown terrorist cell” in Miami, thereby preventing them from blowing up the Sears Tower in Chicago (“Homegrown Terrorists” 2006). 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 Director John Pistole of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), describing the alleged plot as “aspirational rather than operational,” had to suppress his giggles. These men deserved 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 have been 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? Aside from the few pathetic men the government has entrapped in such schemes, the FBI and other ostensible antiterrorist protectors have very little to show for themselves over the past decade, aside from engorging massive amounts of taxpayer money and unreasonably violating the public’s privacy and other rights on a massive scale. (For the latest report of such bogus FBI protection, see Johnson 2011.)

We should pose an even more fundamental question regarding the instances in which other countries or political entities have attacked us: Why? We might ask, for example: Why did the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor in the first place? The U.S. government had initiated economic warfare to put the Japanese economy into a stranglehold from which, given the U.S. ultimatum regarding the Sino-Japanese war, the Japanese government could extricate itself only by making a humiliating withdrawal from Japan’s hard-won gains on the Asian mainland or by breaking free of the U.S.-British-Dutch economic embargo by taking extremely risky military countermeasures. These facts surely have a causal bearing on the Japanese decision to attack Pearl Harbor, as intercepted Japanese diplomatic cables attest. For more recent events in general and for the 9/11 attacks in particular, we might ask: 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 for more than half a century the U.S. government has been vigorously meddling in the Middle East, making enemies right and left in the process (see, for example, Richman 1991 and Leebaert 2010).

U.S. government officials always tell us, of course, that they are as pure as driven snow in their 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, and creed when crazed foreigners attack us for no reason at all except 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 globegirdling 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, of course, 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 expect its kingpins selflessly to protect them from genuine foreign threats, much as a 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 never really 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, disseminating so much propaganda to the abused citizens that they believe 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 enjoy fewer liberties in the postbellum era than they enjoyed in the antebellum era. This ratchet effect must be expected to accompany every major military undertaking the U.S. government carries out. 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. In light of these realities, what sort of libertarian wants to support the warfare state?

References

Bourne, Randolph. n.d. [c. 1917–18]. The State. Available at: http://www.fair-use.org/ randolph-bourne/the-state/.

Higgs, Robert. 1987. Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government. New York: Oxford University Press.

——. 2004. Against Leviathan: Government Power and a Free Society. Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute.

——. 2005. Resurgence of the Warfare State: The Crisis since 9/11. Oakland, Calif.: The Independent Institute.

——. 2006. Depression, War, and Cold War: Studies in Political Economy. New York: Oxford University Press for The Independent Institute.

“Homegrown Terrorists” Arraigned in Court. 2006. MSNBC, June 23. Available at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/13497335/ns/us_news-security/.

Johnson, Gene. 2011. Two Arrested in Seattle Terror Plot, Justice Department Says. Huffpost AOL News, June 23. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/23/terrorplot-arrested_n_883574.html.

Leebaert, Derek. 2010. Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Porter, Bruce D. 1994. War and the Rise of the State: The Military Foundations of Modern Politics. New York: Free Press.

Richman, Sheldon. 1991. “Ancient History”: U.S. Conduct in the Middle East since World War II and the Folly of Intervention. Cato Institute Policy Analysis no. 159. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute, August 16.


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
Other Independent Review articles by Robert Higgs
    Fall 2014   Ronald Coase, Anomalous Superstar of the Economics Profession
    Summer 2014   The Fed’s Immiseration of People Who Live on Interest Earnings
    Spring 2014   The Salmon Trap: An Analogy for People’s Entrapment by the State
[View All (47)]



Volume 16 Number 2
Fall 2011

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