Winning the Moral War

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I’m often asked by inquisitive colleagues who are familiar with my views, “So, what’s the libertarian position on _ _ ?” Since a question like that places me in the role of ambassador, I try to answer carefully.

In some matters, there is a “right answer,” or at least a standard answer. What’s the libertarian position on protective import tariffs? We don’t like them. But in other cases, I cannot fulfill my ambassadorial role as easily. What’s the libertarian position on abortion? Well, it’s that definite article that causes the problem – there isn’t one “official” libertarian position on abortion. Reasonable people with libertarian convictions can and do disagree over that issue. When my inquisitive colleagues ask that sort of question, I tell them that, and then if they’re still interested, I talk about what my position is, .and I note that others disagree. After the September 11 attacks and the ensuing military actions in Afghanistan and Iraq, my inquisitive colleagues came with “So, what’s the libertarian position on the war?” In this case, there are two instances of the definite article, and therein lies our tale.

First of all, it should be obvious that, as with abortion, not all libertarians agree on war issues, and “hawkish libertarian” isn’t oxymoronic in the way that “pro-censorship libertarian” or “protectionist libertarian” likely are. One reason for this is the second “the”: some wars may be legitimate and others not. In what follows, I will outline some of the reasons why both definite·articles are problematic, and why my colleagues sometimes end up talking to me for 30 minutes rather than the three they were hoping for.

Are all wars unjust? Actually, the very language of “just and unjust wars” is confusing.* Strictly speaking, a war itself cannot be either just or unjust; it is the actions of the participants that are the proper objects of those judgments. Consider first a microcosm: Smith starts punching Jones (say they had a disagreement about music), and Jones, defending himself, starts punching back. Is the fight just or unjust? The question makes no sense. The fight as a whole cannot be just or unjust. However, we can say that Smith’s attack was unjust: it was wrong of Smith to attack Jones. Conversely, we can say of Jones that what he did (defending himself) was just. This reflects the moral distinction between the use of force to commit aggression and the use of force to repel or defend against aggression. While we might say that Smith had no right to strike Jones, Smith’s aggression creates a right for Jones to strike Smith.

Similarly, say that the army of Bellicosia invades the country of Freedonia (the latter has desirable raw materials), and the Freedonian army mobilizes to repel the Bellicosians. Is this war just or unjust? Again, the question makes no sense. What does make sense is to say that it was unjust for the Bellicosians to invade, but just for the Freedonians to resist. The (aggressive) use of military force by Bellicosia was not legitimate, but the (defensive) use of military force by Freedonia was. So when talking about. “just and unjust wars,” we must keep in mind that we are talking about the justice or injustice of one side or the other. So, was World War II justified? Well, it wasn’t just for the Germans to attempt to conquer Britain, but it was just for the British to fight back.

One.might argue that the same is true with “winning”: one side·. wins and another loses. But in some cases, of course, both sides could lose. Vietnam is often cited as an

The idea that a free society has no business interfering in other societies’ internal politics is, paradoxically, a holdover from the old monarchist mindset.


example of an American “loss,” but of course the victory of communism there was a loss for the Vietnamese people. Korea also had no clear victor: the North was unsuccessful at assimilating the South, but neither was it·dislodged, and it remains a dictatorship today. In some cases, to be sure, there are clear winners and losers: the Americans were the clear winners of the Revolutionary War, just as the Nazis were the clear losers of the Second World War. But we need to distinguish the people from their governments: while the Nazis lost World War II, the German people ultimately prospered as a result. So “winners” and “losers” are not always as clearly defined as we might like. The Confederate Army was the “loser” in the American Civil War, but many see the resulting expansion of federal power as a net loss for all Americans.

What then can we say about the justice of American involvement in World War II, or any other war, for that matter? There are a number of factors that need to be considered. One key consideration, especially for libertarians, is whether the purpose of the involvement is consistent with the ideal of liberty. If a war is about imperial expansion, a libertarian ought to oppose it, but if it’s about protecting against legitimate threats to liberty, a libertarian might well support it. Another consideration is the issue of voluntary versus coerced support. I do think libertarianism entails the wrongness of conscription. The war must be fought by people who have agreed to be wardors. (A corollary issue is the funding of the war – more on that anon.) Thirdly, there are practical considerations: even if it would be morally justifiable to do something, there are sometimes countervailing pragmatic considerations. For example, I would argue that the Tibetans would be morally right to rebel against China, but this may be. practically impossible. Another sort of pragmatic consideration is the phenomenon that Robert Higgs has identified: the tendency of governments to expand the scope of their powers in a wartime crisis and then never relinquish it, even when the crisis has abated.*

I think a clear case of the use of force by Americans which is morally justified and consistent with a libertarian view is the War of Independence. The Declaration of Independence has it exactly right when it states that the purpose of government is to secure rights that the people have by nature, and “that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it …” The colonists’ rights were being routinely violated, and the British were responding to unrest and dissension with force. The colonists’ taking up arms to secure independence was legitimate. By contrast, from a libertarian point of view, it’s hard to see how America’s actions in the Spanish- American war could be reconciled with a libertarian framework: American claims to rightful ownership of Cuba and the Philippines don’t stand up to careful scrutiny.

In other cases, we see multiple rationales, some of which are legitimate and others of which are not. In the War of 1812, for instance, the British were actively aggressing (e.g., on the high seas), and the American military response seems plainly defensive, and hence justified, although some of the other reasons for the war had to do with conquest of British territory in Canada. These cases are a bit of a philosophical conundrum: if I have two reasons for my action, and one is a good reason and the other a bad one, am I justified? Say, for instance, that Smith is attacking Jones again. Jones fights back, partly because he is defending himself against Smith, and partly because he disapproves of Smith’s religion. While punching Smith· simply out of religious hatred would be unjustified, it’s nevertheless the case that Smith is the aggressor and Jones’ self-defense is legitimate.

While self-defense versus conquest is relatively straight- forward, aid to third parties and interventionist wars present greater conceptual difficulties. To return to my earlier fic-

Saving one people from genocidal slaughter at the hands of another is not contradictory to libertarian principles.


tional example, given that it’s just for the Freedonians to use force to repel the Bellicosians, imagine that Freedonia is far outmatched by Bellicosia. Since it’s right for Freedonia to resist, it would be right also for a third party to come to Freedonia’s assistance. Many libertarians argue that this may not be wise, either because such intervention would make an enemy of Bellicosia, or because it might ratchet up the scope of government power. In many cases, the intervening nation risks getting drawn into an entanglement that it really can- not control, the results of which may turn out to be much more complex than anticipated.

In other cases, intervention carries fewer risks and greater rewards. The United States did not intervene in Rwanda, but if it had, it’s hard to see how it would have been unjustified: saving one people from genocidal slaughter at the hands of another is not contradictory to libertarian principles. Oppressed populations have the right to use force to resist the oppression (as we did in the Revolution) but may lack the power to do so and hence need assistance (as we did in the Revolution).

What, then, about the current war in Iraq? I think a case can be made that overthrowing a tyrant to liberate an oppressed people is legitimate, but in any event, the time has long since passed to conclude American involvement in Iraq. I had high hopes during the invasion that the Iraqis would embrace freedom and institute a pluralistic, democratic republic, but either they have been slow on the uptake, or the American presence during the transition has been poorly handled, or both. Ultimately, only Iraq can make a free Iraq, and regardless of what was the case in 2003, I think the best we can do now is exit. That is partly because the administration is not (on my view) making the most of the opportunity here, and partly because the Iraqis seem more interested in power struggles than constitutionalism. It’s not because I think Saddam should not have been removed from power, or because I think that military force is always wrong. Neither of those ideas is true, and neither follows from libertarianism.

Here are some potential libertarian objections to the positions I’ve been explicating, and some reflections on (and possible responses to) them.

1. Despite what you might say about any particular case, America should, as a general rule, strive for a less interventionist military policy. What we have now is a global-policeman mindset, which besides costing a fortune, gets us hopelessly entangled in ancient hatreds and makes many enemies. Wouldn’t it be better if, for the most part, we kept to ourselves?

Short answer: yes, where possible. But a lot hangs on that qualifier. What does “keeping to ourselves” mean? Does it mean forbidding U.S. companies from conducting business abroad? That’s not consistent with libertarianism. Even without an adventurous foreign military presence, in today’s global economy “keeping to oneself” is not a realistic option. The unfortunate reality is that we also make enemies by practicing capitalism.

2. When there are problems requiring the use offorce, we ought to go back to letters of marque and reprisal, in essence privatizing the use offorce.

I agree entirely! But sadly, this is currently illegal. Until we actually have a privatized military, “we should privatize it” cannot be an objection to using the one we have. That’s like objecting to the New York City subway on the ground that it is a government program. Ideally, it ought to be privatized, but until it is, the people of New York need to get around. To paraphrase Dick Cheney, you go to work with the subway system you have, not with the one you wish you had. The “Lincoln Brigades” who, on their own dime, went off to Spain to fight against the fascists, would today be considered criminals. The suggestion that modem-day “privateers” ought to be the ones chasing after al Qaeda is good but moot.

3. A free society has no business interfering in other societies’ internal politics.

This is ironically, or paradoxically, a holdover from the old monarchist mindset. The old order, on which traditional just war theory is based, and in which sovereignty is the paramount value in international relations, depends on a moral equivalence between states that is derived from a statist

Since the state exists, and has a standing army, the only live issue right now is what guidelines should constrain the use of military force.


view, not an individualist one. On a non-statist, individualist view, individuals have rights, not states. States may have powers, but their just powers derive from the consent of the governed. The putative right of any state to sovereignty is thus a function of its protection of the rights of the people in its domain. So a free society may very well have some business “interfering” in tyrannical or genocidal states – namely, the business of protecting life and liberty. The very language – that this is “interference” in a state’s own affairs – implies that the state has some right of action which is presumptively respected; again, this can only be justified by statist thinking, not by libertarian thinking. That doesn’t mean that anyone necessarily has an obligation to interfere, only that people are permitted·to do so, or that they do no wrong by doing so.

4. Even if the troops are volunteers rather than conscripts, the funding for their operations is coercively obtained through taxation. Isn’t that a violation of libertarian principles?

This argument proves too much. It’s true that the funding for any service provided by government was coercively obtained, and that’s antilibertarian in general. But what’s immoral is the government’s coercively taking money; some of the activities the money gets spent on may be legitimate in and of themselves. Here’s a good example: municipal fire departments. Firefighters aren’t acting immorally when they jump in the truck, save lives, and extinguish fires. That’s a good thing to do. The libertarian objection isn’t to firefighting per se, it’s to the government’s imposed provision of the service. The argument that, as a matter of policy, the government ought to privatize a service is conceptually separable from an evaluation of the intrinsic morality of that service. If it is intrinsically legitimate to engage in firefighting, then the municipal firefighters are morally correct when doing their job, even if it’s also true that the municipality ought not to monopolize that business.

To put this in another way, everything the state does entails some coercion by means of taxation. That is an argument in favor of anarcho-capitalism, but not an objection to the moral legitimacy of any particular thing the state does. Using the military to conquer the Philippines was unjust because it was aggressive, so it would fail to meet libertarian standards regardless of whether it was the state’s military or a private force doing the conquering.

5. You still haven’t offered a satisfactory reply to a Higgsian objection, that there’s something especially pernicious about the state’s use of the military to ratchet up the scope of its power by exploiting war crises.

That’s because I agree with it. For this reason, I believe that libertarians need to have a well-thought-out approach to military affairs that is neither dogmatic nor unprincipled. Since the state exists, and has a standing army, the only live issue right now is what guidelines should constrain the use of military force. Libertarians need· to .be at the forefront of such debates, making sure that, to as great an extent as possible, the military is used defensively and prudently, as consistently as possible with the ideal of individual liberty.

We must be vigilant about the exploitation by the state of war crises to erode liberty at home, and we must try to ensure that the military is not used for adventurism. But we cannot do that effectively by claiming to be above such minutiae. I once knew an anarcho-capitalist who answered every question that began “Do you think Congress should … ” with “No” – because he thought that Congress shouldn’t do anything. He denied the legitimacy of its power, but in a way that robbed him of a critical voice. His answer to “Do you think Congress should repeal the Patriot Act?” becomes indistinguishable from his answer to “Should Congress extend the Patriot Act?” There is a Congress, so we ought to be able to argue for guidelines constraining its power.

So also with the military. It is there, and it can be used for legitimate ends or abused and exploited. The best role for libertarians is to keep arguing for the priority of individual liberty, as a guideline for limits on state power at home and abroad. This would havethe effect of keeping liberty in the forefront of popular thinking, reducing the appeal of other, less savory rationales for fighting. Also, elevating protection of individual liberty to the forefront of just war theory would help reinforce it as the paramount value in politics generally. Neither absolute pacifism nor neocon realpolitik is consistent with that vision.

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