Wins, Losses, and Libertarian Ideas

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Libertarian ideas are based in part on moral principles, in part on economic or “praxeological” principles – ideas about the nature of human choice and action (“praxis”). I’ve been wondering how America’s wars would appear when viewed from the standpoint of the “praxeological” principles taught by Ludwig von Mises (“Human Action”), Friedrich Hayek (liThe Road

to Serfdom”), Murray Rothbard (“Man, Economy, and State”), and other authors in the libertarian tradition.
Five ideas seem especially relevant to the subject.

1. “Wins” and “losses” aren’t just material; they’re psychological as well.

That’s one of the things that Isabel Paterson had in mind when she said that wars would cease when people stopped thinking they were fun. She didn’t mean that everybody enjoys war – far from it. She knew that war was not a pleasure for the multitude of young soldiers who bled to death in the hellish heat of the cornfield at Antietam. But the majority of people who took part in the Civil War, America’s bloodiest conflict, did not die that way. They lost a certain amount of their time, energy, and freedom, but many of them were richly recompensed by the challenge and adventure that war often brings, and by the sense of significance that even people on the losing side often derive from a brave and determined fight. Many Southerners who “lost” the war in a material sense “won” it in terms of psychic benefits – or the quasi-material benefits of social esteem and political power that come to men respected for their military prowess.

Of course, psychic gains can be as ephemeral as material ones. The veterans of the Great Patriotic War who, 50 years later, found themselves vending military mementos on the

streets of Moscow no longer looked – or, presumably, felt – like the victors of World War II. Yet I well remember the groups of Great Patriotic War veterans I saw touring Prague in 1985: little old men with horrible teeth and miserable clothes, men who seemed, nevertheless, to be on top of the world, luxuriating in their awful communist hotel, gleefully rubbing their hands over their awful communist meals, and proudly displaying the medals that had earned them this largesse and grandeur. At that point, at least, these particular Russians were profiting mightily from their war.

A similar, though less dramatic, thing has happened to some American veterans, men who suffered unenthusiastically through World War II but have now become convinced, by flattering propaganda in the media, that their service makes them glorious constituents of The Greatest Generation. The human mind is a wonderful mechanism for turning misery into magnificence.

Who “won” the War of 1812? Most Americans think that “we” did, despite plentiful evidence on the other side: Washington put to the torch by a British raiding party; Michigan surrendered without a fight by a general later convicted of cowardice; °the ignominious failure of American attempts to capture Canada. Yet the fact that America survived the war, and the fact that General Jackson managed to beat the British at New Orleans (though only after peace had been concluded), and Americans” sheer ignorance of many other facts, have for the past two centuries created the impression that a glorious victory was somehow attained.

The impression of having won or lost can have large effects, not just on people’s sense of their history, but also on subsequent historical events. The biggest losers of the War of 1812 were probably the Indians of the northwestern frontier, potent enemies of the United States who were backed and

The human mind is a wonderful mechanism for turning misery into magnificence.


then abandoned by the British. Their loss of morale was overwhelming. Immediately after the war, white settlers poured into the states and territories of the Old Northwest, confident that the Indian threat was vanishing. Indeed it was; and soon after, so were the indians. The land of Pontiac and Tecumseh suddenly became the heartland of the United States and the model of its culture. In this sense, every Average American is a winner of the War of 1812.

Morale matters. The greatest American casualty of the War of 1812 was the Federalist Party, the party of New England, which covered itself with shame by its association with the Hartford Convention, a gathering of antiwar politicians that implicitly threatened New England’s secession from the union. The convention. had no practical’ result, but the moral impact was ‘enormous. The Federalists never

were hardly constrained to separate from the empire because of any great material damage it had done to them. Who can deny that the Revolution was motivated in large part by pride – by Americans’ increasing pride in their own importance and by their increasingly frustrated pride in the British rights and privileges that they felt the home country appeared to be denying them? Their angry separation from the parent country entailed great material losses, not only among British loyalists, many of whom lost their possessions and were forced to flee the country, but also·among leaders of the Patriot party.

It was no joke, in those days, to pledge your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor to either the revolutionary or the counter-revolutionary cause. Yet without this suffering, America would never have been born as the first nation whose fundamental documents squarely affirmed a libertarian idea of rights. Everyone who now invokes that idea is a winner of the American Revolution. From this intellectual benefit, material benefits .have flowed in an unending stream.

Was it “worth it”? Were such benefits worth the expenditure of the 4,000 American lives that were lost in combat in the Revolutionary War, not counting all the other lives that were lost as a direct result of that war?

Before you answer, “Yes, of course; that’s nothing compared with the 400,000 Americans who perished in World War II, or the 550,000 in the Civil War,” consider another basic principle of “praxeological” analysis:

2. Human values cannot be quantified.

That’s way of putting·the idea that when someone says that X is more valuable than Y, and that he therefore prefers X to Y, we have no way of calculating how greatly X is –

We can’t calculate the threat of terrorism; we can’t. calculate the value of even one human life. We can only do the best job we can to define the results that ought to be preferred on moral or practical grounds.


superior to Y, even from that person’s point of view. We know only that when he needs to choose, he chooses X over Y. Even if he can state his reasons, and they’re the real reasons, there is still no formula for calculating either his choices or his’values. Reasons are real and important, but they are no more quantifiable than choices.

If you think the Constitution was worth the expenditure of 4,000 American lives, would it have been worth the expenditure of 10,000? 20,000? 100,000? Would Congress’ decision to go to war have been four times likelier to be right if the figure had been only 1,000? How shall one answer such questions – especially if one looks at each set of figures and adds, “including my own life”?

Piling up statistics about wars is useful in showing the scale of choice and preference, and in that sense it can be very persuasive. Few people would object on practical grounds to any military adventure if they could be assured that only ten lives would be lost in it, and none of those lives would be their own. Few people would fail to object if they were assured that the cost would be hundreds of millions of lives.

But the values themselves cannot be calculated, and it’s easy to think of statistics that do not persuade. If you knew you could prevent all future terrorist attacks on the United States by a military campaign that might kill up to 50,000 American soldiers – about the number lost in Vietnam – would you do it? Pacifists and hardened militarists know how to handle that question, because for them it’s not really a question. They already know the answer. The rest of us will thank God that we can’t conduct such a cruel calculus. We can’t calculate the threat of terrorism; we can’t calculate the value of even one human life. We can only do the best job we can of defining the results that ought to be preferred on moral or practical grounds and guessing what is likely to happen when one instrument or another is used to attain them.

It’s a complicated job, because lives can be lost by not going to war as well as by going to war, and decisions must be based on both material and psychic, both practical and moral considerations. It becomes still more complicated when one considers yet another basic principle:

3. Actions invariably have multiple effects.

The fact that I have chosen to type this sentence means that I am not typing any other sentences. The fact that the Treasury disburses $5 billion to construct a Nimitz Class aircraft carrier means that it is not disbursing $5 billion dollars for some other purpose, which might conceivably contribute more to the national security, or returning $5 billion to the taxpayer, which might conceivably contribute still more.

Let’s look at another of America’s wars, the war with Spain. America’s conquest of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Philippines resulted in an increase of material prosperity for many Cubans, for virtually all Puerto Ricans, and even for many Filipinos who fought against the American occupation of their country. Except in Cuba, American conquests in this war still return enormous dividends on the material side of the ledger, with some heavy offsets on the psychological and social side, especially as a result of the heavy dependence of Puerto Rico on American welfare programs.

But what were the effects of American victory on America itself? So far as I can tell, the material benefits were minuscule. The war was not especially costly; even the effort to put down the ensuing insurrection of part of the Filipino population was not a major event. The returns consisted mainly of an extension of American power into the danger zone of the Pacific, where it would, a generation later, engage the competing power of Japan, with hideous results.

So, who won the Spa.nish-American War? The American imperialist party, in the short run – and also,. perhaps, the long run, if we think of the United States as an empire grow- ing out of its engagement in the war with Japan and Germany. But to the list of winners we must add everyone in Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Philippines who profited or continues to profit from America’s involvement in his own country.

Who lost the Spanish-American War? In the short run, the old regime in Spain, which was hastened toward its end by its miserable defeat by a New World power; in the long run, the non-interventionist party in America, the fiscally conservative party in America, and, perhaps, the millions of Americans, Japanese, and Filipinos killed in World War II – assuming that America would not have become involved in that war, had it not become so heavily involved in Asia in 1898.

On the same assumption, our list of victors in the Spanish-American War and World War II should include the modem Japanese. To develop this point, I need to mention a fourth idea:

4. Moral analysis must be distinguished from practical analysis.

Suppose I write an article about a foreign nation that possesses a markedly illiberal character. Its monarch is worshiped as a god; its political parties function as masks of

Libertarians, like other good people, assume that bad decisions necessarily produce totally bad results – and that is an assumption that needs looking into.


oligarchic interests; it has many of the attributes of a military dictatorship;. its social system is remarkably anti-individualistic. But, I argue, I know the way to reform this nation. First you provoke it into attacking you by choking off its oil supplies. Then you firebomb its cities and, for good measure, annihilate two of them with atomic weapons. You occupy the country and execute as many of its leaders as you feel like executing, preserving its monarch as the figurehead of a new political and social system, dictated by yourself. Finally, you ally yourself with the country in such a way as to guarantee its continued military impotence and subservience to you.

April 2006

How would my readers react to such a proposal?

Most would denounce it on moral grounds, and virtually all would tell me contemptuously that my scheme couldn’t possibly work. I would be told that war never accomplishes good ends, that violence merely begets more violence, that you can never do good by doing evil; that you can never teach liberal values by imposing your will on others. I would be given many additional pieces of advice as well – most of them angry, and most of them correct. I would be read out of the libertarian movement. I would become a ta~get of public scorn, a topic of discussion on CNN. But that’s what actually happened in America’s struggle with Japan.

I certainly do not recommend that we try this approach again. I’m bringing this episode up because libertarians, like other good people, ordinarily assume that bad decisions necessarily produce totally bad results – and that is an assumption that needs looking into.

You can’t make moral choices on the assumption that bad decisions are likely to lead to good results. But we can all think of cases in which moral courage has led to destruction,

How easy it is, if one believes that America has a moral responsibility to bring freedom to the rest of the globe, to be serenely confident that our interventions will always be met with practical success.

and moral confusion has accomplished stupendously favorable ends. You may believe, as Abraham Lincoln did, that the Mexican War was morally wrong, but it doesn’t follow that you think, or should think, that the territory ceded from Mexico as a result of that war should be given back to it. I don’t. I live in California; I am one of the victors of the Mexican War.

What I’m saying is that morality and practicality are not the same thing. They’re related, surely; but there are many good moral reasons not to lie, cheat, or steal, no matter how good the anticipated results might be. And it’s clear that moral failure doesn’t always add up to practical failure. One reason lies in a fifth principle of human action, much discussed by libertarian theorists:

5. Human choices commonly have unforeseen and unintended consequences.

In no field of human action is this more obviously true than that of war. Every competent military strategist bears this in mind. Every pacifist does too, and for good reason; it’s one of the best arguments for belief in nonviolence. Who can tell whether aI/strictly limited” act of violence will not result in an ocean of blood, an overwhelming defeat, a deadly blow to one’s way of life?

Unfortunately, however, many people have come to regard this important principle as if it meant, “Political choices commonly have unforeseen, unintended, and unfortunate consequences.” These people expect the unintended effects of war to be uniformly unfortunate, which means that they must be uniformly foreseeable in some way.

Their view is wrong, but there is plenty of evidence to support it. War is so terrible a thing that one can never complete the list of its terrible effects. Any description of the hospitals of the Civil War or the battles in the Pacific theater of World War II can tempt one to endorse almost any expedient short of war, if only out of pity for the hideous things that war can do to human bodies. Any investigation of war’s political entailments can tempt one to vote for the peace candidate, whoever it is.

Yet both the bad and the good effects of war are unfore- seeable.

One of war’s worst characteristics is its association with a large, intrusive, and literally murderous government. The conduct of war ordinarily demands centralized authority, and successful wars appear to vindicate the centralized authorities that managed them, legitimizing their powers and providing reasons for their continued existence. Wars, successful or unsuccessful, also generate debts, necessitate repairs, and solicit all kinds of after-the-fact payments for the people who fought them. In other words, they generate taxation, inflation, pensions, educational supplements, public welfare schemes, and hundreds of other functions of big government. The work of Robert Higgs, the great analyst of this cycle of war and waste, shows how it all happens. It’s predictable.

But predictions. of this kind are not infallible. During the 18th century, the British colonies in North America assisted the empire in winning a series of wars on their soil and near it, but no appreciable increase of either the military or the civilian establishment resulted. The colonies’ refusal to support a serious military establishment was a principal reason for Britain’s disgust with them. The War of the Revolution produced many of the worst features of big government: conscription, indebtedness, confiscation, monstrous inflation, and as much centralization of authority as could be achieved under the existing political system; yet the American armed forces melted away immediately after the war, and the bank that was created to manage the war debts was eventually liquidated also. Big government was hardly the obvious winner of the revolution.

Nor was it the winner of America’s next declared war, the War of 1812. During that conflict, the capital of the United States was destroyed and much of its territory occupied by the enemy. One might have predicted that such events would produce demands for a large standing army, to prevent the same thing from. happening again. If such demands were made, they fell on deaf ears. Again the army melted away. While the early republic remained warlike, its habits were much more adventurist than defensive. Its military involvements were many and diverse, but they entailed no large military establishment.

Besides declaring war on Britain in 1812, America fought France in the West Indies (1798-1800), raised an army in North Africa and enforced its will on the small states there (1801-1805), sent armies into parts of west Florida and seized them from Spain (1810, 1813), fought a second war in North Africa (1815), invaded east Florida and rendered Spanish possession of it untenable (1816-1818), and took possession of Oregon (1818). From the 1820s to the 1850s American forces raided or occupied parts of Africa, Cuba, Puerto Rico, the. Aegean, Sumatra, Fiji, Samoa, Nicaragua, Panama, Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, and China, attacking slave traders or protecting American interests in some way. America made such a threatening exhibition of its power against the empire of Japan (1853-1854) that the empire abandoned its policy of isolation and began trading with the rest of the world – an action that military historian Craig L. Symonds appropriately calls “the most successful example of

I live in California; I am one of the victors of the Mexican War.


American expeditionary warfare in the 19th century” (“Milestones Along the Path to World Power,” Naval History [December 2005]. For the full, and very long, list of American engagements in the 19th century, see Ellen C. Collier, “Instances of Use of United States Forces Abroad,” Yet this ample display of interventionism failed to produce any heavier engagement of the military in the counsels of the republic, or any significant expansion of government.

Neither did the Indian wars in which Americans engaged for over 200 years, or the great war with Mexico (1846-1848). Many libertarians would have predicted that the latter conflict, successfully prosecuted on several fronts by a central government that emerged victorious over virtually incredible challenges of distance, supply, and strategy, would produce continual wars of intervention and conquest in Mexico, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and other areas of the world where Americans found desirable territory. It didn’t. When, a few years after the war, Mexico sold southern Arizona and New Mexico to the United States, Congress spurned the offer of yet more land. At the conclusion of the Civil War, serious proposals were made for the United States to tum its massive army toward Mexico. That didn’t happen, either. By 1870, there were only 50,000 men in the armed forces of the United States, one eighth of 1% of the population.

Of course, this identifies only part of the situation. The Civil War may have left the United States with a small army and a relatively small government, but it left it with a government that was potentially much more intrusive, on the home front, than it had been before the war. President Lincoln had authorized conscription on a massive scale, suspended habeas corpus, debased the currency, prevented the sitting of state legislatures, terrorized the Supreme Court, and provided virtually every bad precedent for big government he could come up with. His reason and excuse was war.

But certain kinds of eggs tend to come from certain kinds of chickens. The Republican Party, the biggest political winner in the Civil War, was the big-government party before

the war started, and it naturally continued in that way. Like the Whig Party, its honored ancestor, it was the party of high tariffs and “internal improvements,” especially of railroads subsidized with government money – the foundation of the 19th-century military-industrial complex. This is the kind of party that would willingly accept military “necessity.” It was also the kind of party that would try mightily to continue wartime controls by creating dictatorial regimes in the post-war South. Plainly, what we see is a continuum from the pre-war to the postwar period – a continuum of assumptions about the powers that government needs in order to get things done, either in war or in peace.

Unfortunately, these assumptions about government were not confined to the Republicans. While some important political figures still believed that federally financed internal improvements were unconstitutional, the battle for that position had been lost before the Civil War. Even Jefferson Davis, a proponent of states’ rights if ever there was one, had urged federal construction of a railroad to the west coast when he served as secretary of war in 1855. Throughout the Western world, governments were awaking to new powers, either to manage industry or to dominate foreign states. It would have taken a miracle to keep statist assumptions from realizing themselves in American life. Eventually, and very naturally, such assumptions led the Republican Party into war with Spain. Eventually the consciousness of American power and the “moral responsibilities” attaching thereto led even the Democratic Party, once generally antiwar and anti-imperialist, into a second great national crusade, World War I.

Perhaps we should consider the possibility that it isn’t war that produces permanent increases in the size and power of government; it’s attitudes about government that

It isn’t war that produces permanent increases in the size and power of government; it’s attitudes about government that increase its size and power and its tendency to make war.


increase its size and power and its tendency to make war. If big government were the inevitable winner of all wars, American history would be very different.

Consider what happened in America when the hideous and unnecessary World War I was over. The armed forces shrank dramatically: in 1920 they stood at one-third of 1% of the population, not much of an increase over the remarkable one-sixth of 1% in 1820, and a dramatic contrast to the 1.5% of 1970, when statist assumptions had had another 50 years to mature. (Today’s figure is .5%. To put this in context: employees of state schools are about 3% of today’s population.) Businesses that had been managed by the government returned to private control, despite the federal managers’ grossly inflated reputation for having at last gotten the hang of “running” an economy.

The economic dislocations of the war remained – enormous unpaid foreign debts, suddenly deflated prices of agricultural land and commodities, demands by farmers for protracted government intervention, a perceived necessity for the United States to support various injured European economies. These dislocations helped to produce the Great Depression, and the next world war. Yet there was nothing

An America that had not entered the Great War would probably have suffered the same economic dislocations. Similar assumptions, in similar minds, could easily have produced similar effects.


about America’s involvement in World War I that required the federal government to prop up Germany, “help” the farmers, or manipulate the currency – nothing except the assumption that governments ought to do such things, just as they ought to fight wars for world democracy.

Some of the greatest political winners of the Great War were the men who accepted these assumptions, such men as Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt. But it is very possible that an America that had not entered the Great War would still have suffered virtually the same economic dislocations: the wartime boom and postwar bust in agriculture, the mismanagement of money by the Federal Reserve, and the carnival of European debts and revaluations to which the government of the United States happily bought every ticket being sold. Similar assumptions, in similar minds, could easily have produced similar effects.

By the same token, it is perfectly conceivable that a United States that had emerged victorious from World War II would have declined to make any longterm commitments in Europe, the Mideast, or Asia. It might have continued the policy of disengagement that was begun (against strong

modern-liberal opposition) with the ending of rationing and continued with the (brief) dismantling of the draft. It might have sought disarmament·in the same ways in which the Harding administration sought it after World War I. I’m not saying that this course would have been right or wrong. I’m noticing only that who “wins” a war is not necessarily determined by who wins the military conflict. There is also the question of who “wins the peace” – and that depends on the attitudes and assumptions that in one way or another dominate the political landscape after the war is over.

Who won the military conflict in Vietnam? North Vietnam. Who won the peace thereafter? In America, the revulsion of public opinion against the war meant that the chief beneficiaries of Vietnam were the antiwar movement, the counter-culture, and most other opponents of the current military and political order – including libertarians. No longer were libertarians lonely academics or people uncomfortably affiliated with conservatism. They were members of a popular movement distinct from both the party of Johnson and the party of Nixon, a movement that benefited from the prestige of opposition movements generally. Politically speaking, war was a very good thing for libertarians – one of those weird and ironic exchanges of good and evil that help make war such an inexhaustible object of debate.

But certain conclusions can be drawn. One of them is this: if we confuse practical with moral arguments, or convince ourselves that we know very well what· will happen if war takes place, we are likely to get ourselves into a good deal of trouble, practical as well as intellectual. This is advice that I commend to hawks as well as doves, because I believe that the two types of political fauna are equally likely to confuse causes and effects, principles and practicalities.

How easy it is, if one believes that America has a moral responsibility to bring freedom to the rest·of the globe, to be serenely confident that our interventions will always be met

. with practical success. President Wilson thought that. So, apparently,.does our current president. It’s nota good thing to think.

But mistakes can be made on the other side, too. Very few modern liberal (or libertarian) pundits, opponents of war in general, believed that America could possibly conquer Afghanistan. Many believed that America would incur tens or hundreds of thousands of casualties in the first Gulf War, that America’s invasion of Grenada would be fraught with the direst consequences, and so on. They were wrong; and in being wrong they made future warnings much less likely to be taken seriously.

How much better it would have been for them to have said, “I believe this action is a violation of principle. It may ‘succeed,’ in the practical sense of that word. Nevertheless, I believe it’s wrong. Here’s why.” Instead, they played the role of seer, and seers are very easily discredited by the results of wars.

It’s all so unnecessary. Most people believe that there are certain things that should not be done, no matter how much one may profit from them. You don’t steal an old lady’s pocketbook, even if you’re sure you’ll get away with it. You don’t steal it, even if you’re sure she’s on her way to deliver a substantial donation to the American Nazi Party. You just don’t. In addition, most people believe that you don’t bull- doze the neighborhood and fill the ruins with cops, in order to make sure that old ladies can walk the streets unmo- lested; that’s just not practical. Most people take moral con- siderations seriously, and they know that morality is distinct from practicality, but they realize that the two are not entirely distinct, and that their relationship isn’t always easy to define.

It’s in this spirit that I believe libertarian argument about war should take place, and libertarian agitation against the aggressive power of the state should be carried on. Freely admitting that we don’t know everything, anymore than the government does; that we can’t foresee everything, anymore than the government can; that we haven’t discovered any iron laws of history, anymore than Karl Marx did; and that – we can’t always understand, anymore than Sophocles could, exactly what choices should be made when morality and practicality appear to conflict, we can still offer the best sug- gestions we can, both moral and practical – and be listened to, because we’re not screaming wildly, as everyone else in the debate seems to be. That’s a strategy that might succeed, if only because nobody but us ever tried it.

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