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IPFS News Link • WAR: About that War

Libertarians and War: A Bibliographical Essay

• https://www.libertarianinstitute.org

[Editor's note: this article was originally published at the Libertarian Standard and is reprinted with permission from the author. However, please note that the essay was published on March 20, 2013, therefore, to cover the intervening four years of war from libertarian perspectives will require further updates to this piece, which remains a remarkably comprehensive essay. -Jared Labell]

The relationship between war and libertarianism has interested me since 9/11. In the aftermath of those terrorist attacks, I witnessed in grim fascination many libertarians make excuses for government in the realm of national security. The proper libertarian position on war has become a matter of controversy, although I believe it shouldn't be. "War is the health of the state," as Randolph Bourne said, as well as being "mass murder," in the words of Murray Rothbard.

The following essay presents some of the most relevant materials and readings on this controversy. It is unapologetically tilted toward the antiwar position, although it includes some references to pro-interventionist writings. It is idiosyncratic and not comprehensive, and its omissions are not always deliberate. I am always interested in reading suggestions. As for the citations, I include publishing information for books but generally leave it out for articles written for or available on the web, so as to avoid extraneous clutter. Please follow the links to learn more.

Among the founders of modern libertarianism, Rothbard most consistently urged an antiwar position. In "War, Peace and the State," he identified opposition to all state wars as well as to nuclear weapons as the libertarian's core commitments. For more on Rothbard's views on these questions, I recommend "Murray N. Rothbard: Against War and the State" by Stephen W. Carson and "Murray N. Rothbard on States, War and Peace, Part I" and "Part II" by Joseph Stromberg.

In terms of comprehensiveness and clarity, the best modern treatment is "Why Libertarians Oppose War," chapter nine in Jacob Huebert's fantastic Libertarianism Today (Praeger: 2010), which is probably my favorite introduction to libertarianism. Huebert covers all the bases, touching on the relevant economics, U.S. history, and moral principles, and delivers radical conclusions. The chapter is perfectly balanced in terms of scope and emphasis. In November 2012 he eloquently summed up his thesis at a Students for Liberty conference in a talk titled "Why Libertarians Must Oppose War."

Other decent libertarian introductions feature strong summary discussions of foreign policy. Chapter fourteen, "War and Foreign Policy," in Rothbard's For a New Liberty still stands the test of time, and provides a nice refresher on Cold War revisionism. Harry Browne's two campaign books, Why Government Doesn't Work and The Great Libertarian Offer, both gave the issue serious attention, and he published a moving excerpt from the first book as an article, "What Is War?"  Mary Ruwart's Healing Our World in An Age of Aggression (Sunstar Press: 2003) has a solid discussion of foreign policy, an earlier version of which is available online. Gary Chartier gives the topic due attention in Conscience of an Anarchist: Why It's Time to Say Good-Bye to the State and Build a Free Society (Cobden Press: 2011). On multiple occasions Chartier has spoken on the centrality of peace under the eminently quotable topic title, "There's War, and There's Everything Else."

Marc Guttman's edited compilation Why Peace? is a masterful 636-page collection featuring dozens of authors, mostly libertarians, explaining how they came upon their staunch antiwar and pro-civil liberties convictions. It belongs on the bookshelves of all libertarians who prioritize war and peace issues. One powerful contribution is Bretnige Shaffer's "Mere Anarchy Loosed Upon the World."

In an excellent and succinct discussion of the war controversy, Robert Higgs draws a line in the sand with "Are Questions of War and Peace Merely One Issue among Many for Libertarians?"Higgs's highly regarded scholarly stature and his general ecumenical stance on other issues make this piece very special. "In sum," Higgs concludes, "the issue of war and peace does serve as a litmus test for libertarians. Warmongering libertarians are ipso facto not libertarians."

More than a few have argued not only that libertarians should oppose war, but that they must oppose war to properly be called libertarians.  Walter Block has a couple of pieces on why pro-war libertarianism is a contradiction in terms, "Bloodthirsty 'Libertarians'" and "Libertarian Warmongers."

Homing in on the non-aggression principle, Wendy McElroy explains why virtually every war fails the libertarian test in "Libertarian Just War Theory." Roderick Long's 2006 article "The Justice and Prudence of War: Toward a Libertarian Analysis" presents a strong and somewhat novel argument against strict pacifism while adhering to a very hardcore antiwar position. As for the broader meaning of pacifism as opposition to all wars, Bryan Caplan has written one of the most compelling libertarian arguments for pacifism in a series of blogs, starting with "The Common-Sense Case for Pacifism."

I have personally contributed a number of writings on libertarianism and war, the most extended of which was based on my talk "Warmongering Is the Health of Statism," given at a LewRockwell.com conference in November 2005. For one of my most theoretical pieces that relate, see "Collateral Damage as a Euphemism for Mass Murder." My most recent piece along these lines, "Noninterventionism: Cornerstone of a Free Society," focused on American history. More of my writings are mentioned further down.

Standing Athwart History, Demanding Peace

Political issues come and go but war has always been with us. Those of the classical liberal tradition have tended toward the pro-peace position, although there have always been heretics. The major wars throughout history faced libertarian opposition and today libertarians disparage them retrospectively.

Ralph Raico's 2007 talk "Classical Liberalism on War and Peace" sums up the historical liberal abhorrence of war. In a sense, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations was itself an antiwar tract, as Don Boudreaux notes in "Adam Smith on war." In nineteenth-century Britain, the Manchester School, personified by Richard Cobden and John Bright, was firmly on the side of peace, as Jim Powell explains in "Richard Cobden's Triumphant Crusade for Peace and Free Trade." Herbert Spencer's "Patriotism" from Facts and Comments (1902) remains one of the most radical discussions of moral responsibility falling on the soldier. Stromberg's "John Stuart Mill and Liberal Imperialism" addresses one of the most prominent classical liberal hawks.

Arthur A. Ekirch's book The Civilian and the Military: A History of the American Antimilitarist Tradition (The Independent Institute: 2010) surveys the historical relationship between U.S. liberalism and opposition to war. Stromberg discusses the current of anti-imperialist American liberalism in "Imperialism, Noninterventionism, and Revolution: Opponents of the Modern American Empire."

For a discussion of libertarian attitudes about foreign policy throughout U.S. history, see Christopher Preble's lecture, "Libertarianism and War." Preble himself favors a mostly but not radically non-interventionist foreign policy, and emphasizes his antiwar side here: "libertarians. . . see war as the largest and most far-reaching of all socialist enterprises."

Unsurprisingly, the most celebrated wars in U.S. history have become the most contentious among libertarians. At Bleeding Heart Libertarians, Fernando Teson has etched out his theory of defensible "libertarian wars" and elaborated on it in "More on Libertarians and War." Gary Chartier's "Violence, Wars, and States" at the same forum stakes out the antiwar position.

Even more radically antiwar libertarians like Rothbard have defended the colonists' cause in the American Revolution. But there exist libertarian critiques of even the most seemingly defensible wars. Stephan Kinsella's "Thumbs Down on the Fourth of July" compiles some of the most recent libertarian critiques of the American Revolution, including a contribution by me.

1 Comments in Response to

Comment by JNeilSchulman
Entered on:

The author of this article pigeonholes me among the "pro-war" libertarians. There's no such thing as pro-war libertarianism. Libertarianism is anti-State therefore anti-war. Libertarianism is not a political position but a moral philosophy. In some of my writings I acknowledged the moral libertarian position while while concluding that there were no satisfactory moral options available: any outcome was non-libertarian, unsatisfactory from a libertarian analysis, and my analysis was choosing between greater and lesser evils. I later wrote that some of what I'd previously written was my losing my way due to the trauma of 9/11. But much of what I wrote was still inveighing against using 9/11 as the excuse for a decrease in the people's liberties while pursuing our survival. Read my article at http://jneilschulman.agorist.com/2010/03/j-neil-schulman-on-war/


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