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July 29, 2004

Where have all the libertarian peaceniks gone?

Randy Barnett of the Volokh Conspiracy has kicked off a lively discussion about libertarian justifications for war. John Quiggin of Crooked Timer responds to Barnett's arguments and suggests additional reasons why most kinds of war are difficult to reconcile with libertarian values.

In a parallel discussion, Mark Kleiman points out that orthodox libertarianism is hard pressed to justify war at all, given its hostility to the state itself and involuntary taxation, coupled with its stringent side constraints against violations of individual rights (even those that would advance the rights of the many by unjustly killing or robbing the few). To which Matt Yglesias retorts that only a "hyper-dogmatic" libertarian would see any clear connection between foreign and domestic policy.

Determining the correct libertarian response to war is complicated because we don't have a libertarian minimalist state. Barnett has explicitly sidestepped the question of what libertarians should think about the invasion of Iraq. So, we're arguing about what a hypothetical libertarian should think of a hypothetical war, waged by a hypothetical (presumably non-minimalist) state. It is important to keep two issues separate in our minds: what should a libertarian living in an ordinary state think of war, and, what foreign policies a pure minimal could state pursue. Barnett thinks there's some discrepancy between what a libertarian can support in the real world and what a just (libertarian) state ought to do.

Barnett argues that just because the state is illegitimate doesn't mean that everything it does is also unjust. This is like arguing that it's okay to use a stolen credit card to buy guns to give to your neighbor to shoot her abusive husband. As a consequentialist, I'm not prepared to dismiss that option out of hand, but it's hard to see how libertarians can justify this kind of behavior within their own moral framework. After all, libertarian political philosophy is distinguished by its scrupulous respect for side constraints.

The most serious constraints on libertarian justifications for war are these:

a) Foundational issues (The state, taxation, the military, the mandate, the tyranny of the majority)

I'm going to start from the assumption that libertarians endorse a minimal state. A minimal state is a mutual protection organization which defends its members from each other and from outside enemies. A libertarian state must have an army. The minimal state may even levy modest taxes to pay the army. However, it seems that a true libertarian army must be an all-mercenary force. A traditional volunteer army violates too many side constraints. For example, soldiers in state-sponsored armies give up many basic libertarian rights such the freedom to bargain for higher pay or quite if they don't like their jobs. Libertarians couldn't justify stripping soldiers of such basic rights when they enlist, let alone drafting them. A libertarian state would either have to pay market rates for freelance soldiers, or compromise its ideals in order to raise an army.

A libertarian state would also struggle to establish its mandate to wage war A non-libertarian can argue that a democratically elected state is thereby empowered to war. Inevitably, some citizens will oppose the war, including some people in the military (who may not be excused, despite their opposition). Libertarians take the tyranny of the majority seriously. They ask:what right does the majority have to impose its views on the minority in the case of war?

b) Justification (Defense, preemptive strikes, and "preventative" wars)

The power of a libertarian state to wage war must be sharply limited. I see no reason why a libertarian state couldn't wage a defensive war on home territory. A libertarian state could also justify a truly preemptive strike against an enemy who was poised to attack. A libertarian state could not, however, engage in so-called "preventative" wars which are justified by the expectation that conflict is inevitable and the state would do better to eliminate the opposition before the enemy becomes stronger. "Preventative" war violates libertarian principles because it violates the rights of the innocent people that we will kill in order to advance our strategic position. A libertarian state isn't entitled to destroy the lives and property of innocents because it leaders constitute a possible future threat.

c) Justification ("Humanitarian" wars)

Libertarian states are not entitled to wage "humanitarian" wars. Humanitarian wars are military charity. Most libertarians think that it's wrong to tax Americans to pay for development aid the third world--even if this money is spent reversing rights abuses like the slave trade, child prostitution, or the subjugation of women. A humanitarian war is an even more radical form of redistribution because the war will kill some of our own citizens.

[Lightly copy edited 8/10/4.]


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But what about the problem of jus in bello? Libertarians deny the legitimacy of violating some people's rights to protect the rights of others. But war, except literally defensive war waged on home territory, always violates the rights of innocent others.

It seems to me that the problem discussed here is not with libertarianism, but with deontology. Not only could a consequentialist libertarian easily support a war against a dictator, but ANY deontologist would have to oppose any modern war except to repel invasion. Is there ANY deontological moral code that would authorize the intentional killing of innocent workers at power plants?

Mark, I agree with you. Jus in bello is another serious problem for libertarians. I suspect that a libertarian could come up with some kind of justification for collective self-defense. (I don't know where allegiances and international security falls in the libertarian ethos. Maybe it would be okay to fight a foreign war to protect an ally.)

Of course, libertarians must prohibit total war and/or targeting of non-combatants. They should also support extremely generous reparations packages for all non-combatants (to compensate them for emotional, physical and financial harms of the war).

Decnavda, I would argue that libertarianism is essentially deontological. Some scholars have argued for philosophies they describe as consequentialist libertarianism. But I can't see the libertarianism in those views. The whole point of libertarianism is to take individual rights as seriously as possible.

Libertarians argue that individual rights are an intrinsic good worth defending even at the expense of aggregate well being. I don't see how anyone can be a consequentialist libertarian because that would be tantamount to arguing that rights reifications that we honor for the sake of overall welfare. If a libertarian takes that view, then she has to prove that we'll be better off if we reify absolute property rights as opposed to merely strong property rights. I'm not saying this couldn't be done, but the resulting view looks more like utilitarianism plus supply side economics than it does like libertarianism.


I can't believe I missed this topic when you originally posted it. I only caught it because I noticed its popularity as something people were remarking about.

I'll write up something (hopefully) resembling an intelligible response soon. I'll just say, on the outset, that my own libertarianism is not deonotological - it's more teleological - and that fellow libertarians I know are rarely enamored of deontology. Libertarianism isn't held to be proper because of a transcendent moral imperative, but more out of a recognition of what human beings are, and what conditions are necessary for their survival and flourishing. If human beings were different on some basic level, libertarianism itself wouldn't necessarily be true. For example, if we were more like ants, I'd guess that something akin to Communism would be a more proper political theory.

Anyway - I should write up something later, when I have more time to do so. But for the meantime - great topic. I'm glad you raised it.


I wrote up something resembling a theory to answer many of y'all's questions. I meant to post it on Blogspot, but before I realized it, it was up on LJ. Perhaps I'll double post when I'm less tired. But the good news is, I figured out how to make LJ accept non-LJ comments, so if you'd like to comment there, feel free.

Toward a libertarian theory of war, military, and other good times.

Let me start by saying that I am a US based "L"ibertarian, and entirely at odds with the notion of war.

But more importantly, I'm also at odds with the notion of a "libertarian state." I believe in what really exists: clearly defined separate individuals... and a bunch of memes that appear to be remarkably similar in a number of different people's minds. I see human nature and the fact that similar concepts exist in different minds as a topic of science - a social science. All notions of justice, states, collections, etc, are simply imperfectly but remarkably similar concepts held by large numbers of people... they don't represent anything actual. The shared concept of "water" is entirely different from the shared concept of "The State of California", because water is justifiably reified.

Further, I don't think the distinction between the concept of a "state" and the concept of a "volunteer organization" is a useful one.

I suppose you could call me an anarcho-capitalist, but most of them somehow think that the world is not already anarcho-capitalist. The world always was and always will be anarcho-capitalist. It's an observation, a scientific view of what man is, and not a political aim.

Maybe you'd be more accurate calling me a sovereign individualist? A pragmatic libertarian? Call me what you will.

Anyhow, let me throw in war ethics to make this discussion more political and to the point. The term "war" itself implies many things that libertarians tend to oppose. It implies collectivist action. It implies action of one collection against another collection. I believe the libertarian philosophy provides only for enforcement of justice - the act of the damaged seeking compensation from the parties at cause, and only the parties at cause. The damaged can certainly enlist others on his/her behalf. Any libertarian that believes in a minimalist state will need to struggle with the idea of law enforcement outside of that jurisdiction. A sovereign individualist sees no borders, and will enlist the help of any trustworthy party for defense and compensation.

As far as I understand, an "all mercenary" army fits entirely within libertarianism. Paying a soldier less than the market rate, and not letting him leave would be slavery. Giving him the option to leave would enforce that only those who accepted the rate will stay, and so the "market rate" and "mercenary" concepts would again apply entirely. A mercenary army is very reasonable and practical. Consider the invasion in Iraq today, and the hunt for Osama - both of these forces were primarily mercenaries. I wouldn't work as a soldier, risking my life, unless I was paid a hell of a lot. And if I needed my life protected, I would be willing to pay a hell of a lot.

A side point about collectivism: Unity is a win-lose situation. Independence is a win-win situation. In independence, both sides can have their way. It is true that one side is no longer able to rape the other side, and as such doesn't get "their way," but such action is fundamentally unjust... for those that are fine with injustice, my argument doesn't hold water. Oh well.

Only when collective action is clearly more effective will individuals organize, and willingly suffer the deleterious effects of unity and compromise. If and when the deleterious effects of compromise are overly onerous, individuals will pull out of the collective, of which they are voluntary members (consider expatriotism).

I think that the most healthy stance for an individual to take is to always act in one's own best interest. That includes many things including subordination and meekness in some cases (to a judge), righteous anger (to a guilt-ridden person), generally being annoyingly in other people's faces (for advertising), and turning and running away (in threats of violence). To best serve one's self, one must be very dynamic.

Oftentimes, but not always, libertarianism is the stance that serves my interest best. If I treat other people with justice, few can harbor anger against me for trespassing against them, and few can get away with trespassing against me. If I voluntarily remain within a collective state which trespasses against me, and where I have not the strength to defend myself, the consequence for my action is entirely my own. I own my life and the consequences of my decisions. I can certainly point a finger at the IRS and say that they are to blame, and I will certainly be justified. But it still takes two to tango.

I believe the libertarian stance can be mathematically shown to be the stance that maximizes everyone's well being, but ONLY IF the majority of persons were to adopt it. And I would love to live in such a world. But I don't waste time with impractical things. The science of people should clearly demonstrate that such a state of affairs is unlikely. I believe it is deeply ingrained in human nature to dominate and to be dominated. Th e difficulty of distinguishing between personal desires to dominate and/or to be dominated, and the logic of equal justice on a country-wide level, is also deeply human. Furthermore, everyone in public office has a conflict of interest: either help yourself, or "do the right thing". Ideologues are rare, because they are self-destructive by denying themselves what is best. Natural selection limits the number of such people. Thus, it is entirely improbable that a republic would become libertarian, through peaceful elections. The reason the US was once libertarian is because that stance was a natural result of independence and bloodshed. And only ideologues would do such a stupid thing. Violent revolution causes everyone except the ideologues to run away. Few people are willing to sacrifice their lives for idealisms. Violent revolution, therefore, uses the principles of natural (unnatural?) selection to concentrate ideologues. That is why the US was idealistic and libertarian in it's infancy.

Getting back to war... the strict libertarian "justice" stance doesn't always serve one's best self-interest. If one recognizes that another is about to kill them, or even might kill them, and one kills the other first, was it just? Maybe not. Probably not. Was it in the person's best interest. Probably. My answer to this is --- as long as I am happy with the consequences, as long as I can own the consequences, I don't care about the idealisms.

Because for me, the libertarian stance is not an end itself, but a means to an end, MY end, my life and my happiness. If the means breaks down at the edges, and I act wrongly, and I'm willing to pay the consequences, then dammit, I will. As a strong example of this willingness to be seen as guilty by ideologues: I am still a US citizen, and I am still funding the US state.

Soliders aren't stripped of their rights - they sign them away. That's an important distinction.

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