As is well known, the issue of war creates divides that cut across liberal, conservatives, and libertarian ranks.  Here I wish to focus on libertarian attitudes toward war. Most libertarians oppose foreign wars on the ground that the government does not have the right to use taxpayers’ money to fight for the freedoms of others. They therefore accept national defense but oppose all other foreign interventions, even if undertaken for a just cause. This position has nothing to do with respecting the sovereignty of other nations; rather, it rests on the principle of limited government. The government’s job is to defend us. It cannot use its coercive powers to defend or protect others, even if doing so would be otherwise justified.

Is this argument sound? What if defending us requires defending others? What are the limits of the use of military powers under a libertarian view of politics? Is there any room for duties of assistance, i.e. stopping genocide? Isn’t the libertarian objection overcome by the use of a voluntary army? Assuming (as most libertarians do) that conscription is inadmissible, does the social contract contain a clause that a voluntary army can only be used in self-defense? What is the moral difference between using tax dollars to fight a just war (with a voluntary army) and using those same dollars for peaceful foreign-policy purposes, given that the intrusion in the citizens’ liberty (their pockets) is the same?

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  • JH

    I believe that we should also reject the view that even all wars of national self-defense are justified. The problem is that wars are often only tenuously related to principles of personal self-defense. If Canada wanted to annex some sparsely populated part of Alaska and was prepared to fight a war over it, what does that have to do with my own self-defense?

    For a good argument for this view, I would recommend David Rodin’s excellent War and Self-Defense. See also: Bryan Caplan.

  • M

    Most libertarians oppose foreign wars on the ground that the government does not have the right to use taxpayers’ money to fight for the freedoms of others.

    If we can’t rob Peter to pay Paul to protect the property and person of Pablo from Patricia, then libertarians must become anarchists. Which is fine, I suppose, as far as that goes.

    At any level beyond “hmm this is interesting let’s explore the logical implications of this:” if your primary objection to war concerns the rights of those who pay for the bombs rather than the targets of them, I really do think we have incommensurable values. I doubt most libertarians are that far gone, though.

  • benjamin buchthal

    if u have something close to a minarchist state then it should be at least possible to set up a side pot for no-self-defense military engagement (humanitarian causes only) if the budget for it comes from voluntary contributions. this is easy to arrange and doesnt really violate any principles i guess. but its nearly the same as a private mercenary force that is used for humanitarian interventions.

  • David L

    I think all but the most dogmatic of libertarians would agree that the role of government is broader than simply “defend[ing] us,” but rather also includes promoting our interests. I believe there are instances where use of military might or the threat of the use of military might are justified to promote our interests even if it isn’t to repel direct military aggression.

    An example on the “obvious” end of the spectrum would be if Iran’s navy were to close the Straits of Hormuz, through which ~40% of the world’s crude oil passes. The US would undoubtedly intervene with overwhelming military force, because the potential economic impact would be devastating.

    Another relevant question concerns the comparative intrusion into citizens’ liberty of direct military action vs. military support of an ally (e.g., America’s support for England prior to America’s formal entrance into WWII).

  • Miko


    if your primary objection to war concerns the rights of those who pay for the bombs rather than the targets of them, I really do think we have incommensurable values.

    While I agree completely with this statement, it’s worth noting that either objection should be a sufficient reason to be anti-war. A war is a really good way for contractors to make a profit and for favored corporations to be granted mineral rights or patents stolen from the corporations in the conquered nation (N.B.: like all sensible libertarians, I oppose patents; but as long as they exist, I think it’s fair to talk about how they’re distributed). But a war is bad for just about everyone else. Indeed, a war is a crime committed by the government of one country against the people of two (or more) countries.

    This applies to “self-defense” too. When a government says that a war is in self-defense, the self they’re referring to is the government. If the U.S. is conquered by Canada and I have to pay taxes to Ottawa instead of Washington, I can’t say that the change would be significant enough to really rile me up.

  • David L

    M: I would respond that the rights of enemy combatants not to be bombed are abdicated by the aggression of the state they represent, if in fact a war is justifiable. The moral calculus with respect to non-combatants, of course, is a lot more complex. I’m sure there will be another post on that before too long.

    Miko: Are you suggesting that the US govt has neither the right nor the responsibility to repel a foreign invasion? That position, to me, is indistinguishably from anarchism.

  • M

    While I agree completely with this statement, it’s worth noting that either objection should be a sufficient reason to be anti-war.


    M: I would respond that the rights of enemy combatants not to be bombed are abdicated by the aggression of the state they represent, if in fact a war is justifiable. The moral calculus with respect to non-combatants, of course, is a lot more complex. I’m sure there will be another post on that before too long.

    Well, the occupying force may be conscripts, in which case they’re victims too. Occupying volunteers and mercenaries seem less like victims, probably because they aren’t. But in either case I’d say violence against invaders is cet par simultaneously justified and best kept to the minimum necessary amount.

    We’re literally a year short of two centuries since the United States was on the occupied set of that equation. Assuming everyone here is a first worlder and not a Korean, the “what if your country was invaded?” question is as relevant to military policy as those potted consequentialist/deontologist hypos are to whether we should torture.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Roderick Long and I had a quasi-exchange about this in vol. 28 of Reason Papers –

  • Hyena

    The problem is that libertarians don’t have a neutral view of institutions. The government is seen as a special type of institution that lacks the powers granted to other agglomerations of individuals.

  • Well, it didn’t take very long for blood to appear on the hands of one of our Bleeding Heart Libertarians. I can’t say I’m surprised because Professor Teson has written several papers in defense of humanitarian intervention – Kosovo, Iraq, and what’s next – Libya? Of course, everyone’s entitled to his own views, but readers shouldn’t kid themselves that humanitarian intervention can be meaningfully reconciled with libertarianism or even a robust classical liberalism. And why is it “[t]he government’s defend us”? This nationalism is really too much. Let’s have more cosmopolitanism, particularly for posts by self-identified bleeding heart libertarians. If my first comment to this blog seems a trifle harsh, I apologize but I’ve had my fill of humanitarian intervention and all the other excuses for killing and robbery by people who say they are doing it for other people’s good.

  • These discussions easily lapse into rationalism divorced from institutional realism. Let’s remember that actual governments have myriad incentives and ways to make any intervention appear as a humanitarian mission. Vague references to classified material and the appropriate CNN footage are usually enough to do the trick. Who do you think will be making foreign policy if the government has this virtual blank check? Selfless, disinterested saints? I recommend the writings of Randolph Bourne (“war is the health of the state”) on the question.

  • Zack

    Wouldn’t the most relevant question be whether there’s a tenable cosmopolitan libertarianism? That is, if the scope of people deserving libertarian rights is expanded globally, then the assumptions undermining the standard libertarian position about war are radically undermined. The relevant questions would become not “is the government justified in using my tax money to defend others,” but rather “how ought the government to best defend libertarian rights for all the world community?” If that’s the question, then humanitarian intervention is quite plausibly justified on libertarian grounds.

    This position would be strengthened further if we’re talking B-HL style classical liberalism rather than philosophical libertarianism. But most of the global justice literature tends to be written by left/”high” liberals, so I’d be curious to see what the writers here think.

  • Of course, all Professor Teson does above is ask questions. And they are all good questions. But, as Mark Brady notes above, in his own writings, he doesn’t just ask questions: he answers them and argues that the U.S. government should intervene, and should have intervened, in many places. That’s where commenter Sheldon Richman’s first sentence becomes key. I went through (quickly, I admit) two of Professor Teson’s papers last night and they argued pretty much strictly theoretically. Here’s how he argues: Are there bad guys over there doing things? Yes. Does that justify having the U.S. government stop the bad guys? Yes. How has that worked out–were there unintended consequqneces–and how many good guys did the U.S. government kill? Blankout.

  • Aaron

    I don’t know about “most” libertarins, but this libertarian opposes war due to the knowledge problem. Sure, it might be okay to fight a “just” war or to stop genocide (WWII comes to mind here, perhaps), but you have to know before going to war whether or not either of these things are true. This is rarely, if ever, known ahead of time.

    Bryan Caplan is much smarter than I am and can make this arguments much more clearly, so I will direct you to his work on why libertarians should be pacifists rather than isolationists.

  • geoih

    Perhaps a Robinson Crusoe type scenario could help clarify (or confuse) the conclusion(s).

    If I see somebody breaking into my neighbor’s property, do I have an obligation to do anything (e.g., stop them, call the police, call my neighbor, etc.)? If I see my neighbor being assaulted, do I have an obligation to do anything? What if the situation doesn’t involve my neighbor, but somebody from across town, or farther away? If you didn’t answer the same to all of these questions, then why?

    I think one of the major flaws in purely “perfect” libertarian philosophy non-aggression is that it’s based on the unspoken premise that everybody else agrees with it. If a pack of (metaphorical) wolves moves into my neighborhood, do I have to wait for them to attack me directly before I can legitimately do something about it? If the wolves are attacking my neighbor, does that give me legitimacy to attack the wolves? If the wolves are attacking somebody other than my neighbor (e.g., somebody farther away), can I still attack the wolves?

  • David L


    …violence against invaders is cet par simultaneously justified and best kept to the minimum necessary amount.

    You would be hard-pressed to find someone commenting here that advocates more violence than necessary. That said, the definition of “necessary” in this context is inextricably rooted in both morality and strategy… necessary force is its own tome.

  • David L

    Mark Brady:

    …readers shouldn’t kid themselves that humanitarian intervention can be meaningfully reconciled with libertarianism or even a robust classical liberalism.

    To me, this seems to be the kind of absolutist proclamation that I suspect the blog’s creators would like to avoid. I disagree with your point, but I can’t meaningfully respond to it, because you don’t justify it. I would like to hear your rationale for that position.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Libertarianism absolutely does not entail pacifism: otherwise it would be illegitimate to use force even in defense of one’s own life and liberty. That’s incoherent. Opposing war-as-an- activity-of-the-state isn’t the same thing as opposing taking up arms in defense of one’s own life and liberty (or that of a defenseless 3rd party).

  • Anthony Gregory

    All wars are unjust under libertarianism. They all involve the murder of innocents, the taxing or other theft of resources, the aggressive expansion of state power. Aeon is right that defending oneself and innocent third parties is legitimate. Giving to charity is legitimate too. But libertarianism is anti-government welfare. Much more strongly, libertarianism must be anti-government warfare, as it is always at least as aggressive to the taxpayer, and what’s worse, it involves the slaughter of innocents.

  • Let me give you a thought experiment. It has to do with the breakdown of the great westphalian compromise that we so clearly saw on 9/11 and that neither the conventional Democrat or Republican elite have found a sustainable answer to.

    If a US citizen is shocked to the core at the bloody handed behavior of an authoritarian state, should the US government suppress their private initiation of actions to defend people from unjustified aggression by these states?

    I have found most non-interventionist libertarians to shy away from this question, implicitly accepting the westphalian compromise of suppressing our own people in a bloody bargain that keeps outraged people from coming over here and attacking us without state sanction. That’s a stable solution that lasted since about the end of the 30 Years War to the end of the Cold War. It had been breaking down for some time with theories of “humanitarian intervention” and extensions of international law that laid waste to the foundations of the pact but 9/11 really put the icing on the cake so to speak.

    If I wish to raise a company of men to go over and fight for the liberty of Libya, US law stops me. Should it in a libertarian state? If it doesn’t, we end up with the US being just as interventionist as before, perhaps more so. The difference being that our humanitarian interventions would be privately led and funded and our own government would not stand in our way, merely shielding its own citizens inside the territory of the US and stopping only unprovoked aggressive actions unjustified by foreign repression.

    In a contest between our free non-state actors versus their repressed non-state actors, I would bet on ours and I would bet on authoritarianism itself having a distinctly short shelf life on this planet. Repression upsets too many people with disposable income and revolution is not that expensive to fund anymore.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    @Anthony- actually, I think even that overstates the case. I’m thinking of cases where one party to the conflict (A) is scrupulously moral about not wanting to harm innocents, but the other party (B) is aggressive and has no such scruples. A’s refusal to engage in defensive warfare when attacked by B means that many innocents will be slaughtered, as well as the loss of liberty for all of A, and it’s possible that A fighting back will result in the preservation of A’s liberties and fewer innocents killed. I do a better job explaining this in the essay I linked to upthread.

  • David L

    TM Lutas:

    An interesting and difficult question; I’m glad you got me thinking about it. My immediate reaction is to ask: what if I assembled a private militia not for the purpose of fighting on behalf of an oppressed populace, but rather to forcibly exploit a politically vulnerable situation in another country in order to do something horrible–implement my own repressive regime, or plunder a natural resource, say. Should the US govt be able to stop me? I hope so, since I’m certainly violating the harm principle, albeit not necessarily against fellow Americans.

    So then who is the arbiter of what foreign action by a private militia is deemed acceptable? What if the overarching mission justified, not withstanding a My-Lai-type event here and there?

    These theoretical ambiguities are of course amplified by the real-life logistical and diplomatic difficulties in enforcing a US policy against US citizens waging a private war in a foreign country.

  • David L – Without creating a new system, you could go a long way towards the private prosecution of wars of liberation without the bad side effects by having the Congress issue letters of marque and reprisal.

    We actually have the legal foundations to do it. It’s currently an impractical measure because:

    1. People *don’t* consider stopping americans from fighting injustice to be an anti-liberty activity improper for government
    2. The US Government is unwilling to give up its world policeman role and would be aghast at the idea of private prosecution of these conflicts without their involvement. They would also be terrified that the private groups would botch it and buy up politicians and force the government forces to go in and bail them out.

  • Anthony Gregory

    What state is so careful about harming innocents? Certainly not the state we live under. And what warfare state is so careful? Even if a war never killed an innocent person, it would be at least as immoral as any welfare program, since it uses taxes. Libertarianism and war are not compatible. The attempt to reconcile the two is a fool’s errand.

    The state doesn’t protect its subjects. During war, it compels its subjects to protect it — the protect the state. The state is the enemy of liberty, and war is the health of the state.

  • Anthony Gregory

    TM, no state should prohibit its subjects from engaging in humanitarian acts abroad. If in 2002 you wanted to pick up a rifle and go overthrow Saddam Hussein, the US government should have not stopped this. But it would still be immoral for you to engage in revolutionary acts that harm innocent third parties. Bombing Baghdad, whether the bombs were privately funded or not, was an act of mass murder.

  • Aeon J. Skoble

    Anthony- consider an analogy at the micro-level: Bob attacks Tom. Tom fights back. Don’t you agree that it doesn’t make sense to say “this is an unjust fight” or “this is a just fight”? Bob’s aggression is unjust, but Tom’s fighting back is perfectly just. Similarly, if the Germans invade Poland, and the Poles (arguendo) fight back, the correct analysis IMO is that that the German invasion is unjust but the Poles’ fighting back is just. I get the Bourne quote, but if the state I happen to live in is attacked by Nazis, I’d prefer the health of my state to the health of the Nazis.

  • Goals determine what you are going to be.

  • xsvlmt

    Humanitarian intervention. That is used as justification for the initiation of force. But doesn’t that assume consistent — even universal — agreement on values. That is, that we (all humanity) agree on when humanitarian intervention is appropriate and justified?

    If we (Americans) intercede internationally in response to inhumane acts by the government within a sovereign country, have we not created a precedent? That is, that intervention is justified when the values of another sovereign nation are not consistent with our values?

    By setting this precedent then, do we expose ourselves to its effects? Could, for example, the Chinese then be justified in initiating force against the USA for practicing values antithetical to their values (think pornography or free speech)? Or maybe Muslim peoples are justified in intervening in the USA for us failing to practice appropriate moral values?

    The golden rule and the issue of precedent clearly establishes for me that we should honor soveriegnty in others (if we want it ourselves).

    It would be really upsetting if the Chinese did a Noriega on Obama and hauled him before their courts for violating their laws.

    The problem with being the world’s policeman is that you can’t just impose your own moral values, you have to impose universal moral values (whatever those are), otherwise you set the precedent that when you are no longer top dog, the then kings of the hill run the place according to their rules. And since you set the precedent, you just have to take it. You can’t then cry foul.

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