Liberty, Libertarianism

Libertarian Wars

Libertarians are opposed to war.  They see war as a terrifying and self-serving exercise of state power.  As Murray Rothbard put it in 1994: war is “an instrument for the aggrandizement of State power over the health, the lives, and the prosperity, of their subject citizens and social institutions.” Rothbard was not a pacifist, however. He thought that “a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination.” Applying this standard, he concluded that the only just wars fought by the United States were the War of Independence and (ready for this?) the War for Southern Independence! All of the other wars (including World War II) were, for him, unjust wars.

I think that almost any view (pacifism, just war theory) is preferable to Rothbard’s view. This not just because, by reflective equilibrium, any conception of just war under which the South was morally justified in 1861 must fail. It is also because the collectivist ingredient in Rothbard’s definition is inconsistent with sound libertarian principles. To him, a just cause to fight is to end unjust domination of peoples. This violates a central tenet of libertarian thinking: normative individualism. Maybe no war is ever justified, but if anyone is, it has to be a war to defend persons, not peoples (whatever that means.)

So can a libertarian have a theory of just war? Let us assume that for the libertarian the initiation of force is morally wrong. It follows that defensive force may be right, at least sometimes.  One may therefore say that the libertarian may approve of wars in self-defense, where citizens of the state are victims of a foreign attack. We need not assume here that those citizens are defending the state: because the foreign attack is directed at them, they are is defending themselves against an initiation of violence by foreigners.

However, this would be too quick, because in any war innocents die. They did not initiate violence against us, yet in response to the foreign attack we will be bringing about their deaths. Maybe the morally right thing to do is to surrender to the aggressor, if doing so would prevent us from causing the deaths of innocents. The libertarian who thinks that we cannot permissibly fight even defensive wars is a contingent pacifist. To him, if we could repeal the attack avoiding simultaneously the deaths of bystanders, then we could permissibly do it. But because we cannot avoid those deaths, we may not react against the attack: we must wave the white flag. This reasoning applies to the defense of others as well, because that action, too, will bring about the deaths of innocents. On this view, NATO’s intervention in Libya is wrong, not because it protects persons attacked by Khadaffy, but because it impermissibly kills innocents.

One way around this problem is to invoke the doctrine of double effect: sometimes bringing about the incidental deaths of innocents is permissible during a justified use of force against an aggressor. But can a libertarian endorse the doctrine of double effect?  If we say no, we have to be prepared for the consequences: no war or revolution is ever justified. The Allies’ fight in World War II was unjustified, the uprising of the Libyans against Khadaffy is unjustified, and so was the American War of Independence. In World War II, I don’t mean only the entry of the United States in the war: fighting was impermissible also for the Poles, the French, the British, etc. For myself, I can’t stomach this. Perhaps a libertarian can say this: war is never justified except as defense of persons, and even then, considerations of proportionality (the death and destruction that wars, even initially justified ones, cause) turn war impermissible in most cases (certainly in more cases than, say, the various U.S. administrations thought.)

Libertarians, then, have a dilemma. If the libertarian is committed to this contingent form of pacifism (war, even defensive war, is always wrong because it brings about the deaths of innocents), then no war or revolution can ever be permissibly fought. If, on the other hand, the libertarian concedes that war is sometimes justified (when it is defensive) and accepts (some version of) the doctrine of double effect, then Rothbard’s warnings apply: we know from experience that the government will abuse this permission for all kinds of self-serving reasons.

  • Fernando, have you looked at Bryan Caplan’s series of posts defending pacifism?  See here:

    • Hyena

      He doesn’t defend pacifism, he redefines it to mean skepticism about justification in war within an overall utilitarian context. Muddled thinking.

    • Fernando Teson

      No, I haven’t, I’ll check them out, thanks

  • Aeon Skoble

    I have a slightly different view.  If pacifism is correct, then there’s no meaningful right of self-defense, and I mean that as a reductio ad absurdum.  Being committed to libertarian principles cannot mean that people not so committed get to determine the level of killing and so on.  Longer version here:

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for the link Aeon. I just took a look and see that you do address some of the thought I had.

      • Aeon Skoble

        Yes, I agree entirely. 

  • Perhaps this is one of those times where the obvious answer is the wrong one, but wouldn’t a Libertarian conception of a “just war” include, at least on some level, a conflict entered into to protect an otherwise legitimate interest wherein no-one is coerced into fighting?

    And I have a question about the proportionality principle as expressed here. It seems to me that a strict interpretation of it invites abuse by non-libertarian aggressors. If I can forestall you defending yourself by placing innocents at risk who would not otherwise have been so (human shields/hostage taking, effectively), why shouldn’t I? My wars now become much easier to win. Too great an emphasis on protecting innocent lives seems to become caught up in mistaking responsibility for culpability.

    • Fernando Teson

      Hi Aaron
      I don’t think a libertarian can endorse killing others for a legitimate interest, whatever that may be, even if they are not coerced into fighting by the state. I would think that for a libertarian the only permissible war is to respond to unjust force. If one can solve the problem of collateral deaths, the only justified wars would be self-defense and humanitarian intervention as defense of others.

  • Aeon Skoble

    And yes, libertarians aren’t per se forbidden to endorse the doctrine of double effect.  Just as libertarians distinguish between intiating force and defensive uses of force, we can also distinguish the bearer of moral blame for bad things that happen.  Say a handful of gunmen have taken hostages, and will kill them unless their demands are unmet.  So the police (or private security forces emplyed by the hostages, that doesn’t matter for the example)  attempt to rescue the hostages, and in the ensuing skirmish, a bullet ricochets and kills one of the hostages.  The moral repsonsility for this death falls on the criminals, not the police/PDA, regardless of whose bullet it was.

    • Aeon, I admit to not having read the issue of Reason Papers to which you refer.  Perhaps you address this issue there.  But I don’t see how the claim of moral responsibility you’ve made here will work.  It seems to assume an implausibly zero-sum view of moral responsibility.  Of course the criminals bear some, probably primary, moral responsibility for the death.  But that doesn’t mean that the police bear none.  Surely, it matters whether they acted with due care or recklessness, no?

      • Aeon Skoble

        Sure, I agree with that qualification.  Be interested in your response to my piece.  I’ve also posted many a comment on Bryan Caplan’s posts.

        • So then the key question seems to be: what constraints does the likelihood of innocent deaths place on the reasonableness of would-be-interveners conduct?  If I can only rescue B from A’s tyranny by performing actions that will likely kill innocent C, who otherwise would have been safe, is this permissible on libertarian grounds?  I find it hard to see how it could be (at least according to the kind of libertarianism I think you endorse).  But if it’s not permissible, then I find it hard to see how any war could be justifiable, given that they will almost all involve numerous cases of this sort.

          • Aeon Skoble

            You and I have both spent enough time with economists to think in terms of how people respond to incentives.  If we draw the implication you suggest, no enemy of a free society can ever be disincentivized, since we’re “not allowed” to retaliate.  So that can’t be right.  Another response is that while classical just-war theory holds that all noncombatants are equal (and equally immune to harm), perhaps that’s not correct.  JWT’s medieval origins make it easy to insist on absolute purity in this distinction, but I wonder.  I’m not committed to this, just thinking out loud, but a lot of guerilla tactics presuppose a support infrastructure among the nonc0mbatant population.  So one might argue that if responding to agression from such quarters entails the likelihood of some noncombatant deaths, that’s regrettable in a necessary-evil sense, and the ultimate culpability for those deaths, as I noted somewhere else in this thread, is on the agressors.

          • Wait a minute.  I claimed that respect for the rights of innocents seems, on libertarian grounds, to render most military actions impermissible.  You argued that if this were true, this would provide bad guys with an incentive to attack free societies.  

            To me, that sounds like you’re saying that we can’t respect the rights of innocents if doing so gives bad guys the incentives to do bad things.  But that can’t be what you’re saying, right?

          • Aeon Skoble

            Right, that’s not what I’m saying.  What I’m saying is that I approve of the DDE, and that war, like the state generally, can force us into moral compromise.  I think there’s a right of self-defense, without which no other rights-claim actually has any teeth.  As I said in my article and in response to Bryan, it doesn’t matter if _we_ are committed to liberal individualism if we’re attacked by collectivists.  We may not think of ourselves as “us” being attacked by “them,” but they do, and so we are.  Under those circumstances, “we” have a collective right to self-defense.  So if, e.g., the Argentinian army attacks the US, the US has the right to retaliate.  It should be bound by some proportionality rule, and exercise due care not to target noncombatant areas, but it cannot, and IMO need not guarantee that there will be zero noncombatant deaths, because to be held to that standard would mean (a) we really _don’t_ have a right to self-defense and (b) that it makes no difference that they are the aggressor and we are the defender.

          • OK.  Fair enough.  I find DDE implausible, but this probably isn’t the place for that argument.  What I wonder about here is how much of an independent role the collectivism stuff is playing in your argument.  So, bad guys in charge of country X attack us, and those bad guys regard the entire country as a unified collective.  Probably this view is shared by some of their citizens, but not by all.  Does the fact that the rulers of this country regard their attack as the action of the whole country have any bearing on how we should regard it?  Does that lend any moral support to our killing civilians who do not regard the actions of their government in that way?  Or is the whole of that support, in your view, derived from DDE?

          • Aeon Skoble

            “lend moral support to our killing civilians” – I’ve already said that a defending army needs to take care not to target civilians.  But it can’t guarantee they won’t be killed.  So nothing I’m defending lends support to “killing civilians” in the sense of deliberate killing.  But they may in fact get killed.  Whose fault is that?  The attacker, not the defender.  But as to your other concern, that I think there’s something relevant about the fact that the aggressors are collectivist, I don’t know if that’s all there is to it, but it’s part of it.  I’m thinking of, say, VC guerillas, or Hamas.  You hang out in a civilian apartment building, and fire RPGs at some soldiers.  The soldiers return fire, and in addition to killing the RPG guy, also kill the folks next door.  That’s a shame, although DDE-compliant, but I also think it matters if the folks next door were Hamas supporters, knowingly allowing the RPG guy to use it as a base etc.  This is one of the problems with the “rules of war” – if one side violates them, it can incentivize the other side to violate them.   Recall the scene in Apocalypse Now where they’re evacuating some wounded guys into a chopper, and a woman in civilian clothes comes up – they take no action, but she tosses a grenade in, killing the wounded guys as well as the medics and everyone else.  When you’ve seen that happen a dozen times, you’ll start shooting civilians.  That’s terrible, but not at all  incomprehensible.  And who’s to blame? The side that starts disregarding the rules.

          • OK, but now you seem to be back to what (I thought) you had earlier rejected – an implausibly zero-sum view of moral responsibility.  You write that defending armies need to “take care” not to kill innocent civilians, and that if innocent civilians are in fact killed, it’s the attacker’s fault, not the defender’s.  But doesn’t this depend on how much care the defenders take?  How much care is enough?  Obviously, the most care one could take would be to avoid doing anything that might possibly lead to the death of innocent civilians.  But that’s not what you advocate.  Here’s another standard: you “try” not to kill civilians.  Is that taking enough care?  If a gunman is holding a hostage in front of them and I “try” to shoot over the hostage’s shoulder to hit the gunman’s head, have I taken sufficient care?  Have I showed sufficient respect for the innocent?

            I don’t really expect a definitive answer from you regarding what constitutes sufficient care.  I couldn’t provide such an answer myself.  My point, rather, is that libertarians seem committed to taking the non-violation of innocent rights very, very seriously.  And so they seem, to me, committed to setting the bar for what constitutes taking sufficient care fairly high.  And the higher you set it, the more you’re pushed in the direction of the pacifist position.

            [I agree, FWIW, with your comments about the need to draw distinctions between various kinds of citizens and the various levels of culpability they bear.]

          • Aeon Skoble

            It doesn’t get you to pacifism, because of the right to self-defense.  You take care not to cause harm to enemy non-combatants, but you are not obliged to ensure that no harm comes to them in the context of defending yourself.  If the other country doesn’t like that, that’s their incentive not to attack in the first place.   Have you read Goldhagen’s book on German support for Naziism?  Makes you rethink the concept of “innocent civilians” in traditional JWT.

          • I know the book, but the fact that there are some non-innocent civilians doesn’t diminish the problem that genuinely innocent civilians pose. And saying to genuinely innocent civilians “If you don’t like being killed, then your country shouldn’t have attacked” seems to miss the force of that problem.
            The problem I’m trying to press you on is this: there is a whole spectrum of “care” that one could take not to kill innocent civilians. How much care is enough? If you put a high enough weight on the constraint against taking innocent life, then you will be accordingly risk-averse in the things you do that might lead to that. And that pushes you in the *direction* of pacifism. I’m trying to see how far in that direction you’re pushed, but it’s hard to do that unless you say something more definitive about what “taking care” means.

          • Aeon Skoble

            Well, for example, traditional JWT requires that you not target non-military things such as hospitals, schools, residential neighborhoods, museums.  The problem is, what if your adversary says “hmm, I have a good idea- I’ll use this residential neighborhood as a staging area for my tanks, and I’ll put my communications center in the muesum, and I’ll use the hospital as my command base.  Now they can’t attack me at all! ”  If the enemy repurposes a non-military facility as a military one, then it becmes a legitimate target and can be attacked.  That civilians may be killed in such a strike is (a) justified by DDE (although I’m getting the impression you don’t like DDE), (b) not a trump over my right of self-defense, and (c) their responsibility not mine.  I cannot take care not to harm innocents if _they_ blur the line  between innocent and fighter.

          • You’re right that I don’t endorse the DDE, but even those who do still have to grapple with difficult questions about what constitutes taking sufficient care. Simply not deliberately targeting civilians is not enough, as I understand it. The targeting must also be necessary, and, more significantly, the good achieved must be proportional in some way to the evil done. But determining proportionality would seem to require engaging with and measuring the evil that the taking of innocent life constitutes, in order to assess whether the good one is trying to achieve can justify such evil.
            And I worry when you say things like “I cannot take care not to harm innocents if _they_ blur the line between innocent and fighter,” because the pronouns obscure a lot. What you are saying is that you cannot take care not to harm innocents if other, non-innocent people blur the line between innocent and fighter. Assuming the innocent people are genuinely innocent, this seems to me a false and dangerous claim.

          • Aeon Skoble

            They may not be entirely innocent, as I’ve speculated.  But in any case, yes, of course the attack has to be justified on other grounds.  Can you even read this?  This is pretty narrow typing space!

          • I read it on, where it’s much easier. But yes, perhaps the narrowness of the screen is an indication that it’s time for us to put this conversation aside for now. 🙂

          • Anonymous

            I discuss this issue briefly in my book, and so claim standing to intervene in this discussion. In an endnote I respond to one of Rothbard’s arguments against conventional just war theory (made in “The Ethics of Liberty,” pp.190-94), i.e. the claim that regardless of one state’s clear-cut aggression against another, the victim state is only entitled to retaliate against “the individual criminals themselves,” and, due to the constraint against innocent casualties, not against the attacking state. So, presumably, after Pearl Harbor we could only send the police out to arrest the pilots who carried out the attack (and their enablers). 

            Accordingly, he continues, regardless of the cause of a war “the libertarian objective…should [be to]…pressure them [the involved states] to sue for peace and negotiate a cease-fire and a peace treaty as quickly as physically possible.” I called this “a formula for the triumph of evil in this world because lawless states would have everything to gain and nothing to lose by aggressing against peaceful ones.” I did not bother to explain there why I thought that any moral stance that would have this implication should be rejected. Now, one can of course quibble with the truth of my factual premise, but this I believe this is a separate point from the objection you are raising. If the premise, or something close to it is correct, I belive the conclusion is inescapable on an intuitive level.

            Suppose I came to you with what I claim is a new, perfect normative theory. It starts with intuitively attractive first principles, reaches clear-cut conclusions regarding our conduct, and otherwise fully satisfies whatever you regard as the relevant criteria for a compelling moral theory. There is only one putative flaw, which is that if people actually tried to live by the precepts of this theory there would be universal misery.

            Whatever its other great virtues we must reject this theory, right? Perhaps because at the margin horrible consequences count against any normative theory; perhaps because there must be some link between an acceptable normative theory and human flourishing, I don’t know. But it seems clear to me that if Rothbard’s theory of just war has the consequences I claim for it, it is obviously wrong, regardless of its other virtues.


          • Sure, I agree that consequences matter, and that they ought to be taken seriously in the evaluation of a proposed system of rights.  I just think if you take that point seriously, as you ought, then it undermines the kind of strong libertarian position you’re trying to defend.  But, you already knew that. 🙂

          • Anonymous

            If I may kibitz here a little, I’m wondering why (as Aeon noted above)the DDE doesn’t apply. My goal and purpose is to rescue B (laudable, I think), which has the sad but unavoidable side effect of innocent causualties. On deontological principles, the verdict on my action should depend on the reasons behind it, which are morally defensible, no?

          • Sure, if you buy the DDE, that’s a route out.  Of course, one man’s modus ponens is another’s modus tollens…

          • Anonymous

            I love it when you talk dirty to me…or…was…that…latin?

  • Hyena

    I see two basic problems: “how do we aggregate people” and “how do we deal with error”. Given that there is no libertarian rule for either aggregation* or error handling, there is also no possibility that libertarianism can resolve the war question (or even mano-a-mano self-defense). Its rule set is insufficient to construct an answer and it’s not clear that you can enlarge the rule set without making an ad hoc change.

    *You could argue that people can contract to create an aggregate, but this has the effect of replacing libertarianism with relativism. Libertarianism amongst nations, tyranny amongst men.

  • Anonymous

    “By reflective equilibrium, any conception of just war under which the South was morally justified in 1861 must fail.”

    Why is it so difficult for people, even philosophers, to grasp that the South had more than one reason for the civil war? And that where more than one reason exists, each reason might have a different moral status? The South can be wholly wrong about slavery, yet be wholly right about self-government and the right to secede.

    Nor is it necessary that libertarians be defending themselves in order to justify violence. They can be defending anyone. In fact, given that the individuals in the South had the same right to be left alone by the North that libertarians suggest we all have, the only way that the North’s actions could have been justified is by a principle that allows libertarians to defend others from unprovoked aggression from any source. I oppose the US toppling dictators, for example, not because there is no moral justification for that activity. Quite the opposite: I believe anyone would be morally justified toppling dictators. I oppose the US doing so because our government was not instituted for that purpose, and because I do not believe it is in our own best interest. Also because these activities do not seem to lead to stable and just self-government in those nations.

    Innocents dying in war must be broken down into several categories before it can be morally judged. Confronting hostage-taking is not the same as knowing a few bombs will go astray, which itself is not the same as destroying local crops you don’t own (creating a famine among civilians) just so the opposing army will have nothing to eat. Specifically, acts and act-types must be carefully separated in this discussion. Putting innocents at increased risk when I am fighting an otherwise-justifiable war is not, in and of itself, obviously problematic. We would make similar moral judgments in other life-threatening situations. If my brakes give out on a usually-deserted mountain road, do I have to immediately and intentionally fling my car over the edge to avoid any chance of imparting increased risk to the other drivers I can’t be certain aren’t climbing towards me? Of course not. And if purely natural occurrences can justify increasing risks to others, then so can occurrences caused by other moral agents. It is the amount of risk and the level of care taken to avoid it that will produce a defensible moral judgment.

    • Fernando Teson

      Hi Furball
      Why wasn’t the war by the North a defense of others, namely slaves?
      I agree with what you say about dictators: anyone can topple them, and whatever reasons we may have to oppose a particular intervention are of the kind you mention.
      Double effect is one of the most complex topics in moral philosophy, and I agree that the category of “people who die in war” (not just innocents) has to be broken down.

      • Anonymous

        Why wasn’t the war by the North a defense of others, namely slaves?

        That’s what I was trying to say when I wrote: “the only way the North’s actions could have been justified is by a principle that allows libertarians to defend others from unprovoked aggression from any source.”

        I didn’t know whether you were suggesting that libertarians could only defend themselves or were also able to defend others, but I felt that if you wanted to justify the North’s actions you would be compelled to do it by accepting the latter proposition.

        I agree that this could justify the North, but it is still only a hypothetical justification. The South’s slaves were clearly victims of unprovoked aggression, but that does not automatically justify the North’s action. What was the North’s act type? Were they liberating the slaves or were they simply subjugating an adjacent territory with every right to secession and self-government? While I know that some individuals in the North cared about the first reason, it seems difficult to characterize the North’s action, qua state, as much beyond the second.

        Some other actors can claim that defense far more easily than the North in its war: John Brown, for example, in his personal attempt at sparking a slave rebellion. He claims it in his own words:

        “I think, my friends, you are guilty of a great wrong against God and humanity, and it would be perfectly right for any one to interfere with you, so far as to free those you wilfully and wickedly hold in bondage.”

        John Brown had greater moral character, clarity, and even sophistication in his little finger than most nations can ever hope to have in their entire body of elected representatives.

        A morally justified civil war, in my opinion, would have been one where Lincoln told the South they were welcome to leave the Union but that they could not keep their slaves under any circumstances – neither as part of the Union, nor apart from it. This is essentially the opposite of what the North actually told the South at the outset of the war, which was that slavery was neither here nor there but under no circumstances would they be allowed to leave the Union.

      • Anonymous

        Because we have historical statements saying it was not.

        Let’s not get into historical revisionism to paint Lincoln and the North as some defenders of freedom. They largely smashed our Constitutional structure and established the Federal government as the government governing the people rather than a structure of governance for the States and created a much more concentrated seat of political power in the Federal government and it’s representatives.

        It is true that about the only good thing that came from the Civil War was the destruction of legal slavery. That, however, did little to improve the conditions of the blacks in the USA — the North was and is as racist as the South; Lincoln would have had the blacks all leave the country.

        • That, however, did little to improve the conditions of the blacks in the USA — the North was and is as racist as the South; Lincoln would have had the blacks all leave the country.

          I beg to differ. I suspect that I am much better off now, than I would be were it still legal to own slaves, especially if being African-American still carried with it the assumption of enslavement. As for the immediate conditions of the newly emancipated, were it not for the fact that there was a war going on – which carried a pretty significant risk of being killed – the Civil War did about as much for them as the signing of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. (Otherwise known as jack squat.)

          Concerning whether or not Northern Whites are just as racist as Southern Whites, you all can go have that cage match yourselves. I might check it out on pay-per-view, but other than that, it’s a non-issue. Haters are a penny for a hundred. The exact reasons for their hate are trivialities.

          As for Lincoln, who cares? If a man gives me a dollar, that money is still green even if the giver openly hates me and wishes I would die. Once upon a time, I wanted anyone I would admire for anything to be pure in all things. Then I turned 10. Was Lincoln this shining example of a man that everyone should aspire to be? No more than anyone else you can name. But, as far as I’m concerned, he did me a favor, and like most Americans, perhaps that makes me too willing to paper over the suffering that he visited upon other people because of it. (Of course, if I really wanted to be sanctimoniously cynical about it, I could say that if they’d done the right thing from the outset, they wouldn’t have had to suffer. Bad people come to bad ends, and all that. But instead, I realize that life isn’t “fair,” or this would never have come up in the first place.)

          Lincoln, like any number of other people, did what he thought was right. And a lot of people died for it. We can disagree now, about a century and a half later, whether or not it was the right thing, or whether or not it was worth the price. But the counterfactuals, like they are in pretty much every other case, are conjectures, and those conjectures are commonly more self-serving than realistic.

          • Anonymous

            Arron, I’m not suggesting that the lives black people live today is not better. But take a look at their lives after the war for about 100 years? How much better was it then?

            Again. you’re making the mistake in assuming that the Civil War would not have occurred if the Southerns had turn their back on slavery after the Revolutionary War as those in the North did. As I point out to Mark, the Civil War was a conflict between two economic systems and an imbalance of political power at the federal level. That and the North exploiting that differential in political power with the South footing the bill. Without slavery the South still wants out of the Union.

          • You’re right. The Civil War did little to immediately improve the lot of slaves, other than end their involuntary servitude. This had some immediate benefits (like allowing them to form families without the risk of members being sold elsewhere), but little in the way of material betterment. Like I said, the same could be said of the Constitution.

            And I didn’t assume that had there been no slavery, there would have been no Civil War. Note the placement of “if,” “could” and “instead” in my statement.

            Of course, if I really wanted to be sanctimoniously cynical about it, I could say that if they’d done the right thing from the outset, they wouldn’t have had to suffer. Bad people come to bad ends, and all that. But instead, I realize that life isn’t “fair,” or this would never have come up in the first place.

            I also don’t assume that one needed the Civil War to put an end to slavery, since the European nations that abolished slavery didn’t have to shoot at each other over it. But I also don’t assume that all of the events that came after the civil war that lead to better conditions for African-Americans would have happen at the same time, if the institution of slavery had persisted longer than it did. If it had gone on for fifty more years, the Civil Rights movement may have been set back 50 years, or it may have happened right when it did. On the other hand it could have been set back 100 years or even moved forward by 25. I don’t know. But my general assumption is that had the end of slavery come later, then the things that followed from that would also have come later. Therefore, I don’t expect that my life would be the same if things hadn’t happened when they did. But, like I said, all of the counterfactuals are pure conjecture, so you can never really know.

          • Anonymous

            Fair enough Arron, sorry for making your position too one-sided. I actually laughed at, and generally agree with the sentiment, the “sanctimony clause” — I actually have mixed feelings at best about the suffering of the south given their willingness to allow slavery, at least on a sentimental level.

            My view is that slavery was on it’s way out anyhow. It was no longer, or very quickly becoming so, a viable economic institution. Large scale slave ownership was going away. The costs of enforcing legal slavery would loss political support and then slavery in the south dies. I won’t try to say that waiting would have been better than slavery ending with the war — for me that’s like the claim it’s better to kill one than 20.

            It is an interesting question if slavery had ended later but without a civil war if everything else would have been just shifted back the same amount. I don’t really have any intuition about that at all.

          • Damien S.

            Uh, of those two economic systems, one of them was *based on slavery*.  And despite your claims of its being on the way out, it was increasingly so.  Around the Revolution it was common to see slavery as a lingering evil; by the time of the Civil War it was embraced as the bedrock of civilization and the cause of secession, with Jefferson’s qualms seen as his moral failings.  As for political imbalance… yes, there was one, *favoring the South*.  3/5 rule, remember?  The South got representation inflated by its slave population.  New states were allowed in so as to preserve the South’s equal power in the Senate.

            As for blacks, they weren’t being whipped any more, nor their families split up and sold down the river, they weren’t getting raped by their masters, and they could move around.  Big improvements, and it seems odd for a libertarian to minimize thee evils of slavery.  It’s true that much more could have been done for them — of course, that would be a highly unlibertarian ‘more’: “40 acres and a mule”, breaking up Southern plantations (built and bought with slave labor) and redistributing to the poor (black and white.) The premature end of Reconstruction ended that, and the South was allowed to drive out black voting and legislators (for a brief while, there were many), ironically increasing the political imbalance in favor off the South even more: now hey got representation for 100% of their blacks, not 3/5 of them, while still not letting them vote.

            It’s pretty ludicrous to see the white South as the victims in any significant way here.

        • Anonymous

          Sorry, but I just can’t let this go unchallenged. You and Furball4 fail to distinguish, as you should, between the immediate or precipitating cause of a war and its underlying reasons. The precipitating cause of WWII for the U.S. was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But this was clearly not the underlying reason for war between the two nations. We strongly objected to what Japan was doing in East Asia (imperial conquest + genocide), and put Japan’s leaders to a choice, i.e. stop or face an embargo of all strategic material from the U.S. and the U.K. I don’t think any reputable historian will disagree with this analysis.

          Slavery was not the immediate or overt cause of the outbreak of the Civil War, but was clearly its root cause. Are you familiar with the Missouri Compromise? If not, I suggest some research. How about the Dred Scott decision, the abolitionist movement, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” the underground railroad, etc? Does this ring a bell? 

          Lincoln was a single man, and a political figure not a king. You can’t determine the cause of a war by statements or motives of one person or group–you must look at the big picture, i.e. popular opinion, economics, culture, politics. As a fundamental fact, the union could not continue half free and half slave, and since there was no peaceful solution acceptable to both sides, war was inevitable.

          • Anonymous

            The historical facts you state are all true, but I place great significance on the final triggers of war. Some wars that are spoiling for decades never happen, because of how individuals chose to respond to all of the potential trigger events.

            I feel like this branch of the discussion is now crashing into the fact that, as a moral question, the justification of war can never be anything but a fact about an individual. We ask whether a war is just like one might ask whether a corporation is ethical: we feel there is a shorthand answer, but is there really? Does the fact that we like to treat the actors as a monolithic entity make them one?

            Perhaps my judgment is best re-stated to apply to individuals: I believe that to the extent any Northern individual made war to preserve the Union, they were morally wrong. Conversely, to the extent any Souther individual made war to secure self-government, they were morally right. To the extent that any Northern individual made war to free slaves they were morally right, but to the extent that any Southern individual made war to keep slaves they were morally wrong.

            The question of whether the Civil War was just would be a poorly constructed question, much like if you were to ask whether a city was male or female.

          • Anonymous

            I like  this formulation of the question much better. As you know, coming up with a moral framework for judging the “justice” of any war is incredibly complicated and entangled with deeper moral questions. What you are suggesting at the end may be on target because to reach a firm conclusion we must agree on some standard of evaluation, i.e. the conflict’s long-run consequences, its announced goals, the purpose of those who initated it or those who responded to the “aggression” of other actors, etc. I don’t pretend to have thought this through very far.

            On the other hand, we are used to judging the morality or immorality of the actions of particular individuals. Having said this, it is probably the case that many if not most belligerents had multiple or mixed motives.


          • Anonymous


            You’re correct to point out that slavery and the Civil War were not separate issues. They were closely related but in a much more complicated way than you suggest. Moreover, consider all those great efforts to help people escape from their enslavement as well the emancipation act. Great changes and good work, I agree. When the freed slaves went north they were NOT welcomed. They were seen a inferior people coming to take work from the superior white race.  That was one of the points I was making.

            As for the causes of the war, I assume you’ve heard of the Tariffs of Abomination that were enacted in the 1830s?  Basically the Norther manufacturing states were establishing federal level policies that benefited them at the expense of the Souther agriculturally based economies. At one level one could equate the North’s behavior with that of England towards the Americas — which is one of the causes of the Revolutionary War.  

            Even at the time of the Civil War I think there were signs that economic production based on slave labor was a doomed economic system — if I recall correctly at the time of the Civil War there were only two soothers states that depended on large scale slave work forces. For most of the rest of the slave owners it was one or two slaves that worked with the family. These people were not going to go to war over domestic servants. The War was more a conflict of economies — one manufacturing and one agrarian with a defined and growing imbalance of power at the federal level. Basically the South did not want to become the colonies of the North as the North controlled imports and exports from the collective group.

            Put differently, if we could put everything on hold but allow agricultural production technology — like the Cotton Gin — the some into play the South would have lost interest in large scale slavery.  They might have even been willing to agree to a compromise free all the slaves for some quip pro quo form the North to offer “compensation”  off-setting the costs to the slave owners (And NO — I personally don’t think compensation to slave owners needs to me made on moral grounds). Now let the size of the union grow and the north attempt it’s same manufacturing centric policies. The South still wants out.

            Finally, to the point about people getting their freedom. I already said  that was about the ONLY good that came from the war. However, Lincoln would have required all the blacks move out of the USA because he didn’t’ think the races could live together. The behavior of many in the north was no different. They might not have likes slavery on principle but they didn’t want the blacks. he racism and bigotry was and is more hidden in the north. I don’t think telling the blacks to leave the country is really giving them their freedom.

  • Anonymous

    I would have thought any group of libertarians, qua libertarians,  can get together and do anything they damn well please  provided it does not involve unjustly harming someone.   And no libertarian need think  that such harm as one may have to commit (even to “innocent aggressors”)  to defend oneself is unjust.   Cf. ).  

    Of course a libertarian could not condone the unnecessary slaughter of innocents; but who can or would want to?

    Libertarianism is not a suicide pact.  
    On the other hand I’m not sure that a philosophical  libertarian ought to be using ‘Just’ in this way;  i.e. as a sloppy synonym for “morally permissible”.

  • Jason Ketola

    Jeff McMahan has a book on this topic. I’ve only heard him speak about it (i.e., haven’t read it) but I believe he thinks there are very few cases where war is genuinely justifiable.

    • Fernando Teson

      Jeff thinks that only just warriors (that is, those who have a just cause) have a moral permission to kill in combat; the unjust enemy doesn’t.  You are right that his views on proportionality imply that few wars will be permissible, but he is not a pacifist.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the interesting and provocative post. I am not sure, however, that the second half of the dilemma you posit has the implication that you seem to believe, i.e. “then Rothbard’s warnings apply: we know from experience that the government will abuse this permission for all kinds of self-serving reasons” [and therefore  wars are immoral]. The fact that governments will abuse the war-fighting effort doesn’t entail that war-fighting is wrong all things considered.

    Suppose I come across a person trapped below ground in a cave, and due to a flood the water is rising. No one else is around and given the circumstances there is no time to await other rescuers. The victim will surely drown if I do nothing. Even if I am inept, untrained and unqualified to try to save this person, it is not wrong for me to try. Maybe I will break his arm or injure him in a way a professional wouild not, but this does not make it wrong for me to attempt the rescue. Nor, based just on what you have said, it is wrong to fight wars of self-defense.

    For Rothbard’s argument to work he would need to show that the governmental abuse would be so severe as to outweigh any benefits from the war, i.e. preventing the killing of innocent people by the aggressor nation. Since this is an empirical question, it seems only answerable on a case-by-case basis. General theories won’t do–or so it seems to me.

    • Fernando Teson

      Mark, thanks for this. You are, of course, preaching to the choir. I just wanted to explore, tentatively, what is or should be, the libertarian thinking about war. Surely government failure is one of the reasons why libertarians have a point in being suspicious about wars, even those waged by liberal governments for ostensibly good motives.

      • Anonymous

        Fair enough, and I think a general suspicion about the competence and motives of state officials does influence many libertarians’ thinking about war. But I think you will find in reviewing the comments you have already provoked and future ones that there is no more unanimity among libertarians on this topic than among those of other political philosophies. 

  • I assume there are at least certain minimal doctrines about the justified use of force that even libertarians would accept.  Do libertarians have any problems with any of the following?

    1.If someone unjustly attacks you, you have the right to defend yourself against that attack, with means that are sufficient to bring the attack to an end.

    2. If someone unjustly attacks someone else, you have the right to come to the assistance of that other attacked person, and defend them against that attack, with means that are sufficient to bring the attack to an end.

    3. If someone attacks some collection of people, each of those people has a right to cooperate with the other victims of the attack in formulating and executing cooperative measures sufficient to bring the attack to an end.

    4. If each member of some collection of people fears the possibility of being unjustly attacked, each of those people has a right to cooperate with the other victims of in formulating contingency plans, to be executed in the event of various kinds of attacks, to take cooperative measures sufficient to bring the attacks to an end; and each of these people has the right to make promises to the other members of the group concerning the role they will play in executing the contingency plans.

    • Aeon Skoble

      I can’t speak for all libertarians, but I have no problem with any of that.

      • Anonymous

        I’ll second Aeon’s motion here, even if he is a (damn) Yankee fan. Aeon, I had read previously the paper you referenced above, and liked it very much for injecting what I regard as a little “common sense morality” into the theory of what considerations can justify the always painful decision to go to war. It seems to me in reading the anarcho-capitalist literature that their hatred of the state has driven many of them to irrational conclusions.

        Since the state’s role in providing national defense is the most obvious justification for its existence, Rothbard was driven to adopt the strange view that ALL states, whatever their internal form of governance, were equally likely to aggress. Accordingly, there is no moral justification for the U.S. population (for example) to cling to the state to defend against North Korea (or the Soviets in their heyday), for they are no more likely to attack us, than we them.  I’m sorry, but this just seems crazy to me. Even if you hate the U.S., are the Canadians as great a threat to international peace as N. Korea or Pakistan?

        • Can someone explain why my comment was removed?  I thought it was constructive enough.

          • Aeon Skoble

            I was wondering the same thing.

          • Anonymous

            I agree, and think this must be some sort of mistake.

          • Maybe the Hurricane knocked it out. 🙂

          • Don’t know Dan.  I read your comment and thought it was helpful.  Don’t know why it’s gone now, but I can’t figure out how to get it back.  My apologies.

          • No problem.   An internet gremlin.

          • Fernando Teson

            I didn’t remove it.

  • Anonymous

    Seems to me that there’s really two aspects to this question. First, the decision to go to war. That’s a problematic decision in terms of satisfying basic libertarian principles. But there’s also the question of how one goes about confuting any what being fought. I would think libertarian principles apply here as well — and perhaps are more important in this area that the initial question of declaring war.

    First, libertarians profess that war is a losing tactic so the libertarian society should be attempting to negotiate to all the way to the end of the conflict — ready to stop at any point if an agreement can be reached. In theory then the libertarian never chooses war but always has war thrust upon them.

    Next, war is not the normal state of society. That being the case the application of libertarian rules that really exist to prevent social conflict and violence do not really apply to a war setting — those rules have clearly already failed and people have entered a sphere of social interaction in which rules designed for normal social interaction break down. This is a bit like the problem of strict application of property rights in a lifeboat situation.

    Now, for those who say war and conflict are the natural state of man (I don’t agree) then clearly one might suggest that the concept of war being just or unjust is about the same as asking if gravity is just or unjust. In this case then the issue is not about the decision to go to war but how that war can be legitimately and morally fought. This is no different that the question the libertarian society has when war is put upon them and then must fight.

    • Anonymous

      Can you point to any evidence supporting the proposition that war and conflict are NOT the natural state of man? 

      • Anonymous

        Mostly just my view — I’m not saying conflict free or violence free. War seems to be a different level of conflict/violence than squabble about who gets the cutest girl or best eatings. It’s not really how I think — conquer the world and such rather than live and let live. Most people I know are more like me, live and let liver.

        As I said, even if war is a natural state for man is the case isn’t it perhaps more important how we fight than what we fight over?

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  • CFV

    I am not sure that Rothbard’s definition is “inconsistent with sound libertarian principles.”  One can understand domination as being subject to the arbitrary will of whoever possesses coercive legal power (the tyrant, the despot). This does not violate the central tenet of normative individualism (although you can’t be dominated in isolation).

    If libertarians should embrace this conception of freedom, freedom as non-domination, then they can consistently claim that fighting for non-domination is a necessary (and perhaps sufficient) cause for a just war.

    Caveat: I don’t think that, for example, you can justify the invasion of Irak in this way (only those who are dominated are entitled to fight against the tyrant), a war to which you can easily apply Rothbard’s warnings: it was manipulated for self-serving State reasons (as, for example, Karen Kwiatkowski has relentlessly argued).

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