Libertarianism, Current Events

More on Libertarians and War

Libertarians think that only defensive war is justified.  This belief about war is an extension of the beliefs about individual violence. Just as persons cannot permissibly attack other persons, so nations cannot permissibly attack other nations.  The late Harry Browne’s statement is representative:

Most libertarians believe you shouldn’t initiate force against someone who has never used force against you. Force is to be used only in self-defense — not used just because you don’t happen to like someone, or because someone doesn’t like you, or because he might become dangerous in the future, or because some third party has attacked you and you want to prove you’re not a wimp. The same principles must apply to our nation — that it shouldn’t use force against a nation that hasn’t attacked us.

I’d like to explain why this line of reasoning is problematic (I expand on a previous post.) Let us start by accepting the impermissibility of aggressive interpersonal violence. This rule has a corollary: the permissibility of defensive violence. If someone initiates aggression against me, I am entitled to defend myself. Now defensive violence includes not only defense of self but also defense of others. Suppose I’m passing by and see a villain (Attacker) assault a defenseless person (Victim). Surely I have the right to defend Victim by using force against Attacker. Victim’s defensive rights are transferable to me. (I assume other requirements for permissible violence are met: Victim is innocent, Attacker is culpable, Victim has consented to my defending her, and my response is proportionate. On these and other matters see Larry Alexander’s discussion.)

Let us now transpose this reasoning to war. Most libertarians say that defensive war is justified. How so? Because a defensive war is the use of violence by persons who have been unjustly attacked by a foreign army. Under the libertarian principle of nonaggression, if the evil enemy invades we may permissibly defend ourselves and our fellow citizens (also victims of the attack) against the attackers. This means that my violence against the attackers is an action both in self-defense and defense of others. And the government’s job is to coordinate our defensive actions. Many views of the state (including libertarian views) list this defensive role as a raison d’être of the state.

If this analysis is correct, then it turns out that a defensive (and therefore justified) war is a war in defense of persons, self and others. It is not a defense of the state or the government per se. We can generalize by saying that, for the libertarian, the only justified violence is violence in defense of persons (self and others) who are victims of unjust attacks. Wars waged to achieve territorial aggrandizement, national glory or dominance, or similar non-defensive reasons, are never justified.

Now take Rwanda, April-June 1994. One ethnic group, the Hutus, attacked another ethnic group, the Tutsis, and in a 100 days killed about 800,000 of them (See the account here.) Now suppose the United States could have stopped this genocide at a low cost to everyone except the attackers because, say, their primitive machetes could not rival American advanced weapons.  Standard libertarian doctrine says that this would have been an offensive war, an initiation of violence against Rwanda.  Since neither Rwanda nor the Hutus would have attacked the United States, the United States would not have had any business intervening in Rwanda. It would have been an unjustified war.

But this cannot be right, if we accept the legitimacy of defense of others. The action of the United States in this hypothetical is analogous to the action in the example above of defending Victim against Aggressor. The distinction between defensive and offensive wars is misleading because it treats the state as a “person” who can be Attacker or Victim. But states are not persons. When we (correctly) disaggregate the state, what we have is a group of human beings unjustly attacking another group of human beings. A defense of the victim here is not an offensive war: it is a defensive war, a war in defense of unjustly-attacked persons. As such, it should not be banned by the libertarian principle that condemns the offensive use of violence.

Of course, problems remain. First, as Bryan Caplan has argued, empirical and epistemic considerations may lead us to oppose any war, even defensive ones. I accept this arguendo, as my only purpose is to show that if those epistemic barriers could be overcome, then interventions to protect persons from genocide could in principle be justified under the libertarian principle of nonaggression and its corollary, the permissibility of defending others.

Second, unlike what happens in many individual cases, in most wars innocent bystanders die. It could be then argued that war, but not individual defense of others where there is no collateral harm, is banned precisely because it inflicts collateral harm. This is a serious problem that philosophers of war have tried to address by invoking, controversially, the Doctrine of Double Effect and similar devises. All I would say here is that this objection proves too much. For in the defensive war that the libertarian does allow (a reaction against the invader) there is collateral harm as well. We kill innocent women and children when we repel the aggressor. So if the reason to oppose the war in defense of unjustly-attacked persons in Rwanda is that it kills innocent bystanders, then the libertarian has to oppose the use of violence in our own defense as well.

Finally, it may be argued that our government has a limited mandate: to protect ourselves and our territory and nothing more.  This fiduciary duty prohibits the government to use our resources to defend others, even in Rwanda-like cases. Defending Tutsis is just not part of the government’s job description. This view may be subject to possible objections about the relative stringency of moral duties to save others if we can do so at a reasonable cost, but I accept it arguendo. Interestingly, this view renounces the attempt to ground libertarian pacifism on the nonaggression principle. Foreign wars are banned, not because they are impermissible initiations of violence, but for a different reason, namely that the government is not authorized to defend others. This position would have to accept the private organization of volunteers to defend the genocide victims in Rwanda. This position is also consistent with contractual arrangements to defend others. Imagine that a government proclaims that from now on it will abide by the libertarian principle of nonaggression. The government announces that it will not initiate any military action for any reason other than defending actual victims of unjustified attacks. The government inserts a clause to that effect in all enlistment contracts. This would authorize enlisted soldiers to refuse to participate in any war that was not a defense of persons against unjustified attacks. Such an arrangement, I believe, would be consistent with sending forces to Rwanda to stop the genocide.

Maybe we should be pacifists. Maybe the danger that governments will abuse their war powers, even where strictly limited to self-defense or defense of others, should make us wary of accepting even national self-defense, let alone defense of others. (To me, that is hard to stomach, and I’m glad we didn’t recoil from defending unjustly-attacked persons in World War II.) All I tried to show here is that the libertarian opposition to foreign wars cannot be based on the distinction between defensive and offensive wars. Only the defense of persons, self or others, (sometimes) justifies war. This includes some foreign wars.



Published on:
Author: Fernando Teson
  • There seems to be a lack of consistency in your argument. It is here:

    “When we (correctly) disaggregate the state, what we have is a group of human beings unjustly attacking another group of human beings. A defense of the victim here is not an offensive war: it is a defensive war, a war in defense of unjustly-attacked persons. As such, it should not be banned by the libertarian principle that condemns the offensive use of violence.”

    So the US intervening in Rwanda is not one state-person attacking another state-person. It is one state-person defending one set of inhabitants of a foreign state from another set of inhabitants of the same foreign state. But you have only disaggregated one of the supposed state-persons. You should also disaggregate the US state-person. What you would have is one set of US persons defending a set of victims from attack. The trouble is, that set of US persons are paying for their adventure at the expense of other US persons who do not want to pay for it. So they are defending one set of aggressors only be being aggressors themselves,

    Ah, you may say, but if it is a duty to defend others from attack when one reasonably can, then the supposed aggression against US citizens who do not want to get involved is morally permissible (because they ought to get involved). But that response will work only if the duty in question is an enforeceable one; and duties to help others are not (at least, in Anglo-American legal/moral tradition) enforeceable. Each of us has a right to be wrong – so long as he does not violate the rights of others.

    • ben

      But this argument, too, would apply equally to defensive wars (and indeed to having a national army in the first place, since even when it is not at war it requires a constant stream of tax money.)

      • You are quite right.


          You say: “The trouble is, that set of US persons are paying for their adventure at the expense of other US persons who do not want to pay for it. So they are defending one set of aggressors only be being aggressors themselves.” But, it is not at all clear to me that the imposition of coercive taxes for national defense (assuming that the nation in question is relatively peaceful compared to others) constitutes “aggression.”

          Indeed, I believe there is a good argument to the contrary. As you know, military defense is a classic public good, and there is a quite respectable philsophical argument, H.L.A. Hart’s “principle of fairness,” to the effect that it is not unjust to coerce free-riders to pay their fair share of a good that unavoidably benefits all. I do not think that this principle opens the door to coercive taxes for all public goods, because defense against foreign aggressors stands on a different moral footing than, say, basic scientific rsearch. I discuss this question somewhat briefly here: and here:, and in more depth in Chapter 4 of my Nozick’s Libertarian Project.

          • Fallon

            Who decides what the parameters of “public” are at any given moment and situation? Sounds like organicist mythology, this arbitrary imposition of “national defense” and other collective action problem nonsense. If every BHL minus the anarchists got their pet public good imposed– e.g. guaranteed income, forced vaccination, and militarization, etc., then BHL would be better read as Bleeding Heart Liberviathans. Even if such a thing as the free rider problem exists, it does not follow that collectivism– what you are suggesting– would be the answer. Collectivism generates more problems than it solves; moral and economic.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            As I am sure you know, the term “public good” has a widely-accepted economic definition, which I am relying on here. As previously noted, I do not claim that there mere existence of a public good justifies coercive taxation–quite the contrary. I guess that if support of coercive taxation to support the military defense of a relatively just state threatened by potential aggressors qualifies one as a “collectivist,” then count me in, but this seems to me to be a perversion of this word.

          • Fallon

            Actually, FIFA, the world governing body soccer, now everything, trumps your state. You have no right but to submit to its more just impositions. It covers the globe and, uniquely, can account for the entirety of human externalities. Your state cannot. Your military defense is actually an offensive public bad when seen from the FIFA point of view. Why should FIFA and the rest of humanity carry your burden? Put down your weapons.

          • What about the imposition of taxes for the defence of non-citizens (Tutsis)? It looks as if that would be impermissible on your principles.

            Aren’t you on a slippery slope with your defence of taxation to pay for national defence? This is legitimate, you say, because it is needed to protect moral or rational agency (incidentally, I think those two are different), and the protection of such agency is the point of individuals having rights; therefore it is not a rights-violation (the rights must be tailored to allow such apparent infringements, otherwise they would not be suitable to their purpose, and thus not legitimate rights). But what is to stop the paternalists, egalitarians and welfare-statists from saying that the protection of an individual’s moral/rational agency requires that the individual be given a minimum level of resources or ‘capabilities’? Presumably, you will offer a theory of rational/moral agency which would make such paternalism, etc. self-defeating. That’s my line, anyway.

            Your position seems to be rule-consequentialist: the rights that we have are those, whatever they may be, that best promote moral/rational agency. Something like that is my position, too; but I had you down as an intuitionist.

            I’ve not read your book yet. I had a plan of activities for last autumn and the start of this year which included reading your book. As is the fate of plans, unexpected events got in the way. But the plan has been deferred not abandoned.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I’m running off right now, so just a quick reply to your first question, which I need to think more about. Perhaps, in an ideal world you would have compulsory taxation only for direct defense, and voluntary contributions for humanitarian operations. In non-ideal worlds, perhaps you simply have to fund the defense apparatus, while granting political leaders the discretion to use it in morally permissable ways, which (per Fernando’s argument) includes the defense of other innocent people. More to come…

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            As promised:
            I essentially agree with your second paragraph, but have a different argument against the egalitarians than you propose. It is a little too complicated to present here, but I think that they are not really talking about “rational agency” in the same way that Nozick is. The person who willingly elects a life of poverty in (for example) a monastery is still exercising “rational agency,” while a very rich person may not be. Therefore, rational agency does not track with levels of wealth.

            “My” argument for libertarian rights actually follows what I take Nozick’s to be (see:, and is partly intuitionist. It is not at all consequentialist. What you label “rule-consequentialist” is not my argument for natural rights, but only my effort to distinguish the protective value for rational agency of the public good of national defense, versus other less morally significant public goods. On this logic, compulsory taxation can be justified for the former, but not for such things as scientific research.

        • matt b

          So given your reply to Ben does that mean you oppose a national army in the first place?

          • I was not setting forth a position of my own. I was just drawing out the consequences of Fernando’s argument. Ben took it a step further.

          • matt b

            I see, I see. Thanks for the clarification.

    • Danny: very good point. I wished I would have made clearer that I intended to disaggregate both the Rwanda-person and the US-person in the example. If we disaggregate the US-person as well, then what we have, as you say, is a subset of US persons defending victims of unjustified attacks. If they do this by coercively appropriating resources that belong to another subset of unwilling US persons, then they violate the property rights of these other persons. There are very interesting issues that one can pursue from here. For example, it could be argued that the rescuers had to act in an emergency that left no time to require the consent of the unwilling. In that case, perhaps the unwilling should be compensated for the violation of their property rights. Since it is just money, this can be a case where Nozick’s “cross and compensate” approach can work. What’s more: maybe the RESCUED (the Tutsis) should compensate the unwilling. However, this leaves untouched my main point. Even if you are right that the rescue is impermissible, it will not be so because the rescuers engaged in an “offensive” war. It was a defensive war, defense of others unjustly attacked, in principle justified as such, but objectionable for other reasons, namely that the rescuers used resources that were not theirs to use. The distinction between defensive and offensive wars advanced by mainstream libertarian doctrine does not track the distinction national/foreign wars.


        Hi Fernando,
        Excellent post, and I agree in substance. However, re Nozick, while I yield to no one in my admiration for his work, most libertarians consider his “cross and compensate” idea a complete muddle and a major misstep. See, e.g. Randy Barnett, “Whither Anarchy? Has Robert Nozick Justified the State?” Journal of Libertarian Studies,” vol 1, no. 1 (1977). Verty briefly, only the right-holder is entitled to decide when he will trade his consent for compensation, and the contrary view is inconsistent with everything else Nozick says about rights (side-constraints, etc.). Please also see my response to Danny.

        • Thanks, Mark. Yes, I agree that Nozick’s “cross and compensate” stuff is weak (see also the good critique by Davis Sobel in his recent article on Ethics). All I meant is that it is easier to offer compensation for taking people’s money to save others from death than to say we don’t rescue anyone because we don’t have the resources. Again: my only point in the post is that this kind of rescue is NOT an unwarranted initiation of violence against others. It is an act of defensive violence against unjust aggressors, only that their victims are not us but third parties. As an act of defensive violence, it is allowed by the libertarian principle of nonaggression and its corollary, the permissibility of defensive violence, provided the other constraints on violence are satisfied. My point leaves intact other arguments against these wars, such as epistemic arguments, arguments abut proportionality, and arguments, like Danny’s, about the proper role of government. If a privately organized brigade rescues the Tutsies, Danny’s objections do not apply, since volunteers are using their own resources. And since that would be, as I said, a defensive reaction against an unjust aggressor, it would not be vulnerable to libertarian objections.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN


    • matt b

      Here’s a thought expirement: there’s a genocide going on in Africa. A hundred thousand people have been killed in a month. The annihilationist, agggressor army is fighting largely defenseless people. Yet it is actually quite limited in its military capabilities, indeed it has only been able to kill so many because the victims are largely defenseless. Imagine the U.S. could go in and stop the genocide in a month with no lives lost and a few hundred million spent (which amounts to say 1 dollar per taxpayer). At the end of the day, we have saved hundreds of thousands of people and gotten rid of an abhorrent regime (imagine here too that the opposition to the regime is broadly liberal). In this context, would you oppose taxation?

      • See my response to your comment above.

      • ben

        Counterquestion: In this context, do you think you would *need* taxation?

        In such an extreme and morally clear-cut case as you describe, finding voluntary sponsorship for your military campaign should not be difficult. Heck, all citizens as a whole might donate more than you would have taxed them.

        • ben

          Of course, real-world conflicts never are this clear-cut (i.e. blame and
          aggression distributed 100% vs. 0% among conflict parties, intervention
          easily possible, expected collateral damage zero, uncertainty of
          gathered information zero).

          Thus, I’m not sure to what extent something useful can be learned from your scenario.

          • matt b

            I would point to our recent intervention in Libya as a case in which all of these conditions were largely, though not entirely, satisfied. We prevented a mass slaughter at minimal cost in blood and treasure and, while the current Libyan government is not running around enthusiastically quoting passages from “On Liberty”, it is far more liberal and humane than the despotic nightmare it replaced. The point of my scenario was to argue against those who submit that taxation for humanitarian purposes could never be morally justified even if the gains in human welfare were immense and the costs minimal.

          • j_m_h

            I think your question hangs on how one views taxation.

            Changing it a bit, how would we go about evaluating the following:

            You walk out of your apartment and find child unconscious on the sidewalk. It appears this child might die if you do nothing. (assume you don’t have a phone and no one else is immediately available) You see a car idling in a parking. You carry the child to the car and take them to the hospital where they make a full recovery. You return the car to it’s parking place.

            At this point to you even have sufficient information to draw any conclusions about your results of your actions?

            It’s always easy to proceed from assumptions and specifically the assumptions that your actions are going to produce some good because that is your intent. It’s also natural to impute those same errors when postulating the behaviors of other or our government.

          • matt b

            I think that I do have “sufficient information to draw any conclusions.” I can be certain that the child has a better chance to survive after receiving medical care than without receiving it (of course it could be that the child is beyond help and will die but given that I can’t be sure it makes all the moral sense in the world for me to see if it can be helped). I agree with you on the discrepancy between good intentions and results. It’s one of the reasons I’m a libertarian and not a left-liberal. However, given the severity of the circumstances people face in a number of instances, I think the evidence indicates that even not so brilliantly managed intervention may make things better (I would link to it if I could find it but Ilya Somin of the VC had a good post a while back explaining why, unlike in the domestic realm, U.S. government intervention, even if not carried out with exemplary competence, would probably make the situation better in many cases given the status quo of tyranny and suffering in so much of the world).

          • j_m_h

            And what if the person who let the car running in the parking space had run into one of the apartments to get two sick children to take to the hospital and they died because the car was gone?

            Alternatively, what if the child was a psychopath and grew up into a very smart and effective serial killer?

            I’m raising two points here: 1) incomplete knowledge that cannot be escaped but seems to be ignored in these discussions and 2) over what set criteria, which can involve many years if we want to be thorough, are we basing the conclusion one.

            Above you rule out that anything really bad can occur or was going to be prevented by the person who left the car running and you also limit the outcome of saving the child to that of the immediate present — suggesting that anything the person does in the future is not the result of your actions.

          • matt b

            I think your argument is problematic on a few fronts. First of all, the chance that the person who left the car running did so because she is running to save two kids is extremely slim. Given the balance of probabilities, it is far more likely that my taking the car will save life rather than end it.

            Regarding your second point, the vast majority (something like 99.9999 percent) of people do not turn out to be serial killers so I think I’d chance it.

            I hear your broader point about incomplete knowledge but that’s just the nature of reality. We will never have complete knowedge so we have to make decisions on the basis of the information we posess at the time. To go back to the original discussion, if people are being slaughtered somewhere by another group it’s really hard to believe that ending the slaughter will make things worse. It’s possible of course- maybe one of the people you save from slaughter grows up and becomes the next Hitler- but the reasonable approach is to look at what’s likely to occur and act accordingly. You could always be wrong but but you have to act in some way so following the evidence of what’s likely/ not likely is the best way to go.

          • j_m_h

            And likewise the child you “saved” may well have come to just fine without any action on your part. I did not say without getting to a hospital — I suspect the scenario I presented also has a small probability of fatality or even significant harm. So what if rather than two children it was merely the person forgot something essential for their job interview and now lost that opportunity while the child came too in the car?

            I wish I could remember the man’s name but years ago I got to listen to a man from Rwanda who basically said that the ground work for enabling the slaughter was established under the colonial rules and that’s what set the stage for this outcome that there was not anything others were going to be able to do to change it. It was an historic rivalry long preceding the colonial period.

            The message I take from that was external interference just prolongs and complicated the internal relationship and conflicts and no eternal interference was ever going to resolve the issues. The resolution had to be internally reached.

            Not quite another case of the road to hell being paved with good intentions — British colonialism was not really about enriching the local populations even with the frequent claims of bringing civilization to backward cultures.

            So coming back to your point about probabilities, yes in some cases we can make reasonable assessments of the risks and outcomes — but these will be fairly routine experiences that we have direct learning opportunities with. Can we safely say the same about foreign intervention into a different culture? Will we have that intuitive grasp of the underlying risks and potential benefits?

          • matt b

            Sorry if some variation of this post already went through. So I think you’re absolutely right that it would be wrong to treat decisions about intervening in situations in foreign cultures as similiar to decisions we make in our lives or even our native states. However, I do think that when a genocide is going on, we can be reasonably confident that taking action to end it will, all things considered, improve the situation. Sure maybe the government set up after will be awful and kill some people but ending eliminationism seems to be the right presumption.

          • j_m_h

            Matt, first I want to say it’s been a good discussion with you.

            I do agree that my natural reaction to a situation where genocide is occurring is to “do something” because genocide is wrong. I see movies like Tears of the Sun and I’m right there with it. However that’s not the way government intervene. I don’t know if you are old enough to recall the early 90’s when there were two big issues: the civil war in the former Yugoslavia region and the Iraq invasion of Kuwait.

            In the Yugoslavian civil war there was clearly a case of genocide of Muslims in Bosnia Herzogovnia. The USA chose to attack Iraq to defend Kuwait and even with the horrors going on in the former Yuglslavia only offered “moral support” and verbal sanctions (yes, some economic sanctions were put in place but they were toothless).

            That is the nature of government that we have’s intervention into other areas to “protect other people”. The probability that war of intervention will be a moral one is slim. While we might argue the “let’s assume” scenarios the reality is that we will not intervene for the reasons you would like. Therefore, why as a general rule should we support such government actions or give the government such powers?

            On top of that then is the moral to the Rwandan story that it was external interference that helped setup, or further antagonize the strife between the two tribes and that further interference would not resolve the conflict. (I do need to correct my reference to the British colony. I was originally Belgium)

            I suggest that while at the individual level with our day to day activities we can make these assessments fairly well. We do a much poorer job when reacting via out political institutions and acting outside our national boundaries.

          • matt b

            Absolutely, it’s been a great conversation.

            So we eventually did intervene in the Balkans under President Clinton in what was a clearly moral case of intervention and I’m sad to say that some of the vehement critics of that decision, alongside Republican reactionaries who didn’t want us fighting to help “them foreigners”, were libertarians who sounded exactly like Noam Chomsky in attacking American “imperialism.” My views on American foreign policy have been strongly influenced by Daniel Goldhagen’s book Worse Than War and a long essay written by Robert Kagan recently pubished in The New Republic (I know, I know wandering far off the libertarian reservation) and I think both of them demonstrate that there is a lot more idealism and moral concern in U.S. foreign policy than commonly assumed (of course raw Kissingerian amoral pursuit of interests is omnipresent alongside idealism) and that has made me more optimistic about the use of U.S. force to do good. I would point to our championing democracy even in authoritarian right wing anti-communist countries after the Cold War as just one example of the validity of this view.

            Anyway, I appreciate your skepticism and your concerns about outside interference. We should always be very careful about intervening for all of the many reasons you list but ultimately I’d err on the side of protecting innocent life.

          • j_m_h

            Yes, eventually we did intervene — though as a NATA or UN action I believe. Unfortunately b then the worst was over and all that was accomplished what punishing a few of the culprits.

            As for going off the reservation — seems like a very libertarian thing to do 😉 Good ideas and insights are what matter not the messenger.

            I do agree that the USA in it’s highly public or visible interventions are generally on the right side rather than acting in a purely “self interested” manner. At the same time there a lot of under currents which do reflect narrow interests over idealism. The Taliban in Afghanistan have not changed their stripes just in the past 10 years, they are largely just how they were when the Soviets were at war with them. At the same time we went after Afghanistan for Bin Ladin there was the big scare about China monopolizing the raw earth supply as well starting to hoard other mineral. Would anyone be surprised to hear that Afghanistan has huge deposits of all the minerals? I suspect a great deal of the effort behind the scene in Afghanistan was to establish a power base that would then look favorably on our corporations extracting the mineral at every good terms (don’t think so — why is it only Alaskans get anything back for the oil extracted from public lands?)

            What I see is that we’re slipping down the slope from being actually helpful and fighting the good fight in our interventions and military support to allies, towards the purely “raw Kissingerian amoral pursuit of interests” of the politically connected or politically powerful. A lot of that cold war “classified” actions has corrupted as power typically does. The public, however, only see the public relations side of things most of the time.

            I’m with you on the biasing the action towards the obvious life saving act. However we need to keep in mind that our emotional response to the situation will be the same in many contexts but our understanding of the probabilities and even the facts/information that should be informing our emotion will differ significantly across the various context. We do need to listen to our hearts but also need to know, and act accordingly, that our hearts can be as misinformed as our brains.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            I don’t believe that the epistemological objections you are raising work as a philosophical argument (as opposed to a practical warning about risk). It will always be possible to specify a possible case of foreign intervention where the apparent benefit/cost ratio in human life and suffering is so high that it is implausible to deny that we should act (assuming you cannot articulate an objection based on a moral principle that would cause us to set aside this conclusion).

            I don’t see why the foreign aspect of this issue is qualitatively different than deciding that it is a good idea to go to work this morning in the face of the remote possibility that I will be killed in a freak accident of some sort. We make these sort of judgments every day, and don’t think twice.

          • j_m_h

            I don’t see why the the philosophical argument holds sway over the epistemological aspects. Clearly we all understand that we can construct very beautiful, elegant, valid arguments that result in false conclusions.

            The qualitative difference between the foreign aspect is that we don’t have that day to day, first hand experience upon which to make our judgements. We drive the roads to work every day and in all weather conditions. We have a very practical, first hand understanding of the probabilities. That’s is completely lacking in the foreign intervention scenario.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Well, the philosophical question is, I think, whether we should always forgo foreign interventions, even when the benefit/cost ratio is extremely high. You don’t seem to deny that there may be such cases, and haven’t given me a reason why we shouid abstain then–merely that there are other cases where the outcome will be too uncertain.

            Your second paragraph is unpersuasive to me, but we may simply have different empirical assumptions. For better or worse, we (and other nations) have a great deal of experience in foreign interventions, so I don’t see why this is different in kind than going to work. Is it really so hard to see that the empirical case for going to war in WW2 was a lot different than in Iraq? You can have the last word.

          • j_m_h

            I’m not sure I see that there is a universal claim that all foreign wars must be avoided. Where the fight takes place does not necessarily define the war as defensive or offensive. As Fernando points out any just war must be defensive but can be defending domestically or defending externally. That suggest he’s arguing against the position that any war fought outside a societies territories make it an offensive war. I don’t think that framing is one supported by a large number of libertarians.

            The proposition I put forth was that cases where a society is directly attacked is fundamentally different than the case of going to war to protect others. One of the differences is going to be an epistemological one. Another is going to be the general level of support and sense of common cause.

            The government does but we’re not talking about States but free societies where the government is the servant of the people. Especially in the USA much of the governments foreign interventions were poorly supported by the general population. Korea was nothing like WWII in terms of public support and could not even be sold to them as a War — it was a “Police Action”. Vietnam was a public policy failure. Our secret wars in Cambodia and Laos were even worse and all the crap that went on in South and Central America attempted to keep under cover so the public never knew.

            The actual public that we’re talking about supporting or not supporting the moral war to saves others does not have much experience with choosing to intervene — in fact the experience we have says that the intervention will not be moral or just if our government tries to sell it to us.

            Like you say, we may differ on our take on the realities here.

        • matt b

          Maybe, maybe but I’m skeptical. First off, as anybody who has read Bryan Caplan’s work will know, the vast majority of people are remarkably ignorant. So you would have to raise enough awareness to create the conditions in which the hundreds of millions of people who would be taxed the dollar or so amount would become cognizant of the situation and donate the dollar. In a world in which more people know who Snooki is then can name even one SCOTUS justice, that is not neccesarily an easy task. I would think your position would imply voluntary sponsorship for a purely defensive U.S. army. After all, it’s in everybody’s interest to have an army to protect us so why couldn’t we rely on individual donations to have an army that does just that. If you’re skeptical about that proposition then you should be even more skeptical of the idea that a policy of voluntary donations to prevent massive abuse abroad would work.

          • Sean II

            A small point but one worth mentioning: don’t be so sure it’s a bad thing that people know who Snooki is but not Antonin Scalia. In fact, the more I think about it, the more that sounds like a good thing.

            Also, who is Snooki? What is she, like, a TV character or something?

          • matt b

            How dare you not know who Snooki is haha. She was/ is (the show is no longer on thank god) one of the members of the cast of the “reality” show Jersey Shore. I’m not sure why you say it’s a good thing that people don’t know who Scalia is though?

          • Sean II

            It’s simple. Snooki makes people laugh (whether they should be laughing, now that’s a matter of taste). Scalia serves, profits from, and generally acts as living pillar to a system that – to name just one from a long catalog of its crimes – at any given time keeps +300,000 human beings locked in prison for drug possession.

            Snooki represents gym, tanning, and laundry (aha, so I have seen the show!). Scalia represents coercion, deceit, and most of all, the pseudo-philosophical verbal trickery that makes coercion and deceit seem respectable to people like my parents.

            Say what you will about Snooki. She would never read the phrase “Congress shall make no law” and find an excuse to believe that it means something else.

            The laughter people get from Snooki is real. The illusions people get from Scalia are not. It’s healthier that they should remember her name and forget his.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            But what you say regarding Scalia is equally true regarding ALL federally elected officials, and the other Supremes. Is there some particuilar reason that you are picking on Scalia instead of, say, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Harry Reid, John Boehner, or all the others? At least Scalia, in relation to many of the other Supremes, wants to limit federal power to some extent, leaving at least some decisions to the various states or even, heaven-forbid, to the people themselves.

          • Sean II

            No, I just picked him out of a hat, because I’m such a huge racist. Snooki is Italian-American (I think), and so is he. Also, they both have names that begin with S, so that seemed convenient, too.

            There are plenty worse than him, no doubt.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            See how sometimes your attempts at humor bite you in the ass!?

          • Sean II

            Some phrases just sting, as when someone describes one of my jokes as an “attempt at humor”. I can’t @$%&ing believe I admitted to knowing who Snooki was, just for that. The shame of it.

          • Sean, I don’t have much time lately to write much in the comments section here, but I read them all pretty consistently, and I can say this: you are a damn funny guy. Occasionally correct, even, which makes the humor even more enjoyable. 🙂

          • Sean II

            Hey, thanks! Trying to be funny in the libertarian movement is like DJ-ing in a TB sanatorium. People sort of vaguely appreciate that you showed up, they can even tell that you’re trying to entertain them in good faith, but the typical response is just one shade better than polite confusion. “Oh, yeah, that’s cute I guess. Now if we can get back to what I was saying about Georgism. You see, for the past hundred years everyone but me has been misreading the key points…”

            Also, I hope you don’t mind, but “occasionally correct” is going on my LinkedIn profile as of RIGHT NOW.

          • matt b

            I share your critical take of Scalia though, like Mark, I see no reason to view him as being worse than all of the other individuals he lists in his post though, unlike Mark, I’m not sure I think that he’s any better. Yes he has sometimes voted to limit federal power but in a number of other cases he’s voted to expand it. I think your point on drug posession is so powerful. Maybe if people weren’t busy watching Snooki they would find so time to be outraged over the jailing of peaceful people.

  • Aeon Skoble

    Nice argument. You might like some of the moves I make here:

  • j_m_h

    I think there’s a significant difference between the defense of others with government military acting as the defense agent for the citizen of the society and defensive actions outside the society. It was difficult for the USA to go to war with Germany but very easy to do so with Japan.

    I think all view the attack by Japan and an attack all USA Citizens; it was a common cause that all would support. The war against Germany would fit your defense of other people not self defense. Clearly those who wanted to assist could just go help with whatever resources they command. Suggesting the the resources of the government be applied now pit citizen against citizen within the the real world functioning of public policy and public finance that are glossed over in your more abstract/principle level analysis.

    • Thanks JMH. Suppose that after Pearl Harbor, some US citizens refused to defend the US. The coercive use of their resources to fight Japan would be as problematic for a hard-core libertarian as would be the defense of others (as in the Germany case). BTW, this scenario is not as crazy as it sounds: during the Cold War many Americans and Europeans took the position “better red than dead.”

      • Devon Sanchez

        I believe you mean, “better dead than red,” due to the anti-communist movement.

        • No. I meant “better red than dead”, a statement that shows an unwillingness to defend themselves or others and thus submit to the aggressor. Under hard-core libertarian principles these persons cannot be forced to fight or pay for those who fight (I’m agnostic here on whether those principles can ultimately hold).

          • Devon Sanchez

            My apologies, I have never heard of that statement.

          • j_m_h

            That’s not quite what the “better red than dead” was expressing. The statement was a response to the view that any war between the USA and USSR would necessarily escalate into a nuclear war that would end all human life on earth — and it is probably true that all life in Europe would have ended.

            The introduction of a global life-ending war introduces a completely different component and I suspect then completely undoes your above arguments.

      • j_m_h

        I would certainly concede that we will never find a case of absolute unanimity in these types of decision but clearly there was a significant and observationally different response to proposals to declare war on Germany to “defend others” and the response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

        That’s the point I was getting at. The perhaps morally supportable war of defending others will be more problematic than a war to defend the citizens in their own territory.

        The issue of defense in a nuclear setting is much different than most discussion about war that I think is assumed by your argument.

    • Devon Sanchez

      “I think all view the attack by Japan and an attack all USA Citizens; it was a common cause that all would support.”

      How do you support this comment?

      • j_m_h

        It’s a view that is based more on anecdotal evidence than any hard and fast study but feel free to look at the history and what people were doing before Pearl Harbor and after Pearl Harbor.

        1) No general support to enter WW II, the USA largely happy being isolationist.
        2) No large influx of volunteers to join the military when the goal was to fight Germany but there was a large volunteer surge after Pearl Harbor

        Most of my original view comes from hearing stories from my parents, anuts and uncles and others from that generation — they were young adults that the time and fought in WWII.

        Still, a quick google turned up which seems to support my general proposition about the view regarding war as a defense of self versus defense of others.

        • Devon Sanchez

          You made a blanket statement that all people we’re okay with sending more young men to battle in another theater of war that, most certainly, would claim thousands of casualties and lives. The attack on the people of Japan was unjust and gross. The continued United States war machine kept Americans in a depression with inflation perpetrated through increased federal government spending beyond revenue.

          I do not agree with you.

  • I’m arightwingextremist

    Fernando, your conclusions are broadly correct, but I’d like to propose the following.

    Is there an unstated premise in your argument that the external
    actions of the libertarian state can be adduced to be moral or immoral?

    Please consider that the state is incapable of either moral
    or immoral actions because only individuals are capable of conscious action.

    The issue of the “just war” is both an individual and a political question. The principles that govern individual decisions and the principles that govern political decisions are not identical.

    The external actions of the state are political decisions not bound by any code of morality, but rather by a small set of principles that are pragmatic rather than moral. Thus to the charge of unjust war the libertarian state can always plead innocent.

    The objection may be heard that such an idea allows the libertarian state unfettered freedom for mischief, but this is not true if the internal actions of the state must conform to libertarian principles that protect liberty and property.

    Adherence by the state to libertarian principles will protect the people from illegitimate actions such as conscription which has been a great enabler of unjust war, and the other great enabler of unjust war the power of the state to regulate the amount and the value of money — legal tender laws.

    Therefore the external actions of the libertarian state are above morality and the question of just war does not exist in the context of the libertarian state.

  • Devon Sanchez

    Somehow you made something so simple, very complex.
    People have the right to defend oneself and others, if they feel it within their best interest. But, those people who have engaged in an attack/defense of their own or another have no right whatsoever to forcibly engage other people and their resources to the attack/defense of themselves or another person(s).

    (And, by the way, your statement “This position would have to accept the private organization of volunteers to defend the genocide victims in Rwanda,” is true and in the absence of state’s forcing their citizens to accept war there would exist private organizations of members who act within the free market and use their own resources to “solve” the world’s violent problems.)

    • matt b

      I strongly disagree By the moral standard you articulate- “no right whatsoever to forcibly engage other people and their resources- it would be wrong to tax away 1 dollar of the income of U.S. citizen’s to prevent another Holocaust. Now you could say “If it would be that cheap and another Holocaust was going to occur then voluntary initiatives would emerge.” Maybe, maybe not. But by your standard, if it came to the “not” you would still oppose taxing away the dollar even if it meant millions would die.
      I think it’s highly implausible to believe people have an absolute right to 100 percent of the wealth they posess 100 percent of the time no matter how much suffering and death results from following this principle.

      • Fallon

        There have been countless non-state organized massacres and pogroms. But not any genocides or killing on an epic scale. This requires the massive collectivism of the state apparatus. Yet here you are rationalizing taxation, a key feature of the modern state, to combat genocide. What is the history of the modern state– the liberal ones included– if not subjugation, slavery and mass murder?

        • matt b

          I think the liberal nation state in the 20th and 21st centuries has, on net, been good for human welfare. Of course, we, as libertarians, are all too familiar with the crimes commited by the modern nation state that our friends on the left and right don’t pay much attention too/ justify. From drug prohibition to immigration restrictions, even governments in liberal democracies do a lot of harm. However, I think it’s wrong to say that the modern nation state is, as such, a problem. Same goes with taxation. If we had a government composed of Zwolinski’s and Teson’s or, to name an actual politician, Gary Johnson, would you be super worried about oppression? I suppose if you consider the very existence of the nation state and taxation oppression then that’s that but to me the modern nation state and the taxation that gives it life are like a fire: good in important ways but in need of being contained.

          • Devon Sanchez

            The American liberal “nation-state” of the 19th century was much more important for human freedom, leading to great developments and discoveries.

            “I suppose if you consider the very existence of the nation state and taxation oppression then that’s that but to me the modern nation state and the taxation that gives it life are like a fire: good in important ways but in need of being contained.”
            It cannot be contained. Today’s economy, the world over, is proof. A world financial collapse and restructuring is imminent and the only thing someone can do to protect oneself or their family is to hedge against the coming currency collapse.

          • matt b

            We are far freer today than in the 19th century on net. Blacks have equal rights. As do women. As do (except for complete marriage equality) gays. Apart from a few far right states, there are no laws against oral sex. Contraception is freely available. Now our economic liberties have certainly been diminished but despite the state’s misguided interference we’re still far richer and have more options so I guess I’m with Tyler Cowen in viewing the growth of the state in the economic realm as undesirable but not the end of the world. I’m also skeptical of the predictions of a U.S. currency collapse. Ron Paul has been predicting apocalyptic inflation forever and it has not yet happened. With that being said, we do need to change course in terms of the conduct of monetary policy.

          • Devon Sanchez

            You misinterpret my understanding of human “rights”. And you also misunderstand Dr. Ron Paul’s message.

          • matt b

            What did I misunderstand?
            Of course they do because of a whole host of misguided government policies. Here I’m sure we agree.
            I don’t find this sort of apocalyptic thinking to have much basis in reality. Ron Paul and company have been predicting catastrophe forever and it has not materialized. Now I think some on the left who act as if all is not too bad and that we should just spend more to fix any remaining problems are wrong as well. We have serious problems but things are far from being as desire as you depict them as being.

          • Fallon

            Wrong again. Paul predicted the housing bubble financial burst. Besides, Austrian econ does not require prediction/verification.

          • j_m_h

            Really? How did that work out for the Native American Indians? (One of these days I need to find out what they actually called themselves!) What about the Mexicans and their territories? And, of course, what of the African people who got their all expenses paid, non-voluntary transatlantic cruse to the slave markets in the South?

            What particular “great developments and discoveries” are you attributing to the “American liberal ‘nation-state'”?

          • Devon Sanchez

            I am not going to do the work for you. Read all the history you can of the American 19th century. The answers lie within the text.

          • j_m_h

            And I’m sure your romanticizing the liberal character of the 19th Century USA Government. The government has never lived up to the ideals defined in the Declaration or Liberty or the preamble to the Constitution — and it largely took no time at all for the government to start ignoring the Constitution.

            I suspect most of that liberalism of the time was driven more by the very wide and open frontier available to people and the very expensive travel and communications of the times putting limits on government abuses of power against it’s citizens. To some extent I suspect we also still had more principled statesmen in that era than we do today so maybe you have a little more ground supporting you — more like thin ice though.

          • Devon Sanchez

            I’m not a romantic.

          • j_m_h

            But isn’t the mere statement that we need to have “angels” as our representatives itself a statement about the nature of our modern states?

            It could be that Churchill (?) was right and our democratic states are the best we can hope fore but I’d like to think institutional improvements can be found that make our political systems more resilient to having bad people in office. I’d rather that government structures so that the most evil person can only do a little damage rather that structured to allow the most moral and well meaning person to do a lot of good.

            I suspect most of this comes from the view that, left on our own, the vast majority of people will choose to work with one another to improve everyone’s life rather than engage in the Hobbesian war of all against all.

          • mattb

            Well I’m certainly no fan of democracy and I favour strict constitutional constraints on the power of the state. All in all though, even our relatively unchained governments in the West have not made life too miserable. There are still far too many unjust abridgements of liberty but on the whole most of us are pretty free, far freer than we used to be in the 19th century when the government spent less but maintained oppressive institutions relating to race, gender, and sexual orientation.

        • j r

          Taxation doesn’t have to be rationalized. At least now when you don’t start from the de facto position that taxes are wrong.

          As for the role of the state, I’m not sure how much it tells us. The state is a form of technology, so a state can kill more people than a band of roving bandits in the same way that a gun can kill more people than a knife. That is a reason to be wary of guns, but if you’re enemy has one you might be best off getting one yourself.

          Now, from an empirical perspective, I know enough to be wary of state power and to be constantly looking for ways to check it. And this makes me very wary of foreign adventurism. Of the major wars and entanglements that the United States has been involved in, maybe five strike me as justified. However, this number could go up or down depending on how much more I can learn about America’s wars.

          • j_m_h

            Actually the knife never runs out of bullets… 😉 The gun can generally kill more people from a distance, that’s true.

            BTW, which 5 are you supporting

          • j r

            American Revolution, Civil Way (not from the Confederate side), WW2, Korea, and Afghanistan (this one I go back and forth on).

          • j_m_h


            I’m curious regarding the Civil War. Is that related to slavery or because you don’t think there was a Constitutional right to secede from the union?

          • j r

            I have no theoretical problem with secession, so it’s more than related to slavery. It’s impossible to understand the Civil War through any other lens than slavery.

            By the way, I can’t say that there’s any strong theoretical reasoning that justifies my opinions. For instance, there’s not much that differentiates U.S. involvement in Korea from U.S. involvement in Vietnam, except that the Korean War saved half the peninsula from the living hell that is much of North Korea.

          • Devon Sanchez

            Thank you USA for saving half the Korean Peninsula…

          • Devon Sanchez

            “The state is a form of technology”

            I do not understand what you mean by technology. If, by technology, you mean the state is a method of supreme, ignorant arbitration of life and death, then it would be one of the worst technologies man has invented.

      • Devon Sanchez

        And I strongly disagree with you merely by your definition of “moral standard”. How is a genocide in another region of the world any one person’s moral obligation or, better yet, responsibility?

        “I think it’s highly implausible to believe people have an absolute right to 100 percent of the wealth they (possess) 100 percent of the time no matter how much suffering and death results from following this principle.”

        Then you do not believe in true freedom and may also have a hard time understanding a state-less society’s charitable prevalence.

        • matt b

          Let’s be very clear. Are you saying that if you could prevent millions of deaths from systematic slaughter by taxing away one dollar from each U.S. citzen that you would not do so because it would involve forcible seizure?

          • Devon Sanchez

            Your scenario is highly implausible. But, to answer your question directly, I would gladly give more than a dollar (as many people would) to a cause that could prevent a genocidal slaughter, but not to the United States federal government and certainly not through taxation. Please think hard about what the government does with stolen property, beyond initial forcible seizure.

          • matt b

            You didn’t quite answer my question directly. The scenario was one in which, for whatever reason, the only way to achieve the end goal of saving millions of lives was to engage in some taxation. If you say you would still oppose taxation that’s fine but what frustrates me about strict natural rights libertarians is they often avoid such questions because even they are uncomfortable with the implications of the NAP.

          • Devon Sanchez

            Yes, I oppose force by any human measure.

          • matt b

            If your position is that the NAP is absolute then you are commited, by definition of your commitment to this principle above all else, to a number of moral conclusions that will strike 99.9999 percent of people as repugnant like letting millions die rather than taxing away the dollar. There’s simply no compelling basis to believe that non-coercion should be accorded to that sort of moral status where, no matter what else is at stake, we opt for non-coercion even if mass death and agonizing suffering would result.

          • Devon Sanchez

            What if it were 5,000 deaths, or 50,000 deaths, or 500,000 deaths, or 999,999 deaths? And what if it were that the deaths were as a result of withholding of foodstuff, and not the tip of a sword?

          • j_m_h

            Matt, lets be very clear. Are you saying that your desire to save one or a million other people give you any authority to impose your will upon mine?

          • matt b

            It depends what you mean by “impose your will.” If by that you are asking if I think there is a moral right to tax people to save the lives of innocent others threatened by murderous thugs and terrorists and tyrants the answer is absolutely yes.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            This issue may be a little more complicated than you acknowledge. Assuming that we (the U.S.) are not ourselves responsible for the existence of the threat (and thus under a moral obligation to “fix” it), you are endorsing the use of political force against unwilling taxpayers on consequentialist grounds. Does this principle generalize? Are you prepared to support the use of force whenever you judge the outcome to be sufficiently positive on a cost/benefit basis?

            What about required rescues. Should it be a crime not to stop and assist others in mortal danger when we can do so at no material cost to ourselves? This is not the law in the U.S. Where do you draw the line? BTW, I am not necessarily disagreeing with your conclusion.

          • matt b

            I’m not sure if my thinking is properly categorized as “consequentialist” though some might use that term. My view is that human rights are universal and that there should be, as much as is possible, a universal enforcement mechanism. Innocent human life in Damascus matters just as much to me as innocent human life in Des Moines so I’m a pretty big defender of humanitarian intervention. I think Daniel Goldhagen makes the case very powerfully in his book Worse Than War that the abusing nations are poor and weak while the nations that believe in human rights are rich and strong thus the most compelling objection to humanitarian intervention (what you might call the crushing burden of demaningness) is not really all that compelling.
            More broadly, I count myself in the same camp as Matt Zwolinski and Jason Brennan (though interestingly enough I think they are are more anti-interventionist on foreign policy than I am by far) in that I beklieve that there is a strong presumption against coercion but not a presumption that is so strong that it cannot be overturned by our concern for other values. If the cost of abstaining from coercion would be hundreds of thousands or millions of dead people then we will have to coerce. I would take it further and say if the cost is people starving or sick through no fault of their own here at home and private charity fails then we will have to coerce. I care about protecting human dignity and while I think coercion threatens it at a fundamental level in many instances, sometimes it is the best of the worst options in bringing about an outcome that recognizes the status of people as ends in themselves.

          • MARK_D_FRIEDMAN

            Just a few quick and sketchy thoughts about this complex issue:
            1. It is not clear that we have the same obligations to strangers that we have towards our countrymen; see This question is clearly relevant because we will be coercing our fellow citizens to assist foreigners.
            2. The protection of rights can fit comfortably within a consequentialist moral structure, but it potentially gives rise to the conclusion that the rights of one innocent person should be sacrificed if required to preserve the rights of a greater number of innocent perons. Nozick calls this a “utilitarianism of rights,” and argues against it. ASU, 28-9.
            3. There is still the line-drawing problem. Do you favor required rescue laws? Where do we stop, and how do you justify stopping there vs. somewhere else?
            4. Perhaps we can agree that the clearest case for foreign intervention is when there is both a strategic/economic justification as well as a humanitarian one.

          • matt b

            Just a few quick responses.
            1. I don’t know why we should believe that we have a greater moral obligation to protect innocent life in Des Moines than in Damascus. Imagine that the struggle in Des Moines has no effect on you. You’ve never been there. No one living there (unlike your neighbour) has benefited you. Why should you be made to help here and not overseas? I know you’ve laid out an argument for national defense on the grounds of benefits and burdens but an intra Iowa conflict would have no national reach of impact.
            2. I don’t think anyone rejects that view entirely. Would you refuse to torture one innocent person to save a million? If the answer is that, with great pain, you would do so than utilitarianism of rights has some appeal.
            3. There’s always a line drawing problem. For example, many libertarians support taxation to fund police to keep us safe from crime. But what if research clearly showed that if we invested more money in education we would have less crime and therefore have less of a need for police. Would you say “No we are not going to spend it on education. We are going to continue pouring it into police because they are compatible with the theory of the minimal state while tax funded education is not”? I would hope no one would embrace such a view.
            4. I agree that the more arguments in favour of X makes X more compelling. The question is whether or not the humanitarian justification alone is enough. I think the answer is yes.

          • j_m_h

            In answer to 2 I would say yes. I’m not going to become the cause of one persons suffering to save others from a harm that yet others (and perhaps even some of the one’s I will be savings) are going to cause.

            The only one person you have any right to sacrifice to save others is yourself. Case closed in my opinion you want to claim any moral standing

          • matt b

            This is an agonizing question but I think the problem with the never torture anyone innocent ever is how far do you take it. What if it could lead to saving not 1 million lives but 10 million or 100 million. What if it could prevent nuclear war and you wouldn’t see people’s skin melting off in the streets? It’s so hard but the great thing is that such situations are almost certainly never going to present themselves which is why we should focus on other issues that are at play in everyday life.

          • j_m_h

            Matt, for me I take it all the way. I’m not the person causing the horrific results so I don’t have to assume any guilt for those results if I refuse to be coerced into harming some bystander.

            You touch on another point that I always find interesting in so many of these types of discussions. One presents some extreme scenario and then suggest that our social rules, which have emerged to address the normal type of conflicts we have, be evaluated in that context and if lacking suggest they are deficient. These types of life boat/torture one person to save millions are unique. To suggest that the rules we live our daily lives by should be changed to satisfy tragic but rather isolated events is a mistake — we just end up with bad law/rules.

            We see this happen time and time again — look at what’s happening in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings; no one really thinks the new law will actually prevent such occurrences in the future. I’m not even sure one can make the claim that the law will even reduce the frequency of such events. That thought prompted me to a quick google which which give a guick hit on: It’s got an interesting chart but I cannot speak to what the actual quality of the research was.

          • Fallon

            You embrace the ideology of tyrants and terrorists. The US war machine, CIA and executive drone program equals murderous thugs. You obviously care not for the children killed by drone strikes or the loss of jobs at home to pay for your grand humanitarian adventures.

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  • Gurrie

    When my kids were little and in the back seat of the car, any fights were always claimed to have been started by the other one. The “aggressor” might not even be the one who threw the first punch-in-the-arm, but the one who made a face or called someone a name. As a parent, my job was not to decide who was the aggressor or whose cause was just. It was to restore the peace and, only occasionally, mete out a (hopefully) just punishment. Perhaps, as libertarians, we should focus more emphasis on coming up with ever more creative ways for governments to keep the peace, not just search our souls for deep moral and/or intellectual ways to decide on which side to pick in a fight, or how to pay for any wars that we think are “justified”.

    • matt b

      Peace can only kept once it’s been established of course and in much of the world there is no peace and the reason why is clear and not at all a case of “he said/she said.” I look at Syria and Iran and the dissident movements their governments seek to crush for example and it’s clear that we are not dealing with groups that both have legitimate grievances and good and bad to them but rather find ourselves dealing with brutal tyrannies with no moral legitimacy whatsoever trying to hold on to their power by crushing opposition. In light of vicious, murderous oppression abroad, far too many libertarians are willing to say “Ah what can ya do” and that sort of attitude is antithetical to advancing freedom. Also, I find it disturbing to see how so many libertarians turn into Noam Chomsky when foreign policy enters the discussion, treating America and Israel as the worst states on earth. Of course you didn’t do that but I was just pointing out that unfortunate tendency on the part of a more than a few people.


        Ah, so you’ve noticed this tendency–good for you. If only I had a good explanation for it.

        • matt b

          I can’t quite put my finger on it. I’m guessing it comes down to absolute opposition to taxation and the idea that U.S. foreign policy requires it to fund intervention abroad and is therefore evil. There’s also crank theories about a global empire trying to enslave us here at home and shred the Constitution.

      • Fallon

        If you want to take things to a cosmic level, see the profound difference in how neoconservatives– like historian Victor Davis Hanson, military historian John Keegan, Patriot Act lawyer John Yoo and, somewhat, the BHL commenter Mark Friedman (yep, picking on you)– see the basis of civilization and peace as opposed to the e.g. Ron Paul, Lew Rockwell, Rothbard, Mises and crowd.

        Most all see the necessity of the use and threat of force– but the neocons believe that violence is the first action, and that higher civil society, free market relations etc, are secondary and unessential. Whereas the Austrian and market crowd see force and threat of force more justly crafted within the market form. There need not be a first resort to violence– especially when voluntary cooperation allows for better production of defense and more accurate assessment of the world. Contra neocon ideology, and without discoloring man’s inherent nature to do monstrous evil or towering works of good, it is indeed possible to break with man’s violent past.

        So you have a choice. Right now you are on the Dark Side, haha.


          Honored to be picked on…by you. But I really don’t know anyone who thinks that “violence is the first action, and that civil society, free market relations etc. are secondary and unessential.” This is just nutty name-calling. But go ahead, knock yourself out.

          • Fallon

            Irving Kristol, Father Neocon. “Two Cheers for Capitalism”. (i.e. not three cheers…)

          • matt b

            I can’t stand Kristol (his lamentation that that his fellow conservatives were insufficiently turned on by censorship was particularly disturbing) but I see no relationshinp whatsoever between his slobbering valentines to tradition no matter how reactionary and the views Mark has advocated which are not only libertarian but on the harder end of the spectrum (natural rights versus soft and fuzzy consequentialism).

        • matt b

          I feel like I must express solidarity with Mark here. First of all, isin’t Lew Rockwell too busy paling around with white nationalists to be weighing in on questions of war and peace? I consider him to be someone who is absolutely beyond the pale and his entire website of cranks to be in the same category. Ron Paul and Rothbard, I regard somewhat differently but find their views to be decidedly problematic as well. As Matt Zwolinski has written about with great persuasive force, they are the type of libertarians who treat non-coercion as a moral absolute and that leads to repugnant conclusions that go against the common sense morality libertarianism is (or at least should be) built upon. Moreover, I consider Paul’s views on foreign policy- Michael Moore minus the nuance (yes that’s a joke)- to be absurd. He is reflexively anti-intervention and anti-Israel and acts as if America has been this great force for evil in the world when the reality is far more complicated and filled with morally admirable acts alongside the errors and sins.
          So I guess I’m on the dark side if that means believing that non-coercion, while important, is not a moral absolute and in believing that foreign intervention can and has advanced human liberty and in regarding the United States, for its many flaws, as a force for good in the world.

          • Fallon

            Lew Rockwell et al. do have some racist baggage for sure. But that in no way mitigates the basic strength of the Austro-libertarian stance. Would you be more comfortable with Cobden, Bastiat, Molinari and Mises (again)? You are only misdirecting anyway. Maybe you are not so secure in your position I gather.

            Look, only individuals act. “USA” is collectivist nonsense. Imaginary lines on a map. Men in costumes. Political religion. Ideas that create double standards of justice. Some kill and go to the electric chair. Others, like Chris Kyle, Navy Seal, are made into heroes. Same goes for taxation.

            Anyway, what you really mean by the state enforcement of universal rights is the forced implementation of your own personal designs at other people’s expense. You are the “humanitarian with a guillotine”.

            Is your idea of justice so righteous that you are willing to threaten me with jail, forfeiture and death if I do not yield? What of this universality when my conscience and rights don’t matter to you?

            And where do you think systems based on this contradiction and class divide lead? USA, force for good, huh?

          • matt b

            I don’t see how I’m “misdirecting.” You mentioned Lew Rockwell and cast him and his vision in a positive light and I made an argument, based on facts that you did not dispute, about his shameful buddy buddy relationship with white nationalists. I’m certainly more comfortable with the other names you mentioned though. Bastiat, in particular, is someone whose insight I consider to be indispensable.
            It seems bizzare to object to my arguments on the grounds of “forced implementation.” Last time I checked things don’t turn out too well for the poor person who steals bread in the anarcho-capitalist utopia. The view that they should starve rather than “steal” is implemented by force. We all have views of right and wrong and think that they should be implemented coercively to some extent. If we didn’t, we would oppose using force to prevent rape for example. Now you could say “you have a right not to be raped so that’s what makes force okay there.” I agree. But the minute you agree that it is legitimate to use force to defend A value then we are in a debate about why just A and not B and C and D.
            Ultimately, I think we reach different destinations because we took different intellectual paths. I’m a classical liberal and you’re more of what Brennan has reffered to as a “hard libertarian” who thinks non-coercion is the ultimate moral trump card. I used to be more sympathetic to this line of thinking but when I came to develop a deeper appreciation for its implications I realized how incompatible it was with my deepest moral intuitions.

          • Fallo

            Again, you throw out the baby with the bath water re Rockwell. Rockwell etc expand and advance Bastiat’s ideas. The “hard” libertarian label has its place– but is too often associated with the statist variant of classical liberalism from Mill to Hayek. Are you blind to the moral affront that is state management of the economy, conscription and monetary centralization? For all of the semiotic divide and conquer– remember that for at least one BHL, that may have been the origin of the soft v. hard distinction– it has meant common cause with the likes of former VP Dan Quayle and Charles Murray (now employed at warmongering AEI).

            You want slavery to end slavery. You cannot simultaneously be for Bastiat and neocon projection of state dominance at home and abroad. Maybe that contradiction incentivizes the knee jerk racist meme. Ironically, President Wilson, one who you sound like in your collectivist pronouncements, was a massive racist.

            At least you might want to stop using the Royal “We”. I want nothing to do with your murder and theft.

          • Fallon

            *Hard libertarian label being launched from the statist camp.

          • matt b

            Lew Rockwell argued that the problem with cops beating the shit out of Rodney King was that it was filmed. He is a crank, talking about conspiracies left and right and allowing the most lunatic fever swamp conspiracy theorists to write on his website. The evidence that he wrote Ron Pau’s hateful newsletters is overwhelming as well. I have less than zero respect for him and his crowd

            Hayek was a statist? Okay then. I’m against conscription, the state’s massive involvement in the economy, and like Milton Friedman I think we would probably be better off without the Fed though I reject the way that it’s been villified as the root of all evil by many Austrians. Murray is something of a libertarian I guess though Quayle obviously is not though I know of no libertarian advocating alliances with Quayle or Quayle like people except for maybe your friend Lew Rockwell who spent the 1990s with a thrill up his leg for all manners of reactionary right wing politicians.

            I’m not a neocon and I think it’s remarkably hyperbolic to describe anyone who opposes this hundred one percent absolutist acceptance of the NAP as a supporter of tyranny and slavery. If that’s the case about 99.9 percent of the world is hot for despotism.

          • Fallon

            Your contradictions are egregious. Taxation to stop genocide implies the destruction of what little of classical liberalism you supposedly support. Is there any concept you are willing to apply with consistency? Where does the military industrial complex, drug war calamity, elimination of habeas, etc. originate but in the minds of people like you? Okay, maybe you are not the John Yoo type– but you have Clintonista/Wilsonian stamped on your remarks.

            The planning of the Fed Reserve was not a conspiracy, e.g.? Wow, how much kool aid have you smoked?

            Talk about crankage. For all the failings of the LRC market crowd– it is your stance that represents real hatred and murder. Maybe your nose should be rubbed in a drone aftermath. See and smell your ideological handy-work. You like killing children for The Cause? You answer like Madeline Albright, “It was worth it.”

          • matt b

            I think we’ve exhausted the discussion so I’ll respond to this and call it a day as I think our deepest beliefs are incompatible thus leading to inevitable, intractable disagreement. I am completely against the drug war, any sort of welfare for military contractors, the assault on civil liberties including the suspension of haebus corpus. As for Wilson, he was a big government authoritarian so no not a fan. I’m more sympathetic to Clinton- I think he was an okay president- but obviously he’s not a libertarian so big differences.
            I never defended drones or anything like that and find it odd that you mention killing children when your principles hold that it is immoral to tax people mininal amounts to prevent the mass murder of children. I think that if you look beyond the blinding light of orthodoxy you will see that the NAP and other concepts defended by hard libertarians are deeply problematic because they lead to unspeakable conclusions regarding human well being.

          • Fallon

            I never mentioned NAP. My arguments, that you have thus far mostly ignored with you ‘racist’ chant, do not require it. But you mention that neocon twerp Kagan approvingly. What are you trying to pull? “I’m not a neocon.” Ha.

            Your thought experiment of ‘limited taxation to save genocide’ is a reductionist trap. It is not possible in real time to project power overseas without creating, to quote William F. Buckley, ‘a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.’ So you may be for restoring habeas and ending the drug war, etc.: But you cannot get there by the methods you have chosen, even via a Clintonian state. (Btw, how many Iraqi children died early deaths due to his choke-hold?) That you will not even concede that your plan of world justice, is just that, yours only, and that it comes at my forced expense, is quite telling. You do not see the arrogance in your self-righteousness. No pro-dictatorship mindset ever does.

            The charge of absolutist orthodoxy bounces off me and sticks to you, my friend. But go ahead. Run away. I will allow you to retreat. How unfortunate that you do not have the decency to return the respect.

      • Gurrie

        America and Israel are both to be admired as very good states. They are not perfect, of course, but if the U.S. aspires to be the leader of the free world, it has a duty to try harder to be the best of all. I am not trying to say that we cannot or should not make any judgments about the moral legitimacy of one side or another in a war. I am saying that we have a special duty to first try to understand what the grievances are, then decide if they are legitimate or not, then try to find a non-violent solution for those that are legitimate. It may be, as you say, that some tyrannies have no moral legitimacy whatsoever, but it has been my life’s experience that even an evil madman is most successful when he is playing to fears or grievances that have some basis in fact.

        • matt b

          A very thoughtful post. I don’t think I have anything insightful to add. I really like your last point about even evil madman playing to fears and grievances that have some basis in reality. This is one thing that is so often overlooked.

    • j_m_h

      I’ve never liked the analogy of government as father or mother figure for the simple reason that all the ties that bind parent to child are missing. Moreover, citizens of a free society in which government is the servant of the citizens that model just doesn’t fit.

      Still, you’re correct in the idea that a well government society should be one in which internal conflict is minimized (that was clearly part of Locke’s idea of our granting the exercise of certain individual rights to government and forgoing our individual exercise of those rights). That doesn’t mean the government can step in to “restore the peace” in every dispute — just like good parents know when to let the kids work things out amongst themselves rather than get involves.

      • Gurrie

        I did not mean to imply that there is a valid analogy between government and parenting. I was merely using this example as an illustration that finding a way to bring about peace is often better and more just than trying to identify and punish an “aggressor”. In the Middle East, the game of “He’s the one who started it” can be carried back months and years, and indeed all the way to such things as the Balfour Declaration, the dismantling of the Ottoman Empire, the siege of Malta and the Crusades. Somewhat unfortunately, the politicians and the majority of the people in this country seem to have accepted and even embraced the role of “enforcer”, so I am simply hoping that libertarians, at least, will distinguish themselves by urging creative conflict resolution rather than picking sides based on media sound-bites.

        • j_m_h

          For the most part I agree with everything you say here so thanks for clarifying.

          I don’t agree that most people have embraced the role of enforcer, I’m not even sure “accept” is the correct word — perhaps find they have no good way or rejecting or reducing it would be a better descriptions but that is a form of acceptance.

          I think your last point is one many should listen to and think about trying to do.

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  • TonyFressola1950

    As a latecomer to this conversation, I would like suggest a somewhat different way of framing the issue. I agree that it is inappropriate to attribute rights to governments in the same sense that we attribute rights to individuals. A tyrannical government has no right to remain undisturbed. However, there are reasons to hope that as matter of principle, government would practice restraint in their relations with one another. One of the most destructive things that governments do is to go to war with one another. Wars between governments — even those where one side in the other appears clearly “in the right” — invariably result in injury and death to innocents and wholesale destruction of wealth. Typically, resources are diverted from productive uses, government power is enhanced, rights are violated (taxation, conscription, etc), dissent is suppressed. For these and other reasons, we should wish for governments interact with one another ways that reduce the likelihood that they will end up at war with one another. One way governments do this is to observe a rule of mutual forbearance — put roughly: “you stay out of my space and I will stay out of yours”. Now there may be cases in which a relatively benevolent government could break the rule a relatively low cost and accomplish some good in the process. However, one of the costs we shouldn’t ignore is that breaking the rule in any one case, will tend to undermine it and make future breaches more likely.

  • If governmental “defensive” wars can be justified, nearly anything the government does can be justified. The government must, at a minimum, tax people to finance its “legitimate” wars. Even if no innocents are killed or maimed and no private property is destroyed, a war involves confiscation. Thus, even the most moral war you can imagine is at least as unlibertarian as welfare. We are free to give charity to people. We are free to use force to defend people. But to use the state to do either is always unlibertarian. Always.

  • Even Thomas Jefferson—who was lightyears away from being a libertarian—recognized that standing armies were incompatible with freedom. Even non-anarchist libertarians should favor immediate abolition of the military.

  • “For in the defensive war that the libertarian does allow (a reaction against the invader) there is collateral harm as well. We kill innocent women and children when we repel the aggressor.”

    If you are attacked, whether by a foreign government, a private criminal, a police officer or a member of the draft board, you have the moral right to use force to repel them. But you have no right to kill anyone who happens to be in the way. Now, perhaps, in the heat of battle, you might hurt innocent people, who will forgive you this trespass given the extreme circumstances. But it is a trespass. They have just as much right to be free of being attacked as you do.

    I mention the police and draft board for a reason. Right now, most people living in the United States are being victimized by its government. The state has no right to tax us, or imprison us for victimless crimes, or regulate our peaceful behavior. But it does so. We have a moral right to resist. There are practical reasons not to. But there are also moral reasons. One of those reasons is there is no real way to engage in violent revolution without inflicting “collateral damage” on innocents who have just as much right to be free of our revolutionary violence as we have to be free of domestic state violence, or foreign government violence.

    To take the point further, we are being victimized by the state. In some areas, worse than the Canadians are. But that doesn’t mean the Canadian government is free to invade the United States and overthrow the US government. Even if this could work, it would mean the violation of rights of Canadians as well as Americans.

    If you concede that any US wars are aggression—and I hope you do—then any ethic that allows for “libertarian” wars could easily be spun into a justification for anti-American terrorism. What if al-Qaeda succeeded and the US pulled out of the Middle East in reaction to 9/11? Then that terrorist attack would have been a successful strategic hit in al-Qaeda’s war of defense of the Middle East against US aggression. But of course that’s nonsense. It would have been immoral mass murder even if it resulted in the abolition of the US government and the liberation of the American people!

    • matt b

      “Any US wars are agression” No I don’t think so. WW2 wasn’t a war of aggression but rather a defensive war. More recently, our intervention in Libya which prevented mass slaughter, while not defensive, was not a war of aggression but rather a war of liberation in which we saved innocents from genocide. Your position amounts to the idea that these wars are wrong because they involve taxation. Suppose the U.S. was attacked by a country seeking to impose a totalitarian state and the only way to prevent the totalitarian takeover was to engage in some taxation. Would you oppose that? And if you say no what if the takeover were to last 100 years and tens of millions would die. Still no way you’d say taxation was justified?

      • When I said, “If you concede that any US wars are aggression,” I should have been clearer. Were there any US wars that were acts of aggression in your view?

        If the hypothetical is, would I oppose taxation to stop 100 years of totalitarianism and tens of millions of deaths, I suppose I might not, but that taxation would not be libertarian. If such a crazy hypothetical actually came to be, where I really thought taxation and the US government were all that stood in the way of 100 years of totalitarian rule, I would probably stop calling myself a libertarian. My sense of political reality would have been so jarred I might lose confidence in my core libertarian principles. I don’t think in the real world governments offer nearly that kind of tradeoff in their provision of “national defense.”

        To give another example, if I thought a ban on meth and guns were the only way to stop everyone from becoming a meth addict and shooting everyone in the neighborhood, I’d probably be tempted to deviate on drug laws and gun control. But even if I actually believed in drug and gun prohibition, I don’t think those positions would be libertarian. I would either say I’m a libertarian except not all the way on those issues, or I would say I’m not really a libertarian.

        • I’m not really trying to bully people into not calling themselves libertarians; this is just the way I see the principles through.

          • matt b

            I appreciate that but if your conception of libertarianism is correct it means that our small community is even smaller than we thought as your conception would exclude not only people like Matt Zwolinski and Jason Brennan but also Friedman (pro social safety net), Buchanan (pro social safety net too) and even beloved Austrian Hayek (pro social safety net too as well). It would even exclude Nozick who believed taxation was justified to provide for a certain set of public goods. It would also exclude most people who work for Reason and many at Cato as well. I guess you can say “yup and they should become real libertarians because they’re fairly close already” My view is that anybody who favors far less government in the economic realm and the personal realm is a libertarian and there are just degrees and types of opposition to big government. Kind of like how anyone who supportes less government in the economic realm and more or at least not less on net in the personal realm is a conservative and anyone who supports more government or at least opposes less on net in the economic realm while supporting less in the personal realm is a left liberal.

          • I think all taxation is unlibertarian. Whether a libertarian can support some unlibertarian positions is not my primary interest. Friedman, Buchanan, and Hayek might all fail my test as to who is a libertarian; they’ve certainly all taken plenty of unlibertarian positions—but that is also not really my interest. Rothbard also took some unlibertarian positions, and surely Mises did too. These people can be heroes and we can still say they took positions that broke with libertarianism.

            But I do think that the formulation that a libertarian is “anybody who favors far less government in the economic realm and the personal realm” is a bit too broad. Does this definition dependent upon national context? If Barack Obama were standing in North Korea, would he be a libertarian, because surely he would advocate less government intervention in both realms than that particular state is known for?

          • matt b

            So a few responses. The first point I would make is that you’re absolutely right in saying my original definitional framework was too broad. I should have said something like “Favors far less government in the economic and personal realm in the West.” Without that qualifier, you get Obama being a libertarian and as I’m sure we agree that’s nuts 🙂 I think your conception is far too narrow though. Under it, who counts as a libertarian? Almost nobody. Someone could support drug legalization, open borders, eliminating almost every federal and state government department and program, total free trade, and so on and so forth and you would say they are, what, “moderate statists” or something like that?

          • So my primary goal here isn’t to define people as either libertarians or not libertarians. I’m perfectly fine with the idea that in some contexts, a broad definition is useful, and in other ones, a narrow definition is better. I also think what passed for libertarianism 100 years ago might not be properly called libertarianism today.

            All that said, I do tend to have some litmus test issues. If someone were good on all those topics—drugs, immigration, government programs, and free trade—but the person also favored the military draft, I would say without hesitation that that person is simply not a libertarian. The support of some wars might be more disqualifying than the support of others. But I think that libertarians who supported the Iraq war, for example, were not just in error, but they necessarily abandoned so many core libertarian principles that it would be fair to argue they ceased to be libertarians.

            The litmus tests that are relevant also depend on some context. Surely some are automatically disqualifying—defending chattel slavery or the draft or strategic bombing. Mises favored the draft in WWII, and I am OK with saying he wasn’t a libertarian, but rather a classical liberal.

        • matt b

          If you define libertarianism as the idea that people have a 100 percent right to 100 percent of the resources they’ve acquired 100 percent of the time you are defining it in a way that ensures that almost nobody who is not already a convert will find the philosophy appealing (and saying you would support taxation to save tens of millions of lives but that this would be unlibertarian is even worse because people hear that and they reasonably say “Well if that’s unlibertarian then geting as far away from libertarianism as possible sounds like a good idea). Now my premise that this conception of libertarianism has very little chance of convincing people who don’t already accept it does not show the conception is false. Some ideas that have little appeal or chance of having appeal are morally right (open borders for example). However, I think that this conception of libertarianism is not only unpopular but wrong because the idea that people have a right to 100 percent of the resources they’ve acquired 100 percent of the time commits to a series of unacceptable conclusions. Now your view which seems to be that people have a right to the resources they’ve acquired maybe only 99.9 percent of the time might help us prevent tens of millions of dead but I would think you would consider, say, limited social welfare taxation to ensure that no one suffers through no fault of their own through cheaply preventable disease or being born to bad parents of what have you to be unacceptable. I consider that conclusion to be unacceptable and this is where I guess we part ways.

          • So we agree that open borders are morally right but unpopular and unpopularity is not the criterion we are looking for. What interests me is that you talk about this issue as though it boils down to whether .1 percent of someone’s recourses can be confiscated to save tens of millions of lives—but again, if I really thought that was the trade-off the state provides us, my whole worldview would really be different. My instincts might be libertarian but in world where such a tiny portion of taxation would save tens of millions of lives, and taxation were the only way to save those lives, and the state was the only institution that could do it, I just don’t think I would have made it this long as a resolute libertarian. The history of the U.S. government, and all other governments I’ve studied (much less extensively, I admit), would not suggest to me that the state ever offers such tempting tradeoffs. It’s usually more a matter of: the state wants to seize 10% of everyone’s income, throw a bunch of people in prison, kill a bunch of innocent people, destroy a bunch of infrastructure, whip of national hatreds, and, in the process, it might save some people, but that promise is all based on dubious state propaganda.

            Did the war in Libya really save people from genocide? I have my serious doubts. They were talking about war like it was the only thing that would prevent tens of thousands of deaths in Benghazi, but that claim has already been seriously downgraded. Now the administration says thousands were saved. There were good reasons to doubt the humanitarian motives and prospective humanitarian achievements. There were good reasons at the time to doubt Gaddafi really intended to commit quite the genocide the administration predicted, and also that he’d be able to do so even if he wanted.,0,4286197.column

            The effect of the Libya war was not also a clearcut humanitarian victory. For Libyan blacks, the violence against whom Gaddafi had been suppressing, it has been nearly an unmitigated catastrophe, as the racist lynch mobs connected to U.S.-favored rebels have been unleashed to massacre them in large numbers, and many black immigrants have been rounded up and thrown in detention camps.


            As for your other example of a libertarian war—World War II—we can discuss this at greater length, but it’s certainly not an example of the tradeoff being low taxation to avert genocide. Genocide wasn’t averted; it happened. It could have been even worse without Allied war efforts, but I have my doubts about that too. At any rate, for the United States, this “defensive” war meant 40% of the economy—not .1%—diverted to the war effort, the conscription (enslavement) of 11 million Americans, corporate socialism of an extreme variety, Japanese internment, the development and use of nuclear weapons, a million or so Japanese civilians murdered in dozens of terror bombings, an alliance with Stalin, aiding in gruesome post-war crimes against humanity, and 400,000 American deaths. You can say many of these costs were unnecessary to the war, and yet those were the costs incurred, and I’ve seen no evidence that the war could have been essentially the war it was without casualties in the ballpark of what they were. And this was to defend what? A military installation in Hawaii? If that counts as a defensive war, I surely think it bolsters my argument that libertarians should oppose defensive wars too. There was certainly never any way Japan or Germany was going to conquer the United States; the threat these nations posed to Americans on U.S. soil was trivial.

          • matt b

            You sir should publish a book. There’s a lot there and many points I take very seriously and even agree with. I don’t think that my plunging into waters of historical discussion would be particularly productive though. As I see it, and you can tell me if I’m wrong, but as I see it you and I have a very different moral understanding. In my worldview, non-coercion is something that should be valued very highly. The presumption against coercion is very strong and in keeping that presumption I favor radically scaling back government. However, I don’t think non-coercion is a moral absolute. Let me provide the weight of example to make my point clearer. Imagine you have two societies. In society one, 90 percent of people live good lives while 10 percent are starving, sick, and suffering. There is private chairty but it is insufficient and all taxation is voluntary. In society two, near 100 percent of people live decent lives because a small social welfare tax has been instituted by government to care for the 10 percent who would otherwise be starving, sick, and suffering. To a hard libertarian like yourself, society one is morally preferable (though I guess not ideal because there is still some government, extremely limited and funded voluntarily but still in existence) to society two because in society two there is a tax funded social safety net. In my view, society two is clearly preferable. I think this is where you see classical liberals like me part ways with hard libertarians. We, like you, value non-coercion but not above and beyond all else and we accord far greater moral weight to well being and dignity and believe that sometimes protecting both requires taxation.

          • I tend toward the absolutist side of the spectrum on the question of coercion. But physical coercion is certainly not the only immoral act. I can imagine a society where there is no state but social and cultural pressures that enforce a brutal patriarchy, for example. That is neither moral nor, in an important sense, liberal. I think there are plenty of moral considerations that can weigh heavily. A society might be viciously immoral but more libertarian. A person can be a less moral person due to the awful way she treats everyone around her than someone who commits shoplifting on occasion. If a bleeding child comes to me and asks me for directions to the hospital, and I mislead the child on purpose, that might not be a rights violation, but it is certainly a more awful action than many minor rights violations I can think of. The main distinction I would make with rights violations is only they can ever be properly addressed and remedied through force. Immorality that doesn’t violate rights is best combated peacefully.

            All that being said, it would be more difficult for me to stick to my hard libertarianism if your hypotheticals were really the type of thing we saw in real life. A society where everyone is doing fine because of a small welfare tax, but which would cease to do fine if that tax were abolished and private charity filled the void, is really difficult for me to imagine. I think you give the state way too much credit.

          • matt b

            I didn’t actually argue that the state was doing well or anywhere close to it. The purpose of my thought expirement was to argue that, if under certain circumstances, only tax funded state programs could prevent suffering and provided people with minimally decent lives then I would be for those programs in contrast to some libertarians, particularly anarcho-capitalists, who would take the view of, you know, “That’s really unfortunate but it does not justify coercion.”

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