Liberty, Current Events

Private Wars

As I write these lines, innocent civilians are killed or threatened by rulers, warlords, or other groups throughout the world. As some of you know, for many years I have argued that humanitarian intervention (the use of force to save lives in such situations) is sometimes permissible. A standard libertarian objection is that a government should not force people to subsidize wars in defense of others (these objectors may or may not think that a government can force people to subsidize wars in self-defense).

Here’s a reply to the objection: those private citizens who wish to save lives in other nations should themselves hire professional soldiers (mercenaries) to do the job. In that way, rescuers internalize the costs of their humanitarian impulses. No standing army or conscription is needed, and citizens cannot possibly object to humanitarians putting their money where their mouth is.

My proposal involves filibusters and mercenaries. Filibusters are persons who wage unauthorized wars -that is, unauthorized by the state. Mercenaries are persons who offer military services for a price. So, I suggest that filibusters (who are private persons) can hire mercenaries (who are also private persons) to put an end to massive crimes in other states. Take them in turn.

1) As indicated, filibusters are persons who wage unauthorized wars. Under traditional just war theory, private wars are impermissible. Here is St. Thomas Aquinas: “It does not pertain to a private person to declare war, because he can prosecute his rights at the tribunal of his superior; similarly, it does not pertain to a private person to summon the people together.” (Political Writings, Cambridge U. P., 240Just as the government is in charge of punishing criminals within the state, so it is in charge, as Aquinas says, of using “the sword of war” to protect the state from foreign enemies. The idea, then, is that the state has the monopoly of both domestic and external force. Starting a private war usurps that monopoly.

But why can’t private persons organize themselves and travel to a territory to help victims of genocide? Such initiatives will solve a pervasive problem in the justification of war: the state’s forcing unwilling citizens to participate in or subsidize a humanitarian intervention. There is sense in the common say: “Do you care about the Congo victims? By all means, organize your own army and intervene there on your dime!” (In fact, a good deal of the hate mail I receive starts exactly like that). The filibuster does not impose on others the costs of intervention. It is no answer to say that in today’s world private wars are unrealistic and unfeasible and the state is the only entity capable of starting a humanitarian intervention. The issue is why, assuming some wars are just, filibustering should be prohibited as a matter of principle.

Filibustering, of course, is not well regarded by international law, which makes governments liable for any military operation. But this is just more evidence that international law overprotects governments. A justified war is a form of justified defensive action (humanitarian intervention is also defensive action, an action in defense of persons). The requirement that actions by individuals in defense of people in foreign territories should be authorized by the state of which those individuals are nationals is, I think, arbitrary. If anything, the requirement that only the state can initiate war makes even less sense in humanitarian intervention. For in that case, the defensive action by filibusters on behalf of foreigners occurs outside the jurisdiction of the state of which the filibusters are nationals. In national self-defense, the state arguably has authority in its territory to lead and coordinate the defensive war. But that authority does not reach those who fight to save others in foreign lands. The idea that the state is the only entity that can or should start a war is just another statist prejudice.

Filibusters can be billionaires imbued with the desire to rescue victims of genocide, or grass-roots organizations that crowd-fund humanitarian military efforts through small donations from many like-minded people.

2) Mercenaries are private entrepreneurs who offer military services. As long as they have existed (since Antiquity) they have been despised by governments, scholars, and the general public.

However, an unprejudiced look reveals that most of the reasons for this hostility are questionable. It is argued that because killing for money is morally wrong, it is impermissible to hire people who do that. But surely enlisted soldiers kill for money too: it is their profession. Arguably, enlisted soldiers risk their lives not only for love of country but also for solidarity with comrades. If this is true, then it seems equally true of mercenaries, who presumably take pride in what they do and feel solidarity for their comrades also. Monetary compensation is one element in a richer range of motives, many of which are self-interested. Enlisted soldiers receive salary, benefits, prestige, and social esteem. All of these motives are self-interested, yet a romantic tradition has emphasized the honor and glory of fighting for one’s country –I call it the Patriotic Prejudice. Because this altruistic motive seems to be lacking in mercenaries, they are supposed to be bad people. But once we disaggregate motivation in both cases and we see the Patriotic Prejudice for what it is, the two cases do not seem that different.

This proposal is only partly tongue-in-cheek. I think that the only reason why it sounds so ludicrous is that we have been indoctrinated with the idea that only nations can wage honorable wars. I conjecture that for centuries rulers have peddled the Patriotic Prejudice to motivate subjects to give their lives for the rulers’ benefit.

 

 

  • Puppet’s Puppet

    Anything that avoids compulsory payment does indeed avoid the most “foundational” and widespread libertarian objection to humanitarian war. But, while you’ve touched on a lot, I’ll just make one narrow point: A “private actor” who enlists and mobilizes an army is no longer particularly “private” in any important sense of the word. Confiscating taxes by force from “citizens” or “residents” is of course a very important distinguishing characteristic of a state, but it’s hardly the only one (otherwise the Vatican and, until recently, Saudi governments would not be state actors). There is also being the ultimate, potentially force-backed and confiscatory arbiter of torts and contract disputes; and even the direct establishment of whatever rules are inescapably public–whatever ones cannot be established by mutual voluntary agreement–and the punishment of those who break them. For those more moderate libertarians who don’t think the Thirteenth Amendment was government overreach, the administration of military discipline on the soldiers themselves can be problematic. But even for the more hardline defenders of contractual liberty, mobilization will be a problem. The army must act as state for the areas it controls. (We throw around words like “not an army of occupation,” but it’s Orwellian to think this is anything more than a vague, relative distinction. All armies are armies of occupation to at least some hardly insignificant extent. And certainly an army that considers keeping its “occupational footprint” to a minimum to be a lexical priority over any other desiderata that might clash with it cannot be called a humanitarian army at all.)

    The point is, war is an inescapably sloppy business that “sullies” you to the very least extent by turning you from a humanitarian into a full-fledged “state.” The fact that you have “private” origins and are not sponging off the citizens of a pre-existing state should not fool us into imparting to you any imported halo that a libertarian may have the urge to hang on you for that distinction. So let’s keep that in mind when we start to throw around talk of “states having a monopoly on war” according to current “‘statist’ conventions” and so forth. A libertarian should not necessarily jump at that bait. Instead, he may want to consider some of the “practical” restrictions on warfare that libertarians are often receptive to alongside the more “ideological” ones inherent to their foundational philosophy. For instance, war is so inherently massively destructive of human welfare (and so uncertain in its prospect for even achieving its goals) that respect for conventions that greatly reduce its prevalance can be justified even if it means tolerating a lot of injustice. One such arrangement is state sovereignty. (No nonanarchist interventionist–in particular no liberal, who considers every illiberal government to be illegitimate in some sense–is so hawkish as to not have some regard for state sovereignty as weighed against cause for intervention.) Another important one is the one against private foreign armies. This greatly limits the potential number of actors “permitted” to wage war. I am not so sure that’s a bad thing. I am no fan of states, and certainly not of their track record on the matter of war; but again, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we are debating whether to continue the monopoly of “states” or open it up to other types of actors. In an important sense, it’s all states–just more of them.

    This is not intended to be a refutation of your argument, just of that one part.

    The point is, war is an inescapably sloppy business that “sullies” you to the very least extent by turning you from a humanitarian into a full-fledged “state.” The fact that you have “private” origins and are not sponging off the citizens of a pre-existing state should not fool us into imparting to you any imported halo that a libertarian may have the urge to hang on you for that distinction. So let’s keep that in mind when we start to throw around talk of “states having a monopoly on war” according to current conventions and so forth. A libertarian should not necessarily jump at that bait. Instead, he may want to consider some of the “practical” restrictions on warfare that libertarians are often receptive to alongside the more “ideological” ones inherent to their foundational philosophy. For instance, war is so inherently massively destructive of human welfare (and so uncertain in its prospect for even achieving its goals) that respect for conventions that greatly reduce its prevalance can be justified even if it means tolerating a lot of injustice. One such arrangement is state sovereignty. (No interventionist–in particular no liberal, who considers every illiberal government to be illegitimate in some sense–is so hawkish as to not have some regard for state sovereignty as weighed against cause for intervention.) Another important one is the one against private foreign armies. This greatly limits the potential number of actors “permitted” to wage war. I am not so sure that’s a bad thing. I am no fan of states, and certainly not of their track record on the matter of war; but again, let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we are debating whether to continue the monopoly of “states” or open it up to other types of actors. In an important sense, it’s all states–just more of them.

    This is not intended to be a refutation of your argument, just of that one part.

    • Fernando Tedious n

      Dear Puppet’s puppet: thank you for your subtle comment. There is nothing in it that I disagree with. The libertarian idea is not just that states are bad for waging war, but that war, private or public, is destructive of our humanity. We need positive-sum interactions, trade and peace. Alas, sometimes the bad guys kill and maim innocents. When that happens, a sort of Hobbesian logic takes over. My point is that, in those cases, private wars avoids some of the objections leveled against the state’s monopoly of force.

      • Fernando Teson

        WordPress is very perceptive to call me Fernando Tedious.

        • Ron H.

          It’s not WordPress, it’s your mobile device, which undoubtedly knows you more intimately, and has much more experience with you than this blog software.

  • John Dougan

    Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries

    These, in the day when heaven was falling,
    The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
    Followed their mercenary calling,
    And took their wages, and are dead.

    Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
    They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
    What God abandoned, these defended,
    And saved the sum of things for pay.

    A.E. Housman

  • stevenjohnson2

    The OP wins the William Walker Award for Pursuit of Freedom!

    When Saudi and Qatari princes pay for volunteers to go defend Islam, which by their lights is the ultimate good for people, inasmuch as it leads their immortal souls to Paradise, they are good libertarians. Also, when Communists volunteered to go defend the national government of Spain against Franco and his fascists, they too were good libertarians. Really, when a businessman in Latin America hires off-duty policemen and soldiers to kill trade unionists or street kids, their defense of the free market makes them humanitarian libertarians too. The problem with the OP is that all defenses of humanitarian intervention that assume “we” (whoever that may be) are the rightful arbiters of what is ultimately humanitarian, assumes away the real questions.

    The problem with wars is not that states tax citizens, or even conscript them. The problem with wars is that organized violence is an offense against peace, which by the way is a prerequisite of liberty. This is so both because the exercise of violence, the threat of violence and force is the essence of coercion. And because the consequences from war affect everyone, including those who have not even been consulted. This is true even in victorious wars. Thus wars can only be justified as a necessary means to a necessary end. The state’s claim to be the sole possessor of the right to violence is a means to peace, a necessary condition of freedom. Denying states have legitimacy does nothing to address the need for peace. Only those groups which think they exterminate (or at least drive away) opponents, or escape from them entirely, can do without the coercion of organized violence.

    • Fernando Teson

      That bad people can hire gunmen to do bad things does not entail that good people cannot hire gunmen to save innocent persons from massacre. Apparently you are a relativist. I am not.

      • stevenjohnson2

        Relativism? You’re implying private warfare is a good when good people do it, but bad when bad people do it. That is, relative to the moral status of the actor. It’s hard to see how you could accept that bad people have the right of self defense. Also, anybody killed in your crossfire is just collateral damage. There is no private warfare. Only if your victims are relatively worthless does your scheme work.

        Insofar as your rejection of “relativism” is supposed to mean objective moral knowledge about who’s doing the bad things, which instead of an invisible and intangible bad soul makes them eligible for killing? Any ignorant bigot can make an irrefutable case for killing people, but stoutly insisting on their own facts and their own values. No doubt you have received divine authority from the God you’ve found in your navel. But no one else should listen to you.

      • Mike Huben

        If you want to create an institution of private wars, then the question is not “could they be used for humanitarian purposes”, but rather “how badly can this institution be abused?” Especially by those who have amoral financial incentives. What mechanism do you propose for identifying abuses and limiting them?