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Can a Principled Libertarian Go to War?

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Tags Free MarketsPolitical Theory

07/06/2011Wendy McElroy

Can a principled libertarian go to war?

To answer this question requires a definition of war itself. According to the commonly used definition, war must involve the declaration of hostilities by one state against another, in which it commits the people and resources under its jurisdiction to hostilities against the opponent's people and resources. When two individuals or small groups fight, it is called a brawl or a feud, not a war. Thus, war seems inextricably entangled with the concept of nation-states that command, to varying degrees, the wealth, property, and bodies of those within their borders.

Historian Jeffrey Rogers Hummel correctly states that in such a situation, each state actually declares war on three fronts: against the other state; against the innocent people within the other state; and against its own dissenting citizens. So, if this common definition of war applies, then it is not possible to imagine a libertarian just war.

Nevertheless, at least in theory, it is possible to imagine a war without nation-states in the same manner libertarians imagine legal and court systems without government. If the laws and courts can be divorced from a state context, the warfare can be as well. Even the quintessential isolationist, Murray Rothbard, once stated,

if you didn't have State war, if States were eliminated or if you are only talking about private marauders versus private defenders, then the situation completely changes.

Libertarianism embraces a right of self-defense that is so extreme as to allow the killing of an aggressor who uses lethal force. And nothing within libertarianism precludes the possibility of people assigning this right to a collective entity who could exercise self-defense on their collective behalf. As long as every individual that a private-defense agency claims to represent has voluntarily assigned his right of self-defense to it, then the agency is justified in acting against an invader.

Moreover, if the agency acts only against invading individuals — a.k.a. actual aggressors — all objections about innocent civilians are avoided. Thus, at least in theory, libertarianism seems to accept the possibility of a just war. (Of course, this does not necessarily justify any war that has ever occurred in human history, but it opens the possibility of a just war in the future.)

"You cannot run a cost-benefit analysis on killing innocents without stepping outside of libertarianism."

But what would a libertarian war look like? Despite self-defense provisions, libertarianism is based on individualism and nonaggression, which makes a collective blast of libertarian force difficult to envision.

Fortunately, the idea of a "just war" is well-trodden ground for Christian theorists, with some of whom libertarians can make an easy alliance on this subject. In his book War and Conscience, the minister Allen Isbell asks,

When and how may a State legitimately engage in a war? This has been a prime topic of discussion in Christian ethics for sixteen centuries. From this continuing conversation within Christendom, a doctrine of justifiable war has evolved.

Allen goes on to list eight Christian requirements for a just war: it must be the last resort; you must be on the side that is justified in fighting; it must have adequate cause; it must have a legitimate aim; the war must be waged with a proper spirit; it must be waged by a proper authority; the execution must be just; and it must promise beneficial victory.

What would be the libertarian requirements for a just war? They would include the following, at least:

  • The war must have a just origin. Aggression is the only proper occasion for self-defense. If this self-defense occurs at the moment of aggression, it could involve a direct, violent response. If the self-defense occurs later, it could occur through a legal process. Except for direct assault by an invading force (e.g., foreign boots on your land), most original acts of war are akin to crimes for which you later seek remedy. Thus, time and information would be required to assess the justness of commencing war, and this sort of consideration tends to be procedural.

  • The war must be declared by a proper authority, and against a proper enemy. In libertarianism, the proper authority to declare (or exercise) a right of self-defense is the individuals whose rights have been violated, or their designated agent. An agency can act only on behalf of the individuals who have designated it to do so — and no others. The definition of "proper enemy" is equally important. An agency can act only against the individuals with clear responsibility for the aggression — and no others.

  • The war must be within the parameters of the contract.The contract through which individuals assign their right of self-defense to the defense agency must be specific, and the agency must not overstep those specifics. For example, does aggression against any assignee bind all others under a declaration of war? If war is declared, can assignees opt out of their agreements (perhaps paying a penalty) rather than participate? If they cannot, it is not a contract.

  • The rights of nonassignees to nonparticipation must be respected. Nonassignees must be absolutely free to disagree and disassociate.

  • The rights of innocent "others" must be respected. This is "the civilian problem," which Rothbard expressed well:

    I don't see why civilians have to be injured at all. After all, look at private crime now: suppose somebody beats somebody over the head and steals his pocketbook and runs down the street. The police right now do not spray machine-gun fire on the entire crowd in order to shoot down the criminal. The principle is that no innocent person can get killed, and if the criminal escapes, it's tough luck, because the most important principle for the libertarian and among the domestic police is not to use force against noncriminals.

    Thus, a just war would have to be conducted in a manner reminiscent of the 19th-century ones, during which civilians picnicked beside battlefields because the military on both sides accepted the distinction between civilians and combatants. It is not enough merely to reduce civilian casualties and to argue that any casualties were unintended. "Unintended" does not mean unpredictable or unforeseeable. If an action can predictably lead to the death or injury of innocents, then it cannot be justified within libertarianism.

Some libertarians would shift the ground of argument on "the civilian problem" to utilitarianism. If an enemy is willing to use indiscriminate weaponry, they argue, we must respond in kind or be devastated. I make no comment here on whether this argument is true. Instead, I strongly suggest that those who make it should explicitly abandon the label of "libertarianism." Libertarianism is the political system organized around the principle and the means of nonaggression; you cannot run a cost-benefit analysis on killing innocents without stepping outside of libertarianism. The boundaries of its theory are not flexible enough to embrace the murder of innocents as collateral damage.

Many consider the foregoing to be an ivory-tower position. They argue that, when your life is threatened, you have a right to respond defensively, even if that response entails firing into a crowd and thus harming or killing innocent people: the responsibility lies with the aggressor, not with you.

If this argument is true, an interesting question of math arises. How many bystanders am I justified in murdering in order to eliminate someone trying to kill me? If I abandon the principle of not harming innocents, what standard should I use to calculate how many innocent people I may murder in the process of protecting myself? As few as necessary? What if that number comes to 20, 1,000, 10,000? What if I know the assassin is in a particular movie theater — can I blow it up to ensure my safety? And if not, why not? Once I abandon the principle of not harming innocents, we are talking about math and utility, not ethics.

To conclude: A libertarian just war would have to be declared in response to an act of aggression that could not be remedied by a lesser level of defensive violence. It would have to be declared by an agency on behalf of people who had assigned their rights of self defense. The war could be declared only on behalf of those assignees. Dissenters would have to be left in peace to defend themselves, or not. The declaration of war would be against the individuals responsible for an attack but not against the "enemy" civilian population. And, finally, the war would have to be conducted with strategies and weaponry that could not foreseeably involve injuring or killing innocents.

Given these requirements, a libertarian just war remains unimaginable.


Contact Wendy McElroy

Wendy McElroy is a Canadian individualist anarchist and individualist feminist. She was a cofounder along with Carl Watner and George H. Smith of The Voluntaryist magazine in 1982.

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