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Liberty vs. War: A Brief History

Tags Free MarketsWar and Foreign PolicyWorld HistoryInterventionism

03/25/2019Jeffrey M. Herbener

[The John Bartel Lecture, presented at the 2012 Mises Institute Supporters Summit: "The Truth About War: A Revisionist Approach." You can watch a video of this lecture here.]

In his book, Anatomy of the State, Murray Rothbard wrote,

Just as the two basic and mutually exclusive interrelations between men are peaceful cooperation or coercive exploitation, production or predation, so the history of mankind, particularly its economic history, may be considered as a contest between these two principles.1

This contest has been one-sided. In the ancient world, empires dominated political life. Merciless systems of slavery, theft, and war ruled around the world. One exception in a territory surrounded by such empires was the tribes of Israel. Even though warned by God himself of the misery they would suffer if they willingly surrendered the freedom they enjoyed under the decentralized polity of the judges in order to have an earthly king rule over them, they clamored for their own enslavement. It is instructive that the prize the Israelites deemed worth paying so heavy a price to obtain was to have a king to lead them in battle. With Saul as king, Israel no longer enjoyed periods of peace as under the judges, but was constantly at war. As Samuel had warned, Saul took their sons for soldiers, their daughters and male and female servants as slaves, the best of their lands, produce, and flocks and thereby, reduced the Israelites to servitude.2

The Israelites would not be the last people to succumb to the siren song of war. About the importance of war as a device for aggrandizing the power of the state in its contest against liberty, Rothbard wrote,

In war, State power is pushed to its ultimate, and, under the slogans of "defense" and "emergency," it can impose a tyranny upon the public such as might be openly resisted in time of peace. War thus provides many benefits to a State, and indeed every modern war has brought to the warring peoples a permanent legacy of increased State burdens upon society.3

War not only vastly extends the wealth transfers used by the state to bolster its rule but advances pro-state ideology. Because the state lives parasitically on the production of its hosts, those who benefit from the state's wealth transfers must always be a minority of the population. The majority must be the victims of the state and, therefore, their acquiescence in predation by the state must be engineered; otherwise that state is finished. The legitimacy of the state must be manufactured and maintained through ideology. From Oriental despotism to American hegemony, the state has never failed to attract, with its power and pelf, those who would fabricate apologia. But their litany of claims — that our rulers are wise and their rule is beneficent, that our rulers protect us from horrible dangers, that our rulers uphold the glorious tradition of our ancestors, that our rulers embody the interests of society, that our rulers are appointed by God, that our rulers bring science and reason to society, and so on — never explain how such claims turn hegemony into voluntary association, murder into defense, kidnapping into voluntary association, and taxation into free-will offering. If the state is the fount from which all social blessings flow, then why do its apologists resort to instilling guilt in the successful and envy in the unsuccessful to strengthen its power?

We see through the lies and sophisms of pro-state ideology because we have accepted the truth advanced by those who champion liberty. Extrapolating from our experience, we can see that anti-state ideology is a necessary condition to establish and maintain liberty. The advantages it has over pro-state ideology are, first, it appeals to the interests of the majority and, second, it is grounded on truth about the nature of human action. While liberty is consistent with human action, the state is founded on a contradiction, namely, that the only way to have an institution to protect our rights is to establish it on the violation of our rights.

The ancient Israelites held to an ideology with many of the features necessary to keep state power at bay, like a higher law to which all men are accountable and a decentralized polity. For a few generations, the kings of Israel were somewhat constrained by the higher law. But the wickedness of the kings who followed them grew, the law was eventually forgotten, and the liberties of the Israelites were extinguished.4

It would take several centuries for the world to witness another spark of liberty. It was ignited under Solon in Athens, and its embers glowed most brightly during the reign of Pericles. But liberty lasted only as long as Pericles and his generation lived. According to Lord Acton, the Athenian system failed to protect minorities and to put the state under the law. The democracy of Athens, in the end, led to class conflict, which tore the system apart. The Peloponnesian War extinguished both Pericles and the embers of Athenian liberty.5

The Stoics in Rome rediscovered the concept of a higher law to which all men are subject. In its highest formulation, at the hands of Cicero, Seneca, and Philo, the Stoics claimed that there is a universal commonwealth of the children of God and his voice should be obeyed. Freedom is found in obeying the natural laws of God. Under a better ideology than the Greeks, the ensuing struggle for liberty lasted far longer in Rome than it did in Athens. But it never achieved in practice the lofty expressions it attained in theory.6 Acton wrote,

Individuals and families, associations and dependencies were so much material that the sovereign power consumed for its own purposes. What the slave was in the hands of his master, the citizen was in the hands of the community. The most sacred obligations vanished before the public advantage. The passengers existed for the sake of the ship.7

At the height of its power, before wars of empire aborted its embryonic liberty and prosperity, Rome encountered the seedbed of liberty in the freemen of Teutonic communities. When their leaders were converted to Christianity, they converted their people. After the fall of Rome, their decentralized polities persisted as the church resisted the centralization of state power, permitting a long incubation period for the birth of liberty.8

Its time arrived in the 10th century, when the Scandinavians turned from aggressive invasions of Europe to peaceful trade. In the next century the Mediterranean was secured for European shipping. Venice and the cities of northern Italy flourished by expanding trade routes and extending the division of labor from the cities into the countryside. The Hanse cities did the same in northern Europe. As Henri Pirenne wrote, Europe became a region of cities built by capital.9

The flowering of commerce in Europe was reinforced by the development of a pro-liberty ideology elevated to previously unforeseen heights by the Christian doctrine of the individual person. God himself took on human nature and lived as a man. Jesus Christ suffered and died to secure the salvation of each individual person. In heaven, God will glorify each person with a spiritual body to live in communion with him and each other. Nations rise and fall, but the individual person will live forevermore.

As Harold Berman has shown, the church recast canon law along lines more favorable to private property and contract in the 11th century. The canon law acted as leaven in the different legal systems both civil and commercial.10Berman wrote,

Perhaps the most distinctive characteristic of the Western legal tradition is the coexistence and competition within the same community of diverse jurisdictions and diverse legal systems. It is this plurality of jurisdictions and legal systems that makes the supremacy of law both necessary and possible.

Legal pluralism originated in the differentiation of the ecclesiastical polity from secular polities. The church declared its freedom from secular control, its exclusive jurisdiction in some matters, and its concurrent jurisdiction in other matters.… Secular law itself was divided into various competing types, including royal law, feudal law, manorial law, urban law, and mercantile law.11

As legal protection of private property was extended, slowly and surely, from the church and merchants to everyone, economic progress was brought to the masses. The little industrial revolution, engendered by the protection of private property and contract, attracted the attention of scholars to explain the working of the burgeoning economy. Jean Buridan and Nicholas Oresme wrote works in the 14th century explaining economic activity with the framework of society as a natural order brought forth by the working of laws that God had built into the nature of things. Natural law also came to form the basis for man-made law in the High Middle Ages. As Berman wrote,

In the formative era of the Western legal tradition, the natural-law theory predominated. It was generally believed that human law derived ultimately from, and was to be tested ultimately by, reason and conscience. According not only to the legal philosophy of the time but also to positive law itself, any positive law, whether enacted or customary, had to conform to natural law, or else it would lack validity as law and could be disregarded. This theory had a basis in Christian theology as well as in Aristotelian philosophy. But it also had a basis in the history of the struggle between ecclesiastical and secular authorities, and in the politics of pluralism.12

When war arose in the context of this Christian pro-liberty ideology, it merely slowed instead of stopped the momentum of liberty. The Hundred Years' War began to consolidate state power and foster pro-state ideology. The reactionary forces were strong enough to usher in the era of royal absolutism. The rise of the nation-state threatened liberty like nothing had in the West since state power in Rome. As mercantilist writers voiced the pro-state ideology of the 16th and 17th centuries, the late Scholastics countered with pro-liberty views.

The School of Salamanca developed a natural-law view of politics and economics. The founder of the school, Francisco De Vitoria, argued that all persons deserve the same legal protection of their persons and property. As Tom Woods has written,

Vitoria argued that the right to appropriate the things of nature for one's own use (i.e., the institution of private property) belonged to all men regardless of their paganism or whatever barbarian vices they might possess. The Indians of the New World, by virtue of being men, were therefore equal to the Spaniards in matters of natural rights. They owned their lands by the same principles that the Spaniards own theirs.13

The natural-law view of the Scholastics was taken up by Grotius in his views on international law in the 17th century, and pro-liberty ideology was further refined in the natural-rights view of Locke and Jefferson in the 17th and 18th centuries.

America proved to be fertile ground for the revivification of liberty. State power was unable to constrain the inclinations of people who held a pro-liberty ideology to live with respect for private property and contract in the open territory and decentralized polities of colonial America. Nation-states had to content themselves with limitations on their power given the possibilities their potential victims had to escape their depredations.

During its heyday in the 19th century, classical liberalism showered people with the fruits of liberty, peace, prosperity, and human flourishing. But the pro-liberty ideology refined by the classical liberals was not free from impurities. Its fatal defect was manifest in the centralization of state power through the US Constitution, which fastened the nation-state form on the decentralized polity of the 13 states. As Hans Hoppe has written,

Classical-liberal political philosophy — as personified by Locke and most prominently displayed in Jefferson's Declaration of Independence — was first and foremost a moral doctrine. Drawing on the philosophy of the Stoics and the late Scholastics, it centered around the notions of self-ownership, original appropriation of nature-given (unowned) resources, property, and contract as universal human rights implied in the nature of man qua rational animal. In the environment of princely and royal rulers, this emphasis on the universality of human rights placed the liberal philosophy naturally in radical opposition to every established government. For a liberal, every man, whether king or peasant, was subject to the same universal and eternal principles of justice, and a government either could derive its justification from a contract between private property owners or it could not be justified at all.14

Tragically, from the true proposition that a liberal social order requires its members to use defensive violence to suppress aggression against person and property, classical liberals invalidly concluded that there must be a monopoly provider of defensive violence. Given their view that the state is essential to a liberal social order, state power retained a foothold from which it would come to overtake liberty once again.

That moment came in 1914. As Rothbard wrote,

More than any other single period, World War I was the critical watershed for the American business system. It was a "war collectivism," a totally planned economy run largely by big-business interests through the instrumentality of the central government, which served as the model, the precedent, and the inspiration for state corporate capitalism for the remainder of the twentieth century.15

As a prelude to its destruction in the Great War, pro-state ideology had made a frontal attack on liberty in the 19th century. Hunt Tooley has noted the role of ideologies leading up to war in his book, The Western Front.16 As Ralph Raico noted in his review of Tooley's book,

Tooley deals deftly with the intellectual and cultural currents of prewar Europe. Contributing to the proneness to violence were a bastardized Nietzschianism and the anarchosyndicalism of Georges Sorel, but most of all Social Darwinism — really, just Darwinism — which taught the eternal conflict among the races and tribes of the human as of other species.17

Even in America, pro-state ideology had managed to warp Christian thinking during the Progressive Era from its pro-liberty form. Richard Gamble documents this degeneration in his book, The War for Righteousness.18 As Raico wrote in his review of Gamble's book,

By the end of the nineteenth century, progressive Protestants, often influenced by the theory of evolution, were preaching the successive remaking of the church, of American society, and finally the whole world. Rejecting old-line Calvinism, they rejected also the Augustinian distinction between the City of God and the City of Man. The City of Man was to be made into the City of God, here on earth, through a commitment to a redefined, socially-activist Christianity.19

The Great War unleashed the collectivist forces of socialism and fascism across the Western world. As Raico has written,

The First World War is the turning point of the twentieth century. Had the war not occurred, the Prussian Hohenzollerns would most probably have remained heads of Germany, with their panoply of subordinate kings and nobility in charge of the lesser German states. Whatever gains Hitler might have scored in the Reichstag elections, could he have erected his totalitarian, exterminationist dictatorship in the midst of this powerful aristocratic superstructure? Highly unlikely. In Russia, Lenin's few thousand Communist revolutionaries confronted the immense imperial Russian army, the largest in the world. For Lenin to have any chance to succeed, that great army had first to be pulverized, which is what the Germans did. So, a twentieth century without Nazis or Communists. Imagine that. It was the turning point in the history of our American nation, which under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson developed into something radically different from what it had been before.20

Nowhere was the radical transformation more manifest than in law. The legal tapestry of the West, woven over a millennium, was rent asunder in the Great War. Harold Berman wrote,

when the different legal regimes of all these communities — local, regional, national, ethnic, professional, political, intellectual, spiritual, and others — are swallowed up in the law of the nation-state … [that] is, in fact, the greatest danger inherent in contemporary nationalism. The nations of Europe, which originated in their interaction with one another in the context of Western Christendom, became more and more detached from one another in the nineteenth century. With World War I, they broke apart violently and destroyed the common bonds that had previously held them together, however loosely. And in the late twentieth century we still suffer from the nationalist historiography that originated in the nineteenth century and that supported the disintegration of a common Western legal heritage.21

Even in the land where liberty burned most brightly, the war proved a potent force for retrogression. As Rothbard wrote,

Historians have generally treated the economic planning of World War I as an isolated episode dictated by the requirements of the day and having little further significance. But, on the contrary, the war collectivism served as an inspiration and as a model for a mighty army of forces destined to forge the history of twentieth-century America.22

The First World War destroyed the world economy that had been built up during the 19th century under classical liberalism. As Maurice Obstfeld and Alan Taylor have demonstrated in their book, Global Capital Markets: Integration, Crisis, and Growth, the degree of integration of the world economy rose from moderately low in 1860 to moderately high in 1914. The Great War disintegrated the world economy to a level of integration significantly below what it had achieved by 1860. By 1929, the level was as far above that of 1860 as it was below 1860 in 1918. By the end of Second World War (which was a continuation of the First World War) the level of integration was half that of the level of 1860. The level of integration of the world economy has come to surpass that of 1914 only in the 21st century.23 It has taken governments 70 years to accomplish what liberty can do in a matter of days.

The Great War destroyed the classical gold standard and ushered in an era of fiat currencies. Hyperinflations and depressions have been the result. As Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus have documented, of the 56 episodes of hyperinflation in history, only one occurred before 1920.24 And as George Selgin, William Lapstras, and Lawrence White have shown, the 100 years of Federal Reserve monetary policy have resulted in more economic and financial instability than under the somewhat-less-flawed National Banking System before the Fed.25

The Great War shattered the classical-liberal world and ushered in a century of the rise of the collectivist state. Western civilization, having given birth to liberty and nurtured it, sacrificed its offspring before it had the opportunity to grow to maturity throughout the world. Instead of liberty, American hegemony has spread corporatism to the four corners of the earth.

Like us, our forerunners labored to advance pro-liberty ideology during dark days when liberty had been eclipsed by state power. Their strategy involved building independent institutions. Christopher Dawson, in his book The Crisis of Western Education, has demonstrated that the intellectual movements of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment developed outside the state. Dawson wrote,

In England and the United States the traditional relation of church and school and the medieval system of corporative independence still survived in spite of the attacks of educational and political reformers. The abuses of the old system and the neglect of primary education were certainly no less flagrant in England than they were on the Continent. But the strength of the voluntary principle and the lack of a centralized authoritarian state caused the reforming movement in England to follow and independent course and to create its own organizations and institutions.26

To restore liberty in our age, we must build genuinely private enterprises and independent educational institutions. Through organizations like the Mises Institute, we can do our part in the 21st century in rolling back the tide of the collectivist state built up in the 20th century, as our forerunners did in rolling back royal absolutism in the 18th century. We must not repeat their mistakes. This time our pro-liberty ideology must embrace its logical implications and reject the state, root and branch. Only then can the potential of life, liberty, and property be realized in the flourishing of the entire human race.

  • 1. Murray Rothbard, Anatomy of the State, (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2009), p. 53.
  • 2. I Samuel 8.
  • 3. Rothbard, Anatomy of the State, p. 45.
  • 4. I Kings and II Kings.
  • 5. Lord Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, Vol. 1 (Indianapolis: Liberty Classics, 1985), pp. 12–13.
  • 6. Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, pp. 24–25.
  • 7. Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, p. 18.
  • 8. Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, pp. 30–33.
  • 9. Henri Pirenne, Medieval Cities (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1925); idem., Economic and Social History of Medieval Europe (London: Routledge,1936); and Acton, Essays in the History of Liberty, pp. 35–36.
  • 10. Harold Berman, Law and Revolution (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983).
  • 11. Berman, Law and Revolution, p. 10.
  • 12. Berman, Law and Revolution, p. 12.
  • 13. Tom Woods, How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (Washington: Regnery Pub., 2005), p. 139.
  • 14. HansHoppe, Democracy, the God that Failed (New Brunswick, N.J.: Transaction Publishers, 2001), p. 225.
  • 15. Murray Rothbard, War Collectivism: Power, Business, and the Intellectual Class in World War 1 (Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2012), p. 7.
  • 16. Hunt Tooley, The Western Front: Battle Ground and Home Front in the First World War (New York: Palgrave McMillan, 2003).
  • 17. Ralph Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders: A Libertarian Rebuttal(Auburn, Ala.: Mises Institute, 2010), p. 230.
  • 18. Richard Gamble, The War for Righteousness: Progressive Christianity, the Great War, and the Rise of the Messianic Nation (Wilmington, Del.: ISI Press, 2003).
  • 19. Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders, p. 193. Italics in original.
  • 20. Raico, Great Wars and Great Leaders, pp. 1–2.
  • 21. Berman, Law and Revolution, p. 17.
  • 22. Rothbard, War Collectivism, pp. 34.
  • 23. Maurice Obstfeld and Alan Taylor, Global Capital Markets: Integration, Crisis, and Growth(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004).
  • 24. Steve Hanke and Nicholas Krus, "World Hyperinflations," Cato Working Paper(Washington: Cato Institute, 2012). The exception was in France during the revolution in 1795.
  • 25. George Selgin, William Lastrapes, and Lawrence White, "Has the Fed Been a Failure?" Cato Working Papers (Washington: Cato Institute, 2010).
  • 26. Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (Steubenville, Oh.: Franciscan Press, 1989), p. 67.

Contact Jeffrey M. Herbener

Jeffrey Herbener teaches economics at Grove City College and is chairman of the economics department. He is assistant editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics..

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