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Peace and the "Peace Prize"

Tags Big GovernmentWar and Foreign PolicyOther Schools of ThoughtPolitical Theory

10/20/2009Ben O'Neill
"We are used to thinking of peace merely as the absence of full-scale military conflict."

The recent Nobel Peace Prize awarded to President Barack Obama has drawn criticism from many commentators, including those who claim that the award is premature — that President Obama has yet to "make his mark" on US foreign policy.[1]

Some have argued that Obama lacks the concrete political achievements of Presidents Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Jimmy Carter, all of whom have previously been awarded the prize.[2] Others go much further, condemning President Obama for his foreign policy and his continuation and expansion of military operations and related war policies.[3]

Whatever the specific positions of the various commentators, debate over Obama's credentials as a champion of peace have been focused almost exclusively on his foreign policy and military operations. To the extent that domestic policies are mentioned at all, they are policies such as domestic surveillance, wiretapping, and other matters associated with the prosecution of war abroad.[4]

This may seem natural to many, since we are used to thinking of peace merely as the absence of full-scale military conflict. But this is a very narrow notion of peace. Real peace is the absence of aggression, whether on an international scale or localized within a small area. Real peace requires not merely the absence of large-scale military conflicts, but also the absence of aggression in domestic affairs concerning individual citizens.

While foreign affairs and military operations are no doubt an important aspect of world peace, fixation solely on these issues concedes a fundamentally statist premise: that peace concerns only those conflicts occurring between governments and other large and militarily powerful entities (such as terrorist groups). Under this view, to use force against a government or paramilitary organization is "war," but to aggress against an unarmed citizen is mere "public policy."

This view is extremely shortsighted and cannot be expected to yield any genuine or lasting peace. The reason is simple: peace is not a concept which should be restricted — or even primarily directed — towards conflicts between governments and other military entities. It applies just as much to domestic conflicts between governments and their own citizens as to conflicts between military powers.

Peace should also not be restricted solely to the prevention of killing. It applies just as much to conflicts involving tax collectors and the appropriation of private property as to conflicts involving helicopter gunships and the killing of people.

Not only is the absence of military conflict insufficient to obtain genuine peace, once one accepts the ideology of statism, military conflict becomes inevitable. As Ludwig von Mises has explained,

Modern civilization is a product of the philosophy of laissez faire. It cannot be preserved under the ideology of government omnipotence.… To defeat the aggressors is not enough to make peace durable. The main thing is to discard the ideology that generates war.[5]

Thus, to be a genuine and effective advocate for peace, one must oppose the initiation of force in principle and in all its manifestations. One must oppose the initiation of force whether it is undertaken on a small or a large scale, and whether it is directed towards the killing of people, other trespasses against their bodies, or the appropriation of their property. In short, one must accept the nonaggression principle and all that it implies in both domestic and foreign policy.

"Peace Activists" and the "Peace Prize"

Since peace is obtained only in the absence of the initiation of force, any principled advocacy of peace must be built on a fully developed foundation of moral and political philosophy that eschews aggression in all its forms. As Ayn Rand explains,

Laissez-faire capitalism is the only social system based on the recognition of individual rights and, therefore, the only system that bans force from social relationships. By the nature of its basic principles and interests, it is the only system fundamentally opposed to war.…

The trader and the warrior have been fundamental antagonists throughout history. Trade does not flourish on battlefields, factories do not produce under bombardments, profits do not grow on rubble. Capitalism is a society of traders — for which it has been denounced by every would-be gunman who regards trade as "selfish" and conquest as "noble."[6]

Unfortunately, many of the so-called "peace activists" celebrated for their opposition to wars are hostile to the very social system that would ensure a genuine and lasting peace. In fact, these "peace activists" are not in favor of peace at all. They are merely opposed to certain large-scale military operations.

Such activists are often quite happy to lend their support to the initiation of force against domestic citizens, to plunder them of their property for the purposes of redistribution, or to enslave them under the watchful eye of government bureaucracies. In these smaller-scale conflicts, many allegedly "peace-loving" people routinely support statism and aggression as the means to achieve their domestic policy goals.

In the case of many of the recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize, the apparent requirements for the accolade could not be more topsy-turvy if they were penned by Orwell himself. Our newest laureate routinely advocates statist programs that initiate violence against massive numbers of people to rob them of their property and submit them to forcible government control in more and more aspects of their lives.

"To be a genuine and effective advocate for peace, one must oppose the initiation of force in principle and in all its manifestations."

Some have argued that it is incongruous to award a peace prize to a president currently locked in two wars. But even this is a rosy view of the situation; for one needn't look as far as foreign policy to find a host of other issues on which this "champion of peace" favors violence as the means of obtaining his desired goals. As president of the United States, he presides over a coercive apparatus larger and more powerful than any in human history, and like his predecessors, he wields his political power against both domestic citizens and foreigners to routinely deny them their property rights, their liberties, and even their lives.

In drug policy, the president is locked in a "War on Drugs" in which he commands government agencies as they violently assault, rob, and imprison people who attempt to trade or ingest substances prohibited by their political masters. In social policy, he is fighting a "War on Poverty" in which millions of people are robbed of their rightful property in order to fatten the wallets of social-service bureaucrats and associated lobbyists, with the residual left over for poorer people. In economic policy, he fights a "War on Greed," in which people are forcibly prevented from trading their own property as they see fit, and entire industries are nationalized to the inept hands of government masters.

The Principle of Nonaggression

These smaller-scale assaults and robberies are no different in their moral principles from larger-scale conflicts involving armed military forces. The same moral rules apply to both situations. In either context, the initiation of violence is morally wrong, and incompatible with a peaceful society.

If we look to the root of the problem, to the aggression lying behind these "public policies," then we see that supposedly serene nations like the United States are far from peaceful — notwithstanding the absence of tanks in the streets.

In commenting on the moral principles pertaining to wars, philosopher Jeff McMahan argues that

common sense beliefs about the morality of killing in war are deeply mistaken. The prevailing view is that in a state of war, the practice of killing is governed by different moral principles from those that govern acts of killing in other contexts. This presupposes that it can make a difference to the moral permissibility of killing another person whether one's political leaders have declared a state of war with that person's country. According to the prevailing view, therefore, political leaders can sometimes cause other people's moral rights to disappear simply by commanding their armies to attack them. When stated in this way, the received view seems obviously absurd.[7]

But one can go further than merely looking at acts of killing, and apply this same universality requirement to the use of force in general. As with killing, the initiation of force against the property of domestic citizens does not become any more morally legitimate or "peaceful" when it is done under the direction of political leaders. Notwithstanding their alleged "representation" of the people, it is just as absurd to assume that political leaders can remove the rights of their own domestic citizens as of foreigners.

The apparent serenity of neighborhoods with white picket fences and lush lawns can be deceiving, and it leads many residents of developed countries to believe that peace has been achieved in their own backyard. Indeed, some believe that statist policies such as taxation, regulation, and other property-right violations are still "peaceful," notwithstanding the threat of force involved, since the enforcement of these rules generally does not involve the use of actual physical violence against the body of any person.

After all, in most "peaceful" nations we are not used to seeing people shot in the streets or hauled off to the gulag. Even under fairly repressive domestic conditions, things can still be "peaceful" in the sense that there is not much overt violence or rebellion.

But this simply means that people have been brought to a state where they routinely comply with the edicts of their political masters, and avoid the incarceration or violence that would result from their refusal to do so. This is clearly not genuine peace, any more than a slave house is peaceful if the will of the slaves for resistance has been broken and overt violence has become unnecessary.

Military Conflict and Domestic Repression

The foregoing analysis is not intended to imply that there is no difference between overseas military adventures and instances of statist domestic policies. Nor is it intended to imply that the analysis of military conflicts is in any way less important than the analysis of domestic policies. The point is that only a principled stand for peace, including consistent opposition to statist policies, can be expected to yield a more peaceful society over time.

There are, of course, many differences between military conflicts and domestic public policies. Military struggles are likely to be far more destructive than domestic ones, but they are also far more complex. While particular war crimes may be morally clear cut, moral arguments over the legitimacy of the wars themselves are often complicated by long histories of retaliation and escalation, involving many different groups, often fighting for generations. On the other hand, taxation, regulation, and the suppression of legitimate civil liberties are quite clearly acts of aggression, in which there is no question of the victim having previously aggressed against the attacker.

For this reason, it is all the more imperative for genuine advocates of peace to take a stand against unambiguous cases of domestic aggression embodied in the statist policies that abound in their own homelands. For if one cannot even recognize the immorality of clear-cut instances of government violence at home, what hope can there possibly be to understand the moral imperatives applying to convoluted, foreign, military struggles with histories tracing back over generations?

Peace versus Statism

While specific conflicts are often complicated, the fundamental principles underlying a peaceful society are relatively simple. If the members of a society accept the nonaggression principle and repudiate the initiation of force, then there will be peace; if instead they support statism, there will be violence, repression, and war.

Once a person knowingly countenances a single act of aggression against property rights, any moral objection to violence they may have had is breached. Regardless of whether the issue in question is drug prohibition, estate taxes, zoning regulations, or government welfare schemes, support for the violation of property rights establishes the principle that the initiation of force is a legitimate means for achieving one's ends — that it is morally proper.

The transition to supporting larger-scale acts of aggression is then just a matter of degree, with the extent of support differing from person to person. Such a person may certainly oppose large-scale military conflicts out of concern for the scale of the destruction. But theirs is not an objection to the use of aggression itself; it is merely a concern that this much violence goes too far!

Without a principle against aggression per se, there is no logical basis for any agreement on the level of violence that is legitimate. There is no logical basis to say that this much violence is okay, but that much is too much. And so, inevitably, once the principle of nonaggression is tossed aside, people are led on a path to statism and destruction, upping the ante until full-scale war is the result.

Includes Hayek's shocking Nobel acceptance speech, "The Pretense of Knowledge"

The Nobel Peace Prize for Barack Obama makes perfect sense. It is an award routinely bestowed on those who do their utmost to aggrandize government and agitate for increased statism in pursuit of their goals. As philosopher Hans Hermann-Hoppe once noted, "If you want to win the [Nobel Peace Prize], it is good that you are a mass murderer; at least that helps."[8] Although President Obama is by no means the most oppressive recipient of this infamous prize, his penchant for statist policies at home and abroad makes him an ideal candidate for the award.[9]

Since some have charged that awarding the prize to President Obama is premature, I will save them the suspense: Obama will continue to work to expand US government power both abroad and over its domestic citizens. He will continue to push forward a statist agenda and he will routinely use violence to plunder people of their rightfully owned property, suppress their civil liberties, and deprive them of their lives. As such, he will become, if he is not already, a perfectly fitting recipient for the Nobel Peace Prize.


[1] For examples, see

[2] Miller, J. R. (2009). "Obama Nobel is Premature, Historians and Political Scientists Say." Fox News, October 9. Note that Carter won the Peace Prize for work done subsequent to his period as US President.

[3] Roberts, P. C. (2009) "Warmonger Wins Peace Prize." LewRockwell.com, October 9.

[4] There have been a few small exceptions, with some commenting supportively on Obama's healthcare policies in the context of his award.

[5] Mises, L. V. Human Action. Ch 34.

[6] Rand, A. (1967) Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal. Signet: New York, p. 38.

[7] McMahan, J. (2009) Killing in War. Oxford University Press: Oxford, p. vii.

[8] Hoppe, H. (2009) "Mises and the Foundation of Austrian Economics." Lecture at Mises University 2001, remarks on the Nobel Prizes at times 1:11:25–1:14:20.

[9] It is noteworthy that Obama received his prize, in part, for his expressed intention to prevent nuclear proliferation. For it is not weapons per se that are a threat to peace, but the statist ideology of violence that gives rise to them. As Rand explains:

If nuclear weapons are a dreadful threat and mankind cannot afford war any longer, then mankind cannot afford statism any longer. Let no man of good will take it upon his conscience to advocate the rule of force — outside or inside his own country. Let all those who are actually concerned with peace — those who do love man and do care about his survival — realize that if war is ever to be outlawed, it is the use of force that has to be outlawed. (Rand 1967, p. 43)


Contact Ben O'Neill

Dr. Ben O’Neill is a statistician and economist.

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