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The Real Meaning of "Defense"

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Tags Free MarketsWar and Foreign PolicyPhilosophy and Methodology

03/21/2011Jeffrey A. Tucker

The horror of Muammar Gaddafi's approach to keeping power in Libya boggles the mind and shocks the moral conscience. But how different is his approach from the way most all governments behave in the face of citizen revolt? There are differences among them with regard to how far they will go to force submission, but the methods and the rationale everywhere are the same in all times and places.

In 2006, Gaddafi told the students at Columbia University: "There is no state with a democracy except Libya on the whole planet." Five years later, the people themselves are revealed as his ultimate enemies, and for one reason: he wants to stay whereas they want him gone. Therefore he must stop at nothing. He must kill them: "We will come house by house, room by room. … It's over. The issue has been decided…. We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity."

To his mind, it's not complicated. This is how a peaceful protest against dictatorship became what is called a "civil war," which is really just a despot's war against freedom. People holding signs and vigils were forced into a defensive mode and are now full-time "rebels" against the regime, the entire country torn to pieces by one's man's stubbornness and megalomania. The state that had always promised to defend the people — that is why Gaddafi had rule with an iron hand — is now slaughtering them so that the state can live.

There is something to learn from this. The issue of who owns the guns, who or what possesses the military power, who or what is charged with "national defense," is not some abstract problem of economic or political theory. It is not an issue to be considered in the appendix of a public finance text or debated in the hallways of think tanks.

No, the issue of defense services might in fact be the central issue that determines whether or not a society is and can remain free. Without getting rid of the "defense" power of the state, any and every state, the people will always be subject to the discretionary will of those in power, and there is nothing apart from conscience, to stop any state in the world from becoming the killing field of Libya today.

But how many have actually realized this? Granting the monopoly power to the state for purposes of "defending" the people against some enemy (private crime, religious fanaticism, a foreign foe, or whatever) is something that elicits near-universal agreement on the Right and the Left. Those intellectuals in several centuries who have brought into question this fundamental power — not just how it is used but the existence of the power itself — can be counted on two hands and maybe even one.

Think back to 1970 when Murray Rothbard's wonderful book Power and Market first appeared on the scene. This book was to be a comprehensive critique of interventionism of all types. He classified interventions into types and demonstrated how every form of socialism, regulation, monetary manipulation, and tax distorts the market economy and fails to achieve its stated aims.

But the first-time reader is blown away by way the book begins. He begins with the biggest pill of all, the most controversial proposal ever: he urged a free market for defense services. In other words, he urged the busting up of the government cartel on these services and called for the free market to take over.

He might have picked a less controversial topic. After all, the Cold War was raging. Most Americans feared Russians on the other side of the world more than their own government. In those days, even to call for an end to far-flung foreign wars was to risk being labeled a subversive.

To suggest the end of national defense itself was unthinkable, a guarantee that the book would not only fail commercially but might even be banned in libraries. Reviewers were absolutely aghast. Even Rothbard's friends in the nascent free-market movement were rattled. Why can't Rothbard be more like Friedman and tackle subjects that don't incite such controversy? Why can't he be more sensitive to the entrenched biases of the reader?

Still, the fearless Rothbard understood that

Defense in the free society (including such defense services to person and property as police protection and judicial findings) would therefore have to be supplied by people or firms who (a) gained their revenue voluntarily rather than by coercion and (b) did not — as the State does — arrogate to themselves a compulsory monopoly of police or judicial protection. Only such libertarian provision of defense service would be consonant with a free market and a free society. Thus, defense firms would have to be as freely competitive and as noncoercive against noninvaders as are all other suppliers of goods and services on the free market. Defense services, like all other services, would be marketable and marketable only.

Anyone who reads that chapter at the outset of an exploration of what used to be called the liberal philosophy will have already faced the ultimate challenge. If you accept that the free market is a better tool of social management, are you willing to forgo "national defense"? If not, you must consider why you make an exception in this one area but not most other areas. If there is something about government that is uniquely suited to providing this most important function, can we really rule out the possibility government has competence in a full range of other areas too?

It is for this reason that Rothbard takes up the case first: to illustrate just how confident that libertarians can truly be on this question. But that is not the only reason that Rothbard puts the case front and center. He is also demonstrating his conviction that, in the end, this urgency to end the government's monopoly on this form of coercive power might be the number one priority, more important than privatizing schools, lowering taxes, or deregulating business. After all, it is the government's power of "defending the nation" that can ultimately make the difference between freedom and slavery (or death).

In any case, consider the reality of national defense and how it is used. These military states are invariably erected in the name of protecting the citizens. But how are they actually used? The case of Libya is an illustrative one. In the weeks following the peaceful protests that rose up against Gaddafi's rule, he began the slaughter. Planes and tanks from his own militia mowed down citizens who demanded his ouster. His planes machine-gunned mourners at funerals, people running for safety, or just anyone who happened to be standing around at the time. The hospitals ran out of beds and medicine. The number of dead is unknown but it is in the many thousands. Meanwhile, Gaddafi himself has said that he will stop at nothing to keep his power.

To him, it is a simple matter. Government rules. The people obey. Just because some sizable swath tries to overturn that system doesn't mean that the system must be upended. Isn't that the philosophy of all government in all times and all places? If it were not, the state would not need coercion, and it would not be a state. It would be a part of society, just another association the cumulates and represents the interests of a group, like the Rotary Club, chess club, or a house of worship. It is the power to legally beat, jail, and kill dissidents that makes the state what it is.

The guns and munitions that have long been accumulated under the claim that these were necessary to protect people — of course the people themselves were long ago disarmed by being denied the freedom to possess weapons of equal or greater power — every government will turn those very weapons on its people to slaughter them when they cease to obey.

Rothbard was right. This issue deserves to be made chapter one in a manual of how freedom is better for society than government rule.

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