Murray Rothbard on War and "Isolationism"
[These edited extracts, from an interview in the February 1973 issue of Reason magazine, first ran in the June 1999 issue of the Rothbard-Rockwell Report.]
Q: Why, in your view, is isolationism an essential tenet of libertarian foreign policy?
A: The libertarian position, generally, is to minimize state power as much as possible, down to zero, and isolationism is the full expression in foreign affairs of the domestic objective of whittling down state power. In other words, interventionism is the opposite of isolationism, and of course it goes on up to war, as the aggrandizement of state power crosses national boundaries into other states, pushing other people around etc. So this is the foreign counterpart of the domestic aggression against the internal population. I see the two as united.
The responsibility of trying to limit or abolish foreign intervention is avoided by many conservative libertarians in that they are very, very concerned with things like price control—of course I agree with them. They are very, very concerned about eliminating taxes, licensing, and so forth—with which I agree—but somehow when it comes to foreign policy there’s a black out. The libertarian position against the state, the hostility toward expanding government intervention and so forth, goes by the board—all of a sudden you hear those same people who are worried about government intervention in the steel industry cheering every American act of mass murder in Vietnam or bombing or pushing around people all over the world.
This shows, for one thing, that the powers of the state apparatus to bamboozle the public work better in foreign affairs than in domestic. In foreign affairs you still have this mystique that the nation-state is protecting you from a bogeyman on the other side of the mountain. There are “bad” guys out there trying to conquer the world and “our” guys are in there trying to protect us. So not only is isolationism the logical corollary of libertarianism, which many libertarians don’t put into practice; in addition, as Randolph Bourne says, “war is the health of the state.”
The state thrives on war—unless, of course, it is defeated and crushed—expands on it, glories in it. For one thing, when one state attacks another state, it is able through this intellectual bamboozlement of the public to convince them that they must rush to the defense of the state because they think the state is defending them.
In other words, if, let’s say, Paraguay and Brazil are going to get into a war, each state—the Paraguayan government and the Brazilian government—is able to convince their own subjects that the other government is out to get them and loot them and murder them in their beds and so forth, so they are able to induce their own hapless subjects to fight against the other state, whereas in actual practice, of course, it is the states that have the quarrel, not the people. The people are outside the quarrels of the state and yet the state is able to generate this patriotic mass war hysteria and to call everybody up to the colors physically and spiritually and economically and therefore, of course, aggrandize state power permanently.
Most conservatives and libertarians are very familiar with—and deplore—the increase in state power in the American government in the last 50 or 70 years, but what they don’t seem to realize is that most of these increases took place in giant leaps during wartime. It was wartime that provided the crisis situation—the spark—which enabled the states to put on so-called emergency measures, which of course never got lifted, or rarely got lifted.
Even the War of 1812—seemingly a harmless little escapade—was evil, and also in the domestic sense, in that it ruined the Jeffersonian Party for a long time to come, it established federalism, which means monopoly state-capitalism in essence, it imposed a central bank, it imposed high tariffs, it imposed domestic federal taxation, which never existed before, internal taxation, and it took a long time to get rid of it, and we never really did get back to the pre–War of 1812 level of minimal state power.
Then, of course, the Mexican War [Mexican-American War, 1846–48] had consequences of slave expansion and so forth. But the Civil War was, of course, much worse—the Civil War was really the great turning point, one of the great turning points in the increase of state power, because with the Civil War you now have the total introduction of things like railroad land grants, subsidies of big business, permanent high tariffs, which the Jacksonians had been able to whittle away before the Civil War, and a total revolution in the monetary system so that the old pure gold standard was replaced first by greenback paper, and then by the National Banking Act—a controlled banking system. And for the first time we had the imposition in the United states of an income tax and federal conscription. The income tax was reluctantly eliminated after the Civil War as was conscription: all the other things—such as high excise taxes—continued on as a permanent accretion of state power over the American public.
The third huge increase of power came out of World War I. World War I set both the foreign and the domestic policies for the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson set the entire pattern for foreign policy from 1917 to the present. There is a total continuity between Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and Nixon—the same thing all the way down the line.
Q: You’d include Kennedy in that?
A: Yes, Kennedy, right. I don’t want to miss anybody. Every president has been inspired by Woodrow Wilson. It was reported that Richard Nixon’s first act when he came into the White House was to hang a picture of Woodrow Wilson in front of his desk. The same influence has held on domestic affairs. As a matter of fact if I had to single out—this is one of my favorites pastimes—the biggest SOB in American history in the sense of evil impact—I think Woodrow Wilson is way, way at the head of the list for many reasons. The permanent direction which Woodrow Wilson set for foreign policy included the permanent collective security concept, which means America has some sort of God-given role to push everybody around everywhere and set up little democratic governments all over the world, and to suppress any kind of revolution against the status quo—that means any kind of change in the status quo either domestic or foreign. In the domestic sphere the corollary was the shift from a relatively laissez-faire economy—corrupted as it was by the Civil War subsidies and all it was still a relatively laissez-faire capitalism—a deliberate shift to in essence a so-called corporate state, what openly became a corporate state in Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany.
Q: As of what time?
A: Well, the Progressive period begins around 1900 with Teddy Roosevelt and so forth. Woodrow Wilson cements it with his so-called reforms, which totally subject the banking system to federal power, and with the Federal Trade Commission, which did for business what the Interstate Commerce Commission did for the railroads. In other words, he imposed a system of monopoly capitalism, or corporate state monopoly, which we now call the partnership of the government and of big business and industry, which means essentially a corporate state, or we can call it economic fascism. It culminated in World War I economic planning, for the war consisted of a totally collectivized economy headed by the sainted and revered Bernard Mannes Baruch, head of the War Industries Board.
The economy had a central board and each industry was governed by a committee from the industry—say the iron and steel industry was governed by the Iron and Steel Board. The heads of the board were deliberately selected from the biggest firms in that particular industry and they would negotiate with committees of industry set up by the government, and the government would encourage trade associations in the industries to set up committees and negotiate with these boards.
So what you have is the so-called commodity sections—the government boards selected from the biggest businessmen—in the industry and they fixed prices and production and priority and everything else with other committees set up by the same big firm, and everyone loved it. Big businesses loved it, the government loved it, and the Progressive intellectuals—as they were called then—said, this is a magnificent third way, a “middle way” as they called it—to battle the old laissez-faire capitalism on the one hand, and the new proletarian Marxian socialism on the other.
They didn’t like the idea of Marxian socialism because it was messy, emphasized class struggle, and led to a revolution perhaps. What they saw here was a new order—and this was a vision held by Baruch and Hoover and all sorts of Progressive intellectuals from the universities and so forth—they saw a beautiful new order with big government controlling the economy, regulating it, subsidizing it, largely staffed by big businessmen in collaboration with unions, which were deliberately encouraged as disciplinary agents for the labor force, and which were practically created by the war labor system. All this of course was staffed and apologized for by the Progressive intellectuals, who acquired prestige, power, and a great sense of accomplishment pushing people around in their government bureaus.
So we have, then, this unholy partnership of big government, big business, big unions, and intellectuals, and it was developed so much in World War I planning that the business leaders and the government leaders who pushed the thing were very reluctant to see it end. They saw in it not just a wartime measure; this was the model they wanted for the permanent peacetime economy. They wanted to end all messy competition. As one big business writer said, “As General Sherman said ‘war is Hell, competition is war, and therefore competition is Hell.’” They wanted to eliminate competition, and to establish a system of industrial “cooperation” monopolies. And they were very sorry to see the War Industries Board scrapped when the war was over.
As a matter of fact, it almost wasn’t scrapped. Wilson finally decided to scrap it, but it was touch and go. Then afterwards the same people—Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, Bernard Baruch, all the people who had earned their stripes in World War I mobilization planning—for the rest of their lives tried and then succeeded in reestablishing World War I planning—it was known as war collectivism—as a permanent peacetime set up. Herbert Hoover during the 1920s was trying to use the power of the government to encourage and support trade association cartel agreements, and Franklin Roosevelt also. When Roosevelt and the New Deal got in, they used not only the same agencies as World War I collectivism, but the same people.
In case after case the people were brought back to do for the economy what had been done in war, to treat the depression in a military manner, and then World War II, of course, finishes it. In World War II, we have another big quantum leap—enormous government spending and military-industrial pump priming, and the permanent cold war, and so we then have the plans for a permanent peacetime welfare-warfare state—a corporate state—pushed through of course by the partnership of these powerful forces plus intellectuals, done by means of wartime crisis.
Q: The notion of collective security is something that many Americans today take for granted as desirable and essential.
A: Well I think the concept of collective security is (1) a disaster and (2) anti-libertarian. Vietnam again brings this thing to the fore, in the sense of masking imperial interventionist policy on the part of the American government in the rhetoric of the cloak of righteousness and moralistic pieties. Let’s take two hypothetical states—this is the technique von Mises used to use, I think, with good effect—take the hypothetical states of Ruritania and Waldavia, somewhere off in the Balkans or whatever. The Ruritanian state invades the Waldavian state. The collective-security view is that this constitutes aggression, it’s evil per se—an evil state attacking a victim state, the Ruritanian state being the aggressor in this case, and then it becomes the duty of every other state in the whole wide world—the United states being somehow the divinely appointed chief and almost sole pourer out of resources in this effort—to step in to defend the so-called victim, and crush the aggressor.
Now this has very many important consequences. One is that every crummy little interstate conflict anywhere in the world becomes escalated and maximized into worldwide global conflict. With this kind of policy it means that no dispute anywhere, however trivial, can ever be kept trivial or kept isolated to the parties of the dispute, as they become globalized and bring everybody else into the holocaust. The second problem is that the whole idea of the aggressor state and the victim state is based on the phony analogy of the individual citizen—individual person—suffering an aggression against him.
You remember the big argument President Truman used about Korea—he said, “We are not engaged in a war, we are engaged in a police action, a UN police action against the North Korean aggressor.” Now when he said that he was not just using peculiar and phony rhetoric. The rhetoric came out of the Wilsonian collective security ideology, which was: if you see armies crossing frontiers somewhere, this constitutes aggression. It means that in the same sense as if he sees Jones beating up Smith on the street, the policeman on the block rushes to his defense, and so therefore the United states and the United Nations become the policemen rushing to defend the victim.
Now there are several problems in this. One is that even in the case of Jones and Smith, the presumption is if you see Jones beating up Smith that you should rush to Smith’s defense. However, there might be certain mitigating circumstances. Smith might have just beaten up Jones’s kid, and Jones might be retaliating; in other words, Smith might have started the fight—you don’t know that without historical investigation, so to speak, of the Smith-Jones relationship.
In the case of states, you have a completely different situation because this ideology assumes that the Waldavian state and Ruritanian state are somehow the rightful owners of all their territory, just as Jones owns his watch and Smith does, too, and then [if] Smith beats Jones up or takes his watch away from him, this is aggression. The analogy then becomes, if Ruritania invades Waldavia, this means that Waldavian territory, Waldavian property, rightful property, has been taken away from them by the Ruritanian aggressor.
Now the point is for the libertarian that none of these states have any rightful property, that the Ruritanian government does not properly and justly own the entire land area of the country—the property should be owned by individual citizens. The state apparatus has then no title, no just claim. So if the Ruritanian state crosses the frontier and fights the Waldavian state, this does not make the Ruritanian state any more of an aggressor than the original Waldavian state. Both of them are aggressors over their subject populations. Considering that and the whole idea that every other government should rush in and defend Waldavia means that not only is every small conflict escalated to a global scale—it also means that every small aggression is maximized in the global scale.
In other words, since all governments aggress against their citizens through taxes, through conscription, through mass murder called war, the more governments that enter into the picture—the more the United states, Britain, or whatever rushes in to defend Waldavia—the more innocent civilians get killed, the more innocent people are forced to pay taxes, the more innocent people are conscripted. So the way to minimize aggression when you are dealing with states is to agitate and press for nobody to enter into any conflict at all—hopefully for no government to go to war with any other government—and if any government does go to war, for the third, fourth, and fifth party to stay the blazes out.
Apart from all this, the boundaries of each state—Waldavian, Ruritanian, American, French, British—since they are not justly owned by any sort of process of capital investment or homesteading or anything else, since all state boundaries have always been the result of previous conquests—so in many cases the so-called aggressor state has a better claim than the so-called victim state.
For example, suppose that Ruritania is “aggressing” and declares war on Waldavia and starts seizing the Northwestern part of Waldavia. Well, it’s very possible that the Northwestern part of Waldavia is ethnically Ruritanian, had Ruritanian customs, and that 100 years ago, the Waldavian state had conquered it and now the Ruritanians were taking it back. This is a perfectly legitimate claim, so the point is, then, that all interstate wars intensify aggression—maximize it—and that some wars are even more unjust than others. In other words, all government wars are unjust, although some governments have less unjust claims in the sense that they might have—well, let’s put it this way: in the case of the Ruritanian-Waldavian thing, when the Ruritanians are simply taking back ethnically Ruritanian territory and the Ruritanian masses were yearning to rejoin their homeland—then libertarians, it seems to me, would say that war would then be just if the following conditions were satisfied: (1) there were no taxes imposed; (2) no innocent civilians got killed; (3) nobody got conscripted—in other words, it was a purely voluntary fight. Obviously to meet these conditions would be almost impossible but there are different gradations—you know, real-life wars—approaching this. A “just war” would be for all these conditions to be met.
Q: What is your view of the applicability of the concept of collective security to, say, a situation involving a private nongovernmental band of pirates?
A: Well I wouldn’t call it collective security. First of all, I don’t like the word “collective.” Collective implies some sort of nonexistent collectivity that acts—has a being and acts; only individuals exist, only individuals act, so that if private people get aggressed against by pirates I would certainly be in favor of and certainly support the right of these individual victims to defend themselves against piracy by banding together, or by hiring other agencies to defend themselves. I don’t like to call that collective, because collective implies some sort of coercive totality.
Q: Let’s assume, then, you have some type of mutual defense pact entered into by private individuals to defend themselves against a band of private nongovernmental pirates. Let’s say that it would be probable that there would be innocent victims of the tactics that were most appropriate in defending private interests. What would be your view on the propriety of such tactics?
A: I think—first, one of the points that I should have mentioned about wars, why I am opposed to all of them—is that in modern times the scale of weaponry that’s used is escalated so that it’s almost impossible not to murder innocent civilians. Part of the reason for this is not only the march of technology, the fact that if you use a bow and arrow you can pinpoint it against the enemy army, you can pinpoint it at the retinue of a king. If you use H bombs or B-29s or whatever, of course, you can’t pinpoint the warring soldiers and officers—you have to start the mass murdering of civilians.
There’s another reason for this: the state apparatus gathers to itself the entire population of its territory. If you happen to live in France you as a French citizen, even though you might hate the war that France is conducting against Portugal, you are committed to it by the very nature of the state system. So that if the French government goes to war with the Portuguese government, the Portuguese government would undoubtedly bomb, if it could, the French civilian population. So, in other words, the very nature of interstate war puts innocent civilians into great jeopardy, especially with modern technology.
However, 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. Then you don’t only have one state and one geographical area secure in its home base, and the other state somewhere else in its geographical area on its home base. In other words, to put it bluntly, you are not going to have either the marauders or the defenders bombing each other, because they are only perhaps five blocks apart. So the result of this is that you only use H bomb and mass murder—commit genocide against an enemy—if they are way out there somewhere and you can’t see them. The beauty of nonstate—interprivate, if you want to put it that way—warfare is that it has to be pinpointed—it has to be, in order not to commit suicide in the process—and, so, that the scale of weaponry has to be reduced to, say, machine-gun level.
In that situation, 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. There’s an ancient maxim that it’s more important to let a hundred criminals escape than to injure one innocent person, so (1) I would be totally opposed to injuring any noncriminals and (2) if you shift from state war—interstate warfare—down to private warfare, the likelihood of doing that, of pursuing this kind of libertarian noninjuring of civilians, will be greatly increased.
Q: Do you care to comment on the view that the only war in which the United states has been involved which could be justified is the Revolutionary War?
A: Yes, I agree 100% with that! The difference between the Revolutionary War and an interstate war is that, in the first place, an interstate war is a war of one government against another—it’s a war that aggresses against the innocent civilians of the opposite government, it’s a war that increases taxes at home, and conscription usually, to pay for it. Revolutionary war is a war against the state apparatus, a war from below by the armed public. It doesn’t have to injure innocent civilians, and it usually doesn’t. It often does not involve taxes or conscription—if it does, it does so on a very small scale.
The American revolutionary effort didn’t have any taxation even on a state level for the first few years of the Revolutionary War. In other words, put it this way—when you have a revolutionary war against the existing state apparatus—say the American people against the British Crown and their collaborationists at home, the guerrilla revolutionary effort can pinpoint their attacks against the state apparatus. They do the pinpointing, and they have to do the pinpointing. They can do it and they have to do it—in other words, they don’t spray innocent people with machine guns, they don’t H-bomb if they have the H bomb, their object is to zap the forces of the existing government of the Crown—the Crown officers and so forth.
On the other hand, the reason why they don’t injure civilians is usually not just from moral reasons, but from basic strategic ones—that is, that no revolutionary, no people’s war can succeed unless it has the broad support of the mass of the population. Mao Tse-tung [Zedong] and Che Guevara, of course, enunciated this—as “The guerrillas are to the people as fish are to water.” But actually Charles Lee saw this much earlier—he was the brilliant Revolutionary theorist who was the second in command to George Washington for the first few years of the American Revolution. He was a British soldier of fortune and libertarian and wandered all over the world picking up military insights. As soon as the American Revolution broke out, Lee rushed to the United states to help out in the war effort, and was made second in command.
Lee set the pattern for the American victory, not Washington—well, I won’t go into that, but Lee set the pattern by pointing out that the American Revolution could only succeed as a people’s war from below—a guerrilla struggle, if you will—against the superior fire power of the British government. The government’s lacking the essential popular support, the guerrillas therefore become the people, and people became the guerrillas in the old battle grounds of Lexington and Concord, which victories were the first great American guerrilla action. The British, just as the Americans now in Vietnam, had very great difficulty distinguishing between the peasants and the guerrillas. They say they all look alike—well, they are alike, they are them. In other words, peasants in the daytime pick up the guns at night and pop the British soldiers.
Joey Rothbard: Not the British soldiers.
A: Well, in the American Revolution, it was the British soldiers, in the Vietnam War, it is the American soldiers, but the principle is the same. The interesting thing is that on the other hand, the counterrevolutionary forces, in other words, the government battling against the revolution, has to do just the opposite: they have superior fire power for various reasons, they have the official army, but they don’t have the support of the population—so in their kind of warfare, they have to amass genocidal terror against the civilian population. They try to break the morale of the civilians, try to cut their support off from the guerrillas and so forth. The Americans have done this with the infamous strategic hamlet policy in Vietnam, herding the peasants into hamlets so that they couldn’t support the guerrillas; the British did it in the Boer War in the early 20th century; the American government did it in the Philippines in the early part of the 20th century; and I think the British would have done it in the Revolutionary War if they had had the resources to do so. The British actually did some of this, you know, though they had not carried counterrevolutionary warfare to its present height. But the principle is there so that if you have a revolution against the state apparatus, the revolutionary warfare—apart from the goals of the revolution or the counterrevolution—is almost necessarily libertarian and the counterrevolutionary warfare is almost necessarily genocidal or anti-libertarian.
Q: What are the basic elements of a proper libertarian foreign policy?
A: Well, the basic element of any libertarian foreign policy is to pressure the government to do nothing abroad, just to pack up shop and go home. General Smeadly Butler, one of my great heroes, formerly of the Marine Corps, in the late 1930s proposed a constitutional amendment in the Woman’s Home Companion. His article was a sensation for awhile but of course the amendment never was adopted and has now been forgotten. But it was kind of a charming constitutional amendment—I recommend that everybody read it. In essence it says something like this: no American soldier, plane, or ship shall be sent any place outside America. In other words, complete abstinence from any kind of American military intervention and political and economic intervention.
Q: You would be referring to American government planes, I assume—what about commercial flights?
A: Oh yes, you know, abstinence from government intervention. It was the idea of isolationism. The sneer against isolationism always was that isolationists were parochial, narrow-minded characters who don’t know that there is a world out there and want to hide their heads in the sand. In fact it’s the opposite—the true principle of isolationism is that the government should be isolated, the government should do nothing abroad and people who trade, interchange, and engage in voluntary travel, migration, and so forth should be allowed to peacefully do so. The idea is to isolate the government, not to isolate the country.
There’s another aspect, of course; this would apply to any government, but the thing is there is also an extra aspect—empirically it so happens that the American government since the days of Woodrow Wilson has been the main threat to the peace of the world, the main imperialist, the main embarker on a policy of meddling in every conceivable country every place in the world to make sure their government shapes up properly—so that the policy of American isolationism is more important for libertarian principle than any other country’s isolationism.