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Only Ideological Change Can Make the World a More Peaceful Place

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Tags PhilosophyWar and Foreign Policy


Those of us who support a noninterventionist foreign policy find in Murray Rothbard’s work an inexhaustible source of facts and arguments. Mises, by contrast, usually doesn’t comment on foreign policy issues. Sometimes he did, but you won’t find in his published writings his views on the Cuban Missile Crisis or the Arab-Israeli conflict. I’d like to suggest, though, that a fundamental theme in his work supports noninterventionism.

The theme I have in mind is the evil of war. In an eloquent passage in Human Action, Mises says:

How far we are today from the rules of international law developed in the age of limited warfare! Modern war is merciless, it does not spare pregnant women or infants; it is indiscriminate killing and destroying. It does not respect the rights of neutrals. Millions are killed, enslaved, or expelled from the dwelling places in which their ancestors lived for centuries. Nobody can foretell what will happen in the next chapter of this endless struggle.

This has little to do with the atomic bomb. The root of the evil is not the construction of new, more dreadful weapons. It is the spirit of conquest. It is probable that scientists will discover some methods of defense against the atomic bomb. But this will not alter things, it will merely prolong for a short time the process of the complete destruction of civilization.

Modern civilization is a product of the philosophy of laissez faire. It cannot be preserved under the ideology of government omnipotence. Statolatry owes much to the doctrines of Hegel. However, one may pass over many of Hegel's inexcusable faults, for Hegel also coined the phrase “the futility of victory” (die Ohnmacht des Sieges) To defeat the aggressors is not enough to make peace durable. The main thing is to discard the ideology that generates war.

If war is destructive and evil, how can we eliminate it? Mises’s answer comes from a basic principle of his social philosophy: social cooperation through the free market allows people to relate to one another peacefully. Because all parties to an economic exchange benefit from it, people from other countries are not our enemies. The way to peace, then, lies in a policy of complete economic freedom. People should be able to trade with each other as they wish, without restriction. Mises says this far better than I can:

What distinguishes man from animals is the insight into the advantages that can be derived from cooperation under the division of labor. Man curbs his innate instinct of aggression in order to cooperate with other human beings. The more he wants to improve his material well-being, the more he must expand the system of the division of labor. Concomitantly he must more and more restrict the sphere in which he resorts to military action. The emergence of the international division of labor requires the total abolition of war. Such is the essence of the laissez-faire philosophy of Manchester.

This sounds simple enough, but an obstacle impedes carrying out this policy fully. Misled by false ideologies, many people think that nations prosper by seizing the resources of other nations. In Mises’s view, the motive behind modern warfare is thus economic. It’s just a tautology to say that war stems from aggressive nationalism; we need to ask what is responsible for that, and the answer lies in false doctrines of what leads to prosperity.

There is perfect agreement with regard to the fact that total war is an offshoot of aggressive nationalism. But this is merely circular reasoning. We call aggressive nationalism that ideology which makes for modern total war. Aggressive nationalism is the necessary derivative of the policies of interventionism and national planning. While laissez faire eliminates the causes of international conflict, government interference with business and socialism creates conflicts for which no peaceful solution can be found. While under free trade and freedom of migration no individual is concerned about the territorial size of his country, under the protective measures of economic nationalism nearly every citizen has a substantial interest in these territorial issues. The enlargement of the territory subject to the sovereignty of his own government means material improvement for him or at least relief from restrictions which a foreign government has imposed upon his well-being. What has transformed the limited war between royal armies into total war, the clash between peoples, is not technicalities of military art, but the substitution of the welfare state for the laissez-faire state.

Given that so much of the world is in the grip of false ideologies, what can we do? Mises says that the answer does not lie in international organizations or treaties.

It is futile to place confidence in treaties, conferences, and such bureaucratic outfits as the League of Nations and the United Nations. Plenipotentiaries, office clerks and experts make a poor show in fighting ideologies. The spirit of conquest cannot be smothered by red tape. What is needed is a radical change in ideologies and economic policies.

But how could this change in ideologies come about? Mises’s answer is that this will happen only if public opinion comes to support the free market, since all government rests ultimately on public opinion. He is pessimistic about whether this will happen.

Here is where Rothbard offers an indispensable addition to Mises. If we avoid military intervention except in case of direct attack, and always promote free trade, then we have done what we can to secure a peaceful world. As he put it in an article written in 1982,

No, far better and wiser [than collective security] is the old classical liberal foreign policy of neutrality and nonintervention, a foreign policy set forth with great eloquence by Richard Cobden, John Bright, the Manchester school and other “little Englanders” of the nineteenth century, by the Anti-Imperialist classical liberals of the turn of the twentieth century in Britain and the United States, and by the old right from the 1930s to the 1950s. Neutrality limits conflicts instead of escalating them. Neutral states cannot swell their power through war and militarism, or murder and plunder the citizens of other states.


Contact David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and editor of the Mises Review.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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