Rothbard and War
[This talk was delivered at the Ron Paul Institute’s Conference on Breaking Washington’s Addiction to War.]
Murray Rothbard was the creator of the modern libertarian movement and a close friend of both Ron Paul and me. His legacy was a great one, and at the Mises Institute I try every day to live up to his hopes for us.
One issue was the most important to him, of all the many issues that concerned him. This was the issue of war and peace. Because of his support for a peaceful, noninterventionist foreign policy for America, the CIA agent William F. Buckley blacklisted him from National Review and tried, fortunately without success, to silence his voice.
During the 1950’s, Murray worked for the Volker Fund, and in a letter to Ken Templeton in 1959, he complained about the situation: “I can think of no other magazine which might publish this, though I might fix it up a bit and try one of the leftist-pacifist publications. The thing is that I am getting more and more convinced that the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business, and that we will never get anywhere in this great intellectual counterrevolution (or revolution) unless we can end this . . . cold war-a war for which I believe our tough policy is largely responsible.”
Buckley’s position was that it would be necessary to erect a “totalitarian bureaucracy” within our shores in order to battle communism abroad. The implication was that once the communist menace subsided, this extraordinary effort, domestic and foreign, could likewise diminish.
Since government programs do not have a habit of diminishing but instead seek new justifications when the old ones no longer exist, few of us were surprised when the warfare state, and its right-wing apologists, hummed right along after its initial rationale vanished from history.
As it turns out, by the way, the Soviet threat was grossly exaggerated, as such threats always are. The wickedness of the Soviet regime was never in doubt, but its capabilities and intentions were consistently distorted and overblown.
Despite the dubious foundations on which the hysterical claims behind the alleged “Soviet threat” rested, its existence ossified into one of the unchallengeable orthodoxies of National Review and of the broader conservative movement then being born. When Murray pointed out the silliness of the whole thing, not to mention the counterproductive nature of American military intervention abroad, he quickly became an un-person at National Review, which had published him in its early years.
Well before there was an official “conservative movement,” with its magazines, its crusty orthodoxies, its ineffectual think-tanks (complete with sinecures for ex-politicians) and its craving for respectability, there was a loose, less formal association of writers and intellectuals who opposed Franklin Roosevelt (in both his domestic and foreign policies), a group Murray dubbed the “Old Right.”
There was no party line among these intrepid thinkers because there was nobody to impose one.
Even into the 1950s and the advance of the Cold War, voices of restraint amidst the remnants of the Old Right could still be found. In a 1966 article, Murray points to the right-wing group For America, a political action group whose foreign-policy platform demanded “no conscription” as well as the principle, “Enter no foreign wars unless the safety of the United States is directly threatened.”
Murray likewise pointed to the Jeffersonian novelist Louis Bromfield, who wrote in 1954 that military intervention against the Soviet Union was counterproductive:
One of the great failures of our foreign policy throughout the world arises from the fact that we have permitted ourselves to be identified everywhere with the old, doomed, and rotting colonial-imperialist small European nations which once imposed upon so much of the world the pattern of exploitation and economic and political domination…. None of these rebellious, awakening peoples will…trust us or cooperate in any way so long as we remain identified with the economic colonial system of Europe, which represents, even in its capitalistic pattern, the last remnants of feudalism…. We leave these awakening peoples with no choice but to turn to Russian and communist comfort and promise of Utopia.
Murray likewise made note of a 1953 article by George Morgenstern, editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune, in Human Events (“now become a hack organ for the ‘Conservative Movement,’” Murray lamented in 1966) that deplored the imperialist tradition in American history. Morgenstern ridiculed those who “swoon on very sight of the phrase ‘world leadership,’” and wrote:
An all-pervasive propaganda has established a myth of inevitability in American action: all wars were necessary, all wars were good. The burden of proof rests with those who contend that America is better off, that American security has been enhanced, and that prospects of world peace have been improved by American intervention in four wars in half a century. Intervention began with deceit by McKinley; it ends with deceit by Roosevelt and Truman.
Perhaps we would have a rational foreign policy…if Americans could be brought to realize that the first necessity is the renunciation of the lie as an instrument of foreign policy.
With the advent of National Review, these increasingly isolated voices would be silenced and marginalized. Even the heroic John T. Flynn, whose anti-FDR biography The Roosevelt Myth had reached number two on the New York Times bestseller list, was turned away from National Review when he tried to warn of the dangers of a policy of military interventionism.
Why did Murray oppose war? Here are a few points basic to his thought:
First and foremost, war deforms us morally. It does so because the state itself first warps our moral sense. We’ve imbibed the idea that the state may legitimately do things that would be considered unspeakable enormities if carried out by private individuals. If I have a grievance, even a legitimate one, against someone else, no one would make excuses for me if I launched an attack on that person’s entire neighborhood, and I would be thought deranged if I dismissed any deaths I caused as mere “collateral damage.”
Or suppose Apple computer, or the Staples office supply chain, or the Elks club, launched a series of missile attacks that killed a thousand people. The outrage would be ceaseless. The attacks would be portrayed as evidence of the incorrigible wickedness of the private sector.
But when the United States government launches indefensible wars against Iraq and Afghanistan, spreading death, destruction, and dislocation to an extraordinary number of people, there is some anger, to be sure, among opponents of the policy. Yet even most opponents of the war stop short of drawing sweeping conclusions from this about the nature of the state. They remain in thrall to what they learned in high school civics, where the state is described as a great and progressive institution. Not even the horrors of war cause them to revisit this crippling assumption. And the next time they’re on an airplane, they’ll applaud the soldiers who fought in that very war. (Would they, by the way, applaud soldiers who had fought a war launched by Walmart?)
On the other hand, if we think of the state as a parasitic and self-interested institution that survives by siphoning resources from the productive citizenry, and which bamboozles the public with a now-familiar battery of arguments as to why it is indispensable to our well-being, we can look at war realistically, without all the superstitions and the patriotic songs.
Unfortunately, naive civics-class platitudes have greater purchase on the American mind than does Rothbard’s brutally realistic portrayal of the state, its nature, and its motivations. So the racket continues. The presidents who launch these wars still adorn American classrooms, thereby conveying the message that whatever their so-called mistakes, these are decent men, occupying a decent institution, whom the kids have a duty to respect.
War and the preparation for war deform the economy. Now this one will come as a surprise to some people since virtually everyone has heard at one time or another that war can stimulate economies. It’s true that war can stimulate parts of economies; as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, it stimulates, as does a plague, the funeral industry.
But war cannot stimulate the economy in general. Remember what the economy is for, after all: meeting the needs of consumers. During the war, the needs of the people take a back seat to the demands of the military. National income statistics may give the false impression of prosperity, but any fool understands that seizing money and spending it on, say, cruise missiles, can’t make the public wealthy. It merely diverts resources away from civilian use.
There need not be a hot war raging for militarism to deform an economy. When half or more of your research and development talent is diverted into military purposes, that means so much less devoted to civilian needs. When the Pentagon becomes your major customer, you lose the competitive edge to which market discipline gives rise. Since cost is not the Pentagon’s major concern. the cost-minimizing firm tends to become the cost- and subsidy-maximizing firm.
War and war propaganda deform our views of other peoples. World War I may have been the classic example of this: the Germans were the Huns, uniquely prone to carry out the most heinous atrocities. That portrayal made it all the easier to persuade citizens of the Allied countries to support, or at least acquiesce in, four years of war against them. And then a long starvation campaign against already impoverished and sick civilians to force the government to sign an unjust treaty.
After the war, there was a minor backlash against the lies and insults that had rendered international understanding all but impossible. In fact, our modern exchange student program arose out of intellectuals’ unhappiness with the propaganda dimension of World War I. They looked with embarrassment at the chauvinistic fervor they had been caught up in right alongside their countrymen and hoped that more interaction among peoples might make that kind of demonization less effective in the future.
The various hate campaigns carried out against US enemies is why it’s so shocking for most Americans to watch videos made by Western travelers and filmmakers about ordinary life in Iran. Thanks to years of systematic demonization of Iran and Iranians, they expect to find bloodthirsty savages riding on camels and plotting massacres. They instead find modern cities bustling with activity. Most surprising of all, they encounter people who like Americans, even if – like us ourselves – they don’t much care for the US government.
Along these lines, war encourages us to think of other peoples as dispensable or simply beneath us. A wedding party is blown to smithereens in Afghanistan, and Americans yawn. But we’d certainly pay attention if the federal government blew away a wedding party in Providence, Rhode Island. We’d be nearly as shocked if in pursuit of an accused terrorist the US government bombed an apartment building in London.
Or: the ruling class of country B attacks a military installation of country A. Country A then bombs country B, eventually killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. When citizens of Country A wonder aloud years later whether that had been a morally acceptable thing to do, their impatient fellows tell them, “That’s war,” thereby begging every important moral question. Those who raised the issue in the first place are dismissed as naive, and probably of dubious loyalty.
War corrupts the culture. As literary critic Paul Fussell has pointed out, “The culture of war kills something precious and indispensable in a civilized society: freedom of utterance, freedom of curiosity, freedom of knowledge.” He makes an example of the Pentagon official who, in explaining why the military had censored some TV footage showing Iraqi soldiers actually cut in half by US fire, noted casually that “if we let people see that kind of thing there would never again be any war.”
War distorts our sense of what service to others truly means. Only to members of the military are we urged to say, “Thank you for your service.” Toward the great entrepreneurs who extend our lives and make them more fulfilling, we are taught to be envious and resentful. They are most certainly not thanked for their service.
The state is able to get away with its aggression thanks in part to its manipulation of language. A soldier who perished in the Iraq war was said to have been “serving his country.” What could that mean? The war was launched on preposterous pretexts against a leader who had not harmed Americans and was incapable of doing so. If the war was in the service of anything, it was the imperial ambitions of a small ruling group. By no means did such a mission, which diverted vast resources away from civilian use, “serve the country.”
War distorts reality itself. Schoolchildren are taught to believe that the American soldier purchased their freedom by his sacrifices. Blasphemous bumper stickers compare the American soldier to Jesus Christ. But in what way was American freedom threatened by Iraq, or Panama, or Somalia? For that matter, how could any 20th-century adversary have managed an invasion of North America, given that even the Germans couldn’t cross the English Channel?
But this carefully cultivated mythology helps keep the racket going. It increases the superstitious reverence people have for past and present members of the military. It puts critics of war on the defensive. Indeed, how can we criticize war and intervention when these things have kept us free?
In short, war is inseparable from propaganda, lies, hatred, impoverishment, cultural degradation, and moral corruption. It is the most horrific outcome of the moral and political legitimacy people are taught to grant the state. Wrapped in the trappings of patriotism, home, songs, and flags, the state deludes people into despising a leader and a country that until that point they had barely even heard of, much less had an informed opinion about, and it teaches its subjects to cheer the maiming and death of fellow human beings who have never done them any harm.
Given how bad war is, what can we do to stop it? Part of the answer lies in how we think about war, and here are a few vital points we need to bear in mind.
(1) Our rulers are not a law unto themselves.
Let us pursue the subversive mission of applying the same moral rules against theft, kidnapping, and murder to our rulers that we apply to everyone else.Our warmakers believe they are exempt from normal moral rules. Because they are at war, they get to suspend all decency, all the norms that govern the conduct and interaction of human beings in all other circumstances. The anodyne term “collateral damage,” along with perfunctory and meaningless words of regret, are employed when innocent civilians, including children, are maimed and butchered. A private individual behaving this way would be called a sociopath. Give him a fancy title and a nice suit, and he becomes a statesman.
(2) Humanize the demonized.
We must encourage all efforts to humanize the populations of countries in the crosshairs of the warmakers. The general public is whipped into a war frenzy without knowing the first thing – or hearing only propaganda – about the people who will die in that war. The establishment’s media won’t tell their story, so it is up to us to use all the resources we as individuals have, especially online, to communicate the most subversive truth of all: that the people on the other side are human beings, too. This will make it marginally more difficult for the warmakers to carry out their Two Minutes’ Hate, and can have the effect of persuading Americans with normal human sympathies to distrust the propaganda that surrounds them.
(3) If we oppose aggression, let us oppose all aggression.
If we believe in the cause of peace, putting a halt to aggressive violence between nations is not enough. We should not want to bring about peace overseas in order that our rulers may turn their guns on peaceful individuals at home. Away with all forms of aggression against peaceful people.
The people and the warmakers are two distinct groups. We must never say “we” when discussing the US government’s foreign policy. For one thing, the warmakers do not care about the opinions of the majority of Americans. It is silly and embarrassing for Americans to speak of “we” when discussing their government’s foreign policy, as if their input were necessary to or desired by those who make war.(4) Never use “we” when speaking of the government.
But it is also wrong, not to mention mischievous. When people identify themselves so closely with their government, they perceive attacks on their government’s foreign policy as attacks on themselves. It then becomes all the more difficult to reason with them – why, you’re insulting my foreign policy!
Likewise, the use of “we” feeds into war fever. “We” have to get “them.” People root for their governments as they would for a football team. And since we know ourselves to be decent and good, “they” can only be monstrous and evil, and deserving of whatever righteous justice “we” dispense to them.
The antiwar left falls into this error just as often. They appeal to Americans with a catalogue of horrific crimes “we” have committed. But we haven’t committed those crimes. The same sociopaths who victimize Americans themselves every day, and over whom we have no real control, committed those crimes.
Ron Paul has restored the proper association of capitalism with peace and nonintervention. Leninists and other leftists, burdened by a false understanding of economics and the market system, used to claim that capitalism needed war, that alleged “overproduction” of goods forced market societies to go abroad – and often to war – in search for external markets for their excess goods.
This was always economic nonsense. It was political nonsense, too: the free market needs no parasitical institution to grease the skids for international commerce, and the same philosophy that urges nonaggression among individual human beings compels nonaggression between geographical areas.
Mises always insisted, contra the Leninists, that war and capitalism could not long coexist. “Of course, in the long run war and the preservation of the market economy are incompatible. Capitalism is essentially a scheme for peaceful nations…. The emergence of the international division of labor requires the total abolition of war…. The market economy involves peaceful cooperation. It bursts asunder when the citizens turn into warriors and, instead of exchanging commodities and services, fight one anothe
“The market economy,” Mises said simply, “means peaceful cooperation and peaceful exchange of goods and services. It cannot persist when wholesale killing is the order of the day.”
Those who believe in the free and unhampered market economy should be especially skeptical of war and military action. War, after all, is the ultimate government program. War has it all: propaganda, censorship, spying, crony contracts, money printing, skyrocketing spending, debt creation, central planning, hubris – everything we associate with the worst interventions into the economy.
“War,” Mises observed, “is harmful, not only to the conquered but to the conqueror. Society has arisen out of the works of peace; the essence of society is peacemaking. Peace and not war is the father of all things. Only economic action has created the wealth around us; labor, not the profession of arms, brings happiness. Peace builds; war destroys.”
See through the propaganda. Stop empowering and enriching the state by cheering its wars. Set aside the television talking points. Look at the world anew, without the prejudices of the past, and without favoring your own government’s version of things.
Be decent. Be human. Do not be deceived by the Joe Bidens, the John McCains, the John Boltons, Hillary Clintons and the whole gang of necons. Reject the biggest government program of them all.
Peace builds. War destroys.
Let’s return for a moment to Murray. When he opposed the Vietnam War, he alienated not only National Review, the major right-wing magazine and the most important conservative voice in the country, as well as virtually everyone on the right. He had to write for a small number of newsletter subscribers. By the late 1960s, he told Walter Block there were probably only 25 libertarians in the entire world.
Things are much easier for us today, thanks in large part to Murray’s commitment and Ron Paul’s extraordinary example. There are now millions of people who are resolutely antiwar, and who don’t care which political party the president launching any particular war happens to belong to.
On top of that, it’s encouraging to know that younger people are much less convinced of the need for an interventionist foreign policy. The younger the audience, the less the warmongers’ fact-free exhortations fall on receptive ears.
This in my view is Murray Rothbard’s greatest legacy. It’s up to all of us to help carry it forward.