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Should Libertarians Get behind States Waging "Humanitarian" Wars?

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Tags War and Foreign Policy

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In his valuable article “War and Humanitarian Intervention,” in The Routledge Companion to Libertarianism (pp. 441–56), Fernando R. Tesón raises some interesting criticisms of Murray Rothbard’s views on war as part of a more general discussion of the topic, and I’d like to devote this week’s article to these. It has to be said, though, that a number of these criticisms are based on misreadings of Rothbard, which isn’t to say Tesón would like the true Rothbardian position better than the one to which he pays attention.

Tesón thinks that libertarians have rightly viewed war with misgiving, and he includes some good material about the costs of war, but he also thinks that Rothbard’s position is unduly restrictive. Tesón would allow more scope for war than Rothbard does, and he wishes especially to make room for humanitarian interventions “to prevent genocide.”

Tesón gets off to a good start, pointing out how central the nonaggression principle (NAP) is to Rothbard, but he wrongly thinks that the principle commits him to something close to pacifism. Tesón takes the principle to say that you can only use force to repel force directed at you, so that if someone stole your property nonviolently, you would violate the NAP if you took hold of his body to stop him.

Had Tesón taken the trouble to consult the beginning of chapter 12 of The Ethics of Liberty, he would have soon seen his error:

If every man has the absolute right to his justly-held property, it then follows that he has the right to keep that property—to defend it by violence against violent invasion. Absolute pacifists who also assert their belief in property rights—such as Mr. Robert LeFevre—are caught in an inescapable inner contradiction: for if a man owns property and yet is denied the right to defend it against attack, then it is clear that a very important aspect of that ownership is being denied to him. To say that someone has the absolute right to a certain property but lacks the right to defend it against attack or invasion is also to say that he does not have total right to that property. Furthermore, if every man has the right to defend his person and property against attack, then he must also have the right to hire or accept the aid of other people to do such defending: he may employ or accept defenders just as he may employ or accept the volunteer services of gardeners on his lawn.

Rothbard makes his position on the precise point Tesón raises even more evident here:

To be more concrete, if Jones finds that his property is being stolen by Smith, he has the right to repel him and try to catch him; but he has no right to repel him by bombing a building and murdering innocent people or to catch him by spraying machine gun fire into an innocent crowd. If he does this, he is as much (or more of) a criminal aggressor as Smith is.

You may be wondering why Tesón made this mistake. I suggest the answer lies in a far more significant error in interpretation than this particular instance. If you look at the NAP as an isolated sentence, you can see how Tesón went astray. The NAP says, “The fundamental axiom of libertarian theory is that no one may threaten or commit violence (“aggress’) against another man’s person or property. Violence may be employed only against the man who commits such violence; that is, only defensively against the aggressive violence of others” (p. 442). If you look only at the second sentence, you might arrive at Tesón’s reading. But looking at only one sentence of an author’s work isn’t a good idea; you need always to keep in mind the full context. Tesón is obdurate in error, saying that “Rothbard does not accept the justification of using violence against those who have not used it against us, even when they have violated our property rights” (p. 445), and accordingly, Tesón imputes to him the view that you could not use force to eject a trespasser peacefully sleeping on your couch.

Unfortunately, this isn’t Tesón’s biggest mistake. He begins well, pointing out that in the libertarian view, groups don’t have rights that don’t stem from their members’ individual rights. He then argues that allowing responses to attacks not only on yourself but on others as well, a country is justified in responding with force to aggression against other countries, not just itself, and also in forcibly interdicting genocide aimed at part of another nation’s own population.

In arguing in this way, Tesón disregards a fundamental point. States don’t have more rights than the individuals whom they govern, but it doesn’t follow that they have the same rights as individuals and that they “own” their territory in the same way that persons own property. Indeed, for Rothbard, states are criminal gangs. As he says in “War, Peace, and the State,” an article Tesón quotes,

It is time now to bring the State into our discussion. The State is a group of people who have managed to acquire a virtual monopoly of the use of violence throughout a given territorial area. In particular, it has acquired a monopoly of aggressive violence, for States generally recognize the right of individuals to use violence (though not against States, of course) in self-defense. The State then uses this monopoly to wield power over the inhabitants of the area and to enjoy the material fruits of that power. The State, then, is the only organization in society that regularly and openly obtains its monetary revenues by the use of aggressive violence; all other individuals and organizations (except if delegated that right by the State) can obtain wealth only by peaceful production and by voluntary exchange of their respective products. This use of violence to obtain its revenue (called “taxation”) is the keystone of State power.

Tesón does not grasp that for Rothbard, the state’s sovereign claims aren’t corollaries to individual rights. Thus, in considering Rothbard’s discussion of the case of a state that has occupied another state’s territory, Tesón says that Rothbard’s position “implies that a government may not use lethal force to recover a territory that was peacefully occupied by another nation” (p. 445). Here he again relies on his incorrect interpretation of the NAP, that you cannot use violence against nonviolent theft. What he misses is that Rothbard isn’t talking about a case of property rights violations; rather, in his example, there has just been a change of government. A government that violently attempted to repossess “its” territory would not be defending property rights.

Tesón’s article is worth reading, but it would have been even better had he studied Rothbard’s work more closely.


Contact David Gordon

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

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