Some criticism of Rothbard on foreign policy

I’m in favour of free markets and of reform to get the state out of the provision of all of the services it currently provides. The political coalition most strongly associated with this position is libertarianism. I’m not a libertarian partly because that label doesn’t actually identify any particular philosophy or set of ideas. Some people even argue for a welfare state and call themselves libertarians.  Another problem is that many libertarians adopt a position that they describe as anti-war, but it doesn’t make much sense and it’s not particularly difficult to find problems with it if you look for them.

The main inspiration for the libertarian anti war position is the work of Murray Rothbard so I’m going to criticise his position as expressed In his book For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto. In chapter 14 Rothbard writes about foreign policy. I’ll start with a quote from p. 331:

Pending the dissolution of States, libertarians desire to limit, to whittle down, the area of government power in all directions and as much as possible. We have already demonstrated how this principle of “de-statizing” might work in various important “domestic” problems, where the goal is to push back the role of government and to allow the voluntary and spontaneous energies of free persons full scope through peaceful interaction, notably in the free-market economy. In foreign affairs, the goal is the same: to keep government from interfering in the affairs of other governments or other countries. Political “isolationism” and peaceful coexistence— refraining from acting upon other countries—is, then, the libertarian counterpart to agitating for laissez-faire policies at home. The idea is to shackle government from acting abroad just as we try to shackle government at home. Isolationism or peaceful coexistence is the foreign policy counterpart of severely limiting government at home.

Libertarians are supposed to be against the initiation of the use of force. But if some person or group initiates the use of force then you can use force against them to defend yourself. A free market requires institutions for mediating disagreements about the use of force. Those institutions would sometimes impose a solution to a problem without the consent of some of the people involved. For example, if a thief steals a car he may not want to give it back to the owner but he’ll have to give it back anyway. So the use of force may be required for justice in some cases.

Now, let’s suppose that a criminal flees from state A to state B. Should state A try to get him extradited? Does this count as interference? Suppose that state B doesn’t want to extradite the criminal. Should state A leave the criminal in state B?

What if state B declares that any murderer from state A is welcome in state B?

What if state B not only says that murderers from state A are welcome, but if they have suitable evidence of the murder state B will pay them a large reward? Should state A be able to use force in that situation even though that would be a war in all but name? I don’t see how the principle of not initiating the use of force dictates what state A should do.

Rothbard continues (pp. 331-332):

Specifically, the entire land area of the world is now parcelled out among various States, and each land area is ruled by a central government with monopoly of violence over that area. In relations between States, then, the libertarian goal is to keep each of these States from extending their violence to other countries, so that each State’s tyranny is at least confined to its own bailiwick. For the libertarian is interested in reducing as much as possible the area of State aggression against all private individuals. The only way to do this, in international affairs, is for the people of each country to pressure their own State to confine its activities to the area it monopolizes and not to attack other States or aggress against their subjects. In short, the objective of the libertarian is to confine any existing State to as small a degree of invasion of person and property as possible. And this means the total avoidance of war. The people under each State should pressure “their” respective States not to attack one another, or, if a conflict should break out, to withdraw from it as quickly as physically possible.

Let us assume for the moment, a world with two hypothetical countries: Graustark and Belgravia. Each is ruled by its own State. What happens if the government of Graustark invades the territory of Belgravia? From the libertarian point of view two evils immediately occur. First, the Graustark Army begins to slaughter innocent Belgravian civilians, persons who are not implicated in whatever crimes the Belgravian government might have committed. War, then, is mass murder, and this massive invasion of the right to life, of self- ownership, of numbers of people is not only a crime but, for the libertarian, the ultimate crime. Second, since all governments obtain their revenue from the thievery of coercive taxation, any mobilization and launching of troops inevitably involve an increase in tax-coercion in Graustark. For both reasons—because inter-State wars inevitably involve both mass murder and an increase in tax-coercion, the libertarian opposes war. Period.

Let’s say that the government of Belgravia decides to exterminate all the kazoo players in Belgravia, and that it murders critics of the Begravian regime. Belgravia  might also use force against neighbouring states. This is the sort of situation that people in favour of war often raise as an example of when they would like to invade a country.

Some citizens of Belgravia may be silent out of fear. Those citizens might prefer an invasion to continuing to live in fear under the Belgravian regime. We can’t tell because they’re not allowed to express such an opinion.

Other Belgravians may be happy about the extermination of the kazoo players if the government gives Belgravians the kazoo players’ property, or because they just hate kazoo players. These citizens are willing participants in activity that would be criminal in a free society.

The Belgravian state can extract a lot of tax and property from its citizens to wage war. So if those citizens are completely off limits, Belgravia can wage war and kill Graustarkians for a long time. I’m not saying Graustark should kill every Belgravian but the situation isn’t as clear cut as Rothbard makes it sound.

Rothbard claims that if any war starts a more libertarian would withdraw as quickly as possible. Does this mean that the government of Graustark should withdraw from any Graustarkian territory that Belgravia conquers and leave its kazoo playing or free thinking citizens to be murdered?

Wars waged by states are funded by tax and other means of taking property without the owners’ consent. But states forbid people from providing for their own defence, so how can organised defence work if the state doesn’t wage wars in defence of its citizens? You can say that you want defence services to be provided in the free market, but we don’t know how to do that yet, so what are people supposed to do in the meantime to minimise the initiation of the use of force?

Later in the same chapter, Rothbard writes (p. 335):

But there is yet another fatal flaw in the analogy with individual aggression. When Smith beats up Jones or steals his property we can identify Smith as an aggressor upon the personal or property right of his victim. But when the Graustarkian State invades the territory of the Belgravian State, it is impermissible to refer to “aggression” in an analogous way. For the libertarian, no government has a just claim to any property or “sovereignty” right in a given territorial area. The Belgravian State’s claim to its territory is therefore totally different from Mr. Jones’s claim to his property (although the latter might also, on investigation, turn out to be the illegitimate result of theft). No State has any legitimate property; all of its territory is the result of some kind of aggression and violent conquest. Hence the Graustarkian State’s invasion is necessarily a battle between two sets of thieves and aggressors: the only problem is that innocent civilians on both sides are being trampled upon.

This line of argument requires that all states should be regarded as equivalent and nobody should prefer living under one state or another. In reality, some states initiate the use of force to a greater extent than others. So if the government of Belgravia is overthrown and replaced that might reduce the extent of the initiation of the use of force.

I also don’t think the anti-war position is actually going to prevent or minimise war. If the Graustarkian state claims it will never wage war under any circumstances, then anti-liberal states who aren’t opposed to the initiation of the use of force may see that as an opportunity to wage a war to plunder and kill Graustarkians. Minimising war requires being able to use force in  an organised way to stop aggressive states – it requires being willing to fight wars.

About conjecturesandrefutations
My name is Alan Forrester. I am interested in science and philosophy: especially David Deutsch, Ayn Rand, Karl Popper and William Godwin.

3 Responses to Some criticism of Rothbard on foreign policy

  1. > What happens if the government of Graustark invades the territory of Belgravia? From the libertarian point of view two evils immediately occur. First, the Graustark Army begins to slaughter innocent Belgravian civilians, persons who are not implicated in whatever crimes the Belgravian government might have committed.

    Not all armies immediately slaughter *innocent civilians* the moment they enter a foreign country. wtf kind of assumption is that.

    > the only problem is that innocent civilians on both sides are being trampled upon.

    “only problem”? Isn’t it a problem that soldiers are dying? wtf… Isn’t it also a problem that wealth is being expended on bullets, tanks, etc., instead of on science, cellphones, etc.?

    • > Not all armies immediately slaughter *innocent civilians* the moment they enter a foreign country. wtf kind of assumption is that.

      Rothbard hates the govt and makes up lots of weird stuff like this to rationalise his hatred.

      > “only problem”? Isn’t it a problem that soldiers are dying? wtf… Isn’t it also a problem that wealth is being expended on bullets, tanks, etc., instead of on science, cellphones, etc.?

      He doesn’t discuss the economics of war anywhere in the chapter, which is an odd omission for an economist.

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