Thursday, February 07, 2008

Libertarianism and War

Libertarians are averse to war. As the slogan goes, "War is the health of the state." War is a bad state affairs, compared to peace, production, trade, life. War, and fear of war, is one of the strongest tools a government has for cowing a citizenry and "justifying" iron control of society. War results in suffering and death. War is bad.

But is war ever justified from a libertarian standpoint?


The affirmative answer is based on application of the law of self-defense. There are two confounding factors that I will address - the role of the state and the need to avoid thinking in terms of collectives and aggregate terms.

How can war be justified? Violence is justified for defense of individual rights, and only for this. War is justified when it is waged for this reason. Consider the basics of the common law regarding use of deadly force in self defense - a clear application of the concept of individual rights. The general framing of this law holds that three conditions must be satisfied before deadly force may legitimately be used:

1. The aggressor must have intent to inflict serious harm.
2. The aggressor must have ability to inflict serious harm.
3. The defender must have no reasonable, less drastic alternative defense.

These conditions are quite sensible applications of a "reasonable man" standard. Deadly force is extremely serious and ought not be engaged in readily nor for "light and transient causes." This three step test is applicable to any situation, whether one is confronted by an individual, a mob, or an organized group. This last is relevant to the question of war - George III’s Britain, Hitler’s Germany, and Hezbollah are all examples of organized aggressors whose actions resulted in justifiable war.

Two confounding factors: first, since war is almost always waged by states, and the state itself is based on violations of individual rights (it’s funded by taxes), doesn’t that automatically render war (or any other state action) illegitimate?

No, it doesn’t - to argue that it does is simply poor reasoning. Whether a particular action itself is justified is a different question from whether the means used to pursue that action were obtained legitimately. If a police officer were to stop a lunatic from raping and murdering an honest citizen, only a sociopath would object that the police officer’s action was wrong because it was funded by taxes. (An especially twisted sociopath would even hail the would-be rapist as a hero, just as some pseudo-libertarians hail Lukashenka or Hezbollah as heroes). An action needs to be judged on its own merits, and also contrasted with real alternatives. To simply selectively dismiss actions because they didn’t originate from a hypothetical ideal is at best a pointless exercise in the Nirvana fallacy. We cannot sensibly aggregate the actions. It's wrong to steal, even for a good cause. But the good cause does not become bad because one stole for it.

The second confounding factor - doesn’t war necessarily depend on thinking in terms of collective guilt and innocence, a fallacious misuse of concepts applicable only to individuals? Again, no it doesn’t. It is important that we avoid the fallacy, that we distinguish between combatants and non-combatants, between the guilty and the bystanders, and be careful in applying the three rules above when deciding who is a legitimate target. But careful application of the law of self defense addresses the issue.

Then what about the question of "collateral damage" - inadvertent harm to those who are not legitimate targets? It’s never certain that such collateral damage won’t result from a legitimate act of self defense, and to make such certainty a requirement would simply make self defense impossible. Non-aggressors aren’t proper targets, and pains should be taken to avoid inflicting harm on them. But this doesn’t require us to give up self defense. A "reasonable man" standard applies here as well.

So there is such a thing as war that is justified from a libertarian standpoint. Of course, none of this will satisfy armchair purists who insist that every action undertaken be unobjectionable in every way they can imagine, ex ante and ex post. But that’s a standard that is literally impossible to satisfy, and hence belongs in the realm of theology. Such fantasies are completely irrelevant to making choices in the real world.

this is probably the best, concise piece I have EVER read on this. Spot on! NV
Thnaks Nat. That's high praise, particularly given your professional background. I decided to repost it since someone posted a nonsensical argument to the contrary from the Mises Institute, on Tom Palmer's blog.
BTW, did you notice that Jeff Riggenbach calls my position "assinine" in his comments on Tom P.'s blog? But no attempt at refutation... reminds me of Tom DiLorenzo's "refutation" re Mises Institute.
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