All Commentary
Tuesday, December 5, 2023

Three Principles for Libertarians in Times of War

Siding with freedom means siding with peaceful individuals, not nation-states.

Image Credit: Amber Clay - Pixabay

The ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas seems to have brought out the worst in many people on both sides, not only in the sense of bloodthirst, of which there is sadly plenty, but also in the sense of letting emotion get in the way of clear moral reasoning. To a lesser extent, the Russia-Ukraine conflict has led to similar results.

From the depths of social media to the heights of the ivory tower, the takes people have proffered on these conflicts have been straight-up wild. Even those who are otherwise quite good on a lot of issues seem to have left their moral compass at the door when weighing in on this topic.

In the midst of this deluge of bad takes, libertarians have an opportunity, and a duty, to bring genuine moral clarity to bear on these issues. If we can be cool-headed and principled, especially in times of crisis, we will be that much more respected, and that much closer to winning the hearts and minds of the masses.

But what does genuine moral clarity look like when it comes to war? What is the libertarian take? Here are three principles to help libertarians navigate this issue.

1) Refuse to Ignore, Condone, or Justify the Slaughter of Innocents

There is a lot of anger surrounding this conflict. And indeed, outrage is fully warranted. Thousands of innocents are being killed, and that should make our blood boil. There are great injustices taking place, and those wrongs need to be righted.

But there are better and worse ways to respond. Sadly, both sides in this conflict have been responding to the injustices committed against their people by committing injustices of their own, further perpetuating the cycle of violence and giving the other side even more reason to lash out.

To discern a better solution, we need to begin by acknowledging that both sides in this conflict are committing acts of evil, such as killing innocent civilians. But even this is proving to be a point of contention.

For example, one of the earliest reactions when the Israel-Hamas conflict broke out was this Ben Shapiro tweet.

With his “both sides” comment, Shapiro seems to be taking aim at the talking point that both sides have blood on their hands. Somehow, calling out all injustice is part of the problem. The correct way to think about this, presumably, is to only look at one side’s crimes, namely, the crimes of Hamas.

It should be obvious why this is the opposite of moral clarity.

When both sides kill innocent people, both sides need to be called out. We can debate the relative degree of evil being perpetrated, but there is no room for selectively ignoring acts of aggression against innocents. The existence of evil within both parties should be acknowledged and condemned by all.

Now, many people justify the killing of innocents with the argument that it’s necessary for defense, and so the other side is “really” responsible for their deaths. For example, in response to a perfectly civil and even-handed comment from Piers Morgan expressing heartbreak for innocent victims on both sides, Ben Shaprio opined, “Both are the fault of Hamas.”

But this makes absolutely no sense. Say a serial killer hides in an apartment building full of innocent civilians. Even if everyone were in complete agreement that the serial killer was guilty, dangerous, and deserved death, would it be moral to bomb the building, killing the murderer along with dozens of innocents? Clearly, this is ridiculous. In this misguided pursuit of “defense” you just become an aggressor yourself.

Yet Ben Shapiro takes it a step further. Not only is such a bombing justified in his eyes, but the killing of those innocents is somehow the fault of the serial killer! By this logic, whenever someone commits a crime and poses an active threat, it is justifiable to apprehend them by any means necessary, even killing many hundreds of innocents, and the blood of all those innocents is somehow that criminal’s responsibility and his alone.

Whatever such a system stands for, it sure isn’t justice.

Note that this is just as much a problem with those on the other side who say Israel’s killing of innocent Palestinians justifies the actions of Hamas. Pro-Palestinian leftists make the exact same error as Shapiro when they justify terrorist attacks on Israeli civilians.

2) Stand with Individuals, Not Collectives

Libertarians believe in individual rights and individual responsibility, and nowhere is this more important than in war. Regrettably, collectivist rhetoric dominates these discussions, such as when entire people groups get called aggressors or defenders.

So what is the individualist alternative?

Simply put, we condemn the aggressors, that is, the individuals who are committing identifiable acts of aggression, whether on behalf of a government, terrorist organization, or other military group. Libertarians do not stand with one “side” of these conflicts over another. We do not stand with nations, tribes, or governments. Rather, we stand with the innocent civilians on all sides against those who seek to control them.

Murray Rothbard brilliantly exposes the collectivist mindset of war in his book For a New Liberty.

With the land area of the globe now parcelled out among particular States, one of the basic doctrines and tactics of the rulers of each State has been to identify itself with the territory it governs. Since most men tend to love their homeland, the identification of that land and its population with the State is a means of making natural patriotism work to the State’s advantage. If, then, “Ruritania” is attacked by “Walldavia,” the first task of the Ruritanian State and its intellectuals is to convince the people of Ruritania that the attack is really upon them, and not simply upon their ruling class. In this way, a war between rulers is converted into a war between peoples, with each people rushing to the defense of their rulers in the mistaken belief that the rulers are busily defending them. This device of nationalism has been particularly successful in recent centuries; it was not very long ago, at least in Western Europe, when the mass of subjects regarded wars as irrelevant battles between various sets of nobles and their retinues.

Later in the book, Rothbard eviscerates the idea that a “defender” State has any “right” to “defend itself” from an “aggressor” State.

“The idea of entering a war in order to stop ‘aggression’ is clearly an analogy from aggression by one individual upon another,” Rothbard writes. Just as Jones has the right to defend himself when Smith beats him up, many argue a defending State has an equivalent right to wage a “defensive” war when it is invaded by agents of another State. It also follows that other countries can intervene on behalf of the “defender” State, since this would be the equivalent of “police action.”

“But ‘aggression’ only makes sense on the individual Smith-Jones level, as does the very term ‘police action,’” Rothbard continues. “These terms make no sense whatever on an inter-State level.”

Why is that? Rothbard lays out his reasoning in no uncertain terms.

First, we have seen that governments entering a war thereby become aggressors themselves against innocent civilians; indeed, become mass murderers. The correct analogy to individual action would be: Smith beats up Jones, the police rush in to help Jones, and in the course of trying to apprehend Smith, the police bomb a city block and murder thousands of people, or spray machine-gun fire into an innocent crowd. This is a far more accurate analogy, for that is what a warring government does, and in the twentieth century it does so on a monumental scale. But any police agency that behaves this way itself becomes a criminal aggressor, often far more so than the original Smith who began the affair.

Even if the Smith-Jones analogy is granted, Rothbard is saying, the proponents of “defensive” wars have no case. The very analogy they appeal to in order to justify their position actually undermines it!

“But there is yet another fatal flaw in the analogy with individual aggression,” Rothbard continues, using the hypothetical “Graustarkian” and “Belgravian” States to make his point.

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.

If murdering innocents to apprehend an aggressing individual is not even justified on the Smith-Jones level, where Jones is at least the rightful owner of his body, a fortiori it is not justified on the inter-State level, because States are not even the rightful owners of “their” territory.

It would be bad enough if States were murdering innocents to protect their people from all forms of aggression. But in reality, the “defending” State is murdering innocents to defend its own monopoly on aggression from other would-be aggressors.

“Hence,” Rothbard concludes, “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.”

When two mafias battle for territory in a city, neither of them are innocent “defenders” and neither deserve our support. And I would submit that the only difference between a mafia and a State is that the latter is perceived to be legitimate.

3) Champion Non-interventionist Foreign Policy

America has a long history of non-interventionism, and for good reason. Interventionism has many issues associated with it.

First, when a government intervenes in a foreign conflict on behalf of one side, millions of taxpayers are forced to fund an initiative they deeply disagree with. Perhaps they are rooting for the other side, or perhaps they simply want no part in this conflict. Regardless of their reasons for opposing the aid, the point is that they are being coerced into funding a cause against their will.

This is simply unjust. People should not be forced to fund things—especially wars—that they don’t agree with. If you personally want to get involved, feel free to do so out of your own pocket. But if you have any respect for the freedom of your fellow Americans, you’ll respect their wishes to be left out of it.

And if the coercive means of raising the money isn’t bad enough, consider what the money is being used for. These funds are being used, among other things, to kill thousands of innocent civilians. As such, the politicians and bureaucrats facilitating this funding are quite literally acting as an accessory to murder.

It is shocking, given this understanding, that foreign intervention is even on the table as a respectable option. In a just society these political actors would be prosecuted for facilitating criminal activity, not haggled with over budget concerns and certainly not praised.

There are also consequentialist reasons to oppose intervention. The simple fact is that when global powers get involved in a local conflict, it invariably creates a more dangerous situation that has the potential to spiral out of control. As Rothbard wrote in For a New Liberty, “If this kind of ‘collective security’ should really be applied on a worldwide scale, with all the ‘Walldavias’ rushing into every local conflict and escalating them, every local skirmish would soon be raised into a global conflagration.”

For all these reasons, intervention in foreign wars should be a no-go from the start.

The Path to Peace

There is much more to be said, both about these specific conflicts and about the philosophical questions surrounding war in general. For those interested, provides some great analysis along these lines, and these two pieces are also worth checking out. But hopefully enough has been said at this point to at least lay out the basic libertarian case against war and foreign intervention.

And this is a crucial first step.

The path to peace lies in embracing the freedom philosophy and applying it correctly. Only when we do that will we finally end the cycle of unjust violence and leave behind the suffering, death, and destruction that has become all too familiar around the world.

  • Patrick Carroll is the Managing Editor at the Foundation for Economic Education.