Monday, March 12, 2018

Undefending the Defendable

A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.
“The right of self-defense is the first law of nature…”
-          George Tucker
Most libertarians live within the intersection of these three ideas; leave it to Murray Rothbard to point out where and why this is not always valid.
This chapter is entitled “War, Peace, and the State.”  I have read and used portions of this essay in some of my past work (here and here, when reviewing the book “Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism”); I have not previously gone through the entire chapter in detail.
I am not sure how to properly phrase this: this might be my favorite work of Rothbard’s (of what I have read).  It is on the single-most important topic for libertarians to consider, and Rothbard introduces a wonderful method of deconstructing the use of weapons – one that runs counter to the intersection represented in the above three statements.
Rothbard introduces the reason why he decided to tackle this subject:
The libertarian movement has been chided by William F. Buckley, Jr., for failing to use its "strategic intelligence" in facing the major problems of our time. We have, indeed, been too often prone to "pursue our busy little seminars on whether or not to demunicipalize the garbage collectors" (as Buckley has contemptuously written), while ignoring and failing to apply libertarian theory to the most vital problem of our time: war and peace.
Rothbard gleefully takes on the challenge, suggesting that, once complete, Buckley might regret making such a challenge.
Let us construct a libertarian theory of war and peace.
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 another.
In short, no violence may be employed against a non-aggressor. Here is the fundamental rule from which can be deduced the entire corpus of libertarian theory.
There is nothing earth-shattering in this; however, it is necessary to state as Rothbard demonstrates that this simple axiom can then answer the most complex problems of man – and turn the defendable on its head!
Rothbard suggests that we set aside the issue of the state initially; what of relations between private individuals?  Is it permissible to commit violence against an innocent third party when one is taking action against the guilty second party?  The unequivocal libertarian answer is no!
Even during the criminal act, the victim may not spray bullets into a crowd in an effort to stop the guilty party.
If he does this, he is as much (or more of) a criminal aggressor as Smith is.
And from this, the application to the issues in war are evident.  Group of people A are going after group of people B for some violation of person or property.  Is it permissible for group A to blow up village C in an attempt to harm B?  Again, the libertarian answer is a clear no!
The libertarian's basic attitude toward war must then be: it is legitimate to use violence against criminals in defense of one's rights of person and property; it is completely impermissible to violate the rights of other innocent people. War, then, is only proper when the exercise of violence is rigorously limited to the individual criminals. We may judge for ourselves how many wars or conflicts in history have met this criterion.
Not many, however it should be noted that there were times when war was conducted by the principles and not the commoners – this (generally) during the European Middle Ages.  It was also true for much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries for European countries (and those with European heritage) when fighting each other; the system broken by Lincoln and the North in the American Civil War, and then in Europe with the Great War.
And this brings us to the key insight, the reason why I so appreciate this piece by Rothbard: the weapons of modern technology – nuclear bombs, gas, pretty much everything fired from an airplane or ship – are different from their predecessors not only in degree, but also in kind:
Of course, one answer to this is that when the degree is the number of human lives, the difference is a very big one. But another answer that the libertarian is particularly equipped to give is that while the bow and arrow and even the rifle can be pinpointed, if the will be there, against actual criminals, modern nuclear weapons cannot.
Yes, the bow and arrow or rifle can also be used aggressively – the point is that these can be used against the specific target.  Inherently today’s modern weapons – best represented by nuclear bombs – cannot; inherently, such weapons can only be used indiscriminately.
These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction….We must, therefore, conclude that the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a sin and a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification.
Maybe not as important, but also inherently a violation of the non-aggression principle.
This is why the old cliché no longer holds that it is not the arms but the will to use them that is significant in judging matters of war and peace.
Guns don’t kill people; people kill people.  Yet here is Rothbard, undefending this seemingly very defendable statement. 
For it is precisely the characteristic of modern weapons that they cannot be used selectively, cannot be used in a libertarian manner. Therefore, their very existence must be condemned, and nuclear disarmament becomes a good to be pursued for its own sake.
Sure, the nuclear bomb kills no one if it is not launched; yet it can do nothing other than initiate aggression against tens-of-thousands of innocents when launched.  The weapon itself is undefendable via libertarian theory (to say nothing of general moral conscience).
And if we will indeed use our strategic intelligence, we will see that such disarmament is not only a good, but the highest political good that we can pursue in the modern world.
So…if liberty is the highest political end and nuclear disarmament is the highest political good, it seems to me that libertarians (myself included) might spend more time focused on nuclear disarmament and war and less time on…well, I will let Rothbard tell it:
…the forestalling of massive annihilation is far more important, in truth, than the demunicipalization of garbage disposal, as worthwhile as that may be. Or are libertarians going to wax properly indignant about price control or the income tax, and yet shrug their shoulders at or even positively advocate the ultimate crime of mass murder?
In other words, maybe we should spend more time undefending the defendable.
Rothbard continues next by introducing the state into the equation.  As this post has run long enough, I will continue this examination in a future post.


  1. I generally agree with Rothbard, but I think there are possible scenarios, some far-fetched perhaps, that may justify the possession or use of nuclear arms (but not by the state).

    1.) Nuclear arms possession as a deterrent to conventional invasion by a much larger and more powerful foreign state.

    2.) Nuclear arms use if innocent lives can be protected, for instance, a fleet of destroyers or aircraft carriers on route to attack.

    3.) Nuclear arms use as a means of defending against a potential life ending meteor impact.

    I'm not saying I agree with the above, but I am open to a discussion. In other words, I'm not entirely convinced my position of nuclear disarmament, which I've adopted from Rothbard, is exactly correct.

    1. Generally speaking, I find all arguments for war to be an apology for the state in defense against another state. I agree some states are worse than others, but this is in essence the argument all states use AT ALL TIMES to justify their existence. The only answer is no state. The only cure is a population ideologically prepared for no state.

    2. ATL, I struggle with the same questions and also recognize the benefit to Kim (on the one hand) and the cost to Qaddafi (on the other) when it comes to the efficacy of holding on to (or not) a few WMDs.

      I do, however, see Rothbard as suggesting a general nuclear disarmament - so...not necessarily a unilateral disarmament. But maybe I am reading more into Rothbard's words than I should.

    3. Patrick,

      What if your home state, which is getting close to being a majority which advocate a stateless society, is being threatened or attacked by a
      foreign state? Would you support state defense then?

      I can tell you that though I am an Austro-libertarian anarchist who believes in stateless governance, I would support a state war in the above scenario, and here's why:

      If I am forced to pay for a state solution to a just societal need (like defense), for which the private or stateless alternative has been outlawed (like defense), I expect that state solution to at least do a halfway decent job.

    4. BM,

      I kinda see it in a way like the genie is out of the bottle in regards to nuclear arms. Either we authorize the good guys to have'em too, or it'll only be the bad guys who have'em.

      I believe Rothbard did not qualify his nuclear disarmament position with a stipulation that it had to be generally or universally done. If he had had the experience of American foreign policy post 9/11, perhaps he would have changed his mind on this. I also believe that universal nuclear disarmament would only happen under a one world totalitarian state, and even then, it probably wouldn't happen.

      Like in the movie "Watchmen," nuking a city and blaming it on some alien or alien group (terrorists) would probably be an effective way of bringing people together in submission under one banner.

    5. i just think the concept of government follows public opinion, with follows ideological leaders. This whole debate rests on education, IMO. Public enemy #1 is state funded/regulated education. There is NO HOPE until public education is no longer controlling the margins.

  2. Question: what about non-combatant supporters? People who don't actually fight but who willingly give their time and money to support the war effort?

    Many strategic planners purposely go after the non-combatant populace in order to remove support for the state. Demoralize the populace and the state falls - and it does work.

    War is a very muddy business and destroys the morals and minds of the best people. And, as long as there are self-centered; silver-tongued psychopaths out there, there will always be war.

    Perhaps this is another one of those "real world" conditions that need to be taken into account when analyzing libertarian theory - and, in a logical extension of that thought, how DO you marshal the resources and manpower of a group of libertarians to combat a threat, especially when that threat does not directly and/or immediately threaten them?

    A conservative commentator once said that getting libertarians to agree on anything is like "herding cats". In order to marshal people quickly, we would need a "silver-tongued psychopath" of our own, which is anathema to what we are trying to achieve.

    Perhaps war is our Achilles's Heel and we should think about addressing this issue. In the meantime, I'm going to go through Bionic's "Libertarians and Culture" tab and see if I can dig out anything inspiring.

    1. However one defines "non-combatant supporters," WMDs like nukes cannot differentiate on this basis.

      " DO you marshal the resources and manpower of a group of libertarians to combat a threat..."

      The Polish-Lithuania Sejm allowed for any member to veto or block an act. I have wondered (but have not researched) how this might have played a role in the Three Partitions of Poland.

      Life in Poland after these partitions was pretty much hell until, perhaps the last couple of decades.

    2. According to the Wikipedia links you site, the Sejm rule; which allowed any member to block an act, prevented the government from marshaling resistance to outside aggression. This permitted the division of Poland by the aggressor states and the oppression of the Polish.

      Looks like Tyranny of the Minority to me.

  3. I think you have made a logical error as you move from individuals to villages and then to nation states.

    "And from this, the application to the issues in war are evident. Group of people A are going after group of people B for some violation of person or property. Is it permissible for group A to blow up village C in an attempt to harm B? Again, the libertarian answer is a clear no!"

    This paragraph would be correct only if villages A, B, and C are entirely separate groups; they are not. Villages B and C are, presumably, the same people. If their mutual government elected to attack village A, then both are subject to defensive actions by A. Village C could only be immune if their leaders come out and declare their neutrality.

    The more interesting thought from your piece is the apparent logical conclusion that nation state warfare would boil down to assassination of the leaders on the two sides.

    1. Baxy,

      I think you are making an error when you suppose that group B and group C are under a mutual government. Bionic never said they were, only that they were different groups.

      If we presume that group B is the agents of the state (military, politicians, bureaucracy, etc.), and group C is the people living under them, I still think you are making an error in supposing that killing people in group C would be considered defensive and just for members of group A, who group B has (let's say) targeted for extermination. Many of the people in group C may be against the aggressive actions of group B against A.

      Since all states by definition do not rely on consent for their actions, you cannot suppose those living under them support or are complicit in their actions. To say otherwise would justify total war or the killing of innocent non-combatants. There's nothing libertarian about that.

  4. ‘Government’ began as simple armed plunder. By ganging up one group was able to steal from another. The creation of judiciaries begins the bureaucratization of such plunder. The emergence of the nation state expands and develops this bureaucracy. One could say that the monarchy of Louis the 16th represents the final form assumed by the judiciary. The French Revolution did NOT shut down the judiciary or even transform it. Rather it transferred its control from the monarchy to the bourgeoisie.

    Socialism was born in this moment. It was Napoleon who imposed the first military draft. The state now essentially enslaved the entire population in service to the state’s military ends. While men were sent off to battle, women and children were forced to work in arms factories. The state became an all out enterprise for the production of war. ‘Citizens’ became resources for the state to marshal to the war effort. By tying the people to the state in this way, civilians became legitimate targets of war. Where in the feudal era, knights battled only other knights, with the rise of the nation state, the entire national population and infrastructure of an enemy state became legitimate targets for total destruction.

    One could say that the A bomb is the child of nationalism and socialism, the endpoint toward which the combination of the two inevitably tend. The highest goal of a nation state is the capability to completely annihilate any other. And so while the ideal for the free market society may indeed be Rothbard’s Non Aggression Principle, we must regrettably resign ourselves to the uncomfortable truth that for the nationalism-socialism hybrid the highest ideal is PURE AGGRESSION.

  5. Libertarians are supposed to be helpless in the face of human shields? How does that play out in the game theory of war? The highest and best value for humans is not liberty, it is success within the Darwinism framework which humans cannot eliminate. People who believe otherwise go extinct.

    "War" is the situation when you do not have the ability to offer as much due process to your alleged enemies as you would like. As most humans are not free, most are in a state of war. Third-party innocents killed during war are called "collateral damage". Avoiding collateral damage does not require you to go extinct; instead you have to use the golden rule to determine the proper behavior. If you were to be the collateral damage, how much tax-paying and dictator-obeying to avoid trouble in the short term sets you up to be incinerated as the source of war logistics in the longer term? Nukes are a working solution to a huge problem.

    Plenty of total war involving the whole population in ancient times. Sparta, etc.

  6. "In other words, maybe we should spend more time undefending the defendable."

    I had this idea that we should challenge Walter Block to write the book "Undefending the Defendable", wherein he would, instead of shocking normies with the degenerate legal possibilities of libertarianism, shock libertarians with what most libertarians would consider the un-libertarian possibilities of a libertarian political order. But I realized that I'd already seen that title before, I just couldn't place where. Then it hit me; it was a Bionic post.

    Possible chapters could include:

    1. Freedom of Movement
    2. Free Trade
    3. Prostitution, Porn, and Drugs
    4. Right to Bear Arms
    5. Gay Marriage
    6. Abortion
    7. Sound Money
    8. Racial and Religious Integration
    9. Secular Law

    (Keep in mind these would all be things Walter would be 'undefending')

    A libertarian order could curtail or abolish all of the above (and much more effectively than any state I would contend) based solely on property rights and each individual's fundamental right to choose the laws they live under, not that any of this is necessarily what I want.

    In a similar fashion to his "Defending the Undefendable" series, Walter wouldn't necessarily be promoting these things, just validating their possibility within a libertarian framework.

    I know you've said just yesterday or the day before that you've abandoned this sort of correspondence, but it might be interesting to float the idea to him anyway.

    1. I have often stated: a libertarian community would not look libertarian to those libertarians outside of the community. Most couldn't see past the restrictions to the underlying libertarian principle: he who owns the property makes the rules.

      I will send Walter a link to your comment.