Rothbard on the Ukraine War

  • August 29, 2023
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My title seems odd. How could Murray Rothbard comment on the Ukraine War, when he died in 1995? Of course, he can’t comment on current events. But the principles this great thinker wrote about tell us what he would say about today’s American foreign policy. He would tell us to stop sending money and arms to the Ukraine and to end all sanctions against Russia. What goes on in that region is none of our business. Getting involved risks a nuclear war that would destroy the world.

Murray made the case for non-intervention in this way:

“The libertarian position, generally, is to minimize state power as much as possible, down to zero, and isolationism is the full expression in foreign affairs of the domestic objective of whittling down state power. In other words, interventionism is the opposite of isolationism, and of course it goes on up to war, as the aggrandizement of state power crosses national boundaries into other states, pushing other people around etc. So this is the foreign counterpart of the domestic aggression against the internal population. I see the two as united.

The responsibility of trying to limit or abolish foreign intervention is avoided by many conservative libertarians in that they are very, very concerned with things like price control—of course I agree with them. They are very, very concerned about eliminating taxes, licensing, and so forth—with which I agree—but somehow when it comes to foreign policy there’s a black out. The libertarian position against the state, the hostility toward expanding government intervention and so forth, goes by the board—all of a sudden you hear those same people who are worried about government intervention in the steel industry cheering every American act of mass murder in Vietnam or bombing or pushing around people all over the world.

This shows, for one thing, that the powers of the state apparatus to bamboozle the public work better in foreign affairs than in domestic. In foreign affairs you still have this mystique that the nation-state is protecting you from a bogeyman on the other side of the mountain. There are “bad” guys out there trying to conquer the world and “our” guys are in there trying to protect us. So not only is isolationism the logical corollary of libertarianism, which many libertarians don’t put into practice; in addition, as Randolph Bourne says, “war is the health of the state.”

The state thrives on war—unless, of course, it is defeated and crushed—expands on it, glories in it. For one thing, when one state attacks another state, it is able through this intellectual bamboozlement of the public to convince them that they must rush to the defense of the state because they think the state is defending them.

In other words, if, let’s say, Paraguay and Brazil are going to get into a war, each state—the Paraguayan government and the Brazilian government—is able to convince their own subjects that the other government is out to get them and loot them and murder them in their beds and so forth, so they are able to induce their own hapless subjects to fight against the other state, whereas in actual practice, of course, it is the states that have the quarrel, not the people. The people are outside the quarrels of the state and yet the state is able to generate this patriotic mass war hysteria and to call everybody up to the colors physically and spiritually and economically and therefore, of course, aggrandize state power permanently.

Most conservatives and libertarians are very familiar with—and deplore—the increase in state power in the American government in the last 50 or 70 years, but what they don’t seem to realize is that most of these increases took place in giant leaps during wartime. It was wartime that provided the crisis situation—the spark—which enabled the states to put on so-called emergency measures, which of course never got lifted, or rarely got lifted.

Even the War of 1812—seemingly a harmless little escapade—was evil, and also in the domestic sense, in that it ruined the Jeffersonian Party for a long time to come, it established federalism, which means monopoly state-capitalism in essence, it imposed a central bank, it imposed high tariffs, it imposed domestic federal taxation, which never existed before, internal taxation, and it took a long time to get rid of it, and we never really did get back to the pre–War of 1812 level of minimal state power.

Then, of course, the Mexican War [Mexican-American War, 1846–48] had consequences of slave expansion and so forth. But the Civil War was, of course, much worse—the Civil War was really the great turning point, one of the great turning points in the increase of state power, because with the Civil War you now have the total introduction of things like railroad land grants, subsidies of big business, permanent high tariffs, which the Jacksonians had been able to whittle away before the Civil War, and a total revolution in the monetary system so that the old pure gold standard was replaced first by greenback paper, and then by the National Banking Act—a controlled banking system. And for the first time we had the imposition in the United states of an income tax and federal conscription. The income tax was reluctantly eliminated after the Civil War as was conscription: all the other things—such as high excise taxes—continued on as a permanent accretion of state power over the American public.

The third huge increase of power came out of World War I. World War I set both the foreign and the domestic policies for the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson set the entire pattern for foreign policy from 1917 to the present. There is a total continuity between Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and Nixon—the same thing all the way down the line.

I think the concept of collective security is (1) a disaster and (2) anti-libertarian. Vietnam again brings this thing to the fore, in the sense of masking imperial interventionist policy on the part of the American government in the rhetoric of the cloak of righteousness and moralistic pieties. Let’s take two hypothetical states—this is the technique von Mises used to use, I think, with good effect—take the hypothetical states of Ruritania and Waldavia, somewhere off in the Balkans or whatever. The Ruritanian state invades the Waldavian state. The collective-security view is that this constitutes aggression, it’s evil per se—an evil state attacking a victim state, the Ruritanian state being the aggressor in this case, and then it becomes the duty of every other state in the whole wide world—the United states being somehow the divinely appointed chief and almost sole pourer out of resources in this effort—to step in to defend the so-called victim, and crush the aggressor.

Now this has very many important consequences. One is that every crummy little interstate conflict anywhere in the world becomes escalated and maximized into worldwide global conflict. With this kind of policy it means that no dispute anywhere, however trivial, can ever be kept trivial or kept isolated to the parties of the dispute, as they become globalized and bring everybody else into the holocaust. The second problem is that the whole idea of the aggressor state and the victim state is based on the phony analogy of the individual citizen—individual person—suffering an aggression against him.

You remember the big argument President Truman used about Korea—he said, “We are not engaged in a war, we are engaged in a police action, a UN police action against the North Korean aggressor.” Now when he said that he was not just using peculiar and phony rhetoric. The rhetoric came out of the Wilsonian collective security ideology, which was: if you see armies crossing frontiers somewhere, this constitutes aggression. It means that in the same sense as if he sees Jones beating up Smith on the street, the policeman on the block rushes to his defense, and so therefore the United states and the United Nations become the policemen rushing to defend the victim.

Now there are several problems in this. One is that even in the case of Jones and Smith, the presumption is if you see Jones beating up Smith that you should rush to Smith’s defense. However, there might be certain mitigating circumstances. Smith might have just beaten up Jones’s kid, and Jones might be retaliating; in other words, Smith might have started the fight—you don’t know that without historical investigation, so to speak, of the Smith-Jones relationship.

In the case of states, you have a completely different situation because this ideology assumes that the Waldavian state and Ruritanian state are somehow the rightful owners of all their territory, just as Jones owns his watch and Smith does, too, and then [if] Smith beats Jones up or takes his watch away from him, this is aggression. The analogy then becomes, if Ruritania invades Waldavia, this means that Waldavian territory, Waldavian property, rightful property, has been taken away from them by the Ruritanian aggressor.

Now the point is for the libertarian that none of these states have any rightful property, that the Ruritanian government does not properly and justly own the entire land area of the country—the property should be owned by individual citizens. The state apparatus has then no title, no just claim. So if the Ruritanian state crosses the frontier and fights the Waldavian state, this does not make the Ruritanian state any more of an aggressor than the original Waldavian state. Both of them are aggressors over their subject populations. Considering that and the whole idea that every other government should rush in and defend Waldavia means that not only is every small conflict escalated to a global scale—it also means that every small aggression is maximized in the global scale.

In other words, since all governments aggress against their citizens through taxes, through conscription, through mass murder called war, the more governments that enter into the picture—the more the United states, Britain, or whatever rushes in to defend Waldavia—the more innocent civilians get killed, the more innocent people are forced to pay taxes, the more innocent people are conscripted. So the way to minimize aggression when you are dealing with states is to agitate and press for nobody to enter into any conflict at all—hopefully for no government to go to war with any other government—and if any government does go to war, for the third, fourth, and fifth party to stay the blazes out.

Apart from all this, the boundaries of each state—Waldavian, Ruritanian, American, French, British—since they are not justly owned by any sort of process of capital investment or homesteading or anything else, since all state boundaries have always been the result of previous conquests—so in many cases the so-called aggressor state has a better claim than the so-called victim state.

For example, suppose that Ruritania is “aggressing” and declares war on Waldavia and starts seizing the Northwestern part of Waldavia. Well, it’s very possible that the Northwestern part of Waldavia is ethnically Ruritanian, had Ruritanian customs, and that 100 years ago, the Waldavian state had conquered it and now the Ruritanians were taking it back. This is a perfectly legitimate claim, so the point is, then, that all interstate wars intensify aggression—maximize it—and that some wars are even more unjust than others. In other words, all government wars are unjust, although some governments have less unjust claims in the sense that they might have—well, let’s put it this way: in the case of the Ruritanian-Waldavian thing, when the Ruritanians are simply taking back ethnically Ruritanian territory and the Ruritanian masses were yearning to rejoin their homeland—then libertarians, it seems to me, would say that war would then be just if the following conditions were satisfied: (1) there were no taxes imposed; (2) no innocent civilians got killed; (3) nobody got conscripted—in other words, it was a purely voluntary fight. Obviously to meet these conditions would be almost impossible but there are different gradations—you know, real-life wars—approaching this. A “just war” would be for all these conditions to be met.

The basic element of any libertarian foreign policy is to pressure the government to do nothing abroad, just to pack up shop and go home. General Smeadly Butler, one of my great heroes, formerly of the Marine Corps, in the late 1930s proposed a constitutional amendment in the Woman’s Home Companion. His article was a sensation for awhile but of course the amendment never was adopted and has now been forgotten. But it was kind of a charming constitutional amendment—I recommend that everybody read it. In essence it says something like this: no American soldier, plane, or ship shall be sent any place outside America. In other words, complete abstinence from any kind of American military intervention and political and economic intervention.”

Murray was especially concerned about nuclear weapons:

“It has often been maintained, and especially by conservatives, that the development of the horrendous modern weapons of mass murder (nuclear weapons, rockets, germ warfare, etc.) is only a difference of degree rather than kind from the simpler weapons of an earlier era. 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. Here is a crucial difference in kind. Of course, the bow and arrow could be used for aggressive purposes, but it could also be pinpointed to use only against aggressors. Nuclear weapons, even “conventional” aerial bombs, cannot be. These weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction. (The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area.) 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.

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. 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. 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.”

Some people say we have to intervene to help the Ukrainian people, but they are the victims of their own government and of American intervention. As always, Murray put it best. In the context of the 1980 Afghan war, he quoted Canon Sydney Smith — a great classical liberal in early 19th century England thus

For God’s sake, do not drag me into another war!

I am worn down, and worn out, with crusading and defending Europe, and protecting mankind; I must think a little of myself.

I am sorry for the Spaniards – I am sorry for the Greeks – I deplore the fate of the Jews; the people of the Sandwich Islands are groaning under the most detestable tyranny; Baghdad is oppressed, I do not like the present state of the Delta; Tibet is not comfortable. Am I to fight for all these people?

The world is bursting with sin and sorrow. Am I to be champion of the Decalogue, and to be eternally raising fleets and armies to make all men good and happy?

We have just done saving Europe, and I am afraid the consequence will be, that we shall cut each other’s throats. No war, dear Lady Grey! – No eloquence; but apathy, selfishness, common sense, arithmetic!”

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