Monday, May 28, 2012

Murray Rothbard on War

From an interview with Murray Rothbard:
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 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.

Q: You’d include Kennedy in that?

A: Yes Kennedy, right. I don’t want to miss anybody. Every president has been inspired by Woodrow Wilson. It was reported that Richard Nixon’s first act when he came into the White House was to hang a picture of Woodrow Wilson in front of his desk. The same influence has held on domestic affairs. As a matter of fact if I had to single out – this is one of my favorites pastimes – the biggest SOB in American history in the sense of evil impact – I think Woodrow Wilson is way, way at the head of the list for many reasons. The permanent direction which Woodrow Wilson set for foreign policy included the permanent collective security concept, which means America has some sort of God-given role to push everybody around everywhere and set up little democratic governments all over the world, and to suppress any kind of revolution against the status quo – that means any kind of change in the status quo either domestic or foreign. In the domestic sphere the corollary was the shift from a relatively laissez-faire economy – corrupted as it was by the Civil War subsidies it was still and all a relatively laissez-faire capitalism – a deliberate shift to in essence a so-called corporate state, what openly became a Corporate State in Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany.


Q: The notion of collective security is something that many Americans today take for granted as desirable and essential.

A: Well I think the concept of collective security is (1) a disaster and (2) anti-libertarian. Viet Nam 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 world wide 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 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.
Read more here.


  1. Rothbard was brilliant, moral and just. Although I never knew him, he is a massive influence in my life and my thinking. For that, I love him the way a son loves a father; he is someone who sacrificed personal comfort to tell the truth and build the most important thought outside its overlap with Christian culture and intellectualism. And yet, as Rothbard noted, it can be immensely painful to be a libertarian; you are at odds with the worst of human nature. And the worst of human nature is always alive and well.

  2. I find very sad the number of American troops that have been either killed or put in harms way unnecessarily. America should not be a war state, but rather a nation of freedom-- personal, economic, religious, political freedom. -ATP

  3. I find it very sad the number of American troops that have been either killed or put in harms way unnecessarily. I also find it very sad the number of foreign troops and civilians that have been killed unnecessarily. America should not be a war state, but rather a nation of freedom-- personal, economic, religious, political freedom. -ATP