War is the quintessential undertaking of the state, especially the modern centralized nation-state of the past five or six centuries. Indeed, the relationship between the two is encapsulated in the aphorism, “War made the state, and the state made war.” Because libertarians distrust the state and fear its capacity to diminish or destroy individuals’ rights to life, liberty, and property, they have taken a special interest in war. “War is the health of the state,” writer Randolph Bourne famously declared during World War I. For the most part, libertarians have taken that declaration to heart as a warning against ill-founded support for the state’s war-making, whatever its announced rationale.
No single libertarian position exists on war. Anarchist libertarians, who oppose the state’s very existence, naturally oppose its war-making, too. Pacifist libertarians, who oppose violence in general, even when defensive, clearly disapprove of war. Although most libertarians are neither anarchists nor pacifists, even within this larger group, many tend to be highly skeptical of state claims that war-making is necessary or desirable in any particular case. Others take a less skeptical, more ad hoc approach, preferring to judge each case within the context of the libertarian values and goals they embrace. On the whole, and notwithstanding their differences, libertarians tend to differ from the bulk of the population with respect to war in some readily identifiable ways.
As individualists, libertarians take much less pleasure in their nation’s victories (or its heroic defeats) in war than do most others. Even when libertarians conclude that a particular war is justified and should be fought, they are inclined to view it as a regrettable necessity, a cost that must be borne to achieve some overriding benefit, such as national survival. Whereas nationalists and conservatives are apt to react to war by pledging their allegiance to “my country right or wrong,” libertarians are more likely to march under a banner such as “peace and free trade.” Not for them is the common cry for “national greatness” attained on the field of battle. Instead, libertarians find greatness in the nation that fosters great individual achievements in industry, commerce, charity, science, and the arts. The idea that people should seek “the moral equivalent of war,” in the words of William James, rings hollow in libertarian ears because the subjugation to a single group purpose that such a quest bespeaks has no appeal to them.
More than the adherents of other ideologies, libertarians recognize that war, whether fought for good reasons or bad, augments the size, scope, and power of the warring governments. Hence, war creates, often long after the belligerents have ceased their violence, a heightened threat to individual rights. Having surveyed the Western world during the past 500 years, political scientist Bruce Porter concluded in War and the Rise of the State that
a government at war is a juggernaut of centralization determined to crush any internal opposition that impedes the mobilization of militarily vital resources. This centralizing tendency of war has made the rise of the state throughout much of history a disaster for human liberty and rights.
James Madison, one of the many sages who appreciated the enduring adverse effects of war, and writing from personal experience as well as a wide knowledge of history, observed in 1795, “Of all the enemies to public liberty, war is, perhaps, the most to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every other.”
War brings higher taxes, greater regimentation of the population (and often conscription), increased public debt, diminished civil liberties, political repression, and other ill effects too numerous to catalog here. War substitutes a herd mentality and blind obedience for the normal propensity to question authority and to demand good and proper reasons for government actions. Even in democratic nations, war often brings violence against inoffensive dissenters. In these ways, among others, war promotes collectivism at the expense of individualism, force at the expense of reason, and coarseness at the expense of sensibility. Libertarians regard all of those tendencies with sorrow.
Much of the growth and centralization of government during the past several centuries has been traced to war and its various consequences. Although in this regard all great wars present certain common aspects, the world wars of the 20th century offer the starkest examples.
World War I caused not only the deaths of some 9 million combatants and the serious wounding of some 21 million others, but also vast suffering among the civilian populations of Germany, Russia, France, and other countries. Each of the major belligerents mobilized millions of men, for the most part by means of conscription, and exercised sweeping economic controls—what contemporaries called war socialism. Many industries were nationalized outright. Taxes, government spending, and public debt soared to unprecedented heights. The gold standard was abandoned, and vast amounts of fiat paper currency were issued, giving rise to rapid price inflation in each country. International trade and finance suffered great disruption and diminution. So great was the damage done by the conflict that not even a series of international reconstruction efforts during the 1920s could restore the North Atlantic economy to a flourishing condition, and ultimately, if indirectly, the Great Depression of the 1930s became one of the delayed effects of the Great War.
Other effects included the destruction of four great empires—Austro-Hungarian, German, Russian, and Ottoman—and the creation of an ill-fated house-of-cards arrangement of new nations in their place in Europe and the Middle East, not to speak of the Bolshevik house of horrors in Russia. Thus, besides the death, devastation, misery, and disruption of civilized life, the aftermath of World War I included communism, fascism, and, after a short interlude, national socialism. Small wonder that Britain’s wartime Prime Minister David Lloyd George wrote in his postwar memoirs, “War has always been fatal to Liberalism.” In many ways, World War I can be seen as the fount from which nearly all the great horrors of the 20th century flowed.
Nevertheless, World War II wreaked destruction so vast that it made the catastrophe of 1914–1918 pale by comparison: more than 60 million deaths, most of them of civilians; countless scores of millions seriously wounded or sickened; and property destruction on an unimaginable scale stretching from England to Japan. Again, wartime collectivism prevailed, this time with concentration camps for persons of Japanese ancestry in the United States and death camps for Jews in German-occupied Europe. The suppression of civil liberties, conscription, rationing, government takeovers and economic controls, huge taxes and public debts, gigantic currency issues, and price inflation—all the proven means by which governments mobilize resources for war and despoil normal life—came into play, in most places even more extensively than in the previous war. When the madness finally ended, in the lingering smoke of the scores of thousands of civilians incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the world could only look on in dazed astonishment and wonder at what had been done.
Oddly, however, the lesson that Americans and many western Europeans carried away from the experience of world war was one of heightened trust in the ability of governments to provide for the public welfare. Especially after World War II in the victorious nations, the opponents of active government intervention in economy and society emerged greatly weakened. Democratic socialism, New Dealism, and other so-called third-way systems of political economy—“welfare states”—took hold all over the Western world, and in many cases elsewhere in the world as well. Collectivism was at its zenith, and individualism was everywhere in retreat. Economist and political philosopher F. A. Hayek feared that the Western world had set forth on a “road to serfdom” because no one seemed to value highly the liberties cherished by classical liberals anymore. In the aftermath of depression and war, the great mass of people wanted not liberty, but security, and they had become convinced that their governments could provide it.
Since 1945, the world has avoided a repetition of warfare on the scale of the World Wars, but lesser wars aplenty have raged, and their effects have continued to confirm the worst fears of libertarians. Thus, for example, the cold war gave rise to massive civil rights violations even in the United States as the government sought to clamp down on groups and individuals who opposed its foreign policy. Between 1948 and 1989, some 7.5% of the U.S. gross national product, on average, was channeled into military spending, consuming many trillions of dollars that otherwise might have gone into the maintenance and adornment of life for the general public. American military adventures in Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Serbia, Iraq, and many other places around the globe continued to divide the polity and deplete the public treasury. Ultimately, the Soviet Union fell apart, ending the cold war and its cumulating adverse consequences for the United States and the other nations that had opposed the Soviets. However, the world continues to endure new wars and to stagger under heavy military burdens even during peacetime, and libertarians continue to regard this situation with deep regret.
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Originally published .