Libertarianism Can Offer Clear Answers About War And Peace

by | Apr 28, 2017

Libertarianism Can Offer Clear Answers About War And Peace

by | Apr 28, 2017

Are there clear limits which should be applied to the scope of the state’s warfighting powers, or should its ability to use violence in pursuit of its political aims be unlimited? Can libertarianism help define these limits, even for non-libertarians?

I recently separated from the United States Air Force for reasons of a deeply held moral objection to war. When an active duty military person tries to claim such a status, they are forced to run through a tedious legal gauntlet which ensures they aren’t trying to quit for the wrong reasons. Not wanting to die for or be under indenture to the American Imperial Forces doesn’t count as a valid excuse. My claimed beliefs about war were scrutinized, and I had to prove total objection. This eventually led to an unusual email conversation with some faceless Judge Advocate (JA) which raised a question about the nature of war, and how the state views its role as society’s agent of warfighting.

This was the question posed to me: “Candidate referenced an opposition to war because of the harm it causes to people, but does this mean he’s opposed to all war? What about non-violent forms of war such as aggressive cyber warfare?

This is as closely as I can remember the question as I first received it, since the ridiculous inquiry itself was sanitized for the final memorandum submitted up the chain of command. I couldn’t say for certain if the higher up JA who posed it was trying to “help” by offering a chance for me to clarify my views vis-à-vis their legal requirements, or if they were simply trying to entrap me. Regardless, the fact that this was even brought up, and that such an idea is even a frontier of legal interpretation in the first place greatly troubled me.

It raises the question of: what is war, exactly? Specifically, to what degree can the state use violence to accomplish its overall and maybe otherwise non-violent political aims?

Here was my response:

“Offensive cyber warfare seems not to meet the traditional definition of ‘the bearing of arms for military purposes’: the use of tools designed to maim or kill human beings to restrict an enemy’s ability to act and thus destroy their will to resist. In this sense, I’m not sure how this reference is relevant to the legal requirements associated with my claim. The nature of the query suggests an attempt to change definitions. If one removes all violence from the concept of war, one is doing something rather novel. Is someone who uses non-violent force, such as a “sit-in” protestor, engaged in warfare, and therefore subject to summary execution as a combatant? Can violent and non-violent force be equated in this way under the legal definition of warfare? My moral belief, deeply and fundamentally, says no.

“My personal convictions, and the force of my conscience on my feelings, are derived from the reality of violence in war. The military is an organization that fundamentally accepts the legitimacy of killing and maiming human beings to achieve a desired political or military objective, however seemingly necessary. Therefore, any activity within this organization cannot be morally isolated from that particular characteristic… To summarize and clarify: from my perspective, helping the military accomplish its objectives is like being an accessory to murder…”

Parenthetically, I should mention that I’m no legal expert (and also that the JA in question doesn’t necessarily represent the viewpoint of DoD as a whole). Perhaps my above argument misses some nuanced legal point. When it came to my application to quit the Air Force, all I had to prove was the consistency of my personal feelings. Obviously, the Department of Defense accepts the fundamental legal and moral legitimacy of war, and wouldn’t countenance a real debate over that subject anyway. Nevertheless, the episode was yet another revelation of the government’s own institutional confusion about its scope and purpose as a warfighting agent. To me as a libertarian, the question invoked a contrast between two mutually exclusive visions of government, and the astonishing inability of modern American institutions to resolve that contrast.

This contrast isn’t that which distinguishes violence from non-violence. Neither is it about the United States’s acceptance of the general legitimacy of ever using violence to achieve any political objective. The real problem comes from the fact that the state does not seem to distinguish at all between violence and non-violence in the pursuit of its political agenda. The contrast brought to mind is between a state that puts itself and its interests above all, against a state that uses violent force only to oppose violent force.

Perhaps it was my familiarity with libertarian ideas that enabled me to see this contrast in the JA’s question. It’s hard to understand why anyone would think asking the question was anything other than a waste of time. A non-libertarian might personally reject some of my beliefs about war and the state, but the question of war’s legitimacy wasn’t under the magnifying glass. Only what I personally believed was under scrutiny. The JA didn’t need to agree with me, but it was as if they failed entirely to recognize the possibility of meaningful contrast in this issue. How they, the government, and all of civil society could benefit from a libertarian education!

Applying Libertarian Ideas To A Non-Libertarian Polity

One of my core political beliefs is that while reality is objective, social epistemology necessarily follows the premises of pragmatic philosophy, and therefore political principles should be pragmatic.

From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: “Pragmatism is a philosophical movement that includes those who claim that an ideology or proposition is true if it works satisfactorily, that the meaning of a proposition is to be found in the practical consequences of accepting it, and that unpractical ideas are to be rejected…

“Pragmatism may be presented as a way of clarifying (and in some cases dissolving) intractable metaphysical and epistemological disputes. According to the down-to-earth pragmatist, bickering metaphysicians should get in the habit of posing the following question: “What concrete practical difference would it make if my theory were true and its rival(s) false?” Where there is no such difference, there is no genuine (that is, non-verbal) disagreement, and hence no genuine problem.”1

The applicability of philosophical pragmatism to the political realm is a consequence of our inability to apply our own knowledge directly into the minds of others. That is, we can only communicate our thoughts through language and then leave the perhaps dissonant thought processes of others to reconcile our ideas to theirs on their own. Moreover, the larger the crowd, the further its members diverge from us in their thoughts, the more unknowable their frames of knowledge become to us; we lose our ability to reliably predict the reaction of the crowd to an injection of our point of view.

Put another way, while we can attempt to approach reality in our own narrative worldview, we have no ability to control the degree to which others also are attempting to do so. I hold Libertarian philosophy to be one which attempts to reckon with reality, and integrate objective universals into its ideological concepts. Even so, Libertarianism only really exists in the minds of individual, imperfect, and diverse individuals.

I can say that I’m against all war, but I immediately acknowledge the distance between my perspective and those of other people. My perspective can add, in a practical sense, to theirs without the need to see them converted entirely to my point of view. My goal isn’t to persuade them to my point of view, but rather to cause them to see that which to them is currently unseen. In this manner, libertarian principles can improve society without having to have society embrace the full libertarian ideal.

This form of pragmatism isn’t a rejection of principles. The personal realm, and the intellectual realm, must be principled. Among ideological allies, principles must be at the forefront. Even against the outside, principles should not be abandoned. All I mean by invoking pragmatism is to say that libertarians can use their principles to teach new ideas meaningfully to those who do not now nor may not ever accept libertarian principles writ large.

The United States is founded on the premise that a legitimate government must govern with the consent of the governed. The founding exegesis of the American nationalist state, with Lincoln, also upheld this principle as the nation-state’s inviolable justification. The Union had to be preserved so that, as he said, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Moreover, Lincoln’s republicanism included limits on the scope of government, and beyond that scope a strong commitment to upholding the prerogatives of individuals (although, the limits themselves are expressed with the characteristic vagueness of the American constitutional order with its invocation of necessary and proper powers)2.

Even within the frame of classical American nationalist republicanism, I can use libertarian ideas to highlight principles that apply. I can use my frame to offer a fruitful analysis to others. I can say, “If government is of, by and for the people, then it would do XYZ.” I don’t need to invoke libertarianism to persuade people concerning the first premise of that statement, which is already part of their point of view. I only need to use the lessons of libertarianism to prove to them why the first premise implies the second.

To a mainstream audience, I’d criticize the modern state’s warfighting scope by referring to it as severe and inappropriate mission creep. Since WWII, America has spent significant portions of its annual GDP building an enormous war-making force. And the vast amount of money and manpower devoted to this cause has led the US national security state to expand its war-making effort into arenas far and widespread, certainly beyond the mere projection of force, arms against arms, soldiers fighting soldiers.

One dark poetic expression of this mission creep comes in the subordination of American diplomacy to the prerogatives of warfighting. Take, for example, the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies (otherwise known as DKI APCSS, for viewers at home).

(From the center’s website): “The Center supports the U.S. Pacific Command’s objective of developing professional and personal ties among national security establishments throughout the region. With a non-warfighting mission, the Center focuses on a multilateral and multi-dimensional approach to defining and addressing regional security issues and concerns.  The most beneficial result is building relationships of trust and confidence among future leaders and decision-makers within the region.”3

You can extract US government’s perspective on its “scope of warfighting powers” by examining the hierarchy of elements in this mission statement. Non-warfighting is mentioned, multilateralism, multidimensionality, relationships, leadership, and decision-making. All of it is in support of US PACOM, a branch within the uniformed military chain of command. Imagine that once upon a time the military’s tactical and strategic planning involved having to build relationships with outside, independent groups that themselves had non-military scopes of activity. Imagine a time when the US government was able to foster deep and meaningful “multi-dimensional” relationships of an entirely non-military nature. That time seems to have passed.

What difference does it make? The independence of a non-military organization from the military means it retains the ability to say, “No thanks,” to the military’s prerogatives. This is an acute point for me, since during my time in the Air Force I was once stationed in Japan.

Set against our daily work and commute on Japanese soil, we were hammered with the message of preserving “friendship” and “cooperation” with that nation. We applauded politely Japan’s commitment to self-defense. Nevertheless, as millions died under American bombs in Korea and Vietnam, it was Japan in its “commitment to self-defense” that hosted and supported assets involved in many of those operations.

As the US Army trains the modern Cambodian government in urban warfare, which techniques are then used to repress political opposition, it’s Japan’s millions of yen per year going to help pay for the American facilities engaged in supporting these “friendship and relationship building” exercises. From the Philippines, to Korea, to even Iraq and Afghanistan, to what degree does Japan and its civic institutions with their commitment to peace wish to support and participate in these warfighting operations? The question has not been adequately raised, because the relationship between Japan and America is only ever regarded as one between “friends” with economic and historical ties. The lesson being that there is no official relationship with the USA, whether you’re a citizen or foreign country, that is not deeply integrated into the United States’s projection of military violence into the world.

The DoD has divided up the entire Earth, including the North American “homefront”, into military districts of responsibility4. These “combatant commands” suggest a permanent, and total, scope of operations for the military. In a different world, the coastal areas of the planet might receive some sort of administrative division by the US Navy, as might be expected given its essential nature. Conflagrations, contingencies, or long-term strategic areas of concern even might be assigned to particular commands. But all these commands would be localized, specific, and as-needed. One imagines such a quaint world, and it would yet be something mighty akin to the old British Empire. The United States, with all areas of the known Earth divided up on a permanent basis for war, has taken the principle to the next level. The implication is that there is never a time nor ever a place on Earth in which US military violence is not relevant, necessary, and ready at the forefront. Clearly, the government has lost its way.

But how can I state with objective clarity that these activities go beyond the proper scope of American government? How can we define limits on the state’s war-making scope? Where do we draw the line? Whether someone accepts it or not, it is the non-aggression principle that provides the logic necessary to draw clear lines concerning the use of violence in politics and war.

Applying The Non-Aggression Principle To The Question of Scope

According to the non-aggression principle (NAP), it is immoral to initiate force against a person or their property. Force and violence, if used, must be in reaction to, and justly proportional to aggressions against persons or property. If a state chose to follow this principle, it would limit its warfighting to opposing with force those enemies who initiate force against discrete persons or property. It would limit its use of violence to reasonably proportional reactions to violence against discrete persons or property.

Let’s consider the consequences of United States policy in the absence of the knowledge of this principle. There’s no way, under the logic of NAP, to label fighting age males in war zones as “enemy combatants”5. There’s no way to treat non-violent protestors as enemy agitators6. There’s no room for illegal spying on dissenting views7. There’s no way to treat each and every state prerogative as inevitably backstopped by violence without prejudice8.

Yet, we would never expect the state to integrate the NAP into its own legal framework. But what the NAP does is lead us to contrast. It provides the logic connecting the state’s own supposed premises of ABC to our conclusions of XYZ. We can understand that there is a logical difference between a state which limits the scope of its warfighting, and one which does not. We have an objective line to focus our debates. So now, we can contrast the “social contract” of legitimate American government with what it has become, at least over the issue of war.

Contrasting Two Visions Of Government

The founding vision of the American state reflects libertarian ideals. It is a limited state. Its essence, above all else, is a state which is limited enough such that the prerogatives of the people as individuals rise above those of the state. As stated by Jefferson: “The mother principle [is] that governments are republican only in proportion as they embody the will of their people, and execute it.”9

While some might try to argue that the current constitutional system includes such limits, how can it when even military JAs seem confused about whether someone who totally opposes the violence of war might still be okay with “non-violent warfare like aggressive cyber operations”? The problem could be diagnosed by looking at the long and insidious history of the national security apparatus, and military industrial complex. Even so, I think that the nature of the modern American state’s deviation from this founding ideal can be framed more simply.

I would argue that our “written” Constitution is now nothing more than an emblem (comparable to the British crown), which has no substantive power, but rather is symbolic of an unwritten constitutional order. This order is a mixture of legal precedent and whatever the current power structure can get away with. In the case of legal precedent, from a constitutional perspective what is it but ultimately arbitrary, in many cases political, and in some cases nothing but a covert coup against the clearly established social contract which enshrines the written words as binding? In the case of the power structure, what is it but a complex web of connections between government, finance, media, academia, and the military-industrial-complex?

In this framework, America’s fundamental transformation began with the 1930’s New Deal and climaxed with the National Security Act of 1947. It is now a series of traditions and evolving legal interpretations where the nation-state as represented by the institution of the federal government in Washington, D.C. is the supreme and directive entity in the polity. Its prerogatives come first, and all the people, states and territories are enlisted to its service. And these people are told unilaterally that their subordination to this system is for their own benefit, that the health of the state is the source of good living. It is totalitarian. Overseas it is irresistible, unending American violence. It is the prerogatives of American corporations uber alles.

What sort of implicit vision lies behind the notion that even non-violent activity, if it frustrates the goals and desires of the war apparatus – or state – qualifies as war? What sort of society insists that non-military, economic and diplomatic relationships must be thought of in how they service power and means to violence?

The modern expression of state supremacy over all aspects of life began in the 19th century. We’d properly call this philosophy “nationalism”, but modern usage has confused the term’s meaning. The recent conservative and populist reaction to globalist technocratic government has misappropriated it.

Nationalism is not the principled opposition to global centralized technocracy. Nationalism was the early 19th century’s “globalism”. From its inception with the French Revolution, to its apotheosis in the Prussian “German” Empire, to its expression in America: Henry Clay-ism and the Republican Party (with its railroad subsidies, income taxes, conscription, and abolition of any meaningful notion of state sovereignty). In this system, the state grants people its rights, rather than the other way around. And the state’s gift is given by way of fire, sword, hoof, sabre, cannon, musket, rifle, incendiary bomb and drone.

The essence of nationalism is this: that there exists some entity of greater importance than the individual, and that some appeal to history or geography can reconcile this entity from the mists of imagination. This entity, as it is with all forms of collectivism, doesn’t and can’t actually exist with any real substance. Instead, what exists is a bureaucracy, a set of rules and institutions governed by peculiar interactions of the politically connected and/or wealthy. This set or apparatus, when it is capable of conducting violence in a unified way, that is, within a chain of command, is called a state.

Nationalism is the subordination of all individuals to an abstract collective which in actual reality is functionally just an apparatus for conducting industrial levels of violence. The nation is Oz, and the nation-state is the man-behind-the-curtain, his great mechanism that thing called government.

Much of American history, is the story of the powerful trying to persuade the public to this vision of government (see Sheldon Richman’s America’s Counter-Revolution: The Constitution Revisited10). They have argued that prosperity and security are most effectively achieved through such collectivization of the people under their guidance. And, from a different angle, our history is also the story of the people trying to oppose this (for instance, Andrew Jackson’s fight against the Second Bank of the United States11).


FDR, expressing the trendy political ideas of his time, said, “Every man has a right to life, and this means that he also has a right to make a comfortable living…

“We know that the liberty to do anything which deprives others of those elemental rights is outside the protection of any compact, and that the government in this regard is the maintenance of a balance within every individual may have a place if he will take it, in which every individual may find safety if he wishes it, in which every individual may attain such power as his ability permits, consistent with his assuming the accompanying responsibility…”12

We can see in this philosophy a departure from the classical American conception of government.

Yet, while men such as Charles Merriam or Colonel House tried arguing for an abolition of the concept of individual rights, even so far as hoping for dictatorship, America could never quite shake its commitment to its founding ideals.  House’s ideal found expression in Italy, with Mussolini, as Europe from Spain to France, Germany to Poland, Romania to Turkey embraced authoritarian modernism.  However, the American public never could quite accept so radical a departure from its old social contract, even during that era.  As a consequence, people like FDR had to frame their advocacy for the abolition of liberty as ultimately a defense of liberty.

Charles Merriam expressed this hedge in ways that no European tyrant would ever bother with: “The Declaration of Independence discusses the problem in terms of a contract. Government is a relation of give and take, a contract . . . Under such a contract, rulers were accorded power, and the people consented to that power on consideration that they be accorded certain rights. The task of statesmanship has always been the redefinition of these rights in terms of a changing and growing social order. New conditions impose new requirements upon government and those who conduct government . . .”13

These then, are the two visions of government in American history. One is a vision in which the government exists to serve the prerogatives of the people, and the other in which the people are bound up within and under the prerogatives of the apparatus of state. In the context of the war issue, this difference can be clearly demonstrated with reference to the Cold War.

Imagine during the cold war that the voters of America would have been stupid enough to embrace communism peacefully, and through democracy, to implement it. Is it the job of the state’s war machine to protect the people against such an outcome?

It may be true that the political and ideological differences which define the boundaries of conflict between the USA and USSR do involve this issue. The root impetus for a potential physical aggression against American property by the Soviets might relate to ideological differences, and a desire to impose the one’s preference upon the other by physical force. We can understand why the national security state “Cold Warrior” would think to apply warfighting tools against otherwise peaceful political assembly and speech, both within the US and abroad. Why use violence? To prevent the Soviets’ use of violence. To do what? To impose communism. Therefore, violence must be used to prevent the imposition of communism.

Nevertheless, it isn’t the job of the war machine to preserve the ideology of America. This duty lies entirely with the civil society. The war machine only exists to prevent the physical aggression, indifferent to its root political cause. This is the definition of a professional military class. One which is above politics, and answerable to civilian authority. They ought to be warriors who study how to oppose physical aggression, and not worry about what that aggression hopes to achieve. I’m not sure that our “professional warriors” universally understand this.

I recall an anecdote from Officer Training School. A squad-mate and I got into a battle of wills during an otherwise blasé teambuilding exercise. The exercise involved determining the fate of a dozen individuals who had survived nuclear holocaust in a bunker. The scenario was purposefully bleak and meant to expose personality differences so that we’d learn a little bit about overcoming them. Enter Officer Trainee “Redacted”, a future intelligence officer, who had a clear perception of the most efficient way of dealing with these survivors such that society had the best chance of getting rebuilt. With machine efficiency, he explained to the group why his perspective was logically correct, and one by one by force of will convinced those with slightly different opinions to back down and give up.

In the end, yours truly was the last remaining voice objecting to his scheme. For a time, there had been another, strident voice of opposition at my side. A female Officer Trainee wanted to show mercy to a bunker survivor with a crippling disability. She was persuaded by “Redacted’s” invocation of the greater good that this survivor would consume needed resources and contribute nothing. His logic was impeccable, and moreover he wasn’t going to back down.

Unfortunately, I represented a perspective entirely different than his. I claimed that the “society” whose greater good he invoked no longer existed; it had destroyed itself. And the future society he hoped to “rebuild” simply didn’t exist. Society, as it were, consisted of those dozen survivors and those dozen only. Our duty was to consider what was best for them as they preferred it. Since the disabled survivor was part of a family unit, the only remaining on Earth, I reckoned it would be cruel to split him from his family. Let them enjoy what life remained, if they chose.

The anecdote serves to highlight the basic open-ended question that as far as I can tell the military profession doesn’t care to answer. Whom did we serve? Much ado was made over our oath to the Constitution (whatever that means beyond obeying the orders of supervisors, unless the book of regulations or maybe the Supreme Court contradicted them).

For me, the answer was clear: we served civil society and its prerogatives, come what may. But I’m confident that most of the military professionals understand that it is the American nation that they serve. That is, this collectivized non-entity, this arbitrary outcome of deep politics with all its perverse incentives we call the nation-state. Our military professionals serve its “greater good”. At least, those who don’t serve their own career ambitions first and foremost.

The nature of civil society is extremely important to consider. Returning to the thought experiment: if the Soviets are aiding agitators and peaceful prophets of communitarianism in America, and these win an election, and the new government begins to seize personal property, haven’t we identified a violation of NAP? Isn’t then the “total view” of the Cold Warrior justified with the framework of NAP? No.

If the Cold Warrior seeks a massive nation-state with a huge war machine, this isn’t nearly Libertarian. Libertarians want to preserve property, but not that way. If a libertarian were to accept a war machine, for pragmatic sake, they would have to advocate limits to its mission and scope. Pragmatism doesn’t imply an “anything goes” policy to defend property rights. Such an approach would only see them inevitably cast aside.

America – a “libertarian-like” country – its civil society having “libertarian-like” sympathies, accepted this logic of expediency to justify the creation of the national security state beast that now burdens us. The problem is that the limits which should have been placed on the state’s war-making scope: only use violence against violence, were discarded. In so doing, America killed the limited scope of its government.

A certain philosophical perspective says that a thing is what its constituent makeup causes it to be. A different perspective says that a thing reflects a pure form residing in some higher realm. Were we true priests of the latter doctrine, as many academics and think-tankers seem to act, we could demand power and then with it summon the ideal libertarian society from heaven, relying on our divinely invested apprehension of truth. If we hold to the former doctrine, then we must acknowledge that a society must hold firm to libertarian principles first, and only then can liberty emerge as a consequence. Liberty means a society of volition, persuasion, and rule of objective truths which reflect reality with all its complexity and contingency. It is not a system of people or fixed ideologies. Liberty cannot be defended by a war power, and will only suffocate under the burden of supporting it.

Libertarianism offers society a clear and principled delineation of war’s scope, even from the perspective of non-libertarians. We ought to critique the state by applying our principles to its own framework. We must ensure that the state and civil society understand the proper limits on the exercise of violent power in the world, and restrain and/or prosecute those in the government who try to go beyond them.

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About Zack Sorenson

Zachary Sorenson worked for the United States Air Force for six years as a Navigation Officer. He recently quit because of a principled opposition to war. He considers himself to be a Libertarian, and studied Economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. He would like to see the resurgence of a non-political commitment to peace for its own sake, across the spectrum of ideologies.

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