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Can A Libertarian Society Provide National Defense?

by | Dec 27, 2017

A recent Tom Woods podcast featured a debate about whether the free market can provide for national defense.

Arguing that libertarian society can offer defense “services”, Bob Murphy relies on the idea of insurance paying the costs of defense.

Arguing that a monopoly state should offer these services, Todd Lewis points out numerous historical examples in which government organized national defense is seemingly necessary.

I dislike this kind of discussion in general.  My feeling is that there shouldn’t be such a thing as any kind of organized, politically driven, violence.  The idea of private armies is as horrifying as the idea of a giant state army.  However, this issue is obviously relevant, and worth addressing.  I’m just going to address different issues in no particular order.

First, Todd Lewis mentions the Sengoku Jidai (“feudal” Japan), and also the Roman civil war between Marius and Sulla.  He argues that these are examples of “private” defense, where mercenaries for hire end up fighting brutal wars that devastated each country.  I don’t think he knows what he’s talking about.

Both feudal Japan, and the Roman Republic of that period, extracted rice and grain respectively – an exploitative system – from conquered neighbors.  It’s somewhat more nuanced than that, but the point is that in both systems during the mentioned time periods, there were unhappy conquered peoples who comprised part of the need for persistent military strength.

Political theorists and historians of the Western tradition have a nasty habit of assuming that ideas – those they develop and understand – drive historical outcomes.  Oh no, sir.  Much of what drives history is completely outside of, and beyond neat meaning.  Economic forces, base human psychology, demographics, and so forth.

It’s not as if you can just construct a libertarian society and plop it down in any era of history and see it work.  It’s not like you can just write up a constitution with separation of powers, plop it down, and end up with a United States of America (this has been tried, and hasn’t worked).  It’s not like you can just anoint a king…  and so forth.

I concede that modern technology, and modern economic practices (and modern wealth), are a necessary foundation to enable any kind of true freedom in society.  In that light, I have more to say about the issue of defense.

Bob Murphy makes a good point about defensive services, if I recall correctly, that goes right over Todd Lewis’s head.  The purpose of “libertarian defense” would be to deter invasion, or at least minimize its costs. This doesn’t mean, necessarily, building up armies.

Insurance companies, for instance, might require their patrons to be diversified into a certain percentage of crypto-currencies.  These would be resilient against invasion.  Companies might sponsor the adoption of internet protocol that can function in a decentralized manner, and preserve privacy.  Measures such as these would make potential invasion less worthwhile.  What could be gained by the invader, that wouldn’t take a costly restructuring of a society (and therefore a loss of its base of wealth)?

Traditionally, capturing arable land – and dominating the labor which worked it – was what made invasion worthwhile.  Does that apply today?  Is agricultural produce, on the world market, so scarce as to make this a legitimate concern?  Let’s say Canada invaded the USA’s great plains.  What percentage of Americans would be directly affected?  Not as many as in the past.  What if they then imposed tariffs?  Might not this give an advantage to South American, and Eurasian grain?  Might not consumers shift to substitute goods such as rice, beans, soy, and so forth?  Might not technology be developed to grow grain vertically?

Yes, in today’s world, energy resources are critical.  They form an important strategic prize.  But the laws of economic development suggest that tanks-on-oil-reserves won’t be a cost effective way of securing wealth and power as in the past.  Take rare earths, for example.  They’re rare, and they might potentially lead to conflict over places such as Afghanistan.  But then, these minerals exist in abundance in space.

I’m serious.

SpaceX has nearly developed their heavy launch system, and is already reusing its rocket stages.  Prices for access to space will go down – through simple innovations which were technologically feasible even in the 70s.  In fact, it’s heavy government interference in the launch sector that has delayed these innovations for so long.

Next, I want to consider the meaningful historical details.  If we can say “they tried private defense during the Sengoku Jidai”, then perhaps we ought to be required to back that up with greater resolution.  Here are some questions: what did the average samurai believe?  How were they treated by their parents?  What sort of relationships did they have with women?  What kinds of aspirations did the women have?  If you’re a farmer, and you work all day and feel so tired you could die, can you take a break from working?  What happens if you do?  What do you do for fun?  Who’s in charge of the law?  How much money do they make?

Ok, maybe you get the point.  Details matter.  To reduce life to the question of how to organize resources and conscripts so you can slaughter the other team, that’s a sick way of thinking.  But why do people think that way?  They think that way because the state protects what they perceive to be their class interests.  They don’t want the state to lose, because they fear that they too will suffer loss.

This is the most important element for libertarians to understand about war, in my opinion.  It’s what separates “true” libertarians from “sunshine” libertarians.  In America, we claim that the state protects our rights.  This is considered a noble and good thing.  Indeed, the state does protect property – especially in terms of certain special (crony) privileges of the very wealthy.  If a country is invaded, the people might make due.  The biggest loser of an invasion is the state, and those whose privilege depends on it.

There are libertarians who believe that their 20 acres of land, way out in the woods, is theirs and that – dagummit – it’s their right to just keep it.  And their stock certificates, and their contracts, and – for some, but certainly not all libertarians – their intellectual property.  They might reject the state, but they perceive that all these things – established by the legal order of the day – need to be protected.  Hence, the need for national defense.

The truth is that law and property are a synthesis, a product of a social consensus.  Now, I don’t mean that people vote and have a general will, and establish government (“what we do together” – standard lefty gobbledegook).  I mean that even if we assume the existence of objectively true legal standards, these have to be discovered and implemented by human labor.

To declare the existence of certain rights, then to create a state to enforce them, is a fatal conceit.  We suppose certain rights exist, we do our best to articulate them, we try to persuade each other of them and develop systems (legal technology) to preserve and advance them.  That’s all.

We should accept property as something we ought to be able to get, but which might not be guaranteed, which might depend to a degree on the social situation in which we find ourselves.

That may be offensive to some libertarians, but hey, it breaks down to this: when are you willing to use violence?  If you want to use violence – particularly by supporting systems of taxation and conscription – so that you can remain the big man on campus in your sweet suburban McMansion  – or so that you can play around on your 20 acres – that’s taking it too far.

You can’t take life to defend property, unless life is at stake.

That’s the line, in my opinion, between real Libertarianism, and the alternative.  And it really frames this question of “national defense”.

About Zack Sorenson

Zachary Sorenson was a captain in the United States Air Force before quitting because of a principled opposition to war. He received a MBA from Waseda University in Tokyo, Japan as class valedictorian. He also has a BA in Economics and a BS in Computer Science.

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