A recurring criticism of libertarian ideology is a perceived lack of feasible solutions with regards to the application of libertarian ideas to real world problems, specifically in dealing with crisises between nations. Critics claim that the concepts of liberty work fine in some areas, but a little bit of good old-fashioned State initiated force is needed to solve the “complex” international dilemmas of our time.
Proponents of the concept of “world policemen” argue that intervention in foreign countries justifies the use of force under the guise of protecting one government from the aggression of a second government
The current events in the Ukraine provide an opportunity to educate individuals by exposing a common fallacy that an act of aggression can be necessary and useful in promoting or maintaining peace. A libertarian should always be opposed to the use of force by a third-party “world policeman.” The United States, or any other nation, has no moral reason to get involved in the current saga involving the Ukraine and Russia.
Murray Rothbard’s words from For a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto still ring true today and provide the appropriate libertarian lens to view the turmoil in the Ukraine.
To return to our hypothetical Graustark and Belgravia, suppose that Graustark has invaded Belgravia, and that a third government, Walldavia, now leaps into the war in order to defend Belgravia against “Graustarkian aggression.” Is this action justifiable? Here, indeed, is the germ of the pernicious twentieth-century theory of “collective security” – the idea that when one government “aggresses” against another, it is the moral obligation of the other governments of the world to band together to defend the “victimized” State.
There are several fatal flaws in this concept of collective security against “aggression.” One is that when Walldavia, or any other States, leap into the fray they are themselves expanding and compounding the extent of the aggression, because they are (1) unjustly slaughtering masses of Graustarkian civilians, and (2) increasing tax-coercion over Walldavian citizens. Furthermore, (3) in this age when States and subjects are closely identifiable, Walldavia is thereby leaving Walldavian civilians open to retaliation by Graustarkian bombers or missiles.Thus, entry into the war by the Walldavian government puts into jeopardy the very lives and properties of Walldavian citizens which the government is supposed to be protecting. Finally, (4) conscription-enslavement of Walldavian citizens will usually intensify.
If this kind of “collective security” should really be applied on a worldwide scale, with all the “Walldavias” rushing into every local conflict and escalating them, every local skirmish would soon be raised into a global conflagration.
There is another crucial flaw in the collective security concept. The idea of entering a war in order to stop “aggression” is clearly an analogy from aggression by one individual upon another. Smith is seen to be beating up Jones – aggressing against him. Nearby police then rush to the defense of the victim Jones; they are using “police action” to stop aggression. It was in pursuit of this myth, for example, that President Truman persisted in referring to American entry into the Korean war as a “police action,” a collective UN effort to repel“aggression.”
But “aggression” only makes sense on the individual Smith-Jones level, as does the very term “police action.” These terms make no sense whatever on an inter-State level. First, we have seen that governments entering a war thereby become aggressors themselves against innocent civilians; indeed, become mass murderers. The correct analogy to individual action would be: Smith beats up Jones, the police rush in to help Jones, and in the course of trying to apprehend Smith, the police bomb a city block and murder thousands of people, or spray machine-gun fire into an innocent crowd. This is a far more accurate analogy, for that is what a warring government does, and in the twentieth century it does so on a monumental scale. But any police agency that behaves this way itself becomes a criminal aggressor, often far more so than the original Smith who began the affair.
But there is yet another fatal flaw in the analogy with individual aggression. When Smith beats up Jones or steals his property we can identify Smith as an aggressor upon the personal or property right of his victim. But when the Graustarkian State invades the territory of the Belgravian State, it is impermissible to refer to “aggression” in an analogous way. For the libertarian, no government has a just claim to any property or “sovereignty” right in a given territorial area. The Belgravian State’s claim to its territory is therefore totally different from Mr. Jones’ claim to his property (although the latter might also, on investigation, turn out to be the illegitimate result of theft). No State has any legitimate property; all of its territory is the result of some kind of aggression and violent conquest. Hence the Graustarkian State’s invasion is necessarily a battle between two sets of thieves and aggressors: the only problem is that innocent civilians on both sides are being trampled upon.
Rothbard would have been eighty-eight years-old yesterday if he were still alive. He was taken way too early from this earth, but thankfully through the power of the internet he continues to be one of the most influential libertarian thinkers of the past, present, and future.
If you’re craving more Murray, you can read all of the previous editions of Mondays with Murray by visiting the full archive page!