We were on the verge of obtaining a reasonable degree of liberty. We were going to get our taxes slashed and simplified but not abolished, the military budget reduced and the troops brought home, drugs decriminalized and managed via harm reduction, a significant liberalization of immigration controls without totally open borders, new restrictions on the Fed’s central planning powers adopted in 2008 and 2009, some more flexibility on pharmaceutical testing and health insurance, moderate patent reform, a diminution of pages in the Federal Register, prison reform, genuine oversight and remedies for police misconduct, strengthened due process and warrant requirements in national security cases, a plan to phase out massive entitlements, some fair-minded school reform, and a scaling back of federal gun laws. We were on the cusp of this moderate but significant step toward liberty, where we would not get all we wanted, but we would get much of what we wanted. But I ruined it all. I cited Murray Rothbard and Lysander Spooner. I made the perfect the enemy of the good, and now the liberty that was in our grasp is lost forever. Sorry, everyone. My selfish desire to adhere to ideological purity has spoiled our chances at increased freedom once again.
The relationship between war and libertarianism has interested me since 9/11. In the aftermath of those terrorist attacks, I witnessed in grim fascination many libertarians make excuses for government in the realm of national security. The proper libertarian position on war has become a matter of controversy, although I believe it shouldn’t be. “War is the health of the state,” as Randolph Bourne said, as well as being “mass murder,” in the words of Murray Rothbard.
The following essay presents some of the most relevant materials and readings on this controversy. It is unapologetically tilted toward the antiwar position, although it includes some references to pro-interventionist writings. It is idiosyncratic and not comprehensive, and its omissions are not always deliberate. I am always interested in reading suggestions. As for the citations, I include publishing information for books but generally leave it out for articles written for or available on the web, so as to avoid extraneous clutter. Please follow the links to learn more.
Among the founders of modern libertarianism, Rothbard most consistently urged an antiwar position. In “War, Peace and the State,” he identified opposition to all state wars as well as to nuclear weapons as the libertarian’s core commitments. For more on Rothbard’s views on these questions, I recommend “Murray N. Rothbard: Against War and the State” by Stephen W. Carson and “Murray N. Rothbard on States, War and Peace, Part I” and “Part II” by Joseph Stromberg.
In terms of comprehensiveness and clarity, the best modern treatment is “Why Libertarians Oppose War,” chapter nine in Jacob Huebert’s fantastic Libertarianism Today (Praeger: 2010), which is probably my favorite introduction to libertarianism. Huebert covers all the bases, touching on the relevant economics, U.S. history, and moral principles, and delivers radical conclusions. The chapter is perfectly balanced in terms of scope and emphasis. In November 2012 he eloquently summed up his thesis at a Students for Liberty conference in a talk titled “Why Libertarians Must Oppose War.”
After much thought and debate about this topic over the last 25 or so years, here is my attempt at a lean, concise, precise definition of what a libertarian is:
A libertarian is a person who believes that the invasion of the borders of (trespass against) others’ bodies or owned external scarce resources, i.e. property (with property allocations determined in accordance with Lockean homesteading rules and contractual transfer rules), is unjustified, because they (for whatever reason) prefer or value grundnorms of peace, prosperity, and cooperation and who have enough honesty, consistency, and economic literacy to recognize that the libertarian assignment of property rules is necessary to achieve these grundnorms.
Such a person, if he is consistent, also cannot help but recognize that the state, being an agency of institutionalized aggression, is inherently criminal and illegitimate.
Note what this does not say: It does not say that the libertarian necessarily believes all aggression is immoral, but rather that it is unjustified; it does not imply that rights are a “subset” of morals. It also does not say why the person values peace, prosperity and cooperation and favors it above interpersonal violent conflict. It also does not make the common mistake of interpreting the libertarian-Lockean property allocation rule as requiring one to prove title all the way back to the very first use of the resource; rather, it says that whoever has the best claim to a disputed resource has a property right in it (is its “proper” owner), and that as between any two claimants, the one having an earlier claim (use) of the property has the better claim. This does not require title to be traced back to the beginning of time but only to the earliest time needed to defeat any actual or potential claimants; though it implies that someone who can trace title back to the first appropriation has the best possible claim of all (unless title has been assigned by contract). Note also that although the libertarian rule is the Lockean rule this does not imply Locke’s reasoning in justifying his homesteading rule was correct—in particular it does not imply that Locke was right to say that labor is owned or that labor-ownership is the reason why first possession of a resource is sufficient to establish property rights in the resource.
For more, see my posts and articles below:
- “What Libertarianism Is”
- “How We Come To Own Ourselves“
- The relation between the non-aggression principle and property rights: a response to Division by Zer0
- The Division of Labor as the Source of Grundnorms and Rights
- Empathy and the Source of Rights
- Thoughts on the Latecomer and Homesteading Ideas; or, why the very idea of “ownership” implies that only libertarian principles are justifiable
- Justice and Property Rights: Rothbard on Scarcity, Property, Contracts…
- What is Aggression?
- The problem of particularistic ethics or, why everyone really has to admit the validity of the universalizability principle
- Hume on Intellectual Property and the Problematic “Labor” Metaphor”
- Locke on IP; Mises, Rothbard, and Rand on Creation, Production, and ‘Rearranging’
- Locke, Smith, Marx and the Labor Theory of Value
- “Introduction to Libertarian Legal Theory”
- “What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist”
Also: Rothbard, Ethics of Liberty, chs. 4-5, 15; Hoppe, A Theory of Socialism and Capitalism, chs. 1, 2, and 7.
I recently came across the website and podcast ”Complete Liberty,” by Wes Bertrand, also featuring Bertrand’s 2007 book Complete Liberty: The Demise of the State and the Rise of Voluntary America (print; PDF). The podcast has some excellent episodes, including a whole series on IP—episodes 89–99.
As many of my readers know, I often lecture and speak and give podcast or radio interviews on various libertarian topics and issues, such as intellectual property (IP), anarcho-libertarians, Austrian law and economic, contract theory, rights and punishment theory, and so on. I also blog and comment regularly on such matters in various blogs (primarily The Libertarian Standard, on general libertarian matters, and C4SIF, on IP-related matters), Facebook, and so on—often posting my take on a given issue in response to a question emailed to me or posted online.
This month I am launching a new podcast, Kinsella on Liberty. I expect to post episodes once or twice a week. The podcast will include new episodes covering answers to questions emailed to me (feel free to ask me to address any issue of libertarian theory or application) as well as interviews or discussions I conduct with other libertarians. I’ll also include in the feed any new speeches or interviews of mine that appear on other podcasts or fora, as well as older speeches, interviews, and audio versions of my articles, which are collected for now on my media page). Audio and slides for several of my Mises Academy courses may also be found on my media page, and will also be included in the podcast feed later this year. Feel free to Subscribe in iTunes or Follow with RSS, and spread the word to your libertarian friends. I welcome questions for possible coverage in the podcast, as well as any criticism, suggestions for improvement, or other feedback. My general approach to libertarian matters is Austrian, anarchist, and propertarian, influenced heavily by the thought of Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard, and Hans-Hermann Hoppe. My writing can be found in articles here and blog posts at The Libertarian Standard and C4SIF, such as:
- How I Became A Libertarian, December 18, 2002, LewRockwell.com (published as “Being a Libertarian” in I Chose Liberty: Autobiographies of Contemporary Libertarians (compiled by Walter Block; Mises Institute 2010))
- “What Libertarianism Is,” Mises Daily (August 21, 2009)
- What It Means To Be an Anarcho-Capitalist, January 20, 2004, LewRockwell.com
- How We Come To Own Ourselves, Mises Daily (Sep. 7, 2006)
- Causation and Aggression, The Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics, vol. 7, no. 4 (Winter 2004)
- A Libertarian Theory of Contract: Title Transfer, Binding Promises, and Inalienability, Journal of Libertarian Studies 17, no. 2 (Spring 2003)
- Inalienability and Punishment: A Reply to George Smith, Winter 1998-99, Journal of Libertarian Studies
- Argumentation Ethics and Liberty: A Concise Guide, Mises Daily (May 27, 2011)
- New Rationalist Directions in Libertarian Rights Theory, 12:2 Journal of Libertarian Studies (Fall 1996)
- Punishment and Proportionality: The Estoppel Approach, 12:1 Journal of Libertarian Studies (Spring 1996).
- Defending Argumentation Ethics: Reply to Murphy & Callahan, Anti-state.com (Sept. 19, 2002)
- Montessori, Peace, and Libertarianism, LewRockwell.com (April 28, 2011)
On IP in particular, which I’ll also cover from time to time in the podcast, see:
[C4SIF; SK; PFS]