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Daily Archives: July 7, 2011

Quibbles and bits: Libertarians At War, Pt. 1

The fun thing about quibbling with people is that even if they’re friends or acquaintances or just plain admirable people you don’t have to do any of that silly disclaimer business – it is utterly irrelevant to my quibbling with Wendy McElroy’s recent Mises Institute article on libertarians and war that she’s one of my favorite writers, she’s on my blogroll, we swap an occasional email, and I actually have been known now and then to donate money to buy her another box or two of internet. Quibbling means you don’t need to mention any of that, so just forget I said anything that looked disclaimerish.

Quibble number one: Some dead Greek guy, pre-bailout, once famously and correctly said, “If you wish to argue with me, first define your terms.” It doesn’t sound any better in the original Bronze Age Greek, I’m sure. The sentiment is absolutely correct, though, and without good definitions, how can you possibly hope to have good arguments? So let’s take a look at Wendy’s definition of war: [W]ar must involve the declaration of hostilities by one state against another, in which it commits the people and resources under its jurisdiction to hostilities against the opponent’s people and resources. Let me open the quibbling with one of my all time favorite internet images:

Orly owl

Let’s start with that “declaration of hostilities” bit. Does anyone doubt that we’re currently at war with Libya? I mean, we have planes dropping bombs and ships shooting missiles and Libyans are dying under the thunder of American-made (with money borrowed from China) high explosives on a fairly regular and ongoing basis. Yet to the best of my knowledge there has been no declaration of war by Congress, something that is arguably a Constitutional requirement, though it has been quite passé to insist on that since 1950 or so. I suppose you could argue that actions – and high explosives – speak louder than words and that the simple act of bombing the living snot out of another country is as good a declaration of hostilities as you could hope to ask for. Utterly unconstitutional, of course, but parchment is not a very good armor against bombs.

Ah, but the next part, that’s the fun one. “[O]ne state against another?” Oh, if only that were true. If only there were some way to ensure that it was only the state apparatus that could go off into a sandy desert patch somewhere and fight it out amongst themselves, leaving the rest of us non-state types to get on with our lives unimpeded. Sadly, though, that is not the case. Until one walks up to me and smacks me in the face with a haddock, I will continue to maintain that a “state” is a fiction, much like a corporation, a Rotary club, or any other name given to a group of people doing something in concert. Or doing something and dragging others along, often kicking and screaming. Substituting in “a group of people” for the word “state,” therefore, we can pull up a much more useful definition of war, that being: A state of armed conflict between different groups. Which raises the interesting question – if Libya is not shooting back at NATO, then do you have a case of NATO at war with Libya, but Libya not at war with NATO? What is the sound of one hand warmongering? But I digress.

That the definition of war involve the use of “group” rather than “nation” is further bolstered by current thinking in regard to the phenomenon known as 4th Generation Warfare, or “4G” for short. The US is clearly at (undeclared by Congress) war with the Taliban – and yet the Taliban are decidedly not any form of “state.” Russia is at war – last I looked, anyway – with the Chechens, Chechnya not being a nation. The British were at war with their own colonists back in ’76, though that would start a whole new discussion of what exactly is a “nation.” In short, a definition of war that involves “groups” rather than a requirement for “states” makes much more sense. Although Wendy contends that, “Nevertheless, at least in theory, it is possible to imagine a war without nation-states,” it seems pretty clear that groups go to war all the time, and no nation-state is needed for the process.

The next quibble is based off of this excellent question: “But what would a libertarian war look like? Despite self-defense provisions, libertarianism is based on individualism and nonaggression, which makes a collective blast of libertarian force difficult to envision.” Envisioning libertarians at war is easy. Envisioning libertarians waging effective war, on the other hand, is more difficult – presuming that one wants to look at the current mainstream view of war, as conducted by Americans, which is “pound the other guy so hard that he gives up.” Which is exactly what 2G warfare is all about. Given that not too many libertarians own B2 bombers or massed batteries of field artillery, though, libertarians are not going to be very good at waging 2G war. But just who the heck says they have to? There is no “rule” in war that says you are under any obligation to fight the way the other side expects you to. There is nothing reprehensible, for instance, about shooting with rifles from behind rocks and trees while the other side has to use muskets, wear red coats, and stand in a straight line. Translated to modern terms, there would be no requirement that a libertarian military unit – presuming you can herd those cats into some kind of coherent force, but that’s a different issue – bomb cities, destroy infrastructure, wipe out civilians, or in any other way act like a modern American army for whom all the world is simply collateral damage waiting to happen.

Wendy provides a mostly quibble-free analysis and summary of her position, stating: “To conclude: A libertarian just war would have to be declared in response to an act of aggression that could not be remedied by a lesser level of defensive violence. It would have to be declared by an agency on behalf of people who had assigned their rights of self defense. The war could be declared only on behalf of those assignees. Dissenters would have to be left in peace to defend themselves, or not. The declaration of war would be against the individuals responsible for an attack but not against the “enemy” civilian population. And, finally, the war would have to be conducted with strategies and weaponry that could not foreseeably involve injuring or killing innocents.” I would still quibble that there is no requirement that the war be “declared” or that the group needs to involve other agents besides themselves. Otherwise, and particularly the parts about not injuring non-combatants, it is a correct summary.

But then she drops this conclusion: “Given these requirements, a libertarian just war remains unimaginable.” Let me refer back to my little friend again:


In Pt. 2, we will take a look at just what a libertarian group at war would look like. Not only is it easily imaginable, but it’s entirely possible.