With wars raging in the Middle East, it seems like a good time to revisit a classic work by Murray Rothbard (1926–1995), the economist, historian, and political philosopher who had a lot to do with the birth and evolution of the modern libertarian movement. His “War, Peace, and the State” is something that all peace advocates — not just self-conscious libertarians — ought to be familiar with.
I love the way Murray opened this essay, originally published in 1963, during the Cold War. (It was later included in his collection Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays in 1974.) He began by agreeing with conservative magazine editor and author William F. Buckley, who had reprimanded the libertarians of their day for spending more time on how to “demunicipalize the garbage collectors” than on big issues like war and peace. Buckley had a point, Murray said, but not quite in the way the conservative icon meant it:
There is a sense in which libertarians have been utopian rather than strategic in their thinking, with a tendency to divorce the ideal system which we envisage from the realities of the world in which we live. In short, too many of us have divorced theory from practice, and have then been content to hold the pure libertarian society as an abstract ideal for some remotely future time, while in the concrete world of today we follow unthinkingly the orthodox “conservative” line. To live liberty, to begin the hard but essential strategic struggle of changing the unsatisfactory world of today in the direction of our ideals, we must realize and demonstrate to the world that libertarian theory can be brought sharply to bear upon all of the world’s crucial problems. By coming to grips with these problems, we can demonstrate that libertarianism is not just a beautiful ideal somewhere on Cloud Nine, but a tough-minded body of truths that enables us to take our stand and to cope with the whole host of issues of our day.
So Murray turned to the matter of war and peace, observing with his signature humor, “Although, when he sees the result, Mr. Buckley [a virulent cold warrior] might well wish that we had stayed in the realm of garbage collection.”
Murray’s subject was war between nation-states — governments — but he believed that such interstate warfare could not be understood without focusing first on individuals and the violent conflicts between them. After all, governments are groups of individuals that have their status as governments in virtue of their specific relationship to their subject populations. There is no independently existing entity called “the state.” So Murray wanted to examine “war” between individuals as such, with the intention of applying the derived principles to the matter of interstate war. This is a good approach, because most people who think about these matters treat governments and their wars as things to be judged by special moral principles not applicable to private individuals.
Read more via War, Peace and Libertarians – Reason.com.