Libertarianism and war

Taxation is slavery, but bombing people’s homes because they live in the wrong place doesn’t violate anyone’s rights? Please explicate.

Having puzzled for a week over this post, I’ve decided I simply can’t parse it. Maybe some helpful reader can assist:

Randy Barnett is a Libertarian. (I follow his capitaization.) He is also a supporter of the War in Iraq. Naturally, he objects to the idea, shared by many Libertarians, that since the state is basically illegitimate, and since war is a project of the state, war is illegitimate.

That argument isn’t hard to follow. After all, if taxation is slavery, and wars are financed by taxation, then war must be always wrong, no? And of course charging the current war on your credit card just means it has to be paid for out of future taxation.

But Prof. Barnett disagrees. Just because the state is illegitimate, he says, doesn’t mean that everything it does is wrong. (Delivering the mail, for example, is OK.) He writes:

Because Libertarianism is essentially a philosophy of individual rights, I doubt it says much about what policies either individuals or collective institutions ought to pursue other than that they should not violate the rights of individuals in pursuing them.

To which I can only say, “Howzzat again?”

I can imagine a defensive war, fought on national territory, that didn’t violate anyone’s rights, as Libertarians conceive them. (Other, that is, than the right not to be taxed or conscripted. A Libertarian war would have to be fought by a volunteer army in the fullest sense of that term: not only not conscripted, but unpaid.)

But how could one conceivably invade and occupy another country without violating people’s rights?

The fact that a power plant, for example, is a legitimate military target doesn’t make it any less someone’s property. The owner of the power plant is hardly responsible for whatever actions of his country’s government justified the war; still less so the workers there. But when the power plant is bombed, the owner’s property will be destroyed and some of the workers killed.

Therefore, if human beings have rights not to be killed or have their goods destroyed, then it’s impossible to fight modern wars without violating those rights. And even that assumes that modern war can be waged without “collateral damage,” which is obviously not the case; some of the innocent people killed when a city is bombed were doing nothing more aggressive than sleeping in their own beds.

There are two possible conclusions here: either (1) war is always wrong, or (2) Libertarianism as a moral philosophy (as opposed to the libertarian tendency in politics) is not merely false but transparently silly, since no actual group of people could live under Libertarian principles unless some other group of people did the dirty work of collective self-defense for them.

Now this isn’t a hard one for me; I have other strong reasons for thinking that (2) is correct. But presumably Barnett has convinced himself that it’s possible to wage war without violating rights, and I’d really like to know how that miracle is supposed to be performed. I’d hate to imagine that Libertarians don’t mind violating rights as long as the people whose rights are violated don’t look like them.

Update: Barnett links and comments, but doesn’t answer the question: How can the rights-violations necessarily incident to foreign wars be justified on libertarian grounds? More here.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Libertarianism and war”

  1. The "Everyone Can Do It" Myth

    Mark Kleiman wrote an interesting article about libertarian support for war, which starts somewhat like this:
    After all, if taxation is slavery, and wars are financed by taxation, then war must

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