How much should we fear the State?

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Austro-libertarian and other free market oriented economists focus their efforts on explaining the inefficient and destructive nature of the state – how this compulsory aegis of taxation and redistribution retards economic progress and the standard of living, siphoning off ever more productivity into vast bureaucracies that control and regulate every aspect of our lives with a fine toothcomb. The state represents an enormous concentration of wealth and power which could never be attained by a private individual (or even an institution) in a genuine free market, a degree of power and wealth that seeks to extend its destructive influence not only within the territory of the individual state itself, but also overseas with armies, navies and air forces and all of the fire power of destructive weaponry that they can carry.

To any one individual the state can seem like an awesome and overwhelming entity – in the UK, it provides your banking infrastructure, your healthcare, your transportation networks, educates your children and supposedly is the guardian of your health, safety and wellbeing from greedy, unscrupulous companies who might seek to defraud or injure you. Moreover, if you get on the wrong side of the state then its uniformed police force can arrest you, its judges in long black robes can imprison you or freeze your assets and, of course, it promises to do the same to all of the people who attempt to commit a crime against you. And who could not fail to be overwhelmed by the state’s vast and impressive buildings such as the Houses of Parliament or the US Capitol, and the patriotic, flag waving ceremonies such Presidential inaugurations which inspire a turnout of millions?

This essay will in no way dispute the fact that the state is something to be feared (and indisputably so when we consider that the world’s entire nuclear arsenal is sufficient to destroy it tens of times over). What we will explore here, however, is the fact that the monopolistic and overreaching nature of the state is both its source of power yet also its Achilles’ heel – that the state is far from a lean, mean fighting machine and is in fact bumbling, bloated and altogether rather stupid.

First, the state is severely handicapped by its very nature as a monopolistic force. Because it does not need to compete in any areas in which it decides to wade it has a natural tendency to languish in laziness and inefficiency to a degree which renders it extremely vulnerable. For example, the global cyber attacks on state owned and some private computer networks and infrastructure last year are a testament to this. These attacks were made possible by the fact that the operating facilities of the targeted organisations – which included Britain’s National Health Service were outdated and hence highly susceptible to such attacks. Most private consumers of information technology, on the other hand, had had the necessary patches and updates installed. This reliance on out of date technology seems endemic, spreading also to areas which are nominally private but which are heavily supported by the state such as banking. According to entrepreneur Simon Black (who started his own bank when he got so fed up with the service offered by established banks), the Society for Worldwide Interbank Telecommunication or “SWIFT”, which is the premier global financial network, uses Windows Vista as its platform – an operating system which Microsoft no longer supports. Domestic infrastructure seems to be even worse. In the UK, most salary and business payments rely on the BACS network which dates from the 1960s and still, in our age of instant communication, takes three days to transfer funds between bank accounts. How is it possible that vast organisations such as Britain’s National Health Service and SWIFT are basically using technology that is more outdated than that available to any private individual who recently bought a laptop or smartphone? The answer, of course, is that these organisations are simply shorn of any competitive reason to innovate or to stay ahead of the game. Without the threat of losses as a result of the continual supply of tax dollars they are devoid of any reason to maintain the highest standards in order to ensure that they are efficient and up to date. Such lack of standards spreads also to the personnel in these organisations. Bureaucrats, who are more or less promised a job for life so long as the avoid making a major mistake, have little incentive to develop their knowledge and skills and so are unlikely to ever be as smart as private entrepreneurs who always need to keep a sharp eye on the game. This is one of the reasons why (in spite of all of the hullaballoo from politicians seeking election) tax and regulatory loopholes will always exist – because the people finding and exploiting them have both greater ability and incentive than those who are supposed to close them. This is not to imply, of course, that politics is not a competitive arena. However, the nature of competition in politics is very different from the nature of competition in the free market. In the latter, people are competing to create more wealth for the benefit of consumers and so it is a positive sum game – one person’s gain does not depend upon another’s loss. It is true, of course, that in a particular industry one company may prosper while others go bankrupt, and obviously there can only be one CEO of any particular company at a time. But even if a person is beaten to the position of CEO of one company the process of wealth creation itself will allow plenty more enterprises to be started in order to exploit opportunities which have not yet been explored. In the free market, one door closed is two more opened. Politics, however, is decidedly a zero sum game. The power possessed by one individual is necessarily taken from another, and money given to one set of beneficiaries has necessarily been taxed (i.e. confiscated) from another. There can only be one President of the United States or one Prime Minister of Great Britain – the process of politics will not create an unlimited number of great and powerful states in which the opportunities to become either President or Prime Minister are multiplied. Therefore, the budding politician must necessarily gain from what anyone else loses and he must make sure that no one else is able to beat him to the top job. Thus, there is seldom any genuine co-operation or betterment in the political sphere as, ultimately, everyone is the enemy of everyone else – and the only co-operation that does exist is in the form of favours, bribes and other “tit-for-tat” arrangements, with any relationships always susceptible to a sudden backstabbing by the more ruthlessly ambitious partner. With such a widespread lack of trust serving as the foundation for the state it becomes impossible for it to operate as a fast, efficient and unified whole. Indeed, private citizens can often be thankful for the fact that the little feuds and foibles between individual state departments and fiefdoms are a frequent distraction of the state from plundering the average Joe.

Second, as “Austrian” economists we know that statist intervention can never achieve anything that it is supposed to achieve – or at the very least it can only do so with significantly inflated cost. All of its publicly stated ambitions – conquering poverty, providing affordable healthcare, employment for all of those who want to work, safety and security in retirement, the vanquishing of crime and so on – will never be achieved simply because these things cannot be achieved through the means of wealth redistribution rather than through wealth creation. Indeed, because the state has no area where it can genuinely make a positive difference for the whole of society, its own natural incentive to sustain itself and to maximise its own power instils in it the desire to make problems worse rather than better – solely for the purpose of lending itself a perceived role. It is better for the state, for instance, to keep people poor so that they are dependent upon government handouts; it is better for the state to disarm its citizenry so that the latter present no threat to the state’s own armed guards, at the cost of increasing crime which the state can then step in to solve. Unfortunately this perverse incentive is fed by the fact that many people see the state’s failings as a reason for strengthening the state and giving it more power, rather than as a reason for getting rid of it. Most of the symptoms of these failings are far removed from the state itself and it requires the ability to follow a long chain of thought in order to identify the true culprit. When the government inflates the money supply, for instance, prices rise – yet it is businesses, i.e. all of those greedy, exploitative capitalists, who actually raise the prices directly and so it is them who get the blame. Similarly, when state mandated minimum wages result in unemployment the public view is that the fault lies with those same evil businessmen who are refusing to lower their profits and hire more workers. Most of this is due to the fact that the advent of democracy has severely weakened the distinction between the state and the people – the feeling of “us” and “them”. Rather, through our voting rights, all of us are the state and we are all doing what the state is doing. So, perversely, the state’s failings are perceived not its own but rather as our failings, as if it we ourselves who have failed in the particular endeavour. However, here also lies the state’s weakness. As recent secessionist movements and events within the European Union have indicated, the feeling of unity with and control of the state is severely weakened when the state becomes too big and bloated, swelling to a size where decisions are made by strange and unfamiliar figures in a city many thousands of miles away. Much of the motivation for the Brexit vote, for instance, was the desire to repatriate decision making authority from Brussels back to Britain. This suggests that the degree to which power can be removed from its proximity to the people is finite – a limit which has served as a severe frustration to the unifying, globalising and bureaucratising ambitions of political elites. Indeed, it is now unlikely that these ambitions will ever be fulfilled. Moreover, secession necessarily breaks up large states into smaller units which, as we explored in several previous essays, necessarily makes the state’s power vis-à-vis its citizens weaker rather than stronger.

This leads us onto our third point which is that the state, or rather the people who can be said to form it, are a minority of the citizenry. This is necessarily so because, as a parasitic entity, it is simply not possible for the state to be comprised of the majority. Contrary to popular belief no state has ever retained power as a result of force alone; rather, the state’s sustenance is dependent upon at least the tacit acceptance of the majority of the citizenry. Although the fear of force may constitute a reason for that tacit acceptance, generally the state has to ensure that its subjects are kept within the confines of a basic degree of contentment – that even if they may mumble and groan about the state’s inadequacy in this, that or the other, there is no pressing reason to upset the apple cart. The collapse of the Soviet communism, the Brexit vote and, we might suggest, the election of Donald Trump are instances of when such contentment with the status quo was exhausted in the minds of at least a significant proportion of the population. The end of the Soviet Union led to a markedly different political set up in Russia and Eastern Europe; we are yet to see the full consequences of the other two events. But when the people do decide to support a particular direction and to exert its independence with ferocity then the state has no choice but to yield.

This bumbling, bloated nature of the state is indicated by a joking phrase apparently made by the industrialist Charles F Kettering – “Thank God we don’t get as much government as we pay for”. Indeed, if all of the wealth and resources that the state commands were actually put to use effectively and efficiently then it would truly be a terrifying and formidable obstacle. Unfortunately, however, it is also summed up by what we might call, informally, the “cock up theory of history” – that, rather than great leaders and stewards shaping the world’s events in order to enhance humanity, anything significant that happens in the course of history is more attributable to a series of accidents and mishaps that just happen to have had widespread consequences. And it is here where the true danger of the state may perhaps lie.

One of the most infamous of these incidents occurred in 1983 at the height of the cold war when the Soviet nuclear early-warning system reported the launch of intercontinental ballistic missiles from the United States. The Soviet officer monitoring the system at the time, Stanislav Petrov, believed the warnings to be the result of a system malfunction – a belief which was verified subsequently by inspection of the system. His refusal to act on the false warnings prevented a Soviet retaliatory attack which would have almost certainly elevated the cold war into a full scale nuclear holocaust. In other words, the complete annihilation of human existence was averted by the prudential actions of a single individual who refused to trust his government issued equipment. When the state today still handles so much and handles it so badly the possibility of a grave mistake going the other way is very serious indeed – and all the more so when belligerent tensions are again reaching new highs. Indeed, a not too dissimilar incident occurred in Hawaii this month when a missile attack alert was broadcast publicly, sending the citizenry into a panic for the best part of an hour – all because a state lackey “pressed the wrong button”. It is for this reason more than any other that the state should be regarded as dangerous. So much power in the hands of so few people is at risk of one them making a simple error, rather than at the risk of that same person acting with evil intentions. As awesome as the state may be we have more to fear from its stupidity than from its ingenuity.

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National Defence and Just Wars

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However much people may disagree on the proper functions of the state and however much people may argue about how those functions should be deployed, it is almost universally acknowledged that “national defence” – the protection of the citizenry from invasion by foreign states – is seen, together with domestic security and protection from private criminals, to be not only the primary function of the state but also its very raison d’être. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine how, without this function – given that it is joined at the hip with the state’s monopolistic use of force – there could possibly be any state whatsoever. Thus any opposition to government’s monopoly on security is expressed only by anarchists and those who wish to see an end to the state altogether.

In keeping with many libertarian commentators (for example, Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan) we may acknowledge agreement here with the proposition that “war is the health of the state”, permitting a tremendous number of, at first, temporary, and then, enduringly permanent inroads into liberty that statists could only dream of during peacetime. The perpetual existence of a bogeyman, real or imagined, serves both to justify and to distract the average person from the state’s own increased privations upon the individual. However, what we wish to examine critically here is the validity of the assertion that “national defence”, so-called, is a proper function of the state as well as the question of whether any wars waged by states could be “just”.

First, the overwhelming concern of the individual is not “national defence” at all but, rather, defence of his own person and property – as well as the safety from harm of his friends and family. If defence of his person or property is his primary aim, however, surely he has more to fear from his own state rather than from any potential foreign invader? It is own state that taxes his income; it is his own state that has nationalised industries that he may use or work in; it is his own state that regulates what he may do, what he may choose to put into his own body or any other voluntary actions he may choose to do with other consenting adults. A change of forced rule from one state to another is not necessarily going to make any difference to any of this. One governing state may move out and another may move in with no noticeable change to the individual’s life whatsoever. Indeed, an invading state is normally interested in taking over the economic capacity of the lands that are eyed for conquest – it does not normally wish to reduce its prize to rubble and be left with a wasteland. To a large extent it will wish to leave infrastructure and existing property relations intact, particularly if it is to rely on the productivity of the conquered workforce. Indeed, the idea of the sanctity of the political border is relatively new in international relations and one that only really found concrete expression in the aftermath of World War I. Earlier, when wars were conducted by monarchs and royal families, territories used to change from the jurisdiction of one realm to another, simply switching ownership between monarchs and forming part of the victor’s private property. Indeed it was the wealth and power of the king, who owned his territory and his subjects, that determined the size of the realm. The day to day lives of the average folk were not likely to change a great deal. Today, if France and Britain were to have roughly the same kind of approach to private property ownership and towards civil liberties, what real difference would it make if the French government was to take over a chunk of Britain or the British to take over a piece of France? This fact betrays the real function of national defence, which is not to safeguard the person and property of the individual citizen at all. Rather, it is to protect the territorial integrity of the state and to defend the state and its rulers from being overthrown by other states and foreign crusaders. Just in the same way as one might erect a high fence to protect oneself from a bothersome neighbour, so too does the state use its monopolistic provision of “national defence” to protect itself. If this should be doubted and one is tempted to cling to the idea that government is there to protect us from evil foreigners, then why is it that the wealth, property and livelihoods of the citizenry are precisely what the state steamrollers over during wartime? Civil liberties are suspended, the news is censored, military slavery (politely known as “conscription”) is enforced, and all productive capacity is geared towards the war effort with food essentials heavily rationed and luxuries all but non-existent. It seems that protection of the people is the very last thing on the government’s mind when foreign threats loom large.

With the advent of democracy, where no one individual ruler “owns” any jurisdiction but, rather, it is supposedly run by a caretaker ruler for the good of “the people”, some kind of different criterion other than the extent of the property ownership of the king was needed to justify to the state’s prerogative to “national defence” and to mask its real purpose of protecting itself. Something had to be done to induce, in the population, the fear of foreign rule. Hence states began to invoke nationalistic sentiments in their populations and with it the sanctity of the political border. For without nationalistic fervour populations would have little willingness to defend the state from a foreign state. Bar nationalism, patriotism and strong cultural identities what reason would there be for a person to avoid being ruled by one government or another? Fortunately for the state all of this went hand in hand with the prevailing ideology of democracy and the economic policies that soon emerged – and, tragically, with horrifying results. First, democracy effectively nationalises the citizenry and makes everyone under the auspices of a particular government symbiotic with that government. Hence, when a foreign state invades it is not only “the” government that is under threat of takeover but “our” government. Second, as “democracy” has become synonymous with freedom, openness, and pluralism a natural fear of “other” forms of government – monarchs or dictators – is engrained. The terror of losing democracy to something that is, on the face of it, more despotic is used as a fervent justification for not only defensive but also offensive military action today. Thus, defence is imbued with ideological purpose. Third, state-dominated and collectivist economic policies naturally aggregate the people under the identity of the government. Under collectivism, the relevant economic unit is no longer the individual, choosing to fulfil his ends as best as he can with the available means, but, rather, “the nation”. All productive resources and all productive enterprises are geared by “the nation” towards “the nation’s” goals. Nations, not individual people and private entities, now compete with each other. Inputs, outputs and processes are heavily aggregated into relatively meaningless concepts such as “Aggregate Demand”, “Gross Domestic Product” and even the concepts of “exports” and “imports” are only really important if one views the world in political borders. Furthermore, the inefficiency and impoverishment caused by collectivism naturally creates a drive towards autarchy and xenophobic envy of the wealth and resources of neighbouring states. Under complete free trade, if Ruritania is predominantly agricultural and specialises in growing food, whereas Mauretania specialises in heavy industry and manufacturing, Ruritania would export food to Mauretania and the latter would use this to then fuel its industries and produce manufactured goods that are exported to Ruritania. Both countries benefit from the specialisation of the other and from trading their wares – indeed this is nothing more than division of labour by state rather than by individual. If, however, Mauretania’s government begins to interfere in its economy, its industries become less productive and less competitive; while the domestic market can be ring-fenced by protective tariffs, no such luxury can be imposed on the foreign market and Mauretania will find that demand for its exports in relation to other countries starts to dwindle. Thus, Ruritania will start exporting more food to other countries and less to Mauretania, leaving the latter with a food shortage relative to population. Hence comes the call from Mauretania’s government, recognising the resulting impoverishment, that Mauretania needs “self-sufficiency” in food. This was precisely the case of Germany before World War II, a heavy manufacturing nation that relied upon imported food, with food self-sufficiency being a major motivation for Hitler’s pursuit of lebensraum in the largely agrarian lands East of Germany’s borders. Indeed, Nazi Germany, a fascist-collectivist economy with potent – even doctrinal – nationalist fervour that resulted in one of the most horrific racially motivated exterminations in the whole of history is an instructive case that demonstrates the extremes of nationalism bred by collectivism, and this fact raises a pertinent question. If Nazi Germany was so horrible then why was it met with such mute opposition right up until the invasion of Poland (except for the bleating of Churchill during his so-called “wilderness years”)? Why was the Versailles Treaty so willingly shredded clause by clause until it was merely waste paper? Why so much willingness to accommodate and co-operate with such as awful regime? One reason surely has to be that under the post-World War I gold exchange standard, the New Deal and the pursuit of Keynesian macroeconomic policies to combat the Great Depression, everybody – not just Germany – was moving towards collectivist economic planning. Indeed, the New Deal and the associations and agencies it bred were modelled on those in Mussolini’s Italy. Policies such as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act served to segregate each country as a closed economic unit and drive them towards autarchy. A related aspect of big government economies and welfare states is that they begin to view their populations as burdens as much as productive units – incessant consumers and eaters who put relentless pressure on “the nation’s” resources. Although today we can see this resulting in the concern of intellectuals with supposedly “excessive” population growth, in earlier days it helped produce the Eugenics movement, which had the aim of reducing those of lower “social and genetic worth” – i.e. the unproductive resource consumers –  and was largely discredited in the aftermath of World War II as a result of the Nazi policy of racial sterilisation. Perhaps even more visually embarrassing is that school children in the US recited the pledge of allegiance with the Bellamy salute – a variant of the Nazi salute. Any ideological weapons against Nazi Germany were, as a result, able to achieve only a blunt impact simply because they were not so sharply delineated. The uncomfortable truth is that Nazi Germany was fundamentally no different from any other state at the time – it’s just that Hitler took these fundamentals to their logical conclusion and the results were horrific. Indeed, “national defence” implies the preference for and superiority of one’s own race, culture and creed – for if these things do not matter to the individual citizen then so too does it not matter which particular foreigner takes over the government and starts delivering the mail. It is no small wonder why it leads to xenophobic hatred and is the breeder, rather than the solver, of conflicts.

Turning now to the economic case for national defence, this generally rests on the idea that, as the consumption of national defence is “non-rivalrous” and “non-excludable” that, left to the free market, it would be underprovided owing to a significant “free rider” problem. Without getting too much into why such concerns in and of themselves provide no justification for the state provision of a good or service, we can state more simply that it is only the precise methods of defence as chosen by the state that are non-rivalrous and non-excludable. An aircraft carrier serving A does not interfere with its services towards B, nor can its services be excluded from either one of those people. But there is no reason to suggest that aircraft carriers must be provided in order to maintain defence of one’s person and property, which is supposed to be the alleged purpose of national defence. Private defence operations may well produce methods of defence whose consumption is rivalrous and excludable – for example, more localised, specialised and heterogeneous defence methods specific to particular customers. The common fear concerning such methods of defence is that they will never be able to match the might and power of a foreign state – how can such scattered methods and apparent disorganisation provide any meaningful kind of protection? This fear is soon resolved by the realisation of several important points. First, weapons of enormous firepower – such as nuclear weapons – have only been developed by states because other states have done so. Nuclear weapons are not defensive weapons at all but, rather, weapons of mutually assured destruction. In particular, aggressors are usually not interested in reducing foreign territories to worthless rubble – they have their eyes on the economic resources that are available for exploitation within that territory. Indeed, a significant motivation for the US’s foreign aggression today is the control of resources in the Middle East (especially oil), camouflaged by an ideological veneer. If a stateless society was to abandon nuclear and other large, destructive weapons this would lessen the justification for foreign states spending their resources on them. This goes hand in hand with the second consideration which is that if, as we stated above, the state’s purpose in providing national defence is to protect its territorial integrity (and this is justified by the claim that it protects the persons and property of its citizens from invasion by foreign states), then if a particular foreign society is anarchical and has only scattered and allegedly ineffective private defence methods, what offensive threat does this pose to either the state or its citizens? Not only would the state have little internal impetus to maintain heavy defence spending but any attempt to cajole the citizenry to pay for it would be much harder as the state will lack the ability to construct a bogeyman. The so-called “War on Terror” and the threat of Islamic extremism does, of course, seem to negate this thesis as defence spending is ratcheted up against sub-state and not state actors. But there is a strong case to be argued that most of the threat from terrorism is as a result of the West’s own belligerence – in other words, terrorism is a defensive response rather than an offensive threat. Indeed, there will always be a handful of extremists, fundamentalists and radical nutcases in any society whether its statist, anarchist or whatever. What gives their ideas traction, however, and builds them up into a significant threat is that they become creditable in the eyes of other people – credit that the West seems all too willing to hand on a silver platter. In any case it is arguable that although the difficulty of eradicating terrorists permits the west to perpetuate a bogeyman, the “War on Terror” is becoming a harder sell as it seems as though any widespread, offensive capability of terrorists is limited. This leads to the third consideration which is that, while private defence may appear to be a hopeless offensive force, its effectives as a strictly defensive force comes not from its firepower which, collectively, may well fall short of that possessed by a state, but, rather, from the very fact that it is scattered and heterogenous. It is far easier for a foreign invader to take aim at a central command structure that possesses one train of thought, one or a few strategies, one chain of supply, and whose soldiers have all been trained in the same way and possess the same weapons. As the difficulty in combating guerrilla warfare can attest, it is far more difficult to overcome hundreds or thousands of localised strategies, different training, uncertain weaponry, and surprises round every corner. This effectiveness of private defence would be magnified if the entire economy is also decentralised. In modern states, entire communications and financial networks are centralised so that an invader only has to target the central hub in order to bring the entire country to its knees. How effective would it be, for example, for a foreign invader to knock out a country’s centralised banking system? Where all such services are provided privately, however, with no hierarchy of control springing from a common root, a single attack by the foreign invader is now multiplied into tens or even hundreds of separate attacks to take control of each and every individual, private network. The loss of a part of the banking industry to an aggressor would not necessarily cause the rest of the country to grind to a halt with the only option to yield to the invader’s might.

Just Wars

In spite of our negative conclusions concerning national defence, is it possible that there are any wars can be described as “just” and if what are the requirements for such justice?

It appears to be undisputed in the mainstream that World War II provides the hallmarks of a just war. Here there was a very belligerent and aggressive dictatorship that invaded foreign territories over which it had little (if any) claim, subjected their populations to extermination or slave labour and otherwise imposing upon them its odious method of government. Surely it was just for the allies to go to war against such a threat? Without having to examine the details of World War II specifically, we can see that the main problem with this line of thinking in the abstract is that it considers only states as the relevant players. The individuals within each state are practically ignored or are aggregated into collective wholes. The only relevant units in the analysis are whole countries and some countries are aggressive and nasty whereas others are peace-loving pacifists. If this was true and individual countries were individual people then World War II may come close to being a just war (although, as we shall see below, it would probably even fail if we made this assumption). However, all defensive actions of a state rely, for their funding, upon the taxation of individual citizens – the forced confiscation of their private property. This in and of itself is a rank injustice. What if the individual citizens do not want the money that they have earned legitimately and the government has not to pay for a war? They have had the very thing that national defence is supposed to protect – their private property – stolen from them. All state wars funded by taxation are, therefore, per se unjust, and this fact is true regardless of the nobility of the cause. Tax dollars can be spend on a multitude of good and wonderful things – schools, hospitals, roads, etc. – but this does not change the fact that the people forced to fund them would have preferred to have spent their money on something else. Hand in hand with this goes the possibility of conscription – the enslavement of the population into defending the country with their bodies as well as their wallets – and all of the other liberties that are suspended in war time, with the entire economy geared towards the war effort, as was the case in World War II. Moreover, what are we to make of the mass bombing of civilians, intentional or otherwise? The argument over who killed civilians first is irrelevant – the fact that it was perpetrated willingly by both sides indicates that they are both as bad as each other. And it was the allies who were responsible for what may be the worst of these atrocities – the incineration of tens of thousands of people at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If a person robs me in the street am I entitled to fire a gun indiscriminately in his direction, killing tens of innocents going about their own business in order to apprehend the assailant? Am I entitled to state that my action was just as it stopped the evil thief and that everyone else who is now lying in pools of blood was just “collateral damage”? I would, quite, rightly be arrested and tried for murder. Such actions are no different in kind from civilian deaths during state warmongering. It also emphasises how little disregard states have for their populations when they are under threat – the persons and property of the individual people are not there to be protected but to be readily consumed or treated as cannon fodder, a wall of defence to protect the state.

Not only does all of this demonstrate the injustice of state perpetrated wars, but it highlights the fact that any consideration of history in terms of whole states, countries and nations will never be able to make an incisive ethical justification or criticism of past events. Although some may be worse than others, the basic truth is that all states are inherently unjust, resting upon a crumbling foundation of illegitimacy. Therefore it is impossible to categorise a war as just through such an approach. When we look at the players in World War II specifically it is difficult to see much of a distinct difference at all. The British were responsible for the imposition of the largest empire in human history. How was this much different from the German conquest of Eastern Europe? Germany’s pre-war attitude towards Britain and its empire was to regard the latter as a kindred, Aryan spirit and a model of ruthless empire-building to be followed and admired. Britain and the United States used concentration camps decades before the Nazis evolved them into death camps – and need we even mention the Russian gulags? Indeed the communist dictatorship of the Soviet Union, with its brutal political repression, does not have much to distinguish it from Nazi Germany – particularly if you were to be an unfortunate victim of one of these regimes. The Soviets had already completed much of their “Great Purge” of hundreds of thousands (at least) before German soldiers ever set foot on its soil. Further, such lack of ideological distinction between the state players in World War II reveals itself through the continuous switching of allegiances both before and after the war and the consequences of such switches. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939 initially sealed Germany and the USSR as allies, secretly carving up Eastern Europe between them. Indeed, the entire trigger of World War II – the German invasion of Poland – was matched by Stalin’s own invasion of that country only a few weeks later. Germany then invaded Russia in June 1941 and Russia became allied to the British and, later, the US. After the War, of course, the former friends fell out and the Cold War endured for another four decades. And perhaps the most sorry tale is the fact that having been “rescued” from Nazi oppression the whole of Eastern Europe – at the mere of stroke of a pen – was consigned to Soviet oppression. For the populations of Eastern Europe how different from being ruled by the Nazis was being ruled by the Soviets? Indeed the attempted justification of World War II and the emphasis of the horrors of Nazi Germany has conveniently overshadowed the atrocities of the post-war communist dictatorships in Eastern Europe. Overall, however, it is hard to see how such outcomes could result if there were genuine, rigorous ideological differences between the players in World War II.

What then is the criteria for a just war? In the first place we must dispense with the notion of “war” itself which is a term that applies to states. In a libertarian world, in which there are only individuals and groups of individuals co-operating voluntarily, there would be no “wars” in the sense in which we understand them. Therefore, the justification for any warfare-type action is exactly the same as the justification for any violent action between individuals in a libertarian society. We can list the criteria quite simply as we did in a previous essay, The Ethics of Interventionism. To relate these to war specifically the equivalent war-faring terminology has been inserted:

  • No person (“country”) has the right to initiate violence (“offensive action” or “invasion”) against any other person (“country”) in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression (“invasion”) he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents (“civilians”) during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation (“conscription”) and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself other people have no right to initiate violence against him in order to stop him from doing so (“neutrality”);
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties (“allies”) in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties (“allies”), likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (“treaty”) or voluntarily;
  • Third parties providing defence services have no right to initiate force against innocents during the act of doing so; this includes forcing others to contribute towards the same and causing “collateral damage”;
  • Where a third party provides defence services it not may be forcibly stopped (“blockaded”) from doing so by others;
  • Whether the injured party or a third party should or should not act to defend the former against an act of aggression, or whether such an act of defence is a “good” or “bad” thing by some other moral standard may be debated; however, the conclusion may not be enforced violently on any party that is not committing an act of aggression.

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