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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Libertarianism – A Utopian Ideal?

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Libertarianism – and any sort of more general freedom from government as advocated by anyone with a pro-free market leaning – is opposed both ethically and economically on a number of substantive grounds. The proposition that without government we would have inequality, destitution for the masses, rampant greed, and so on is a familiar charge. A further point of opposition is that libertarianism, and the drive towards it is simply utopian or idealistic and that libertarians are hopeless day dreamers, lacking any awareness of how the world “really” works. It is this objection that we will attempt to answer in this short essay.

There are two different basic guises of the argument that libertarianism is utopian. The first is that a libertarian world will simply never come about; that government is so entrenched in the world and people are so inherently statist that any hope for a libertarian society will founder upon the rocks. In the first place we might as well point out that libertarianism is a normative theory; just because we live in a society overwhelmed by statism does not mean that things should be that way. The current situation may make it harder to achieve but it does not undermine libertarianism as an ethical theory. But if we ignore this we do have to recognise that much of the fight for freedom will be an uphill struggle – as it always has been in history. The present author does not expect a libertarian world to appear within his lifetime. But from a strictly practical point of view this fight is a lot less “utopian” than many other goals such as the fight against poverty or against disease. These things require positive action and endless patience to wait for enough wealth to accumulate in order to provide some alleviation. Indeed even the most popular ideal in the world today – the so-called spread of democracy – requires armed invasions, active peacekeeping, the setup of institutions for which to hold to elections and the willingness of the population to get off their backsides and vote. This is assuming, of course, that such an ideal is genuine and not simply a veneer for power and control over resources. Freedom, however, only requires negative action – the abstinence from violence against the person or property of another person. Every single individual in the world has the physical ability to bring this situation about right now with no effort whatsoever. Freedom could practically be achieved much more quickly than wealth, democracy, inequality, happiness, fulfilment or any other ideal that one could care to mention. This does of course suffer from the drawback that people need a passion for liberty and a willingness to cease their promotion or tacit acceptance of the ruling regimes. Inducing recognition of the illegitimacy of government on a wide scale is a formidable task for libertarians, especially as it is so radical. But what is truly utopian, however, is the belief that the current situation of debt, spending and kicking the can down the road can ever continue. At the birth of social democracy, Western nations had accumulated several generations’ worth of capital that had raised the standard of living by a significant magnitude. This provided a seemingly inexhaustible fund for politicians to bribe voters, showering them with goodies in the form of retirement benefits, welfare payments, nationalised industries, publically owned infrastructure, and so on in return for their votes. Because politicians like to spend and spend without raising current taxes, much of this spending was fuelled by borrowing, with the productivity of accumulated capital enabling tax revenue to service this debt. The borrowing and inflation has benefitted the bookends of society – the poorest who receive the majority of the welfare payments and the very rich whose assets survive the inflation by rising in nominal value – as well as the baby boomer generation, which has received most of the lavish benefits without having to pay for them. The profligate waste disguised a slow but relentless capital consumption until now productivity can no longer provide for the burgeoning level of spending. Governments today are struggling to even service the interest on debt through tax revenues, having to borrow more just to pay down previously accumulated debt. Particularly now as the aforementioned baby boomer generation has begun to retire, leaving behind it a decimated workforce supporting a heavy generation of retirees, this situation is likely to only get worse. There are three possible options available – to default on the entitlements; to default on the debt; or to print enough money to pay for everything. The first option would cause mass social unrest, the second would cause financial markets to collapse and the third would cause hyperinflation of the currency. This is an unpleasant but soon to be necessary choice. It is precisely because the paradigm of social democracy, its welfare state and social justice no longer appear to be working that liberty (and “Austrian” economics) are beginning to be viewed as viable alternatives. As suggested previously, the view (and hope) of the present author is that this will be a relatively bloodless and un-revolutionary process, taking effect through the simple circumvention of government by people who simply want to live their lives and maintain their standard of living. Regardless of their precise knowledge of the virtues of liberty, a libertarian world will come about by people seeking to assert their individuality. That seems a lot less utopian than desperately attempting to prop up the current, zombie-like system.

The second guise of the argument that libertarianism is utopian is the proposition that non-aggression is counter to human nature and there will always be people who seek to murder, rape and steal. Or, even worse, a free society will just create a society of looters and murderers and the peaceful and harmonious world that libertarians envisage will simply never appear. With government, however, peace is maintained (enforced?) and we have a controlled and orderly redistribution subject to democratic oversight and this is far more in keeping with the nature of humans. First of all, freedom is the raison d’être of human nature and not its antithesis. Undoubtedly it is true that the political means of achieving wealth through theft and redistribution, as well as the abdication of individual responsibility through devotion to a leader, are powerful and attractive propositions that may form part of human nature. But this is simply a part of the universal law of human action that seeks to minimise individual cost and maximise individual benefit. People seek to promote government action because they think it will promote what they want while forcing others to shoulder the burden. They want government to enact their ideas and their plans and for everyone else to march in time. They seldom consider the fact that they may be suffering the costs of implementing somebody else’s plan. As soon as government ceases to serve this function in the opinion of individuals, it will be dropped. It is, therefore, individual freedom and not an automated, robotic adherence to the government that is in keeping with human nature. Second, bearing this in mind, it is far from clear that society would simply disintegrate into murderous chaos if government was abolished instantly. While there may be a transitory period of restlessness, people will soon take steps to privately protect and defend their property, with these private means replacing the monopolistic provision of the state – as happened recently in the riots in Ferguson, Missouri, when police were ordered to stand down. Moreover, there is no reason to believe that the division of labour and social co-operation would suddenly be obliterated overnight. People engage in these things not only because it is the most productive form of organisation but also, and perhaps more importantly, because the number of people willing to commit private murder and theft would still be in the minority. The majority of people abstain from these acts not because the government is preventing them from doing them but because they are evil. Abolishing the state will not change this view. If any proponent of government was to suggest otherwise then it is permissible to ask him what he would do if government vanished suddenly. Would he be among the looters and plunderers? And if not, why should anyone else? Third, libertarians have never made the claim that the world will be completely eradicated of aggression and we do not assume that, once governments and states are abolished, evil people will suddenly vanish from the face of the Earth. Indeed, libertarians do not even have to prove that a world of liberty will be absolutely flawless and totally free of evil and violent people; it simply has to be better than any other option. What we are firmly opposed to is the legitimisation of aggression when it is carried about by an elite group called the government; that if we recognise acts such as murder and theft as immoral and evil then they shouldn’t be done by anyone. In other words, libertarians oppose the legalisation of aggression under any circumstance, applying simply what resides in everyone’s understanding of basic morality to those who are in government. The fact that illegal acts will still be done is fully acknowledged; but allowing a legitimate channel for the initiation of violence dilutes this basic moral understanding and serves as a vehicle for evil acts such as murder and theft rather than for their prevention. In any case, even if libertarians strove for a world of the complete, de facto eradication of all aggression, private and public, then what would be wrong with that? It is not likely, for example, that rape will ever be completely eradicated whatever legal regime is put in place and any person who sets out to achieve such a total banishment would certainly be “utopian”. But we would hardly dispute the honourable nature of his goal, nor would we castigate his efforts to achieve it. Governments themselves participate in causes even more utopian than this, such as the seemingly endless “War on Drugs”. Doubtless many of us would love to have a world free from substance use but, regardless of the ethics of either drug use or the attempts to prevent it, from a strictly practical point of view it is hopeless to attempt to regulate with the force of law what people desire to put into their own bodies.

Libertarianism will never create a perfect world; but it will create a world that is most in step with the fact that humans think, feel, desire, choose and act as individuals. Undoubtedly, according to some “higher” ideal, the human race is flawed but any practical and sensible political theory has to account for humans as they are, warts and all. It is for this reason that libertarianism, as opposed to its statist and collectivist rivals, is one of the least utopian theories.

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Gun Ownership and the Government

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In the United States, the story is always the same. Some maniac (examples of whom, we might add, will be found in any society regardless of the strength of its gun ownership rights) walks into some public building such as a school or shopping mall, opens fire and kills anything from a handful to tens of individuals. Then comes the usual tirade of arguments from the “gun control” advocates on the one side, crying out for more government control of private gun ownership in response to these heinous crimes, batted back by pro-gun ownership rhetoric from the likes of the NRA and the remainder of the gun lobby.

Many libertarians leap into this issue automatically in favour of the pro-gun lobby and deplore the attempts of government to regulate gun ownership. So far so good, but this does not examine the issue fully from the standpoint of pure political philosophy. Such an examination is, admittedly, often very difficult given that the question of gun ownership rights is enveloped in the history and tradition of the United States, a union born out of a revolution and where the right to bear arms has been enshrined as a constitutional amendment. Many pro-gun Americans who favour gun ownership rights would probably say that not only are these rights sacrosanct but also that it is a good thing for people to be privately armed, preserving one’s right to self-defence and reducing crime, or at least creating some sort of symbolic gesture of being a free individual. People on the gun control side, however, would not only like to see strict, gun regulation but would probably also state that increased gun proliferation, regardless of government intervention, is a bad thing and people should not own guns at all. In other words, not only do they support government gun control (up to the extent of an outright ban on private gun ownership) but they also believe that people should not choose to own guns in the first place and that gun ownership is an inherently bad scourge on the face of society.

In our capacity as libertarians we do not take either of these positions. We do not think that it is a good thing that everyone owns guns, in other words we are not crying aloud in response to gun control advocacy that “everyone should own guns!” We may each believe privately that gun ownership by individuals will create a more peaceful and law-abiding society, but we may just as plausibly detest the idea of individuals possessing firearms and lament the fact that we cannot trust every other human being to live in harmony with us. But the important thing to realise is that whether guns (and people owning them) are good or bad is not a libertarian issue. The only thing that concerns us as libertarians is whether the trade and ownership of firearms should be regulated by government fiat, i.e. by the force of the state. Whether gun ownership should be abundant or not is something that we must reflect upon in our privately held morality. Indeed, as libertarians we are not, therefore, against “gun control”. We are simply against government gun control.

Let us, therefore, restate clearly the libertarian and the statist positions on gun ownership. As libertarians what we will argue here is that any government control of gun ownership is just as unethical as government invasion of any other private property, whether it be a house, a car, your bank account etc. The central tenet of the statist, on the other hand, is that the sale and ownership of guns must be controlled and regulated by government force. We must note that the statist position does not necessarily mean that the entirety of the citizenry be completely disarmed and that guns will be totally banned. While many gun control advocates would prefer this, such rhetoric is usually employed as a straw-man scare tactic by the gun lobby into frightening its supporters into the belief that “government will take all of our guns!”, a notion made popular by catchphrases such as “from my cold dead hands!”. The only argument we will assume on the part of the statist is that government should control gun ownership without necessarily banning it.

Libertarians and Gun Ownership

On a strictly theoretical level, gun ownership is no different from the ownership of any other homesteaded or voluntarily transferred physical good. A gun is simply a piece of matter like a pen or a wristwatch and owning it per se endows nobody with the right to violently interfere with that ownership. People may become very concerned at the possession of a gun by another individual, but in the absence of any reasonably imminent threat of an attack by the gun owner and if he is otherwise a normal and law-abiding individual, the proper response to any subjective fear on the part of anyone else is to arrange one’s own property in such a way as to minimise the damage from any attack. On the bare bones of theoretical ethics, this argument is sufficient to dispose of any argument that suggests an individual should be violently prevented from gun ownership. Nevertheless such an argument would be most unlikely to convince any pro-gun control advocate. If we are to make any headway in promoting libertarian views on this issue we must, rather, tackle the utilitarian issue of minimising the effects of aggressive violence with firearms. What libertarians need to state convincingly, therefore, is that just as the regulation of anything that is dangerous is better left to the voluntary interaction between free individuals in the marketplace, so too is the regulation of firearms, whereas regulation left to government will not only fail to accomplish this to the extent that the free market can but may actually exacerbate the situation and make it much worse.

Indeed the acknowledgment that our common goal is to reduce violence may be a strong card to play in any debate on this topic and libertarians, who are usually so good at stressing their anti-violence credentials, should use them to their full extent in this issue. Not only do we have our commitment to the non-aggression principle but we all hope that our libertarian world will be a peaceful one with minimal crime, and guns do, we have to acknowledge, empower someone with an augmented ability to commit an act of aggression. Emphasising that we have plenty of common ground with government gun controllers might be an important first step in convincing them that we are not advocates of a society of heavily armed warriors. We simply believe that gun violence would be more effectively controlled through voluntary trade and interaction than by government fiat. Indeed, as we shall see, we might even conclude that private gun ownership in a libertarian world may not even be that common.

Before we proceed to demonstrate the truth of our libertarian claim, we must add that we will not be making use of any empirical study, however methodical or thorough, that in some way indicates that lightly regulated private gun ownership reduces the rate of crime. Empirical experiments in the social sciences are, at best, illustrative of a phenomenon rather than the provider of categorical proof and it is impossible, when measuring the effects of government gun control across different parts of the world, to account for differences in time, culture, history, technology, and so on. Furthermore there are as many studies purporting to debunk the claim that light regulation of private gun ownership reduces crime as there are that support it. Drawing any conclusion from this tangle requires one to fall back on investigating the method of each study (or set of studies) and attempting to see where the variables are not held constant rather than looking to the results themselves. For example, a pro-gun control study might observe that gun deaths per capita are higher in the United States, where gun control is loose, than in, say, the United Kingdom, where gun control is strict, and conclude that gun control reduces gun violence. However this fails to account for the fact that Americans simply want to own guns more than the British do and yes, gun violence may well increase if people exercise their voluntary choice in such a way as to make guns more common. If all gun control in the United Kingdom was abolished today it is very unlikely that you would see gun shops springing up in every high street heavily arming the population, simply because gun ownership in the UK has no basis in history, culture, custom or social acceptability, and any relinquishment of gun control may prove to have minimal impact on the rate of gun violence. Such an occurrence would therefore invalidate the theory that gun control diminishes gun violence and the study would be reduced to examining the effects of voluntary choices in regards to guns. But this is irrelevant to the gun control issue as this debate does not concern how people wish to exercise their voluntary choices. Rather, the question we are concerned with is if we take how those choices would be made as a given, would government regulation of those choices make gun violence better or worse? In other words, if, in a country such as the United States, a high number of people wish to own guns, and this causes a higher rate of gun violence compared to foreign countries where people choose not to own guns, does government interference with that choice exacerbate or reduce gun violence? Bearing in mind, therefore, that there are some interesting studies that conclude that light gun regulation reduces crime, let us not make them the focus of our deliberations here but, rather, attempt to draw some more potent conclusions a priori.

Gun Control in a Free Society

In the first place, we can mention some more familiar arguments as to why gun ownership would be better regulated in a free society. First, in a free society all people who commit gun violence are criminally liable for their actions and the penalties flowing from them just as they are in a government-controlled society. Secondly, scattered, heterogenous gun ownership amongst the population would make criminals think twice before committing an act as they do not know whether their opponents are armed. Thirdly, criminals will still get guns if they want to regardless of any law that is passed and the only effect of a gun control law is that the obedient citizenry are left with a reduced capacity for self-defence. Finally we might also say that there is the possibility for tortious liability or for insurance penalties for vendors, manufacturers and owners who trade or otherwise allow their firearms to fall into criminal hands. All of these are fairly common arguments with which readers may be familiar.

There are however, two more fundamental arguments for stating that guns would be better controlled in a free society rather than in one run by a government, arguments that concern the nature of government-controlled societies and free societies rather than the control of guns itself. Furthermore an aspect of many of the more high profile incidents of gun is that perpetrators intend not to come out of the situation alive and so all of the disincentives that may exist are practically useless. The following two considerations will serve to deal with this aspect as well.

The first consideration concerns the dual role of a firearm as a weapon of offence on the one hand and as a weapon of defence on the other, roles that are closely correlated1. Indeed, guns or no guns, we can say in general that people’s need to commit crime and the responsive need by everyone else to protect themselves from that crime will rise and fall together. In a low-crime rate society that is peaceful and law-abiding, crime may be committed only by a bear handful of nutcases in very rare and isolated incidents. The demand by criminals for guns as weapons of offence would therefore be extremely low. But if crime is low then the need to protect oneself from incidents of crime is not likely to be very pressing either. So demand for guns for defensive purposes will also be correspondingly low and, indeed, gun ownership may be relatively scattered and reduced purely to sporting or recreational ends. In a society where crime rates are very high, however, not only are criminals likely to be all the more eager to acquire guns to carry out robberies, assaults and murders, but so too, among everyone else, will the desire to defend oneself become enflamed. Imagine, for example, crime rates being so high that you would not feel safe exiting your house to walk down the street unless you were armed. In short, it is people’s desire and capacity for committing crime and other people responding with their need to defend themselves from that crime which causes gun ownership to become prevalent, both for the purposes of offence and defence respectively. But this trigger of widespread gun ownership – people’s desire to commit crime – does not occur in a vacuum, appearing and disappearing without explanation.

We can say first of all that government’s enforced monopoly of security production and the prevention and detection of crime would necessarily be inferior to that which would be provided by private defence and security provisions. Hence, government inefficiency will incite crime by making it more likely for a criminal venture to be successful and people will feel more of a need to take defensive capabilities into their own hands. More importantly, however, in societies where private property rights are secure, time preferences are low and economic growth is consequentially high, the incentives to commit acts of crime are, all else being equal, low, simply because crime “would not pay” compared to carrying out some kind of legitimate and voluntary activity. In other words, strong, formal constitutional or legal protection given to private property rights in turn furnishes people with the substantive desire to uphold them. When one can go to even a relatively menial job knowing that your pay packet can be kept by you in full and is enough to buy a wealth of economic goods that are selling for a dime a dozen, the incentives to risk criminal sanctions are relatively low. Furthermore, low time preferences mean that the passion for satisfaction now (a distinct characteristic of criminals) is reduced, not only cooling demand for instant gratification but also providing a dampener on feelings of unfulfilment and the consequent negative emotions such as anger, hatred and depression which are the fuel for the flames of much violent crime. Crime rates, therefore, will fall and so too with it will be the demand for the offensive and the defensive use of firearms. Government, however, does everything it can to provoke crime rather than to prevent it. Government confiscates approximately half of all productivity, slashes the incentive for economic growth, raises time preferences, exacerbates poverty, creates permanent and endless unemployment, robs the young of opportunity and ambition through fruitless state-run schools, legislates by the shelf-load every day, and makes it impossible to carry out any long term plan with security. All of this makes crime relatively more attractive. This is before we even consider the effect of the general legitimacy that government confers upon taking what you want from those that have it and murdering those whom you dislike. Government is, after all, a criminal organisation, levying its income from involuntary taxation (i.e. theft) and using the proceeds to line the pockets of its friends and fund its machinery of perpetual war and death. The dismantling of the perceived legitimacy of private property rights serves to dilute the conscience and inoculates people from any incisive moral fervour. Indeed, one of the supreme ironies of the government gun control argument is that the US’s constitutional preservation of the right to bear arms is nothing to do with your ability to shoot at private criminals in self-defence. Rather it is so you had the right to shoot at the government when the government was taken over by tyrants. Government was the original plunderer and pillager against whom people wished to defend themselves, and only government and not private criminals has inspired popular revolutions. It is the government that is the major criminal, not private actors, and yet gun controllers somehow think that this arch crime organisation is the one that should be regulating our gun ownership.

Indeed there is a distinct lack of logic in the government gun control argument. If government is going to control private gun ownership then we are entitled to ask the obvious (but seldom acknowledged) question “how will this control be enforced?” Clearly the police cannot go to offenders, whether they are gun manufacturers, vendors, or owners, sit them down with a cup of tea and have a nice chat, finishing with perhaps a slap on the wrist. If a criminal (the very person whom we do not want to have a gun) wishes to purchase a firearm he is not likely to take government whining as a formidable deterrent and even if he did encounter a run in with government officials he, as the armed party, would have the upper hand. Minus the threat of compulsion the government will simply be ignored, if not laughed at. Rather, gun ownership can only be regulated if the government too is prepared to use force, i.e. guns, in ensuring that its gun control laws are adhered to. No true gun control advocate can deny that if their edicts are to be taken seriously they need to back them up with brute force2. If our gun control proponent accepts this then his argument begins to spring some leaks. On the one hand he says that “people” or “the market” (i.e. people voluntarily interacting) cannot be trusted to self-regulate gun ownership to stop weapons from falling into criminal hands, but on the other hand government can be trusted not only to decide who should and who should not, out of the population at large, own guns, but they also have the sole privilege of whether, how many and what type of guns they themselves (the government) can possess. In other words the government is permitted to regulate us and self-regulate their own gun possession without any oversight. So why, if regulation of gun ownership by the general population causes them to be used dangerously and fall into the wrong hands, do we trust these particular people in the government with the same weapons? Why should they and only they have the privilege of self-regulation? The government consists of humans that are as fallible and frail as the rest of us. What gives them some kind of unique ability to ensure that they will restrict their use of firearms for the “common good”? Of course, our budding gun advocate will simply retort “Ah! But we have democracy! The government won’t use its guns for bad things because they will be voted out of office!” Even if we accept for the moment the dubious argument that the outcome of elections somehow results in government reflecting the “will of people”, our gun control advocate’s argument has now reduced to this: “People cannot be trusted with guns; but they can be trusted to choose the other people who can be trusted with guns, trusted not only to choose who else should be trusted with guns but trusted to ensure that they themselves do not misuse guns”. This argument is not only absurd but it also ends up conceding the vital point that gun control is ultimately subject to the oversight of the people anyway. So if this is true then why can’t we do this through the mechanism of the market, where our choices and preferences are made with far more potency than they are in a once in a blue moon election? The reason, of course, is that governments cherish gun regulation as it is in their advantage to disarm the citizenry and leave the latter impotent against government power. The “democratic oversight” simply means that people stop shooting at each other directly and try to get the government to do so on their behalf, with the politicians promising eagerly to spend, spend, spend and rob others to foot the bill. At least private crime is viewed with brutal honesty and plainly has no right to inflict injury or theft upon your person and property. But by gilding the same acts with the legitimacy of democratically elected government, a government that controls the right of the populace to defend itself, it becomes far easier for the rights to liberty and private property to be eroded, if not completely dismantled. Indeed, there is only ever an outrage in the mainstream media when it is private actors who commit gun violence. When the same is committed by a government actor such as the police (either deliberately or from botched operations where “officer safety” is, for some reason, more important than the safety of innocent civilians) or on government premises such as the shootings at Fort Hood, Texas in 2009 and at the Washington Navy Yard in 2013, there may be one or two words of regret but there is none of the political and media frenzy that accompanies shootings by private citizens.

We can also say that much gun proliferation is caused by the fact that government criminalises voluntary behaviour such as the vending and use of drugs, prostitution and gambling. When these activities are driven underground, the resulting criminal organisations cannot compete openly nor enforce the terms of their trade through any public court or arbitrator, leaving violence and turf wars as the only way in which to settle disputes. Such an environment sucks in youths demoralised by the lack of opportunity created by government strangulation of productivity and its mind numbing education, driving them into gangland violence where they at least feel a part of something significant, however odious it may be.

Finally, we might as well mention the alleged influence that psychiatric drugs have had on some recent perpetrators of gun violence, for example, in the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, something that, curiously, has not been explored in the mainstream media. This may be either because of the influence of state-connected “Big Pharma” or simply because explanations of gun violence that do not per se concern the prevalence of gun ownership would undermine the gun-grabbing agenda3.

The second reason why guns may be better controlled in a free society than by the government is that the likelihood of the private individual being armed for the purposes of self-defence in a free society is, at worst, debatable and at best, highly unlikely. With a free society comes specialisation and the division of labour and everyone, except for a few recluses, outsources the production of their needs to other people. Hardly anyone, for example, has in their home the ability to produce food or fuel, or to make cleaning products, clothes, and so on. So too is it likely that the needs of private defence would be outsourced to specialists with whom we would contract to provide us with defence services. We may still choose, privately, to own a modest weapon to stave off the most immediate threats and, indeed, if defence services are operated by insurance companies, as suggested by Hans Hermann Hoppe4, they may require ownership of and training in use of a firearm in order reduce one’s security insurance premium. We can, of course, never know the precise outcome of freeing people for voluntary action but judging from how the market provides us all with other goods and services we can be confident that abolition of government gun control and its monopoly over security would not leave everyone to fend for themselves. Rather, they would purchase these services from specialist providers. Government, by enforcing its security monopoly, retards this process and the inevitable failure of government policing to prevent and detect crime drives people towards putting defensive capabilities into their own hands and hence personal gun ownership rises5. In a free society, however, it is quite possible that gun ownership would be restricted to the few who enjoy sporting activities such as shooting and hunting.

Gun Safety

For the sake completion, we can also discuss how gun safety would be handled in a free society. In other words, how would accidents (as opposed to deliberate violence) to oneself and to others be regulated without the government? The issue of safety and protecting people from harm is a prerogative that government often arrogates to itself presumptuously. What is not realised is that safety is always a trade-off between ends just like any other in the marketplace. When we live in a world of scarcity every human faces a choice of which ends he will direct means towards in order to achieve fulfilment and which ends he will discard. The desire to drive may be a valuable end that a person wishes to fulfil, and so also is making sure that it is accomplished safely – we do not wish our car to crash or explode on any of our journeys. Yet safety too comes at the expense of resources that could be used for the furtherance of other ends. Safety is not free and comes at a price just as every other end that must utilise scarce means. Therefore we must choose precisely at which point we are going to stop devoting resources to safety and leave ourselves open to the risk of a bad event. To give an exaggerated example, I might decide that my car should contain brakes, seat belts, air bags and so on and so forth in order to minimise the damage from any crash. But I would probably deem it to be an awful waste of resources to build it like a tank so that it could withstand a blast from a rocket launcher. Such a car would be immensely safe but the resources needed to do so could have been better spent on fulfilling other ends and were, hence, wasted. Not only that but if government was to ban cars altogether in the name of avoiding car accidents we can imagine the obvious loss of utility we would experience from such an act. We always, therefore, face a trade-off between fulfilling our ends on the one hand and doing so safely on the other. Private parties must decide precisely at which level safety is justified and at which level it is starting to encroach on the fulfilment of our other ends, a level at which we would be happy to accept the residual risk of an accident occurring rather than forego a valuable end.

If we consider first of all the danger to oneself from using firearms (as opposed to the dangers to other people), manufacturers will design and build firearms at a level of safety that we are prepared to pay for when the gun is operated as intended and there are no design flaws. Any manufacturer or vendor whose products became associated with accidents caused by a failure to meet this level would quickly lose business to manufacturers who offered safer products. Such a feature might include a trigger locking device to prevent accidental discharge, for example. Where a manufactured gun contains a design flaw resulting in an operation other than that intended (for example if the weapon fails to discharge a round and simply explodes in one’s face) then the manufacturer or vendor would be either contractually or tortiously liable for this damage, in addition to losing custom6.

Exactly the same principles are in operation when we consider the possibility of injury to third parties. Given that, in a libertarian world, every person bears the liability for injuries caused by his/her property, owners of firearms will demand a level of safety from manufacturers and vendors that reduces this risk to a level that they are willing to bear. Indeed, one’s own insurance company may require a certain level of safety precautions to be taken, not only safety features inherent in the product itself, but how it is stored and a specified degree of training for all intended users. The consequences of not following these edicts would be either to pay higher insurance premiums or to find that the insurer would not pay out in the event of an injury, leaving the individual to foot the bill for compensation to the victim of the accident. There are therefore powerful disincentives in a free society to prevent accidents from the use of firearms. Government responses, however, will always be to set levels of safety that are not acceptable to consumers. Governments could, for example, simply ban guns outright (in the same way they could have banned cars to prevent road accidents). Yet people may have decided that the benefit to be gained from gun ownership – either for defensive purposes or for sport – outweighs the risk that one might have to bear responsibility for an accident and government only achieves a less valuable outcome that frustrates consumers.

Conclusion

What we have determined, therefore, is that government gun control is not only as unethical as any other state interference with private property, but that the prevalence of gun violence is primarily caused and exacerbated by the state, for many different reasons. These aspects would not exist in a free society and, indeed, we even concluded that gun ownership is likely to be relatively miniscule in a libertarian world.

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1The offensive and defensive capabilities of firearms, and the relationship between them, is something that is seldom explored in detail in the mainstream gun debate, or at least not by the same author or spokesman. Gun controllers tend to stress only the offensive use of guns, concluding that a rise in gun ownership must necessarily cause a rise in gun violence, whereas the gun lobby concentrates on the defensive use of guns and determines that strong gun ownership rights must reduce crime.

2The use of government force and compulsion is something that proponents of government action, even “lay” people who would not explicitly self-identify as statists, fail to explicitly acknowledge. In proposing that “government should do this” or “there should be a law against that” they lack the conscious awareness of the fact that what they mean is the use of the gun, the prison, and the gallows in order to enforce what they want. When presented with this fact they either have to abandon their edicts if they find this distasteful or concede that they are calling for nothing more than violence against people who refuse to comply with what they want. As Mises puts it: “He who says: There should be a law concerning this matter, means: The armed men of the government should force people to do what they do not want to do, or not to do what they like. He who says: This law should be better enforced, means: the police should force people to obey this law”. Ludwig von Mises, Omnipotent Government, p.49.

3Scott Lazarowitz, Getting it Wrong, Over and Over and Over Again, www.lewrockell.com, May 24th 2013.

4Hans Hermann Hoppe, Government and the Private Production of Defense, Ch. 10 in Hoppe (ed.), The Myth of National Defense.

5As an additional point it is curious how much gun violence always appears to occur in public spaces where people are reliant upon government policing for their defence. Of the twenty-five deadliest shooting incidents in the US, more than half of them took place wholly or partly on government-owned or funded property. See www.CNN.com, 25 Deadliest Mass shootings in US, October 26th 2013. An alarming number of less publicised incidents take place in public schools and universities.

6Indeed, another factor in the gun debate is the level of government-granted exemption from tortious liability enjoyed by gun manufacturers and vendors.

The Ethics of Interventionism

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With the US government’s current attempt to carry out some kind of military intervention in Syria as a result of the alleged use of chemical weaponry by the Assad regime, libertarians once again face the question of what their correct stance towards such a proposal should be.

To be libertarian is to believe that the initiation of violence, in any circumstance, is inherently immoral. This belief, termed the non-aggression principle, we have discussed and justified elsewhere. Libertarians recognise, of course, that this does not proscribe the right to self-defence, or the right to provide defence services towards someone else who is the victim of aggression. There are two key elaborations to make to this principle. First, libertarianism itself does not state that someone has the violently enforceable obligation to defend himself or to rush to the defence of other people. There may, however, by some other standard be a moral obligation to do so but this obligation cannot be violently enforceable as this would itself breach the non-aggression principle. It is quite consistent, therefore, to state that someone should help a person who is the victim of aggressive violence but that he should not be forced to do so. Secondly if you do decide to respond to an act of aggression then you do not have the right to inflict aggressive violence on any other person, whether it be forcing them to assist you or by making them the victims of so-called “collateral damage”. One would not launch a nuclear warhead and slaughter the population of entire landmass in order to neutralise a single murderer, for example.

It is these aspects that must be remembered by the libertarian in any debate concerning the ethics of interventionism. The mainstream debate is an all or nothing question – should we all intervene or should we all not intervene. Libertarians for too long have been seduced into accepting the terms of this debate and the resulting lack of unity from the libertarian (or the generally freedom-oriented) camp owes itself to the fact that, on the face of it, the question can be answered on either side from a libertarian-veneered point of view. Let us discuss briefly the problems with each of these responses.

Those who answer in the affirmative, that we should intervene, have rightly recognised that defence may be used in such a situation because the non-aggression principle has been violated by another party. But what they are overlooking is the fact that the funds to be directed towards military intervention are extracted forcibly by the government through tax revenue – in other words, that people are being forced to fund intervention. They are mistaking the right to intervene with a violently enforceable obligation to do so. But this violently enforceable obligation itself is a breach of the non-aggression principle and is, therefore, anti-libertarian and immoral. Such people are most welcome to criticise other people from the point of view of moral standards that are separate from, but compatible with, libertarianism. When, for example, William Hague, the UK Foreign Secretary, stated that any non-response by “the world” to the use of chemical weapons would be “alarming” he is quite welcome to hold that view (in spite of the fact that there has already been wide scale bloodshed in Syria for two years and that Western governments seem to be remarkably selective on what they choose to be outraged by). Indeed he is most welcome to contribute his own legitimately earned wealth (if he has any) and that of everyone he can persuade to join him voluntarily in the venture towards intervening in Syria. But what he does not have the right to do is to force other people, to extract funding by taxes (or to enforce conscription, if it ever came to that), for the same.

Those, however, who answer in the negative – that we should not intervene – rightly recognise that we cannot force people to participate in intervention. But now they seem to be making the opposite mistake of preventing people who do want to intervene from doing so. If someone is genuinely outraged by the infliction of violence by one person against another and believes that assistance against such heinous acts is a worthwhile devotion of his own funds then he is quite within his rights to contribute those funds accordingly, or even to voluntarily join a defence group and personally provide defence support for the victims. To stop someone from doing this if that is what they want is as much an affront to the non-aggression principle as forcing them to do so if they do not want. Once again we must emphasise that it may not be a good thing, by some standard exogenous to libertarianism, for a person to engage in intervention but that does not mean that he may be violently prevented from doing so.

The correct libertarian position, then, can be summarised as follows:

  • No person has the right to initiate violence (aggression) against any other person in any circumstance;
  • Where a person is the victim of aggression he has the right to defend himself;
  • Where a person attempts to defend himself he has no right to initiate violence against innocents during the act of doing so, including their enforced participation 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;
  • A person has the right to solicit, contract with or otherwise co-operate with third parties in ensuring his defence;
  • Third parties, likewise, have the right to provide their funds and resources towards defence, either through a negotiated contract (security services) 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 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.

All of this is, of course, the most fundamental libertarian theory towards intervention and we have provided no detailed analysis of how “war is the health of the state” and so on. But these critical aspects must be remembered by a libertarian if he is to take the fundamentally, i.e. most basically correct moral position and serves to only form the bedrock of more elaborate analyses. Whatever he, in accordance with the last principle laid out above, believes of the merits of a specific act of intervention should be informed by and exist in harmony with these principles.

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Spying and Security

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The US government’s recent embarrassment over revelations of its surveillance program by Edward Snowden, a former NSA contractor/CIA employee, and their subsequent frustration in trying to apprehend him, has led to all of the usual outcry from libertarians about government spying, invasion of privacy and so on. However, a further interesting question is whether such acts are a necessary part of the deliverance of security. Would, for example, private security agencies have the need to spy on people’s private communications and, if so, how would this be regulated in a free society?

Security, like any other good, is an end that consumes scarce resources and its provision must therefore be valued like any other. Because a state is as an institution that enforces a territorial monopoly of the provision of law, order and defence funded by compulsory levies (taxes), it needs to provide a blanket security service and need never worry about “customers” leaving it for a competing service. As a result it is cut off from any communication, through the profit and loss system, of whether it has correctly allocated resources efficiently to provide for security needs and so it, alone, needs to judge the urgency of a particular security threat. This would not be the case on the free market, however, as private, competing, security agencies would not be able to apportion more resources towards the production of security than its customers were willing to pay for. In times, therefore, of relatively light or transient threats and normal, one-off acts of crime by individuals then security will not be a high priority and intelligence, which is linked almost wholly to such crime would have little purpose as there would simply be no data to gather. Indeed this would normally be the case in a free society. Most “organised” crime consists of the underground provision of peaceful and voluntary services that the government has outlawed and “terrorist” threats are political backlashes against the government. Even if there was the threat of invasion of a free society by, say, a neighbouring state, this would be much harder for that state to accomplish when defence provision is scattered and heterogeneous rather than concentrated and homogenous in the form of the government’s army, navy and air force. The closest you might get to any kind of organisation in crime in a free society is various forms of human trafficking, such as paedophile rings and kidnap for forced labour. It is therefore very unlikely that there would be the need for systematic intelligence gathering in a world free of the state. However, for arguments sake, let’s say that there is a genuinely serious and imminent threat of organised crime which commands a pressing need for intelligence of this threat by a private security agency in order to defend its customers. What could it do?

A security agency could certainly not invade the servers and networks of private providers of communication services. It could, however, negotiate contracts to monitor information that passes over these networks, with the specific nature of such monitoring subject to the corresponding nature of the threat. But the major difference between this and between government intelligence gathering is that it could never be secret and, if it was, it would be unlikely to last for long. From the point of view of the security providers’ customers, in an environment where there is a genuine threat then such monitoring is likely to be a selling point; while it may not be advertised quite as explicitly as “we will read other people’s emails to keep you safe”, if people, on balance, estimate any threat as being worth the while of this kind of action then they will be eager to provide custom to those security services that can offer it. On the other hand, if a threat is deemed not to be quite so serious to the extent that customers either do not care if other people’s communications are monitored or they would actively leave for an alternative provider to avoid it, could a security firm carry on the practice in secret? The answer is almost certainly no because this would cause the firm to incur costs that customers are not willing to pay for. Hence it would have to raise its prices. Such a firm would therefore see its customer base shrink to the advantage of suppliers who do not incur these deadweight costs. The practice would therefore be self-liquidating at the point when threats are no longer deemed to be worthy of the expense of intelligence gathering.

Furthermore, the monitoring of communications would need to have the consent of the customers of telecoms and internet providers. Again, the permissibility of this would be judged by these customers in the light the urgency of a threat. In the absence of such threats providers that do not invade the privacy of communications would receive custom and those that do would not. Moreover, in this environment, people themselves may be unwilling to deal with parties whose communications were not filtered through a monitored channel. But these services would also be tailored to specific regions that may be under threat or levels of monitoring could be targeted at specific groups based on their vulnerability or their propensity to commit an atrocity. There would not be the blanket monitoring of absolutely everybody and the provision of the same service to everybody regardless of who they are and where they are.

Would consent make intelligence gathering useless? Not necessarily. Between themselves, of course, criminals can use channels that are not subject to monitoring. But when the fear of a threat is perceived to be high channels offering absolute privacy would be difficult to come by and it is arguably the case that government is much easier to circumvent than private agencies. However, all criminal organisations must at some point communicate with the outside world (for purposes of supply, for example) and these latter communications would be subject to monitoring. While not perfect, therefore, it would not be impossible to piece together the movements and intentions of organised criminals.

The above is just a basic outline of what might happen in a free society and no doubt many more considerations could be added. But it is worth emphasising again the main point – that most of the need for intelligence gathering is generated by the government’s own avoidable acts and so, why it could conceivably be accomplished in a free society, it would almost certainly be unnecessary. The proper way forward, then, to end the world of spying, surveillance and secrets is to decriminalise victimless crimes and to stop the government from invading and bombing other countries and nurturing blowback. And we have of course assumed above that government is genuinely trying to protect its citizens; of great import also is the very convincing argument that government merely invents and exaggerates bogeymen for the very purpose of intruding into people’s lives and we need to consider the extent to which surveillance is the end rather than the means.

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