Just War and Rothbardian Libertarianism

In this article, Lottieri expands on the libertarian perspective of just war theory through the writings of Murray Rothbard. A libertarian is one who believes in minimal state – one that is set up only to defend its citizens against external or internal aggression; Rothbard proclaims a anarcho-capitalist perspective which is not only highly skeptical of any state activity but which also considers that most, if not all, the state’s services could be better provided through the market.

In his defense of pure market capitalism, the economist and philosopher Murray N. Rothbard 1926-1995 rejects every sort of aggression, coercion and violence, and in this way he develops an original war ethics. Following his exposition of radical libertarianism (sometimes called “anarcho-capitalism”) which he applies to all State activity within the nation as well as external to it, the use of force is legitimate only if it is defensive: when it is a way to avoid attacks (Rothbard, 1982). For this reason, he elaborates a negative interpretation of the modern State, contesting its claim to organize the life and the activities of the people, by a collectivization of their properties.

Concerning international relationships, Rothbard was a partisan of “a foreign policy emulating the ideals of Thomas Paine, who exhorted America to interfere with the affairs of no other nations, and to serve instead as a beacon-light of liberty by her example” (Rothbard, 1980, p. 1). Morally, this position is called defencist, for it rejects all forms of aggressive warfare as well as intervention into other nations’ affairs, even if there appears to be a moral temptation to do so (e.g., a civilian population suffering in a civil war, as in Libya in 2011).

Rothbard’s starting point is the repeal of any action prejudicial to the individual natural rights. Building his political philosophy on this principle – the so-called no aggression axiom, whose origin is in the Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand (Rand 1964) – he doesn’t infer from it an absolute pacifism (as we can find, for instance, in Leo Tolstoy, 1990), because Rothbard believes that sometimes people may use force, but only against an offender. This is the position developed earlier by the seventeenth century theorist John Locke in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, where self-defense is conceived morally legitimate because is necessary to hamper criminal behavior or to find a remedy for it.

For Rothbard – as for Locke – it is not the use of force that is disputable, but the use of force against peaceful and innocent people. For this reason, the libertarian supports the right to bear arms for civilians as well as for professional soldiers; the right is considered fundamental and consequently this creates a peculiar return to the ancient principle of the justum bellum (just war) that logically predates the existence of the state: everyone has the liberty to renounce the right to protect himself (accepting to become a victim), but denying individuals the right of defense and to organize a protective apparatus would be inconsistent with libertarian principles. Accordingly, in a free society there can be private police and armies, but they must not aggress against guiltless people.

Obviously, libertarian justification of defensive wars doesn’t mean there are justifiable conflicts per se. Against the view that holds war to be natural, libertarians think that a war implies (at least) an aggressor and a victim who can be objectively identified and separated. When we consider a conflict, we are forced to observe unjust behavior at least on the part of one side. For this reason, the reaction of the people opposing the initial aggression is morally correct, if it respects some basic rules. Violence always seems to be the opposite of altruism and the notion of war seems never compatible with a legal order, but a defensive use of the arms is ethically and legally legitimate. Obviously, when some soldiers fight to protect innocent people they are called to respect some rules of prudence, wisdom, and equity.
In other words, a libertarian perspective on war implies ethical principles and a general understanding of natural law. When Smith aggresses against Jones, Jones has the right to react, but he should never endanger life and safety of other innocent people such as Smith’s friends and relations. These ideas have immediate and relevant consequences on the debates concerning peace and war and raise a host of problems in the just war literature which Rothbard attempts to explain and elucidate.

For Rothbard, almost all the conflicts of the modern and contemporary times are illegitimate. States do not have the right to bomb civilians or kill them in other ways, nor to tax their subjects – or citizens – in order to fund their armies. Moreover, it is immoral to destroy cities, villages, railways, harbors and factories, as happened in WWII, Vietnam, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Accordingly, rulers who interfere with the property rights of “foreign people” are acting criminally. At the same time, people aggressed against have the right to protect themselves and to declare war against “invaders”, but only if they stick to the limits fixed by the just rules fighting only those who initiate and sustain real aggression. In a more recent example (2011), the libertarian would emphasize that French and Italian bombers do not possess the moral authority to destroy Libyan homes. Following Rothbard’s logic, for the same reason we cannot accept Taliban terrorism in contemporary Afghanistan or in other countries, but similarly it is impossible to accept the claim to “export” liberty and democracy using troops of occupation.

This position is not far from Locke’s, because the English philosopher writes that when a group of people successfully opposes a foreign army, the winning party has “power only over those who have concurred in that force, all the rest are innocent; and has no more title over the people of that country, who have done him no injury, and so have no forfeiture of their lives, than he has over any other, who without any injures or provocations, have lived upon fair terms with him” (Locke 1689, XVI, § 179). In every legal affair responsibility is personal, and war doesn’t modify it, allowing a sort of “moral collectivization” in which innocent people are to be punished.

We have to add that Locke can be considered the heir of a long tradition – coming from the Middle Ages – expanding upon the just war principles and its rules to follow before to start a conflict and during it. For the libertarian scholar there is not only a difference of intensity between ancient and contemporary wars (about it, see: Mises, 1944): the difference is also of quality. In fact, a lot of modern arms – the nuclear bombs, for instance – are intrinsically immoral, because “these weapons are ipso facto engines of indiscriminate mass destruction. (The only exception would be the extremely rare case where a mass of people who were all criminals inhabited a vast geographical area)”. By definition, weapons of mass destruction kill a high number of innocent people and they are thus incompatible with a just society, and in fact they fall out of the traditional just war conventions on the principles of discrimination and proportionality. For this reason, “the use of nuclear or similar weapons, or the threat thereof, is a sin and a crime against humanity for which there can be no justification” (Rothbard, 2000, pp. 119-120).

Consequently, Rothbard was for many years a partisan of the nuclear disarmament cause (for a different libertarian interpretation of the problem of nuclear proliferation, see Lemennicier 2003) and a strong defender of the right to have and bear (defensive) arms. And it was a quite peculiar position, because normally the defense of the Second Amendment is associated to the “conservatives”, and the reject of the nuclear bombs and of any kind of Imperial presence of the US army in the world is to the “radicals”. But often libertarians reject such simple political distinctions, because they focus on the defense of justice and individual liberty: people have the right to contrast the aggressors and, for the same reason, they cannot – in their opposition to the violence – endanger others’ rights with the use of weapons of mass destruction.

This remark helps to understand why, for Rothbard, a legitimate conflict (a just war) cannot have the State as actor, because a government is a small group of people using threat and violence against others. Indeed at the core of his thought is the proposition that, by its essence, the State is aggressive and criminal. In each State there is an élite having a legal monopoly of the force in a specific territory. This small group may use their power to exploit people living and working in that area. Thus the free market economist Rothbard often agreed with traditional left-wing critics of the military-industrial establishment.

But more broadly speaking for the libertarian, a peacetime government is an instrument of unjust aggression and we could say – paraphrasing Clausewitz – that the State is a continuation of war by other means, where the victims are the subjects (or citizens), transformed in tax-payers and totally deprived of the right to revolt. Obviously, this theory poses problems for a legitimate formation of a stable, professional military, as occurring in the 17th century England, when the civil struggle against the absolutism was also an opposition to the project of a permanent army. In a libertarian society, professional militias can justly exist but only as private ones, ready to be employed by the communities as providers of protective services. It is important to add that, as Locke in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, Rothbard is in tune with the 16th and 17th century Protestant and Catholic theorists of the right to kill despots: the so-called monarchomachs, as the Scottish jurist William Barclay defined them. In other terms, when people are oppressed and exploited they may use violence, because “where there is no judge on earth, the appeal lies to God in heaven” (Locke, 1689, § 21). The rebellion, as a private war against the injustice, is justified if power imposes a despotic structure.

Following Rothbard, everyone has the right to respond to a foreign aggression with a call to arms, and all the people have the (moral) duty to support this resistance, but none can impose upon others conscription: the libertarian rejects a compulsory army. In turn, military hierarchies can form spontaneously - all individuals are legitimate candidates for a leading role in a defensive militia, but only their real prestige and the respect they receive from the other people can give them this special consideration and the privileges that follow.

Murray Rothbard’s libertarianism is really very far from the contemporary political thought (which is essentially Hobbesian or “realist”) not only for his reject of the State paradigm, but also for his fidelity to Aristotelian-Thomist philosophical realism and, in a special way, to their ethics of the social relationships and hence war. The cynical attitude of a State theory ready to ignore fundamental rights and to impose an overpowering government, beyond Good and Evil, is rejected by his ethical perspective which claims to judge the common men and the political leaders using the same moral criteria. In other terms, for Rothbard there is no such a thing a Reason of State, and so all wars of intervention as well as aggression are moral failures.

In this sense, the main feature of the Rothbardian theory is the rejection of the modern and post-Machiavellian divorce between ethics and politics: and in his efforts to build a libertarian theory of war he tried to be consistent with it.


Lemennicier, Bertrand, “Nuclear Weapons: Proliferation or Monopoly?”, in Hans-Hermann Hoppe, ed., The Myth of National Defense: Essays on the Theory and History of Security, Mises Institute: Auburn, Alabama, 2003.
Mises, Ludwig von, Omnipotent Government: The Rise of the Total State and Total War, Yale University: New Haven, 1944.
Rand, Ayn, The Virtue of Selfishness, Penguin: New York, 1964.
Rothbard, Murray N., “War, Peace, and the State”, The Standard, April 1963, now in Egalitarianism as a Revolt Against Nature and Other Essays, 2nd edition, Mises Institute: Auburn, Alabama, 2000.
Rothbard, Murray N., The Ethics of Liberty, Humanities Press: Atlantic Highlands, New Jersey, 1982.
Rothbard, Murray N., “And Now, Afghanistan!”, Libertarian Forum, volume 13, 1, January-February 1980, p. 1 and p. 8.
Tolstoy, Leo, Government is Violence: Essays on Anarchism and Pacifism, Phoenix Press: London, 1990.

Carlo Lottieri

Article by Associate Professor Carlo Lottieri
Added Fri, 8 Jul 2011 01:28

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