Feb 9, 2004: Libertarians and the War–An Unhealthy Obsession?

The American administration is under increasing pressure to justify its decision to go to war last year and now seems vulnerable to an electoral defeat later this year. A recent article in an established conservative magazine speaks of “political blood in the water” after the President’s reputedly unconvincing talk-show interview over the weekend. The media around the world is putting the spotlight on the administration’s decision to go to war and the manner in which it made it’s case. With an election around the corner, pundits are taking notice of the incumbent’s falling poll numbers and the rising casualty tally. How should liberals and libertarians respond?

Prominent libertarian publications have devoted extensive amounts of space to their opposition to the war and the civil liberty violations ushered in alongside it, often seemingly reducing their journals to anti-war vehicles. It is obvious that, from a libertarian perspective, this particular war and all modern wars are morally intolerable. Even supposing that there is a possibility that a libertarian could believe in the legitimacy of a consensual war against tyranny, it is certainly impossible for a libertarian to accept warfare as it is, and must be, conducted by nation-states.

Insofar as libertarians must be opposed to war in virtually all circumstances, one must wonder why they have spent so much time and energy on attacking this particular war and not warfare generally. After all, if war is an inescapable attribute of the state, it is rather incongruous to show surprise and disdain when the state behaves in accordance with its nature.

But, there are many possibilities to consider. For one, by commenting on the major news story of the day, the movement may attract the interest of people who might otherwise be ignorant of, or uninterested in, a libertarian perspective. That would be very useful, especially if one can draw the new reader’s attention to the way in which the non-consensual state (if that is not redundant) is inherently warlike, aggressive, and tyrannical. If the lesson that the power to tax is the power to war can be imparted to the uninitiated, the investment of time and energy on the part of the libertarian will have been well rewarded.

There is no doubt that this point has been brought up–and not infrequently–by the libertarians, but it most certainly is not the focus of their critiques. While they may often rage against the war and the state in the same breath, there has not been a very convincing effort to show that if one is really and truly anti-war, then one must be anti-state (or, voluntaryist). The libertarians have often stood bravely against the war in a political environment that has tended to question one’s patriotism or courage. In doing so, attention has been brought to the fact that one can be a free-marketer (a supposedly right-wing position), for example, and be wholly set against aggression and violence. Let us not dismiss this achievement.

But, it is important to get to the center-most motivation of the libertarians’ obsession with the war, if we are to understand the direction of our own movement. If one reads the libertarian articles about this conflict, one quickly comes to the conclusion that there is not a very conscious effort to point out the link between war and the state. Rather, there is a personal tone to too many of the articles, a tone of anger and ridicule directed towards political figures on the American Right, in particular members of the administration and most especially the neo-conservative faction. Moreover, there is a poorly veiled glee in the failures of the occupation and the growing resistance met by the coalition forces.

Other articles in the aforementioned publications, not specifically related to the war, explore the possibilities of how the current administration might be reprimanded and undermined in the next election. Should one vote? Should one vote for the Democratic contender? Which Democrat is the best? Should one vote for a third party? If so, which one?

The steady stream of anti-administration and anti-war (this particular war mostly) articles belies an unhealthy obsession with the politics of the day. There has been no attempt to show how a defeat in the election or on a foreign battlefield will bring this nation any closer to the promise of freedom for which we ostensibly stand. As we have asserted before, the Right’s rejection of limited government should have been accepted as an inevitable occurrence to be taken advantage of, not a betrayal to be avenged.

Of course, it is impossible to truly judge the motivations of others, but we must ask ourselves which passions such obsessions arouse within ourselves. A passion for liberty, or a desire for fame and popularity within the anti-war movement, for example, or the political opposition more generally? A desire to bring about a new order, or a chance to feel powerful by bringing down a President and an arrogant empire?

If our passions are for fame and power, we are not much better than those whom we condemn, and we shall be susceptible to the same temptations that have laid them low. By giving in to such passions, by not dedicating our every political action and thought to the establishment of a new order founded on peace and freedom, we will open ourselves to the charge of being yet another band of political opportunists. Worse, if we cannot sacrifice the passion for glory today to the dream of liberty tomorrow, when the time for real sacrifices comes, how can we possibly hope to be prepared to make them?

We must acknowledge that we are not serving the cause of liberty by attacking the war and the administration in the way, and to the extent to which, we have. We must guard against the threat of our passion for glory–which is at the root of the will to war–from making a mockery of our justified opposition, not only to this war and this administration, but to all war and all coercive government.

February 9, 2004


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