Libertarian Just War Theory

By Wendy McElroy

As a political philosophy based upon non-aggression and individualism, libertarian theory would seem to preclude any support for violence committed by a State, let alone the mass violence involved in a war. Yet an icon of the libertarian movement is the War for Independence, or the American Revolution. Somehow the American Revolution is viewed differently than all other wars, and not merely because the Continental Congress functioned as an unofficial body when it first met in 1774. The Congress quickly became a government during the conduct of hostilities. For example, to finance the Continental Army, it issued approximately $226 million dollars in paper money, then (1780) devalued it at the rate of $40 to $1 of specie, giving rise to the saying "not worth a Continental." Moreover, the Continental Congress forcibly imposed its authority on a substantial percentage of the colonists -- namely, loyalists who favored British rule.

Despite such factors, libertarians tend to view the American Revolution as a noble struggle, waged for the principles of "natural rights" and "no government without the consent of the governed." In short, it was a just war.

The idea of a 'just war' is far from a new one. Indeed, in his book War and Conscience, the minister Allen Isbell opens the chapter entitled "The Justifiable War Doctrine" with a question, "When and how may a State legitimately engage in a war? This has been a prime topic of discussion in Christian ethics for sixteen centuries. From this continuing conversation within Christendom, a doctrine of justifiable war has evolved"(76).[1]

Allen goes on to list eight requirements a war must meet to be deemed justified within Christian ethics: the war must be the last resort; since only one side is justified in fighting, you must be on that side; the war must have an adequate cause; it must have a legitimate aim; it must be waged with a proper spirit; it must be waged by a proper authority; the execution of the war must be just; and, it must have the promise of beneficial victory(77-78).

Does libertarianism include a theory by which a war such as the American Revolution can be viewed as fundamentally just, albeit with some unfortunate, but non-essential aspects? If so, what would be the requirements of a libertarian just war?

The idea of a libertarian war is not an absurd one. After all, libertarianism permits violence even to the point of killing someone if it is an act of reasonable self defense. Nothing in libertarianism precludes the possibility of a collectively exercised right to self defense. Indeed, many libertarians who have been influenced by the philosopher Ayn Rand believe this is one of the few valid functions of a 'night-watchman' State.[2] As long as every individual that a State (or a private defense agency) claims to represent has voluntarily assigned his or her right of self-defense to that State, then it is justified in acting collectively on their behalf against an invader. Moreover, if the State acted against only those individuals who were actual aggressors, e.g. the individuals in an invading army, it would avoid objections revolving around innocent civilian casualties, e.g. victims of a bombed city.

Libertarianism seems to accept at least the theoretical possibility of a just war. Of course, this does not necessarily justify any war that has ever occurred in human history, but it opens the possibility of a just war in the future. Again, what would be the requirements of such a libertarian war?

Answering this question requires backing up a step to discuss how libertarianism approaches issues in general. Libertarian theory is means, rather than ends, oriented. That is, it does not aim primarily to produce a particular end such as 'social justice' as embodied in a specific result such as the elimination of poverty. Instead, libertarianism aims primarily at producing a particular means of functioning by which it defines social justice. This means has been described in various ways, including: anything that is peaceful; individual rights; society by contract; the non-initiation of force.

Whatever results from the means of peaceful behavior is acceptable to libertarian theory. To illustrate this point, consider freedom of speech. The means approach asks only whether the speech is free and violates no property rights: if so, it legally tolerates whatever is spoken. The ends approach asks whether the content of the speech is proper and, depending on the answer, it does or does not legally tolerate what is spoken.

A libertarian just war would have to the libertarian means of approaching issues. It would have to be declared and conducted in such a manner as not to violate individual rights or the principle "anything that is peaceful (including, by definition, justified self defense)." This qualifier is what would constitute the meaning of the word 'just' in the term 'just war'.

What is the meaning of the noun?

War is the declaration of hostilities by one State against another by which it commits the people and resources under its jurisdiction to hostilities against the opponent's people and resources.[3] The libertarian war historian and theorist Jeffrey Rogers Hummel has pointed out an implication of the foregoing definition. In committing its people and resources to hostilities, each state is actually declaring war on three fronts: first, against the other state; second, against the people of the other state; and third, against its own dissenting citizens, should such people refuse to comply with the state's demand for men and resources.

Given the above definitions, the specific requirements of a libertarian 'just war' would include: the war must have a just origin -- that is, it must be in response to aggression; it must be a reasonable response to the level of aggression; it must be declared by a proper authority against a proper enemy; it must be justly conducted -- that is, the rights of innocent individuals can not be knowingly harmed.

Consider the four requirements in more detail.

1. The war must have a just origin.

For libertarians, the violation of rights is the only just origin of violence in self defense. The rights violated must be individual ones, rather than those that traditionally lead to war, e.g. a breach of national sovereignty. But it is quite possible to imagine such a war erupting, at least in theory.

On a practical level, however, a problem immediately arises. The prerequisites necessary to assess the justness of the war's origin, such as time and all pertinent information, are rarely available at the point war is declared. In considering whether German Christians should serve in the military under the Nazis, a Catholic publisher issued a pamphlet that read, in part:

"A scientific judgment concerning causes and origins of the war is absolutely impossible today because the prerequisites for such a judgment are not available to us. This must wait until a later time when the documents of both sides are available."[4]

Thus, even if a judgment of 'just war' could be rendered, it would be very likely to occur after the fact.

2. The war must be a reasonable response.

Libertarian theory frowns upon shooting an 'aggressor' who dings your car accidentally, or even on purpose. The level of force used in self defense must be appropriate to the force used by the aggressor, and the goal of the responsive force should be either be protection or restitution. Thus, even a war with just origins would have to have exhausted any lesser levels of force that could have accomplished those goals.

It becomes important to clarify one point within the imagined contract that the State has with those who have assigned their rights of self defense to it. Does the State's declaration of war commit all of those people to participate in hostilities even though a small percentage of them have been aggressed against? Does aggression against any assignees bind all others under a declaration of war? If so, the contract seems designed to increase the level of violence of any conflict, rather than merely to provide protection or restitution.

Yet it is still possible to imagine a war that is a reasonable response to a violation of rights.

3. The war must be declared by a proper authority, and against a proper enemy.

In libertarianism, the proper authority to exercise a right of self defense against an aggressor is the individual whose rights have been violated, or a designated agent. If the State acts only on behalf of individuals who have designated it to do so, it is the proper agent for them. For the sake of speedy argument, let's also assume that the war is declared against a State that is a proper enemy.

What of the other two categories against whom, in Hummel's analysis, the State also declares war -- namely, dissenters within its own territory, and the people within the enemy State?

With regard to dissenters, libertarian theory clearly precludes a State from declaring war against peaceful people who disagree. It cannot rightfully silence them for speaking out, imprison them for refusing to serve, or confiscate land and resources from them.

In time of war, such State actions have been defended with the argument that foolish people have to be defended against their will. But the State's usurpation of anyone's right to self defense can never to viewed as a proper or protective measure. It is a denial of that right: the State usurps the right to decide if, when and how the dissenter should be defended. A dissenter may not believe it is time to exercise self defense, or may prefer a non-military strategy against the tank that is rolling onto his front lawn, such as nonviolent resistance. The State, by 'protecting' the dissenter against his will, denies to him the exercise of his right of self defense.

Regarding the civilians within the enemy state, under libertarian theory, it is clearly an act of aggression to bomb or to use any other weapon that does not discriminate between the innocent and the guilty. A just war would have to be conducted in a manner reminiscent of the 19th century, during which civilians used to picnic beside battlefields, confident that the military on both sides would respect the distinction between civilians and combatants.

4. The war must be justly conducted -- that is, the rights of innocent individuals can not be knowingly violated.

The fourth requirement spins off the last point. It is sometimes argued that invasive strategies, such as bombing targets within cities, is absolutely necessary to the conduct of modern warfare. As long as the bombing is aimed at valid targets and attempts to contain the damage done to civilians, it is deemed valid.

Whatever else can be said of this argument, it is not a libertarian one. Although the damage and death inflicted upon innocent victims might not be the intended consequence of the bombing, it would be a foreseeable one. That is, it would not be an accidental, but a known and predictable consequence. To justify the knowing infliction of damage and death upon innocent people, it is necessary to step outside the boundaries of libertarian theory.

Some libertarians shift the ground of argument on this point to utilitarianism, by adopting a social consequence argument. If one State is willing to use indiscriminate weaponry, the other must respond in kind or be devastated. This argument may be true. If so, it may be a reason to eschew either war or libertarian theory. Libertarianism is not a philosophy of proper social consequences: it is philosophy organized around the means of non-aggression. The boundaries of libertarian theory are simply not flexible enough to embrace the knowing murder of innocents.

Many will consider the foregoing to be a purist, or ivory tower position. They will argue that, when your life is threatened, you have a right to respond defensively even if that response entails firing into a crowd, thus harming or killing innocent people: the responsibility lies with the aggressor, not with you.

If this argument is true, an interesting question of math question arises. How many bystanders am I justified in murdering in order to eliminate someone who is trying to kill me? If I abandon the principle of not harming innocents, what standard should I use to calculate how many innocent people I may murder in the process of protecting myself. Two, twenty, a thousand? What if I know the assassin is in a particular movie theatre -- can I blow it up to ensure my safety from him? If not, why not? Once I abandon the principle of not harming innocents, how do I run the math?

To conclude: a libertarian just war would have to be declared in response to an act of aggression that could not be remedied in by a lesser level of defensive violence. It would have to be declared by a State to whom people had assigned their rights of self defense. And the war could be declared on behalf of those assignees alone. Dissenters would have to be left in peace to defend themselves, or not. The declaration of war would be against the enemy State, but not against the enemy civilian population. And, finally, the war would have to be conducted with strategies and weaponry that would not knowingly involve damaging or killing innocent parties.

Given these requirements, a libertarian just war is virtually unimaginable.

1. Allen C. Isbell, War and Conscience (Abilene, Texas: Biblical Research Press, 1966).

2. Such libertarians generally prefer the term 'government' because it is less burdened by implications of tyranny than the term 'State'. For purposes of this article, the terms are interchangeable and 'State' is used in as neutral a manner as possible.

3. When two individuals, or a small group of people fight, it is called a brawl or a feud, not a war.

4. As quoted in War and Conscience, p.82.