The Ethics Of Liberty - State Relationships Internal & External


The Ethics Of Liberty by Murray Rothbard

Citizens' Relationship To The State
In previous chapters Rothbard wrote about the illegitimacy of the state and inconsistencies found in the narratives supporting its existence.  However, the fact remains that states exist and will for the foreseeable future.  The next two chapters focus on how those ruled by the state should act and how states should interact with one another.

To start, the state exists on the basis of aggression.  Not only does it set up a monopoly on the use of violence, placing limits on the natural right of self defense, it funds itself by taking money from the citizenry by force (i.e. taxation).  Therefore, as an illegitimate organization, individuals have no obligation to obey it.  In fact taking over government owned property, refusing to pay taxes, and lying to the state can be morally justified if you aren't committing a property crime against another private citizen.  Everything they own has been taken by force, so the situation is similar to forcing a criminal to pay a fine or hand over stolen property.  Of course, just because something can be morally justified that doesn't mean it is a wise course of action.

                    "All this does not mean, of course, that we must counsel or require civil
                    disobedience, nonpayment of taxes, or lying to or theft from the State, 
                    for these may well be prudentially unwise, considering, the force majeure
                    possessed by the State apparatus."

As you can see, what we consider moral and ethical in our dealings with other individuals, does not always apply to the relationship of individuals to the state.  Another example is government debt, bonds, and contracts.  When dealing with individuals debts should always be repaid.  But when a government takes on debt and sells bonds, the repayment requires taking more money from taxpayers.  Therefore, government default should not be seen as something to avoid at all costs.  It is actually more just for the government to default on their debt and bond repayments than to take more money away from citizens.  The same principle applies to government contracts whether they be for employment or trade.  Government employees, for example those in the military, can ethically quit their job at any time for any reason since their salary is paid by taxes.  It is also justified to walk away when they direct you to do something immoral.  The same goes for a business contract.  The government buys your widgets with ill-gotten gain.  Walking away from business with the government reduces the amount of money they will take from the people.

We look down on individuals who either bribe others into doing what they want or circumvent rules agreed upon by private organizations.  However, we should reconsider the nature of those things when directed at the state.  It is still immoral for a government agent to take a bribe.  But the citizen is free from guilt by offering a bribe if it is a "defensive" bribe and not "aggressive." An "aggressive"  bribe gives a person the ability to violate another's property rights.  But a "defensive" bribe protects the property rights of the citizen from the government.  In many countries around the world, bribes are the only way citizens are able to exercise their property rights.

                    "For, in many countries, business could not be transacted at all without the
                    lubricant of bribery; in this way, crippling and destructive regulations
                    and exactions can be avoided.  A "corrupt government", then, is not
                    necessarily a bad thing."

When considering the state, another issue that gets flipped on its head is a right to privacy.  Governments have no right to privacy unlike individuals.  This is for two reasons according to Rothbard.  First, is that citizens vote for the representatives and policies that they prefer.  If they don't know what the government is doing and what their officials are saying, they can't make informed votes.  It is going to sound like a broken record at this point, but the second reason governments have no right to privacy is taxation.  Citizens have a moral right to know what their rulers are doing with their money.  As stated in an earlier paragraph, citizens are not morally obligated to pay taxes and depending on what the government is doing may have a moral obligation to withhold taxes.

Following from this issue, we also need to consider whether voting in a democracy carries with it moral culpability.  Many libertarians, anarcho-capitalists, and agorists claim that voting violates other people's natural rights.  Let's think of it from the individual perspective.  The state has placed you under a situation of coercion and holds you there even if you disagree.  Voting in this context is an opportunity to protect oneself, in a limited way, from state coercion.  It is a way to protect your rights as a citizen within a coercive system and therefore should be considered as ethical, as long as your vote is in the service of reducing state aggression, taxes, and other rights violations.

A common misconception that states include in their legitimacy narratives is that the state IS society.  Rep. Barney Frank cleverly phrased this state myth sometime around 2012 when he said, "Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together."  But as Rothbard explained earlier in the book, government isn't society at large.  Instead its existence divides society into rulers and those who are ruled.  The state then is a parasite and oppressor of society, demonstrating that society is comprised of those who are ruled.  Those who believe that states are ethical in nature then argue that libertarians are against the existence of society, distilling all of life down to individual action and interests.  But we have now caught state advocates in another lie.

                    "no libertarians have ever held individuals to be isolated atoms; on the 
                    contrary, all libertarians have recognized the necessity and enormous
                    advantages of living in society, and of participating in the social division
                    of labor."

Society then is individual humans acting to improve their lives through social interaction with others, economic trade in a market, and charitable service to those in immediate need.  This shows the lie that intellectual allies of the state push forward.

                    "the great non sequitur... is to leap from the necessity of society to the
                    necessity of the State."

This "great non sequitur" is in play any time you see intellectuals use words like public, social, communal, community, shared, or civil to describe state policy or apparatus.

Relationships Between States
Libertarian foreign policy has the same goal as its domestic policy which is to reduce state coercion down to nothing.  In order to do that the same principles applied to individual or private group action must be applied to state action was well.  The primary principle to apply is that no aggressive force should be used innocent people, even if that force is being employed to apprehend or punish a criminal.  Think of a situation where person A has stolen person B's wallet.  Person C decides to retrieve the stolen wallet and bring person B to justice.  In carrying out this justice is Person C allowed to kill innocent bystanders by shooting a gun into a crowd?  Is he justified in punching and kicking everyone on the street until he finds the wallet?  Would it be ethical if he destroyed an innocent person's house in the effort to constrain person C and get the wallet back?  The answer is obvious if you believe that natural law and natural rights ideas are correct.

Comic book writers have intelligently written about the problem with collateral damage resulting from the existence of super heroes.  It is the premise of the movies, "The Incredibles" and "Captain America; Civil War."  Whether the situation involves a human or a superhuman, it is clear to all of us that you are not allowed to harm people or their property in the pursuit of justice.  In fact that harm is an act of injustice itself that must be dealt with.  Now apply the same conclusion to military or police forces and you can deduce the ethical limitations of war.

For a war to be a just war, military force must be limited to criminals, gangs, or other state militaries.  In order to accomplish this goal, they must only use weapons that are capable of pinpointing.  That eliminates a long list of modern weapons like "nuclear weapons, rockets, germ warfare, etc".  In other words, collateral damage is forbidden.  In a worst case scenario it must be contained and reduced to the smallest amount possible.

Continuing to analyze war, Rothbard differentiates between Inter-state wars and Revolutions which exist within one state.  His analysis shows that Revolutions are more easily contained and less likely to harm civilians.  While this is true, I think he misses the fact that special forces operations are a way to limit the scope of war as well.  They can be used to do things like rescue hostages or bring in criminals that have fled the country without starting a large scale war.  He later comments that one state has no right to protect its citizens or their property if either is outside of its own state borders.  He bases his conclusion on the idea that each state claims a monopoly of violence only within its own borders.  His statement is logical, but I don't think it proves that a government has no right to protect its citizens who are traveling outside its borders.  The first step would be to negotiate with the other government.  If that government agrees then they can handle the situation on their own.  But if they refuse or if they are the ones committing the crime, then it follows that a government should protect its own citizen from the foreign state.

In general Revolutions are more likely to be just than Inter-state wars because a Revolution happens within one state.  That simple math already points to less death and destruction.  In addition to that, within a Revolution the two warring factions have more incentive to use less destructive weapons, because both sides consider the territorial area of the war to be home.  Even a rogue state will be less likely to drop a nuclear bomb on its own people than the citizens of another country.  The Revolutionaries will have great incentive to keep civilians out of harm's way and focus all their attacks on military and government targets.  Their enemy is strictly the state.  They are fighting for the rights of the people.

Whereas, in an Inter-state war both sides will care less about the civilians of the other country making it more likely that they will use more destructive weapons and incur more collateral damage.  They are also more likely to conduct a total war against the opponent's whole society.

                    "each State can mobilize all the people and resources in it territory, the other
                    State comes to regard all the citizens of the opposing country as at least
                    temporarily its enemies... extending the war to them."

Another reason that Inter-state wars are worse than Revolutions is that they are fully funded by taxes.  When two government militaries are fighting each other, taxation goes up in both countries.  However, Revolutions are much more likely to be funded voluntarily by the people who are trying to free themselves from tyranny.

In situations where libertarians live under state rule and that state goes to war with another state or attacks a group within the state that wants to secede, our reply should be to call for limiting the war to the smallest possible geographical area, for limiting military action to combatants only, for pinpointing the attacks as much as possible, and for starting peace negotiations as soon as possible.  For those libertarians whose country has not yet entered the war, they should support neutrality for their country and any other country who has not yet joined.

A repeated theme in this book is that those who value liberty should return to older principles of right and wrong, criminality and punishment, legal systems and rights, and now "laws of war".  The following paragraph that F.J.P. Veale wrote in 1953 explains how valuable this older view of war is for the protection of life, liberty, and property.  In fact he writes in his book "Advance to Barbarism", that refusing to follow this principle leads to the title of the book, a movement towards barbarism and away from civilization.

                    "The fundamental principle of this code was that hostilities between civilized
                    peoples must be limited to the armed forces actually engaged. . . . It drew a 
                    distinction between combatants and noncombatants by laying down that the
                    sole business of the combatants is to fight each other and, consequently, that
                    noncombatants must be excluded from the scope of military operations."

The "law of war" principle flies in the face of current day calls to war in the name of humanitarianism.  We hear our politicians today advocate war in order to protect some oppressed group whether that be in Ukraine or Israel, even though they ignore the oppression Palestinians face.  We can see from our own news headlines that when powerful countries justify wars on humanitarian grounds the result isn't protection for the oppressed or greater long term peace.  It is in fact the opposite with more destruction, more death, and even more oppression, sometimes in the form of military conscription.  When more powerful countries get involved regardless of the intentions, the result is that wars start that would have never started and wars which could have been decided quickly are prolonged.

To finish up, we can apply the same principles to the ideas of imperialism and foreign aid.  Just like war, many in the state justify these actions on humanitarian grounds.  They say governments of more advanced countries must colonize or give money over to governments of less developed countries in order to improve their material well being.  But once again the outcomes are the opposite of the stated intention, because imperialism and foreign aid harm both countries. First, they increase the taxation of the advanced country, depleting resources from that country and violating property rights.  Second, they increase the receiving government's ability to abuse their people.

Most of you reading this article have heard of Randolph Bourne's famous quote, "war is the health of the State."  After thinking through these issues I would add imperialism and foreign aid to that, I would even include any large scale domestic policy.  After all "the war on poverty", "the war on drugs", "the Cold War", and the "war on Covid-19" affected society in similar ways.


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