Bryan Caplan  

Why Libertarians Should Be Pacifists, Not Isolationists

Banks and Modigliani-Miller... Big Shakeouts...
Hard-core libertarians often describe themselves as "isolationists."  As Murray Rothbard argued:
Pending the dissolution of States, libertarians desire to limit, to whittle down, the area of government power in all directions and as much as possible... In foreign affairs, the goal is the same: to keep government from interfering in the affairs of other governments or other countries. Political "isolationism" and peaceful coexistence--refraining from acting upon other countries--is, then, the libertarian counterpart to agitating for laissez-faire policies at home. The idea is to shackle government from acting abroad just as we try to shackle government at home. Isolationism or peaceful coexistence is the foreign policy counterpart of severely limiting government at home.
After I visited the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, I decided it was time to explain why Rothbard and other libertarian isolationists are mistaken.  The foreign policy that follows from libertarian principles is not isolationism, but opposition to all warfare.  And what is the name for "opposition to all warfare"?  Pacifism.

But doesn't pacifism contradict the libertarian principle that people have a right to use retaliatory force?  No.  I'm all for revenge against individual criminals.  My claim is that in practice, it is nearly impossible to wage war justly, i.e., without trampling on the rights of the innocent.  Every viable military organization in history has used force to acquire resources, recklessly endangered civilian lives, and embraced some variant on collective guilt.  War is a dirty business.  It's just too hard to win if you play fair.

There are two key differences between Rothbardian isolationism and Caplanian pacifism. 

First: Unlike Rothbard, I don't single out my own government for special scrutiny.  For example, while I opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, I also opposed Iraqi military resistance to the U.S. invasion.  In fact, I think Iraqi resistance was worse.  Killing innocent people to depose Saddam was wrong, but killing innocent people to maintain Saddam was really wrong.

Second: I'm as opposed to civil war as I am to international war.  Wasn't Rothbard?  Not really.  He carved out a massive exception for guerrilla warfare:
[R]evolutionary guerrilla war can be far more consistent with libertarian principles than any inter-State war. By the very nature of their activities, guerrillas defend the civilian population against the depredations of a State; hence, guerrillas, inhabiting as they do the same country as the enemy State, cannot use nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction. Further: since guerrillas rely for victory on the support and aid of the civilian population, they must, as a basic part of their strategy, spare civilians from harm and pinpoint their activities solely against the State apparatus and its armed forces. Hence, guerrilla war returns us to the ancient and honorable virtue of pinpointing the enemy and sparing innocent civilians. And guerrillas, as part of their quest for enthusiastic civilian support, often refrain from conscription and taxation and rely on voluntary support for men and materiel.
In practice, I'm afraid, this is all wishful thinking.  In the real world, guerrillas' main goal is to make civilians fear them more than they fear the government they're trying to overthrow.  If Rothbard were alive, I'd challenge him to name one viable guerrilla movement that scrupulously "spared civilians from harm" or "pinpointed its activities" against the government, much less "relied on voluntary support for men and materiel."*  Revolutionaries who want victory don't just pass the hat for donations and hope for the best. 

Both "isolationism" and "pacifism" can admittedly be misleading terms.  "Isolationism" sounds like it implies support for protectionism and immigration restrictions - or even autarchy.  "Pacifism" sounds like it implies opposition to self-defense.  But pacifism is easy to clarify; if you say you're against war, people will understand you.  Isolationism, in contrast, is a red herring.  It highlights morally irrelevant national boundaries - and distracts attention from what counts - the crimes against innocents that armies almost inevitably commit in order to win.

* He certainly couldn't point to the American revolution.  In Conceived in Liberty, Rothbard documents the persecution of Tories at length.  See especially volume 4, chapter 76:
Everywhere Tories were deprived of civil rights and freedom of speech and press; they were especially taxed, and were arrested for the duration of the war on mere suspicion and without benefit of habeas corpus. They were herded together and shipped into prison camps far from the British lines, in which they were sometimes forced to work for the Revolution; they were tarred and feathered, banished, and their lands and properties were confiscated by the State. Sometimes they were even executed. They were forced to take test oaths, they were disfranchised and barred from public office, and they were generally forbidden to practice as professional men. In many cases family punishment was imposed, and relatives of absent Tories were jailed for the behavior of their errant kinsmen and held as hostages. Local vigilante action kept watch on suspected Tories and imposed harsh penalties on them.

Banishment from the country--with little money allowed to be taken out--was a favorite punishment for Tories and suspected Tories.

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COMMENTS (30 to date)
SB7 writes:

If Rothbard were alive, I'd challenge him to name one viable guerrilla movement that scrupulously "spared civilians from harm" or "pinpointed its activities" against the government, much less "relied on voluntary support for men and materiel."

It's not a topic I'm terribly familiar with, but some of Garibaldi's Italian campaigns might qualify. I'm not confident about the question of materiel, but I'm pretty sure he meets the rest of the criteria.

Braden writes:

In the context of World War I and rejecting isolationism, can I infer that you support war waged against aggressors?

It feels to me that you are ascribing an inviolable liberty to nations beyond the sum liberty of their citizens, which surprises me, given your opposition to artificial boundaries of trade and migration. If we could liberate a tyrannized nation with only one civilian casualty, I think we would be morally obligated to do so.

Russell Hanneken writes:

Bryan, if you oppose all warfare, does that mean you think that if government A attacks government B, it is always preferable for government B to surrender rather than resist?

Russell Hanneken writes:

Braden, Bryan said he rejected isolationism in favor of pacifism, which he explicitly defined as "opposition to all warfare." How do you infer from that that he supports "war waged against aggressors?"

I also don't understand why you feel that Bryan is "ascribing an inviolable liberty to nations beyond the sum liberty of their citizens." As far as I can tell, he neither stated nor implied any such position.

John writes:

Bryan, as a fairly radical libertarian myself, I'm curious about your views on the Cold War. As a pacifist, would you condemn the guarantee of security the United States provided to Western Europe? In the absence of powerful military opposition to the USSR, how do you imagine the Cold War would have played out?

In my mind, the costs of eliminating the threat of military opposition to the USSR would have been catastrophically large; the level of freedom in the world would have been substantially reduced and war would have consumed a large portion of the globe as the USSR expanded. Your thoughts?

I'm all for pacifism as a universal ideal, for us and the USSR or other regimes, but in a world where others are willing to use military force, I don't think eliminating the threat of resistance and retaliation is advisable if we seek to maintain our freedom.

agnostic writes:

I wouldn't worry too much about the foolishly idealistic view of guerrillas -- it's a zeitgeist thing. I googled the quote, and it comes from a book published in 1973, so probably begun a little before then. During the hey-day of the counter-culture, *everyone* was crazy and foolishly idealistic about these things, no matter what tribe they belonged to.

There was a tiny resurrection of that mindset during the early '90s counter-culture, but nothing at all on the scale of SDS, the Weathermen, etc. Let alone the propaganda of the deed in the 1910s and 1920s, when Wall St. had to protect their buildings not from banners but from bomb blasts.

The culture's become incredibly less tolerant of violence, and this will only continue. So while it may be worth emphasizing the point intellectually, practically you don't have to worry about it.

Chris writes:

So a defensive war is only justifiable if a proper cost benefit analysis shows the resulting war deaths are not as bad as changes resulting from the conquering regime? I agree with the caveat that you need to consider externalities. It makes sense for a father to pay a ransom for his son, but if noone pays ransoms then there would be no kidnappings.

Braden writes:

Russell, to respond to your second question, Bryan likens the exercise of force between nations to the exercise of force between individuals in the beginning of his third paragraph. This analogy only makes sense if you grant nations a right to autonomy, which I believe is not only wrong but counter-productive in the case of non-democratic nations.

As to your first question, you're probably correct, though, like you, I am curious whether he indeed advocates surrender in the face of military force.

Kurbla writes:

Bryan: "Killing innocent people to depose Saddam was wrong, but killing innocent people to maintain Saddam was really wrong."

If deposing Saddam was wrong, then killing American soldiers is not killing innocent people any more. You cannot have it both ways. (Furthermore, it is not fair to speak about "deposing Saddam" and "maintaining Saddam." You can speak as well about "imposing Bush" and "defending from Bush".)

Why you should care more about crimes of US state than for crimes of other states? Because you pay taxes in USA, so you are responsible for that country.

Of course, your next answer is that you do not pay voluntarily, that you are robbed. Even if we accept "state as robber" premise, it is not good enough - as long as you had an opportunity to avoid that robbery.

Imagine a maniac who attacked you, took the gun you had in your pocket, and killed your family and neighbours. Is it your guilt? Yes, it is - if you was able to predict what might happen. You cannot say "Oh, he robbed me, it is all his guilt, nothing my."

Bryan: "In the real world, guerrillas' main goal is to make civilians fear them more than they fear the government they're trying to overthrow. "

Every reasonable regime tries to produce as many true believers in its target population first. Only if they cannot produce true believers, they'll try to frighten people.

Josh Hanson writes:

Personally, I don't know all that many "hardcore libertarians" who describe themselves as isolationist. I do, however, know quite a few who do describe themselves as pacifists (myself included). Bryan acknowledged the fact that the isolationism being discussed here is to be understood only in political terms (not in terms of trade), however the libertarians I've known are vehemently opposed to being described as isolationist, for the very reason that it is a term that implies protectionism and restrictions on free movement of individuals across imaginary borders. At the end of the day, when you're trying to educate on ideas, terminology is important.

fundamentalist writes:

Pacifism means turning the entire world over to the thugs and murderers who don't share Bryan's qualms. This is the kind of nonsense that atheistic fabricated morality will lead to.

doggytwit writes:

"The foreign policy that follows from libertarian principles is not isolationism but pacifism." Yes! In war, aggression trumps liberty.
Consider 2 quotes from Stanley Kubrick:
(1) You're an idealist, and I pity you as I would the village idiot.
(2) The great nations have always acted like gangsters, and the small nations like prostitutes.
Consider 2 books:
"War Is a Racket" (1935) by General Smedley D. Butler;
"The Washington Pay-Off" (1972) by Robert Winter-Berger.
If Kubrick is correct, then might it not be an improvement to limit the size of any nation-state to at most 20 million citizens? That might make hugely expensive military operations somewhat more difficult. Is there any capitalist/libertarian theory on the optimal population size of a nation-state?

darjen writes:


So you believe that governments have legitimate authority to murder innocent people?

Doc Merlin writes:

I think that military isolationism isn't immoral but pacifism is. Hardcore pascifism includes refusing to defend those you care about when they are attacked. This is extremely immoral.

MikeDC writes:

OK, I'm not buying this.

Every viable military organization in history has used forced to acquire resources, recklessly endangered civilian lives, and embraced some variant on collective guilt. War is a dirty business. It's just too hard to win if you play fair.

I don't recall the Swiss worrying much about invasion, or marching their armies off to attack others. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples, but as a general rule, an Army may be quite viable for self defense while still not big enough to mount much offense.

In the grand scheme of things, I think pacifism is the way to go, but only amongst the company of other pacifists. Amongst non-pacifists, it's foolishness.

I think Buchanan's Limits of Liberty gives a pretty good guide. Imagine a world where you have to defend everything you have. As trust grows, everyone can relax their defenses, but it'd be damn stupid to unilaterally do so.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

Does "libertarianISM" have objectives?

Does effectively working toward, let alone attaining, those objectives require certain minimums of "environmental" security; that is, the social order cannot be under too much stress from external pressures?

Example: Foreign based terrorism.

Liberty of a particular social order requires actions to mitigate, if not prevent, threats that will permit external stress upon the order.

Snorri Godhi writes:

The crucial question is Russell Hanneken's: is it also wrong to defend one's country from invasion? (Certainly, sometime it is wrong. I come from a country that was invaded by Americans myself. People are still grateful: the best thing that can happen to a country is to lose a war against the USA.)

It seems to me that it all depends whether one's libertarianism is consequentialist or deontological. The deontological view is that war is always wrong, even when it it necessary to prevent tyranny. The consequentialist view is that it all depends on the net results expected from war (considering of course the huge uncertainties associated with war).

It also seems to me that any country that adopts deontological libertarianism is soon going to become part of another country; and not a free and friendly other country, at that. Exceptions are countries that are difficult to invade and produce little surplus, so that a conquest would be economically unsound; e.g. Viking Iceland.

Once you accept that the people in your country should be defended from foreign tyranny, then what about defending people in other countries? surely, Bryan does not suffer from anti-foreigner bias?

Isegoria writes:

So a Caplan-libertarian nation is at the mercy of any invading army composed of unwilling conscripts? It doesn't take a nuanced game-theoretic analysis to see how this plays out.

Snorri Godhi writes:

PS: in my above comment, a "consequentialist libertarian" is not [a] somebody who thinks that freedom is good because it has positive consequences: it is [b] somebody who wants policies designed to maximize freedom from human coercion in the long term. There is probably a large overlap between the two positions, but they are not logically equivalent as far as I can see.

Loof writes:

Frankly, not sure if this “pacifism” with retaliatory force and revenge against individual criminals is more about American vigilante justice or the justice of a medieval vendetta by a European lord. It mostly appears as American lynch-man logic against social order with good government: explained with a basic perspective difference between Canada (“peace, order and good government”) and America (“life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”). “Here’s a statistic: between 1882, when reliable records started to be kept, and 1968, there were 4,743 lynchings recorded in the United States. In Canada, during this same eighty-six-year period, there was one: Louie Sam’s.” And, that lynching was by an American mob in Canada.


Andy Hallman writes:

Bryan Caplan: In fact, I think Iraqi resistance was worse. Killing innocent people to depose Saddam was wrong, but killing innocent people to maintain Saddam was really wrong.

A few points:

1) What does being innocent have to do with a person's moral worth? Isn't their worth a function of their ability to experience happiness and not their past actions?

2) If the definition of 'innocent' is so broad that it can apply to the soldiers of an invading army, then it has no meaning, because everyone would be innocent.

3) Why assume resisters of the invasion were Saddam loyalists? Surely not everyone who fought in the Soviet army against the Nazis was a Stalinist.

Bryan Caplan: Unlike Rothbard, I don't single out my own government for special scrutiny.

It makes sense to focus on correcting your own government's mistakes because people tend to have biases in favor of their own governments, not foreign ones. It is especially important for citizens of the United States to be critical of their own government because of its reckless foreign policy. Most people in the world don't live in a country that is occupying two foreign nations.

Other than that it was a great post, Bryan! Keep up the good work.

Faze writes:

Braden writes: "If we could liberate a tyrannized nation with only one civilian casualty, I think we would be morally obligated to do so."

If you could liberate a tyrannized nation, say, Burma, but putting a gun to your head this minute and pulling the trigger, would you be morally obligated to do so?

What would happen if you were almost 100 percent certain that you could liberate a tyrannized nation by killing one civilian, and so you killed that civilian, and you turned out to be wrong: actually, you would have to kill 100 civilians? Now that you've killed that one civilian, should you go ahead and kill the 99 others, just so that first civilian's life shouldn't have been wasted?

If you could liberate a tyrannized nation by killing one civilian, and so you killed that civilian, and the new government went on to fight a just war against an invading neighbor, and in the process killed an innocent civilian, does that morally invalidate your killing of the first civilian?

James writes:

kurbla: Bryan may be guilty of unclear writing, but I think where he refers to Iraqi resistance killing innocents, he was referring to innocent Iraqi bystanders, not US soldiers.

Braden writes:


Yes, my life is available for higher ends.

No, you shouldn't respect the sunk costs, though I would argue that liberating a nation is also worth 100 lives.

No, two laudable decisions don't make an illaudable decision.

I'm very surprised to hear economists apparently rejecting utilitarianism. Freedom and lives are neither free nor priceless.

fundamentalist writes:

darjen: "fundamentalist, So you believe that governments have legitimate authority to murder innocent people?"

War is not murder.

But set aside the moral arguments for a moment and consider the practical side. If we never fight anyone because we're afraid of harming civilians, then the enemy will always hide behind civilians to prevent us from attacking. And that is exactly what we see in every conflict in Middle East: terrorists hide behind women and children. That was also the Japanese and German strategies during WWII. Eventually, the terrorists will win.

But then you have to consider how innocent are the women and children the terrorists hide behind? Sane people always flee combat zones. What kind of people stay behind to act as shields for terrorists? Sympathizers.

Of course killing civilians should be avoided as much as possible, but any policy that avoids killing civilians at any cost is nothing but surrender to the thugs of the world.

Steve Roth writes:

Just to address one point that's covered in passing but that I think is a crux:

We (at least as a society/government) should never act with revenge as our motive, because revenge is all about looking backwards, not forwards. It's all about emotional recompense for past wrongs, as opposed to rational, clear-eyed actions to make a better future.

Revenge-motivated decisions are more likely to make the world a worse place.

I think you'll probably agree that the thirst for revenge (at least by large parts of the electorate, perhaps by top leaders) was a pretty big driver of the Iraq invasion. The noble goals of spreading democracy etc. were post-hoc rationalizations.

Retribution is certainly an effective tool, is often necessary (certainly in the grand scheme that sets the rules of the game). But it should be implemented for utterly Machiavellian reasons, unpolluted by the passion for revenge.

I don't have to explain here why or how the instinct for revenge evolved. It's obvious. But I would assert that in a society governed by the rule of law, it is now a maladaption --at least for society as a whole, and probably for almost all individual situations.

Lincoln got this one right: "Passion has helped us; but can do so no more. It will in future be our enemy. Reason, cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason, must furnish all the materials for our future support and defence"

Paul writes:

This post illustrates why hardcore libertarians may never be a huge political force in this country. Despite the power of their ideas concerning liberty, the size of government, the power of the market, and the incompetency of our politicians, their strange embrace of pacifism, and their simplistic, amateurish, and shallow understanding of foreign policy means, hopefully, that they will never lead this country.

Like the intellectual elites they so justifiably criticize, their thinking about military defense and foreign policy leads them to support the strangest positions. Murray Rothbard embraced the Vietcong. David Henderson seems to think that U.S. should have sat out WWII, allowed Hitler to overrun Europe and Japan to overrun Asia. As long as we weren't being attacked by Canada or Mexico, no problem. The first Gulf War was a mistake, too. Saddam should have been allowed to rape Kuwait and move into Saudi Arabia. The Israeli raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981? Bad, very bad. Tsk tsk, say the libertarians. You can fight back only if you’re attacked. End of story. You can’t pre-empt. You can’t remove evil, tyrannical rulers until they attack you. You can’t prevent South Korea from being overrun by psychopathic leaders.

So, some (not all - we know you're not a homogenous group) freedom-loving libertarians would have watched comfortably as millions of people were murdered, enslaved, stripped of their liberty, their wealth, and their basic dignity.

Usually free of self-indulgent moralistic preening, some hardcore libertarians mutate into something like British left-wing intellectuals when discussing foreign policy. They are amateurs. There is no appreciation of concepts like the balance of power, deterrence, pre-emptive strikes, spheres of influence, the national interest, capabilities and intentions, history, or culture.

Snorri Godhi writes:

some hardcore libertarians mutate into something like British left-wing intellectuals when discussing foreign policy.

"Like British left-wing intellectuals" ... I can't think of a worse insult; or maybe I can: "like Ivy-League left-wing intellectuals".

Anyway, let me rephrase your comment by paraphrasing some ancient wisdom:
It is better to be the libertarian's enemy than his friend: if you are his enemy, he will try to buy you; if you are his friend, he will most certainly sell you.

Mario Abbagliati writes:


You don't choose your enemy, he chooses you. Pacifism makes war much worse and therefore is immoral because it works as an incentive to the use of violence. It's like putting out a fire with gasoline!

I looked at similar problem from completely opposite utilitarian perspective, and it seems to me that Vietnamese intervention in Cambodia to get rid of Pol Pot gets as close to a just war as it ever got.

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