David R. Henderson  

Reply to Aeon Skoble

A Fiscal Fable... Pacifism Defended...

Like Aeon Skoble, I think my co-blogger Bryan Caplan has overstated the case for pacifism and against defensive war. Also, in his article to which he linked, Professor Skoble makes some important distinctions that libertarians sometimes fail to make and advances the argument. I think, though, that neither his argument in his article nor his comment on Bryan is a persuasive response to Bryan's points. A big part of the problem with his argument is his implicit collectivism. I'll explain below.

But first, here's where I think Professor Skoble makes some valid points:

. Quoting Dirty Harry, he writes, "there's nothing wrong with shooting as long as the right people get shot." I pretty much agree. Violence, even lethal violence, to defend oneself is not wrong. I still would like to choose other methods, but if it comes to the aggressor's life or my own, I'll end his.

. He writes:

The fire department is operated with confiscated tax dollars, but that doesn't mean putting out fires is immoral in and of itself. To argue that the state ought not to provide a particular good or service is not to argue that the provision of that good or service is intrinsically evil.

I agree. BTW, I heard Murray Rothbard make this point in a 1975 speech in L.A. and I'm pretty sure that Murray made that point in writing. So there's an issue on which Skoble and at least one extreme anti-war libertarian agree.

. Professor Skoble points out correctly that we need to distinguish between whether the activity is legitimate and whether coercively funding it is legitimate. The former can be legitimate even if the latter is not. Agreed.

Professor Skoble goes from the point directly above to the following:

If it would have been permissible for a private force to liberate Kuwait, then it was permissible for the U.S. military to do so, even though we may also think that this (like everything else) ought to be privatized. Even though the state should not coercively monopolize the fire department, when they put out a fire, they are acting rightly.

Here's where I think his argument fails. If the government fire department already exists, there is virtually no new funding, i.e., coercively obtained funds, required for it to fight my fire. But if the military exists, having it take on a new war will require more coercively obtained funds. So taking on a new war is inevitably, given the high cost of war, packaged with higher taxes now or in the future.

Also, although in his article, Professor Skoble discusses the issue of "jus in bello," fighting a war justly, I think he fails to apply it in his comment on Bryan. In the comment, he writes:

[S]ay Argentina decides to declare war on the US. . . . So option 1 is to say "well, we can't deploy our military to counterattack because innocent people will get killed." Option 2 is fight back. Note that, in a complete reversal from your title, it's the denial of rights (here by the Argentines) that becomes a license to kill, and if we go with option 1, a lot more of us get killed.

Note his use of the word "Argentina" to describe the enemy that declares war, rather than "the Argentine government." It is this use that allows him to say, later in the paragraph, that "the Argentines" denied our rights. No, they didn't. Some Argentines denied our rights. Unlike what I think Bryan would say, I do want to shoot down the Argentine bombers in this scenario. But I don't think it's legitimate for the U.S. government or for a private organization to bomb Argentina. Would Professor Skoble agree?

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CATEGORIES: Economic Philosophy

COMMENTS (13 to date)
Sonic Charmer writes:

I'm puzzled as to why the distinction between 'the Argentinian government' and 'the Argentines' is considered so important here. Okay, so 'the Argentines' didn't declare war on us (in the hypothetical). Just the ones that control their guns and military.

And meanwhile, to whatever extent there are dissenting/innocent Argentines, they are evidently being held hostage by the ones with the guns, and/or being used as human shields.

I don't see how emphasizing any of that changes the moral calculus one iota frankly. (Unless you really believe that assailants hiding behind human shields ought to be immune from counterattack.) At most, it leads to a moral imperative to unseat the ones with the guns (who attacked us) and liberate the rest; i.e., at worst, it is a tricky hostage situation. Now yes, sometimes innocent hostages do get killed in tricky hostage situations (cf. Entebbe). But this fact alone doesn't make attempting to liberate hostages immoral.

So all in all, I say it's easier just to use the shorthand 'the Argentines' in that hypothetical. And, this is how people have always spoken, about war, for centuries.

Evan writes:

The majority of people do not do the same amount of thinking you do Sonic Charmer, they simply think that "they" attacked "us" and therefore there is nothing wrong with attacking "them." The idea that hurting innocent bystanders who live in the same area as the bad guys might be wrong doesn't cross their minds. If you challenge them they might think about it more. But even so, it probably won't get upgraded to "hostage situation" immediately in their mind, because even if those people are innocent, they're still "them."

Imagine Al-Queada took a bunch of hostages in some American city, and that the police killed ten of the hostages to stop them. Do you think there would be more outrage and debate among the American public for those ten hostage deaths than there have been over the deaths of hundreds of Afghan civilians in the war over there? Or do you think there would be less?

It's really, really convenient to just lump everyone in a country into a group when their government attacks you, because it means there are less messy moral decisions to make. People do it all the time without even thinking, I find myself lapsing into such behavior frequently. That's why using long clunky descriptions like "the Argentine government" is better than using shorthands like "the Argentines." Doing that forces us to think about what we're saying, preventing lapses.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

I'm very appreciative of Prof. Henderson's fair and reasonable response to my position. I largely concur with the Sonic Charmer's comment above, but I wanted to give a direct answer to the final question in the post. Whether or not bombing Argentina (in my hypothetical) would be justified would depend on specifics about how the war was being fought, contingencies absent from a hypothetical. It might. Not Dresden or Tokyo style bombing, but maybe something. Necessity and proportionality are important; "teach 'em a lesson" not so much. The refusal to do so means that those with _less_ regard for human rights get to decide how many people die. That's not a good idea. Don't start aggressive wars, but if you're attacked, defend yourself. Fight as morally as you can, but fight.

Troy Camplin writes:

It would be nice if it were in fact possible to always deal with the military and the government only in a war. That is a truly utopian view of war. Perhaps it would be even better if the leaders of the two countries were put in a cage match with knives and fought it out. But the fact is that if you have a situation where there are states, and two of those states go to war with each other, the one who is only willing to engage in defensive action is going to lose. The one who is unconcerned with offensive action and killing civilians to achieve their military objectives is going to win. Which does not argue against minimizing the latter at all. But refusing to engage in offensive action once attacked is to surrender to the attacker sooner or later. There is little question to my mind what the outcome for liberty would be under such a situation. Its enemies would always win in battle.

I think that there is much that can be gained on the margins, as the U.S. government has done in typically trying to avoid civilian casualties. The more we can do that, the better. But when attacked, defensive action is not enough.

Sonic Charmer writes:


We have examples to point to of exactly that (police killing hostages in order to stop a bad guy). Waco comes to mind. I am aware of no repercussions or widespread outrage resulting from that. There was outrage, but it was confined to the right. Moreover, the objection (such as it was) to those actions largely owed to the fact that David Koresh was not perceived to be all that dangerous (by those who disapproved). If David Koresh had been revealed to have a dirty bomb or chemical weapon or somesuch (note: I believe there are people who think exactly this, which, even if false, shows that it's a mitigant in peoples' minds), I suggest what outrage there was would have been far more muted if not nonexistent.

Russia, in recent past, assaulted a theater in which terrorists held hostages, using (I believe) CS gas, and many/most hostages ended up dying. We disapprove because we think it was 'excessive' and 'reckless', showing a carelessness for those lives, but not because we think they shouldn't have waged any assault at all.

There was the 9/11 scenario, in which I think we all believe (and no one really objects) that our government was fully prepared to shoot down a civilian airliner full of mostly innocent people in order to prevent it from being used as a guided missile against a crucial target and/or more people. Indeed, this is another case where I'm pretty sure some folks already believe that's what was done (to one of the planes).

Basically, there are times where stopping a bad guy may require use of violence in a way that's more likely to injure innocent bystanders. This is a function of the bad guy and the situation. It's only when speaking and thinking abstractly about 'the horrors of war' that one is able to indulge in the luxury of finding it always unnecessary. When it happens or examples are cited in civilian life, everyone seems to understand the necessity.

The analogy isn't fully precise, and there aren't that many examples (thankfully!), simply because they would have to be extreme scenarios: bad guys prepared to do the very worst, controlling a large amount of territory, and/or a large number of hostages, from a position of power. And obviously that just doesn't happen all that often in civilian life, thank goodness. But it does happen more often in relations between states, due in large part to the nature of 'states'.

And when it does, we call it 'war'.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Aeon J. Skoble,
So I gather that in certain circumstances, you would have the U.S. government bomb Argentina. You don't seem willing, though, to say how and in what circumstances. Too bad, because how can we discuss it if you're not willing to say?

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

I'm unwilling because it's a made up example! I can add to the fictional example in ways which would make it justified and in ways which would not. It would be easier to give an opinion about real examples. But I can tell you what I think about bombing in general: it's permissible to bomb provided that you are targeting military instutions and making every effort to avoid civilian instututions. Modern-era warfare has resulted in two developments which both serve and hinder this goal: on the one hand, the technology of bombs and missiles has vastly improved precision, making it easier to comply with my standard; but at the same time many dictators and collectivists have adopted the habit of blurring the distinction, e.g. using residential neighborhoods as a base, or annexing civilan institutions for military use. So on the one hand, I would say it is impermissible to deliberately target civilian institutions, but on the other hand, if the other guy has combined the two, and you have a legtitimate military target in a residential neighborhood, double-effect allows you to proceed, and the moral responsibility attaches to them not you. Furthermore, in cases where the affected civilians know and embrace this, they are actually being complicit and to some extent removing their own immunity.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Aeon Skolbe,
Thanks. We're narrowing it down. A further clarification, please. You write:
if the other guy has combined the two, and you have a legtitimate military target in a residential neighborhood, double-effect allows you to proceed, and the moral responsibility attaches to them not you.
Who's "them"?

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

"A further clarification, please. You write:
if the other guy has combined the two, and you have a legtitimate military target in a residential neighborhood, double-effect allows you to proceed, and the moral responsibility attaches to them not you.
Who's "them"?"

Sorry, grammar lapse. I'll rewrite the sentence without pronouns, incorporating our fictional Argentine opponents:
if the Argentine army has combined the two, and the US army has a legtitimate military target in a residential neighborhood, double-effect allows the US army to proceed, and the moral responsibility attaches to the Argentine army not the US army.

Let me expand, while we're here: it's precisely despotic (or collectivist) countries who benefit from the morality of their opponents. Standard just-war doctine allows bombing a chemical weapons production facility, and forbids bombing a hospital, so the despotic regime uses one floor of the hospital as its chemical weapons production facility. This is a no-lose move for the despot: either his enemies continue to regard the chemical weapons facility as "off-limits," in which case he gets more weapons, or his enemies bomb it, in which case he scores a huge propaganda opportunity to paint his enemies as evil. But the truth is, the despot bears the responsibility for the deaths of the people in the hospital, due to the wrongness of putting the chemical weapons factory there. The same rules that ordinarily forbod bomobing hospitals also forbid the use of human shields.

Aeon J. Skoble writes:

Preview fail in last line:
"forbid bombing"

Doc Merlin writes:

It would also allow you to bomb any Argentines that were paying taxes to fund the war if they were in favor of the war.
(If they are not in favor and they are paying taxes, you can argue that they are innocent victims.)

david s writes:

The distinction between the Argentine government and the Argentine people is a valid one. However, the distinction itself does not guarantee that the Argentine people bear no responsibility for the aggression in the example given. As argued by Etienne de la Boetie in the Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, and demonstrated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and the changes in former Eastern Bloc countries, even the most repressive governments ultimately remain in power only with the consent of the governed. I suppose that this implies that government is always a reflection of the character and will of the majority at some level although the connection is obviously stronger in a democracy.

John Dougan writes:

“I only know one thing,” the old woman said in a voice ringing with her fierce conviction, “and that is that the revolution must be conducted in accordance with the principles of Kyfho if it is to have any real meaning. There must be no bloodshed, no violence unless it is defensive, no coercion! We must do it our way and our way alone! To do otherwise is to betray centuries of hardship and struggle. Above all else: Kyfho. Forget Kyfho in your pursuit of victory over the enemy, and you will become the enemy…worse than the enemy, for he doesn't know he is capable of anything better.”

F. Paul Wilson, "Enemy of the State"

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