This timeless article (see Part I) first appeared on June 20, 2000
week to go further into what the late Murray Rothbard (1926-1995)
teaches us about foreign policy, peace, and war. Those who keep
up with such things will have noticed that there exists a colossal
and ever-growing body of writing on "what Marx really meant."
I wish these folks good luck. In a hundred some years they will
doubtless have worked out Marx's "real views on everything."
I don't think the results will be all that interesting or different
from what we now know. I mean, a load of bad theory, acute journalistic
observations on current events, and a nihilistic yearning for
the thorough destruction of everything may not add up to a "system"
commanding our attention or respect, and in time, one can hope,
Marxism may come to be seen as of merely historical interest.
Oh happy day.
should work out differently with Rothbard's works.
A body of thought which builds on sound economic theory
and integrates that with history and philosophy without
inventing a lot of dubious causal relations and directional
"laws of history" is likely to give better
results than various garage-sale syntheses like Marxism
and fascism, with all their clever joinery, welding,
and baling wire. In addition, Rothbard's writings
have a marked clarity. There's no mistaking What Rothbard
Really Meant. Thus, instead of writing essays on what
Rothbard meant, we can spend more time on developing
his insights or – for those who must – disagreeing
with him. Oh, yes. Rothbard didn't change his views
much or often. Hence, the Single Rothbard Theory.
NATURE OF STATES
especially important essay is Rothbard's "The
Anatomy of the State,"1
first published in 1965. Rejecting the state as a
genial philanthropic enterprise, Rothbard followed
Franz Oppenheimer, who, building on the classical
liberal insight into politics-as-plunder,2
held that there are only two paths to wealth. These
are the "economic means" (production and
trade) and the "political means" (seizure
of wealth created by others). Oppenheimer accordingly
defined the state as "the organization of the
political means to wealth."
this scheme, production was "logically prior"
to plunder. Sociologists would really hate that formulation,
but then sociology has never come to grips with the
most elementary of economic insights, namely the distinction
between voluntary and coerced exchange.3
It followed, for Rothbard, that if production was
logically prior, 1) states had not always existed,
but had come into being at specific times and places,
and 2) states, living by plundering actual producers,
were inherently anti-capitalist. The search
for a radically anti-Marxist worldview need go no
inherent "anti-capitalism" of the state
did not blind Rothbard to the fact that at any given
time some capitalists will be found in happy
symbiotic alliance with the state. The state – the
actual personnel making up the state apparatus – makes
up a very small portion of the population found within
its bounds and needs allies and friends. These allies
and friends profit from state market-rigging in their
favor. There is no great mystery here, requiring the
services of Dr. Marx and his cotton-manufacturing
sidekick, Frederick Engels. So the state's posture
is enmity towards free markets, a stance
entirely compatible with feeding and watering
a class (or "caste") of privileged, state-connected
businessmen. Not surprisingly, Rothbard was a great
critic of modern American corporatism/neo-mercantilism.4
POSTS' AND THE MYSTERY OF CIVIL OBEDIENCE
states are, in some important ways, "outside,"
"above," and "opposed to" what
we might (following John Locke) refer to as "civil
society," we have to wonder how states maintain
their rule and power; how they keep the public from
learning, and then acting on, an analysis of political
plunder/spoliation. (One might add "oppression,"
but the Left has taken out a patent on that one.)
This brings us to one of Rothbard's most important
his magnum opus, Man,
Economy and State, Rothbard wrote that "in
all countries the State has made certain that
it owns and monopolizes the vital nerve centers, the
command posts of the society."5
Such "command posts" include defense (territorial
monopoly or near-monopoly of the legitimized use of
violence), communications, "education,"
the monetary system (central banking), ultimate say
over land-use and ownership, control of rivers and
coasts, and the post office. Other social thinkers
who noticed this phenomenon shrugged, made reference
to "natural monopolies" and such, and went
on to other topics. Rothbard, intent on a critical
understanding of state-behavior, did not.
of education and communication was central to the
state's peaceful existence, and here we find the relationship
between states and intellectuals – a problem
much larger, unfortunately, than a few art-phonies
demanding state subsidies for their bad paintings.
States everywhere have understood the need to "keep"
intellectuals to spread the word of the state's good
intentions, nobility, supremacy, necessity, and so
on. In the past, priesthoods sometimes filled this
role. With the rise of state-monopoly school systems
matters grew much worse. Add to this the state's leverage
over the airwaves and printed communication, and you
have important command posts, indeed. No wonder the
usual suspects want to police the web to protect us
from all those private criminals out there.
goes to what Rothbard called "the mystery of
civil obedience"6 – or why
do people put up with the various oppressions of states
over the long haul? Part of the explanation is the
role state-allied intellectuals play in shaping public
opinion. Matters are even worse in so-called "democracies,"
where bureaucrats and special interests reign supreme,
while the people comfort themselves with the notion
that, in some way, "we are the government"
– a proposition that will not withstand the slightest
spectacle of the intellectuals rallying around the
state, denouncing the "selfish" ordinary
citizen as a slacker who fails to understand the heroic
things the state is doing for him, is especially noticeable
in wartime. The late Cold War, by blurring the distinction
between war and peace, greatly heightened the process.
Now, with constant demands that the American Empire
invade and bomb all malefactors everywhere in the
name of keeping "peace" – not to mention
Universal Brother/Sisterhood – the distinction looks
to remain blurred – quite deliberately, of course.
If "war is the health of the state" –
Randolph Bourne's phrase which Rothbard often quoted
– then permanent mobilization and endless "peacekeeping"
are the perfect setting for long-run growth of state
power as against "social power."
RELATIONS, WAR, AND PEACE
brings us, at last, to the state's favorite and most
characteristic activity – killing people, blowing
things up, destroying accumulated capital, and generally
wasting the moral and social goods built up through
centuries of civilized life – that is to say, war.
It is more than a truism to say, with Herbert Spencer,
that the state had its origins in war and owes most
of its current power and prestige to its waging of
war. It follows that those who wish to preserve their
freedom, property, and lives will wish to avoid war
as much as possible; those who have other goals, will
course, war was not all peaches and cream, even for
states. There was, after all, the danger that some
neighboring "banditti of ruffians" (to use
Tom Paine's phrase) might defeat "our" state
and impose their rule in its former territory. The
state will want its people to identify their fate
and happiness with its – the state's – continued existence.
the old rules of war, observed to one degree or another
from the Renaissance down to World War I, state functionaries
tended to "target" their enemy counterparts.
Ordinary people were not in principle expected
to participate or even be inconvenienced by their
betters' little aristocratic contests, although getting
in the path of some ruler's armed swarm cannot have
been pleasant, whatever the actual rules said. The
rulers' claim on their subjects' loyalty was, by modern
standards, rather undeveloped.
PRIVATE LIGHTHOUSES, PUBLIC GOODS, AND MASS MURDER
who know anything of the history of the American right
wing during the late, glorious Cold War, may recall
William F. Buckley, Jr.'s snide comments on libertarians
as theoretically sound but narrow extremists obsessed
with free-market lighthouses and privatized garbage
collection. It was better to leave war and foreign
policy to those with a knack for such things – interventionists
and bomb-worshippers. We may dodge for now the question
of whether those interventionists were themselves
being subsidized, off-budget, by the state, and look
at Rothbard's answer to the challenge.
"War, Peace and the State,"7
Rothbard built his case from the ground up – from
the rights of individuals to defend themselves and
their justly acquired properties from actual invaders.
This characteristically "Austrian" approach,
in which the "macro" analysis is only the
"micro" analysis seen in a wider frame,
yielded some interesting results. Would it be reasonable
for the police to catch a thief "by spraying
machine gun fire into an innocent crowd"? Rothbard
thought not. By the same token, all modern weapons
(need I add, "of mass destruction"?) were
inherently criminal because they could not be "pin-pointed"
against actual violators of rights and property (p.
can see that this might dishearten those who believe
that good intentions themselves sanctify whatever
means high-minded war-makers choose to use. But Rothbard
wasn't having any "collateral damage" rationales.
His focus on aerial bombing campaigns as the prime
example of modern wartime criminality can only take
on increasing importance and relevance as the Remaining
Super Power and its various sewing circles undertake
more overseas charities and "peacekeeping,"
since they propose to accomplish their good ends,
as much as possible, through bombs, miss-aisles, rockets,
and airplanes, assisted, as needed, by peaceful starvation
blockades now nicely packaged as "sanctions."
hypothetical states, "Graustark" and "Ruritania,"
Rothbard looked at some of the causes of interstate
war. Nationalism was one. Unlike so many Western thinkers
after 1945, Rothbard never believed that nationalism
was "dead" or, alternatively, inherently
criminal where it still existed. Nationalism was simply
a fact, of which notice should be taken. Thus,
if a pocket of ethnic Ruritanians, whose lands were
annexed centuries ago by Graustark, rise in rebellion,
demanding reunion with their brethren, do we have
here a "just war"? Do we all join Friends
of Western Ruritania?
necessarily. If full-scale state-level warfare breaks
out between the interested parties, both states will
increase their assaults on person and property at
home in the name of fighting the war. This is a net
loss to society (meaning actual people). The worst
case would involve widening the two-state war into
some kind of cosmic coalition struggle in the name
of "collective security" or some other abstraction.
Damage – heretofore limited – is maximized and these
higher costs will affect the societies involved, long
after the nattily dressed foreign reporters have filed
their upbeat, first-person propaganda pieces and gone
IS BETTER THAN DEATH
comedian Martin Mull once wrote a little song, "Life
is better than death." In the same spirit, I
think we can say that, nine times (or more) out of
ten, peace is better than war. Living under states,
as we do, we can see that "peace" isn't
exactly perfect, since the term normally refers to
those times when the state confines its predations
to an ongoing, low-intensity "war" against
"its own people" – or "downward"
as opposed to "outward," in Rothbard's terms.8
Since interstate war enables "our" state
to do even more of what it wants to do anyway – to
us – it follows that peace, however imperfect it may
seem, is pragmatically better all around.
his views, it should surprise no one that Murray Rothbard
opposed every war offered us by the state during his
lifetime and extended his critique to most of the
wars fought by the United States in its entire history.
This consistent "isolationism" may puzzle
some. For others of us, it seems the soul of wisdom.
There is much, much more to Rothbard's views on these
matters – more than I could ever hope to deal with
in this format.
is enough to remark that, for Rothbard, the state's
claim to be "defending" us was on a par
with the state's other claims. Like a broken clock,
it might be right for two minutes out of 24 hours,
but was it therefore worth putting up with the other
23 hours and 58 minutes of state aggrandizement?