A Defense of the Peaceful Transfer of War-Making Power

Prussian general and military theorist Carl von Clausevitz famously said that “war is a continuation of politics by other means.” I think we can reverse this: politics is war by other means. The ultimate aim of politics (in the narrow sense of the word; there’s a more elevated philosophical sense) is what Frederic Bastiat called “legal plunder.”

Other thinkers have elaborated this idea. Franz Oppenheimer’s book The State comes to mind. Oppenheimer influenced Albert Jay Nock, Frank Chodorov, Murray Rothbard, and through them the modern libertarian movement. Oppenheimer distinguished work – which he called the “economic means” – from robbery – the “political means.”

A gang can raid a group of productive people, steal their stuff, and ride off to the next community to plunder anew. Or it can stay around and keep looting the same people. Now people tend not to like this and won’t be terribly productive. So to pull this off, the gang will need to convince the people that the arrangement is for their own good. The gang will promise to protect them from other gangs (which it will surely want to do) and provide other services that will tend to keep the people quiescent. The booty they will be deprived of will be relabeled taxes.

To sell this setup to the people, the gang will need intellectuals or priests to formulate a religion, ideology, or what-have-you to persuade the people that this is all for their benefit. Why? Because rebellion is costly to rulers. For one thing, people who are busy resisting tyranny won’t be producing stuff, which would undercut the point of politics: legal plunder. Better for the rulers, therefore, that the people (at least tacitly) consent to or acquiesce in the arrangement after being encouraged to believe that they are net beneficiaries, despite the palpable costs. Controlling education is useful in this regard.

So we might well look on politics as war on productive people by other means.

This has implications for the revered idea of the peaceful transfer of power, which is much in the news these days. The power that is to be peacefully transferred is the power to make war both domestically and internationally.

Does this mean that we ought to denigrate the peaceful transfer of power? No, of course not. Political power is properly and always an object of suspicion and (one hopes) diminution, but that is no justification for violent transfer. Violence embodies its own intrinsic evils and cannot be controlled or finely targeted. Collateral damage is the rule, not the exception. Moreover, violence will usually result in far worse state abuses – with the support of most people, who will abhor civil disorder.

When President Woodrow Wilson and his Progressive supporters pushed for U.S. entry into the Great War, Randolph Bourne broke with his former allies and eloquently opposed their crusade. What especially irked Bourne was the Progressives’ argument that entering the war would advance their reform agenda.

Bourne disagreed: “He who mounts a wild elephant goes where the wild elephant goes.” Of course, Bourne is also the one who wrote that “war is the health of the state.” Both quotations argue against violence as a means of social change. Even in the face of tyranny, we should favor a presumption of nonviolence, or what Bryan Caplan calls “pragmatic pacifism.” (Also see this.)

The methods of nonviolent resistance have long been fleshed out by Gene Sharp. (See Carl Watner’s “Without Firing A Single Shot: Voluntaryist Resistance and Societal Defense.”

Sheldon Richman is the executive editor of The Libertarian Institute, senior fellow and chair of the trustees of the Center for a Stateless Society, and a contributing editor at Antiwar.com. He is the former senior editor at the Cato Institute and Institute for Humane Studies, former editor of The Freeman, published by the Foundation for Economic Education, and former vice president at the Future of Freedom Foundation. His latest book isWhat Social Animals Owe to Each Other.