In the wake of the nuclear threats emanating from North Korea in the last week, and the apparent seriousness of those threats, the US has taken steps to prepare its military for a nuclear attack. Although it is highly unlikely North Korea could target the mainland US, it could quite easily target US military bases in the region, such as on Guam. With these events in mind, and a semi-global conflict possibly just around the corner, it seems right to once again have the discussion of what, if anything, constitutes a just war. What I think is perhaps surprising about the libertarian approach to just war theory is that libertarians hold highly varied positions. So, should libertarians be pacifists?
The traditional libertarian position on pacifists
The position today most associated with libertarianism, inherited from and argued for by John Locke, is the principle of non-aggression. Under this view one cannot initiate force or violence, but one can use force or violence in response to an initial act of aggression. In justification of this view, it can be said that once the aggressor makes their initial act of violence, they have rejected natural law and violated natural rights, and that because of this, action must be taken to preserve and uphold natural law. This, in Locke’s view at least, meant that as much violence should be enacted in response such that two conditions are fulfilled. First, the initial aggressor and other potential aggressors would be dissuaded from violating natural rights again, and secondly that the victim of the initial act can be fairly compensated for the suffered grievance.
This approach however, does not seem consistent with core libertarian principles. Libertarians do not believe, and indeed it is a strongly held libertarian position, that a good law should be upheld with evil means. If the means are immoral, then so is the end. It is because of this fundamental belief that we reject a theoretically state-controlled slave society in preference for the risks inherent in a healthy free society. It would seem odd to abandon this principle in the case of war, when arguably, it matters most. Locke still upholds that aggressors have natural rights, just that we can violate those in response to aggression, and it is this contradiction of condoning violence against those with natural rights that is inconsistent with libertarian principles.
This is another, more practical, problem with this approach. How could it be possible for an individual, a collection of individuals, or a government, to determine what amount of violence is necessary to ensure that natural law is not broken again? It does not seem possible, which leads to the very likely result that they would calculate wrong. A huge amount of over-punishment could result from Locke’s approach, which has the potential to cause far more violence than ‘necessary’. Besides, does this approach of human social calculation not lead to something libertarians are supposed to stand directly opposed to, central planning? I would argue that Locke’s approach leads libertarians to become the very thing we are fighting.
The ‘Abdication of Rights’ approach
Of course, the Lockean can shift to the position that upon an act of aggression, the aggressor abdicates their natural rights and is no longer under the protection of natural law. The aggressor has chosen to reject a society of peace and now any violence against that individual is justified.
This view, though perhaps more conceptually plausible than the Lockean position, just does not seem intuitionally plausible. As libertarians, do we really believe that a person can ever lose their human rights? Surely the very term, ‘human’ rights, implies we do not discriminate between humans, and that all humans, regardless of worldly circumstances, have natural rights? After all, natural rights are not given and taken away from humans; they exist as an essential part of our humanity.
Although the ‘Abdication of Rights’ approach may be appealing for the practical libertarian trying to arm himself against evil in the world in the wake of the collapse of the Lockean position, it is inconsistent with the assertion of natural rights that libertarianism is committed to.
There are many forms of pacifism, but the one most appealing to libertarians and most fitting to consider is that of anarcho-pacifism. This approach was most famously exemplified by Mohandas Gandhi; it completely rejects violence and force in any form for any purpose. Only with this attitude to war can libertarians remain absolutely consistent to the principles that natural law entails.
The main criticism of this view is not from theoretical grounds, as the anarcho-pacifism is theoretically sound, but on practical grounds. The arguments made against anarcho-pacifism in my view are symmetrical to the arguments made against the free market. These arguments often make fallacious appeals to emotion such as, ‘you must do something to fight evil’, or, ‘you cannot just allow people to suffer’. These arguments fail when used against the free market, as we know, and they fail when used against anarcho-pacifism. What libertarians recognize in the free market and what we should apply equally to the issue of war, is that inaction, though often harder to perform, has huge value.
There is another comparison with libertarian attitudes to free markets that can be explored. Even if a government economic scheme that involves coercion is successful in accomplishing its aims, we do not see it as having value because its aims were not determined freely. Likewise, we do not see moral good in an action that is forced, by which I mean that by forcing a person to be good, you actually restrict from them the possibility of doing good, since good can only be achieved through free choice. In this way, even if war were to lead to practically preferable ends, not that I concede it would, it would still not be a preferable course of action because acts of force, coercion and violence can have no worth, in any circumstance.
Those that support anarcho-pacifism are often attacked ad hominem that we would not choose inaction were the circumstances more personally affecting us. Aside from this attack presenting no challenge to the theory itself, I would think that the actions of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Jesus, and many others show us that not only is anarcho-pacifism possible, but that when we see it we recognize its absolute virtue.