Why Libertarians Should Be Pacifists, Not Isolationists
By Bryan Caplan
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
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.