The Traitor Was Paid to Cook for the Russians
One can imagine a just war between a state representing individuals who want to be free and left alone and, on the other side, a tyrannical state aggressor intent on subjecting and looting the libertarian country. If the libertarians win, liberty would increase in the world. But reality is never so simple and war instead typically reinforces, on all sides, the power of the state and the idea that the individual must submit to the collective. War does not bring out the best in all people (contrary to what state propaganda suggests, including the parading women soldiers in Moscow shown on the featured image of this post).
An interesting Wall Street Journal story about the successful resistance of a small Ukrainian town illustrates how war arouses primitive instincts (Yaroslav Trofimov, “A Ukrainian Town Deals Russia One of the War’s Most Decisive Routs,” March 16), although I admit it is not the most tragic illustration in the history of warfare:
Russian soldiers took over villagers’ homes in Rakove and created a sniper position on a roof. They looked for sacks to fill with soil for fortifications, burned hay to create a smoke screen and demanded food.
A local woman who agreed to cook for the Russians is now under investigation, said Mr. Dombrovsky. “A traitor—she did it for money,” he said. “I don’t think the village will forgive her and let her live here.”
In the practice of war if not generally in tribal morality, a traitor is anybody who takes another side than his tribe’s. But note the other element in the story: she did it for money! I suspect that Mr. Dombrovsky would not have been happier if she had done it for free, perhaps “for the cause,” and with a big smile. At any rate, money is apparently an aggravating factor (even if paid in deeply depreciated rubles), which corresponds to the reigning orthodoxy among our own academic philosophers.
A moral case can be made that coerced cooperation with the violent aggressors of one’s neighbor is acceptable, but not cooperation for the purpose of obtaining personal benefits. But then, isn’t avoiding harm a personal benefit? Does it matter that Mr. Dombrovsky, who is a special forces commander, is presumably paid himself? What if the woman had cooked for free and was only paid a tip afterwards ?
We don’t know enough about this case to make any serious ethical analysis, but I would bet that Mr. Dombovsky’s comment reflected a generalized suspicion toward individualist behavior on free markets. If that is true, we are not dealing with the pure war case of a group of libertarians defending themselves against aggressors, but with two more or less authoritarian camps. Not surprisingly, dealing with actual cases is more complicated than with stylized models.
All that seems to confirm the classical-liberal or libertarian idea that an individual usually acts in his own personal interest and that only a minimal ethics—James Buchanan would say “an ethics of reciprocity”—should be recognized as a necessary constraint on personal behavior in a free society. (See my review of Buchanan Why I, Too, Am Not a Conservative in the forthcoming Spring issue of Regulation.)