Dan Sanchez – February 19, 2018
Peace is the keystone of liberty and prosperity. To completely understand why, it will be important to develop a theory of peace.
Most arguments against war at least partially rely on empirical evidence. Anti-war literature tends to draw from past calamitous consequences of foreign interventionism. Here I will endeavor to make the case for peace using only theoretical incentive analysis.
Extensive literature already exists discussing the theoretical case for liberty. This gives us a head start in developing a theory of peace, since peace is a constituent part of liberty. Thus, peace is ideal for the same basic reasons that liberty is.
The philosophy of liberty, as originated by the classical liberalism and advanced by modern libertarianism, champions the human rights of life, liberty, and property. These were originally understood in the “negative” sense (thou shalt not be deprived of life, liberty, and property). Today, left-liberals often give them a “positive” spin (i.e., the right to “life” guaranteeing free healthcare). But they originally meant: the right to not be murdered (life); the right to not be abducted (liberty); and the right to not be robbed (property).
At first blush, this may not sound very different from the common moral framework shared by most of humanity. Hardly anybody would disagree that murder, slavery, and theft are bad.
However, most people add a glaring proviso to this moral code: a special exemption for government. If the government takes your money at implicit gunpoint, it is not called theft, but “taxation.” If the government locks you in a cage for possessing a plant, it is not called kidnapping, but “incarceration.” And if the government blasts you to pieces with a Hellfire missile, it’s not called murder, but “war.”
What distinguishes the philosophy of liberty is that it makes no such exemption, but holds agents of the government to the same moral standards as everybody else. And so it rightly looks upon war as mass murder: violating the individual right to life on an industrial scale. This gives us one sense in which peace is the keystone of liberty. Peace is entailed in the right to life, which is entailed in true freedom. So peace is a constituent part of liberty. And it is a key part, because without it all freedom crumbles to the ground. To enjoy autonomy and property, one must have life. There can be no freedom for the war dead.
By war, we do not mean all violence. Liberty does not necessitate pacifism. The rights to life, liberty, and property are dead letters if they cannot be asserted. Life, liberty, and property can be defended, using violence against the assailant if necessary. And if life, liberty, and property are taken, restitution from the perpetrator can be sought by the victim, by force if necessary.
Liberty does not preclude force, but aggression, which is the initiation of force. And war always entails aggression. The term “war” is almost never used to describe the selective pursuit of justice targeting specific individuals. Wars target not specific perpetrators to make specific victims whole, but whole populations for obliteration and conquest.
Thus war always entails the massacre of innocent civilians (as well as much arbitrary violence inflicted on soldiers and officials).
Some claim that the violence of their military is exceptionally moral because it does not specifically target civilians. They chalk up such collateral damage as “accidental” and as a cost that is regrettably necessary to make the enemy government answer for its crimes.
First of all the premise itself is highly dubious: even modern western militaries see much strategic value in the demoralizing effect of civilian casualties.
Secondly, it is a mendacious abuse of language to call such deaths “accidental.” When you take a dose of medicine knowing of its sedative side-effects, you don’t say you made yourself drowsy “by accident.” You consciously brought that effect upon you, even if doing so was not your purpose in taking the medicine. The fact that it is a side-effect makes it incidental, not accidental. The same can be said for inflicting civilian casualties in a bombing raid on a densely populated area. Whatever their chief objectives are, the bombers know full well civilians will die due to their actions, and so those deaths cannot be called “accidental.”
Moreover, even if it was a genuine accident, that does not absolve the killer. Unless you’re Dick Cheney, you cannot shoot someone in the face and then excuse yourself with a simple “oops, didn’t mean to” just because you were aiming for a bird.
And getting at somebody who “deserves it” is no excuse for going through somebody who doesn’t. If somebody hits your car with a rock, that doesn’t give you license to run over anybody standing in your way in order to reach your attacker.
Neither is it justified to punish non-perpetrators merely for sharing a nationality with perpetrators. Such “collective punishment” is antithetical to the individualistic notions of justice that are essential to the philosophy of liberty.
Libertarians are well familiar with how pernicious collectivism is when it comes to domestic affairs. Yet its perniciousness does not stop at national borders. International collectivist violence is just as pernicious as the domestic variety. It misaligns incentives and engenders intractable conflicts just as badly.
Harming foreigners indiscriminately creates grievance among the victims and/or their survivors. People don’t like having their wedding parties bombed by drones. Survivors of such attacks will sometimes seek retaliation. Those who are young and already on-edge, may take up arms. Those who do not take up arms may give aid, comfort, or sanction to those who do.
Now what shape will the retaliation take? The warfare may be conventional or “asymmetric” (i.e., terrorism). If the victims have the same collectivist notions of justice that their victimizers had, it will also involve civilian casualties. Then the “side” of the original attackers will retaliate over those civilian casualties with still further indiscriminate violence. Thus, war is cyclical and self-perpetuating, tending toward an ever growing pile of victims.
The embrace of life, liberty, and property is a universal ethic. These rights can be held by every individual without encroaching on the like rights of any other. They are universally applicable to all. On the other hand, to say that your tribe is so “exceptional” that you may kill the civilians of another country but nobody may kill the civilians of your is not an “ethic,” but merely special pleading. Yet, if war’s acceptance of civilian casualties is to be applied universally, it can only be an ethic of mutual extermination and universal extinction.
It is often said that, “eye for an eye will make the whole world blind.” However, in ancient times “eye for an eye” was actually an advance on previous customs that facilitated escalating feuds. The point was, “only an eye for eye”: not your whole family or tribe for an eye. “Eye for an eye” is not consistent with libertarian principles of restitution, but it is a lot closer to it than the norms of today that sanction collateral damage. Actually, “eye for an eye” probably would not make the whole world blind. But, “All your neighbors’ eyes for an eye” sure as hell eventually would.
While war is by character self-perpetuating and self-expanding, the limited, targeted violence sanctioned by the philosophy of peace and liberty (self-defense and restitution) is by character self-containing. It deters aggression by as much as possible “undoing” it. And since it does not gratuitously create grievance among the innocent, it avoids engendering violent retaliation.
This article was originally published at AntiWar.com. Dan Sanchez is the editor of Fee.org. He is also a prolific essayist, specializing in clarifying economic principles and explaining geopolitics. Dan has also delivered many lectures and speeches on economics and foreign policy. His writings and talks are collected at DanSanchez.me.