Sunday, November 2, 2008

War and the Non-Aggression Axiom

War is an enormously complex human phenomenon. The fact that throughout human history, in all times and all places groups of human males have been engaged in war, suggests a natural foundation. However, the mere fact that war is natural does not shed much light on whether it is good or not. Libertarians argue that violation of the Non-Aggression Axiom can SOMETIMES be justified only as a means of self-defense. However, the precise meaning of “self-defense,” is a bit fuzzy.” Most wars are initiated by the leaders of nations as offensive acts of aggression in pursuit of specific goals such as resources or territory. Some wars are initiated as preemptive strikes against perceived threats of aggression. Others are initiated as retribution for previous acts of aggression. Therefore, peace-loving libertarians must draw clear lines between self-defense and various acts aggression. But that’s not easy. That’s because the concept of “self-defense” is highly malleable and subject to political manipulation by leaders. Nations naturally “defend” themselves against not only harms, but also threats of harm. The clearest example of self-defense is when a nation is actually under lethal attack by another nation. If Canada or Mexico sent armed troops, tanks, and/or launched missiles across our borders, it would be a clear act of lethal aggression and the United States would be justified in violating the Non-Aggression Axiom. Most of the conceptual malleability associated with the concept of a “threat” can be attributed to imperfect information available to pre-emptive defenders. But most wars have been initiated in defense of economic interests and/or in defense of religious, tribal, or national ideological goals. Since the twentieth century, the United States has justified most of its use of lethal aggression in defense of ideological principles such as “freedom” and/or “democracy.” Given the overwhelming worldwide plurality of aggressive, non-democratic, authoritarian political regimes, this stance drastically expands our list of potential enemies. How many despots can the U.S. afford to depose? How much are we willing to spend on these non-defensive wars and the subsequent nation-building? If war is not a very effective means of reducing non-defensive, state sponsored, lethal aggression, what’s left? How can we promote world peace? Most, but not all libertarians, have faith in markets and see warfare through the lens of market failure. Competitive human males that are engaged in mutually-self-interested commerce tend to be more peaceful and avoid war. Therefore, if we hope to minimize the global incidence of human warfare, we need to prevent the formation of coalitions between unemployed young men and leaders of nations. That entails lessening the influence of government and increasing the influence of non-governmental organizations, especially corporations. How do we do that? Well, in democracies, the first step is for wary citizens to minimize their leaders’ capacity to wage non-defensive wars by limiting the number of troops and resources at their disposal. Although large standing armies may deter invasion by some hostile neighbors, they also provide leaders with a powerful incentive to engage in pre-emptive strikes and/or invade their neighbors. In the tradition established by John Stuart Mill, we libertarians are wary of the power of governments: not only the power of the governments of other countries, but also our own.

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