Libertarians and the War: In today's Wall Street Journal (available for free here on, I have an op-ed on Libertarians and the War in which I note that libertarian first principles do not dictate a single stance towards the war in Iraq and that libertarians are indeed divided on the issue. Here is a portion from the middle:
. . . Does being a libertarian commit one to a particular stance toward the Iraq war? The simple answer is "no."

First and foremost, libertarians believe in robust rights of private property, freedom of contract, and restitution to victims of crime. They hold that these rights define true "liberty" and provide the boundaries within which individuals may pursue happiness by making their own free choices while living in close proximity to each other. Within these boundaries, individuals can actualize their potential while minimizing their interference with the pursuit of happiness by others.

When it comes to foreign policy, libertarians' severe skepticism of government planning in the domestic arena carries over to the government's ability to accomplish anything positive through foreign aid, whether economic or military--a skepticism they share with most Americans. All libertarians, I suspect, oppose military conscription on principle, considering it involuntary servitude. To a libertarian, any effort at "nation building" seems to be just another form of central planning which, however well-motivated, is fraught with unintended consequences and the danger of blowback. And, like most everyone, libertarians oppose any war of aggression. In all these regards, Mr. Paul is a mainstream libertarian.

But like all libertarians, even Mr. Paul believes in the fundamental, individual right of self-defense, which is why libertarians like him overwhelmingly support the right to keep and bear arms. And most also believe that when the territory of the U.S. is attacked militarily, the government--which claims a monopoly on providing for national defense and extracts billions of tax dollars for this purpose--is justified in using the military in self-defense. For this reason, many libertarians (though not all) who now oppose the war in Iraq supported U.S. military actions against the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had aided and harbored the al Qaeda network that organized the 9/11 attack.

But here is the rub. While all libertarians accept the principle of self-defense, and most accept the role of the U.S. government in defending U.S. territory, libertarian first principles of individual rights and the rule of law tell us little about what constitutes appropriate and effective self-defense after an attack. Devising a military defense strategy is a matter of judgment or prudence about which reasonable libertarians may differ greatly. . . .
The point of this essay is not to debate the merits of the Iraq war but to inform those who may be unaware that libertarians can come down on either side of this issue.
More on Libertarianism and War:

I agree with most of the points Randy Barnett makes in his excellent op ed on libertarianism and war. Both the Iraq War specifically and defense policy more generally have historically divided libertarians, as I explained in two posts last year (here and here).

Randy makes a good case that libertarians who accept the idea of defensive war cannot categorically reject the possibility that sometimes the best defense is a good offense. They can, of course, ultimately conclude that limiting war to narrow defensive efforts against truly "imminent threats" is the best policy. But that conclusion requires additional evidence to support it, and cannot be deduced from the nature of libertarianism itself on a priori grounds.

I would go one step further than Randy, and suggest that even nondefensive humanitarian military intervention is potentially compatible with libertarianism. This is a paradoxical claim. After all, libertarianism is nothing if not an ideology of deep skepticism about government-controlled enterprises and wars of any kind clearly fall into that category. Certainly, libertarians oppose all or most large-scale government programs in the domestic realm; if they didn't, they would no longer be libertarians.

Why is warfare different? Because in foreign policy, unlike in domestic policy, the alternative to US government action is often not the free market or civil society, but instead the continued rule of other governments. If the US government abolishes Domestic Program X, that usually means that the field is left open to private sector actors. Libertarians generally assume that the private sector will handle the issue more effectively - and with less infringement on individual rights - than the government would.

By contrast, let us assume that President Reagan decided not to invade Grenada in 1983. The alternative to Reagan's action was not private sector control of Grenada or a libertarian minimal state in that country, but the continued rule of Grenada's communist dictatorship. That dictatorship was, of course, itself a government. Moreover, it was a much worse government - in libertarian terms - than the liberal democratic regime that the US installed after the invasion Reagan ordered. On balance, it is highly likely that the US invasion of Grenada was a net gain in terms of promoting libertarian values, even when one factors in the loss of life and property in the fighting. Grenada is perhaps an easy case for pro-intervention libertarians. Other cases, including Iraq, may be much harder. Nonetheless, it does illustrate one example where military intervention clearly advanced libertarian values far more than it undermined them.

The key insight here is that question of humanitarian military intervention is not a tradeoff between government and the private sector, but is usually a tradeoff between two different governments - the status quo and the one the invaders plan to install. Sometimes, the latter government will be much better from the standpoint of libertarian values than the former. Obviously, one also has to factor in the lives and resources lost in the fighting. Sometimes, these will be so great as to counsel against intervention even in a case where the status quo government is extremely oppressive. The current government of North Korea is perhaps the worst in the world, but its possession of a large army and nuclear weapons ensures that trying to forcibly remove it may be even worse - from a libertarian point of view - than leaving it alone.

Whether or not humanitarian military intervention can be justified on libertarian grounds will vary from case to case. It depends on how unlibertarian the current government is, how much better the new one is likely to be, and how much loss of life and property will occur as a result of the fighting. Libertarianism gives clear, determinate answers on most questions dealing with tradeoffs between the government and the private sector. It is not nearly so unequivocal on issues dealing with tradeoffs between two or more governments. The question of war and military intervention usually falls into the latter category.

None of this suggests that one cannot be a libertarian and still oppose virtually all military action other than narrowly defined self-defense. If you believe that offense is rarely an effective form of defense and that humanitarian intervention nearly always leads to the installation of governments as bad or worse than those they replace, libertarian isolationism becomes the right policy prescription. However, such a conclusion does not flow from the intrinsic nature of libertarianism itself. It requires extensive additional empirical and theoretical analysis to justify it on libertarian grounds. For that reason, libertarians will continue to disagree over war and military intervention.

Even more on libertarianism and war:

I agree with most of Randy's and Ilya's comments on libertarianism and war. I'm just writing to silghtly disagree with Ilya about the nature of libertarianism.

As Ilya writes, the idea that "nondefensive humanitarian military intervention is potentially compatible with libertarianism" may seem to be "a paradoxical claim," but really isn't paradoxical at all. It only seems paradoxical if you think libertarianism, in its essence, is necessarily opposed to government action. But the variety of libertarianism I subscribe to isn't a set of answers; it's a way of asking questions. (Libertarianism is, of course, large; it contains multitudes. "The variety of libertarianism I subscribe to" is quite different than, say, anarcho-capitalism and many other varieties of libertarianism. However, I claim, my variety is consistent with libertarianism, and moreover, a better variety than others!)

And the questions one should ask about any government intervention is whether it will, on balance, increase the protection of rights (where "rights" are defined in a libertarian way -- an important debate but not relevant to this post).

Now -- step 1 -- many government interventions make no pretense at increasing the protection of rights. So that's sufficient reason to oppose them right there. (Adducing examples of this is left as an exercise to the reader.)

But some government interventions, in particular all recent U.S. interventions, make at least a claim that they will increase rights protection in some way. Then -- step 2 -- it's probably a good idea to be deeply suspicious that such claims will pan out, because governments usually do a bad job at this sort of thing. But this is an empirical claim and, as Ilya says, "cannot be deduced from the nature of libertarianism itself on a priori grounds."

Therefore, while I agree with Ilya that "libertarians oppose all or most large-scale government programs in the domestic realm," I disagree that "if they didn't, they would no longer be libertarians." I think libertarianism requires ruling out certain things at step 1, but once the government intervention comes with a claim of rights protection, it can only be rejected on the merits at step 2. Libertarians can disagree at step 2, and many of them will turn out to be incorrect, but such disagreements are fully consistent with the framework of libertarianism.

Thus, one can imagine a libertarian who's either exceptionally optimistic about the chances of success of most potentially-rights-enhancing government programs, or exceptionally pessimistic about the state of rights without the government intervention (even an incredibly bungled one). This libertarian might support most potentially-rights-enhancing government programs (and so you could potentially have a super-hawkish, high-tax libertarian, or similarly a super-environmentalist, high-regulation libertarian). Others, more pessimistic about the programs or optimistic about the state of the world without the program, might take the opposite view. But all of these can properly be called libertarians.

Antiwar Libertarians and the Reification of the State: I hesitated writing my WSJ op-ed, Libertarians and the War because I knew it would provoke a strong reaction from antiwar libertarians, many of whom have been my friends and colleagues for a very long time. That it did. Therefore, I am grateful for the many emails and blog posts thanking me for pointing out that some libertarians disagree with Ron Paul's stance on the war. But I am even more grateful to the many antiwar libertarians who avoided personal attacks and leveled their critique at what they perceived to be my argument rather than against me personally. And I am pleased that very few read my op-ed as an "attack" on antiwar libertarians generally or Ron Paul in particular. To the contrary, one cannot claim as I did that reasonable libertarians can disagree about the Iraq war and, at the same time, dismiss all antiwar libertarians as unreasonable. And I went to some lengths to specify areas of agreement shared by both libertarian supporters and opponents of the Iraq war.

Where most antiwar critics of my op-ed have gone wrong, however, is in asserting that I was attempting to refute their antiwar stance or was offering a defense of the Iraq war on libertarian grounds. That would have been difficult enough to do in a 1400 word op-ed; but was impossible in the 215 words I devoted to why some libertarians disagree with Ron Paul. It should be no surprise, therefore, that they found these 215 words unpersuasive. My sole aim in my op-ed was to inform readers that they should not assume that Ron Paul speaks for all libertarians because it is an undeniable fact that he does not. I have the emails and blog posts to prove it empirically!

[WARNING TO READERS I: LIKE MY WALL STREET JOURNAL COLUMN, WHAT FOLLOWS IS ALSO NOT A DEFENSE OF THE IRAQ WAR! WHILE MY COLUMN WAS ABOUT "LIBERTARIANS AND THE WAR," THIS POST IS ABOUT "LIBERTARIANISM AND WAR." I am sincerely interested in hearing antiwar libertarians' reactions to the analysis below, about which I am genuinely puzzled and have an open mind.]

While a few emailers and bloggers merely asserted that no "true" libertarian could support the Iraq war, the substantive responses to my actual thesis about libertarians and the war were very few. These arguments came largely from radical (or anarchist) libertarians. I have some genuine questions about the coherence of the radical libertarian antiwar position as it is typically presented — questions that would not apply to the same degree, if at all, to a limited state libertarian or minarchist, the antiwar positions of whom this post does not address.


In addition to arguments about the costs and risks of wars in general and/or a particular war, the radical libertarian antiwar position typically includes a strong assertion of the following two propositions:

(1) War is Inherently Unjust. Some radical libertarians are antiwar because they say that war is an inherently unjust activity because it is engaged in by governments who are inherently unjust and illegitimate. Moreover government-waged war — that is, "war" as they define it — unavoidably kills innocent persons and violates their rights. Because the U.S. government is illegitimate (as all governments are), so is the war in Iraq (as all government-waged wars are). Whether or not this argument is correct, standing alone, it is entirely coherent.

(2) Foreign Governments are Sovereign. But judging from their emails and blog posts, many radical libertarians who hold position (1) at the same time adopt a hyper-legalistic view of what constitutes a "war of aggression" in which states are treated as though they were individual persons. In other words, they adopt the Westphalian view of nation states and sovereignty, which was devised to recognize and protect the autonomy of the government rulers "their" territory. When making this argument, these radical libertarians treat foreign governments as "sovereigns" to be respected (by the U.S. government) unless they commit or imminently threaten an act of aggression against the territory of another sovereign. Systematically violating the rights of their own subjects or citizens is a wholly internal domestic matter. In essence, these foreign governments are treated IN PRINCIPLE as the just owners of the territories they govern. And their conduct is to be judged by the same rules of self-defense as are individuals.

As with stance (1), whether or not this argument is correct, standing alone, it is entirely coherent. Indeed, it is the mainstream position of international law, or was the mainstream position before the rise of the concepts of collective governance by international organizations like the United Nations and by the doctrine of internationally recognized "human rights," both of which significantly qualified and greatly complicated the Westphalian notion of sovereignty. So it is noteworthy that, when assessing the conduct of the United States government, radical libertarians are committed, not to the current views of international law (as qualified by collective governance and human rights), but to an unqualifiedly pure Westphalian theory.

One might say that, when dealing with issues of (American) foreign policy, these libertarians reify (foreign) states and treat them like individuals, with all the natural rights of individuals. Even if you try to rephrase stance (2) in terms of "the People" of the respective states, at its core, I do not see how this stance can be anything other than deeply, expressly and quite literally "nationalist" — which seems an odd stance for a radical libertarian. (More moderate libertarians do not have this problem; they have others, but this post is not about them.)

There may be many prudential reasons for treating states like people in the international arena, and I am not arguing one way or the other on the usefulness of this way of thinking. I am just noting that radical libertarians seem to hold a particularly ardent version of this commitment to nation states when they assess American foreign policy. And that seems to be in tension with their stance (1) in which all governments are illegitimate, and equally so.

In addition to these two tenets, antiwar radical libertarians also typically hold the following two positions:

(3) The illegitimacy of the United Nations. Many of these same antiwar radical libertarians, Ron Paul included, are ardently opposed to the United Nations as any sort of governing or ruling authority. This stance I believe to be not only coherent, but entirely correct. But as I will note below, this separates them from the currently prevailing view of international law and, as a result, they can make no recourse to lack of authorization by the United Nations or even violations of United Nations directives in offering criticisms of American foreign policy.

(4) The existence of fundamental human rights. I doubt that any radical libertarians would question the existence of fundamental "human rights." (Indeed, that is part of their argument in (1) above that all war is unjust because it violates the rights of innocents.) Again, I think this stance is not only coherent, it is correct. But again, this means that their strong commitment to state sovereignty in stance (2) puts them at odds with today's international law that recognizes the legitimacy of sometimes protecting human rights by militarily interfering with the sovereignty of a government who has not attacked or threatened to attack another nation state.

That many radical libertarians today simultaneously hold all four of these views is an artifact of the particular evolution of American libertarian thought over the past sixty years, coupled with an undeveloped and inadequate theory of legitimacy. I address the issue of legitimacy in Part I of Restoring the Lost Constitution (you can read a free version of the argument here), which some have mistaken as a repudiation, rather than a refinement, of radical libertarianism, a misunderstanding that stems from many radical libertarians' failure to appreciate the inadequacy of their conception of legitimacy (but this is beyond the scope of this blog post).

THE PROBLEM(S): While each of these stances, standing alone, is coherent, I have trouble understanding how radical libertarians can coherently hold all four positions. In particular, as already noted, stance (1) seems to be in severe tension with stance (2). How can ALL governments be fundamentally and EQUALLY illegitimate (when assessing the propriety of the U.S. government) but all (foreign) governments--no matter what their form or conduct--must be treated AS A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE (as opposed to prudence) as sovereign owners of their territories whose jurisdictions over "their" people are absolutely inviolable unless they attack the territory controlled by another sovereign government?

There is also seems to be some tension between stance (2), according absolute sovereignty to government rulers of whatever stripe, and stance (4) affirming the fundamental human rights of all persons. This tension only increases when we consider these sovereign governments are wholly illegitimate according to stance (1), but they still cannot be stopped from violating fundamental rights (stance 4) within their sovereign territory by other equally illegitimate but also sovereign governments.

Are these foreign governments illegitimate for some purposes or in some contexts and legitimate in others? If so, what is the source of the latter legitimacy that seems inconsistent with stance (1)? And why then might not the U.S. government be legitimate in some respects while being illegitimate in others? To be clear, I am not asserting any answer to these questions. I am only noting that combining stances (1) and (2) seems to require a more nuanced or complicated view of legitimacy than either stances (1) or (2) standing alone. Any such distinction would greatly complicate many radical libertarians' implicit theory of legitimacy according to which all governments are EQUALLY illegitimate.

Moreover, I don't see how radical libertarians can accept stance (3) rejecting entirely the legitimacy of the U.N. and at the same time criticize the action of the U.S. government as "illegal" because it lacks U.N. authorization, or even that it affirmatively violates U.N. resolutions. While I doubt that this sort of criticism is often made by radical libertarians, it is worth noting that they cannot rely on a purely positivist conception of international law to assess the "legality" of U.S. foreign policy because international law today DOES recognize the U.N. and current international law also sometimes views as legitimate military interference with sovereign states to protect fundamental human rights against, for example, genocide. To the extent they want to make claims about the "illegality" of the conduct of the U.S. government, therefore, radical libertarians need to make a NORMATIVE argument on behalf of an PURE Westphalian theory of sovereignty that is no longer recognized by international law, if it ever was. And this is an odd stance for a radical libertarian.

Can a radical libertarian argue that the U.S. government exceeds its powers under the Constitution when it uses its military aggressively? I don't see how without implicitly conceding some DEGREE of legitimacy to the Constitution. Not only would this violate stance (1) by which all government are equally illegitimate, but many radical libertarians are quite hostile to the Constitution, preferring the Articles of Confederation. But would not that mean legitimating the governments of the separate states in violation of stance (1) in which all government are equally illegitimate? How did state governments get to be legitimate governments according to a radical libertarian?

There is one obvious rejoinder a radical libertarian could make to reconcile logically all four of these positions. If ALL wars waged by states are inherently unjust because states are inherently illegitimate and the rights of innocents are always violated by state wars (stance 1) then, a fortiori, an aggressive war by one state against another must also be unjust (stance 2). In essence, stance 2 is simply collapsed into stance 1 as a special case. Because all wars by states are unjust, this includes aggressive wars against sovereign states.

But this rejoinder won't work for most radical libertarians because it proves too much. Stance (1) would oppose ALL wars INCLUDING WARS OF SELF-DEFENSE which stance (2) and most radical libertarians purport to allow. Now I realize that some fraction of radical libertarians, whose opinion I respect, believe that there is no such thing as a just war, but most radical libertarians (including most critics of my WSJ op-ed) allow the legitimacy of a defensive war and oppose only wars of aggression. Some antiwar libertarians who oppose the Iraq war as aggression, for example, supported the war in Afghanistan on "self-defense" grounds. And those who didn't say they would support a war that was truly in self-defense. They simply deny that the war in Iraq fits that description. Yet if they also accept stance (1), as they appear to, then ON THEIR ACCOUNT because a defensive war is waged by an illegitimate government and the rights of innocents were inevitably violated, it too must be opposed.

What if radical libertarians tried to salvage the legitimacy of a just defensive war (and the U.S. Constitution too?), by jettisoning or softening stance (1)? We would then be back to arguing whether a particular war is legitimately an act self-defense, even if it will harm the innocent and even if it is waged by a government. (More on this below.) And to salvage the Constitution the radical libertarian might have to acknowledge that, while all governments may be UNJUST to the extent that they confiscate their income by force and put their competitors out of business by force, some governments are nevertheless more LEGITIMATE than others, and a particular ACTION by a government could be JUST even if the government (qua government) that performs the just action is not. But all this is going to greatly complicate any blanket condemnation of wars waged by governments who may be legitimate to a greater or lesser degree, and some illegitimate altogether and deserving (in principle) of no respect whatsoever, even from other governments.

Perhaps most obviously, it is not clear how radical libertarians can be committed to stance (2) and continue to claim they are radical. Given the nature of government, radical libertarians should be wary of the reification of states as though they were individuals entailed by stance (2). Once stance (2) affirming the sovereignty of states is relaxed or jettisoned altogether, however, analysis of national "self defense" becomes far fuzzier than when we speak of individual self-defense, if for no other reason that persons residing in other "nations" have fundamental human rights that may be violated by those who govern the territory. These innocent persons may justly call upon others to assist them in protecting their rights, and welcome this assistance even at some risks to themselves, and even if it comes from a rival government.

Because of radical libertarians commitment to human rights (stance 4), and their skepticism of the legitimacy of any government (some version of stance 1), any such discussion of self defense should be cautious about relying too heavily on the fine points of a purified version Westphalian international law — or about assessing governments by the specific doctrines that have arisen in civil societies to assess personal defense of self and others. Perhaps these concepts transfer over perfectly, but that cannot be assumed. And they should also avoid any reference to the United Nations (see stance 3) and take into account the human rights (stance 4) of foreigners who are oppressed by "their" governments.

Any such discussion among principled libertarians would be pragmatic, based on an assessment of those policies that tend to advance liberty versus those that tend to retard it (and some antiwar blogger response to my op-ed take exactly this approach), and one's opinion will vary greatly with one's beliefs about the facts of a particular situation, as well as the respective natures of the governments involved. And it can also be principled.

But any such discussion will unavoidably be VERY complex. I cannot even begin it here. I can only raise a few simple questions about the coherence of radical libertarians' antiwar stances. Indeed, this overly long blog post only begins to examine the complexity of libertarianism and war, a HIGHLY under-theorized topic, that merits the attention of radical and moderate libertarians alike.

But for those poor dedicated readers who have gotten this far, perhaps this post will make it easier to appreciate just WHY even radical libertarians can AND DO disagree about the war in Iraq. And maybe also that at least some antiwar libertarians have not completely reconciled their antiwar stances with their libertarianism. Speaking for myself, I know I do not have a fully developed theory of libertarianism and war.
Libertarian Theories of War: In my post below I describe the libertarian take on war to be undertheorized. Two VC readers independently pointed me to two different articles by libertarians in a symposium on "War and Liberty," published in The Reason Papers. Though quite different from each other, both offer the type of effort I was calling for. I have only had a chance to read each paper very quickly, but I found them both to be very thoughtful and I wanted to get links to them up here promptly.

The first, War and Liberty, by Aeon Skoble makes many of the same arguments about sovereignty that I made in my post but goes beyond that to present a modified theory of soveriegnty. Here is a bit:
The problem is that the notion of state sovereignty in the modern era leads to a view of the moral equivalence of all states—Communist China is then no different from Republican Switzerland—and this is detrimental to human rights, because it means that a tyrannical state is immune from outside pressures to liberalize. Michael Walzer goes some of the way in this direction, but not to the ultimate conclusion. The argument is that sovereignty needs to be based in service to people, that is, protecting their rights, so illegitimate regimes don't have sovereignty at all. There's a Lockean component here also: If rights are conceptually prior to the state, then state sovereignty must derive from a theory of legitimacy which is based on protection of rights rather than from a theory of moral equality of all states.

The rights component gets lost when we adopt a "realist" model of legitimacy, such as actually holding power or being "recognized" by the UN. Now, what are the causes which might count as "just cause"? Least controversial is defense against aggression. The right to respond to force with force seems fairly straightforward, although in a moment I will indicate why it might not be for some. A bit less obvious is defense of another. If B is invaded by A, B might have the right to repel the invasion, but utterly lack the power to do so. C's assistance would be justified on the grounds that B was unjustified in aggressing against A in the first place. C's right to use force against A follows from B's right. More controversial still are interventions; for example, taking sides in a civil war or preventing a genocide or removing a tyrant. It might seem as though only in this last case does it even matter what model of legitimacy we adopt. If A is attacked, isn't A's right of selfdefense absolute regardless of whether it is attacked by a republic or a tyranny? Traditional just war theory would answer yes, but I think it actually does matter. Since tyrannical states have no legitimacy, if they are attacked by free states, they cannot claim that their sovereignty is being violated. In other words, intervening to protect rights against a tyrant is not a violation of sovereignty—at least not any kind of sovereignty worth defending. (Nevertheless, the attack would have to satisfy other justice conditions, e.g., it would have to be intended to liberate oppressed people or prevent a genocide rather than to seize raw materials or to acquire territory.)

Some will argue that a free society has no business interfering in other societies' internal politics. But this is, ironically, or paradoxically, a holdover from the old monarchist mindset. The old order on which traditional just war theory is based, and on which sovereignty is the paramount value in international relations, depends on a moral equivalence between states which is derived from a statist view, not an individualist view. On a non-statist, individualist view, individuals, not states, have rights. States may have powers, but the just powers derive from the consent of the governed. The putative right of any state to sovereignty thus is a function of its protection of the rights of the people in its domain. So a free society may very well have some business "interfering" in tyrannical or genocidal states—namely, the business of protecting life and liberty. The very language—that this is "interference" in a state's own affairs--implies that the state has some right of action which is presumptively respected, and again, this can only be justified by old-order thinking, not by liberal thinking. (I am not here arguing that they are obliged to do so, only that they are permitted to do so, or that they do no wrong by doing so.)
The second The Justice and Prudence of War: Toward A Libertarian Analysis is by Rod Long. Here is how it starts:
The morality of warfare is an issue that has long divided libertarians. The spectrum of libertarian opinion on the subject ranges all the way from Leonard Peikoff, who defends the use of nuclear weapons against civilian targets, to Robert LeFevre, who denied the legitimacy of all violence, even in self-defense.

Needless to say, most libertarians fall at various points between these two extremes — though the divisions have become sharper since the 9/11 attacks. (One of the more ironic manifestations of these divisions is that French libertarians are far more likely to support current US foreign policy than American libertarians are; perhaps anti-government thinkers tend to be more attracted to whatever position their own government opposes.)

What view of warfare is most consistent with libertarian principles? Here I shall distinguish between libertarianism as a normative ethical theory — a theory of justice — and libertarianism as a descriptive social theory. Libertarians disagree with one another as to the extent of the former's dependence on the latter; utilitarian libertarians profess to believe the dependence total, while natural-rights libertarians profess to believe it nonexistent, but in practice both groups tend to treat the dependence as partial, and so will I.

Deontological Considerations

The non-consequentialist core of libertarian ethical theory is an egalitarian commitment; specifically, a commitment not to socioeconomic equality but to equality in authority. Indeed, libertarians' lack of enthusiasm for enforced socioeconomic equality stems precisely from their concern that it can be achieved only at the cost of this for libertarians more fundamental form of equality.

The libertarian "non-aggression principle" expresses the conviction that forcibly to subordinate the person or property of another to one's own aims is to assume an unjustifiable inequality in authority between oneself and the other. And it is because this equality in authority likewise holds between private citizens and public officials that governments are forbidden to exercise any powers not available to people generally; libertarianism requires not just equality before the law but equality with the law.

It follows that a consistent libertarian theory of warfare must apply the same prohibitions and permissions to governments and private individuals alike. In this respect it will be radically different from nonlibertarian theories, which typically grant government actors more latitude in the use of violence than private actors; a libertarian theory must be equally permissive — or equally restrictive — with both. A consistent libertarian cannot, for example, accept a mere apology as sufficient recompense when the US military accidentally bombs the wrong target and kills fifteen children in Afghanistan[5]unless she is prepared to be equally tolerant when Uncle Zeke's backyard bazooka target practice accidentally takes out a passing school bus. It can make no difference whether the perpetrator is or is not an agent of the government; nor can it make any difference whether the victims are or are not citizens of that government.
I really need to subscribe to The Reason Papers, which are edited by Aeon Skoble.