Libertarianism and War: The Rothbard Rule

by | Sep 30, 2016


The year was 1956: the icy winds of the cold war were blowing across the political landscape. And it was a presidential election year, pitting the internationalist Republican Dwight Eisenhower against Adlai Stevenson, the darling of the Democratic party’s left wing. The “isolationist” faction of the GOP, led by Sen. Robert A. Taft, had been finally defeated by what Phyllis Schlafly later called the Republican “kingmakers” of the Eastern Establishment. And the looming menace of the cold war turning hot was everywhere in the headlines. While Eisenhower was rallying the nation against the alleged Communist “threat,” Stevenson was calling for a nuclear test ban, negotiations with the Soviet Union, and an end to the military draft.

There was no organized libertarian movement at the time, although the people and institutions that would later emerge as the leadership were beginning to coalesce. Prominent among them was Murray Rothbard, then a thirty year old economist and consultant for the Volker Fund, who was also the Washington correspondent for the quasi-libertarian Faith and Freedom magazine. While most if not all conservatives and libertarians favored Eisenhower, Rothbard shocked his readers with a ringing endorsement of the liberal Democrat Stevenson.

While opposing Stevenson’s domestic program of more government spending and expanded social programs, Rothbard explained that it was the Democratic nominee’s position on the vital foreign policy issues of the day that ought to earn him libertarian support. While Eisenhower was playing the Soviet “threat” card, Stevenson was warning of the dangers of a nuclear confrontation between the two superpowers. Richard Nixon was quick to jump on Stevenson as an “appeaser” when Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin endorsed Stevenson’s nuclear test ban proposal. The Soviet suppression of the Hungarian revolt further escalated the cold war hysteria that was sweeping the nation, and Eisenhower easily won a second term.

Yet Rothbard’s dissent was prescient: the Communist system, he wrote in Faith and Freedom, was “relatively inefficient” and doomed to fail. The enemy, he pointed out, was not merely communism, but “statism in all its forms.” Furthermore, under a wartime regime the State made its greatest inroads on the private sector: America’s wars had always been the occasion for a “great leap forward” in the power of the centralized State to impinge on every aspect of our lives. The ultra-conservative readers of Faith and Freedom were not convinced, and Rothbard was soon out as a columnist – yet his stand against the anti-communist hysteria and warmongering of the cold war Right was both prescient and principled.

As early as 1952, Rothbard had noted the fatal flaw in the “New Right” of William F. Buckley, Jr., whose magazine, National Review, would become the flagship periodical of the conservative movement a few years later. In a piece for Commonweal, Buckley had written:

“We have to accept Big Government for the duration – for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores.”

Buckley maintained that conservatives had to become apologists for “the extensive and productive tax laws that are needed to support a vigorous anti-Communist foreign policy” and the “large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington – even with Truman at the reins of it all.”

The conservative project in the cold war era was essentially fraudulent. All that talk about “free markets,” individual liberty, etc. etc. was just window-dressing for making the world safe for the CIA, the military-industrial complex, and the embittered ex-Communist and ex-Trotskyist types who flocked to Buckley’s banner, and whose “expertise” on the ins-and-outs of “international Communism” gave them status and cushy jobs in the cold war era.

Rothbard broke with the National Review crowd, and went on to play a decisive role in severing the youthful libertarian movement from organized conservatism. And it was his emphasis on the centrality of foreign policy – that is, non-interventionism – that was the signal issue provoking the split. It was irreconcilable opposition to the Vietnam war that finally separated out libertarians from their former allies in the conservative movement. It was no coincidence that, just as that war was reaching its height during the presidency of Richard M. Nixon, so the conservative Republicans’ adherence to anti-statism and the free market was reaching its nadir with wage and price controls, the introduction of significant welfare measures, and the creation of OSHA and other regulatory agencies that the conservatives of yesteryear would’ve looked on with horror.

In a 1994 speech, Rothbard averred:

My ideological and political activism has been focused on opposition to American’s wars, first because I have believed our waging them to be unjust, and second, because war, in the penetrating phrase of the libertarian Randolph Bourne in World War I, has always been ‘the health of the state,’ an instrument of the aggrandizement of state power over the health, the lives, and the property of their subject citizens and social institutions.

What Rothbard called his “antiwar and ‘isolationist’ guiding star” had been the moral and ideological compass that had charted his course from the 1950s to the 1990s – from the “Old Right” to the New Left and then on to the Libertarian Party of the 1970s and ‘80s and the revival of the Old Right in the 1990s. He realized that the vital question of war and peace isn’t just a side issue – he knew that, for libertarians, it is the most important issue of our time or any time. The reason is because either, like Buckley, we choose to worship at the altar of the war god, and must therefore bow down before the “necessity” of a “totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores,” or, like Rothbard, we can reject this false idol and take up the banner of liberty.

What the latter means, in actual practice, is always supporting the least interventionist political movement or candidate: it means supporting Stevenson over Eisenhower in spite of the former’s domestic program, because, in the long run, the victory of the latter candidate means more resources diverted to the public (military) sector and more power invested in the centralized State.

Conversely, the more we pull back from the international stage, and abjure the pernicious hubris of exercising American “global leadership,” the more the power and reach of the State shrinks on the home front. It is a process that is almost automatic.

Freed of the scourge of internationalism, think of the tremendous resources that would stay in this country – in the pockets of American taxpayers – instead of flowing out to every petty despot and Third World hellhole on earth. During the first presidential debate, Donald Trump opined that “We’ve spent $6 trillion in the Middle East, according to a report that I just saw. Whether it’s 6 or 5, but it looks like it’s 6, $6 trillion in the Middle East, we could have rebuilt our country twice. And it’s really a shame.”

It’s not just a shame – it’s a crime, one that has consequences far beyond the specter of impending bankruptcy.

The domestic spying program exposed by Edward Snowden – perhaps the greatest incursion on our civil liberties ever — is entirely the consequence of our foreign policy of perpetual war. The more we hit the hornets’ nest the more terrorist attacks we see on the home front – and this provides the justification not only for universal surveillance, but also for even more draconian restrictions on our basic rights as the pace of terror and retaliation picks up. For those who value liberty above all else, this cannot end well.

Our job, then, is clear enough: we must lift the burden of empire from our shoulders. This must be the central task of libertarians under any and all circumstances – but especially now, when the threat of another cold war with Russia looms large, and the cries of the War Party for yet another Middle East crusade are getting louder by the hour. Every political tendency, every occurrence, must be weighed and evaluated with this standard in mind.

The simple fact of the matter is that we cannot be a republic and an empire: we cannot have a globe-spanning network of bases, dozens of tripwires planted across every continent, a military budget that exceeds those of the seven biggest spenders put together and still remain faithful to the constitutional vision of limited government handed down to us by the Founders. It is one or the other – and the time for choosing is at hand.

Reprinted with permission from