by Lew Rockwell
This talk was delivered at the Peace and Prosperity 2016 Conference of the Ron Paul Institute.
Not long ago I was thinking about the legacy of Murray N. Rothbard, the brilliant scholar and the creator of the libertarian movement, as well as a dear friend to both Ron and me. Would that movement have come into existence without Murray? I don’t think so. And whatever might have developed in its place would undoubtedly have been less pro-peace, and more willing to reach an accord with the warfare state, than Murray ever was.
“I am getting more and more convinced,” he wrote privately in 1956, “that the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian business.”
Murray refused to stop talking about war and peace even when, by the late 1960s, his antiwar views had alienated him completely from the mainstream right wing and had left him with a vastly smaller audience. It reminds me of how Ron himself, despite all the conservatives who pleaded with him to leave foreign policy out of his speeches in order to win more support and influence, refused to do so. The issue was too important – morally, economically, and in every other way – and these men were too principled.
Of course, Murray was right: the influence and consequences of war are so pervasive and far-reaching that we cannot think of it as just another issue, next to sugar quotas. War and militarism warp and deform whatever they touch. For today I’ve chosen six ways, out of what is surely a much larger number of potential examples.
First and foremost, war deforms us morally. It does so because the state itself first warps our moral sense. We’ve imbibed the idea that the state may legitimately do things that would be considered unspeakable enormities if carried out by private individuals. If I have a grievance, even a legitimate one, against someone else, no one would make excuses for me if I launched an attack on that person’s entire neighborhood, and I would be thought deranged if I dismissed any deaths I caused as mere “collateral damage.”
Or suppose Apple computer, or the Staples office supply chain, or the Elks club, launched a series of missile attacks that killed a thousand people. The outrage would be ceaseless. The attacks would be portrayed as evidence of the incorrigible wickedness of the private sector.
But when the United States government launches an indefensible war against Iraq, spreading death, destruction, and dislocation to an extraordinary number of people, there is some anger, to be sure, among opponents of the policy. Yet even most opponents of the war stop short of drawing sweeping conclusions from this about the nature of the state. They remain in thrall to what they learned in high school civics, where the state is described as a great and progressive institution. Not even the horrors of war cause them to revisit this crippling assumption. And the next time they’re on an airplane, they’ll applaud the soldiers who fought in that very war. (Would they, by the way, applaud soldiers who had fought a war launched by Walmart?)
On the other hand, if we think of the state as a parasitic and self-interested institution that survives by siphoning resources from the productive citizenry, and which bamboozles the public with a now-familiar battery of arguments as to why it is indispensable to our well-being, we can look at war realistically, without all the superstitions and the patriotic songs.
Unfortunately, naive civics-class platitudes have greater purchase on the American mind than does Rothbard’s brutally realistic portrayal of the state, its nature, and its motivations. So the racket continues. The presidents who launch these wars still adorn American classrooms, thereby conveying the message that whatever their so-called mistakes, these are decent men, occupying a decent institution, whom the kids have a duty to respect.
War and the preparation for war deform the economy. Now this one will come as a surprise to some people since virtually everyone has heard at one time or another that war can stimulate economies. It’s true that war can stimulate parts of economies; as Ludwig von Mises pointed out, it stimulates, as does a plague, the funeral industry.
But war cannot stimulate the economy in general. Remember what the economy is for, after all: meeting the needs of consumers. During the war, the needs of the people take a back seat to the demands of the military. National income statistics may give the false impression of prosperity, but any fool understands that seizing money and spending it on, say, cruise missiles, can’t make the public wealthy. It merely diverts resources away from civilian use.
There need not be a hot war raging for militarism to deform an economy. As Tom Woods reminds us, when half or more of your research and development talent is diverted into military purposes, that means so much less devoted to civilian needs. When the Pentagon becomes your major customer, you lose the competitive edge to which market discipline gives rise. Since cost is not the Pentagon’s major concern, the cost-minimizing firm tends to become the cost- and subsidy-maximizing firm.
To get a sense of the sheer scope of the opportunity costs involved, consider the following examples.
- A single F-16 training jet consumes in under an hour the same amount of fuel it takes the average American motorist two years to consume.
- To train a single combat pilot costs between $5 million and $7 million.
- One year of energy use by the Pentagon could power all American mass transit systems for nearly 14 years.
- The Defense Department consumed so many resources between 1947 and 1987 that had they been kept in private hands they could have replaced – or doubled – the country’s entire capital stock.
And meanwhile, despite all the fairy tales about a decimated military, US military expenditures today roughly equate to those of all other countries on earth put together.
War and war propaganda deform our views of other peoples. World War I may have been the classic example of this: the Germans were the Huns, uniquely prone to carry out the most heinous atrocities. That portrayal made it all the easier to persuade citizens of the Allied countries to support, or at least acquiesce in, four years of war against them. And then a long starvation campaign against already impoverished and sick civilians to force the government to sign an unjust treaty.
After the war, there was a minor backlash against the lies and insults that had rendered international understanding all but impossible. In fact, our modern exchange student program arose out of intellectuals’ unhappiness with the propaganda dimension of World War I. They looked with embarrassment at the chauvinistic fervor they had been caught up in right alongside their countrymen and hoped that more interaction among peoples might make that kind of demonization less effective in the future.
The various hate campaigns carried out against US enemies is why it’s so shocking for most Americans to watch videos made by Western travelers and filmmakers about ordinary life in Iran. Thanks to years of systematic demonization of Iran and Iranians, they expect to find bloodthirsty savages riding on camels and plotting massacres. They instead find modern cities bustling with activity. Most surprising of all, they encounter people who like Americans, even if – like us ourselves – they don’t much care for the US government.
Along these lines, war encourages us to think of other peoples as dispensable or simply beneath us. A wedding party is blown to smithereens in Afghanistan, and Americans yawn. But we’d certainly pay attention if the federal government blew away a wedding party in Providence, Rhode Island. We’d be nearly as shocked if in pursuit of an accused terrorist the US government bombed an apartment building in London.
Or: the ruling class of country B attacks a military installation of country A. Country A then bombs country B, eventually killing hundreds of thousands of civilians. When citizens of Country A wonder aloud years later whether that had been a morally acceptable thing to do, their impatient fellows tell them, “That’s war,” thereby begging every important moral question. Those who raised the issue in the first place are dismissed as naive, and probably of dubious loyalty.