The Logic of War According to a Libertarian

[Editor – I originally wrote this back in 2014 as a forum post on the mostly as a bit of fun. I thought I would give it a new home here to kick off a new section of writing with a more general philosophical bent rather than my usual gaming material. Do not mistake the tone too much for I am still rather fond of libertarians.]

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Art of the Peloponnesian War

Now that I am a born again statist of the most reactionary kind imaginable, an absolute monarchist (the horror!), I thought I would amuse myself by brutally tearing asunder all the nonsense and fiction that is bundled together under the title of libertarianism to which, as an anarcho-capitalist, I had hitherto paid some credence. I did the same for communism after my conversion from it to an-capism, so fair is fair.

Superciliously surveying the menu at Chez Mises for some squirming sweetmeats on which to feast I found this little morsel:

Imperialism and Logic of War Making

Unfurling eldritch pinions I swooped upon this prey for as a newly baptised in Blut und Eisen baby bayonetting statist I am naturally, predatorially, interested in the subject of war and imperium. I am also sneeringly aware that on the subject of war and peace libertarians are at their least convincing, easy meat.

Praxeology of War

The author Joseph Solerno opens with a section titled “Praxeology of War” in which he begins by asserting:

Commentaries on war stretching back more than two millennia to the Peloponnesian Wars have enshrouded the fundamental causes of war in an almost impenetrable fog of myths, fallacies, and outright lies. In most studies, war is generally portrayed as the inevitable outcome of either complex historical forces or accidental circumstances generally beyond the understanding or control of the human combatants.

It is not clear if this scathing indictment is aimed at modern or contemporary commentaries of ancient wars. Since he mentions the Peloponnesian Wars we might wonder if he had made this opinion from reading The History of the Peloponnesian War – By Thucydides (431 BC) if so one has to wonder how for Thucydides writes quite clearly and factually on the causes of wars: to raid for resources, to damage the ability of rivals to raid, to acquire dominions which enlarge a group’s strength for conducting and defending against raids, secure trade routes and resources from raiders and for fame / glory.

Perhaps then it is Joseph Solerno himself who is enshrouding the fundamental causes of war in a fog of myth, fallacies and outright lies? As I read on, that is exactly what I find.

Solerno then echoes Murray Rothbard’s claim that:

The rest of praxeology [besides economics] is an unexplored area. Attempts have been made to formulate a logical theory of war and violent action, and violence in the form of government has been treated by political philosophy and by praxeology in tracing the effects of violent intervention in the free market.

So Solerno the economist and Rothbard the economist believes the praxeology of economics is well developed but the praxeology of war is not. Have either of them read Thucydides?

To the contrary, the literate people throughout the ages have left commentaries on the human actions of contemporaries and predecessors, including analysis of why those human actions occurred, for thousands of years and the particular human action they find most interesting to write about is usually war making. Hence why general history is mostly a history of war. Surely if one was not an economist but instead an historian one would conclude that it is the praxeology of war making that is the most explored and not economics?

As a human endeavor like any other, war making is the product of reason, purpose and choice. Therefore a proper analysis of war must take into account the goals of the war makers, the means at their disposal, the benefits they anticipate from the war and the costs they expect to incur in executing it. It also must distinguish in a general way between the individual beneficiaries and victims of war. These victims include not only the vanquished group of war makers and those who reside in the territory they control but especially the productive inhabitants of the region controlled by the victorious organization of war makers.

This is stating the obvious. To paraphrase: war is a business. Assets are deployed, costs are incurred and profits are sought. Well Solerno does not use the word “profit” he uses the word “benefit”. So much was readily apparent to Thucydides, Julius Caesar and other great war journalists of antiquity.

The Real Victims of War

Solerno wants us to distinguish between those that win at this business, the “beneficiaries”, and those that lose, the “victims”. Well of course what historian has not done that? However “victim” is a curious choice of word for those that lose a war. Would we say a serial murderer who had lost a court case that resulted in his hanging was a victim of justice? If someone loses at a game of chess is he a victim of chess? Seriously is Hitler a victim of war?

There is no mistake Solerno tells who are the victims of war making and the first group he includes as victims are the “vanquished war makers”! Really?

We are all quite familiar with the idea that in war there are victims. However we usually think of non-belligerents as victims. In particular we think of those who were unfortunate enough to be caught in the crossfire or were specifically targeted despite being non-combatants. We do not usually think of the belligerents themselves as victims even if they are on the losing side.

What if, like the hanged murderer, the war makers on the losing side started the war? Are they still victims? What happened to the Non-Aggression Principle?

Interestingly Solerno does not include this commonplace association of a victim of war, that of the non-belligerent caught in the crossfire, in his list of victims.

Apart from the losing war makers he cites as victims “those that reside in the territory” controlled by the losing war makers. I hate to quibble but those people are not necessarily automatically victims. If the territory had passed to the control of the winners then they might very well become beneficiaries of the war.

The new administration in so far as they are successful war makers are likely to provide superior security services over that of the losers. They may have more just laws and through their security provision have provided those residents with a larger domain for safe travel and commerce and access to better technology.

Oh but Solerno is interested in another victim of war. Or I should say especially interested. This victim is “the productive inhabitants of the region controlled by the victorious organization of war makers”.

This is fairly fantastic, Solerno believes that of all those that may suffer in a conflict: belligerents of the losing side, belligerents of the winning side whom are likely to suffer some casualties and other hardships however decisive their victory, non-combatants caught in the crossfire and residents of the territory controlled by the losing belligerents, no the ones especially victimised, poor and pitiable, are those who reside in the territory controlled by the winners!

For Solerno when Julius Caesar and his legion conquered Gaul, the special victims were not the Gaulish warriors and their chiefs, they were not the Gaulish non-combatants, they were not the legionaries who fell in combat, no the special victims were the Roman citizens safe in Rome!

If this seems a perverse emphasis it is. All will be made clear with the rest of Solerno’s pamphlet. The entirety of which concentrates its concern, to the exclusion of all other victims, solely on those special victims of Rome which for Solerno are Rome’s own citizens. More precisely the citizen of Solerno’s Rome which is Washington D.C. The victim Solerno wishes us to pity above all others is none other than Solerno himself.

The Definition of War

Having cleared up for whom we must cry bitter tears of sorrow, Solerno proceeds to tell us the meaning of imperialist war.

At this point it is necessary to define war and distinguish it from other forms of inter-human violence in order to circumscribe the bounds of the logic of war making within the general praxeological system. For not all violent conflict constitutes war making. War is here defined as violent interaction between two groups of humans, one or both of which is a state.

So war is not war unless at least one of the groups of combatants is something called a state. What is a state? Solerno has anthropologist Lawrence H. Keeley explain this for us:

States are political organizations [that] have a central government empowered to collect taxes, draft labor for public works or war, decree laws, and physically enforce those laws. Essentially states are class-stratified political units that maintain a “monopoly of deadly force” — a monopoly institutionalized as permanent police and military forces.[2]

To be clear states do not include:

“Pre-civilized social groups such as bands, tribes and even chiefdoms are not states because, according to Keeley, “a chief, unlike a king, does not have the power to coerce people into obedience physically,” instead employing economic means or exploiting a belief in magic to enforce his decrees.[3] Although Keeley refers to “pre-state warfare” or “primitive war,” for the purposes of praxeological analysis, we restrict the term the “war” to violent conflicts involving at least one state.”

Which is odd because it seems to me that a tribal chief or indeed a street gang leader is just as likely, or even more likely, than a king to coerce people into obedience physically and a king is just as likely if not more likely to use economic means and magic (religion?) in order to obtain obedience. Perhaps this criteria for distinguishing the wars of kings and the wars of tribes and biker gangs is not meaningful?

Well one thing is clear Solerno wishes us to consider the wars of kings to be different from the wars of tribes. Are tribes peaceful then? Alas no, Solerno admits they are pretty gruesome, no noble savages here, as his source Keeley reveals: “Anthropological studies show that, while most of these conflicts involved savage violence and extreme cruelty, often resulting in the expropriation, enslavement, expulsion or annihilation of the vanquished tribe their purpose was never to establish a hegemonic relationship and exact regular tribute from the foe.”

Wait a minute, tribes do enslave their foes but do not establish a hegemonic relationship and exact regular tribute? Is not “establish a hegemonic relationship and exact regular tribute” in fact just a fancy way of saying enslavement? Why yes I do believe it is.

As Kelley explains, “Polities that lack the physical power to subjugate their own populations or to extract involuntary tribute or taxes from them are extremely unlikely to make war against others for these purposes, since they lack the institutional and administrative means to convert victory into hegemony or taxation.”

Subjugate their own populations? Surely he means discipline their own populations which tribes do too. Tribes can however convert victory into slavery and expropriated resources which is not a different thing.

Thus, while both non-state social groups and states have historically engaged in the violent annexation of territories to acquire natural resources, only states possess the institutional means necessary to pursue a policy of imperialism i.e., the ongoing subjugation and economic exploitation of other peoples. Imperialist wars waged by states in every epoch of history are not accidental; they are the outcome of the powerful tendency to war making inherent in the very nature of the state.

Except “non-state” social groups from biker gangs to the Apache Indians do in fact pursue a policy of imperialism, they just are not as good at it or as nice about it. The hair splitting fails because “the powerful tendency to war making” is not inherent to this concept called the state it is inherent to nature of mankind, tribes and biker gangs included.

A Libertarian Class Conflict

Now that Solerno has clearly established that war is not war when a “non-state” does it and war is war when a “state” does it, we proceed to discover that Solerno has a rather marxian analysis of why Washington D.C continues to exploit the underclass of university professors like Solerno.

All governments past and present, regardless of their formal organization, involve the rule of the many by the few. In other words, all governments are fundamentally oligarchic. The reasons are twofold. First, governments are nonproductive organizations and can only subsist by extracting goods and services from the productive class in their territorial domain. Thus the ruling class must remain a minority of the population if they are to continually extract resources from their subjects or citizens.

Genuine “majority rule” on a permanent basis is impossible because it would result in an economic collapse as the tribute or taxes expropriated by the more numerous rulers deprived the minority engaged in peaceful productive activities of the resources needed to sustain and reproduce itself. Majority rule would therefore eventually bring about a violent conflict between factions of the previous ruling class, which would terminate with one group establishing oligarchic rule and economically exploiting its former confederates.

Is government really a non-productive organisation? Compared with say economics professors? Does it not at least produce governance? Might that production of governance entail some desirable services like: organising the defence of the realm from other governments, keeping the streets safe for university professors and hanging traitors? No? Perhaps the good professor prefers tribes of biker gangs.

The professor has another reason why everyone is not a ruler.

The second factor that renders oligarchic rule practically inevitable is related to the law of comparative advantage. The tendency toward division of labor and specialization based on the unequal endowment of skills pervades all sectors of human endeavor. Just as a small segment of the population is adept at playing professional football or dispensing financial advice, so a tiny fraction of the population tends to excel at wielding coercive power. As one writer summed up this Iron Law of Oligarchy: “[In] all human groups at all times there are the few who rule and the many who are ruled.”

So government is by the few for the same reason everyone is not a basketball player. Presumably this is a good thing? Alas no.

The inherently nonproductive and oligarchic nature of government thus ensures that all nations under political rule are divided into two classes: a productive class and a parasitic class or, in the apt terminology of the American political theorist John C. Calhoun, “taxpayers” and “tax-consumers.”

Phew! Lucky for us we do not divide the population into the class of basketball players and the class of non-basketball players or we would really be exploited.

The king and his court, elected politicians and their bureaucratic and special-interest allies, the dictator and his party apparatchiks — these are historically the tax-consumers and, not coincidentally, the war makers.

So war is a service provided by government for which those who are not government pay. Is this still like basketball players? Why yes it is.

War has a number of advantages for the ruling class. First and foremost, war against a foreign enemy obscures the class conflict that is going on domestically in which the minority ruling class coercively siphons off the resources and lowers the living standards of the majority of the population, who produce and pay taxes.

We may also note that basketball has a number of advantages for the perfidious basketball player class. Playing basketball against a foreign team obscures the class conflict that is going on in which the minority basketball player class siphons off resources from the majority of the population who produce and pay for games.

Convinced that their lives and property are being secured against a foreign threat, the exploited taxpayers develop a “false consciousness” of political and economic solidarity with their domestic rulers.

I hear people develop a false solidarity with basketball players too.

An imperialist war against a weak foreign state, e.g., Grenada, Panama, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. is especially enticing to the ruling class of a powerful nation such as the United States because it minimizes the cost of losing the war and being displaced by domestic revolution or by the rulers of the victorious foreign state.

Yes basketball players also delight in playing against weaker teams, it minimises the risk that they might lose causing outraged fans to throw popcorn at them and try to take over the team (as if they could do better).

A second advantage of war is that it provides the ruling class with an extraordinary opportunity to intensify its economic exploitation of the domestic producers through emergency war taxes, monetary inflation, conscripted labor, and the like. The productive class generally succumbs to these increased depredations on its income and wealth with some grumbling but little real resistance because it is persuaded that its interests are one with the war makers. Also, in the short run at least, modern war appears to bring prosperity to much of the civilian population because it is financed in large part by money creation.

Nothing like a game of basketball for increasing sales of merchandise and tickets. The fans generally succumb to these increased outlays because they are persuaded that their interests are with the basketball players. Poor dumb rubes.

We thus arrive at a universal, praxeological truth about war. War is the outcome of class conflict inherent in the political relationship — the relationship between ruler and ruled, parasite and producer, tax-consumer and taxpayer.

Um no. War is the same as it always was. The universal praxeological truth of war is that it is the outcome of human beings need for security, crush enemies, acquire resources that can not be had any other way and settle disputes that can not be done any other way. If a government makes war in order to raise taxes rather than raise taxes to order to make war then what you have is a government that is either incompetent or insane.

Which brings us neatly to the US of A. The US is a democracy and so it is country governed by quarreling mobs of lunatics but that just results in a crazy war policy rather than a class conspiratorial one.

Amusingly for a libertarian Solerno has co-opted and modified a marxist narrative to explain in terms of cold coordinated calculation the war policy of a government that is structurally incapable of even basic sanity. It is like imagining David Icke’s shape-shifting reptilian overlords from outer-space really do secretly rule the world.

He goes on pasting his class conflict narrative over the Athenian Empire without offering the slightest evidence that it is correct.

Solerno is sure he has nailed it now, a dollop of diluted and mutated marxism with a bit of crackpot anthropology and pseudo-history slopped in after it and the poisonous brew of Washington war policy is revealed as a conspiracy against the oppressed masses of economics professors.

A Libertarian Final Solution

What can be done? Solerno has the answer here too. Sever the sinews of the imperialist war machine! Stop working, stop paying taxes! Starve the beast back into its cage. Solerno says make war on the government. Economic warfare for sure but it is warfare all the same and will be viewed as such by the government itself which means reprisals.

This is Solerno’s own special version of “Si vis pacem, para bellum”. It is nuts of course. The beast is insane but that just makes it more dangerous. Poke it hard enough and it will be directing its drones at economics professors instead of random Afghani goat herders and that is a steep price for a tax break. Is he serious?

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