September 2009

08 September 2009
What should libertarians think about the Second World War?

Libertarians get themselves into a terrible pickle when they talk about the Second World War - or any other for that matter.  I’ve been particularly struck by this this week with articles by Robert Higgs and Sean Gabb - arguing that the US and UK respectively shouldn’t have got involved - and a counter from Johnathan Pearce arguing that they should.

All this is very odd.  Normally libertarianism is so easy - if government uses violence to do it you’re against it.  So when it comes to the NHS - you’re against.  State education - you’re against.  Compulsory metrication - you’re against.  But when it comes to war… oh dear… we find that comrades are at one another’s throats.

I am afraid I don’t really have the last word on this just some observations:

  1. You are allowed to defend yourself when attacked.  I’ve sought of heard it argued that even self-defence is unnecessary but I’ve never heard a libertarian case for pacifism.  Well, not the full beans anyway.  So, I think we can agree on that one.
  2. If you are allowed to defend yourself then you are allowed to defend others.  And what, by the way, is the difference between defending yourself when attacked and a war?  It’s the same thing isn’t it?  So war is allowed.
  3. Some states are better (or should that be less worse?) than others.  Some actually allow you to be a libertarian and spread libertarian ideas.  Some allow you to own property and trade.  As I think those are the principal means by which freedom will spread I think the less bad states are worth preserving.  At least, if the alternative is the really bad ones.
  4. Tyrannies last.  Really, unless they get invaded eg Iraq, Nazi Germany they literally last a lifetime eg Soviet Union, Cuba.
  5. Part of the argument against the Second World War (and the First for that matter) seems to be the idea that there was some way that the horrors could have been avoided.  Maybe, but equally maybe not.  Sometimes all the options are bad.
  6. I hear a lot about what Britons or Americans should have done in 1939 but nothing about what Poles should have done.  And if the answer is that they should have defended themselves shouldn’t we have helped them?
  7. I sometimes hear it said that the Polish government in 1939 was barely nicer to Poles than the German government was to Germans.  Probably true but I suspect it was a damn site nicer to Poles than the German government was.
  8. I often hear the argument that Hitler wasn’t interested in Britain.  This actually holds more weight than you might think.  Underlying a lot of Nazi (and pre-Nazi) policy was the desire to create a German Empire on (a misunderstanding of) the British model.  I mean, really, are the ideas of Lebensraum and the Master Race so very different from the sort of ideas that shaped the British Empire?
  9. However, there is a really big flaw.  Nazi Germany was a tyranny.  Tyrannies use huge amounts of violence.  And violence doesn’t work.  So sooner or later the Nazi regime would have been in trouble.  When tyrannies get themselves into trouble they invariably start wars - think Milosevic’s Serbia or Hussein’s Iraq.  Britain would sooner or later have been attacked.
  10. I also occasionally hear the argument that British state power grew as a consequence of the war - the post-War period seeing the creation of the Welfare State and numerous nationalisations.  I am sure it made it easier but it was a process that was already well underway.  Pensions and unemployment benefit began before the First World War.  Telecoms were nationalised in 1911 and London Tranport in 1934.  It also doesn’t work when you look at the United States.  Sure, state power rose during the war but it collapsed afterwards.  As I understand it as well as many wartime restrictions many of the Depression Era laws were victims of Truman’s economic reforms.
  11. Appeasement works.  No, not in terms of actually altering the behaviour of the appeasee.  But it does allow democracies to make up their minds and wage war with unanimity.  They need that.
  12. Regrettable as it may be the state is currently the only current mechanism for large-scale self-defence.  Perhaps one day it won’t be but for the time being it’s all we’ve got.