To avoid confusion I want to clarify some terms and my usage of them. Pacifism has commonly been used to refer to two different concepts. The first is the view that violence is always wrong, even in self-defense. The second is the view that opposes war. I use pacifism here in the second sense.
Why ought passivity be praised in general? Michael Huemer argues it is because,
Political actors, including voters, activists, and leaders, are often ignorant of basic facts relevant to policy choices. Even experts have little understanding of the working of society and little ability to predict future outcomes. Only the most simple and uncontroversial political claims can be counted on. This is partly because political knowledge is very difficult to attain, and partly because individuals are not sufficiently motivated to attain it. As a result, the best advice for political actors is very often to simply stop trying to solve social problems, since interventions not based on precise understanding are likely to do more harm than good.
The Principle of Passivity especially applies to foreign policy. Libertarians generally favor a foreign policy of non-interventionism because when the government tries to intervene in other countries’ affairs, it is very prone to knowledge and incentive problems and so is very unlikely to achieve a positive outcome. Not only is there little reason to think a government half way across the world has the knowledge necessary to solve other countries’ problems, there is little reason to think governments have any incentive to solve the problems since they are are so often prone to special interests and political favoritism. Additionally, interventionist foreign policy very often causes blowback and unintended consequences that leave people living under the intervening government in danger (I believe this reason boils down to one of knowledge, but because of its special relevance to foreign policy, I want to address it separately).
The three reasons non-interventionism is to be favored are 1) knowledge problems, 2) incentive problems, and 3) blowback. It’s just safer and smarter to err on the side of non-intervention, rather than risk making things worse (which the government almost always does). I believe these three general lines of argument, taken to their logical conclusions, lead to pacifism. A non-interventionist foreign policy prohibits offensive wars, but allows for so-called “defensive wars.” But all modern wars involve the death of innocents. All war requires aggression and mass murder. The arguments for non-interventionism imply a position that opposes all war, even defensive ones. There is no reason to draw the line between non-interventionism and pacifism. The reasons to support the former are also reasons to support the latter.
Take the first reason: the knowledge problem, which says military generals, elected officials, and government agents are even further from the problem in the case of foreign policy than they are from domestic issues like the economy. If a libertarian believes the government doesn’t have the knowledge to fix the domestic economy, they surely can’t consistently believe it has the knowledge to fix international issues. Moreover, war is subject to even worse knowledge problems than the average government action. The details specific to each situation and what it takes to make war a net good are rarely known to the actors involved. Almost everyone is ignorant to the exact causes and effects of these large scale, national disputes. If you want evidence for this, just look at the track record of policy analysts, foreign policy “experts,” and elected officials and their predictions and policy decisions. All war, then, suffers from the knowledge problem and general ignorance on the part of leaders, not just offensive wars.
The second argument for non-intervention is the enormous incentive problems involved in government action. The government is largely in the business of dispersing costs over all of society to protect and favor special interests. Those groups that have government captured are even more likely to increase their controlling efforts towards war, a huge money-making opportunity for multiple industries (arms manufacturing, oil companies, state-contracted research and development, infrastructure companies, corporations looking to expand their market, etc). Whenever the government takes part in war, it’s very likely it is in service to special interests, not national defense. If not, it’s very likely that special interests will find a way to get involved and manipulate government foreign policy in their favor. The fact that government answers to concentrated interest groups most of the time doesn’t go away during war, let alone defensive war. It is even more likely to be in service to those interests during that time.
The final reason, blowback, is similarly an issue in every case of war. The nature of modern warfare means there will be innocent victims. Bystanders who never aggressed will die in any war. The death of innocents will cause hatred and resentment towards the country responsible for their deaths, even if this country is responding to those peoples’ country’s initial aggression, and is thus bound to cause blowback. This worry is present even in defensive war. Insofar as the response to aggression is violent, the risk of blowback is there.
The libertarian concern for blowback also sheds light on why a policy of pacifism wouldn’t necessarily have the effect of “cheapening the cost of aggression” and making it more likely for other countries to attack us. If libertarians are right and almost every war in US history has been in some way indirectly caused by some earlier US action, then the primary cause of foreign aggression is actually aggression on behalf of the US, sometimes by means of economic or political tools to insight attacks, not necessarily military violence. Avoiding war altogether avoids all chances of blowback, which seems to be the biggest cause of aggression against the US.
Suppose you were walking around with a loaded Ak-47, pointing it at people, but claiming you were only going to fire in self-defense. Would others see you as more of a threat or less of one? I suspect most people would feel immediately threatened and preemptively try to deal with the situation to protect themselves, and rightfully so. This is US foreign policy. The US has a loaded AK-47 pointed at everyone’s faces in the name of defense and security. That is what makes the world so dangerous. What this argument entails is the lower the chance of you going to war, the less other warring countries will care about you. Pacifism, then, makes us safer.
Bryan Caplan writes, “Pacifism… is the radical notion that before you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences.” What possible reason is there to think the government can be reasonably sure to achieve those good consequences? Libertarians, in recognizing why the government cannot be reasonably said to be able to achieve good consequences in most cases, let alone international conflict, should follow Michael Huemer’s advice to “Political leaders, voters, and activists,” and, “first, do no harm.” That is, libertarians should fight to end all war.
This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions. If you’re a student interested in presenting your perspective on this blog, visit our guest submissions page. Like what you read here? You can sign up for a weekly digest of the SFL blog and subscribe for a weekly update on SFL’s events, leadership programs, and resources.