With the United States on the verge of another war in the Middle East — or is it merely the continuation of a decades-long war? — we libertarians need to reacquaint ourselves with our intellectual heritage of peace, antimilitarism, and anti-imperialism. This rich heritage is too often overlooked and frequently not appreciated at all. That is tragic. Libertarianism, to say the least, is deeply skeptical of state power. Of course, then, it follows that libertarianism must be skeptical of the state’s power to make war — to kill and destroy in other lands. Along with its domestic police authority, this is the state’s most dangerous power. (In 1901 a libertarian, Frederic Passy, a friend of libertarian economist Gustave de Molinari, shared in the first Nobel Peace Prize.)
Herbert Spencer, the great English libertarian philosopher of the late 19th and early 20th century, eloquently expressed radical liberalism’s antipathy to war and militarism. His writings are full of warnings about the dangers of war and conquest. Young Spencer saw and cheered the rise of the industrial type of society, which was displacing what he called the militant type. The industrial type was founded on equal freedom, consent, and contract, the militant on hierarchy, command, and force. Yet he lived long enough to see a reversal, and his later writings lamented the ascendancy of the old militant traits. We have a good deal to learn from the much-maligned Spencer, who is inexplicably condemned as favoring the “law of the jungle.” This is so laughably opposite of the truth that one couldn’t be blamed for concluding that the calumny is the product of bad faith. As Auburn University philosopher Roderick Long writes,
The textbook summary is absurd, of course. Far from being a proponent of “might makes right,” Spencer wrote that the “desire to command is essentially a barbarous desire” because it “implies an appeal to force,” which is “inconsistent with the first law of morality” and “radically wrong.” While Spencer opposed tax-funded welfare programs, he strongly supported voluntary charity, and indeed devoted ten chapters of his Principles of Ethics to a discussion of the duty of “positive beneficence.”
Spencer jumped on the issues of war and peace right out of the gate. His first book, Social Statics (1851), contains a chapter, “Government Colonization,” that examines the effects of imperialism on both the home and subjugated populations. While formal colonization has gone out of style, many of its key characteristics have been preserved in a new form; thus Spencer’s observations are entirely pertinent.
He starts by pointing out that the “parent” country’s government must violate the rights of its own citizens when it engages in colonial conquest and rule. Spencer advocated just enough government to protect the freedom of the citizens who live under it (although the first edition of his book included the chapter “The Right to Ignore the State,” which he removed from later editions), and he claims that the money spent on colonies necessarily is money not needed to protect that freedom. He writes,
That a government cannot undertake to administer the affairs of a colony, and to support for it a judicial staff, a constabulary, a garrison, and so forth, without trespassing against the parent society, scarcely needs pointing out. Any expenditure for these purposes, be it like our own some three and a half millions sterling a year, or but a few thousands, involves a breach of state-duty. The taking from men property beyond what is needful for the better securing of their rights, we have seen to be an infringement of their rights. Colonial expenditure cannot be met without property being so taken. Colonial expenditure is therefore unjustifiable.
Spencer proceeds to demolish the argument that foreign acquisitions increase the wealth of the parent society, as though such acquisitions are analogous to voluntary trade relations. He writes,
Experience is fast teaching us that distant dependencies are burdens, and not acquisitions. And thus this earliest motive for state-colonization — the craving for wider possessions — will very soon be destroyed by the conviction that territorial aggression is as impolitic as it is unjust.
Any true economic benefits from dealing with foreign populations can be obtained through free trade, he says. He invokes the law of comparative advantage to argue that the parent society loses, not gains, when the government coercively creates artificial foreign markets for products the society can’t produce as efficiently as others can.
As for those on the receiving end of colonial policy, Spencer was blunt: “We … meet nothing but evil results. It is a prettily sounding expression that of mother-country protection, but a very delusive one. If we are to believe those who have known the thing rather than the name, there is but little of the maternal about it.” While the worst practices, he adds, were less common in his time, “kindred iniquities are continued.”
We have but to glance over the newspapers published in our foreign possessions, to see that the arbitrary rule of the Colonial Office is no blessing. Chronic irritation, varying in intensity from that of which petitions are symptomatic, to that exhibited in open rebellions, is habitually present in these forty-six scattered dependencies which statesmen have encumbered us with.
He condemns “the pitiless taxation, that wrings from the poor ryots nearly half the produce of the soil” and “the cunning despotism which uses native soldiers to maintain and extend native subjection — a despotism under which, not many years since, a regiment of sepoys was deliberately massacred, for refusing to march without proper clothing.”
Down to our own day the police authorities league with wealthy scamps, and allow the machinery of the law to be used for purposes of extortion. Down to our own day, so-called gentlemen will ride their elephants through the crops of impoverished peasants; and will supply themselves with provisions from the native villages without paying for them. And down to our own day, it is common with the people in the interior to run into the woods at sight of a European!
Is it not, then, sufficiently clear that this state-colonization is as indefensible on the score of colonial welfare, as on that of home interests? May we not reasonably doubt the propriety of people on one side of the earth being governed by officials on the other? Would not these transplanted societies probably manage their affairs better than we can do it for them?
No one can fail to see that these cruelties, these treacheries, these deeds of blood and rapine, for which European nations in general have to blush, are mainly due to the carrying on of colonization under state-management, and with the help of state-funds and state-force.
Spencer was keenly aware that such criticism of the government was regarded as unpatriotic. In 1902, near the end of his life, he turned his attention to that charge.
In an essay titled “Patriotism,” included in his collection Facts and Comments, he begins, “Were anyone to call me dishonest or untruthful he would touch me to the quick. Were he to say that I am unpatriotic, he would leave me unmoved.”
England may have done things in the past to advance freedom, Spencer says, but “there are traits, unhappily of late more frequently displayed, which do the reverse.”
Contemplation of the acts by which England has acquired over eighty possessions — settlements, colonies, protectorates, &c. — does not arouse feelings of satisfaction. The transitions from missionaries to resident agents, then to officials having armed forces, then to punishments of those who resist their rule, ending in so-called “pacification” — these processes of annexation, now gradual and now sudden, as that of the new Indian province and that of Barotziland, which was declared a British colony with no more regard for the wills of the inhabiting people than for those of the inhabiting beasts – do not excite sympathy with their perpetrators.… If because my love of country does not survive these and many other adverse experiences I am called unpatriotic — well, I am content to be so called.
“To me the cry — ‘Our country, right or wrong!’ seems detestable,” he continues.
Spencer gave no ground on this matter, which he made obvious with a story he relates toward the end of his essay.
Some years ago I gave my expression to my own feeling — anti-patriotic feeling, it will doubtless be called — in a somewhat startling way. It was at the time of the second Afghan war, when, in pursuance of what were thought to be “our interests,” we were invading Afghanistan. News had come that some of our troops were in danger. At the Athenæum Club a well-known military man — then a captain but now a general — drew my attention to a telegram containing this news, and read it to me in a manner implying the belief that I should share his anxiety. I astounded him by replying — “When men hire themselves out to shoot other men to order, asking nothing about the justice of their cause, I don’t care if they are shot themselves.” [Emphasis added.]
Spencer was second to none in his antimilitarism and anti-imperialism, that is, his love of universal individual liberty and all forms of voluntary social cooperation. With heads held high, libertarians can claim him as one of their own.