Questioning Murray Rothbard on the Civil War and Just War

Murray Rothbard once opined that there were only two “just wars” in all of American history. The wars in question were the American Revolutionary War and the secessionist war of the Confederate States during the American Civil War.

Murray’s reasoning for including, at least, the war of the Confederacy is dubious. To quote his take on what constitutes a just war:

My own view of war can be put simply: a just war exists when a people tries to ward off the threat of coercive domination by another people, or to overthrow an already-existing domination. A war is unjust, on the other hand, when a people try to impose domination on another people, or try to retain an already existing coercive rule over them.

This viewpoint of Rothbard is not the best take on just war. Rothbard uses the collectivist concept of a people rather than the autonomous individual. This can easily lead to a nationalistic defense of state sovereignty as opposed to a radical defense of individual rights. This is not to deny that human beings exist in a social context. It simply acknowledges that consent is ultimately necessary on an individual level.

Even if one agrees with this viewpoint, it doesn’t legitimize the South’s war. The South was trying to preserve coercive domination over black people. And the Confederacy hypocritically denied slaves the same right of secession that the Confederate government was claiming in relation to the Union. The negative libertarian rights and freedoms of the slaves were not acknowledged by the Confederate state.

There is simply no way of reconciling radical libertarian principle with a defense of the so called Southern War of Independence. This doesn’t mean the Union was perfect or perfectly embodied libertarian ideals either. To quote Roderick Long:

When libertarians on one side point out that the Union centralised power, violated civil liberties, committed vicious war crimes, was hypocritical on secession, ignored avenues for peaceful emancipation, and cared more about tariffs and nationalism than about ending slavery, I agree and applaud; but they lose me when they start calling the Civil War the “Second War of American Independence” and portray the Confederates as freedom fighters.

Equivalently, when libertarians on the other side point out that the preservation and extension of slavery was central to the South’s motivations for secession (as seems clear from what secessionists said at the time of secession, as opposed to what they said in their memoirs years later), and that the Confederacy was just as bloated and oppressive a centralized state as the Union, equally hypocritical on secession and equally invasive of civil liberties, once more I agree and applaud. (As I like to say, the Confederacy was just another failed government program.) But they too lose me, when they start calling Lincoln a great libertarian and the consolidation of federal power a victory for liberty.

The proper position to take is one of opposition to both states alike and support for anarchistic abolitionism of the Lysander Spooner variety.

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