War and Morality

by Lew Rockwell

[Ed. Note: The following is a speech Lew Rockwell made at an antiwar rally in Birmingham, Alabama, sponsored by the Alabama Peace and Justice Coalition.]

By what ethical standard should we judge the state? One tradition, which we might call anti-liberal, asserts that there are special laws of morality that apply to the state alone. Another tradition, the liberal tradition, says that states must abide by the moral standards that apply to everyone in all times and all places.

The first view is the ancient one. It permitted and expected states to pillage and kill. The right and wrong of statecraft was dictated by the sword. The idea of universal moral laws and universal human rights did not find favor among the Caesars and Pharaohs, any more than this idea appealed to later dictators.

Yet the liberal tradition gradually abolished the idea of caste and special legal privilege. It asserted, more generally, that no group possesses a special license to lord it over others.

St. Augustine might have been the first to observe that the moral status of Alexander the Great’s conquests was more egregious than the pirate’s depredations. The pirate molests the sea, but the emperor molests the world.

The view that states can do wrong is the most powerful theory of politics in the history of the world. It led to the birth of the dream of universal freedom. Slavery, imperialism, colonialism, militarism, and authoritarianism all came to exist under a moral cloud.

At the same time, freedom and individualism unleashed human energies and, in the setting of free economies, created a prosperity beyond any ever known. This made possible the vast expansion of the world’s population, and human flourishing as never seen before.

Given this history, and the central role that the American Revolution had in furthering the liberal idea, we must ask the question: what does the US government not understand about the evil of imperialism, the immorality of enslaving a foreign people, the malice of colonialism, and the intolerable brutality of authoritarianism?

In fact, the theory of the modern American regime is a throwback to the ancient view, that the U.S. operates under special rules.

The United States believes it can starve foreign countries such as Iraq by imposing killer sanctions that a high U.S. official said were worth the lives of hundreds of thousands of children.

The United States believes that it can use its weapons of mass destruction to threaten any country in the world on the very suspicion that it might be trying to defend itself. The United States can then phony up intelligence, overthrow a leader, and install a regime of its choosing. Not to worry: its magical military Midas touch will transform that country into a paragon of democratic freedom – just as soon as all political opposition is silenced or destroyed.

In short, the U.S. government believes that it operates under a different moral standard, not only from the moral standard that regular people apply to their own affairs, but even different from the moral standard that the United States applies to other states.

And who pays the price for this moral hypocrisy? The victims of war.

Of all forms of collectivist central planning, war is the most egregious. It is generated by the coercive force of taxation and monetary depreciation. Its means are economic regimentation and the violation of the freedom to associate and trade. Its ends are destruction and killing – crime on a mass scale.

War leaves in its wake orphans, widows, parents without children, sickness, hatred, and spiritual and psychological trauma. It gives power to dictators on all sides. It is based on a lie that mass death can ever accord with justice. It attempts to silence those who tell the truth.

Indeed, war is a kind of totalitarianism. It is a policy without limit. It demands from us all that we have to give: our money, our children, our minds, even our souls. Too often people give it all. Too often, Americans give it all.

George Bush was brazen enough to make the doctrine explicit. If you are not for him, he says, you are for the terrorists.

He said it because the state fears the advocates of peace. It fears the truth, and those who tell the truth. It fears those who dare to judge the state by normal standards of morality.

The state fears you. Why? Because you hold the opinions that you do, and refuse to surrender your mind, your talents, your soul. By joining the resistance, you help thwart their plans. You help establish the basis for peace in the future. You help preserve and develop civilization, for the human family can only thrive in a setting of peace.

So I say to you: Keep making the sacrifice. Believe in peace. Proclaim peace. Stand up to the state. Be a dissident. Tell what is true. And do not fear the emperor-pirates. They, after all, fear you. For you help tilt the balance of history against their barbarism, and in favor of peace and freedom.

[Editor’s Note: Lew Rockwell, founder and president of the Mises Institute in Auburn, Ala., and vice president of the Center for Libertarian Studies in Burlingame, Cal., is an opponent of the central state, its wars and its socialism.

LewRockwell.com highlights the news and commentary that he finds important, or simply interesting. It is therefore unapologetically idiosyncratic.

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