Murray Rothbard on War and “Isolationism”
[These edited extracts, from an interview in the February 1973 issue of Reason magazine, first ran in the June 1999 issue of the Rothbard-Rockwell Report.]
Q: Why, in your view, is isolationism an essential tenet of libertarian foreign policy?
A: The libertarian position, generally, is to minimize state power as much as possible, down to zero, and isolationism is the full expression in foreign affairs of the domestic objective of whittling down state power. In other words, interventionism is the opposite of isolationism, and of course it goes on up to war, as the aggrandizement of state power crosses national boundaries into other states, pushing other people around etc. So this is the foreign counterpart of the domestic aggression against the internal population. I see the two as united.
The responsibility of trying to limit or abolish foreign intervention is avoided by many conservative libertarians in that they are very, very concerned with things like price control—of course I agree with them. They are very, very concerned about eliminating taxes, licensing, and so forth—with which I agree—but somehow when it comes to foreign policy there’s a black out. The libertarian position against the state, the hostility toward expanding government intervention and so forth, goes by the board—all of a sudden you hear those same people who are worried about government intervention in the steel industry cheering every American act of mass murder in Vietnam or bombing or pushing around people all over the world.
This shows, for one thing, that the powers of the state apparatus to bamboozle the public work better in foreign affairs than in domestic. In foreign affairs you still have this mystique that the nation-state is protecting you from a bogeyman on the other side of the mountain. There are “bad” guys out there trying to conquer the world and “our” guys are in there trying to protect us. So not only is isolationism the logical corollary of libertarianism, which many libertarians don’t put into practice; in addition, as Randolph Bourne says, “war is the health of the state.”
The state thrives on war—unless, of course, it is defeated and crushed—expands on it, glories in it. For one thing, when one state attacks another state, it is able through this intellectual bamboozlement of the public to convince them that they must rush to the defense of the state because they think the state is defending them.
In other words, if, let’s say, Paraguay and Brazil are going to get into a war, each state—the Paraguayan government and the Brazilian government—is able to convince their own subjects that the other government is out to get them and loot them and murder them in their beds and so forth, so they are able to induce their own hapless subjects to fight against the other state, whereas in actual practice, of course, it is the states that have the quarrel, not the people. The people are outside the quarrels of the state and yet the state is able to generate this patriotic mass war hysteria and to call everybody up to the colors physically and spiritually and economically and therefore, of course, aggrandize state power permanently.
Most conservatives and libertarians are very familiar with—and deplore—the increase in state power in the American government in the last 50 or 70 years, but what they don’t seem to realize is that most of these increases took place in giant leaps during wartime. It was wartime that provided the crisis situation—the spark—which enabled the states to put on so-called emergency measures, which of course never got lifted, or rarely got lifted.
Even the War of 1812—seemingly a harmless little escapade—was evil, and also in the domestic sense, in that it ruined the Jeffersonian Party for a long time to come, it established federalism, which means monopoly state-capitalism in essence, it imposed a central bank, it imposed high tariffs, it imposed domestic federal taxation, which never existed before, internal taxation, and it took a long time to get rid of it, and we never really did get back to the pre–War of 1812 level of minimal state power.
Then, of course, the Mexican War [Mexican-American War, 1846–48] had consequences of slave expansion and so forth. But the Civil War was, of course, much worse—the Civil War was really the great turning point, one of the great turning points in the increase of state power, because with the Civil War you now have the total introduction of things like railroad land grants, subsidies of big business, permanent high tariffs, which the Jacksonians had been able to whittle away before the Civil War, and a total revolution in the monetary system so that the old pure gold standard was replaced first by greenback paper, and then by the National Banking Act—a controlled banking system. And for the first time we had the imposition in the United states of an income tax and federal conscription. The income tax was reluctantly eliminated after the Civil War as was conscription: all the other things—such as high excise taxes—continued on as a permanent accretion of state power over the American public.
The third huge increase of power came out of World War I. World War I set both the foreign and the domestic policies for the twentieth century. Woodrow Wilson set the entire pattern for foreign policy from 1917 to the present. There is a total continuity between Wilson, Hoover, Roosevelt, Truman, Johnson, and Nixon—the same thing all the way down the line.
Q: You’d include Kennedy in that?
A: Yes, Kennedy, right. I don’t want to miss anybody. Every president has been inspired by Woodrow Wilson. It was reported that Richard Nixon’s first act when he came into the White House was to hang a picture of Woodrow Wilson in front of his desk. The same influence has held on domestic affairs. As a matter of fact if I had to single out—this is one of my favorites pastimes—the biggest SOB in American history in the sense of evil impact—I think Woodrow Wilson is way, way at the head of the list for many reasons. The permanent direction which Woodrow Wilson set for foreign policy included the permanent collective security concept, which means America has some sort of God-given role to push everybody around everywhere and set up little democratic governments all over the world, and to suppress any kind of revolution against the status quo—that means any kind of change in the status quo either domestic or foreign. In the domestic sphere the corollary was the shift from a relatively laissez-faire economy—corrupted as it was by the Civil War subsidies and all it was still a relatively laissez-faire capitalism—a deliberate shift to in essence a so-called corporate state, what openly became a corporate state in Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany.
Q: As of what time?
A: Well, the Progressive period begins around 1900 with Teddy Roosevelt and so forth. Woodrow Wilson cements it with his so-called reforms, which totally subject the banking system to federal power, and with the Federal Trade Commission, which did for business what the Interstate Commerce Commission did for the railroads. In other words, he imposed a system of monopoly capitalism, or corporate state monopoly, which we now call the partnership of the government and of big business and industry, which means essentially a corporate state, or we can call it economic fascism. It culminated in World War I economic planning, for the war consisted of a totally collectivized economy headed by the sainted and revered Bernard Mannes Baruch, head of t
Article from Mises Wire