Russell on the State
Bertrand Russell is one of the greatest philosophers of the twentieth century but isn’t usually studied as a social or political philosopher, though I am hardly the first to think that his contributions to these areas are underrated. He did not support the free market but nevertheless had much to say about the state that readers of the Mises page will find congenial, and I’d like in this week’s column to look at some of his comments on this topic in his Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916).
Russell has hold of an insight that is crucial to Murray Rothbard; namely, that the state is the principal source of the evils of modern war. Even if, as Russell does and Rothbard does not, you think the state capable of achieving much good, this is outweighed by the harm it causes. Russell writes: “The phenomenon of war is familiar, and men fail to realize its strangeness; to those who stand inside the cycle of instincts which lead to war it all seems natural and reasonable. But to those who stand outside the strangeness of it grows with familiarity.” (Russell has a theory of human motivation according to which instinct, desire, reason, and feeling all play their part. The theory is insightful, though speculative, but I won’t be examining it here.)
He goes on:
It is amazing that the vast majority of men should tolerate a system which compels them to submit to all the horrors of war of the battlefield at any moment when their Government commands them to do so. A French artist, indifferent to politics, attentive only to his painting, suddenly finds himself called upon to shoot Germans, who, his friends assure him, are a disgrace to the human race. A German musician, equally unknowing, is called upon to shoot the p
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