Rothbard on Substitutionism
Often when we ask how to deal with an economic or political problem, some libertarians suggest that we answer in this way. First, we should ask, how would this problem be handled in a fully libertarian world, in which states do not exist? Once we have the answer to that question, we should try to come as close as possible to the fully libertarian solution as we can.
Murray Rothbard does not reject this approach outright—I don’t think he accepted it either—but he shows that there is an assumption people often make when trying to implement it that is questionable. This assumption is what he calls “substitutionism,” and this is what I would like to discuss in today’s article. Rothbard’s discussion of substitutionism arises from a controversy about foreign policy, but here I’m interested not so much in the rights and wrongs of that issue, but rather in the general assumption.
Rothbard’s discussion of substitutionism appears in the Libertarian Forum (June–July 1984). As everyone knows, Rothbard thinks that nations should follow a noninterventionist foreign policy. He isn’t a pacifist, but wars, except in defense against invasion, are almost never justified.
The philosopher Eric Mack disagrees. In his paper “Rights, Just Wars, and National Defense,” he allows for a wider range of foreign policy interventions than Rothbard does. (This article is a revised version of the article Rothbard discusses. I cite it because it is more conveniently available.) He says, for example,
It is clearly reasonable to maintain and refine distinctly counterforce weaponry as a means, consistent with just war doctrine, for deterring
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