Montreal, October 25, 2003  /  No 131
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Pierre Lemieux is an economist and an author.
by Pierre Lemieux
          How can we look at the so-called "war on terror" from a methodological-individualist or libertarian viewpoint? Here is, I think, the rational way to approach this question – or, at least, an important component of a rational approach.  
          Suppose that a would-be foreign tyrant, be it a foreign state or terrorist group, threatens you by preparing to attack your country. Assume that, should the foreign tyrant succeed, you will lose your liberty, which you value at L dollars. Also assume a probability P(F) that the foreign tyrant will succeed if your own state does not go to war. It follows that, if the war is not waged, the expected cost of foreign tyranny for you is P(F) x L. Alternatively, and equivalently, this value can be viewed as your benefits from the war. 
          What is the cost of the war for you? Disregard the resource cost, i.e., your reduced consumption due to higher taxes to finance the war, or to any advantage that you would lose from the state diverting public moneys to the war. Your cost is the liberty you will lose at the hands of your own state (your own tyrant), because it will be subjected to restrictions which may become permanent. If P(D) is the probability that you would lose your liberty because of the war powers assumed by your own domestic tyrant, the expected cost of the war to you is P(D) x L.   
          If follows that the war will be in your interest or not depending on whether its benefits are greater or smaller than its cost, i.e., on whether P(F) x L < or > P(D) x L. In other words, you will favour the war or not depending on whether P(F)>P(D) or P(F)<P(D), i.e., depending on whether the probability of losing your liberty is greater at the hands of the foreign or the domestic tyrant.  
          This is admittedly a very simplified model. Simple mathematical expectation is used for what are in fact probability distributions of liberty losses. The model does not allow for risk-seeking or risk-averting preferences. It assumes that, whether there is war or not, liberty is lost at the same point in time, producing parallel flows of discounted costs over time. It does not distinguish between loss of life (if, for example, Saddam Hussein, fires a nuclear missile at you) and loss of liberty (if the state can decide to do with your life what it wants). It does not consider separately the costs and benefits of pre-emptive strikes. It does not include any moral consideration besides life and liberty. Yet, this simplified model puts in the limelight one reason for disagreement about the war between people otherwise attached to individual liberty: they have different estimates of the respective probabilities that a foreign tyrant or their own state will take away their liberty.  
          Pro-war libertarians (as well as conservatives) must believe the probability that the Iraqi state or al-Qaeda will deprive them of their lives or liberties to be higher than the probability that their own warmonger states will do it. In other words, they must believe that P(F)>P(D) and that, consequently, P(F) x L>P(D) x L. Even those who defend the "war on terror" for other reasons must take this condition for granted (at least if they do not introduce transcendent moral values, or moral values distinct from life and liberty). How else could a libertarian who thought that our states already had too much power on September 10, 2001 (in fact, they had more than enough powers to wage any kind of just and efficient war) suddenly accept that they be granted still more power?  
          I think that pro-war libertarians are mistaken. There are many good reasons to believe that the actual "war on terror" is more likely than Saddam Hussein or al-Qaeda to destroy our liberties. These reasons are both theoretical and empirical. The empirical reasons are related to the relatively little danger that Saddam Hussein and the decimated al-Qaeda represent for us.(1) The theoretical reasons are suggested by the political economy of war and the state. I take war to mean more or less what my old Webster gives as the first meaning of the word: "A state of usually open and declared armed hostile conflict between nations or states." As Bertrand de Jouvenel argues, war in the modern sense is more between nations than between warlord states, as the civilian nationals of the belligerent states are turned into "national resources," i.e., slaves, by the warring states, and assimilated to combatants.(2) Indeed, this is why the statists say that "the U.S." will attack "Iraq," not distinguishing states from their slave populations. It is easy to understand why the state likes war and the rhetoric of war so much – why it talks about the "war on terror" and the "war on drugs." The state benefits from war in terms of increased power or, at least, in terms of changes in public opinion that are favourable to increased state power.(3) As the Wall Street Journal wrote, "[t]he antiterrorism campaign has helped rehabilitate the image of the federal government, and the yearning for homeland security has made the American public more open to a broader government role in daily life."(4)  
          Some pro-war libertarians apparently believe that the "war on terror" does not in fact increase state power. This is plainly contradicted by the many new powers assumed by Western states under the excuse of the "war on terror" (besides their increased use of existing powers). What pro-war libertarians must mean is either that these new powers will not be permanent, or else that they would have been grabbed by the state anyway. If the latter conjecture is true, it implies that we should never fight any increase in state power because it will change nothing in the long run. As for the former prediction, it is contradicted by the historical record. World War I ended free trade, and started a growth in state intervention that led to the Great Depression and the liberticide legislations of the 30s. About the British experience, historian Geoffrey Fry writes:  
          For all the force of the arguments that it should be, the State's role in the economy was never cut back to its pre-war level. The Railways Act of 1921, which amalgamated the railways into four large privately controlled groups, is sometimes seen as almost the only working legacy of the State's system of wartime economic controls. Yet, State activity which had no precedent before the war included the subsidizing of Imperial Airways in 1924; the work of the Forestry Commission and the Export Credit Guarantees Department; as well as the nationalization of electricity generation in 1926.(5) 
          It can be argued that World War II made the New Deal permanent. Although the draft was eventually abolished after the Vietnam War in the U.S., young Americans are still forced, when they reach 18, to register for any future draft.  
     « Contrary to the major 20th-century wars, where specific war measures were adopted or invoked, the new powers grabbed by the state for the "war on terror" are so intermingled with existing surveillance activities, and will grow so closely with them, that even if "we" wanted to abolish these measures after the "war on terror" ends (if it ever does), we would not know how to proceed. »
          Moreover, contrary to the major 20th-century wars, where specific war measures were adopted or invoked, the new powers grabbed by the state for the "war on terror" are so intermingled with existing surveillance activities, and will grow so closely with them, that even if "we" wanted to abolish these measures after the "war on terror" ends (if it ever does), we would not know how to proceed. The "war on terror" is like the "war on drugs": it brings a host of surveillance measures (money laundering regulations, searches, video surveillance, Internet monitoring, militarization of the police, etc.) which are used for other purposes and take on a life of themselves.  
          I am (of course) not arguing that the crimes committed on 9/11 should not be punished. Of course, they should, if only to deter any foreign tyrant, or would-be tyrant, from ever doing it again. But, as far as possible, they should be punished the way ordinary crimes are punished, i.e., by identifying and capturing the individual suspects, bringing them to court (if they can be taken alive), and imposing penalties to the guilty. In other words, what is required is more police-type operations (and covert operations) than the "total wars" which, as de Jouvenel warned us, feed state power and bring us back to barbarian times. I am not denying that this may involve using the armed forces to battle foreign armies that would interfere with such operations. But it does not justify or require being trapped into the statist logic of war.  
          The distinction between, on the one hand, a limited armed intervention to capture terrorists or to stop an on-going or imminent attack and, on the other hand, waging a war involving whole nations remind us that P(F) is not the probability of a foreign tyrant taking away your liberty if your own state does nothing, but the probability of a foreign tyrant taking away your liberty if your own state does not engage in a war that mobilizes all "national resources" and restricts our liberties. P(F) appears much smaller when one realizes that the powers our own states had before 9/11 were more than sufficient to capture and punish the guilty, and to stop any imminent threat in the future. When you or I evaluate if the cost of the "war on terror" is worth its benefits, the comparison point is not a stateless society, but the existing powers that our states had before 9/11. Adding to these powers increases P(D). 
          Now, not everybody evaluates the risk of the war-waging state as I do. As far as you are concerned, everything I have said may be false. Economists know that evaluation of risk and cost is essentially subjective.(6) Such evaluations depend on preferences, which typically differ from one individual to another. Some individuals may find that, for them, the cost of the "war on terror" is lower than its benefits. Indeed, according to opinion polls, the majority seems to think that way – although there is a difference between bully posturing in an anonymous opinion poll, and voluntarily giving up liberties. At any rate, why should the majority impose its own evaluation of benefits and costs in order that its members maximize their utility at the expense of the minority whose preferences are trampled upon? Libertarians do not generally accept this tyranny of the majority. Why should they in the case of war? By resorting to the orthodox public good argument? But this argument arbitrarily assumes that everybody finds more benefits than costs in a particular solution. In our case, it would mean that it is true for every single individual that P(F)xL>P(D)xL. This assumption has no rational foundation.  
          In matters of essential security upon which the very possibility of liberty depends, there may be a way to reduce P(D) – the probability that our own tyrant will deprive us of our liberties by assuming more power to defend them – so that virtually everybody comes to believe that it is smaller than P(F). In other words, it is not unconceivable (at least logically) that the power of the state be so limited that none of its citizens would fear it more than he fears would-be foreign tyrants. It is not even unconceivable that sending armies (presumably raised for this specific purpose, as professional armies are certainly inimical to liberty) to foreign lands for defensive purposes would become justifiable. But this hypothetical situation has nothing to do with the actual real world, where our own states daily crush our liberties under the excuse of protecting us against real and imaginary dangers. In brief, as long as some individuals (except perhaps real criminals) believe that the war deprive them of more liberty than other solutions, there is no rational reason to support it – at least from an individualist-libertarian viewpoint.  
          I do not think one can invoke what would (hypothetically) happen in an anarcho-capitalist society to justify a state war; at least, the argument is not sufficient. For the state cannot wage a war without coercively imposing a net cost (in terms of taxes, liberty, or dignity) to those of its "clients" who do not agree. Some individuals would probably be willing to pay more (or take more risk) in order to fly with a gun or a nail clipper.  
          There are many ways to criticize my argument from a moral standpoint – as many as there are moral theories. One would be to count the corpses (perhaps discounting future deaths with the real interest rate), and say that the best solution is the one that minimizes the total number of dead bodies. Perhaps this is a moral argument for a pre-emptive strike? Saddam Hussein is likely to kill more people in the future than would be killed by a pre-emptive strike and the future powers of our own states: so let's make war. This utilitarian approach will not convince anybody who thinks that there is no rational basis for such moral calculus, or that a moral theory built on a Benthamite axiom is unacceptable. There may be better ways to contradict my argument from a moral point of view, but I can't see how they would not involve imposing one's moral conceptions on other peaceful individuals. I cannot but wonder whether many supporters of the "war on terror" are not just recycling the old warrior morality. At any rate, moral arguments for the war must factor in the cost in terms of liberty and dignity that it implies for some individuals.  
          Let's summarize our argument. At least for some individuals, the cost of the actual "war on terror" is higher than its benefits because the states that wage it with increased internal powers constitute the worst practical threat. Increasing the power of our soft tyrannies, of the Nice Police State, threatens our liberties more than foreign thugs do. Anyway, there is at least one individual who makes such an evaluation – and I know him very intimately. There are obviously others. My claim is that there is no way to justify the coercion that the warmongers impose on these peaceful individuals. Hence, the actual "war on terror," i.e., the war waged by our own states with their new assumed powers, is unjustifiable.  
          Could the "war on terror" be made acceptable by being waged differently? Theoretically yes, if its expected cost in terms of liberty was reduced. This probably amounts to saying that the "war" on terrorism could be justified to the extent that it would assume more the form and the rhetoric of a law-enforcement operation than of a classical state-waged war. At any rate, it is certain that the new police powers grabbed by our states, which are more and more adopting a custody model of protection,(7) make the actual "war on terror" unjustifiable. I plead with pro-war libertarians to realize that this war is mainly a war on what is left of our traditional Western liberties. 
* First published on September 30, 2002.
1. See Robert Higgs, Iraq and the United States: Who's Menacing Whom?, August 5, 2002, at See also Ilana Mercer, "Save America from the War Party," World Net Daily, September 18, 2002, at (visited September 18, 2002), and "Why So Many Americans Don't Support Attacking Iraq," Globe and Mail, September 19, 2002, p. A-23, at (visited September 19, 2002).  >>
2. Bertrand de Jouvenel, On Power: The Natural History of Its Growth (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1993).  >>
3. Robert Higgs, Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of the American Government (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989).  >>
4. Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2002.  >>
5. George Kay Fry, The Growth of Government: The Development of Ideas about the Role of the State and the Machinery and Functions of Government in Britain since 1780 (London: Frank Cass, 1979), p. 193.  >>
6. James Buchanan, Cost and Choice: An Enquiry into Economic Theory (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc. 1999), available at (visited September 19, 2002).  >>
7. See Pierre Lemieux, "Citizen Custody Under the Guise of State Protection," Laissez Faire Electronic Times, July 1, 2002, at (visited September 19, 2002).  >>
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