This talk was delivered at the Peace and Prosperity 2016 Conference of
the Ron Paul Institute.
Not long ago I was thinking about the legacy of Murray N. Rothbard, the
brilliant scholar and the creator of the libertarian movement, as well as a
dear friend to both Ron and me. Would that movement have come into existence
without Murray? I don’t think so. And whatever might have developed in its
place would undoubtedly have been less pro-peace, and more willing to reach
an accord with the warfare state, than Murray ever was.
“I am getting more and more convinced,” he wrote privately in 1956, “that
the war-peace question is the key to the whole libertarian
Murray refused to stop talking about war and peace even when, by the late
1960s, his antiwar views had alienated him completely from the
mainstream right wing and had left him with a vastly smaller audience. It
reminds me of how Ron himself, despite all the conservatives who pleaded with
him to leave foreign policy out of his speeches in order to win more support
and influence, refused to do so. The issue was too important – morally,
economically, and in every other way – and these men were too principled.
Of course, Murray was right: the influence and consequences of war are so
pervasive and far-reaching that we cannot think of it as just another issue,
next to sugar quotas. War and militarism warp and deform whatever they touch.
For today I’ve chosen six ways, out of what is surely a much larger number of
First and foremost, war deforms us morally. It does so
because the state itself first warps our moral sense. We’ve imbibed the idea
that the state may legitimately do things that would be considered
unspeakable enormities if carried out by private individuals. If I have a
grievance, even a legitimate one, against someone else, no one would make
excuses for me if I launched an attack on that person’s entire neighborhood,
and I would be thought deranged if I dismissed any deaths I caused as mere
Or suppose Apple computer, or the Staples office supply chain, or the Elks
club, launched a series of missile attacks that killed a thousand people. The
outrage would be ceaseless. The attacks would be portrayed as evidence of the
incorrigible wickedness of the private sector.
But when the United States government launches an indefensible war against
Iraq, spreading death, destruction, and dislocation to an extraordinary
number of people, there is some anger, to be sure, among opponents of the
policy. Yet even most opponents of the war stop short of drawing sweeping
conclusions from this about the nature of the state. They remain in thrall to
what they learned in high school civics, where the state is described as a
great and progressive institution. Not even the horrors of war cause them to
revisit this crippling assumption. And the next time they’re on an airplane, they’ll
applaud the soldiers who fought in that very war. (Would they, by the way,
applaud soldiers who had fought a war launched by Walmart?)
On the other hand, if we think of the state as a parasitic and
self-interested institution that survives by siphoning resources from the
productive citizenry, and which bamboozles the public with a now-familiar
battery of arguments as to why it is indispensable to our well-being, we can
look at war realistically, without all the superstitions and the patriotic
Unfortunately, naive civics-class platitudes have greater purchase on the
American mind than does Rothbard’s brutally realistic portrayal of the state,
its nature, and its motivations. So the racket continues. The presidents who
launch these wars still adorn American classrooms, thereby conveying the
message that whatever their so-called mistakes, these are decent men,
occupying a decent institution, whom the kids have a duty to respect.
War and the preparation for war deform the economy. Now
this one will come as a surprise to some people since virtually everyone has
heard at one time or another that war can stimulate economies. It’s
true that war can stimulate parts of economies; as Ludwig von Mises
pointed out, it stimulates, as does a plague, the funeral industry.
But war cannot stimulate the economy in general. Remember what the economy
is for, after all: meeting the needs of consumers. During the war, the needs
of the people take a back seat to the demands of the military. National
income statistics may give the false impression of prosperity, but any fool
understands that seizing money and spending it on, say, cruise missiles,
can’t make the public wealthy. It merely diverts resources away from civilian
There need not be a hot war raging for militarism to deform an economy. As
Tom Woods reminds us, when half or more of your research and development
talent is diverted into military purposes, that means so much less devoted to
civilian needs. When the Pentagon becomes your major customer, you lose the
competitive edge to which market discipline gives rise. Since cost is not the
Pentagon’s major concern,
the cost-minimizing firm tends to become the cost- and subsidy-maximizing
To get a sense of the sheer scope of the opportunity costs involved, consider
the following examples.
- A single F-16 training jet consumes in under an hour the
same amount of fuel it takes the average American motorist two years to
- To train a single combat pilot costs between $5 million
and $7 million.
- One year of energy use by the Pentagon could power all
American mass transit systems for nearly 14 years.
- The Defense Department consumed so many resources
between 1947 and 1987 that had they been kept in private hands they
could have replaced – or doubled – the country’s entire capital stock.
And meanwhile, despite all the fairy tales about a decimated military, US
military expenditures today roughly equate to those of all other countries on
earth put together.
War and war propaganda deform our views of other peoples.
World War I may have been the classic example of this: the Germans were the
Huns, uniquely prone to carry out the most heinous atrocities. That portrayal
made it all the easier to persuade citizens of the Allied countries to
support, or at least acquiesce in, four years of war against them. And then a
long starvation campaign against already impoverished and sick civilians to
force the government to sign an unjust treaty.
After the war, there was a minor backlash against the lies and insults
that had rendered international understanding all but impossible. In fact,
our modern exchange student program arose out of intellectuals’ unhappiness
with the propaganda dimension of World War I. They looked with embarrassment
at the chauvinistic fervor they had been caught up in right alongside their
countrymen and hoped that more interaction among peoples might make that kind
of demonization less effective in the future.
The various hate campaigns carried out against US enemies is why it’s so
shocking for most Americans to watch videos made by Western travelers and
filmmakers about ordinary life in Iran. Thanks to years of systematic
demonization of Iran and Iranians, they expect to find bloodthirsty savages
riding on camels and plotting massacres. They instead find modern cities
bustling with activity. Most surprising of all, they encounter people who
like Americans, even if – like us ourselves – they don’t much care for the US
Along these lines, war encourages us to think of other peoples as
dispensable or simply beneath us. A wedding party is blown to smithereens in
Afghanistan, and Americans yawn. But we’d certainly pay attention if the
federal government blew away a wedding party in Providence, Rhode Island.
We’d be nearly as shocked if in pursuit of an accused terrorist the US
government bombed an apartment building in London.
Or: the ruling class of country B attacks a military installation of
country A. Country A then bombs country B, eventually killing hundreds of
thousands of civilians. When citizens of Country A wonder aloud years later
whether that had been a morally acceptable thing to do, their impatient
fellows tell them, “That’s war,” thereby begging every important moral
question. Those who raised the issue in the first place are dismissed as naive,
and probably of dubious loyalty.
War corrupts the culture. As literary critic Paul Fussell
has pointed out, “The culture of war kills something precious and
indispensable in a civilized society: freedom of utterance, freedom of
curiosity, freedom of knowledge.” He makes an example of the Pentagon
official who, in explaining why the military had censored some TV footage
showing Iraqi soldiers actually cut in half by US fire, noted casually
that “if we let people see that kind of thing there would never again be
In the US, certainly, an abiding reverence for the military has become a
major part of American culture. As Fussell notes, once a posture of being
uncritical of the military takes hold, it bleeds over into other areas of life.
“The obedience culture is certain over the long-run to shrivel originality
and to constrict thought, to encourage witless adaptation and social
dishonesty.” Indeed, it’s not much of a leap from being uncritical of the
military to being uncritical of government itself and indeed of all
established institutions. This is just how the state likes things to be, of
War distorts our sense of what service to others truly means.
Only to members of the military are we urged to say, “Thank you for your service.”
Toward the great entrepreneurs who extend our lives and make them more
fulfilling, we are taught to be envious and resentful. They are most
certainly not thanked for their service.
The state is able to get away with its aggression thanks in part to its
manipulation of language. A soldier who perished in the Iraq war was said to
have been “serving his country.” What could that mean? The war was launched
on preposterous pretexts against a leader who had not harmed Americans and
was incapable of doing so. If the war was in the service of anything, it was
the imperial ambitions of a small ruling group. By no means did such a
mission, which diverted vast resources away from civilian use, “serve the
War distorts reality itself. Schoolchildren are taught to
believe that the American soldier purchased their freedom by his sacrifices.
Blasphemous bumperstickers compare the American soldier to Jesus Christ. But
in what way was American freedom threatened by Iraq, or Panama, or Somalia?
For that matter, how could any 20th-century adversary have managed an
invasion of North America, given that even the Germans couldn’t cross the
But this carefully cultivated mythology helps keep the racket going. It
increases the superstitious reverence people have for past and present
members of the military. It puts critics of war on the defensive. Indeed, how
can we criticize war and intervention when these things have kept us free?
In short, war is inseparable from propaganda, lies,
hatred, impoverishment, cultural degradation, and moral corruption. It is the
most horrific outcome of the moral and political legitimacy people are taught
to grant the state. Wrapped in the trappings of patriotism, home, songs, and
flags, the state deludes people into despising a leader and a country that
until that point they had barely even heard of, much less had an informed
opinion about, and it teaches its subjects to cheer the maiming and death of
fellow human beings who have never done them any harm.
Let’s return for a moment to Murray. When he opposed the
Vietnam War, he alienated National Review, the major right-wing
magazine and the most important conservative voice in the country, as well as
virtually everyone on the right. He had to write for a small number of newsletter
subscribers. By the late 1960s, he told Walter Block there were probably only
25 libertarians in the entire world.
Things are much easier for us today, thanks in large part
to Murray’s commitment and Ron Paul’s extraordinary example. There are now
millions of people who are resolutely antiwar, and who don’t care which
political party the president launching any particular war happens to belong
On top of that, it’s encouraging to know that younger people are much less
convinced of the need for an interventionist foreign policy. The younger the
audience, the less the warmongers’ fact-free exhortations fall on receptive
ears. That’s why the Ron Paul
Institute for Peace and Prosperity is poised to do so much good for this
country and for the world in the years to come. There’s nothing else like it,
and yet it articulates the inchoate views of millions of Americans who search
politics and the media in vain for a consistent voice for peace.
This in my view is Ron Paul’s greatest legacy. It’s up to all of us to
help carry it forward.