As I wrote in my previous piece on statism and the Israel-Hamas conflict, states are organized crime rackets. Wars between states thus represent warfare between rival gangs. The proper libertarian position with reference to such gang wars is neutrality, or the opposition to all state parties to war. Neutrality includes opposition to interventionism, including opposition to sending arms and aid to other nations. Foreign aid increases the tax aggression on the taxpayers of the country that sends aid and increases the recipient state’s control over its own population and over those subject to its aggression.
But I asked a question in that piece that I did not fully answer: Does the libertarian position with reference to war significantly change in considering conflicts between states and nonstate agents? After all, this is the situation in the “war” between Israel and Hamas, or what has become the “war” of Israel on the people of Gaza and the West Bank.
This question goes to the heart of statism itself. States have appropriated for themselves the exclusive use of force that violates the nonaggression principle (NAP)—that is, force that is used for other than defensive purposes. And, as Murray N. Rothbard pointed out in “War, Peace, and the State,” states cannot undertake exclusively defensive wars. Given the technologies of modern warfare, innocent people and their property rights will necessarily be violated in war.
In the case of Israel’s bombing of, and incursion into, the Gaza Strip—in a supposed effort to root out Hamas—Israel has aggressed upon an estimated 2.3 million people—by killing nearly ten thousand people to date (over half of them women and children), by injuring another twenty thousand, by displacing much of the population, and by destroying homes and other property. That Gazans voted to have Hamas represent them makes no difference in terms of the violation of their rights. Gazans did not vote for the “right” of Israel to attack them, and even if they had, it would not exonerate Israel. People cannot be held responsible for what their governments do. And in any case, Israel is the de facto government of the Gazan people and has funded, supported, and propped up Hamas for decades.
But how do states manage to undertake, under the cover of war, and with the implicit or even explicit approval of their constituents, what individuals are not permitted to do, and, in fact, should not do? That is, how has the initiation of aggression against persons and property by states come to be accepted as legitimate? State violence is only seen as legitimate because people have come to accept the idea that states are exempt from the moral obligations that obtain for individuals and nonstate groups. States arrogate to themselves a monopoly on violence, and people have been so habituated to this presumed monopoly status that they have come to believe that it is legitimate.
Likewise, when states undertake violence, it is routinely called “war,” while when individuals and nonstate groups initiate violence against groups or states, it is often called “terrorism.” I am not hereby suggesting that the violence of so-called terrorists is more legitimate than that of states, but rather that state violence is more often regarded as legitimate, while the violence of nonstate actors is routinely vilified.
The differing nomenclature and regard for state and nonstate aggression is explicable in terms of statist ideology. Statist ideology lends states their peculiar, supposed exemption from liability. Ideology is nothing but the representation of the truth as its inverse. But the hocus pocus of state ideology does not make state violence any more legitimate than that of individuals and nonstate groups.
Yet, ironically, states use war to establish and fortify their legitimacy. As Rothbard put it:
It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society. Society becomes a herd, seeking to kill its alleged enemies, rooting out and suppressing all dissent from the official war effort, happily betraying truth for the supposed public interest. Society becomes an armed camp, with the values and the morale—as Albert Jay Nock once phrased it—of an “army on the march.”
The root myth that enables the State to wax fat off war is the canard that war is a defense by the State of its subjects. The facts, of course, are precisely the reverse. For if war is the health of the State, it is also its greatest danger. A State can only “die” by defeat in war or by revolution. In war, therefore, the State frantically mobilizes the people to fight for it against another State, under the pretext that it is fighting for them.
While libertarians do not exonerate any parties to war, Rothbard suggested that war guilt usually cannot be equally distributed. The case of Israel’s war on Gaza and the West Bank is no exception. Even though Hamas violated the NAP on October 7, 2023, it is Israel which has the most war guilt on its side. The primary reason that it has managed to elude this guilt, in its own mind and in the minds of many Americans, at least, has to do with its status as a state and as a religious state to boot—that is, as a state with an ideology that is particularly bewitching to many. But this status, as I have suggested, is hardly an endorsement of its innocence.