Is non-interventionism immoral?

“The noblest fate that a man can endure is to place his own mortal body between his loved home and the war’s desolation.” Robert Heinlein Starship Troopers

For as long as I can remember, people interested in politics have been debating various crises where the main question was whether or not the U.S. military should go and bomb somebody who was doing something bad. All too often the debate involved two camps talking past each other, with the proponents arguing that the bad guys were really bad, and the opponents arguing that it was a waste of tax-payer money. Eventually Hitler is brought up, and then the debate becomes useless because few things kill rationality in a conversation quicker than accusing someone of supporting the Holocaust.

These arguments pit two truisms against each other. The first is Jon Stuart Mill’s observation that “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing.” The second principle is Thomas Jefferson’s observation that “War is an instrument entirely inefficient toward redressing wrong; and multiplies, instead of indemnifying losses.” Both truisms are correct yet seem to be irreconcilable.

Often, when two principles that are correct seem to contradict each other, it is because the thinker is making a bad assumption, and this is the case here. The choice is not between “looking on and doing nothing” on the one hand and “war” on the other. There are many ways to resist or oppose evil that do not involve “war”.

The modern conception of war works in the following way: a nation state commandeers some quantity of resources and, if need be, conscripts people. It then attacks another group of people in an attempt to break the will or the capability to fight of those the nation state has decreed to be an enemy. This manner of fighting is quite successful and yet is profoundly immoral on three counts:

1) The commandeering of goods leave those who owned the goods worse off.

2) Any conscription is slavery. Conscripts who are killed have been deprived of their lives.

3) The people killed or injured by the nation state are often not its enemies but people who have the misfortune to live in territory controlled by the attacking nation-state’s enemies.

4) Ditto for the people who own property that is destroyed by the nation state.

Note that none of these moral objections impinge on opposing evil! If I were to purchase a sniper’s rifle and bullets and go out and assassinate Adolf Hitler I would not be injuring any innocent. Nor would I be endangering anyone but myself.

There is nothing immoral about a group of people getting together to decide to fight some evil and pooling their resources, like the American citizens who volunteered to fight the Nazi war machine in Spain by joining the Abraham Lincoln Brigade. If George Bush had raised a private army to liberate Iraq, staffed it with people who volunteered specifically for that cause, and equipped it with voluntary donations, we would not be having this debate. Those who wanted to see Saddam dancing the Danny Deever could work toward that end, while those who wanted nothing to do with the enterprise could continue on with their daily lives.

“But isn’t that a classic case of allowing good men to do nothing? Doesn’t that ensure that evil will be victorious?” some of you may be wondering. Perhaps. But, let us examine this question with a Reductio Ad Absurdum: should everyone in the world drop everything they are doing and do nothing but hunt for the killer until they have caught him every time a murder is committed? What can someone living here in Massachusetts do but “look on” when a rape is committed in Shanghai?

Obviously, we must decide what evils require us to act, and which evils we cannot do much about, which brings up the question of who decides which cases require us to act and which don’t? To me the obvious answer is that the people who can act are the ones that should be making the decision, that these decisions should be individual ones!

What the interventionists are really claiming is that they should have the power to substitute their own judgments for those of the people whose resources and services they wish to commandeer. They seek to force people to fight or sacrifice property to a cause those people do not support. Regardless of how just the interventionists’ cause, compelling people to support it is inherently immoral – and there is no way to convert that wrong into a right.

At this point, I am sure one of you is thinking, “Okay, but the Abraham Lincoln brigades were a military failure! Franco won and ruled Spain into the mid 1970’s! It took total war – the commandeering of all the production of the most industrially advanced nation on earth – to defeat Hitler! By the time people could have been persuaded to fight him, it would have been too late!”

The fact is, a substantial number of people who came under Nazi or Stalinist control collaborated with those regimes. It was the people who lived in the occupied territory who were the “good people who did nothing”. Had they actively resisted, destroyed the census records, refused to fight on behalf of the German army etc, the Nazi war machine would have collapsed. The Germans never attempted an invasion of Switzerland, since the well armed population was thought to be unconquerable.
Nor was massive bombardment and total war required to wipe Nazism off the face of the earth. The Soviet Union, as nasty and evil an empire as the Nazi one, collapsed without a single U.S. bomb dropped on a single city. They did not collapse because of the Reagan arms build-up. They did not collapse because the CIA gave Stinger missiles to the Afghani resistance. They collapsed because the victims, the people living within the Soviet Union, had stopped cooperating with the Soviet government.

To evade their victims’ anger, every totalitarian regime points to some outside threat as a justification for the privations suffered by their victims. “Don’t have enough food? It is the Yankee embargo.” “You can’t take shampoo on a plane because of terrorists.” “You must flee the city and abandon your possessions because the Americans are about to bomb it.” How much easier is it, then, when the threat is real? If Khmer Rouge had tried to use the specter of a coming Swiss bombardment as the explanation for the forced evacuation of Phnom Penh, they would have faced far more resistance. Because the American government had a track record of bombing cities controlled by communists, the population believed their leaders’ lies and cooperated in their own destruction.

Furthermore attacks where non-combatants are hurt tend to backfire; when American bombs rained down on Germany, did the Germans blame Hitler? No. It stiffened their resolve and made them much more willing to obey the German government, much as when German bombs rained down on England, the English banded behind their government.

A expansionist totalitarian government can only be stopped when the leadership gives up, dies, or the populace stops obeying it. Generally it is doomed once it cannot expand any more since the looting accompanying the expansion is what keeps the system going. If left to their own devices, eventually majority of the population will come to see the regime as their enemy rather than outsiders. But if they are injured or killed by outsiders that process will not occur. Thus invasive or punitive war is a needlessly destructive, rarely successful, and inherently immoral method of attempting to free people from tyranny.

“Interventionism”, a scheme that depends on semi-indiscriminate state violence – or the threat thereof – using confiscated men or materiel to alter the actions of people whom the interventionists don’t like is thus inherently immoral. “Non-interventionism” is not a declaration of a willingness to do nothing and sit idly by, it is the rejection of an immoral tool.

I am an anarcho-capitalist living just west of Boston Massachussetts. I am married, have two children, and am trying to start my own computer consulting company.
  • Jeff Molby

    Great piece, tarran. I will keep a copy on hand at all times.

  • Chepe Noyon

    Very interesting analysis! I think that it would be clearer if you observed that the non-interventionist approach is effective, but it also takes a lot more time. It took forty+ years to defeat the Soviet Union without attacking it. The same thing would have applied with Hitler or any other aggressor. They would eventually have been thrown out, but it might have taken several generations.

    But there is a weakness in your logic. The most common way for tyrants to control a population is to share the loot with a minority large enough to control the majority. This is what Mr. Hussein did in Iraq. By appropriating the property of the majority and giving it to his Sunni cronies, he insured their loyalty. Since they constitute a quarter of the population, they can live quite well without starving the Shia+Kurd majority. This basic pattern is the system of aristocracy, and the system works so long as you have a large enough fraction of the population in the aristocracy.

    I would therefore argue that there are times when military resistance is justified.

  • tarran

    Chepe, I actually agree with you. The point I am making is that if you want to overthrow a dictator you are welcome to try it. If you confine your resistance to fighting the tyrant and his minions, and you only use resources acquired legitimately through trade and your own production I won’t speak against you.

    It is military action supported by resources coerced from uninterested parties that I am opposed to. Not military action per se.

  • FullyAlive

    I think Ron Paul may clear some of the conundrums up at his speech on the 11th.

  • Stephen Littau

    Tarran, I agree with much of your logic with a few exceptions. I believe you are correct when you say that Reagan’s military did not end the cold war. My argument would be that Reagan’s military buildup hastened the end of the cold war. The arms race forced the Soviet Union to spend more on weapons than their Communist system could handle. The Soviet Union probably would have fallen eventually but it would have taken longer. China could be an example of what I mean; their Communist system is slowly giving way to free markets and a freer system.

    I would also point out that England tried the non-interventionalist approach and paid dearly for it. The English also apparently thought there would be some sort of internal resistance before England would fall victim to the Nazis or simply thought it was “over there” and not their problem. Whenever there is a direct threat to a nation’s survival, the nation must rise to defend it or be destroyed. If the nation is worth defending, free men and women will voluntarily rise up to defend it.

  • TanGeng

    As a person who’s experience the Chinese system first hand, I would say that the Chinese Communist party made a conscious decision to move away from central-planning and socialism towards a market driven economy. It started happening the moment Deng Xiao Ping took office.

    Economic freedoms accelerated after Tian An Men square incidents, basically buying off the masses in the cities for political power. The people in rural districts are somewhat screwed, since they are locked out of legitimate high paying jobs in China’s many prospering cities. They still emigrate to the cities and fill many necessary jobs. Think of this as illegal immigration except it’s about 2 million Chinese people every month.

    The political situation of the Communist party in China is rather precarious. They have to maintain economic expansion or political issues will be lodged in the minds of Chinese citizens, front center. Right now everybody is more or less preoccupied with improving their lives and making a living with rather minimal government involvement. In a way the people living in China’s cities have more freedoms than those living here in the United States. But eventually, the Chinese people will be unsatisfied by mere economic freedoms and will want free political expression.

    China is playing out much a lot like Chile. Although the Chinese government may bring prosperity through its policies of economic freedom, the growing middle class in China have no love for the party that presides over it.

  • UCrawford


    Excellent post.

  • Chepe Noyon

    Tarran, the point of my argument is that there are situations in which it is clearly to society’s benefit as a whole to expend resources to offer military resistance to an aggressor — and that this benefit is likely to accrue to each and every individual within society. In such a case, I consider it entirely fair and reasonable for society to demand that each person contribute to the war effort because it is in their own best interests.

    Of course, an awful lot hinges on that last clause (‘in their own best interests’). Most of the time, it isn’t. The war in Iraq is a perfect example of a war that really wasn’t in anybody’s best interest (except some military contractors and some politicians). But I believe that the expenditures on World War Two by America were justified — that each and every American at the time could reasonably believe that he would suffer greater economic loss, in the long run, if the USA were not to enter the war.

  • Jeff Molby

    there are situations in which it is clearly to society’s benefit as a whole to expend resources to offer military resistance to an aggressor — and that this benefit is likely to accrue to each and every individual within society.

    But who decides when it is such an instance?

    And it’s important to remember that there was little, if any, dissent relating to WWII and individuals gladly sacrificed a lot. I think when the cause is so just that it fits your aforementioned scenario, you won’t need to coerce anyone.

  • Chepe Noyon

    Jeff, the problem here is that fighting a war benefits everybody, and so there will always be lots of people wanting to get a free ride on other people’s efforts. This matter is fundamental to the notion of society: there are some responsibilities that are communal, not individual. I think it absolutely proper for society to demand contributions from individuals for efforts that are beneficial to the entire society.

    Yes, the problem of ‘who decides’ is a serious one. And we certainly need a system for deciding that is fair. However, there will always be decisions in which a strong majority favors a course of inaction, and a small minority opposes it. In such cases, I think it proper for society to impose the will of the majority onto the minority. Yep, it’s a pain — but I don’t see any other practical solution.

  • UCrawford


    War benefits everyone? Really? Because I think that there are several thousand American families and even more Iraqi families who will disagree. There’s certainly no payoff for us in the war in Iraq…all of the proposals being tossed around now are basically plays on how to minimize loss, not discussions how we’ll benefit.

    We have a system for determining the justness of war. The Constitution. The president has ignored it in regards to the war in Iraq.

    No point in arguing about your comment on society being right to impose the will of the majority on the minority when it comes to fighting a way. Anyone who believes that obviously likes the idea of being a slave.

  • Roughedge

    You use the collapse of the Soviet Union as an example of bad regimes collapsing from the inside baring outside interference.

    That is a fairly large misrepresentation. A big lie.

    But it suits the needs of this article nicely.

    The assumption that you understand the collapse of the Soviet Union did not happen in a vacuum is a given. So why forward that example as an example of non-interventionism being successful?

    You only hurt your argument when you lie to support it.

  • Chepe Noyon

    War benefits everyone? Really?

    Let me rephrase that: the benefits of a war are enjoyed by all members of society. Those benefits may not be evenly distributed (some people benefit more than others), and the costs are certainly not distributed evenly.

    I will certainly not defend the war in Iraq — I opposed it from the very beginning (even dismissing the early rumors of Mr. Bush’s plans to go to war with the comment that he could not possibly be that stupid.) I am defending the principle that a society can chose to go to war by majority vote and then rightly impose the consequences of that choice upon the minority.

  • oilnwater

    I think your article was in somewhat bad form. This is because RP is giving a speech on the very topic in 2 days, and I really don’t see why you couldn’t have waited until that speech to see

  • tarran

    Mr Roughedge,

    Before accusing me of lying, you might want to actually pay attention to what I wrote.

    The thesis of my post was that the Soviet Union collapsed without having been attacked militarily.

    They collapsed because the population stopped listening to the Soviet leaders. As the standards of living between the Soviet Union and the outside world increasingly diverged, as the leaders’ claims and promises became less and less credible the populace became less and less willing to obey orders.

    You could call Rock and Roll, foreign radio and television broadcasts interference if you want, but that has nothing to do with inter-state warfare.

    Next time you might want to read the post instead of just scanning it quickly.

  • tarran

    Chepe, I don’t but the free-rider effect as being a legitimate excuse: When you hold a door open for someone, do you demand payment for the service? Is Walmart stupid when they allow customers to park for free in their parking lot, even when they (the customers) browse the shelves without buying anything? Forcing everyone who benefits from something to pay for it is, frankly insane.

    Either an enterprise has enough backing to support it or it does not. If it does, then it will go ahead even if not everyone who benefits is in the list of supporters, simply because it has the support needed.

    When A decides that he wants do do X, but B is not sufficiently interested to help pay for it, forcing B to pay for it anyway is a crime. B obviously wants to spend his time and resources on accomplishing something else, perhaps Y. If A to points a gun at B and forces him to forego Y so that A can enjoy the benefits of X, then A is injuring B for A’s own benefit.

    When you claim that ‘society’ is making a decision, you are wrong. There is no ‘society’ to decide. Only a bunch of people who have decided to be A’s preying on a bunch of people who want to be B’s.

  • tarran

    Mr oilnwater,

    I don’t work for Ron Paul. He is not the center of my universe.

    I’ll publish whatever interests me on whatever schedule suits me, thank you very much.

    If this bothers you, you are quite welcome to go read something else and ignore my writings.

    Good day.

  • oilnwater

    Oh, I mean don’t get too butthurt by it :)

  • Chepe Noyon

    tarran, no society could long survive the adoption of your principles. Such principles are ideal for a collection on non-interacting individuals, but the more people there are in a society, and the more they interact with each other, the greater the need for common responses to common problems.

  • Roughedge

    Actually tarran, you specifically said it wasn’t because of the Reagan arms build up.

    You imply very strongly that the people simply got sick of the status quo.

    Yet without the resources poured into the arms race, the soviet union might be alive and kicking today.

  • UCrawford


    Actually our society has survived for the last 40 years without conscription and appears in no danger of collapsing because of Iraq or the War on Terror.

    As for “society”, you rightly note that the Iraq was was wrong, yet under your standard others would be forced to fight in it under your idea of societal “good”. You’re honestly saying that you don’t recognize that the “will of society” is often just an excuse for a self-interested decision by a group of individual leaders, and conscription is just their way to force their decision on everyone who doesn’t want to go along? Iraq’s been opposed by a majority of Americans for awhile now, yet the president still claims that the majority of Americans see this war as being in their interest. You seriously want to give him the power to reinstate the draft?

  • Chepe Noyon

    Whoa! There are several logical conflations going on here that are not justified. What I am rejecting is the notion that society has no right to take resources from individuals for communal projects such as roads, disease prevention, flood protection, or war. If tarran wants to be more precise about the principle he is enunciating, then we can take it from there. But so far his declarations seem to me to be this broad.

    Nor am I defending the abuse of the public will exemplified by Mr. Bush. So far, this discussion has been on a highly abstract plane. Let’s resolve the broad theoretical issue before we get into the dirty specifics.

  • js290

    …What I am rejecting is the notion that society has no right to take resources from individuals for communal projects such as roads, disease prevention, flood protection, or war… the abuse of the public will exemplified by Mr. Bush…

    One follows the other. It just so happens Dubya’s in charge now. It could be any one else. Why does society have such a right, and is that the most effective way to achieve societal goals?

  • Chris

    Just taking a break! What’s it?

  • UCrawford

    If you think that you think that the abuses of the Bush administration against individuals are an aberration, you haven’t studied much history. “Society” does not choose what works for the “common good”, the individuals in charge of our government do. And the rich and storied history of America has featured a great number of elected officials in powerful positions who have abused the system for personal gain, political currency, or just out of plain stupidity. Nixon, Bush 43, Truman, FDR, JFK, LBJ, Woodrow Wilson…and those are just guys from the 20th and 21st centuries.

    If you recognize the abuses of the Bush administration, but still seriously believe that the old socialist chestnut about how “government would work if only the ‘right’ people were placed in charge” then there’s not really a point in debating either the broad theoretical issues or the dirty specifics because you’re obviously not paying attention to the realities of how government fails.

  • Chris

    Oh, boy, are you up for a big surprise!…Little “bush” is just responding/and trying to accomplish what “big bush” wasn’t able to accomplish on his tenure as a “president”? Let’s eliminate the oil competition-[on a personnal level], do you know what they own as an individual or the differents C-corps, they are associated with?

  • Chepe Noyon

    js290, I have already answered the question as to why society has a right to take resources from individuals for communal projects such as roads, disease prevention, flood protection, or war: any society that does not do so will surely and quickly collapse.

    UCrawford, I cannot imagine that you are responding to my post, but I’d like you to confirm my supposition.