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Classical Liberalism in the 21st Century: War and Peace


THE HISTORY OF MANKIND is a history of war, conquest, and oppression. From ancient times to the modern era, peace and freedom have been rare occurrences in the sweep of human events. When peace has prevailed for extended periods of time, it has invariably occurred under the yoke of despotic regimes that have wielded greater military force and internal political power to hold back the threat of rival kings and tyrants and maintain domestic stability.

Freedom over the last 3,000 years has been an even rarer commodity. Even in such majestic cultures as ancient Athens and Rome that are regarded as heralds of the concept of liberty, only a handful of “free citizens” possessed a degree of liberty, while most people in those societies were bound into slavery.

And when the ancient Hebrews were led out of bondage in Egypt by Moses, as the Old Testament recounts, after their long wandering in the desert they crossed the River Jordan and conquered their promised land through a campaign of genocide against the native Canaanites.

When men dreamed of a world of peace, they often did so in visions of collectivist and socialist-type societies. Thomas More’s Utopia (1615), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Gerrand Winstanley’s Law of Freedom (1652), Denis Vairasse’s History of the Sevarites (1675), Morelly’s Code of Nature, or the True Spirit of the Laws (1755), and Fontenelle’s Republic of Philosophers (1768) all conceived of a future world without war or conflict in which men would live in harmony and tranquility.

But every one of them portrayed a society in which private property was either abolished or severely restrained — since private ownership, they believed, was the root of selfishness, greed, and the poverty of many for the benefit of the few who could enjoy wealth — and in which a ruling caste of wise, noble, and good men would ensure order and peace through social control and through the planning of virtually every aspect of life for the benefit of the greater community of men.

The classical-liberal vision

Only starting in the middle of the 18th century did there emerge a different vision of a society of peace and freedom. It is found in the writings of the French Physiocrats and the Scottish moral philosophers, two of whose leading figures were David Hume and Adam Smith. Their ideas were refined and popularized by the classical economists of the first half of the 19th century.

The ideas of the classical economists became the economic foundation for the classical-liberal revolution that radically changed the course of human events. They argued that private property was not the source of conflict among men but rather the institutional prerequisite for social peace. They reasoned that men have a logical basis for peacefully associating and cooperating with each other to obtain the benefits from the greater productivity and gains from trade that develop through a system of division of labor. They explained that the benefits from a division of labor were ecumenical in their nature, that is, the benefits from specialization and trade between members of the same community or region were no less universally true for all people who might happen to live in different countries.

It led one French classical liberal, Frederic Passy, to state in 1861,

Some day all barriers will fall; some day mankind, constantly united by continuous transactions, will form just one workshop, one market, and one family.. And this is . the grandeur, the truth, the nobility, I might almost say the holiness of the free trade doctrine; by the prosaic but effective pressure of [material] interest it tends to make justice and harmony prevail in the world.

And it is understandable why Passy reached this conclusion. By the middle of the 19th century, it appeared that the classical-liberal doctrine of individual freedom, limited government, and free markets would transform the world into an ever greater network of human relationships based on voluntary association, open competition, and international peace as governments were restricted to protecting liberty under constitutional restraint.

Though it varied from country to country, it was nonetheless true that by the 1870s, most governments in Western and Central Europe and in North America were more respectful of personal and economic freedom than in any previous time in human history.

And at the same time, while wars and civil conflicts still occurred, military confrontations in Europe and America, except for the American Civil War, were mostly limited both in their duration and in their damage to private property.

There were increasingly internationally promulgated “rules of war” that were meant to restrain and confine the destruction and harm that governments were allowed to visit upon their own citizens and their property as well as on those of enemy nations in the heat of battle.

The rise of collectivism

But before the 19th century ended, the classical-liberal ideal of a world of global peace through private market relationships, with governments confined to simply enforcing the “rules of the game,” was prevented from coming to full fruition owing to the rise of nationalism and socialism. The growing ascendancy of these competing ideologies culminated in the First World War in 1914. And out of the Great War came fascism, communism, Nazism, and interventionist-welfare statism in the 1920s and 1930s. These, in turn, created the conditions that resulted in the Second World War.

The clock was not merely turned back to the pre-classical-liberal world. These new collectivisms were all-encompassing in their view of the right and authority of governments to control and dictate the affairs of men. Not only were wars once again viewed as positive aspects of international relations, but the distinction between the political and private was completely obliterated.

The total state led to total war, in which the very notion of the innocent civilian lost all meaning. The “enemy” in war was every man, woman, and child on the other side of the battle line.

Total war, as a result, meant a goal of the total destruction of every aspect of human existence in enemy territory. Mass murders of millions of unarmed people, day-and-night fire bombings of entire cities, and even atomic weaponry to terrorize whole nations into surrender were all considered legitimate methods to conquer, destroy, and defeat the enemy.

The second half of the 20th century merely continued this pattern. Under the shadow of the Cold War, communism enslaved tens of millions in the straitjacket of comprehensive social engineering and political terror.

On the Western side of the Iron Curtain the model was regulation, intervention, and welfare redistributivism.

War and violence remained a tool of political control and conquest on both sides. Indeed, the United States used direct military force in far more countries than the Soviet Union did during the entire Cold War period.

Now in the post–Cold War era, the governments of the world are searching for a new order to establish and preserve international peace and order. The countries of Western Europe are trying to impose a continental European Union that will control political and economic affairs from the Atlantic to the new borders of Russia.

The nationalists in Russia want the political and military force to reestablish Russian dominance over the former Soviet republics and beyond.

The political authorities in Beijing dream of a Chinese-dominated East Asia.

And the United States basks in the vision of being the single super power in the world, able to project and impose its political and military will around the world wherever it desires.

And dozens of smaller countries around the globe resent America’s arrogance, while suffering from their own delusions of nationalistic grandeur.

If these political patterns and trends do not radically change, the 21st century could easily see the same types of wars and civil conflicts that dominated the 20th century.

What is required is a rebirth and reestablishment of the classical-liberal ideal and agenda that, at least partly, made the 19th century (following the end of the Napoleonic Wars) the freest and most peaceful century in modern human history.

A vision for the new century

There must be a new agenda for liberty to ensure international peace. First, there needs to be a denationalization of human relationships. Social, commercial, and cultural affairs must be completely taken out of the hands of governments. As long as any of these remain under the control, regulation, or influence of government, they will remain affairs of state.

Any disagreements, conflicts, or disputes between private individuals concerning these matters run the risk of becoming the basis of disputes, rivalry, and confrontations between respective governments.

Regardless of how heated and angry individuals may become concerning their differences, in the liberal market society they have the right neither to use force to impose their will on those of different views and practices nor to compel their neighbors to support their cause, financially or any other way.

But when these differences are elevated to affairs of state, governments on both sides have the power to use force — including military force — and to impose taxes to make others bear the expense of winning the victory of privileged individuals and groups lucky and influential enough to obtain the support of governments in the pursuit of their private goals.

Second, there has to be a privatization of the international order. Such international organizations as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, the International Labor Organization, and the World Health Organization must be abolished.

These agencies confer vast powers and large financial resources on global bureaucracies and political structures that have the ability to impose rules, regulations, and policies on millions of people around the world, with no accountability other than to some of the larger and more powerful national governments that fund their operations and sit on their managerial boards of governors.

Furthermore, they increasingly are giving power to what are called non-governmental organizations (NGOs), which are nothing more than special-interest groups with various ideological and political axes to grind and which are able to manipulate economic and social policies at a global level through the assistance or cooperation of these international organizations.

Third, the guiding principle of a government’s foreign policy must be nonintervention in the internal political, social, economic, and military affairs of other nations. War occurs when one government decides to use its political and military might to impose its values, ideology, or economic and social goals on another country through the threat or actual use of violence.

It is the classical-liberal ideal that changes in others’ values, beliefs, ideas, or goals should be brought about only through the peaceful persuasion of reason and argument or by example. The growing support among various groups in the United States for American military “unilateralism” in intervening in other countries is diametrically opposed to the classical-liberal spirit in matters of foreign affairs.

Nor should it be the practice of governments to enter into military alliances with other countries that easily widen any conflict between two governments into an international crisis and war as treaty allies on both sides are drawn into the dispute. In the case of the United States, this should mean withdrawing from the United Nations, NATO, and the various other military alliances the United States has entered into since the end of the Second World War.

In all of the history of mankind, classical liberalism was the first social philosophy to demonstrate how men could live together in peace and freedom for mutual betterment and improvement. It showed why war and conflict are destructive of human improvement, even for the winning side in the long run. It explained how individual freedom, private property, and voluntary exchange could create both a moral society and material prosperity, as well as the potential for cultural refinement and civilized conduct.

This vision and its successes were undermined, indeed, almost completely overthrown in the 20th century. The task before us is to renew and restore this vision and ideal, so that over time they can once again transform the world — this time the world of the 21st century. The world cannot afford another century like the last one, with its wars and destruction. The cost to ourselves and those who will follow would be too great.

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    Dr. Richard M. Ebeling is the BB&T Distinguished Professor of Ethics and Free Enterprise Leadership at The Citadel. He was formerly professor of Economics at Northwood University, president of The Foundation for Economic Education (2003–2008), was the Ludwig von Mises Professor of Economics at Hillsdale College (1988–2003) in Hillsdale, Michigan, and served as vice president of academic affairs for The Future of Freedom Foundation (1989–2003).