TCS Daily


Midwife of Liberty

By Jonah Goldberg - November 13, 2002 12:00 AM

Editor's note: To see the first installment of this debate, click here.

It seems necessary to clear the debris here. First, when Milton Friedman says war is "often the enemy of freedom," he is of course correct. War is often the enemy of freedom. When the Nazis rolled into Poland, when they invaded France, when they seized Denmark, the Wermacht was the enemy of freedom. When they bombed London and deported Jews to the camps, liberty was on the run. So yes, Milton Friedman is correct when he says war is often the enemy of freedom. But that is because enemies of liberty often use war to achieve their ends.

Conversely, wars have been known to be the saviors of liberty. The forces of freedom have used force of arms as a battering ram against tyranny. War freed the slaves, ended the Holocaust and - in both its "hot" and "cold" forms - prevented the world from being plunged into Communist darkness for generations. The notion that war can "liberate" - i.e. enhance liberty - is not new. The Hebrews fought to liberate themselves from one ruler or another. Napoleon was hailed by many in central Europe as "the great liberator." Gandhi didn't believe in war, but plenty of other folks who threw off the shackles of colonialism certainly saw war as the midwife of liberty.

Of course this isn't what Friedman had in mind. Or at least I assume this from the way this debate is framed and by the general libertarian approach to the subject of war. On the libertarian right, they quote Randolph Bourne's bumper sticker "war is the health of the state" and cite President Lincoln's suspension of habeas corpus and declare, Q.E.D., that war is the enemy of freedom. But, they forget that when the state is fighting to expand freedom the health of the state is in the interests of lovers of liberty in all parties. Indeed, if you think dangling a few men - even innocent men - from a rope was a greater indictment of war than the ending of human bondage for millions of people - for them and for generations to come - was a commendation of war, then all I can say is you have your priorities sorely out of order.

War vs. Freedom?
Nick Gillespie
Midwife of Liberty
Jonah Goldberg
Something for Nothing
Nick Gillespie
Slippery Sloping
Jonah Goldberg
War Changes Men
Nick Gillespie
Crying Wolf
Jonah Goldberg
Again, I understand that libertarians of Friedman's or Nick's stripe do not have the liberation of oppressed peoples in mind when they say that war is the enemy of liberty. But before I engage the argument on their terms I might as well address on mine first. I'm no utilitarian, but I don't think it's entirely inappropriate to weigh war's impact on liberty according to such a crude scale. Milton Friedman may have abhorred the draft, but I would guess that most Americans would agree that the liberty lost by WWII conscription was certainly outweighed by the freedoms gained by the defeat of Nazism. And vast majorities of the voting public in America and the West considered the net loss of freedom that came with the Cold War to be a worthwhile price to prevent even greater losses of freedom.

So in a very serious sense, I think the anti-war folks who claim that war is the enemy of freedom are often deeply selfish and myopic. Too often they look at captive nations and threatened populations abroad and say "you're on your own" if it means higher taxes or a few - and most likely temporary - losses of convenience at home. In the truly grand scheme of things this position makes peace-at-all-costs the true enemy of liberty because its adherents hold that the basic rights of millions or even billions are not worth any sacrifice at home.

So now that we've got that out of the way, let's address the narrow and pinched interpretation of those who most often say war is the enemy of liberty (for now I will skip a debate about "literal" wars since the subject of real ones seems hefty enough). Nick seems to believe - and his intellectual confreres certainly believe - that the various and wildly over-hyped provisions of the USA Patriot Act, the impending Homeland Security Department, and the various other measures introduced to combat terrorism are proof positive that the war on terrorism is a threat to our civil liberties. But since we know that doing nothing will result in an even sharper loss of liberty, it would be nice to hear what the civil libertarians think we should do in lieu of the Patriot Act.

Now, I agree with Nick and Jacob Sullum that declaring war on an abstraction like "terrorism" is a bit of a problem. However, it seems to me, virtually all of the objections offered by Nick et al. are hypothetical. Nick writes that it's "far from clear" the government's "new powers will be used wisely." Granted. But it's perhaps even more unclear that they will not be used wisely. So far, we've seen nothing that constitutes widespread or even highly specific outrages. If your heart bleeds for the injustice visited upon Jose Padilla, fine. We can argue about that. But the jingle-jangle of his manacles is hardly the soundtrack one would pick for a remake of 1984.

And this leads me to my primary objection to Gillespie-Friedman position. As best I can glean, it is based on a cliché - the slippery slope - as opposed to an argument with empirical data. The fact is many, if not most, of the supposed small tyrannies visited upon us during, say, World War II, including the draft - thanks for that Dr. Friedman! - are no longer with us. Which is to say, sure war can sometimes cost us freedoms in the short run, but there is no iron law that says these losses are permanent and I've yet to see an argument that says they're not justified.
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