Libertarians, Rothbard, and Israel

I start with the premise that in the recent (and ongoing?) military engagement between Israel and Hamas, the leaders of the former are acting, at least in relative terms, justly, while the leaders of the latter are not. Meaning specifically, that (again, at least relatively) Israel’s leaders are fighting for a just cause and using morally permissible means.  Those interested in my reasoning on these matters may consult these blog threads on the popular Bleeding Heart Libertarians website: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/07/hang-tough-israel/; http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/07/israel-tough-enough/; and http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2014/07/fernando-tesns-hang-tough-israel-a-response/.  

As indicated by these posts and related comments, support among libertarians for Israel’s position in the conflict with the Hamas-led Palestinians of the Gaza Strip is lukewarm at best. This is both somewhat perplexing and disappointing, since this battle is between a liberal democracy and a polity governed by an unreformed, seventh-century Islamic movement that brooks no dissent, violently persecutes religious minorities and gays, and treats women as the property of their nearest male relative or husband.

Moreover, as enshrined in its own charter and as unambiguously demonstrated by its deeds since assuming full political control of Gaza in 2007, Hamas seeks the destruction of Israel as a Jewish-majority state, and therefore the extinction of the only polity in this region governed by the rule of law. Accordingly, even if one has not carefully followed every twist and turn in the recent history of this dispute, when faced with the stark choice of supporting the cause of a relatively tolerant and pluralistic society and one that is virulently illiberal, I would hope that most libertarians would at least start with the sort of impulse Ayn Rand expressed in 1974 (following the 1973 Yom Kippur War).

Rand denounced Israel’s Arab enemies as “primitive,” and contended that their resentment for Israel was a result of the Jewish state being “the sole beachhead of modern science and civilization on their (Arabs) continent.” She went on to conclude that “when you have civilized men fighting savages, you support the civilized men, no matter who they are.”[1] Of course, it is at least theoretically possible that those who embrace an aggressively intolerant version of Islam might nevertheless have justice on their side in a conflict with a liberal democracy, but this is plainly not the case here.

Be that as it may, the dominant libertarian view decries Israel’s purported blockade of Gaza and its disproportionate use of force. I think this tangled web has far too many strands to untangle in a short blog post, but I will identify one factor that I believe is at work. I am referring to the failure to properly choose between loving liberty and hating the state.

Israel is quite obviously a state, with all the trappings thereof. Moreover, it was brought to life by a series of steps taken by other, far more powerful states, starting with the U.K.’s Balfour Declaration of November, 1917; the subsequent British administration of what is now Israel, Jordan, and the West Bank; and the unlikely support for the 1948 U.N. resolution establishing Israel by both the U.S. and the Soviets. On the other hand, Gaza is not recognized anywhere as a state, and if recognition comes it will almost certainly be part of a greater Palestine, which will include most of the West Bank. Thus, to people who refuse to recognize Hamas’s true nature and goals, it can masquerade as a popular resistance movement.

Thus, Israel is squarely in the cross-hairs of those who have adopted Murray Rothbard’s anarcho-capitalism. In 1977, he proclaimed that: “There runs through For a New Liberty (and most of the rest of my work as well) a deep and pervasive hatred of the State and all of its works, based on the conviction that the State is the enemy of mankind.”[2] But, as Steve Horwitz, a contemporary libertarian economist, has noted in this excellent post, we must recognize a crucial distinction between loving liberty and hating the state: http://bleedingheartlibertarians.com/2012/11/anti-state-or-pro-liberty-some-thoughts-on-israel/. As Professor Horwitz argues, even for those who desire the immediate elimination of all states, these two things are not synonymous in all circumstances.

Moreover, minimal state libertarians believe that until we can build a more peaceful world there is an indispensable role for the state in providing national defense and law enforcement. Indeed, for a nation such as Israel, surrounded by mortal enemies, a state may be necessary to ensure the very survival of its citizens.

In other posts on this site I have described my reasons for thinking that anarcho-capitalism rests on a shaky ethical foundation, but I am afraid we must now add to this indictment the sin of inducing moral blindness. No one epitomizes this ailment more than Rothbard himself. His 1967 essay “War Guilt in the Middle East,”[3] bears exactly the same relationship to the truth as the infamous “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.”

His 10-page piece purports to be a history of modern Israel, starting in the late nineteen century and proceeding through the 1967 War. In his view, Israel is an illegitimate colonial project, and in the course of this analysis he assigns it the entire blame for the 1948 and 1967 conflicts. I will limit myself to a single comment about this reprehensible “history”: there is no mention of any connection between the Jewish people and the land of Israel predating the Zionist movement (did he wonder where the Jews got this name?) and perhaps even more shockingly, no mention of the Holocaust. It’s literally as if it never happened.

I can’t help wondering what Rothbard thought should have been done with the hundreds of thousands of survivors of the Nazi death camps. Perhaps he hoped that private developers would convert them into condos for the Jews. Or, they could have a tiny state in a land where they had deep historical roots, a single place where they could never again be persecuted simply for being Jewish. Well, hell no, says Rothbard, we can’t have that.

Edit to Add:  Those interested in more detail about the historical background and responsibility for the Israel–Palestine conflict may find this subsequent post to be a useful read.

I am also pleased to say that Walter Block, a well-known libertarian economist, and two other of Rothbard’s former students have recently published a comprehensive rebuttal to the execrable essay addressed above. Although a long time in the making, this is welcome news.

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[1] See Wikipedia, “Obejctivism’s Rejection of the Primitive,” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Objectivism’s_rejection_of_the_primitive.

[2] Murray Rothbard, “Do You Hate the State?” http://www.lewrockwell.com/1970/01/murray-n-rothbard/do-you-hate-the-state-2/

[3] In Left and Right, vol. 3/3 (Autumn 1967), http://archive.lewrockwell.com/rothbard/rothbard217.html.

 

 

 

 

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