words of war

WarOfWordsThe grownups at my Quaker high school objected not only to actual war but also to all the rhetorical wars of American politics: the war on poverty, the war on drugs, etc.

Or rather, they objected to using the language of war for policies and campaigns they may well have otherwise supported. The principal was certainly anti drug — although she refused to use the D-word; it was always "substance," as in "substance abuse." And the history teachers, when they weren’t indoctrinating us to worship FDR (who did have something to do with a certain war, didn’t he?), were pushing LBJ and his all-important war on poverty.

The problem for a skeptical teenager was that this Quaker objection to war rhetoric seemed reflexive and perfunctory. Quakers are pacifists, so they object to war, so they object to the glorification of war in the advocacy of peacetime policies. No brainer, but not a very deep point. (Although I noticed later that the Buddhists — also famously pacifist, at least in some varieties — use plenty of warrior imagery to convey courage, discipline, and virtue.)

War Is the Health of the State

It was the Austro-libertarian take on war and the language of war that got me to revisit the objections of the Quakers. If, as Randolph Bourne taught us, war is the health of the state, then we should hardly be surprised that attempts to expand the domain of political power would use the language of martial patriotism. Even the proponents of minimal government — of the so-called night-watchman state — tend to rally around the flag in times of war. Civil-libertarians have too often accepted a state of war as an excuse for "temporary" incursions into the realm of personal freedom. (As Robert Higgs demonstrates, however, postwar freedom never returns to its prewar levels.)

Modern Quakers tend to be unquestioning statists of the left-wing variety. They see no conflict between opposing the violence of warfare and supporting the coercion of the nanny state. But this ideological dissonance turns out to be a relatively recent development. Like Anne Hutchinson‘s antinomianism, Quaker theology put its early practitioners at odds with the state — not just a particular government, but any coercive hierarchy. And they knew it. They stopped short of explicit anarchism: they didn’t openly object to the existence of the state, and their position was that a good Quaker should cooperate with civil authorities whenever it did not violate Quaker principles (which strikes me as a narrower exception than it may at first seem), but Quakers were not supposed to become involved with politics.

QuakerAnarchyAnd while they may not have openly advocated a stateless society, Murray Rothbard explains in "Pennsylvania’s Anarchist Experiment: 1681–1690," excerpted from Conceived in Liberty, that at least one very large group of early American Quakers pursued and achieved statelessness for several years and lost it only after ardent resistance. These implicit anarchists understood Bourne’s thesis over two centuries before Bourne penned it: the state cannot be separated from institutional violence; to oppose war, one must resist coercive government.

It saddens me that the ideological descendants of those Colonial Quakers have retained so little of that philosophical insight. Their objection to calling every Big Government program a "war on X" sounds more like a parochial form of political correctness than a principled position on the cause and effect of institutionalized coercion.

The First War on Poverty?

Wikipedia informs us that today is the anniversary (twice over) of the People’s Budget, presented to the British Parliament on this day in 1909 and passed into law on this day in 1910. It was

the first budget in British history with the expressed intent of redistributing wealth among the British public … introducing many unprecedented taxes on the wealthy and radical social welfare programmes to Britain’s political life.

The reason it got me reflecting on Quaker and Austro-libertarian objections to peacetime war rhetoric is this line from Lloyd George, who introduced the People’s Budget into Parliament:

This is a war Budget. It is for raising money to wage implacable warfare against poverty and squalidness.

There it is. A war on poverty, 50-something years before LBJ. It’s interesting to note that Lloyd George, arguably the founder of the British welfare state, went on to become minister of munitions, secretary of state for war, then wartime prime minister.


3 Responses to words of war

  1. Scott Lahti says:

    lowercase libertarians who enjoyed (fighting off, as it were) “words of war” also enjoyed:

    Richard Nixon and 12 Other Celebrity Quakers

    [of 1910 v. 1965] “70-something years before LBJ”

    Did bk mean: 50-something years before LBJ

  2. henrymoore says:

    I remember reading Rothbard’s stuff on Hutchinson and Pennsylvania some time ago. Very interesting stuff. He had a great knowledge of history and theology.

    I have had email correspondence with a Quaker about theology and politics. I think it accidentally got deleted.

    One Quaker who is a libertarian is Charles Murray.

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