Since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, Western leaders have declared that Ukraine was defending not only its own freedom, but ours too. President Joe Biden, to whom apparently “freedom is priceless,” vowed to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
In turn, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that the American support for Ukraine is not charity but an “investment in global security”. Other commentators also argue that a Ukrainian victory would strengthen global freedom by deterring other aggressions from autocratic powers like China. Yet, these positions are at odds with the clear antiwar stance of Murray N. Rothbard, one of the most prominent American libertarians of the twentieth century.
Rothbard made a clear distinction between the interests of governments as opposed to those of private individuals, which are subject to the government’s monopoly of violence in a specific territory. He believed that all interstate wars lead to an increase in the government aggression of both domestic and foreign individuals. The aggression against innocent people is inevitable because each state derives its capacity to wage war from taxpayers; in the case of a military conflict, it will intensify its local aggression either through taxation or conscription or both. At the same time, because the citizens of the enemy country are the resources allowing their state to fight, they and their property will be targeted through military action.
According to Rothbard, war never enhances freedom, only domestic tyranny, “a tyranny that usually lingers long after the war is over.” Therefore, any libertarian should pressure governments to avoid going to war against other countries and negotiate peace as soon as war breaks out.1 However, let’s see if the conflict in Ukraine is likely to advance freedom or not.
Human and Economic Cost of the War
The human cost of the war in Ukraine, borne primarily by the two belligerents, appears huge already. The number of military casualties is not certain, as both sides are downplaying their own losses and exaggerating the ones of the enemy. Yet, third party estimates claim that Russia has suffered around one hundred thousand to 130 thousand casualties (wounded and killed) to Ukraine’s one hundred thousand, making the conflict one of the bloodiest in modern history. This is not counting about thirty thousand Ukrainian civilian casualties and the many civilians dragged by force into the army. Russia drafted three hundred thousand reservists and conscripts in late 2022, whereas Ukraine declared martial law in February 2022 and may have already drafted around a million people. In addition, about a third of the Ukrainian prewar population—thirteen million people—have left their homes due to the war, of which around 8.1 million fled abroad, showing the full size of aggression against innocent civilians.
The direct economic cost of the war is also massive for Ukraine, Russia, and the West. Ukraine’s economy lost more than 30 percent of its gross domestic product (GDP), or $60 billion, just in 2022. Ukraine could not have supported the war effort without substantial military, financial, and humanitarian aid from the West, estimated at about $133 billion for the first year of war only (graph 1). Estimates for the cost of reconstructing Ukraine after the war vary widely between $411 billion and $1 trillion. The West is expected to pay the lion’s share of the reconstruction bill, with some possible support from about $300 billion in foreign exchange reserves seized from Russia. Although Russia suffered only a 2–3 percent decline in real GDP in 2022, despite heavy Western economic sanctions, its economic prospects are also bleak given the withdrawal of foreign companies, curtailed access to Western technology, and lasting increases in defense budgets.
Graph 1: Government support to Ukraine
Source: Ukraine Support Tracker.
The indirect economic fallout of the war is much broader, and its scars will last for many years to come. Following previous ultraloose monetary and fiscal policies, the war-induced hike in international energy and food prices led to a surge in global inflation. This was one of the main factors that slowed global economic growth to just 3.1 percent in 2022 versus prewar projections of around 5 percent, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). The sharpest economic slowdown is taking place in Europe, due to its decoupling from cheap Russian gas and oil. European countries have spent an astronomical €800 billion, or more than 4 percent of GDP, to shield households and companies from soaring energy costs so far (graph 2).
Graph 2: Government spending to mitigate the energy crisis
Stimulated by the war, global defense spending is likely to surge as well, with an increase of between €375 billion to €453 billion expected in Europe between 2021–26. Even if the United States seems to benefit from higher sales of gas and armament, these benefits are restricted to a small number of energy and arms producers, whereas ordinary taxpayers are hit by inflation and increased government spending on transfers to Ukraine. Global public debt—already at record high levels since World War II—will become an even heavier burden to taxpayers, in particular in advanced economies. Last but not least, the growing global north-south division threatens to accelerate deglobalization trends and overall impoverishment.
Freedom of Press and Democracy
Not only have the two belligerents curtailed the freedom of press in favor of war propaganda, but so have the more mature Western liberal democracies. There is a long history of government propaganda and encroachment upon the freedom of press and civil liberties in times of war in the US as well. It started during the American Civil War, when more than three hundred opposition newspapers in the North were shut down. Government interference with Western media has continued through the wars in Iraq and Libya, whose official justifications remain highly controversial.
The Patriot Act also includes government surveillance of both the media and individual dissidents. Therefore, it is not surprising that the main Western media organizations have run a suspiciously uniform narrative about the war in Ukraine from day one and seemed fully engaged in the information war.
It could be that the media is very centralized and indirectly controlled by governments or that it imposes a voluntary self-censorship due to a general weakening of the Western liberal tradition, similar to the pro-Soviet propaganda during World War II decried by George Orwell. The result is more or less the same, with biased information disseminated to the public, even though half of Americans believe that news channels deliberately manipulate public opinion. This also became quite clear in the Ukraine war when many headline stories were contradicted by subsequent events, such as Russia’s alleged sabotage of its own gas pipelines under the Baltic Sea or Russia’s supposed chronic shortage of modern weapons and ammunition whereas the opposite proved to be true.
When official propaganda fails to influence public opinion, governments have no qualms about ignoring community voices altogether. Protest demonstrations against the war took place in many European cities but were either ignored or downplayed by the mainstream media. According to the European Union’s Eurobarometer survey, only about 33 percent of Bulgarians and 38 percent of Slovaks agree with supplying military equipment to Ukraine. Yet, the former Bulgarian prime minister recalled how his government secretly provided Kyiv with vital supplies of weapons and ammunition via intermediaries. The Slovak government decided to send not only tanks but also MIG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. It makes one wonder why, in allegedly healthy democracies, the people are not consulted directly via referenda on major issues at least, which may involve going to war or having a significant impact on civil and economic liberties.
Instead of expanding freedom, the conflict in Ukraine has actually restrained civil liberties, economic prosperity, and government accountability not only in Russia and Ukraine, but also in the West. It is possible that the end of the war will bring more freedom for some Ukrainians who integrate Western political and economic alliances or move abroad. Yet, one cannot say for sure how Ukraine’s liberalization process will turn out given its disappointing track record.
At the same time, the erosion of democratic practices and economic liberties in the West is all too real. Regardless of what politicians may want us to believe, Rothbard’s libertarian view that government wars are always to be avoided or quickly ended by peace negotiations appears vindicated.
1. This applies also to “just wars of defense,” which also harm innocent civilians. In Rothbard’s view, all governments are justifying their wars as a defense by the state of its subjects. In reality, war represents a struggle for expansion or survival between monopolists of aggressive violence. Therefore, only private resistance through revolution (i.e., a popular uprising), appears as a legitimate action against the aggression of a foreign government.