War, a tragic yet perennial facet of human history, has long been a subject of intense debate. Many philosophers and political thinkers have grappled with the ethical, moral, and strategic implications of war. 

As a general rule, within the broader liberty movement, thinkers tend to be skeptical of war’s inherent power to curtail individual freedom and to expand the reach of government.

However, the nature and scope of this opposition to war varies significantly depending on the school of thought and indeed, the specific circumstances of each conflict. 

Within this nuanced landscape, the perspectives of three influential thinkers — Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Thomas Sowell — offer a fascinating contrast.

Ayn Rand’s perspective on war: a moral imperative for self-defense

Ayn Rand, a Russian-American novelist and philosopher, developed a comprehensive philosophical system known as Objectivism, which emphasizes the importance of individualism, rational self-interest, and the protection of individual rights. As such, her views on war are deeply rooted in this philosophical framework.

Rand held that the primary purpose of government is to protect the individual rights of its citizens. These rights include life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. From her perspective, a government’s only legitimate role in relation to war is to defend its citizens and their rights.

In Rand’s view, the initiation of force or aggression is immoral and unjust. However, Rand recognized that there are situations in which the use of force may be necessary as an act of self-defense. 

In such cases, she argued that war becomes morally justifiable. Specifically, when a nation is directly threatened or attacked, it has the ethical right to respond with military force to protect the lives and property of its citizens. 

Rand’s perspective on war as an act of self-defense underscores the individualistic nature of her philosophy. It places a high value on the sanctity of individual lives and the rights of individuals. Consequently, she would likely argue that a preemptive or aggressive war, which does not directly relate to the protection of individual rights, is morally indefensible.

Furthermore, Rand believed that rational self-interest should guide a nation’s foreign policy decisions. She cautioned against engaging in wars based on irrational ideologies or altruistic motives. In her essay “The Ethics of Emergencies,” Rand stated that, 

“An attempt to achieve the good by physical force is a monstrous contradiction which negates morality at its root by destroying man’s capacity to recognize the good, so long as force is the standard.”

Ayn Rand’s ideas in practice

Let’s now explore some scenarios and see how Rand’s ideas apply to each of them:

Scenario 1: national defense against aggression:

A peaceful, freedom-loving nation is suddenly and unexpectedly attacked by a belligerent neighbor with the intention of seizing territory and resources. The attacked nation has no choice but to defend itself to protect the rights and lives of its citizens.

In this scenario, Rand would support the attacked nation’s right to use military force in self-defense. Her philosophy would stipulate that the invaded nation is justified in protecting the individual rights of its citizens, including their right to life and property. This aligns with her belief that a government’s primary role is to safeguard individual rights, and in this case, the use of force is a morally legitimate response to aggression.

A noteworthy element in Ayn Rand’s perspective on war is that, when one nation’s government attacks another nation, the safety of the aggressor nation’s citizens is not the responsibility of those attacked. 

In Rand’s view, while citizens of the aggressor nation may not be directly responsible for the government’s decisions, they are still complicit by virtue of being a part of that society and supporting or tolerating the government’s actions. 

Nonetheless, this does not mean that civilian casualties should be a retaliatory goal — merely that the moral duty of a government leading a defensive war is to protect the lives and rights of its own citizens.

Scenario 2: preemptive war for ideological reasons:

A nation’s government decides to launch a preemptive war against another country that it perceives as a potential future threat. The justification for the war is based on ideological differences, not on any imminent attack or aggression by the other nation.

In this case, Ayn Rand would likely oppose the war. She would argue that war should only be waged in response to a direct threat or attack on individual rights. Initiating a war based on ideological differences or speculative future threats would, in her view, constitute an immoral initiation of force and be inconsistent with the principles of rational self-interest and individual rights.

Scenario 3: humanitarian intervention:

A nation becomes aware of a brutal dictator in another country who is systematically violating the rights of his citizens, including engaging in mass atrocities. The intervening nation feels compelled to launch a military operation to remove the dictator and restore freedom to the oppressed people.

Ayn Rand’s stance on humanitarian intervention is nuanced. While she emphasizes self-defense as the primary justification for war, she does acknowledge the complexity of moral and ethical dilemmas. 

In this scenario, Rand might argue that intervention could be considered only if the oppressed people are under immediate, direct threat, and there is a clear and well-defined strategy to protect their rights. The key consideration would be the protection of individual rights, and any intervention should not turn into nation-building or involve the imposition of a new ideology.

Scenario 4: territorial expansion and imperialism:

A powerful nation decides to wage war against a weaker, defenseless nation with the goal of expanding its territory and influence, driven by imperialistic ambitions.

In this scenario, Ayn Rand would strongly condemn the war as immoral and unjust. She would argue that territorial expansion for the sake of power or resources violates the rights of individuals within the weaker nation and represents an initiation of force.

In summary, Ayn Rand’s perspective on the role of government in protecting individual rights and the moral justification for war reflects her unwavering commitment to the primacy of individual rights and the moral imperative of self-defense.

Murray Rothbard: the radical non-interventionist perspective

Next, we explore the perspective of Murray Rothbard, a prominent libertarian thinker and economist, who took a strongly anti-war and non-interventionist stance. Rothbard’s views on war are closely aligned with the core tenets of anarcho-capitalism, emphasizing individual liberty and opposition to government.

Rothbard believed that wars, especially those instigated by governments, violated the principles of individual rights and non-aggression. He saw war as an egregious form of aggression, where governments often engaged in violence and coercion that would be considered immoral if done by individuals. In Rothbard’s influential book, For a New Liberty, he famously stated: 

“It is in war that the State really comes into its own: swelling in power, in number, in pride, in absolute dominion over the economy and the society.”

This quote from Rothbard underscores the extent to which he saw war as a means by which the state consolidates power and control over its citizens.

Rothbard criticized the motives behind many wars, often asserting that they were driven by special interests, political power, and economic gain rather than genuine self-defense. He advocated for a non-interventionist foreign policy, where nations would refrain from interfering in the affairs of other countries and focus on their own defense.

Scenario 1: national defense against aggression:

Rothbard, as a proponent of non-interventionism and a strict interpretation of the non-aggression principle, would support the right to self-defense of those attacked. 

He believed that individuals and nations have the right to defend themselves against aggression. However, he might also advocate for the use of voluntary militias or private defense agencies rather than government-controlled military forces.

Scenario 2: preemptive war for ideological reasons:

Rothbard would strongly oppose preemptive war based on ideological reasons. He would assert that war should only be initiated in response to a direct threat. Initiating war for ideological purposes would violate the non-aggression principle and be considered aggression.

Scenario 3: humanitarian intervention:

Rothbard was highly skeptical of humanitarian intervention, as he believed it often served as a pretext for imperialistic actions. He would likely argue that intervention should be avoided unless there is a direct threat to the intervenor’s rights, and any such intervention should be funded voluntarily rather than through taxation.

Scenario 4: territorial expansion and imperialism:

Rothbard vehemently opposed wars of aggression, especially for the purpose of territorial expansion or imperialism. He saw such actions as a clear violation of the non-aggression principle and a manifestation of state power.

From Rothbard’s perspective, a government’s role should be limited to protecting its citizens from aggression, and military force should only be employed in cases of direct self-defense. He saw war as an inherently destructive force that should be avoided to preserve individual liberties and minimize government overreach.

Thomas Sowell: a more nuanced stance on war

Thomas Sowell, an economist and political philosopher, offers a pragmatic perspective on the relationship between liberty and war. Sowell’s views on war are grounded in a realist assessment of international relations and the role of government.

Sowell recognizes the importance of a strong national defense as a deterrent to potential aggressors. He argues that a government’s primary responsibility was to ensure the security and safety of its citizens. Sowell believes in maintaining a well-funded and capable military to protect the nation from external threats.

However, he also stresses the importance of considering the costs and consequences of war. Sowell cautioned against military interventions that were not directly related to national defense, emphasizing the need for a clear and imminent threat to justify the use of military force.

Scenario 1: national defense against aggression:

Thomas Sowell would unequivocally support a nation’s right to defend itself against aggression. Indeed, he often emphasizes the importance of a strong national defense and would argue that the government’s primary role is to protect its citizens. For Sowell, deterrence through strength is a key component of ensuring peace.

Scenario 2: preemptive war for ideological reasons:

Sowell has been heavily critical of wars based on ideological or utopian motives. He would likely argue that preemptive war should only be considered if there is concrete evidence of an imminent threat to national security. Sowell tends to be cautious about using military force for abstract reasons.

Scenario 3: humanitarian intervention:

Sowell’s views on humanitarian intervention vary. He has expressed skepticism about the effectiveness of such interventions and their unintended consequences. While he recognizes the moral imperative to prevent atrocities, he may emphasize the need for a well-planned, achievable strategy that avoids prolonged nation-building.

Scenario 4: territorial expansion and imperialism:

Finally, as with both Rand and Rothbard, Thomas Sowell sees no legitimacy in wars of territorial expansion and imperialism. 

He has often criticized imperialistic actions throughout history and their adverse consequences. Moreover, he argues that such actions can have negative ramifications for both the nation engaging in them and the nations affected.

In summary, for Sowell, war is not something you choose. His positions on these scenarios tend to be pragmatic, emphasizing the importance of considering the potential costs and benefits of military actions.

Sowell’s more pragmatic and less idealistic approach can be seen in his 2009 book, Intellectuals and Society, where he emphasizes the importance of scrutinizing the track record and practicality of intellectual ideas in the real world rather than solely relying on their theoretical appeal.

He may advocate for a strong national defense and the protection of citizens, but he is also cautious about military intervention driven by ideological or utopian motives, emphasizing the need for clear evidence of threats and well-considered strategies in the face of complex international situations.


Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Thomas Sowell each offer unique and thought-provoking perspectives on the relationship between liberty and war. 

In a scenario where a country is attacked by a hostile force, all three thinkers are broadly in agreement as to the correct course of action, although the specific strategy and moral justifications vary significantly.

In conclusion, the dynamic interplay of these three influential thinkers—Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, and Thomas Sowell—offers a rich tapestry of contrasting views on the relationship between liberty and war.

Ayn Rand ardently defends the moral justifications for war, particularly in the context of self-defense, emphasizing the paramount importance of safeguarding individual rights and protecting the sanctity of life.

Murray Rothbard, on the other hand, champions the moral defense of peace, taking a radical anti-war stance grounded in the principles of non-aggression and non-interventionism. He contends that wars often serve the interests of the state and special interests, bringing about more harm than good.

Thomas Sowell provides a pragmatic approach, focusing on the practical and realist aspects of war. His emphasis on a strong national defense and careful consideration of costs and consequences underscores the importance of balancing the imperative to protect individual liberty with the realities of international relations.

These three perspectives on liberty and war represent a spectrum of philosophical and political thought, providing valuable insights into the complex and enduring debate surrounding the ethics, morality, and tactics of war in the modern world. 

Ultimately, the question of when and how to engage in war remains one of the most profound and challenging issues in the realm of political philosophy and international relations.

A poignant example from the present day — the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing war — will be an important point of discussion at Students For Liberty’s upcoming LibertyCon International, where Dylan Burns, Joe Walsh, and Heath Mayo will take part in a debate, moderated by Stephen Kent, on the topic of what role, if any, the U.S. should play in aiding Ukraine’s defensive efforts.

Students For Liberty’s flagship annual event, LibertyCon International will be held in Washington, D.C., on February 2-4, 2024. It promises to be the place for engaging with leading experts and connecting with others who share a dedication to advancing pro-liberty ideas and creating a freer future.

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This piece solely expresses the opinion of the author and not necessarily the organization as a whole. Students For Liberty is committed to facilitating a broad dialogue for liberty, representing a variety of opinions.