The Roots of War

by Ayn Rand
From Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal
This essay was originally published in the June 1966 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966 and 1967).


It is said that nuclear weapons have made wars too horrible to contemplate. Yet every nation on earth feels, in helpless terror, that such a war might come.

The overwhelming majority of mankind — the people who die on the battlefields or starve and perish among the ruins — do not want war. They never wanted it. Yet wars have kept erupting throughout the centuries, like a long trail of blood underscoring mankind’s history.

Men are afraid that war might come because they know, consciously or subconsciously, that they have never rejected the doctrine which causes wars, which has caused the wars of the past and can do it again — the doctrine that it is right or practical or necessary for men to achieve their goals by means of physical forceWhatever may be open to disagreement, there is one act of evil that may not, the act that no man may commit against others and no man may sanction or forgive...
Galt’s Speech, 133View Full Lexicon Entry
(by initiating the use of force against other men) and that some sort of “good” can justify it. It is the doctrine that force is a proper or unavoidable part of human existence and human societies.

When a statist ruler exhausts his own country’s economy, he attacks his neighbors. It is his only means of postponing internal collapse and prolonging his rule.

Observe one of the ugliest characteristics of today’s world: the mixture of frantic war preparations with hysterical peace propaganda, and the fact that both come from the same source — from the same political philosophy. The bankrupt, yet still dominant, political philosophy of our age is statism.

Observe the nature of today’s alleged peace movements. Professing love and concern for the survival of mankind, they keep screaming that the nuclear-weapons race should be stopped, that armed force should be abolished as a means of settling disputes among nations, and that war should be outlawed in the name of humanity. Yet these same peace movements do not oppose dictatorships; the political views of their members range through all shades of the statist spectrum, from welfare statism to socialism to fascism to communism. This means that they are opposed to the use of coercion by one nation against another, but not by the government of a nation against its own citizens; it means that they are opposed to the use of force against armed adversaries, but not against the disarmed.

Consider the plunder, the destruction, the starvation, the brutality, the slave-labor camps, the torture chambers, the wholesale slaughter perpetrated by dictatorships. Yet this is what today’s alleged peace-lovers are willing to advocate or tolerate — in the name of love for humanity.

It is obvious that the ideological root of statismThe political expression of altruism is collectivism or statism, which holds that man’s life and work belong to the state—to society, to the group, the gang, the race, the nation—and that the state may dispose of him in any way it pleases for the sake of whatever it deems to be its own tribal, collective good...
Introducing Objectivism, Aug. 1962, 35View Full Lexicon Entry
(or collectivism) is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases to whatever it deems to be its own “good.” Unable to conceive of any social principles, save the rule of brute force, they believed that the tribe’s wishes are limited only by its physical power and that other tribes are its natural prey, to be conquered, looted, enslaved, or annihilated. The history of all primitive peoples is a succession of tribal wars and intertribal slaughter. That this savage ideology now rules nations armed with nuclear weapons, should give pause to anyone concerned with mankind’s survival.

Statism is a system of institutionalized violence and perpetual civil war. It leaves men no choice but to fight to seize political power — to rob or be robbed, to kill or be killed. When brute force is the only criterion of social conduct, and unresisting surrender to destruction is the only alternative, even the lowest of men, even an animal — even a cornered rat — will fight. There can be no peace within an enslaved nation.

The bloodiest conflicts of history were not wars between nations, but civil wars between men of the same nation, who could find no peaceful recourse to law, principle, or justice. Observe that the history of all absolute states is punctuated by bloody uprisings — by violent eruptions of blind despair, without ideology, program, or goals — which were usually put down by ruthless extermination.

In a full dictatorship, statism’s chronic “cold” civil war takes the form of bloody purges, when one gang deposes another — as in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. In a mixed economy, it takes the form of pressure-group warfare, each group fighting for legislation to extort its own advantages by force from all other groups.

The degree of statism in a country’s political system, is the degree to which it breaks up the country into rival gangs and sets men against one another. When individual rightsA “right” is a moral principle defining and sanctioning a man’s freedom of action in a social context...
Man’s Rights, 93View Full Lexicon Entry
are abrogated, there is no way to determine who is entitled to what; there is no way to determine the justice of anyone’s claims, desires, or interests. The criterion, therefore, reverts to the tribal concept of: one’s wishes are limited only by the power of one’s gang. In order to survive under such a system, men have no choice but to fear, hate, and destroy one another; it is a system of underground plotting, of secret conspiracies, of deals, favors, betrayals, and sudden, bloody coups.

It is not a system conducive to brotherhood, security, cooperation, and peace.

Statism — in fact and in principle — is nothing more than gang rule. A dictatorship is a gang devoted to looting the effort of the productive citizens of its own country. When a statist ruler exhausts his own country’s economy, he attacks his neighbors. It is his only means of postponing internal collapse and prolonging his rule. A country that violates the rights of its own citizens, will not respect the rights of its neighbors. Those who do not recognize individual rights, will not recognize the rights of nations: a nation is only a number of individuals.

Statism needs war; a free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by production.

Observe that the major wars of history were started by the more controlled economies of the time against the freer ones. For instance, World War I was started by monarchist Germany and Czarist Russia, who dragged in their freer allies. World War II was started by the alliance of Nazi Germany with Soviet Russia and their joint attack on Poland.

Observe that in World War II, both Germany and Russia seized and dismantled entire factories in conquered countries, to ship them home — while the freest of the mixed economies, the semi-capitalistic United States, sent billions worth of lend-lease equipment, including entire factories, to its allies.1For a detailed, documented account of the full extent of Russia's looting, see Werner Keller, East Minus West = Zero, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962.

Germany and Russia needed war; the United States did not and gained nothing. (In fact, the United States lost, economically, even though it won the war: it was left with an enormous national debt, augmented by the grotesquely futile policy of supporting former allies and enemies to this day.) Yet it is capitalismCapitalism is a social system based on the recognition of individual rights, including property rights, in which all property is privately owned...
What Is Capitalism? 19View Full Lexicon Entry
that today’s peace-lovers oppose and statism that they advocate — in the name of peace.

Laissez-faire capitalism is the only social system based on the recognition of individual rights and, therefore, the only system that bans force from social relationships. By the nature of its basic principles and interests, it is the only system fundamentally opposed to war.

Men who are free to produce, have no incentive to loot; they have nothing to gain from war and a great deal to lose. Ideologically, the principle of individual rights does not permit a man to seek his own livelihood at the point of a gun, inside or outside his country. Economically, wars cost money; in a free economy, where wealth is privately owned, the costs of war come out of the income of private citizens — there is no overblown public treasury to hide that fact — and a citizen cannot hope to recoup his own financial losses (such as taxes or business dislocations or property destruction) by winning the war. Thus his own economic interests are on the side of peace.

In a statist economy, where wealth is “publicly owned,” a citizen has no economic interests to protect by preserving peace — he is only a drop in the common bucket — while war gives him the (fallacious) hope of larger handouts from his masters. Ideologically, he is trained to regard men as sacrificial animals; he is one himself; he can have no concept of why foreigners should not be sacrificed on the same public altar for the benefit of the same state.

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  • 1 For a detailed, documented account of the full extent of Russia’s looting, see Werner Keller, East Minus West = Zero, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962.
  • 2 Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine, Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, 1964, p. 121. Originally published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1943.
  • 3 New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955.
  • 4 Ibid., p. 189. The quotation on “the spirit of imperialism” comes from R. E. Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953, p. 47.
  • 5 Ibid., p. 199.
  • 6 Ibid.