Causus Belli: Illiberal Ideology

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a war and the alleged causes are numerous: man’s innate aggression,
vainglorious princes, stupid tyrants, imbalances of power, preserving
the union, the military industrial complex, ties to al-Qaeda, WMDs,
democracy, freedom, and a hundred other reasons. And what about
access to natural resources like, say, black gold? Such issues are
rarely mentioned.

regard to war, Hobbes
asserted three principal causes, “First, competition; secondly,
diffidence; thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain;
the second, for safety; the third, for reputation.”

of us suspect that G.W. Bush thirsts for the last. Major politicians
wear buttons saying, “ME,” don’t they? As Thomas Campbell wrote
in 1799, “What millions died—that Caesar might be great!”

is hard to see Bush the younger as great, but his imagination may
be more fertile than mine.

and his supporters argue that Hobbe’s motive number two really drives
their astute invasions: we launch preemptive wars against the bad
guys over there to make you folks safer back here. There’s doubt
about how well this theory will work out in practice. Somehow, a
manual on “How to win friends and influence people around the world”
authored by the gentle souls at the Pentagon, with superior firepower
at the center, and then executed on unwilling subjects in distant
lands, is not all that reassuring.

I’m wrong. If the tables were turned, I guess we North Americans
would embrace invading Chinese, Latins or Arabs bent on improving
our ignorant way of life and then be pals forever more. Still, I
can’t quite see it. The tendency to resent being conquered by a
foreign military is universal.

leaves material gain as a motive for war (all three of Hobbe’s causes,
of course, may operate simultaneously). The economic success of
the West rested on the fact that it “succeeded better in checking
the spirit of predatory militarism than the rest of mankind,” wrote
Ludwig von Mises. Reason, not accident, led the West to develop
the institutions to safeguard the individual’s rights against expropriation
and confiscation. Capitalism is the only system based on individual
rights, the only one that bans force. That permitted saving and
investment on a wide scale and hence mass production resulting in
unprecedented economic progress. Private property and relative freedom
to trade gave humanity the longest period of peace in history.

scrapped all that. Only a veneer of individual economic rights remains
in the U.S. polity. Why do modern unlimited governments prefer aggression
to peace? What transformed limited wars into total war? The short
answer is that the welfare state replaced the laissez-faire state.
A multitude of sovereign nations at peace is possible under laissez
faire, but it’s impossible under interventionism. In an interdependent
world, another government’s interference in oil or trade is too
important to be left to local politicians.

in business generates nationalism, and economic nationalism generates
bellicosity, as Mises said. If people, goods and investments cannot
move across borders, then armies pave the way.

the fact that the international division of labor requires the abolition
of war, the economic philosophy espoused today by nearly everyone
is nationalism, protectionism, massive taxation and borrowing, cheap
money, forced redistribution, and regulation. Will those damaged
by another government’s restrictions, expropriation and confiscation
sit back and tolerate it? “Not if they believe that they are strong
enough to brush it away by the use of arms,” writes Mises. “The
philosophy of protectionism is a philosophy of war.”

a world of arbitrary barriers against trade and foreign investment,
Hitler sought lebensraum (elbow-room), suzerainty over resources
in economic backwaters, as did Japan. Ordinary folks in Germany
and Japan expected these takings to yield a higher standard of living.
Today, the pugnacious Mr. Bush, leader of a rather well-endowed,
continental-size nation, seeks “democracy” overseas—that is,
stable oil supplies, including secure pipelines and related investments
from central Asia all the way to the Med. Surprising, isn’t it,
how Russia’s Putin is not quite on board with all this U.S. invading
and meddling in his backyard?

neocons genuinely believe that the key to durable peace is establishing
democracies throughout the world. Two problems here: first, it will
require lots of warring and, second, even if achieved it will fail
because peace depends on governments abandoning unlimited interventionism.
As Mises said, “The tragic error of President Wilson was that he
ignored this essential point.”

is not really the root of war today. It’s bad ideas about economic
policy. “Modern civilization is a product of the philosophy of laissez
faire,” Mises wrote. “It cannot be preserved under the ideology
of government omnipotence. . . . The main thing is to discard the
ideology that generates war.”

22, 2003

Reynolds [send him mail],
retired professor of economics at Texas A&M University and former
chief economist, US Department of Labor, lives in Hot Springs Village,


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