Last week marked the 100th Anniversary of the beginning of World War I. That war, which produced over 37 million casualties, not counting the related famines and epidemics that came in the war’s wake, also destroyed the political systems of numerous countries, setting the stage for fascism and communism in Europe. In the United States, and of course also throughout Europe, the war led to paranoia and political repression rarely seen during the previous century, and in the United States, the Wilson administration’s “anti-sedition” efforts led to a large-scale destruction of basic American liberties unmatched even by the Alien and Sedition acts of the eighteenth century.
For Americans especially, the war and the more than 100,000 American war dead gained nothing more than a post-war depression. While some Europeans could at least claim to be fighting against physical invasion, the Americans fought for nothing except to defend some authoritarian regimes from some other authoritarian regimes. The idea that the war had something to do with “democracy” was obviously untrue even at the time, and in retrospect, the claim is all the more ridiculous given the rise of totalitarianism, which was fostered by the Treaty of Versailles.
The deadly effects of the war, the repressive measures enacted by supposedly enlightened regimes, and how the war paved the way for its even bloodier sequel twenty-five years later, have been covered by a number of excellent historians and economists, including Ralph Raico, Robert Higgs, Hunt Tooley, and Murray Rothbard. The war led to revolutions in ideology, public administration, government, and war itself. Few of these changes improved the lives of ordinary people, and most of these changes led to the commodification and cheapening of human life and human freedom.
The revolutionary nature of the war is little disputed today, but rather than focus on the war itself or its aftermath, it may also be helpful to consider what the war relegated to the dustbin of history.
The Economics of the Bourgeois Century
What some historians now call “the bourgeois century” was the ninety-nine years between the Napoleonic Wars and the beginning of the First World War. From 1815 to 1914, there was no major war in Europe and the standard of living increased far beyond anything ever witnessed before as industrialization, mechanization, and the resulting increases in worker productivity spread throughout the continent.
During the middle of the century, free trade became more widespread than ever, with labor and capital enjoying never-before-seen freedom to move across national borders. Throughout much of central and western Europe, no passport was necessary to move between nation states. Indeed, passports and border checkpoints became associated with despotic and backward countries like Russia.
It was during this period that we saw the rise of the Cobdenites (also known as the Manchester liberals) in Britain who, beginning with the Anti-Corn Law League, slowly rolled back the mercantilist rule of the landed nobility who opposed free trade. The rise of the middle classes both economically and politically were buttressed by mass movements of classical liberalism Europe-wide that demanded greater economic freedoms for themselves and fewer tax-funded privileges for the ruling classes.
As free trade spread, and lessened the advantages of controlling foreign colonies, imperialism receded as well, and an international peace movement arose with Richard Cobden, dubbed “the international man” as one of its celebrities.
At the same time, many luxuries became available to the middle classes, and this was a time when much of what we now take for granted was quite novel. It was during this time that something that might be recognized as “the weekend” became known. For most people it was still just a one-day affair (Sunday), but it was the first time in human history that average people had the ability to not only stop work for a few hours, but to actually spend some money on recreation such as a short trip to the seaside, or shopping, organized sports, or a trip to a museum, play, or other cultural event.
The new economic realities led to major changes in families as well. For the first time, a large number of parents could afford to formally educate their children in schools or with books. More leisure and income also meant that parents could give children individual attention, play games in the home, read books as a family and more. Fewer and fewer children needed to work to help the family maintain a subsistence living. With the economic liberation of children also came much better conditions for women who became far better educated, and became valued for their ability to manage complex tasks such as the education of children, household hygiene (no small matter in a nineteenth century city) twice-a-day food shopping and more. Moreover, men and women began to engage in the odd practice of marrying for reasons of “sentiment and physical attraction” as marrying for financial reasons became less a matter of life and death. Just as leisure on Sundays allowed for more public recreation, leisure time within the family allowed for more “private” recreation as well, which was complimented by marriage manuals, such as those found in France, that reminded men to tend to women’s sexual needs.
The Rise of Imperialism and the Road to World War I
Naturally, sex, family, and an afternoon at the beach struck many conservative politicians and “deep thinkers” as frivolous wastes of time. Family time and leisure was wasted on mere ordinary people when far more “honorable” pursuits such as nation-building, colonial adventurism, and the art of war were being neglected.
Certainly Otto von Bismarck, a great enemy of the liberals, was expressing contempt for such domestic pursuits when he declared his disdain for the Manchester liberals as “Manchester moneybags” who were concerned not with the glory of the nation-state, but with making money.
By the late nineteenth century, bourgeois liberalism was in decline. Assaulted on one side by the Marxists and other socialists, and on the other side by conservatives, nationalists, and imperialists, the great powers of Europe began to sink back into mercantilism, nationalism, and imperialism. The Scramble for Africa was representative of the new imperialism as the European great powers looked ever more aggressively for new colonies. Meanwhile, the British tightened their grip on India while inventing the concentration camp in its efforts to starve the Boers into submission.
In the late nineteenth century, Bismarck was hard at work inventing the welfare state and hammering together Germany into one unified nation-state. By the turn of the century, one of the few remaining liberals, Vilfredo Pareto in Italy, was able to declare that socialism had finally triumphed in Europe.
In the decade before the First World War, The generation of European liberals such as Gustav de Molinari, Cobden, John Bright, Herbert Spencer, Eugen Richter, and others were dead or near death. There were few young, new liberal scholars to replace them.
At the same time, trade barriers rose throughout Europe as the great powers turned to the economics of imperialism characterized by mercantilism, tariffs, border controls, regulation, and militarism.
Europe during the bourgeois century was certainly no utopia. The new cities were filled with disease, pollution, and crime. Medical science had yet to achieve what it would in the twentieth century, and of course, standards of living remained low when compared to today. But even if we consider these problems, which plague many societies even today, the enormous gains made for ordinary people, thanks to industrialization and the rise of free trade, were fostered all the more by the rise of classical liberalism which actively sought to avoid war, political repression, and economic intervention as the means to a more prosperous society.
Indeed, historian Daniel Yergin would come to refer to this period as the time of “the first era of globalization” and to note that “the world economy experienced an era of peace and growth that, in the aftermath of the carnage of World War I, came to be remembered as a golden age.”
Liberalism was already deeply in decline by 1914, but the First World War was perhaps the final nail in the coffin. Following the war, depression followed, and for Europe, this was followed by hyperinflation in many places, political instability, a declining standard of living — and finally — fascism, communism, and war. In the United States, which managed to avoid most of the destruction of the war, prosperity was achieved during the 1920s, only to be lost and followed by fifteen years of depression and war.
One hundred years after the beginning of the end for bourgeois Europe, we are fortunate to be looking on a new classical liberalism, now known as libertarianism, which is not in decline, but instead is making great strides globally in the face of a still-ascendant ideology of interventionism, mercantilism, and war. We can hope that a third world war will not bring it all crashing down.