and the Logic of War-Making
by Joseph T. Salerno: Laundered
on war stretching back more than two millennia to the Peloponnesian
Wars have enshrouded the fundamental causes of war in an almost
impenetrable fog of myths, fallacies, and outright lies. In most
studies, war is generally portrayed as the inevitable outcome
of either complex historical forces or accidental circumstances
generally beyond the understanding or control of the human combatants.
there exists a science of human action that is applicable to all
purposeful activities. This science is referred to as "praxeology."
Although economics is its most developed branch, the basic principles
of this science can also be applied to analyzing violent action
including warfare. Thus Murray Rothbard wrote:
of praxeology [besides economics] is an unexplored area. Attempts
have been made to formulate a logical theory of war and violent
action, and violence in the form of government has been treated
by political philosophy and by praxeology in tracing the effects
of violent intervention in the free market.
suggested, what we might call the "Logic of War Making" is a relatively
undeveloped area of the science of human action. Its elaboration
is therefore especially necessary if we are to dispel the mythology
of war and elucidate its true origin and character. The basic
axiom of this praxeological discipline is that war is the objective
outcome of the human endeavor of war-making.
As a human
endeavor like any other, war-making is the product of reason, purpose
and choice. Therefore a proper analysis of war must take into account
the goals of the war makers, the means at their disposal, the benefits
they anticipate from the war and the costs they expect to incur
in executing it. It also must distinguish in a general way between
the individual beneficiaries and victims of war. These victims include
not only the vanquished group of war makers and those who reside
in the territory they control but especially the productive inhabitants
of the region controlled by the victorious organization of war makers.
Meaning of Imperialist War
At this point
it is necessary to define war and distinguish it from other forms
of inter-human violence in order to circumscribe the bounds of
the logic of war-making within the general praxeological system.
For not all violent conflict constitutes war-making. War is here
defined as violent interaction between two groups of humans, one
or both of which is a state. We adopt the definition of the state
given by the anthropologist and historian of primitive warfare,
Lawrence H. Keeley:
are political organizations [that] have a central government
empowered to collect taxes, draft labor for public works or
war, decree laws, and physically enforce those laws. Essentially
states are class-stratified political units that maintain
a "monopoly of deadly force" a monopoly institutionalized
as permanent police and military forces.
social groups such as bands, tribes and even chiefdoms are not states
because, according to Keeley, "a chief, unlike a king, does not
have the power to coerce people into obedience physically," instead
employing economic means or exploiting a belief in magic to enforce
his decrees. Although Keeley
refers to "pre-state warfare" or "primitive war," for the purposes
of praxeological analysis, we restrict the term the "war" to violent
conflicts involving at least one state.
looser social groupings was most commonly motivated by vengeance
for previous homicides or economic issues, especially access to
natural resources and crude capital goods. For example in Minnesota
the Chippewa and Dakota Sioux tribes battled one another for over
150 years over access to hunting territories and wild rice fields,
while tribes in the Pacific Northwest frequently fought for frontage
on the ocean and rivers giving access to the salmon run.
Anthropological studies show that, while most of these conflicts
involved savage violence and extreme cruelty, often resulting
in the expropriation, enslavement, expulsion or annihilation of
the vanquished tribe, their purpose was never to establish a hegemonic
relationship and exact regular tribute from the foe. As Kelley
explains, "Polities that lack the physical power to subjugate
their own populations or to extract involuntary tribute or taxes
from them are extremely unlikely to make war against others for
these purposes, since they lack the institutional and administrative
means to convert victory into hegemony or taxation."
both non-state social groups and states have historically engaged
in the violent annexation of territories to acquire natural resources,
only states possess the institutional means necessary to pursue
a policy of imperialism i.e., the ongoing subjugation and economic
exploitation of other peoples. Imperialist wars waged by states
in every epoch of history are not accidental; they are the outcome
of the powerful tendency to war-making inherent in the very nature
of the state.
Making and Class Conflict
past and present, regardless of their formal organization, involve
the rule of the many by the few. In other words, all governments
are fundamentally oligarchic. The reasons are twofold. First,
governments are nonproductive organizations and can only subsist
by extracting goods and services from the productive class in
their territorial domain. Thus the ruling class must remain a
minority of the population if they are to continually extract
resources from their subjects or citizens. Genuine "majority rule"
on a permanent basis is impossible because it would result in
an economic collapse as the tribute or taxes expropriated by the
more numerous rulers deprived the minority engaged in peaceful
productive activities of the resources needed to sustain and reproduce
itself. Majority rule would therefore eventually bring about a
violent conflict between factions of the previous ruling class,
which would terminate with one group establishing oligarchic rule
and economically exploiting its former confederates.
factor that renders oligarchic rule practically inevitable is
related to the law of comparative advantage. The tendency toward
division of labor and specialization based on the unequal endowment
of skills pervades all sectors of human endeavor. Just as a small
segment of the population is adept at playing professional football
or dispensing financial advice, so a tiny fraction of the population
tends to excel at wielding coercive power. As one writer summed
up this Iron Law of Oligarchy: "[In] all human groups at all times
there are the few who rule and the many who are ruled."
nonproductive and oligarchic nature of government thus ensures
that all nations under political rule are divided into two classes:
a productive class and a parasitic class or, in the apt terminology
of the American political theorist John C. Calhoun, "taxpayers"
The king and
his court, elected politicians and their bureaucratic and special-interest
allies, the dictator and his party apparatchiks these are
historically the tax-consumers and, not coincidentally, the war
makers. War has a number of advantages for the ruling class. First
and foremost, war against a foreign enemy obscures the class conflict
that is going on domestically in which the minority ruling class
coercively siphons off the resources and lowers the living standards
of the majority of the population, who produce and pay taxes. Convinced
that their lives and property are being secured against a foreign
threat, the exploited taxpayers develop a "false consciousness"
of political and economic solidarity with their domestic rulers.
An imperialist war against a weak foreign state, e.g., Grenada,
Panama, Haiti, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, etc. is especially enticing
to the ruling class of a powerful nation such as the United States
because it minimizes the cost of losing the war and being displaced
by domestic revolution or by the rulers of the victorious foreign
A second advantage
of war is that it provides the ruling class with an extraordinary
opportunity to intensify its economic exploitation of the domestic
producers through emergency war taxes, monetary inflation, conscripted
labor, and the like. The productive class generally succumbs to
these increased depredations on its income and wealth with some
grumbling but little real resistance because it is persuaded that
its interests are one with the war makers. Also, in the short run
at least, modern war appears to bring prosperity to much of the
civilian population because it is financed in large part by money
We thus arrive
at a universal, praxeological truth about war. War is the outcome
of class conflict inherent in the political relationship
the relationship between ruler and ruled, parasite and producer,
tax-consumer and taxpayer. The parasitic class makes war with
purpose and deliberation in order to conceal and ratchet up their
exploitation of the much larger productive class. It may also
resort to war-making to suppress growing dissension among members
of the productive class (libertarians, anarchists, etc.) who have
become aware of the fundamentally exploitative nature of the political
relationship and become a greater threat to propagate this insight
to the masses as the means of communication become cheaper and
more accessible, e.g., desktop publishing, AM radio, cable television,
the Internet, etc. Furthermore, the conflict between ruler and
ruled is a permanent condition. This truth is reflected
perhaps half consciously in the old saying that equates
death and taxes as the two unavoidable features of the human condition.
Thus, a permanent
state of war or preparedness for war is optimal from the point
of view of the ruling elite, especially one that controls a large
and powerful state. Take the current US government as an example.
It rules over a relatively populous, wealthy, and progressive
economy from which it can extract ever larger boodles of loot
without destroying the productive class. Nevertheless, it is subject
to the real and abiding fear that sooner or later productive Americans
will come to recognize the continually increasing burden of taxation,
inflation, and regulation for what it really is naked exploitation.
So the US government, the most powerful mega-state in history,
is driven by the very logic of the political relationship to pursue
a policy of permanent war.
War to Make the World Safe for Democracy" to "The War to End All
Wars" to "The Cold War" and on to the current "War on Terror,"
the wars fought by US rulers in the twentieth century have progressed
from episodic wars restricted to well-defined theaters and enemies
to a war without spatial or temporal bounds against an incorporeal
enemy named "Terror." A more appropriate name for this neoconservative-contrived
war would involve a simple change in the preposition to a "War
of Terror" because the American state is terrified
of productive, work-a-day Americans, who may someday awaken and
put an end to its massive predations on their lives and property
and maybe to the American ruling class itself.
In the meantime,
the War on Terror is an open-ended imperialist war the likes of
which were undreamt of by infamous war makers of yore from the Roman
patricians to German National Socialists. The economist Joseph Schumpeter
was one of the few non-Marxists to grasp that the primary stimulus
for imperialist war is the inescapable clash of interests between
rulers and ruled. Taking an early mega-state, Imperial Rome, as
his example, Schumpeter wrote:
is the classic example … of that policy which pretends
to aspire to peace but unerringly generates war, the policy
of continual preparation for war, the policy of meddlesome
interventionism. There was no corner of the known world where
some interest was not alleged to be in danger or under actual
attack. If the interests were not Roman, they were those of
Rome's allies; and if Rome had no allies, then allies would
be invented. When it was utterly impossible to contrive such
an interest why, then it was national honor that had
been insulted. The fight was always invested with an aura
of legality. Rome was always being attacked by evil minded
neighbors, always fighting for a breathing space. The whole
world was pervaded by a host of enemies, and it was manifestly
Rome's duty to guard against their indubitably aggressive
designs. They were enemies who only waited to fall upon the
Roman people. [No] attempt [can] be made to comprehend these
wars of conquest from the point of view of concrete objectives….
Thus there is but one way to an understanding: scrutiny of
domestic class interests, the question of who stood to gain….
Owing to its peculiar position as the democratic puppet of
ambitious politicians and as the mouthpiece of a popular will
inspired by the rulers [the Roman proletariat] did indeed
get the benefit of the [war] booty. So long as there was good
reason to maintain the fiction that the population of Rome
constituted the Roman people and could decide the destinies
of the empire, much did depend on its good temper….
But again, the very existence, in such large numbers, of this
proletariat, as well as its political importance, was the
consequence of a social process that also explains the policy
of conquest. For this was the causal connection: The occupation
of public land and the robbery of peasant land formed the
basis of a system of large estates, operating extensively
and with slave labor. At the same time the displaced peasants
streamed into the city and the soldiers remained landless
hence the war policy.
landowners were, of course, deeply interested in waging war….
. The alternative to war was agrarian reform. The landed aristocracy
could counter the perpetual threat of revolution only with
the glory of victorious leadership. [I]t was an aristocracy
of landlords, large-scale agricultural entrepreneurs, born
of struggle against their own people. It rested solely on
control of the state machine. Its only safeguard lay in national
glory…. An unstable social structure of this kind merely
creates a general disposition to watch for pretexts for war
often held to be adequate with entire good faith
and to turn to questions of foreign policy whenever the discussion
of social problems grew too troublesome for comfort. The ruling
class was always inclined to declare that the country was
in danger, when it really was only class interests that were
quotation from Schumpeter vividly describes how the expropriation
of peasants by the ruling aristocracy created a permanent and irreparable
class division in Roman society that led to a policy of unrestrained
imperialism and perpetual war. This policy was designed to submerge
beneath a tide of national glory and war booty the deep-seated conflict
of interests between expropriated proletarians and landed aristocracy.
and Imperialist War Making
analysis explains the particularly strong propensity of democratic
states to engage in imperialist war-making and why the Age of
Democracy has coincided with the Age of Imperialism. The term
"democratic" is here being used in the broad sense that includes
"totalitarian democracies" controlled by "parties" such as the
Nationalist Socialist Workers Party in Germany and the Communist
Party in the Soviet Union. These political parties, as opposed
to purely ideological movements, came into being during the age
of nationalist mass democracy that dawned in the late nineteenth
masses in a democratic polity are deeply imbued with the ideology
of egalitarianism and the myth of majority rule, the ruling elites
who control and benefit from the state recognize the utmost importance
of concealing its oligarchic and exploitative nature from the
masses. Continual war-making against foreign enemies is a perfect
way to disguise the naked clash of interests between the taxpaying
and tax-consuming classes.
In this vein,
it is noteworthy that the first instance of sustained global imperialism
in the Western world was the democratic city-state of Athens.
Victor Davis Hanson has emphasized this in his path-breaking work
on the Peloponnesian War. Hanson writes:
was the Western world's first example of globalization. There
was a special word of sorts for Athenian expansionism in the
Greek language, attikizô, "to Atticize," to
become like or join the Athenians.
By the standards
of the time, the expanse of the Athenian empire was breath-taking.
By the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenian empire
had swelled to "nearly two hundred states run by seven hundred
imperial overseers." According to Hanson, "To maintain such an
empire, in the fifth century [B.C.] Athens had fought three out
of every four years, a remarkable record of constant mobilization,
unrivaled even in modern times."
Moreover, unlike its openly oligarchic rival Sparta who led a
loose voluntary coalition of states that genuinely feared a "proselytizing
and expansionary" Athenian democracy, Athens unilaterally formulated
and imposed a single strategy on its imperial subject-states and
not shrink from noting the parallels between the imperialism of
ancient Athens and the modern US mega-state, writing:
Americans offer the world a radically egalitarian popular
culture and, more recently, in a very Athenian mood, have
sought to remove oligarchs and impose democracy in
Grenada, Panama, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq enemies,
allies, and neutrals alike are not so impressed. They understandably
fear American power and intentions while our successive governments,
in the manner of confident and proud Athenians, assure them
of our morality and selflessness. Military power and idealism
about bringing perceived civilization to others are a prescription
for conflict in any age and no ancient state made war
more often than did fifth-century imperial Athens.
The Sinews of Imperialist War
once wrote, "The sinews of war are five men, money, materials,
maintenance (food) and morale."
In a modern market economy, Hemingway's five M's, in practice,
boil down to one: money. A political oligarchy that rules and
exploits a large and productive economy need only get its hands
on sufficient monetary funds in order to obtain the men, material,
and maintenance necessary to carry out its war plans. Furthermore,
an ever expanding supply of money and credit also boosts the morale
of the civilian population by distorting economic calculation
and creating the temporary illusion that war brings prosperity.
Thus Cicero spoke more truly when he said, "The sinews of war,
a limitless supply of money."
the connection between monetary inflation and civilian morale
during wartime, Mises wrote in 1919:
great war monetary calculation was disrupted by inflation….
The economic behavior of the belligerents was thereby led
astray; the true consequences of the war were removed from
their view. One can say without exaggeration that inflation
is an indispensable means of militarism. Without it, the repercussions
of war on welfare become obvious much more quickly and penetratingly;
war weariness would set in much earlier.
initial stages of war inflation must eventually give way to crisis
and depression. The reason is that war entails a massive consumption
of capital because of the diversion of real resources from production
for present and especially future civilian needs that is,
the maintenance and replacement of capital goods to production
for immediate military purposes. The productive class only becomes
aware of the enormous destruction of its real income and wealth
when inflation ceases and the ensuing crisis and recession reveal
the true costs of the war, aside from its physical destruction of
lives and property. At
this point the bitterly disillusioned and demoralized producers
begin to realize that their own interests are not identical with
those of their imperialist rulers.
In the two
World Wars of the twentieth century the war makers on both sides
were able to forestall this day of reckoning by abrogating the
freedom to produce and exchange and instituting a more or less
thoroughgoing command economy featuring pervasive price controls
and central direction of production and distribution by legal
fiat. Things are different
in contemporary imperialist wars, such as those fought by the
United States since the end of the Cold War. The reason is that
the vast disparity in military and economic power between the
imperial state and the state it wishes to subjugate obviates recourse
to massive monetary expansion.
the current US war on Iraq is estimated to have cost roughly $346
billion from its inception in 2003 until the present.
During this time, the change in the Adjusted Monetary Base (MB),
which is completely controlled by the Fed and represents the "seigniorage"
or inflation tax that the government realizes from money creation,
has been about $137 billion. But the rate of growth of MB has
steadily declined from mid-2002 from 10 percent to below 5 percent
currently. This is reflected in a decline in the rates of growth
of broader monetary aggregates such as MZM, M2, and M3. Yet at
the same time, US Federal Government debt has ballooned by nearly
$2 trillion since March 2003, expanding the total debt accumulated
since the inception of the American Republic by over 30 percent!
How has this flood of new debt been financed if not by money creation?
is by borrowing from foreigners. In March 2003, foreign investors
held about $1,286.3 billion of Federal government debt. By June
2006, foreign investors were holding $2091.7 billion of the debt,
an increase of $805.4 billion or over 40 percent of the increase
of the total debt since March 2003.
In other words, foreigners have by and large financed the US imperialist
adventure in Iraq, greatly mitigating the economic burden of the
war borne by US taxpayers and consumers at least until foreigners
refuse to absorb any more US debt. At this point increased taxation
and more rapid money creation must be resorted to in continuing
to finance the war as well as the interest payments on the outstanding
In the meantime,
an interesting issue to contemplate is whether an aroused and
disgruntled taxpaying class has any means at its disposal short
of violent revolution for putting an end to the never-ending series
of imperialist wars sucking the lifeblood (accumulated capital)
out of the economy and consuming its real wealth and income. Vladimir
Lenin's answer was, "[C]onvert the imperialist war into a civil
war; all consistently waged class struggles in wartime and all
seriously conducted 'mass-action' tactics inevitably lead to this."
The logic of war-making in conjunction with its cognate praxeological
discipline, economics, reveals that Lenin's dictum is indeed practicable
and that there are a number of peaceful tactics available to the
productive masses that strike directly at the sinews of the imperialist
is the general strike, an Atlas Shrugged scenario writ
large, in which the producers go on strike for lengthy periods
of time and live off their accumulated savings. This chokes off
the current taxes that pay for the war as well as the military
supplies needed to execute it. Mass boycotts of goods and services
produced by enterprises directly profiting from the war as well
as central government enterprises such as the post office strike
directly at the revenues of the tax-consuming class. So do economic
boycotts of the mass media, including establishment newspapers
and periodicals and the major television broadcast networks. In
the contemporary United States, the latter, in particular, are
little more than legally licensed cartelists spewing forth government
all bank deposits and using only cash or barter arrangements in
exchange would cause the fractional-reserve banking system to grind
to a halt for a lengthy period of time as the monetary authorities
would have to freeze all bank accounts until sufficient currency
was printed and delivered to banks throughout the country. This
would take months and would completely disrupt the monetary and
financial system in the meanwhile, forcing the government to resort
to the archaic and costly technique of literally printing up and
shipping new currency to pay for its war expenditures.
Selling government bonds en masse causing their prices to plunge
would wreak havoc with the balance sheets of banks and other financial
institutions and make it extremely difficult for the government
to issue war debt.
tactics would have a number of additional and very important benefits.
First, they would cause a deep rift in the ruling class, which,
in a plutocratic democracy such as the United States, is by no
means monolithic because it includes significant elements of the
big business and finance establishment that are competing with
one another for subsidies and special legal privileges from the
coalition of political interests can be readily destabilized by
the radical change in the pattern of benefits and costs brought
about by mass-action tactics that unevenly affect the revenues and
subsidies of politically connected business firms. Thus, those industrial
firms and financial institutions suffering significant hardships
from these tactics would turn against the war, thereby shrinking
and weakening the ruling class. With the prospect of civil war with
its former allies looming, those in control of the state apparatus
would have a strong incentive to halt its war-making activities.
business firms completely outside the ambit of the tax-consuming,
government-industrial complex e.g., McDonald's, Wal-Mart,
Microsoft, etc. would also suffer economic losses as a
result of the general strike and financial collapse, giving them
an incentive to ally themselves with the renegade firms that were
formerly members of the political establishment. This newly emergent
anti-state coalition of business organizations could also peacefully
strike at the enfeebled and demoralized imperial state by refusing
to do business with it and threatening to blacklist individual
bureaucrats and politicians as candidates for the anticipated
lucrative jobs in the private sector.
the anti-imperialist alliance of large and powerful business interests
brought into existence by the general strike and other peaceful
mass-action economic tactics would naturally, if unintentionally,
interpose itself as a protective shield between the economically
debilitated but still dangerous and vindictive state and the individual
dissidents of the taxpaying class.
method, which has been used successfully to elaborate the laws of
economics, is also capable of yielding a systematic body of truths
when applied to the analysis of war. Although the logic of war-making
has yet to be fully elaborated, it is clear that this praxeological
sub-discipline is useful in dispelling the long entrenched myths
and fallacies about war. The logic of war-making also provides knowledge
of the means to those whose goal, for ideological or economic reasons,
is to bring about the cessation of a war.
Murray N. Rothbard, Man,
Economy and State: A Treatise on Economic Principles, 2nd
ed., Scholar's ed. with Power and Market: Government and the
Economy, 3rd ed., Scholar's ed. (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises
Institute, 2004), p. 74
Lawrence H. Keeley, War
before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage (New
York: Oxford University Press, 1996), p. 27.
Ibid., p. 115.
Ibid., p. 116.
Arthur Livingston, Introduction in Gaetano Mosca, The Ruling
Class: Elementi di Scienza Politica, ed. Arthur Livingston,
trans. Hannah D. Kahn (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1939),
p. x. On the Iron Law of Oligarchy, also see Murray N. Rothbard,
a New Liberty: The Libertarian Manifesto, 2nd ed. (San
Francisco: Wilkes & Fox, 1996), pp. 45–69.
John C. Calhoun, "A Disquisition
on Government," in Union
and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun,
ed. Ross M. Lence (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1992), pp. 15–21.
On the concept of "totalitarian democracy," see J.L. Talmon, The
Origins of Totalitarian Democracy (New York: W. W. Norton
& Company, Inc.,  1970). My conception of totalitarian
democracy differs from Talmon's because he applies the term only
to "Totalitarianism of the Left" and but not to "Totalitarianism
of the Right" (ibid., pp. 6–8).
Victor Hanson Davis, A
War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Dought the Peloponnesian
War (New York: Random House, 2005), p. 14
Ibid., p. 27
Ibid., pp. 13, 29.
Ibid., p. 8.
Hemingway, Brainy Quote.
Tullio Cicero, Brainy Quote.
Ludwig von Mises, Nation,
State, and Economy: Contributions to the Politics and History of
Our Time, trans. Leland B. Yeager (New York,: New York
University Press, 1983), pp. 163.
For an explanation of how financing war through money creation
distorts and conceals its actual costs, see Joseph T. Salerno,
"War and the Money Machine: Concealing the Costs of War beneath
the Veil of Inflation," Journal des Economistes et des Etudes
Humaines 6 (March 1995): 153–73.
For a description of the process by which the US economy was transformed
into a command economy during World War II, see Robert Higgs, Crisis
and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of the American Government
(New York: Oxford University Press, 1987), pp. 196–236.
Priorities Project, Cost of War.
The data in this paragraph are drawn from Federal
Reserve Bank of St. Louis Monetary Trends (December
2006) and National Economic Trends (November 2006).
Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, "Socialism and War in The
Lenin Anthology, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: W. W.
Norton & Company, 1975), p. 195.
As an indication of the enormous expense involved in printing
Federal Reserve dollar notes, a 2002 study by the Government
Accounting Office estimated that even replacing $1 notes only
by $1 coins would save $500 million annually (Barbara Hagenbaugh,
Coin Series Will Feature Presidents," USA Today.
Salerno [send him mail]
is academic vice president of the Mises
Institute, chairman of the graduate program in economics at
Pace University, and editor of the Quarterly
Journal of Austrian Economics.
© 2012 by the Ludwig von Mises Institute.
Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided
full credit is given.
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