What Thrives and What Dies During War

What Thrives and What Dies During War?

by Mark Thornton

It is often been claimed that war is good because it brings out the human traits of courage, bravery, and patriotism. War makes for exciting times, stretches our endurance, and allows us to achieve our destiny. War can even get us out of economic depressions! Nothing could be further from the truth.

War is what animals do to each other. It is deadly and destructive. It prevents us from building and achieving our goals, and brings man down to the level of the brute animal. It destroys cooperation and trade, and substitutes force for peaceful, voluntary interaction. Personal and family bonds are broken while property rights are ignored and trampled upon. Tasteful art, literature, music, and culture in general are pushed asunder or replaced with primitive and barbaric substitutes. Police power, economic interventionism, and nationalism thrive. Inflation is what makes war possible, but it makes normal economic life a nightmare. War is for the health of the State, not the wellbeing of humanity.

Can the United State be properly labeled a participant in the animalistic and barbaric behavior of total war? No, not really. It would be more correct to say that the United States has been on the cutting edge in adopting the ideology of total war. We were one of its first practitioners, and one of the leading developers of its methods.

General William Tecumseh Sherman and his fellow Union generals practiced the intentional genocide of total war during the so-called “Civil War.” He explicitly stated that he wanted to exterminate the antebellum planter class of the South. However, he originally developed and perfected his techniques during the war on the Seminoles in Florida years before. His methods there included destroying homes, crops, and food stores; poisoning water supplies; and killing women and children, all methods the Union Army would continue to use throughout the 19th century.

WWI was certainly total war at its worst, and so was WWII. Hitler, Churchill, and Roosevelt all condoned continuous and indiscriminant bombing of civilians. Truman authorized the incineration of more than a quarter of a million civilians, mostly women and children. You can try to argue that these actions were efficient, effective, or necessary, but you cannot deny that they were barbaric. We don’t like to think of ourselves as barbaric, and perhaps we are not the most barbaric of nations, but we are barbaric in war nonetheless.

Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises showed that the only policy consistent with humanity is peace. He showed that war is the result of interventionism, protectionism, and the welfare state. He further shows us that peace can only be achieved with a consistent ideology and a persistent policy of laissez faire.

One precautionary note: when describing the effects of war it is important to distinguish between war and recession. Even though their causes are intermingled and they are both bad from an economic point of view, it is important to keep the two separate.

General Effects of War Dies Thrives Privacy Deceit Knowledge Propaganda Market Government Liberty Power Freedom Security Entrepreneurs Politicians Labor Bureaucracies Citizens Special Interests Saving Consumption Conservation Destruction Capital Depreciation Excellence Ersatz Technology Cannibalization Culture Survival Sound Money Inflation Family Prostitution Babies Bombs Health Famine Society Insanity Life Death


Main Street Economy: Land, Labor, and Capital Harmed By War

  • Retail business
  • Real estate and Insurance
  • Art and Entertainment
  • Airlines and capital intensive industries
  • Manufacturing and Non-defense capital goods

The Unregulated Economy: Technology and Entrepreneurship Harmed By War

  • Technology
  • Internet
  • Banking privacy
  • Small businesses
  • New businesses

The Death Economy: Benefits From the Destruction of People, Peace, and Privacy

  • Military
  • Weapons Industry
  • Spies (CIA, FBI, etc.)
  • Government and Taxes
  • The News Media

The Devil Economy: Benefits From Government and War

  • Wall Street
  • Big Banks
  • Oil Service Companies
  • Pharmaceutical and Healthcare
  • Public Enterprises

The Perfect War

While the battle against Osama Bin Ladin seems like a small war, it’s actually the perfect war for the government. It’s in a faraway place not easily accessible for media coverage. The opposition is small and poorly equipped so they don’t represent much of a threat. They are also spread out (and the enemy is even poorly defined – terrorists?) so that great quantities of resources can be used up in chasing down Bin Laudin and his gang in many countries around the globe. Even their clothing makes them look elusive and therefore provides a good excuse for not being able to catch them.

The White House has announced that they expect the war to last for six more years (although most Americans now see the war as over). It’s also perfect in the sense that the terrorist hit the American homeland and killed innocent citizens. If only one of twelve federal bureaucracies had done their job, this calamity could have been avoided in the first place.

Oddly enough the tragedy provides the government with a rationale for all sorts of new interventions and, while also producing the support and patriotism necessary to extract the great quantities of resources from the economy and to subvert a whole host of liberties and freedoms. To top it off, the timing of the war was excellent because the economy had sunk so far into recession that even government statistics revealed the truth. Nothing trumps a recession like a good war and the popularity ratings of President Bush and government in general are sky high. It’s almost too perfect.

The Lasting Effects of War

One of the best sources on the role of war in increasing the size of government is Robert Higg’s book, Crisis and Leviathan he is also the person who showed that WWII did not get us out of the Great Depression. Higgs shows that crises such as war and depression provide an impetus for governments to grow dramatically. After the crisis is over government shrinks but does not return to its previous level, but maintains higher taxes, higher levels of spending, and reduced levels of rights and privacy.

When this war ends, does anyone think that airport security will be privatized or that the Office of Homeland Security will be disbanded? Higgs described the growth of government as a “ratchet effect” where government grows tremendously during crisis and never fully retracts when the crisis is over.

One writer for the New York Times understands Higg’s connection between War and Big Government and it makes him happy. He asked, is it really Guns vs. Butter? Do we really get fewer social programs when the government spends more on defense? No he says, we can have more of both when it comes to government and war. WWI gave us pervasive government regulation of the economy and “this cooperative approach to regulation survived.” WWII saw the expansion of the income tax from 4 million taxpayers to 44 million taxpayers. And to save us from nuclear attack, the interstate highway system was built during the Cold War. It cost a bundle, but the Times writer notes gleefully “an entire industry of restaurants and motels were built up along these roads.” I suppose that they could also argue that the interstates did indeed save us from those Russian missiles. And let's just take a minute to think of all the tangible benefits we received from our battle to beat the Russians to the moon. Tang.

The New York Times writer is concerned that there may be significant barriers to starting new domestic programs in this war, but concludes with confidence because recent polling data shows that public trust in government has reversed its 30 year slide and that the airport security bill was passed, what he dubs “a massive public works program,” which enlarged the federal workforce and “even included a tax increase – called a passenger fee.” Almost drunk with joy, the Times writer concludes that given the nature of this war that it would be possible to start new programs in medical research, health care, food safety, computer technology, law enforcement, unemployment insurance, transportation, energy production, and education.

“While the programs would be launched under the banner of the military effort, they could create a permanent government presence in areas unimaginable on September 10, 2001.”

Two Examples of What Thrives

The Office of Homeland Security

The most tangible increase in government is the Office of Homeland Security, which nobody in Washington questioned the establishment of, but will surely continue to grow in size, power, and influence over time. It will spend billions if not trillions of dollars over the coming years and Greenspan has the inflationary spickets going on full.

I bring to your attention the cover story of the February 2002 Free Market where economist Bob Higgs asks poignantly, what about the massive Department of Defense? “If it does not defend our homeland, what does it defend?” Despite trillions of dollars, the Department of Defense could not even defend its own headquarters and now admits that it is so ill-prepared for looming threats that it will require endless billions to purchase every weapon system on the shelf and develop new ones. This admission of complete vulnerability should make Bush’s missile shield a higher priority on the federal “to do” list.

Addiction, Mental Disability, Divorce

War is a great fount of social problems. The Civil War caused countless people, both soldiers and civilians, to be broken mentally or physically, and of course financially. Many were left addicted to drugs and alcohol. WWI killed many American soldiers and put many more into Veterans hospitals due to mental and physical incapacity. WWII did the same, as did the Korean War. Vietnam is famous for all the drug use and prostitution, with many veterans never fully reintegrated into society. This all cost money but the human cost is incalculable. But soldiers don’t have to go to war to cause social problems. Just go to any military base and you will see it surrounded by prostitutes, drug dealers, seedy bars and hotels, not to mention tattoo parlors and pawn shops.

Two Examples of What Dies

Technology and War

Because new weapons seem to figure so crucially in the outcomes of battles and war, historians have often been mislead to the notion that war causes technology to move forward. However, in my research on the American Civil War, I have found that war was not a boon to technology. In fact, before the war, American was a font of new technology and in the massive spread of its use. Henry David Thoreau might have been the first person to use the phrase “Yankee Ingenuity” in 1843.

The war itself did not advance science and technology at all. Historians agree that the war provided no impetus in science, knowledge or technology. Robert Bruce concluded that the “Civil War was not only not affected by applied science but also was itself a distinct detriment to basic science.” Even in military technology, very few new things were invented. The Gatling gun was invented, but was not put to much use. Submarine technology existed before the war, and the CSS Hunley was only the first submarine to make a successful attack.

Culture: The Case of Poetry

I consulted an old edition of the Oxford Book of American Verse and found that not a single poet in the collection was born during a war year. Contributors mostly lived during the 19th and early 20th century, but there were no poets born in the Civil War decade until 1869. I believe that the death and destruction of that war reduced the population in such a way that it simply did not provide the opportunity for that generation to contribute much in cultural areas. In fact there is a large gap between the birth of Emily Dickinson in 1830 and Edgar Lee Masters in 1869 filled only by the birth of Sidney Lanier in 1842.

I believe this gap is explained in large part by the fact that the war killed so many, killed the spirits of many more, and left the remainder of society with a tremendous burden to carry. I also consulted a list of American poets mostly from the 20th century and found that of the first 200 on the list, seven females were born during war years and one male (who has published virtually nothing). I would have expected about three times that many had the average number of poets been born during war years.


In summary, government, inflation, and bad behavior thrive during war, while the economy, culture, and our standard of living dies. No matter what the statistics say, a nation cannot achieve a higher standard of living while it is at war. War turns everything on its head, and diminishes us.

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