Causus Belli: Illiberal Ideology

Name 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.

With 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.”

Many 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!”

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

Bush 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.

Maybe 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.

That 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.

Statism 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.

Interference 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.

Despite 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.”

In 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?

Today’s 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.”

Oil 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.”

December 22, 2003