The Labor Theory of War

Socialists who still embrace the discredited ideas of Marx believe that the ultimate value of a service or product is the labor put into it. As they see it, profits exploit workers by providing them with compensation worth less than the labor they put into their work. Even socialists who dismiss many of Marx's doctrines have a soft spot for the idea that profits are exploitation, and employees should receive wages according to the sheer effort they put into something. It is this sympathy to the labor theory of value that leads socialists to call for a "living wage," even though many jobs don't produce enough wealth to pay for such a wage.

I peruse the news accounts about Iraq and think about the billions of dollars spent on the war. I think about the Americans and Iraqis killing each other, and the expensive bombs and weapons employed in that senseless violence. I think to myself: Wow, this war sure requires a lot of labor to keep it going. I wonder if socialists would value it more than something that would require much less labor, like a peace agreement.

There are a lot of things that most people value that require much less labor to produce and maintain than a war. Ten billion dollars worth of food does a lot more good than a hundred billion dollars worth of bombing campaigns. Some things that leftists especially claim to value — such as an untouched rainforest — they value specifically because so little human labor has been invested.

Should we champion an economic system that would value things based solely on how much work they require, when there are so many historical examples of incredibly laborious enterprises that didn't seem to benefit very many people at all? Aside from a small ruling class, who benefited from the incredibly labor-intensive destruction involved in World War I?

Almost everyone would be better off if the United States packed up and left Iraq. Unfortunately, the central planners have used the power of the state to wage a war that the free market would have never produced, and the planners want to maintain that war.

Sure, Halliburton and some other companies benefited from the war. Leftists cried that the war was about oil and corporate profits. Even if that's true, it's hard to imagine those companies so attracted to war in a free market, in which they would have to fork over hundreds of billions of dollars to hire soldiers and make bombs just to go and steal oil. It wouldn't be profitable, and people would look on in horror.

In a free market, I doubt that a company would have been able to convince the American people to spend hundreds of billions of dollars — about a thousand dollars per person — to pay for the Iraq War. Americans would have done their homework and researched the credibility of WMD allegations before they were convinced the war was worth it to them. Even if they were won over by the humanitarian reasons for ousting Saddam, they would have wanted assurances that their money would be used in a way that would not hurt the very people it was meant to help.

Since the government supplies the funding for war, taxpayers kid themselves into believing the war makes sense. I would guess that some people figure they have to pay for war no matter what, and so convince themselves, just to stay sane, that their money is going to a good cause. Americans would feel ripped off beyond belief to think so much of their income, forcefully taken from them, was spent on hurting people far more than helping people.

Many on the Left complain that the money the government spends on war should go to jobs. Of course they are right, but if they want the government to create jobs by spending that money, rather than giving it back to the people who earned it, they should recognize that wars are the quintessential way that governments "create" jobs.

War is the archetypal government program and the perfect example of trying to use the coercive state to create value out of violence and destruction.

Of course, domestic government programs, from public schools to drug prohibition, also require far more labor to maintain than they are worth, and hurt far more people than they help, but wars are worse in these regards than anything else the state inflicts on people.

Only in a free market will true value determine which projects, large and small, people undertake. Politicians base their decisions on what's politically viable, and when they make a miscalculation that kills and maims countless people all for nothing, the worst that happens to them is that they get voted out of office, and must live the rest of their lives in luxury and with cushy tax-funded pensions. After a politician is voted out of office the system remains in place, and someone new is elected and given more power than anyone should ever have. The government continues creating disasters and hurting innocents, and the new ruler is held no more accountable for bad decisions than the replaced ruler. The Iraq War fits well within democratic principles, though it doesn't make economic sense.

It never really makes economic sense for people to spend billions on killing thousands, when they have to foot the bill and take responsibility for their actions, such as they would in a free market. One day that might be the order of the day, and we won't have so many wars.

But as long as there are so many socialists who don't see how central planning of the economy leads to war, and as long as there are so many conservatives who don't see that war is the apex of socialism, both socialism and war will continue to plague America.

April 12, 2004