1. Skip to navigation
  2. Skip to content
  3. Skip to sidebar

The Ludwig von Mises Institute

Advancing Austrian Economics, Liberty, and Peace

Advancing the scholarship of liberty in the tradition of the Austrian School

Search Mises.org
Liberalism
Ludwig von Mises

1
The Foundations of Liberal Policy

3. Peace

There are high-minded men who detest war because it brings death and suffering. However much one may admire their humanitarianism, their argument against war, in being, based on philanthropic grounds, seems to lose much or all of its force when we consider the statements of the supporters and proponents of war. The latter by no means deny that war brings with it pain and sorrow. Nevertheless, they believe it is through war and war alone that mankind is able to make progress. War is the father of all things, said a Greek philosopher, and thousands have repeated it after him. Man degenerates in time of peace. Only war awakens in him slumbering talents and powers and imbues him with sublime ideals. If war were to be abolished, mankind would decay into indolence and stagnation.

It is difficult or even impossible to refute this line of reasoning on the part of the advocates of war if the only objection to war that one can think of is that it demands sacrifices. For the proponents of war are of the opinion that these sacrifices are not made in vain and that they are well worth making. If it were really true that war is the father of all things, then the human sacrifices it requires would be necessary to further the general welfare and the progress of humanity. One might lament the sacrifices, one might even strive to reduce their number, but one would not be warranted in wanting to abolish war and to bring about eternal peace.

The liberal critique of the argument in favor of war is fundamentally different from that of the humanitarians. It starts from the premise that not war, but peace, is the father of all things. What alone enables mankind to advance and distinguishes man from the animals is social cooperation. It is labor alone that is productive: it creates wealth and therewith lays the outward foundations for the inward flowering of man. War only destroys; it cannot create. War, carnage, destruction, and devastation we have in common with the predatory beasts of the jungle; constructive labor is our distinctively human characteristic. The liberal abhors war, not, like the humanitarian, in spite of the fact that it has beneficial consequences, but because it has only harmful ones.

The peace-loving humanitarian approaches the mighty potentate and addresses him thus: "Do not make war, even though you have the prospect of furthering your own welfare by a victory. Be noble and magnanimous and renounce the tempting victory even if it means a sacrifice for you and the loss of an advantage." The liberal thinks otherwise. He is convinced that victorious war is an evil even for the victor, that peace is always better than war. He demands no sacrifice from the stronger, but only that he should come to realize where his true interests lie and should learn to understand that peace is for him, the stronger, just as advantageous as it is for the weaker.

When a peace-loving nation is attacked by a bellicose enemy, it must offer resistance and do everything to ward off the onslaught. Heroic deeds performed in such a war by those fighting for their freedom and their lives are entirely praiseworthy, and one rightly extols the manliness and courage of such fighters. Here daring, intrepidity, and contempt for death are praiseworthy because they are in the service of a good end. But people have made the mistake of representing these soldierly virtues as absolute virtues, as qualities good in and for themselves, without consideration of the end they serve. Whoever holds this opinion must, to be consistent, likewise acknowledge as noble virtues the daring, intrepidity, and contempt for death of the robber. In fact, however, there is nothing good or bad in and of itself. Human actions become good or bad only through the end that they serve and the consequences they entail. Even Leonidas would not be worthy of the esteem in which we hold him if he had fallen, not as the defender of his homeland, but as the leader of an invading army intent on robbing a peaceful people of its freedom and possessions.

How harmful war is to the development of human civilization becomes clearly apparent once one understands the advantages derived from the division of labor. The division of labor turns the self-sufficient individual into the dependent on his fellow men, the social animal of which Aristotle spoke. Hostilities between one animal and another, or between one savage and another, in no way alter the economic basis of their existence. The matter is quite different when a quarrel that has to be decided by an appeal to arms breaks out among the members of a community in which labor is divided. In such a society each individual has a specialized function; no one is any longer in a position to live independently, because all have need of one another's aid and support. Self-sufficient farmers, who produce on their own farms everything that they and their families need, can make war on one another. But when a village divides into factions, with the smith on one side and the shoemaker on the other, one faction will have to suffer from want of shoes, and the other from want of tools and weapons. Civil war destroys the division of labor inasmuch as it compels each group to content itself with the labor of its own adherents.

If the possibility of such hostilities had been considered likely in the first place, the division of labor would never have been allowed to develop to the point where, in case a fight really did break out, one would have to suffer privation. The progressive intensification of the division of labor is possible only in a society in which there is an assurance of lasting peace. Only under the shelter of such security can the division of labor develop. In the absence of this prerequisite, the division of labor does not extend beyond the limits of the village or even of the individual household. The division of labor between town and country-with the peasants of the surrounding villages furnishing grain, cattle, milk, and butter to the town in exchange for the manufactured products of the townsfolk—already presupposes that peace is assured at least within the region in question. If the division of labor is to embrace a whole nation, civil war must lie outside the realm of possibility; if it is to encompass the whole world, lasting peace among nations must be assured.

Everyone today would regard it as utterly senseless for a modern metropolis like London or Berlin to prepare to make war on the inhabitants of the adjacent countryside. Yet for many centuries the towns of Europe kept this possibility in mind and made economic provision for it. There were towns whose fortifications were, from the very beginning, so constructed that in case of need they could hold out for a while by keeping cattle and growing grain within the town walls.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century by far the greater part of the inhabited world was still divided into a number of economic regions that were, by and large, self-sufficient. Even in the more highly developed areas of Europe, the needs of a region were met, for the most part, by the production of the region itself. Trade that went beyond the narrow confines of the immediate vicinity was relatively insignificant and comprised, by and large, only such commodities as could not be produced in the area itself because of climatic conditions. In by far the greater part of the world, however, the production of the village itself supplied almost all the needs of its inhabitants. For these villagers, a disturbance in trade relations caused by war did not generally mean any impairment of their economic well-being. But even the inhabitants of the more advanced countries of Europe did not suffer very severely in time of war. If the Continental System, which Napoleon I imposed on Europe in order to exclude from the continent English goods and those coming from across the ocean only by way of England, had been enforced even more rigorously than it was, it would have still inflicted on the inhabitants of the continent hardly any appreciable privations. They would, of course, have had to do without coffee and sugar, cotton and cotton goods, spices, and many rare kinds of wood; but all these things then played only a subordinate role in the households of the great masses.

The development of a complex network of international economic relations is a product of nineteenth-century liberalism and capitalism. They alone made possible the extensive specialization of modern production with its concomitant improvement in technology. In order to provide the family of an English worker with all it consumes and desires, every nation of the five continents cooperates. Tea for the breakfast table is provided by Japan or Ceylon, coffee by Brazil or Java, sugar by the West Indies, meat by Australia or Argentina, cotton from America or Egypt, hides for leather from India or Russia, and so on. And in exchange for these things, English goods go to all parts of the world, to the most remote and out-of-the-way villages and farmsteads. This development was possible and conceivable only because, with the triumph of liberal principles, people no longer took seriously the idea that a great war could ever again break out. In the golden age of liberalism, war among members of the white race was generally considered a thing of the past.

But events have turned out quite differently. Liberal ideas and programs were supplanted by socialism, nationalism, protectionism, imperialism, etatism, and militarism. Whereas Kant and Von Humboldt, Bentham and Cobden had sung the praises of eternal peace, the spokesmen of a later age never tired of extolling war, both civil and international. And their success came only all too soon. The result was the World War, which has given our age a kind of object lesson on the incompatibility between war and the division of labor.

Previous Page * Next Page

Table of Contents