What You're Not Supposed to Know about War
It is a testament to the power of government propaganda that several generations of self-described conservatives have held as their core belief that war and militarism are consistent with limited, constitutional government. These conservatives think they are "defending freedom" by supporting every military adventure that the state concocts. They are not.
Even just, defensive wars inevitably empower the state far beyond anything any strict constructionist would approve of. Prowar conservatives, in other words, are walking contradictions. They may pay lip service to limited constitutional government, but their prowar positions belie their rhetoric.
"War is the health of the state," as Randolph Bourne said in his famous essay of that title. Statism, moreover, means central planning, heavy taxation, fascist or socialist economics, attacks on free speech and other civil liberties, and the suffocation and destruction of private enterprise. Classical liberals have always understood this, but conservatives never have. (Neoconservatives either don't understand it or don't care.)
Thus, you have the celebrated neoconservative writer Victor Davis Hanson writing in the December 2, 2009, issue of Imprimis that antiwar activism and other "factors" that make people "reluctant" to resort to war are "lethal combinations" that supposedly threaten the existence of society. Hanson was merely repeating the conservative party line first enunciated by the self-proclaimed founder of the modern conservative (really neoconservative) movement, William F. Buckley Jr. Murray Rothbard quoted Buckley as saying in the January 25, 1952 issue of Commonweal magazine that the Cold War required that
we have got to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged … except through the instrumentality of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores. … [We must support] large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards and the attendant centralization of power in Washington.
"We" must advocate the destruction of the free society in the name of defending the free society, said "Mr. Conservative," a former CIA employee.
In reality, antiwar "factors" are a threat only to the military/industrial/congressional complex, which profits from war; they are not a threat to society as a whole. In fact, quite the opposite is true.
Seeing through the dense murk of such war propaganda is one of the purposes of my ten-week, online Mises Academy course on "The Political Economy of War," which begins on September 21. Students will learn about the economics and politics of war from some of the giants of classical liberalism, such as Ludwig von Mises, Frederic Bastiat, Lionell Robbins, Murray Rothbard, Milton Friedman, Robert Higgs, and others. Among the topics to be discussed are
Why capitalism is the very opposite of war
The economic causes of war
Why nationalism is always a threat to peace and prosperity
Why Marx was wrong about war and imperialism, but the Austrian economists got it right
Why and how war is the health of the state, always ratcheting up governmental power at the expense of individual liberty and prosperity
The role of free trade in deterring war
The evils of military conscription
How war cripples a nation's economy, benefiting only a small group of war profiteers in the process
How the state employs the Fed to hide and disguise the costs of war
The role of statist intellectuals in promoting war precisely because they, too, understand that war is the health of the state
Why conservatives love war and the state
The dangerous myth that democracy promotes peace
Private alternatives to a massive "national-defense" establishment
What is a just war?
Each class will consist of a 45–50 minute lecture followed by 45 minutes of Q&A with students. My lectures will cover the topics listed on the syllabus for the course, but will be more than rehashes of the readings that are listed — I will concentrate on both my understanding of the readings (and other literature) and my own research and writings.
The importance of understanding the political economy of war is perhaps illustrated by this passage from Randolph Bourne's famous essay:
War is a vast complex of life-destroying and life-crippling forces. If the State's chief function is war, then it is chiefly concerned with coordinating and developing the powers and techniques which make for destruction. And this means not only the actual and potential destruction of the enemy, but of the nation at home as well. For the very existence of a State in a system of States means that the nation lies always under a risk of war and invasion, and the calling away of energy into military pursuits means a crippling of the productive and life-enhancing processes of the national life.
Ludwig von Mises expressed a similar sentiment in Human Action, when he wrote,
What distinguishes man from animals is the insight into the advantages that can be derived from cooperation under the division of labor. Man curbs his innate instinct of aggression in order to cooperate with other human beings. The more he wants to improve his material well-being, the more he must expand the system of the division of labor. Concomitantly he must more and more restrict the sphere in which he resorts to military action. The emergence of the international division of labor requires the total abolition of war. …
This philosophy is, of course, incompatible with statolatry.1
These two quotes give one an indication of why those individuals who help the public to become reluctant to support war are more likely to be heroes of society as opposed to the "lethal combinations" of neoconservative folklore.
- 1. Human Action, Scholar's Edition, chapter 34, "The Economics of War," p. 827.
Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.