Mises Daily

Does Democracy Promote Peace?

Mises Daily James Ostrowski

Does democracy promote peace? We are told continually that it does. Let’s compare the rhetoric to the reality.

Not to be confused with a republic, a democracy is a system in which, theoretically, what the majority says goes. The reality, however, is more complex and much uglier. In a democracy, various political elites struggle for control of the state apparatus by appealing to the material interests of large voting blocks with promises of legalized graft.

Thus, we may modify our definition of democracy to mean a system in which our rulers are chosen by a majority of those who bother to show up on election day, exclusive of those who lack the minimal mental skills required to cast a lawful ballot.

In modern democracies, individuals allegedly retain certain rights that cannot be overridden by the majority. Who defines and enforces those rights? Officials chosen by the majority. So much for individual rights in a democracy. Probably the most salient feature of modern democracy is the bizarre notion that whatever the majority says constitutes sublime moral principle.

In truth, democracy is nothing more than the numerous bullying the less numerous. It is an elaborate rationalization for the strong in numbers to impose their will on the electorally weak by means of centralized state coercion. What a formula for peace! If democratic states can impose their will on their own minority populations, why not impose their will on other countries, states, and peoples, particularly if they are not democratic? Strange it is, though, that pugnacious democrats always forget the principle of majority rule when war comes. They have never sought the prior consent of the majority of the inhabitants of the nations they seek to conquer, subdue, and rule.

Modern democracies tend to extensively intervene in the free market by means of high taxes, welfare, and subsidies in order to buy the votes that keep the politicians in power. As Ludwig von Mises demonstrated, each intervention into the economy causes problems that lead to the demand for ever further interventions. Government thereby creates its own demand. Eventually, the economic problems become intractable, leading to the inevitable temptation to create a foreign policy distraction. Combine that with the fact that war, while undeniably harming the economy, gives the appearance of stimulating the economy, and we have a formula for why democratic governments would have a motive for war. Any similarities between this discussion and FDR’s desperate bid to get us into World War Part II is purely intentional.

Democracies also have the means to fight wars. Analysts of war spend too much time thinking about why wars are fought and far too little time contemplating the means of war. The resources for war are acquired by conscription, taxation, confiscation, and inflation. Without cannon and cannon fodder, there are no wars. With their aura of legitimacy, democracies are particularly adept at utilizing all these means. Since citizens tend to identify with the democratic state, there is usually little trouble conscripting troops and confiscating the economic resources required for war.

True, democracies rarely fight each other. That’s like saying that seven-foot-tall men rarely fight each other. There just haven’t been that many democracies around in the last 150 years, and, furthermore, six of them are English-speaking countries. What are they going to fight about—their accents? Democracies do, however, like to fight non-democracies. They did so in World War Parts I and II. Suppose they gave a war and the democracies didn’t show up.

But, you may say, the non-democracies started all these wars. Really? The United States was looking for any excuse to get into World War Part I—against Germany. Examination of the international law quagmire that led to American involvement in World War Part I leads me to conclude that the United States had four options: declare war on Germany, declare war on England, declare war on both, or mind its own business. Democracies, however, do not seem to mind their own business. What is clear is that the scope of American involvement in that war far exceeded anything justified by the alleged cause of that involvement: German attacks on American shipping in the North Atlantic.

The United States has always seemed to get attacked just when its leaders were plotting to drag the nation into war by any means possible—Fort Sumter, Remember the Maine, the Lusitania, etc. What a relief; we got attacked. What about Japan and Pearl Harbor? It seems our mind-our-own-business democracy wanted Japan out of China. Our leaders wanted China in the hands of the mass murderer Chiang or the megamurderer Mao. An oil embargo was imposed on a country that had no oil. Thus, the United States provoked Japan into starting a war. That does not mean that Japan was justified, merely that it was, in its own mind, provoked. No democratic provocation, no war.

Two of the most important wars in modern history were fought in part for the express purpose of advancing democratic principles. In the case of World War Part I, this is well known. Woodrow Wilson called it the war "to make the world safe for democracy." We have heard this refrain over and over again as the rationalization for war: in Korea, Viet Nam, the Balkans, Kuwait—oops, strike that, Kuwait was an Oriental despotism.

Lesser known is the role of the democratic idea in causing the most destructive war ever fought in the Western Hemisphere. Why did Lincoln order armies into peaceful old Virginia, which had not been involved in the attack on Fort Sumter? Let him speak for himself:

"[W]e divide upon [all our constitutional controversies] into majorities and minorities. If a minority . . . will secede rather than acquiesce [to the majority], they make a precedent which, in turn, will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them, whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority . . . the central idea of secession, is the essence of anarchy." First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861. (For further discussion of this passage, see, J. Ostrowski, "Was the Union Army's Invasion of the Confederate States a Lawful Act?" in Secession, State & Liberty, David Gordon, ed., [New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998]).

Thus, a substantial motive for Lincoln’s invasion of the South was to preserve the principle of majority rule, that is, the ability of the majority to impose its will on the minority. The War Between the States revealed the true nature of democracy as bullying. It just so happens that we usually put up with it, and the bullied minority is scattered throughout the nation. In the War Between the States, however, the bullied minority was clustered together and willing to fight. Democracy, ultimately, is majority rule at gunpoint. Such a philosophy is perfectly consistent with a tendency to fight wars.

Democracy’s main contribution to war is to encourage minority groups that feel exploited by the majority to attempt to secede. The bullying majority—like any slave master—rarely lets its subjects go in peace, and thus war breaks out. The provocateur is almost always the majoritarian state, and that state’s rationalization for fighting is always the preservation of the majority principle. Lincoln taught them well. In recent years, Lincolnian wars have raged in Northern Ireland, the Middle East, East Timor, Chechnya, Georgia, the Balkans, India, and elsewhere.

Perhaps the leading cause of war in the foreseeable future will be the struggle of peoples who constitute a minority in their countries to escape from oppressive democratic majority rule by those animated by alien ethnic, cultural, religious, economic, or philosophic values.

In the meantime, there are still opportunities for good, old-fashioned wars caused by our bumbling, stumbling, holier-than-thou, democratic meddling all over the planet. Let me get this straight. The crisis over the incident in the South China Sea is really about Taiwan. We are so committed to the Taiwanese people’s right of self-determination that we supported Chiang Kai-shek and crew who, in the words of Joseph Stromberg, "imposed themselves on the Taiwanese people—in a near-perfect example of a conquest state." Chiang had been so bad at running China—fourth-ranked mass murderer of the century—that he managed to make even Mao look good! Are you getting the feeling that the United States has never really had a clue about China?

Forget apologizing for what happened in the sky the other week, or for Bush’s recent remarks. Let’s apologize for one hundred years of meddling in China, and promise that in the future the Chinese will not have to put up with any activity off their shores that we wouldn’t tolerate off of ours.

But no, the forces of democratic meddling, the neoconservatives, have pushed for escalation of the conflict. They complain that a "superpower" should not be exposed to "public international humiliation." Remember what happened the last time the empire was being subjected to an extended public humiliation. After it was beginning to look like the federal government was being made a fool of by a "bunch of religious nuts with guns," they rolled in a tank, and eighty-one people were killed. Gentlemen, you are not dealing with David Koresh here.

Does democracy—institutionalized coercion—promote peace? No. The only thing that promotes peace is peace, which is just another name for individual liberty.



(By no means an exhaustive list.)

  • 1861-? War Between the States: First modern total war against civilians.            
  • ? - 1898 Indian Wars: We needed Indian land for polling places.            
  • 1893 Invasion of Hawaii: Don’t knock it. Without this war, we would have been left out of WWII.            
  • 1898 American-Spanish War: remember the main point was imperialism.            
  • 1899-1902 American-Philippine War: Hey, didn’t we win the Philippines in the American-Spanish War?            
  • 1917-1918 World War Part I: Made the world safe for Hitler.            
  • 1941-1945 World War Part II: Made the world safe for communism.            
  • 1950-? Korea: No declaration of war; no declaration of peace.            
  • 1964-1975 Viet Nam: Made southeast Asia safe for genocide.            
  • 1982 Lebanon: Let’s lose one for the Gipper.        
  • 1983  Invasion of Grenada: Tiny island invasion boosted national morale.            
  • 1989  Invasion of Panama: Tough love for an ex-CIA guy turned drug dealer.            
  • 1990-? Gulf War. We needed petroleum to get the voters to the polls.            
  • 1999 Kosovo: Made it safe for the KLA to attack Macedonia.            
  • Coming Soon: 2002  China/Taiwan: Made Taiwan safe for the China haters.
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