Mises Wire

Steven Pinker: Capitalism Has Made Us Less Warlike

Steven Pinker is well known for his theory that violence (globally speaking) is now at lower levels than its every been, and that this is due to the triumph of enlightenment ideas. While I don’t think he’s totally wrong, I think Pinker overstates his case sometimes. For example, the fact that the world has not been destroyed in a nuclear holocaust is not due to the fact that the large regimes of the world are particularly enlightened. In fact, US policymakers routinely discussed using nuclear weapons well into the Vietnam War. Fear (of the Soviet reaction) was what deterred them, not enlightenment.  Robert McNamara has stated that the world avoided nuclear destruction due to “luck.” 

Nevertheless, modern industrialized states do recognize the costs of major wars to be very high, and that does not appear to have always been the case. 

Part of the reason for the high cost of war today is the fact that commerce with other states is so very profitable. Even the most obtusely nationalistic politicians are often forced to admit that killing large numbers of people in your foreign markets is probably a bad idea. In a recent interview at Vox, Pinker elaborated on this a little further: 

Zack Beauchamp: One story you hear from political scientists for why there’s been less war recently that it’s just less profitable —countries don’t gain very much, economically or politically, from taking over new land anymore. Does that seem right to you?

Steven Pinker: Yes, it’s one of the causes. It’s the theory of the capitalist peace: when it’s cheaper to buy things than to steal them, people don’t steal them. Also, if other people are more valuable to you alive than dead, you’re less likely to kill them. You don’t kill your customers or your lenders, so the arrival of the infrastructure of trade and commerce reduces some of the sheer exploitative incentives of conquest.

This is an idea that goes back to the Enlightenment. Adam Smith and Montesquieu extolled it; it was on the minds of the founders when they built incentives for free trade into the Constitution.

I don’t think it’s the entire story of the decline in war. But I do think it’s part of the story. There was a well-known study from Bruce Russett and John Oneal showing statistically that countries that engage in more trade are less likely to get into militarized disputes, and countries that are more integrated into the world economy are less likely to get into trouble with their neighbors.

While the empirical data supporting this theory is interesting and useful, the theory itself is old news for Austrians, of course, since both Bastiat and Mises made the case long ago that more trade leads to fewer military conflicts.  And this has long been the position of laissez-faire liberals, including Richard Cobden the 19th-century free-trade English liberal and so-called International Man who was known for his anti-nationalistic insistence on trade instead of war. 

And then there’s that phenomena where, thanks to the market, people are more useful to you alive than dead. For more on this, see Mark Tovey’s analysis of how this works in an post-apocalyptic situation. 

Pinker goes on: 

Countries that trade with each other are less likely to pick fights with each other. Independently, individual countries that get more integrated into the global economy are less likely to make trouble.

But one of the reasons I say this is only part of the answer is that in the Oneal and Russett analysis, it counted for some percentage of the variance in militarized dispute, but only a chunk. They found independent contributions from democracy and membership in the international community (namely, the number of international organizations and treaties that a country has signed on to).

What Pinker’s suggesting here is that when a number of legal and institutional barriers exist, the less likely war becomes. This is certainly true when economies are integrated internationally through a number of market institutions. Pinker also mentions “contributions from democracy,” and if you’re familiar with the International Relations literature, you can guess that Pinker’s referring to the “democratic peace.”

As J. Patrick  Rhamey has noted in his essay in The Next Generation of Austrian Economics, the democratic peace theory has been unfairly dismissed by some as a theory that says that war can be eliminated by making every country a democracy. What the theory really suggests is that when politicians face political pushback from a population that at least partially believes in libertarian normative values” (to use Rhamey’s phrase), the policymakers are less likely to start wars. Also important are libertarian-inspired institutional obstacles such as political decentralization. 

One might extrapolate from this that when powerful economic interests also oppose wars, heads of state are further constrained. Once upon a time, it might have made sense for a state to seize land, kill all the inhabitants, and resettle the land with your own people. In an industrialized world, however, where raw land is not all that productive, and thus conquering land is less profitable than appealing to existing foreign markets, there does appear to be a “capitalist peace” at work in many cases.  In those areas that remain relatively undeveloped, however, such as Afghanistan, states feel far less constrained in their warmaking. 

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