Chapter 9

The State and War

The apotheosis of State power is war. In war the State's force is not hidden or implicit, it is vividly on display. War creates a hell on earth, a nightmare of destruction on an otherwise unimaginable scale. No matter how much hatred people may sometimes feel for other groups of people, it's difficult to conceive why nations have chosen so often to go to war. The calculation for the ruling class may be different from that of the people. War often brings the State more power, by drawing more people under the control of a particular State. But war can enhance State power even in the absence of conquest. (Losing a war, of course, can topple a ruling class, so warmaking is a gamble, but the payoff is good enough to attract gamblers.)

Classical liberals have long understood the connection between war and State power. Thomas Paine wrote that an observer of the British government would conclude "that taxes were not raised to carry on wars, but that wars were raised to carry on taxes." That is, the English and other European governments gave the impression of quarreling in order "to fleece their countries by taxes." The early 20th-century liberal Randolph Bourne wrote simply, "War is the health of the State"--the only way to create a herd instinct in a free people and the best way to extend the powers of government.

U.S. history provides ample evidence of that. The great leaps in federal spending, taxation, and regulation have occurred during wartime--first, notably, the Civil War, then World War I and World War II. War threatens the survival of the society, so even naturally libertarian Americans are more willing to put up with State demands at such a time--and courts agree to sanction unconstitutional extensions of federal power. Then, after the emergency passes, the government neglects to give up the power it has seized, the courts agree that a precedent has been set, and the State settles comfortably into its new, larger domain. During major American wars, the federal budget has gone up 10- or 20-fold, then fallen after the war, but never to as low a level as it was before. Take World War I, for example: Federal spending was $713 million in 1916 but rose to nearly $19 billion in 1919. It never again fell below $2.9 billion.

It isn't just money, of course. Wartime has occasioned such extensions of State power as conscription, the income tax, tax withholding, wage and price controls, rent control, censorship, crackdowns on dissent, and Prohibition, which really began with the Lever Act of 1917. World War I was one of the great disasters of history: In Europe it ended 99 years of relative peace and unprecedented economic progress and led to the rise of communism in Russia and Nazism in Germany and to the even greater destruction of World War II. In the United States the consequences were far less dramatic but still noteworthy; in two short years President Woodrow Wilson and Congress created the Council of National Defense, the United States Food Administration, the United States Fuel Administration, the War Industries Board, the Emergency Fleet Corporation, the United States Grain Corporation, the United States Housing Corporation, and the War Finance Corporation. Wilson also nationalized the railroads. It was a dramatic leap toward the megastate we now struggle under, and it could not have been done in the absence of the war.

Statists have always been fascinated by war and its possibilities, even if they sometimes shrink from the implications. The rulers and the court intellectuals understand that free people have their own concerns, family and work and recreation, and it's not easy to get them enrolled voluntarily in the rulers' crusades and schemes. Court intellectuals are constantly calling for a "national effort" to undertake some task or other, and most people blithely ignore them and go on about the business of providing for their families and trying to build a better mousetrap. But in time of war--then you can organize society and get everyone dancing to the same tune. As early as 1910, William James came up with the idea of "The Moral Equivalent of War," in an essay proposing that young Americans be conscripted into "an army enlisted against Nature" that would cause them to "get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas."

The fascination of collectivists with war and its "moral equivalent" is undying. In 1977 President Carter revived James's phrase to describe his energy policy, with its emphasis on government direction and reduced living standards. It was to be his peacetime substitute for the sacrifice and despotism of war. In 1988 the Democratic Leadership Council proposed an almost-compulsory national service program, which would entail "sacrifice" and "self-denial" and revive "the American tradition of civic obligation." Nowhere in the DLC paper on the subject was there any mention of the American tradition of individual rights. The proposal was described as a way to "broaden the political base of support for new public initiatives that otherwise would not be possible in the current era of budgetary restraint." In other words, it would be a way for government to hand out benefits by enlisting cheap, quasi-conscript labor. The last chapter of the paper was, inevitably, titled "The Moral Equivalent of War."

Then, in 1993 DLC chairman Bill Clinton became president and proposed his own national service plan, and darned if it didn't sound a lot like "the moral equivalent of war." He wanted to "rekindle the excitement of being Americans" and "bring together men and women of every age and race and lift up our nation's spirit" to "attack the problems of our time." Eventually, perhaps, every young person would be enlisted. For the moment, however, the president envisioned "an army of 100,000 young people. . . to serve here at home . . . to serve our country."

In 1982 British Labour Party leader Michael Foot, a distinguished leftist intellectual, was asked for an example of socialism in practice that could "serve as a model of the Britain you envision," and he replied, "The best example that I've seen of democratic socialism operating in this country was during the second world war. Then we ran Britain highly efficiently, got everybody a job. . . . The conscription of labor was only a very small element of it. It was a democratic society with a common aim."

More recently, the American socialist Michael Harrington wrote, "World War I showed that, despite the claims of free-enterprise ideologues, government could organize the economy effectively." He hailed World War II for having "justified a truly massive mobilization of otherwise wasted human and material resources" and complained that the War Production Board was "a success the United States was determined to forget as quickly as possible." He went on, "During World War II, there was probably more of an increase in social justice than at any [other] time in American history. Wage and price controls were used to try to cut the differentials between the social classes. . . . There was also a powerful moral incentive to spur workers on: patriotism."

Collectivists such as Foot and Harrington don't really like the killing involved in war, but they love its domestic effects: centralization, the growth of government power, and not coincidentally an enhanced role for court intellectuals and planners with Ph.D.'s. The dangers of war in the modern era have encouraged the State and its intellectual allies to look for more trumped-up emergencies and "moral equivalents of war" to rally the citizenry and persuade them to give up more of their liberty and their property to the State's plans. Thus we've had the War on Poverty, and the War on Drugs, and more crises and national emergencies than a planner could count on a supercomputer. And thus does the alliance between the State and its compliant intellectuals reach its zenith in war or its moral equivalent.

War, then, is Public Choice theory writ large: bad for the people, but good for the governing class. No wonder everyone wishes it would stop but can't stop it.


| Order Libertarianism | About the Author | Home Page | The Libertarian Reader | Next Excerpt |