The Latest Ivory Tower Paean to Mass Murder
Whenever a government steeped in blood faces domestic resistance to its intention to wade in even deeper, it can always count on court intellectuals to weave ingenious “humanitarian” justifications for its wars. In many cases the message will be made even more appealing by wrapping it up in the trappings of “liberty.”
For example, last year libertarian economist Tyler Cowen broadcasted from the New York Times web site a contrived argument for the economic benefits of wars (the bigger the better).
This year, Stanford University historian Ian Morris will try to sell attendees of FreedomFest on the broader civilizational benefits of war in a debate with Antiwar.com’s Angela Keaton. Morris has written a mass-market book making this case, which he abbreviated for readers of The Washington Post in an op-ed published in April.
This is Morris’s basic argument:
- Prosperity requires “organized societies.”
- “Organized societies” require the suppression of violence.
- The state suppresses violence among its subjects.
- The larger the jurisdiction and hegemony of a state, the larger the realm in which violence is suppressed.
- The primary way the jurisdiction and hegemony of states grow is through war and conquest.
- Therefore, war makes for larger ambits of state power, which make for larger realms in which violence is suppressed, which makes for larger organized societies, which make for greater prosperity.
- Excluding most of the middle components of this proposition gives Morris his conclusion as well as the title of his op-ed: “In the long run, wars make us safer and richer.”
Interestingly, while Morris does not cite Randolph Bourne, step 5 of his argument basically agrees with Bourne’s dictum that, “War is the health of the state.” But he twists Bourne’s anti-war maxim into war’s service by tacking on steps 3 and 4, which basically claim, “The State is the health of peace.” Joining the two gives us: “War is the health of the state, which is the health of peace,” or as Morris himself phrased it in his op-ed:
“…war made states, and states made peace.”
Once again excluding the middle, Morris’s conclusion boils down to, “war is the health of peace.” George Orwell, who in 1984 had that book’s propaganda-spewing, war-mongering, totalitarian state trumpet the motto, “War is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength,” would be smiling wryly if alive today, and perhaps might even write Morris in as an aspiring functionary in the Ministry of Truth.
Now that we have Morris’s war apologia dismantled, let us see how its key components are built defectively and completely malfunction.
Morris writes that “organized societies”:
“…have greatly reduced the risk that their members will die violently. These better organized societies also have created the conditions for higher living standards and economic growth.”
This is step 1 of his argument, and it is basically sound. There is indeed a sense in which “organized societies” are necessary for prosperity and safety. High levels of production can only be achieved through economic cooperation under the division of labor, which, as the Law of Comparative Advantage shows, is incomparably more productive than isolated labor.
As more individuals are integrated more tightly into the division of labor, each individual becomes more productive and wealthy. Each individual also becomes more secure, not only from starvation, but from the threat of violence from those who are now bound to him economically. Ludwig von Mises thus regarded the greater productivity of the division of labor as the fundamental source of civilization itself. Accordingly, he gave the Law of Comparative Advantage a fittingly more momentous name, calling it the “Law of Association.”
And as Mises demonstrated in his work on economic calculation, the only way that great numbers of people can be rationally integrated in a division of labor is through a market economy, with private property and money prices.
Morris says that to make “larger societies work” violence must be suppressed. This is step 2 of his argument, and it is also basically sound. To put it more precisely, at least a degree of liberty (security of person and property) is essential for the division of labor and civilization (organized societies). Without such security, cooperation and the market would break down, and society would fragment into isolated pockets of autarkic production and a Hobbesian war of all against all.
It is step 3 where Morris’s reasoning goes off the rails by crediting the state with the suppression of violence and the resulting rise of civilization. He writes:
“…one of the first things these governments had to do, if they wanted to stay in power, was suppress violence among their subjects.
The men who ran these governments were no saints. They cracked down on killing not out of the goodness of their hearts but because well-behaved subjects were easier to govern and tax than angry, murderous ones. The unintended consequence, though, was that they kick-started the process through which rates of violent death plummeted between the Stone Age and the 20th century.”
Contrary to Morris’s assumption, the state is not necessary for the suppression of violence (the provision of security in person and property). First of all, as Morris seems to recognize, the state’s very raison d’être is violence: the coercion of persons (“govern[ing]”) and the extraction of property (“tax[ing]”). Moreover it is quite literally impossible for the state to have been responsible for originally taming human savagery, establishing security, and thereby creating civilization. As I have written elsewhere:
“Indeed, it is necessarily true that civilization is, as Murray Rothbard put it, “anterior to the State,” since, “production must always precede predation.” More specifically, the massive, dead-weight millstone that is a state can only be borne by production levels that only a division-of-labor civilization is capable of. The parasitic state could never have come into existence without the prior existence of a civilized, productive host society to sustain it.”
In other words, high production must precede the state, civilization must precede high production, and therefore civilization must precede the state. (That it in fact did so happens to be evident in the archaeology of the Cradle of Civilization. I discuss this further in “Between the Rivers, Before the State.”) And since the suppression of violence must precede civilization, that too must have preceded the state.
Even after the emergence of the state, throughout most of the recorded history of most societies, it was still not the state that provided the institutions that secured person and property. Rather, it was customary law and private justice that did so. As Bruce Benson stated and demonstrated in his book The Enterprise of Law:
“In fact, our modern reliance on government to make law and establish order is not the historical norm.
It was only after institutions of law and justice emerged organically in society that the state gradually hijacked them. In much of Europe, for example, each household originally had its own “peace,” and crimes were treated as violations of that individual “peace.” The king too had his own “peace,” which was originally limited to his own person and property. It was only later that, as legal historian G.W. Keeton put it, “the king’s peace swallowed up the peace of everyone else.” And this occurred not because of any deficiency in the previous arrangement, but for the purpose of expanding the king’s powers and perquisites. As Benson put it:
“…kings saw the justice process as a source of revenue, and violations of certain laws began to be referred to as violations of the ‘king’s peace.’ (…)
Violations of the king’s peace required payment to the king. The expansion in places and times protected by the king’s peace meant greater potential for revenue.”
Aside from the revenue it garnered, the hijacking and monopolization of law and justice also served to drape the state in a false mantle of legitimacy and necessity. It has also been deeply corrosive to the pursuit of justice. The state’s intrusion has made “justice” progressively less about rectifying violations of person and property through forcing violators to provide restitution to their actual victims, and more about addressing “offenses” against the state through the imposition of fines and the brutal punishment (execution, torture, incarceration, etc) of state-defying “offenders.” This in turn has incentivized the proliferation of laws that create victimless crimes.
Even after the emergence of the “king’s peace” and similar doctrines, prosecution was still largely a private matter until modern times; and contractual dispute resolution and security provision still are.
Again, the state has always systematically violated person and property. The modern democratic state does this and more; far from promoting amity among its subjects, it subsists by encouraging what Frédéric Bastiat called “universal legal plunder” among its subjects. The modern state does not quell the Hobbesian war of all against all, as Morris explicitly claims. In fact, it foments that war, merely insisting on itself being the universal proxy for every violent engagement, and taking a cut of the loot as recompense for this intermediating “service”. I discuss this further in “From Primitive to Universal Plunder.”
Morris argues that when smaller states consolidate into larger ones, this creates “larger,” “safer,” “more peaceful,” and therefore “more organized” societies. This is step 4 of his argument, and it is just as fallacious as the previous step. His first error is, again, to posit that states are conducive to internal safety and peace in the first place.
His second error is to assume that society originally was and can only be “organized” by and within the jurisdiction or hegemony of a state, and that therefore the expansion of civilization requires the expansion of a state. He assumes that such order can only be imposed top-down by a state through force, when in reality, civilization and the market are bottom-up “spontaneous orders” that can only emerge through voluntary interaction and that (when they are allowed to) transcend states, their petty borders, and their “spheres of influence.”
An expanding state is not only unnecessary for a large, peaceful, and prosperous society, it is actually prejudicial to it. The larger the state, the less opportunity there is for the citizenry to “vote with their feet” for less-oppressive jurisdictions, and the more capable the state is of sustaining a prosperity-destroying policy of isolationist protectionism. Both insulate the state from liberalization-inducing competition. In contrast, as Hans-Hermann Hoppe explained:
“Small governments have many close competitors. If they tax and regulate their own subjects visibly more than their competitors, they are bound to suffer from the emigration of labor and capital. Moreover, the smaller the country, the greater will be the pressure to opt for free trade rather than protectionism. Every government interference with foreign trade leads to relative impoverishment, at home as well as abroad. But the smaller a territory and its internal markets, the more dramatic this effect will be.”
Morris writes that:
“…the winners of wars began incorporating the losers into larger societies.”
This is one of the ways in which Morris’s desired consolidation of states occurs. He wishes there was a more humane viable alternative, but concludes that there is none:
“War may well be the worst way imaginable to create larger, more peaceful societies, but the depressing fact is that it is pretty much the only way. If only the Roman Empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls and Greeks, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans, if these and countless conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force. But this did not happen.”
“Sadly, you can’t make a big-state omelet without breaking a few million indigenous eggs,” he seems to say, “so you might as well get crackin’!”
What a resolve-strengthening message for imperial states caviling at the prospect of “doing whatever it takes” to pacify restive populations like those in Iraq, Afghanistan, Palestine, Yemen, and eastern Ukraine. “In the long run, it’ll all be for the best, so just start liquidating and get it over with!”
But, again, hegemony-building wars do not create vast realms of liberty, security, and prosperity. Quite the opposite: the resulting mega-states and power blocs are more likely to establish impoverishing tyranny.
Not only the ultimate results of expansionist wars, but the pursuit of war itself fosters impoverishing tyranny. This is because war tends to make a citizenry pliable and subservient to the government and more apt to countenance the curtailment of civil and economic liberties. Indeed this is largely why states go to war in the first place. I discuss this further in “The Herd Mind” and “War is the Health of the… Economy?”
Wars also foster insecurity by slaughtering foreign innocents, which elicits the retaliatory slaughtering of our own innocents (especially through terrorism). I discuss this further in “The Symbiosis of Savagery.”
And of course the immediate results of war consist only of death, destruction, the breakdown of mutually beneficial trade and the division of labor, and impoverishment (except for a few well-placed politicians and war profiteers): the opposite of making us “safer and richer.”
With the above analysis as our theoretical framework, let us assess Morris’s various historical claims.
“When looking upon the long run of history, it becomes clear that through 10,000 years of conflict, humanity has created larger, more organized societies that have greatly reduced the risk that their members will die violently.”
Here he commits the classic post hoc, ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this) fallacy, assuming that correlation is causation. Yes, war has occurred alongside civilizational progress. But has the latter occurred because of the former or in spite of it? Through a proper understanding of the nature of war, we can see that civilization progressed in spite of war. Furthermore, by understanding that the parasitic state could only come to existence given the prior existence of a productive host civilization, we can understand that state wars could also only come into existence by the state hijacking the material wealth generated by civilization and mobilizing it toward industrial-scale slaughter. This explains the historical correlation between war and civilizational progress far better than the notion that the latter depends on the former.
Morris also writes:
“Those lucky enough to be born in the 20th century were on average 10 times less likely to come to a grisly end than those born in the Stone Age.”
The barbarism of the Stone Age was due to poorly-developed institutions of personal liberty, private property, and justice. This, as explained above, was alleviated through the improvement of customs, not the intervention of the state. The improved customs led to the rise of civilization, the material wealth of which the state then hijacked to fuel new and more highly-organized forms of barbarism (war, state slavery, etc). Yes, it was generally better to be alive during the 20th century than the Stone Age; this was in spite of state warfare, not because of it.
“Whether it was the Romans in Britain or the British in India, pacification could be just as bloody as the savagery it stamped out. Yet despite the Hitlers, Stalins and Maos, over 10,000 years, war made states, and states made peace.”
The falsity of the notion that the Roman yoke was a boon to the Britons and its other colonial subjects was evident even to a Roman during the Roman era. In his Agricola, the Roman historian Tacitus has a British chieftain named Calgacus proclaim this about the Romans:
“They have plundered the world, stripping naked the land in their hunger… they are driven by greed, if their enemy be rich; by ambition, if poor… They ravage, they slaughter, they seize by false pretenses, and all of this they hail as the construction of empire. And when in their wake nothing remains but a desert, they call that peace.”
In contrast to the later medieval towns that emerged as industrial and commercial centers, imperial Roman cities were primarily administrative centers — that is loci of domination and parasitic extraction. So reference to the amenities enjoyed by the populations of these cities will not tell against the conclusion of Tacitus/Calgacus.
As for the history of British India, it was rife with famine. And this situation was only alleviated after India escaped the British yoke. This is not surprising, since domestically liberal states very rarely extend their liberalism to their colonial holdings. In fact, domestically liberal states actually tend to be the most brutal and rapacious in terms of foreign policy. I discuss this further in “Land of the Free, Home of the Belligerent” and “The Cycle of the State.”
“For 1,000 years — beginning before Attila the Hun in the AD 400s and ending after Genghis Khan in the 1200s — mounted invaders from the steppes actually threw the process of pacification into reverse everywhere from China to Europe, with war breaking down larger, safer societies into smaller, more dangerous ones.”
The beginning of the period to which Morris refers, which corresponds with the breakdown of the Roman Empire, was indeed chaotic and violent. But it was so because of the civilization-destroying militant and statist policies of the too-big, over-weening Roman Empire itself. The fall of the Roman Empire was a murder-suicide, as its flailing policies dragged Classical civilization into oblivion along with it.
And his inclusion of the High Middle Ages (roughly the 11th century through the 13th) in the “Dark Age” era of economic fragmentation and insecurity is totally ahistorical, as most any medieval historian today would tell him. The High Middle Ages were a period of bourgeoning trade, industry, relative peace, and population growth; they marked the rebirth of a European civilization that never fully halted its advance ever since.
Moreover, this period of increasing economic prosperity and integration was also characterized by political fragmentation and weak central states. And this “larger society”-creating economic integration was presided over by such non-state, transnational, spontaneous-order legal institutions as the Lex Mercatoria (Law Merchant) and Admiralty Law.
Morris then writes:
“Only in the 1600s did big, settled states find an answer to the nomads, in the shape of guns that delivered enough firepower to stop horsemen in their tracks. Combining these guns with new, oceangoing ships, Europeans exported unprecedented amounts of violence around the world. The consequences were terrible; and yet they created the largest societies yet seen, driving rates of violent death lower than ever before.”
Morris here refers to the emergence of centralized, imperial European states. The first, and one of the most paradigmatic of these resurgent states was the Spanish Empire. After a long revolt, the Dutch succeeded in throwing off the oppressive Spanish yoke, thereafter restoring and even improving upon their medieval liberties. This created a Dutch economic miracle, which inspired the English reforms that would underlay the Industrial Revolution. Thus it was not empire that kicked off a new age of prosperity, but resistance to it. Ralph Raico discusses this in “The European Miracle.” Later, it is true, both the Dutch and the English used their resulting wealth to finance colonial misadventures. But empire and colonialism has only ever been an economic millstone, as well as an exercise in genocide.
Morris then claims that Britain became a “super-Leviathan” and “globocop” during the 19th century, benignly straddling the world, suppressing violence, and maintaining the free-flow of trade. This too is ahistorical. British military superiority was not nearly as great as he implies. And as Mises argued, what fostered the new prosperity and relative peace was not some liberal hegemon, but reforms induced by the momentous shift in ideology that characterized the “Age of Liberalism.”
Morris concedes that the violence and devastation unleashed in the World Wars ended up bankrupting Britain, and led to the United States taking over its “super-Leviathan” role. He then warns that the US will suffer the same decline as Britain did unless it fully embraces its globocop responsibilities. Yet, it was Britain’s globocop pursuits that led to it becoming embroiled in World Wars, which, as Morris himself admits, is precisely what brought on that decline!
The US has been embracing its globocop role lustily, in a way that quite resembles the behavior of its domestic cops in its pig-headed insistence on full-spectrum dominance. If it continues to overextend itself trying to bring the entire globe to heel, it will indeed suffer a precipitous decline, and likely drag the living standards and security of us all down with it.
War is not the health of peace, freedom does not come from slavery to the state, and swallowing such ignorance will not grant us strength. Be wary of Orwellian court intellectuals like Ian Morris who would have you believe otherwise. For as Voltaire presciently warned, “Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
Thank you for reading. I work at the Mises Institute where I run the Mises Academy, an e-learning program for Austrian economics and libertarian political philosophy. I am a columnist for Antiwar.com and my essays have appeared at Mises.org, LewRockwell.com, The Ron Paul Institute, and David Stockman’s Contra Corner. I have given lectures and conducted interviews for the Mises Institute and appeared on The Scott Horton Show and The Tom Woods Show. You can find all of my essays, lectures, and interviews at DanSanchez.me, you can follow me via Twitter, Facebook, TinyLetter, and Medium, and you can email me at dan-at-mises.org.