Monday, August 18, 2014

Why We Fight Wars

Paul Krugman has a pretty decent column out on war, especially this part of the column:
A century has passed since the start of World War I, which many people at the time declared was “the war to end all wars.” Unfortunately, wars just kept happening. And with the headlines from Ukraine getting scarier by the day, this seems like a good time to ask why.

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay. And this has been true for a long time. In his famous 1910 book “The Great Illusion,” the British journalist Norman Angell argued that “military power is socially and economically futile.” As he pointed out, in an interdependent world (which already existed in the age of steamships, railroads, and the telegraph), war would necessarily inflict severe economic harm even on the victor. Furthermore, it’s very hard to extract golden eggs from sophisticated economies without killing the goose in the process.

We might add that modern war is very, very expensive. For example, by any estimate the eventual costs (including things like veterans’ care) of the Iraq war will end up being well over $1 trillion, that is, many times Iraq’s entire G.D.P.

So the thesis of “The Great Illusion” was right: Modern nations can’t enrich themselves by waging war. Yet wars keep happening. Why?

One answer is that leaders may not understand the arithmetic. Angell, by the way, often gets a bum rap from people who think that he was predicting an end to war. Actually, the purpose of his book was to debunk atavistic notions of wealth through conquest, which were still widespread in his time.


  1. A main reason we fight wars is because of ubiquitous “social democracy”. Once it is (falsely) assumed that the market has failed or will fail and government is granted essentially a carte blanche to do anything to anybody and his property (in order to fix the “failure”), there is and can be no actual limit upon these powers. Grant these powers to electoral majorities, especially in multi-ethnic societies, and you get Rwanda, Iraq, Syria and ISIS. And Detroit. And since elected officials must promise to deliver loot to the majority, you might need to invade the rest of the world to stay popular.

    “Social democracy” is the system the US keeps exporting and inflicting upon the world. The natural results of that naturally follow.

    BTW, "social democracy" is the system beloved by Krugman.

  2. "If you’re a modern, wealthy nation, however, war — even easy, victorious war — doesn’t pay."

    But if your a banker who loans the government money or a congressman with campaign dollars coming from military contractors or a pentagon exec or investor in arms companies or a speculator in key commodities, war pays very well, and that is why its done over and over again. Its for the parasite class, the class that runs the government and apparently the class that writes for the press that legitimizes it.