Sunday, April 13, 2014

The moral (and economic and social) equivalent of war, revisited

William James' prescient 1910 essay The Moral Equivalent of War was written in part as a rebuttal to pre-World War I theorizing about the role of war in human society that to post-world-war eyes look rather shocking:
Other militarists are more complex and more moral in their considerations. The Philosophie des Krieges, by S. R. Steinmetz is good example. War, according to this author, is an ordeal instituted by God, who weighs the nations in its balance. It is the essential form of the State, and the only function in which peoples can employ all their powers at once and convergently. No victory is possible save as the resultant of a totality of virtues, no defeat for which some vice or weakness is not responsible. Fidelity, cohesiveness, tenacity, heroism, conscience, education, inventiveness, economy, wealth, physical health and vigor — there isn't a moral or intellectual point of superiority that doesn't tell, when God holds his assizes and hurls the peoples upon one another.
James did not dismiss such views out of hand. Asserting, "The war-party is assuredly right in affirming and reaffirming that the martial virtues, although originally gain by the race through war, are absolute and permanent human goods," he wondered how humanity might martial those virtues in less destructive ways. And as I noted in The Moral Equivalent of Warmongering, Steinmetz's sentiments maintain a persistent half-life in in common attitudes, expressed via boomer-bashing and other (eternal) moralizing that excoriates those who have concerned themselves mainly with peacetime pursuits.

Today it's not acceptable to suggest that war is a consummation devoutly to be wished. But Ian Morris, in War! What is it Good For?* has updated the argument that war has so far been a major spur of human development -- not only technological, a reality impossible to ignore -- but social and political as well.  In effect, it seems Morris argues (I haven't read the book yet -- excuse the blogger's license) that war has taught us peace. From David Crane's review in The Spectator:

Lord knows there’s got to be a better way,’ Morris quotes the song,

but apparently there isn’t. If the Roman empire could have been created without killing millions of Gauls, if the United States could have been built without killing millions of Native Americans … if conflicts could have been resolved by discussion instead of force, humanity would have had the benefit  of larger societies. But that did not happen … People hardly ever give up their freedom, including their rights to kill and impoverish each other, unless forced to do so, and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war, or fear that such a defeat is imminent...

The book opens with Agrippa and the Battle of the Graupian Mountain somewhere in the wastes of Scotland. From there, Morris tests and hammers out his theory step by step, ranging from China to Mesoamerica and from the Roman, Mauryan and Han empires to the emergence of the two great ‘globocops’ of modern history — the Pax Britannica and the Pax Americana — to demonstrate that, whatever the ‘short term’ costs (‘they make a wasteland and call it peace’, Calgacus famously declared before the Graupian Mountain), in the long run, the very, very long run, ‘productive war’ has always made the world a safer and richer place for the losers as well as the winners.
This rather repellent thesis gets some indirect support from Thomas Piketty's Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which has swiftly refocused global conversation about long-term economic trends. Piketty attributes the major benefits of the postwar economic golden age --  rapid economic growth and radically reduced inequality of wealth and income -- to the catastrophes of 1914--1945. The wars not only wiped out much of the capital stock of entrenched elites but also drove radical and progressive tax increases -- one of the chief means by which "peoples can employ all their powers at once and convergently."

In Piketty's view, global stability and sustainable prosperity are threatened by the accelerating increase of inequality -- which may be a natural consequence of capitalism interrupted only by the shock of catastrophe:
"the reduction of inequality that took place in most developed countries between 1910 and 1950 was above all a consequence of war and of policies adopted to cope with the shocks of war" (Kindle location 455). Piketty further notes that global growth is slowing and will probably continue at rates slower than in the postwar era. Slow growth tens to drive inequality, as the rich pull away "when growth is weak and the return on capital is high" (location 500). Perhaps then Piketty too is in search of a "moral equivalent of war" (I'm only about 1/10 of the way through the book so I can't really say). What else would drive the global tax on capital he recommends as antidote to galloping inequality?

No one today would openly recommend war as a source of economic stimulus and collective moral improvement. The paradox that Thomas suggests is that it's in large part war that has driven humanity to a stage of development in which it's realistic to speculate and hope that the species may be outgrowing war (like Steven Pinker, he places large stock in recent statistical analyses indicating that the incidence of violence has decreased steadily through human history and that the decrease has accelerated in recent decades).  At the same time, Thomas also holds out the possibility that we can't outgrow war because we depend on it for technological and social stimulus. When The American Scholar asked him to pose six questions about the future of conflict and war, here was his first:
Nothing seems less rational than using violence to settle arguments, which makes war—committing mass murder in pursuit of political goals—the stupidest invention in human history. Yet almost every documented society, going all the way back to the world’s first written records 5,000 years ago, has waged war. If war is really such a bad idea, why is it such an apparently permanent part of the human condition, and can anything alter that fact?
That would seem to be a paradox that would lead humanity to ruin, and Thomas seems to hold out hope that the answer to his question is yes.  If so, humanity will need to find not only moral but technological and social equivalents of war if we're to grapple effectively with problems such as climate change while continuing to advance the common wealth.

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* Came across this via The Dish. Where else?

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