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The American Militarist State: JLS 18.4

Mises Daily: Friday, February 04, 2005 by

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In his classic work Theory and History, Ludwig von Mises advised historians to view the historical record through the interpretive lens of praxeology. This week sees the release of what is, in light of recent events, an especially timely issue of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. Vol. 18, no. 4, offers a threefold perspective on the history of the American militarist state.

  • Libertarian sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) once said, “the time is coming when there will be two great classes, Socialists, and Anarchists. The Anarchists want the government to be nothing, and the Socialists want the government to be everything. … [A]nd when that time comes I am an Anarchist.”

    In William Graham Sumner: Against Democracy, Plutocracy, and Imperialism,” historian H. A. Scott Trask provides an introduction to Sumner's analysis of the interconnection between U.S. domestic and foreign policy. For Sumner, the United States was a democracy in name but a plutocracy in fact; because the masses tend to be “ill-informed, unorganized, and more or less indifferent,” a “compact body, with strong wishes and motives, ready to spend time, money, and labor,” will generally be “able by energetic action to lead the whole body.” Hence we should not be surprised to find a wealthy elite dominating nominally popular institutions.

    Moreover, the interests of this elite can be expected to favour war. In Sumner's words:

    [M]ilitarism, expansion, and imperialism will all favor plutocracy. In the first place, war and expansion will favor jobbery, both in the dependencies and at home. In the second place, they will take the attention of the people from what the plutocrats are doing. In the third place, they will cause large expenditures of the people's money, the return for which will not go into the treasury, but into the hands of a few schemers. In the fourth place, they will call for a large public debt and taxes, and these things especially tend to make men unequal, because any social burdens bear more heavily on the weak than on the strong.
    Many of the passages Trask cites from Sumner could all too easily have been written about the past election or the current Iraq war. I'll confine myself just to these two:

    The successful party [in an electoral contest] seizes upon the state and deals with it as formerly a conquering nation dealt with the conquered. … Under this system, the party is a band held together by organization and discipline for success in a common undertaking, and that is the aggrandizement of the members of the band at the expense of the others.

    The war with Spain was precipitated upon us headlong, without reflection or deliberation, and without any due formulation of public opinion. Whenever a voice was raised in behalf of deliberation and the recognized maxims of statesmanship, it was howled down in a storm of vituperation and cant. Everything was done to make us throw away sobriety of thought and calmness of judgment and to inflate all expressions with sensational epithets and turgid phrases. … Patriotism is being prostituted into a nervous intoxication which is fatal to an apprehension of truth.
    Clearly, further study of Sumner's writings promises to deepen our understanding both of the political process generally and of our present situation in particular. Trask's article is an excellent place to start.

  • Joseph R. Stromberg continues and extends this focus on the interconnection between corporatism at home and militarism abroad in Sovereignty, International Law, and the Triumph of Anglo-American Cunning.” Prior to the birth of the American Republic, Stromberg notes, the existing international context was defined by the 1648 Peace of Westphalia: a “rule-bound cartel of sovereign nation-states, conceived as externally equal to one another and internally hierarchical.” While such a system has obvious defects from a libertarian point of view, it did lead to the adoption of relatively civilised constraints on the usages of war, as sovereign states found it mutually advantageous to accept protections for noncombatants in order to limit the impact of their incessant warfare upon the wealth-generating activities of their subjects. (Stromberg here draws explicitly on the analysis of Belgian economist Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912), father of free-market anarchism.)

    But from its very beginnings, Stromberg argues, the United States - “the rising empire of the west” - represented “a challenge to the logic and rules of the state system.” Stromberg traces American foreign policy from the Monroe Doctrine to the present, paying particular attention to the historical alliance between American and British interests. He notes that, largely through the influence of “commercially oriented English-speaking elites of Britain and the United States,” the climate of international law has been steadily moving from the mutual recognition of equal sovereignty to so-called “collective security” arrangements that would challenge the legitimacy of states deemed a threat to world peace.

    Superficially, this looks like a move in a libertarian direction: holding the worst states accountable for their wrongdoing rather than perpetuating a “gentlemen's agreement” to honour their spurious legitimacy. But since the identification and punishment of aggressor states is to be carried out by other states with their usual array of interests, it's hardly surprising that such collective-security agreements would end up being used, not to defend libertarian rights, but rather as a club whereby powerful states could control or eliminate their rivals and so extend their hegemony.

    Thanks to the material wealth generated by the relatively liberal domestic policies of Britain and the U.S., it is the Anglo-American alliance, Stromberg argues, that has generally been empowered to define who counts as an aggressor state - and thus has managed to advance a remarkably aggressive imperialist agenda under the cover of opposition to aggression and imperialism. Over time this agenda has shifted its strategic emphasis from accusations of inter-state aggression to accusations of intra-state tyranny, on the grounds that, since democracies allegedly don't wage war on each other, the promotion of democracy worldwide is claimed to be a valid security concern. Stromberg thus provides the historical context for the current U.S. regime's War on Terror.

  • Finally, Thomas J. DiLorenzo turns our attention to a particular case study in the interaction between militarism and economic interests (and, incidentally, a case study of democracies waging war on each other), offering us a review of Tariffs, Blockades, and Inflation: The Economics of the Civil War by Mark Thornton and Robert B. Ekelund Jr. Both the romantic vision of the Union as nobly crusading against slavery and the romantic vision of the Confederacy as nobly crusading against centralized power take a beating here.

    Central to the economic background of the Civil War was the issue of protectionism. The positions taken by the contending parties on this issue turn out to track their economic interests with depressing accuracy. Since high tariffs benefited manufacturing interests at the expense of agricultural interests, the industrialized North favoured them while the predominantly agrarian South opposed them. This disagreement over tariffs explains a further disagreement over land policy; while Northerners favoured giving federal land away, Southerners favoured selling it - because revenue from federal land sales was regarded as an alternative to tariff revenue. Lincoln's wartime blockade of Southern ports blurs the distinction (or, as Frédéric Bastiat might say, reveals more clearly the absence of distinction) between tariff legislation and warfare against civilians.

    Much Republican opposition to the extension of slavery into the western territories is likewise here revealed, not as an expression of principled anti-slavery sentiment, but as itself one more form of protectionism: to insulate whites from competition for jobs, the Republican leadership tended to oppose the immigration of any blacks, slave or free.

    The Democratic South doesn't get off lightly either, though; both sides in the conflict are shown to have resorted to increased regulation and monetary inflation, with (to Austrians) predictable results in terms of economic chaos and hardship. But of course the Union victory meant it was the Republican version of statism that prevailed. As Thornton and Ekelund document, the groundwork for today's all-pervasive federal bureaucracy was laid in the Civil War, and in the mercantilist policies of subsequently triumphant Republican administrations.

All three contributions to this issue, then, examine the ways in which economic elites both contribute to and gain power from aggressive military policies. The lessons for today's situation are obvious.

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Roderick T. Long (email) is senior fellow of the Mises Institute, professor of philosophy at Auburn University, and the new editor of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. Subscribe to the Journal today. Post your comments on the blog.