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War as Spoliation

Mises Daily: Wednesday, December 28, 2005 by

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[Harmonies of Political Economy, Translated from the 3rd edition of the French by P.J. Stirling, 2nd edition, 1850, London: Simpkin, Marshall, and Co., pp. 458-464. This essay by the great French economist Bastiat  is reprinted as a reminder of the dangers to all sides of using military force as a means of securing resources or to bring freedom to foreign peoples.]

A man (and the same thing may be said of a people) may pro­cure the means of existence in two ways,—by creating them, or by stealing them.

Each of these two great sources of acquisition presents a variety of methods.

We may create the means of existence by the chase, by fishing, by agriculture, etc.

We may steal them by breach of trust, by violence, by force, fraud, war, etc.

If, confining ourselves to the circle of one or other of these two categories, we find that the predominance of one of these methods establishes so marked a difference in the character of nations, how much greater must the difference be between a nation which lives by production, and a nation which lives by spoliation?

For it is not one of our faculties only, but all of them, which the necessity of providing for our subsistence brings into exer­cise; and what can be more fitted to modify the social con­dition of nations than what thus modifies all the human facul­ties?

This consideration, important as it is, has been so little regarded, that I must dwell upon it for an instant.

The realization of an enjoyment or satisfaction presupposes labour; whence it follows that spoliation, far from excluding pro­duction, presupposes it and takes it for granted.

This consideration, it seems to me, ought to modify par­tiality which historians, poets, and novel-writers have displayed for those heroic epochs which were not distinguished by what they sneer at under the epithet of industrialism. In these days, as in our own, men lived, subsisted; and labour must have done its office then as now. Only there was this difference, that nations, classes, and individuals succeeded in laying their share of the labour and toil on the shoulders of other nations, other classes, and other in­dividuals.

The characteristic of production is to bring out of nothing, if I may so speak, the satisfactions and enjoyments which sustain and embellish life; so that a man, or a nation, may multiply ad infini­tum these enjoyments, without inflicting privation on any other man, or any other nation. So much is this the case, that a pro­found study of the economic mechanism shows us that the success of one man’s labour opens up a field for the success of another’s exertions.

The characteristic of spoliation, on the contrary, is this, that it cannot confer a satisfaction on one without inflicting a correspond­ing privation on another; for spoliation creates nothing, but dis­places what labour has created. It entails an absolute loss of the exertions of both parties. So far, then, from adding to the enjoy­ments of mankind, it diminishes these enjoyments, and confers them, moreover, on those who have not merited them.

In order to produce, man must direct all his powers and faculties to obtain the mastery over natural laws ; for it is by this means that he accomplishes his object. Hence, iron converted into a ploughshare is the emblem of production.

To steal, on the other hand, man must direct all his powers and faculties to obtain the mastery over his fellow-man; for it is by this means that he attains his end. Hence, iron converted into a sword is the emblem of spoliation.

Between the ploughshare, which brings plenty, and the sword, which brings destruction and death, there is no greater difference than between a nation of industrious workmen and a nation of spoliators. They have, and can have, nothing whatever in com­mon. They have neither the same ideas, nor the same rules of appreciation, nor the same tastes, manners, character, laws, morals, or religion.

No more melancholy spectacle can present itself to the eye of philanthropy than to see an industrial age putting forth all its efforts, in the way of education, to get inoculated with the ideas, the sentiments, the errors, the prejudices, the vices, of an era of spoliation. Our own era is frequently accused of wanting consis­tency, of displaying little accordance between the judgments that are formed and the conduct that is pursued; and I believe that this arises principally from the cause which I have just pointed out.

Spoliation, in the shape of War—that is to say, pure, simple, barefaced spoliation—has its root deep in the human heart, in the organization of man, in the universal motives which actuate the social world, namely, desire of happiness and repugnance to pain,

—in short, in that principle of our nature called self-interest.

I am not sorry to find myself arraigning that principle, for I have been accused of devoting to it an idolatrous worship, of re­presenting its effects as productive only of happiness to mankind, and even of elevating it above the principle of sympathy, of dis­interestedness, and of self-sacrifice. In truth, I have not so esteemed it; I have only proved beyond the possibility of doubt its existence and its omnipotence. I should ill appreciate that omnipotence, and I should do violence to my own convictions, in representing personal interest as the universal actuating motive of the human race, did I fail now to point out the disturbing causes to which it gives rise, just as I formerly pointed out the harmoni­ous laws of the social order winch spring from it.

Man, as we have already said, has an invincible desire to support himself, to improve his condition, and to attain happiness, or what he conceives to be happiness, at least to approximate towards it. For the same reason he shuns pain and toil.

Now labour, or the exertion we make in order to cause nature to co-operate in production, is in itself toil or fatigue. For this rea­son, it is repugnant to man, and he does not submit to it, except for the sake of avoiding a still greater evil.

Some have maintained philosophically that labour is not an evil but a good, and they are right, if we take into account its results. It is a comparative good; or if it be an evil, it is an evil which saves us from greater evils. This is precisely the reason why men have so great a tendency to shun labour when they think that, without having recourse to it, they may be able to reap its results.

Others maintain that labour is in itself a good; and that, inde­pendently of its productive results, it elevates, strengthens, and purifies man’s character, and is to him a source of health and en­joyment. All this is strictly true; and it is an additional evidence to us of the marvelous fertility of those final intentions which the Creator has displayed in all parts of His works. Apart altogether from the productions which are its direct results, labour promises to man, as a supplementary recompense, a sound mind in a sound body; and it is not more true that idleness is the parent of every vice than that labour is the parent of many virtues.

But this does not at all interfere with the natural and uncon­querable inclinations of the human heart, or with that feeling which prompts us not to desire labour for its own sake, but to compare it constantly with its results; not to desire to expend a great effort on what can be accomplished with a smaller effort; not of two efforts to choose the more severe. Nor is our endeavour to diminish the relation which the effort bears to the result inconsistent with our desire, when we have once acquired some leisure, to de­vote that leisure to new labours suited to our tastes, with the prospect of thus securing a new and additional recompense.

With reference to all this, universal facts are decisive. At all times, and everywhere, we find man regarding labour as undesir­able, and satisfaction as the thing in his condition which makes him compensation for his labour. At all times, and everywhere, we find him endeavouring to lighten his toil by calling in the aid, whenever he can obtain it, of animals, of the wind, of water-power, of steam, of natural forces, or, alas! of his fellow creature, when he succeeds in enslaving him. In this last case,—I repeat, for it is too apt to be forgotten,—labour is not diminished, but dis­placed.

Man, being thus placed between two evils, want or labour, and urged on by self-interest, seeks to discover whether, by some means or other, he cannot get rid of both. It is then that spoliation pre­sents itself to him as a solution of the problem.

He says to himself: “I have not, it is true, any means of procuring the things necessary for my subsistence and enjoyments—food, clothing, and lodging—unless these things are previously produced by labour. But it is by no means indispensable that this should be my own labour. It is enough that they should be produced by the labour of some one, provided I can get the mastery.”

Such is the origin of war.

I shall not dwell upon its consequences.

When things come to this, that one man, or one nation, devotes itself to labour, and another man, or another nation, waits on till that labour is accomplished, in order to devote itself to rapine, we can see at a glance how much human power is thrown away.

On the one hand, the spoliator has not succeeded as he desired in getting quit of every kind of labour. Armed robbery exacts efforts, and sometimes very severe efforts. While the producer devotes his time to the creation of products fitted to yield satisfac­tions, the spoliator employs his time in devising the means of robbing him. But when the work of violence has been accom­plished, or attempted, the objects calculated to yield satisfaction are neither more nor less abundant than before. They may minister to the wants of a different set of people, but not of more wants. Thus all the exertions which the spoliator has made with a view to spoliation, and the exertions also which he has failed to make with a view to production, are entirely lost, if not for him, at least for society.

Nor is this all. In most cases an analogous loss takes place on the side of the producer. It is not likely that he will wait for the violence with which he is menaced without taking some pre­caution for his own protection ; and all precautions of this kind—arms, fortifications, munitions, drill—are labour, and labour lost for ever, not to him who expects security from this labour, but to mankind at large.

But should the producer, after undergoing this double labour, not esteem himself able to resist the threatened violence, it is still worse for society, and power is thrown away on a much greater scale; for, in that case labour will be given up altogether, no one being. disposed to produce in order to be plundered.

If we regard the manner in which the human faculties are affected on both sides, the moral consequences of spoliation will be seen to be no less disastrous.

Providence has designed that man should devote himself to pacific combats with natural agents, and should reap directly from nature the fruits of his victory. When he obtains this mastery over natural agents only by obtaining a mastery over his fellow-creatures, his mission is changed, and quite another direction is given to his faculties. It is seen how great the difference is between the producer and the spoliator, as regards foresight—foresight which becomes assimilated in some degree to provi­dence, for to foresee is also to provide against.

The producer sets himself to learn the relation between cause and effect. For this purpose, he studies the laws of the physical world, and seeks to make them more and more useful auxiliaries. If he turns his regards on his fellow-men, it is to foresee their wants, and to provide for them, on condition of reciprocity.

The spoliator does not study nature. If he turns his regards on his fellow-men, it is to watch them as the eagle watches his prey, for the purpose of enfeebling and surprising them.

The same differences are observable in the other faculties, and extend to men’s ideas.

Spoliation by means of war is not an accidental, isolated, and transient fact; it is a fact so general and so constant as not to give place, as regards permanence, to labour itself.

Point me out any country of the world where of two races, conquerors and conquered, the one does not domineer over the other. Show me in Europe, in Asia, or among the islands of the sea, a favoured spot still occupied by the primitive inhabitants. If migrations of population have spared no country, war has been equally widespread.

Its traces are universal. Apart from rapine and bloodshed, public opinion outraged, and faculties and talents perverted, war has everywhere left other traces behind it, among which we must reckon slavery and aristocracy.

Not only has the march of spoliation kept pace with the crea­tion of wealth, but the spoliators have seized upon accumulated riches, upon capital in all its forms; and, in particular, they have fixed their regards upon capital in the shape of landed property. The last step was taking possession of man himself. For human powers and faculties being the instruments of labour, they found it a shorter method to lay hold of these powers and faculties, than to seize upon their products.

It is impossible to calculate to what extent these great events have acted as disturbing causes, and as trammels on the natural progress of the human race. If we take into account the sacrifice of industrial power which war occasions, and the extent to which the diminished results of that power are concentrated in the hands of a limited number of conquerors, we may form to ourselves an idea of the causes of the destitution of the masses,—a destitution which in our days it is impossible to explain on the hypothesis of liberty.

How the warlike spirit is propagated.

Aggressive nations are subject to reprisals. They often attack others; sometimes they defend themselves. When they act on the defensive, they have on their side the feeling of justice, and the sacredness of the cause in which they are engaged. They may then exult in their courage, devotion, and patriotism. But, alas! they carry these same sentiments into their offensive wars—and where is their patriotism then?


  Freedom and peace go together: $35
When two races, the one victorious and idle, the other van­quished and humiliated, occupy the same territory, everything calculated to awaken desire or arouse popular sympathies falls to the lot of the conquerors. Theirs are leisure, fêtes, taste for the arts, wealth, military parade, tournaments, grace, elegance, literature, poetry. For the conquered race, nothing remains but ruined huts, squalid garments, the hard hand of labour, or the cold hand of charity.

The consequence is that the ideas and prejudices of the dominant race, always associated with military force, come to constitute public opinion. Men, women, and children, all unite in extolling the soldier’s life in preference to that of the labourer, in preferring war to industry, and spoliation to production. The vanquished race shares the same sentiments, and when, at periods of transi­tion, it succeeds in getting the better of its oppressors, it shows itself disposed to imitate them.

What is this imitation but mad­ness?

How war ends.

Spoliation, like Production, having its source in the human heart, the laws of the social world would not be harmonious, even to the limited extent for which I contend, if the latter did not succeed in the long-run in overcoming the former.

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Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, legislator, and writer. Comment on the blog.