The Roots of War
This essay was originally published in the June 1966 issue of The Objectivist Newsletter and later anthologized in Capitalism: The Unknown Ideal (1966 and 1967).
It is said that nuclear weapons have made wars too horrible to contemplate. Yet every nation on earth feels, in helpless terror, that such a war might come.
The overwhelming majority of mankind — the people who die on the battlefields or starve and perish among the ruins — do not want war. They never wanted it. Yet wars have kept erupting throughout the centuries, like a long trail of blood underscoring mankind’s history.
Men are afraid that war might come because they know, consciously or subconsciously, that they have never rejected the doctrine which causes wars, which has caused the wars of the past and can do it again — the doctrine that it is right or practical or necessary for men to achieve their goals by means of physical force (by initiating the use of force against other men) and that some sort of “good” can justify it. It is the doctrine that force is a proper or unavoidable part of human existence and human societies.
Observe the nature of today’s alleged peace movements. Professing love and concern for the survival of mankind, they keep screaming that the nuclear-weapons race should be stopped, that armed force should be abolished as a means of settling disputes among nations, and that war should be outlawed in the name of humanity. Yet these same peace movements do not oppose dictatorships; the political views of their members range through all shades of the statist spectrum, from welfare statism to socialism to fascism to communism. This means that they are opposed to the use of coercion by one nation against another, but not by the government of a nation against its own citizens; it means that they are opposed to the use of force against armed adversaries, but not against the disarmed.
Consider the plunder, the destruction, the starvation, the brutality, the slave-labor camps, the torture chambers, the wholesale slaughter perpetrated by dictatorships. Yet this is what today’s alleged peace-lovers are willing to advocate or tolerate — in the name of love for humanity.
It is obvious that the ideological root of statism (or collectivism) is the tribal premise of primordial savages who, unable to conceive of individual rights, believed that the tribe is a supreme, omnipotent ruler, that it owns the lives of its members and may sacrifice them whenever it pleases to whatever it deems to be its own “good.” Unable to conceive of any social principles, save the rule of brute force, they believed that the tribe’s wishes are limited only by its physical power and that other tribes are its natural prey, to be conquered, looted, enslaved, or annihilated. The history of all primitive peoples is a succession of tribal wars and intertribal slaughter. That this savage ideology now rules nations armed with nuclear weapons, should give pause to anyone concerned with mankind’s survival.
Statism is a system of institutionalized violence and perpetual civil war. It leaves men no choice but to fight to seize political power — to rob or be robbed, to kill or be killed. When brute force is the only criterion of social conduct, and unresisting surrender to destruction is the only alternative, even the lowest of men, even an animal — even a cornered rat — will fight. There can be no peace within an enslaved nation.
The bloodiest conflicts of history were not wars between nations, but civil wars between men of the same nation, who could find no peaceful recourse to law, principle, or justice. Observe that the history of all absolute states is punctuated by bloody uprisings — by violent eruptions of blind despair, without ideology, program, or goals — which were usually put down by ruthless extermination.
In a full dictatorship, statism’s chronic “cold” civil war takes the form of bloody purges, when one gang deposes another — as in Nazi Germany or Soviet Russia. In a mixed economy, it takes the form of pressure-group warfare, each group fighting for legislation to extort its own advantages by force from all other groups.
The degree of statism in a country’s political system, is the degree to which it breaks up the country into rival gangs and sets men against one another. When individual rights are abrogated, there is no way to determine who is entitled to what; there is no way to determine the justice of anyone’s claims, desires, or interests. The criterion, therefore, reverts to the tribal concept of: one’s wishes are limited only by the power of one’s gang. In order to survive under such a system, men have no choice but to fear, hate, and destroy one another; it is a system of underground plotting, of secret conspiracies, of deals, favors, betrayals, and sudden, bloody coups.
It is not a system conducive to brotherhood, security, cooperation, and peace.
Statism — in fact and in principle — is nothing more than gang rule. A dictatorship is a gang devoted to looting the effort of the productive citizens of its own country. When a statist ruler exhausts his own country’s economy, he attacks his neighbors. It is his only means of postponing internal collapse and prolonging his rule. A country that violates the rights of its own citizens, will not respect the rights of its neighbors. Those who do not recognize individual rights, will not recognize the rights of nations: a nation is only a number of individuals.
Statism needs war; a free country does not. Statism survives by looting; a free country survives by production.
Observe that the major wars of history were started by the more controlled economies of the time against the freer ones. For instance, World War I was started by monarchist Germany and Czarist Russia, who dragged in their freer allies. World War II was started by the alliance of Nazi Germany with Soviet Russia and their joint attack on Poland.
Observe that in World War II, both Germany and Russia seized and dismantled entire factories in conquered countries, to ship them home — while the freest of the mixed economies, the semi-capitalistic United States, sent billions worth of lend-lease equipment, including entire factories, to its allies.1
Germany and Russia needed war; the United States did not and gained nothing. (In fact, the United States lost, economically, even though it won the war: it was left with an enormous national debt, augmented by the grotesquely futile policy of supporting former allies and enemies to this day.) Yet it is capitalism that today’s peace-lovers oppose and statism that they advocate — in the name of peace.
Laissez-faire capitalism is the only social system based on the recognition of individual rights and, therefore, the only system that bans force from social relationships. By the nature of its basic principles and interests, it is the only system fundamentally opposed to war.
Men who are free to produce, have no incentive to loot; they have nothing to gain from war and a great deal to lose. Ideologically, the principle of individual rights does not permit a man to seek his own livelihood at the point of a gun, inside or outside his country. Economically, wars cost money; in a free economy, where wealth is privately owned, the costs of war come out of the income of private citizens — there is no overblown public treasury to hide that fact — and a citizen cannot hope to recoup his own financial losses (such as taxes or business dislocations or property destruction) by winning the war. Thus his own economic interests are on the side of peace.
In a statist economy, where wealth is “publicly owned,” a citizen has no economic interests to protect by preserving peace — he is only a drop in the common bucket — while war gives him the (fallacious) hope of larger handouts from his masters. Ideologically, he is trained to regard men as sacrificial animals; he is one himself; he can have no concept of why foreigners should not be sacrificed on the same public altar for the benefit of the same state.
The trader and the warrior have been fundamental antagonists throughout history. Trade does not flourish on battlefields, factories do not produce under bombardments, profits do not grow on rubble. Capitalism is a society of traders — for which it has been denounced by every would-be gunman who regards trade as “selfish” and conquest as “noble.”
It must be remembered that the political systems of the nineteenth century were not pure capitalism, but mixed economies. The element of freedom, however, was dominant; it was as close to a century of capitalism as mankind has come. But the element of statism kept growing throughout the nineteenth century, and by the time it blasted the world in 1914, the governments involved were dominated by statist policies.
Just as, in domestic affairs, all the evils caused by statism and government controls were blamed on capitalism and the free market — so, in foreign affairs, all the evils of statist policies were blamed on and ascribed to capitalism. Such myths as “capitalistic imperialism,” “war-profiteering,” or the notion that capitalism has to win “markets” by military conquest are examples of the superficiality or the unscrupulousness of statist commentators and historians.
The essence of capitalism’s foreign policy is free trade — i.e., the abolition of trade barriers, of protective tariffs, of special privileges — the opening of the world’s trade routes to free international exchange and competition among the private citizens of all countries dealing directly with one another. During the nineteenth century, it was free trade that liberated the world, undercutting and wrecking the remnants of feudalism and the statist tyranny of absolute monarchies.
As with Rome, the world accepted the British empire because it opened world channels of energy for commerce in general. Though repressive (status) government was still imposed to a considerable degree on Ireland with very bad results, on the whole England’s invisible exports were law and free trade. Practically speaking, while England ruled the seas any man of any nation could go anywhere, taking his goods and money with him, in safety.2
As in the case of Rome, when the repressive element of England’s mixed economy grew to become her dominant policy and turned her to statism, her empire fell apart. It was not military force that had held it together.
Capitalism wins and holds its markets by free competition, at home and abroad. A market conquered by war can be of value (temporarily) only to those advocates of a mixed economy who seek to close it to international competition, impose restrictive regulations, and thus acquire special privileges by force. The same type of businessmen who sought special advantages by government action in their own countries, sought special markets by government action abroad. At whose expense? At the expense of the overwhelming majority of businessmen who paid the taxes for such ventures, but gained nothing. Who justified such policies and sold them to the public? The statist intellectuals who manufactured such doctrines as “the public interest” or “national prestige” or “manifest destiny.”
The actual war profiteers of all mixed economies were and are of that type: men with political pull who acquire fortunes by government favor, during or after a war — fortunes which they could not have acquired on a free market.
Remember that private citizens — whether rich or poor, whether businessmen or workers — have no power to start a war. That power is the exclusive prerogative of a government. Which type of government is more likely to plunge a country into war: a government of limited powers, bound by constitutional restrictions — or an unlimited government, open to the pressure of any group with warlike interests or ideologies, a government able to command armies to march at the whim of a single chief executive?
Yet it is not a limited government that today’s peace-lovers are advocating.
(Needless to say, unilateral pacifism is merely an invitation to aggression. Just as an individual has the right of self-defense, so has a free country if attacked. But this does not give its government the right to draft men into military service — which is the most blatantly statist violation of a man’s right to his own life. There is no contradiction between the moral and the practical: a volunteer army is the most efficient army, as many military authorities have testified. A free country has never lacked volunteers when attacked by a foreign aggressor. But not many men would volunteer for such ventures as Korea or Vietnam. Without drafted armies, the foreign policies of statist or mixed economies would not be possible.)
So long as a country is even semi-free, its mixed-economy profiteers are not the source of its warlike influences or policies, and are not the primary cause of its involvement in war. They are merely political scavengers cashing-in on a public trend. The primary cause of that trend is the mixed-economy intellectuals.
Observe the link between statism and militarism in the intellectual history of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Just as the destruction of capitalism and the rise of the totalitarian state were not caused by business or labor or any economic interests, but by the dominant statist ideology of the intellectuals — so the resurgence of the doctrines of military conquest and armed crusades for political “ideals” were the product of the same intellectuals’ belief that “the good” is to be achieved by force.
The rise of a spirit of nationalistic imperialism in the United States did not come from the right, but from the left, not from big-business interests, but from the collectivist reformers who influenced the policies of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. For a history of these influences, see The Decline of American Liberalism by Arthur A. Ekirch, Jr.3
In such instances [writes Professor Ekirch] as the progressives’ increasing acceptance of compulsory military training and of the white man’s burden, there were obvious reminders of the paternalism of much of their economic reform legislation. Imperialism, according to a recent student of American foreign policy, was a revolt against many of the values of traditional liberalism. “The spirit of imperialism was an exaltation of duty above rights, of collective welfare above individual self-interest, the heroic values as opposed to materialism, action instead of logic, the natural impulse rather than the pallid intellect.”4
In regard to Woodrow Wilson, Professor Ekirch writes:
Wilson no doubt would have preferred the growth of United States foreign trade to come about as a result of free international competition, but he found it easy with his ideas of moralism and duty to rationalize direct American intervention as a means of safeguarding the national interest.5
And: “He [Wilson] seemed to feel that the United States had a mission to spread its institutions — which he conceived as liberal and democratic — to the more benighted areas of the world.”6 It was not the advocates of capitalism who helped Wilson to whip up a reluctant, peace-loving nation into the hysteria of a military crusade — it was the “liberal” magazine The New Republic. Its editor, Herbert Croly, used such arguments as: “The American nation needs the tonic of a serious moral adventure.”
Just as Wilson, a “liberal” reformer, led the United States into World War I, “to make the world safe for democracy” — so Franklin D. Roosevelt, another “liberal” reformer, led it into World War II, in the name of the “Four Freedoms.” In both cases, the “conservatives” — and the big-business interests — were overwhelmingly opposed to war but were silenced. In the case of World War II, they were smeared as “isolationists,” “reactionaries,” and “America-First’ers.”
World War I led, not to “democracy,” but to the creation of three dictatorships: Soviet Russia, Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany. World War II led, not to “Four Freedoms,” but to the surrender of one-third of the world’s population into communist slavery.
If peace were the goal of today’s intellectuals, a failure of that magnitude — and the evidence of unspeakable suffering on so large a scale — would make them pause and check their statist premises. Instead, blind to everything but their hatred for capitalism, they are now asserting that “poverty breeds wars” (and justifying war by sympathizing with a “material greed” of that kind). But the question is: what breeds poverty? If you look at the world of today and if you look back at history, you will see the answer: the degree of a country’s freedom is the degree of its prosperity.
Another current catch-phrase is the complaint that the nations of the world are divided into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Observe that the “haves” are those who have freedom, and that it is freedom that the “have-nots” have not.
It is true that nuclear weapons have made wars too horrible to contemplate. But it makes no difference to a man whether he is killed by a nuclear bomb or a dynamite bomb or an old-fashioned club. Nor does the number of other victims or the scale of the destruction make any difference to him — and there is something obscene in the attitude of those who regard horror as a matter of numbers, who are willing to send a small group of youths to die for the tribe, but scream against the danger to the tribe itself — and more: who are willing to condone the slaughter of defenseless victims, but march in protest against wars between the well-armed.
So long as men are subjugated by force, they will fight back and use any weapons available. If a man is led to a Nazi gas chamber or a Soviet firing squad, with no voices raised to defend him, would he feel any love or concern for the survival of mankind? Or would he be more justified in feeling that a cannibalistic mankind, which tolerates dictatorships, does not deserve to survive?
If nuclear weapons are a dreadful threat and mankind cannot afford war any longer, then mankind cannot afford statism any longer. Let no man of good will take it upon his conscience to advocate the rule of force — outside or inside his own country. Let all those who are actually concerned with peace — those who do love man and do care about his survival — realize that if war is ever to be outlawed, it is the use of force that has to be outlawed.
Citations & Notes
- For a detailed, documented account of the full extent of Russia’s looting, see Werner Keller, East Minus West = Zero, New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962.
- Isabel Paterson, The God of the Machine, Caldwell, Idaho: The Caxton Printers, 1964, p. 121. Originally published by G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1943.
- New York: Longmans, Green & Co., 1955.
- Ibid., p. 189. The quotation on “the spirit of imperialism” comes from R. E. Osgood, Ideals and Self-Interest in America’s Foreign Relations, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953, p. 47.
- Ibid., p. 199.