[Marxism] War is the health of the state

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sun Jun 15 11:28:04 MDT 2014

Wartime brings the ideal of the State out into very clear relief, and 
reveals attitudes and tendencies that were hidden. In times of peace the 
sense of the State flags in a republic that is not militarized. For war 
is essentially the health of the State.

Randolph Bourne, http://www.antiwar.com/bourne.php


NY Times, June 15 2014
The Lack of Major Wars May Be Hurting Economic Growth
by Tyler Cowen

The continuing slowness of economic growth in high-income economies has 
prompted soul-searching among economists. They have looked to weak 
demand, rising inequality, Chinese competition, over-regulation, 
inadequate infrastructure and an exhaustion of new technological ideas 
as possible culprits.

An additional explanation of slow growth is now receiving attention, 
however. It is the persistence and expectation of peace.

The world just hasn’t had that much warfare lately, at least not by 
historical standards. Some of the recent headlines about Iraq or South 
Sudan make our world sound like a very bloody place, but today’s 
casualties pale in light of the tens of millions of people killed in the 
two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. Even the Vietnam 
War had many more deaths than any recent war involving an affluent country.

Counterintuitive though it may sound, the greater peacefulness of the 
world may make the attainment of higher rates of economic growth less 
urgent and thus less likely. This view does not claim that fighting wars 
improves economies, as of course the actual conflict brings death and 
destruction. The claim is also distinct from the Keynesian argument that 
preparing for war lifts government spending and puts people to work. 
Rather, the very possibility of war focuses the attention of governments 
on getting some basic decisions right — whether investing in science or 
simply liberalizing the economy. Such focus ends up improving a nation’s 
longer-run prospects.

It may seem repugnant to find a positive side to war in this regard, but 
a look at American history suggests we cannot dismiss the idea so 
easily. Fundamental innovations such as nuclear power, the computer and 
the modern aircraft were all pushed along by an American government 
eager to defeat the Axis powers or, later, to win the Cold War. The 
Internet was initially designed to help this country withstand a nuclear 
exchange, and Silicon Valley had its origins with military contracting, 
not today’s entrepreneurial social media start-ups. The Soviet launch of 
the Sputnik satellite spurred American interest in science and 
technology, to the benefit of later economic growth.

War brings an urgency that governments otherwise fail to summon. For 
instance, the Manhattan Project took six years to produce a working 
atomic bomb, starting from virtually nothing, and at its peak consumed 
0.4 percent of American economic output. It is hard to imagine a 
comparably speedy and decisive achievement these days.

As a teenager in the 1970s, I heard talk about the desirability of 
rebuilding the Tappan Zee Bridge. Now, a replacement is scheduled to 
open no earlier than 2017, at least — provided that concerns about an 
endangered sturgeon can be addressed. Kennedy Airport remains 
dysfunctional, and La Guardia is hardly cutting edge, hobbling air 
transit in and out of New York. The $800 billion stimulus bill, in 
response to the recession, has not changed this basic situation.

Today the major slow-growing Western European nations have very little 
fear of being taken over militarily, and thus their politicians don’t 
face extreme penalties for continuing stagnation. Instead, losing office 
often means a boost in income from speaking or consulting fees or a 
comfortable retirement in a pleasant vacation spot. Japan, by 
comparison, is faced with territorial and geopolitical pressures from 
China, and in response it is attempting a national revitalization 
through the economic policies of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Ian Morris, a professor of classics and history at Stanford, has revived 
the hypothesis that war is a significant factor behind economic growth 
in his recent book, “War! What Is it Good For? Conflict and the Progress 
of Civilization From Primates to Robots.” Morris considers a wide 
variety of cases, including the Roman Empire, the European state during 
its Renaissance rise and the contemporary United States. In each case 
there is good evidence that the desire to prepare for war spurred 
technological invention and also brought a higher degree of internal 
social order.

Another new book, Kwasi Kwarteng’s “War and Gold: A 500-Year History of 
Empires, Adventures, and Debt,” makes a similar argument but focuses on 
capital markets. Mr. Kwarteng, a Conservative member of British 
Parliament, argues that the need to finance wars led governments to help 
develop monetary and financial institutions, enabling the rise of the 
West. He does worry, however, that today many governments are abusing 
these institutions and using them to take on too much debt. (Both Mr. 
Kwarteng and Mr. Morris are extending themes from Azar Gat’s 820-page 
magnum opus, “War in Human Civilization,” published in 2006.)

Yet another investigation of the hypothesis appears in a recent working 
paper by the economists Chiu Yu Ko, Mark Koyama and Tuan-Hwee Sng. The 
paper argues that Europe evolved as more politically fragmented than 
China because China's risk of conquest from its western flank led it 
toward political centralization for purposes of defense. This 
centralization was useful at first but eventually held China back. The 
European countries invested more in technology and modernization, 
precisely because they were afraid of being taken over by their nearby 

But here is the catch: Whatever the economic benefits of potential 
conflict might have been, the calculus is different today. Technologies 
have become much more destructive, and so a large-scale war would be a 
bigger disaster than before. That makes many wars less likely, which is 
a good thing, but it also makes economic stagnation easier to countenance.

There is a more optimistic read to all this than may first appear. 
Arguably the contemporary world is trading some growth in material 
living standards for peace — a relative paucity of war deaths and 
injuries, even with a kind of associated laziness.

We can prefer higher rates of economic growth and progress, even while 
recognizing that recent G.D.P. figures do not adequately measure all of 
the gains we have been enjoying. In addition to more peace, we also have 
a cleaner environment (along most but not all dimensions), more leisure 
time and a higher degree of social tolerance for minorities and formerly 
persecuted groups. Our more peaceful and — yes — more slacker-oriented 
world is in fact better than our economic measures acknowledge.

Living in a largely peaceful world with 2 percent G.D.P. growth has some 
big advantages that you don’t get with 4 percent growth and many more 
war deaths. Economic stasis may not feel very impressive, but it’s 
something our ancestors never quite managed to pull off. The real 
questions are whether we can do any better, and whether the recent 
prevalence of peace is a mere temporary bubble just waiting to be burst.

Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University. 
Follow him on Twitter at @tylercowen.

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