If your college campus is anything like mine, there are probably at least a few posters around declaring the evils of war and exhorting everyone to work for “world peace.”
It’s not a new call. For centuries, people have worked and prayed for world peace, but it hasn’t happened yet. Why has this goal never been achieved in spite of everything that people have tried to do to reach it?
The problem lies in the fact that no one has yet properly identified the true causes of war. Many supposed “causes” of war have been put forward over the years, such as poverty or military strength. But each of these theories identifies the wrong cause, with the result that the solutions people have attempted have not solved the problem and have sometimes even exacerbated it.
The old Marxist/socialist theory was that rich, capitalist nations started wars to gain control of more wealth and trade opportunities. This theory has since been discredited. Wealth is not based solely on controlling vast tracks of land or natural resources, as was thought before the Industrial Revolution. Resources are a necessary condition for wealth, not its cause. Wealth comes from thought, innovation based on science, capital investment, and entrepreneurial production. Going to war to gain political control over resources is counter-productive; it may procure resources, but it destroys wealth. This has been made clearer over the years. Japan, for example, went to war to gain more resources in World War II, and ended up losing everything. Since then, they have completely sworn off any use of military force, and have become an economic success.
With their old theory discredited, the Marxists needed a new explanation–hence the more recent theory that not wealth but poverty causes wars: the rich countries of the world exploit poorer nations economically and then the poorer nations rise up in protest. But this theory is also incorrect; a nation’s control of resources per se is not the underlying cause of war.
Some resource-poor countries, such as many nations in Africa or North Korea at the end of World War II, have gone to war over resources. In these cases, statist governments–systems in which individual rights are cast aside in favor of state control–are in control of the countries’ resources, and mismanage or destroy them, making it necessary to go looking for more resources elsewhere–usually in neighboring countries. Again, Japan during World War II is a good example.
But not all poor countries have gone down this road; South Korea and Taiwan (both very poor at the end of World War II) have never initiated war against their neighbors and have become quite wealthy. Their governments started out authoritarian but steadily became freer as time has passed. Resources are in the hands of the producers of wealth, individual citizens and businesses, and have been used well and to the advantage of everyone involved.
Whether a government is statist or not also makes a difference for how a country handles the resources it actually has. Look at the Soviet Union, another nation that was definitely not peaceful. Russia had vast amounts of material resources of all kinds and the potential to be one of the wealthiest nations on the planet, yet its citizens spent nearly a century subsisting in horrific poverty because the Communist government mismanaged or destroyed the human resources–the entrepreneurs, scientists and investors–needed to take advantage of all of the natural resources. The pattern of external conflict follows here, too. The Soviet Union was involved in a direct war with Afghanistan for many years, and proxy wars elsewhere in the third world, such as China before World War II, North Korea and Vietnam.
The lack or possession of resources alone does not determine the peacefulness of a nation. The common thread that can be picked out from those countries that are aggressors is that it is always the government that is in control of the nation’s resources.
The poverty theory isn’t the only one proposed as the reason for warfare. What about those who advocate disarmament as a way to end wars? Whether it comes from the religious, “turn-the-other-cheek” view or from a more secular stance such as the anti-war protesters of the ’60s and ’70s, the pacifist movement has long claimed that the mere existence of military power breeds suspicion and arms races between countries, which in turn lead to further conflict. For instance, they claim that if America would get rid of all its nuclear weapons, many if not all other countries with nuclear capabilities would no longer feel threatened and would abandon their nuclear weapons as well.
But merely “building weapons,” of any kind, isn’t what starts wars. Who is building the weapons, and why? Is it the Soviet Union, building up the biggest arsenal it can get so that it can retain control over its satellite states and conquer more territory whenever it needs more resources? Or is it the United States, pulled into an arms race by necessity to make sure that the aggressive communist powers were kept in check? If there hadn’t been a Soviet Union (or other similar power) after the end of World War II, continued armament build-up would have been unnecessary, and America would have scaled her military back to a normal, peace-time level, as she began to do after the Soviet Union finally collapsed.
A statist government builds up arms with an eye to further conquest. A proper government builds up arms in self-defense–a policy which actually prevents wars. If the Soviet Union had genuinely thought it could defeat the United States, it would not have hesitated to declare war–it was not a love of peace that held them back. America and the Soviet Union never went to war because the Soviets knew that they could not win. The United States never declared war because it was never necessary for our defense; “peace through overwhelming firepower” actually works rather well, as long as the “overwhelming firepower” is in the hands of a proper, non-statist government.
So, if all of these proposed causes of war aren’t the right answer, then what is? Looking at all these examples of which nations do start wars, historically, the correct answer is manifest: it is statist governments–governments that hold total control over the lives of their citizens and their country’s resources–that start wars. It is the governments that rule by fear and brute force, as opposed to law, that begin wars. If the government can force its men into the military by draft, and can commandeer at will the productive efforts of its workers to produce war material, then what is there to stop it from waging war whenever it feels like? Nothing.
Identification of statism as the cause of war makes it easy to identify the solution: freedom. If a nation’s government is based on objective rule of law, then individual rights will be protected for all citizens. That means no draft (a violation of the right to life) and no commandeering resources (a violation of the right to own property). That means that the government will not be able to go to war without its citizens’ consent, making wars not related to self-defense nearly impossible. A free people will volunteer to defend themselves and their freedoms, but they will not volunteer to fight a war that is unnecessary or has nothing to do with them. The people of a free, wealthy (industrialized) nation live much better when their country is at peace and they are free to produce and trade, both within their own nation and with other nations. War can only disrupt this.
History bears this out. When was the last time Britain and the United States, the two most consistently capitalistic countries, went to war against each other? 1812? They have fought in wars since then–wars against statist regimes like those of the Nazis, of militant Japan, of the Soviet Union, or of the Taliban and Saddam Hussein–but only in self-defense. They have not fought wars against other free, equally peaceful nations.
So, if free, capitalistic countries are only fighting wars against countries that threaten their freedom, then what would happen if all countries in the world were free and industrialized? All the incentives and need for war would disappear. Instead, we would have a world in which industrialized nations, upholding individual rights, would deal with each other on the basis of free trade, not armed conflict.
World peace is a wonderful goal to strive for. But much more than that–it’s an achievable goal, as long as we learn where and how to start. Liberate the world and bring the Industrial Revolution to all nations, and there will be peace on earth.
Audra Hilse is currently a sophomore at Lawrence University. She is studying history and minoring in Japanese. She likes to read and write fiction in her spare time.