« More Friedman Than Friedman | Main | The Road Not Taken »

Normal Angell

Brad DeLong comments on the post below "But Angell was right! World War I was completely futile!" This is true, as I've said before. It's important to distinguish Angell's normative thesis -- aggressive war is futile in the context of market economies -- from his descriptive one: therefore wars will not break out. The challenge is to adopt policies that implement Angell's important insights rather than simply hoping his predictions will come true thanks to the magic of the interweb.

It's a point, I note, that certain lefty pacifistic types would do well to internalize. Slogans of the "no war for oil!" sort tend, I fear, to encourage the view that the hawks are, in fact, correct and that countries can reap important economic gains from fighting ill-motivated wars. Really morally upstanding people, on this view, would avoid such greedy and acquisitive behavior, but greedy and acquisitive people ought to welcome it, especially in the context of an all-volunteer military. The truth is far more damning: There simply are no systematic economic gains (obviously, certain individuals or corporations can and will profit from any given war) to be reaped from imperialist policies.

May 6, 2005 | Permalink

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
https://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8345160fd69e200d834785cb069e2

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Normal Angell:

Comments

There simply are no systematic economic gains [...] to be reaped from imperialist policies.

With all due respect, this is a ridiculous assertion. Most systematic economic gains are result of imperialist policies. Otherwise England would've been as rich as Jamaica now.

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 12:39:52 PM

Doubtless, this comment thread will get out of hand.

Can we start by pointing out that integrating a rapidly expanding power like the German Empire into balance-of-power theory presented a wholely different problem than anything we're facing today?

Please, no simple analogies.

Posted by: Ellen1910 | May 6, 2005 12:54:32 PM

Even if there weren't systemic economic gains, why the hell would the policy elites care? If it's good for them, it's good--Q.E.D.

Posted by: bobo brooks | May 6, 2005 1:03:03 PM

OK, how do you shorten "A war for oil, besides being wrong, won't work anyway." into bumper sticker length?

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 1:07:11 PM

Without speculating as to what the neocons were trying to do with the Iraq war, I conclude that (a) it did not justify the invasion and (b) it probably didn't accomplish what they wanted either (though I'm not quite certain of that; I'm not a mind reader and some people have benefited).

From (a), I conclude that neocons are morally wrong. But (b) does not nullify (a). It merely suggests that their judgment, besides being unethical, was also irrational.

Posted by: PaulC | May 6, 2005 1:12:54 PM

Well, the structure of Angell's argument went roughly like this:

1. In modern industrial society, war is futile.

2. Modern political leaders are not totally batshit insane.

3. Therefore the 20th century will be a century of peace.


Agreed that his (2) was grossly mistaken...

Posted by: Brad DeLong | May 6, 2005 1:17:29 PM

How does one square this against our experience in Afghanistan? (One doesn't, I suppose.)

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 1:27:53 PM

Assuming that's the real Al, are you saying that Afghanistan was an imperialistic war designed to economically benefit the United States? I had no idea you were so far left.

Posted by: washerdreyer | May 6, 2005 1:39:38 PM

Of course! The war in Afghanistan benefitted the US economy by destroying al Qaeda's presence there. And obviously, as we saw in the aftermath of 9/11, al Qaeda can do a lot of damage to our economy.

National security and our economy are intertwined. The war in Afghanistan was just as much to prevent any future 9/11-type hits on our economy as it was to prevent another 3,000 office worker deaths.

Posted by: Al | May 6, 2005 1:56:11 PM

Well, having read Angell, I'd say he was a lot more right than he was wrong. In particular, it's pretty clear reading him that he isn't simply assuming that war will not occur because it's futile. His whole book is an attempt to persuade people of how futile war is, much more than it is a prediction of the wonderful world without war that's about to open up. Yes, Angell makes the mistake of saying that war won't happen because people are sane, but I got the feeling reading it that Angell was uncomfortably aware that this was as much hope as reasoned analysis.

Posted by: John | May 6, 2005 2:07:53 PM

To be clearer - the point of Friedman's silly writing is to show that war won't happen because of Dell, or whatever the hell he's talking about. The point of Angell's book was demonstrate why war was so stupid.

Posted by: John | May 6, 2005 2:12:43 PM

The point of Angell's book was demonstrate why war was so stupid.

But John, how is it stupid, could you explain please. If I ambush you, beat you up, take your stuff and make you a slave - it'll certainly benefit my economy. And the same goes for any group of people mugging and plundering any other group of people. The idea that war is futile seems incredibly counterintuitive; I am not surprised the elites don't get it.

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 2:22:20 PM

Mr. Abb1,

I understand that most European colonies were a net economic loss by the @1880's. There are a few exceptions, Cuba for one, South Africa another. But Britain and France were definitely out of the money overall.

France pretty much changed its rationale for colonies away from economic gain to the equivalent of "strategic depth" and a supplement to its military manpower. Britain never had a similar cost-benefit calculation, its empire pretty much just happened.

Posted by: luisalegria | May 6, 2005 2:34:54 PM

Luis,
I don't know, I've read a bunch of Orwell's essays recently and he didn't seem to have any doubt whatsoever in the 1930s and 40s that the main reason for British prosperity was exploitation of Indian people and resources. I think it was (and is) pretty much common knowledge and conventional wisdom. If you know otherwise, I'd like to see some proof.

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 2:59:36 PM

I understand that most European colonies were a net economic loss by the @1880's.

Certainly, you are aware that in the couple of hundred preceding years, there was some wealth transferred. The fact that the transfers only benefitted a tiny few, and didn't remain profitable for hundreds of years, probably didn't burden the consciences of those who did, in fact, make out like bandits.

I imagine that those who benefit financially from America's current lunacy are few and far between. But they exist, and you can damned well bet that they are psyched, regardless of their detrimental impact on Dell, democracy, or any other institution in America.

Posted by: bobo brooks | May 6, 2005 3:01:54 PM

But John, how is it stupid, could you explain please. If I ambush you, beat you up, take your stuff and make you a slave - it'll certainly benefit my economy. And the same goes for any group of people mugging and plundering any other group of people. The idea that war is futile seems incredibly counterintuitive; I am not surprised the elites don't get it.

Because economics was not, by 1914, a zero-sum game. Britain does better because Germany does better, not by destroying Germany. The world is interconnected. Furthermore, economics doesn't work like beating up a guy and taking his stuff. As Angell points out, you can't just take the other guy's stuff. What would that even mean in a macroeconomic sense? It seems to me that the First World War and its results are pretty clear examples of why Angell was right - the war was pointless and deeply damaging to winners and losers, and the attempt to make the Germans pay for it with reparations was a miserable failure. And for much the reasons that Angell predicted that war would be disastrous. I think this is a far more impressive achievement than his incorrect prediction that because of this, nobody would fight a war (which, again, if you actually look at the book, is something of an afterthought).

Posted by: John | May 6, 2005 3:04:55 PM


I don't know, I've read a bunch of Orwell's essays recently and he didn't seem to have any doubt whatsoever in the 1930s and 40s that the main reason for British prosperity was exploitation of Indian people and resources. I think it was (and is) pretty much common knowledge and conventional wisdom. If you know otherwise, I'd like to see some proof.

What British prosperity in the 1930s and 40s? Britain was in pretty awful economic shape from the first world war on. India did help Britain somewhat, but the other colonies were all massive money-losers. Even India wasn't terribly useful economically - a lot of the money that India brought in had to be put back into it in terms of military costs and administration. As for the rest, I'm not sure in what way it can be really said to have created British prosperity - perhaps certain industries were helped by it, but it's not like the British economy was built around India, particularly.

Posted by: John | May 6, 2005 3:07:18 PM

As Angell points out, you can't just take the other guy's stuff. What would that even mean in a macroeconomic sense?

It would mean that you accepted the transaction costs involved in war in order to distort the markets for various commodities, thus cheapening your access to those commodities. That analysis may not be very convincing w/r/t intra-European wars, but it sure helps explain wars by a big power against an underarmed target for mercantile exploitation.

Posted by: bobo brooks | May 6, 2005 3:09:47 PM

John, I don't think you can generalize so widely based on the WWI. The WWI obviously wasn't beneficial for anyone for a number of reasons. So what - what does it prove?

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 3:22:30 PM

Here, I found it, it's called Rudyard Kipling:

All left-wing parties in the highly industrialized countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are "enlightened" all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our "enlightenment," demands that the robbery shall continue.

This doesn't prove anything, of course, I'm just saying that reasonable people may disagree about 'net economic loss by the @1880's'.

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 3:50:16 PM

"what does it prove?"

Well, there are plenty of other examples in the 20th century available of "conquered" terroritories being economic drains(Eastern Europe). And anything Germany or Japan gained was temporary.

Haven't read Angell or much of anything else....plan on leaving here to visit Marxist.org and read Rosa again...but of course Angell is talking of industrial post-agricultural societies, where merely controlling land is not very profitable. Capital is most productive when it has free movement, etc.

Why I want to read Rosa is that there remains a question in my mind about over-production and inflation sinks. Whether domestic wages and employment can be kept down by militarism and imperialism. I suppose you are going to have define what good domestic economic results would be.

Posted by: bob mcmanus | May 6, 2005 4:04:20 PM

Luis is right here ... late 19th Century imperialism was all about foolish ideas of national greatness and not about profits.

Posted by: praktike | May 6, 2005 4:18:39 PM

I think Gwynne Dyer touches on this in his excellent War, and John Ralston Saul in Voltaire's Bastards, too, but to summarize...

-War between modern industrialized powers is futile in a rational economic sense. Costs simply outweigh benefits.

-Even for a war of occupation, the destructionon the target country will be such that it will destroy the profitability of the country's resouces and the ability of the country to serve as a market for your exports

And the reason this is so, which wasn't true of rifle versus spear wars like Jamaica, is:

-Modern war has fundamentally equalized the playing field--even small guerilla forces now have access to modern weapons of sufficient destruction as to make occupation prohibitively expensive.

-Afghanistan isn't a counterexample--it merely demonstrates why "therefore wars won't break out" is incorrect. Afgahnistan in isolation resulted in no profit for anyone. Al Qaeda's strategy may have been to lure the US into a money and power draining struggle, (in whichcase invading Iraq really was playing into AlQ's hands) but this is an exploitation of the unprofitability principle. The idea that the US will gain more in treasure from Afghanistan than it pouts into it is dubious at best. But the rationale for that war was not economic, and hence, hardly refutes Angell.

Fundamentally, I like Saul's point the best: weaponry and munitions are wealth and resource sinks. There is effectively no economic benefit that comes from building a weapon. A gun, once manufactured, cannot create wealth. It cannot build production. It can only destroy.

And as for jobs generated buy manufacting Mig-29's or Mirages or F-18's and selling them abroad, consider: to what extent is the profitability of those sales undermined by government subsidy? If you sell a jet for 5 million dollars but the engines are subsidized so much that the actual cost is far above that, who relaly profits? If military manufacturing is merely done to create domestic jobs, is it not an overly expensive form of subsidized job creation?

There are, of course, non-economic reasons to create Tanks and bombs. But these are, at best, necessary costs that a nation incurs.

Posted by: Wrye | May 6, 2005 4:35:40 PM

Even for a war of occupation, the destructionon the target country will be such that it will destroy the profitability of the country's resouces and the ability of the country to serve as a market for your exports.

Industrial countries don't do exports, they consume. And I don't agree that profitability of the country's resouces will necessarily be destroyed. The Bushies certainly don't think so about Iraq's oil. They'll kill as many people as necessary, they'll build walls around pipelines and they'll get their oil eventually.

I like Saul, but I disagree that weapons are necessarily more wasteful than other stuff. Say, I want a gun and you want a videogame. You build a gun for me and I build a vidogame for you - we're both happy. How's a gun waste and videogame not? Is videogame 'wealth'? Everything is a waste.

Posted by: abb1 | May 6, 2005 5:02:36 PM

Because using the videogame doesn't kill people, abb1. Come on. And making the argument that consumer goods are wasteful hardly demonstrates that they all are equally wasteful.

Part of this is purpose; a Hummer used for civilian purposes probably does more (in an n>0 sense) to grow the economy than a HumVee being driven around Fort Bragg.

But come, now; a cluster bomb and a pokemon card really are qualitatively different.

As for what the Bushies think, well, whether or not they're familiar with Angell has nothing to do with what Angell's theory predicts for their results, now does it?

Posted by: Wrye | May 6, 2005 5:46:02 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.