All Commentary
Friday, July 1, 1994

Peace, Political Science, and Pedagogy

Global Harmony Is Not the Byproduct of Kind Thoughts


Stephen G. Barone is a practicing psychologist and writer who teaches at the University of Wisconsin—Platteville.

One of the latest fads in schools is a so-called “peace curriculum.” It is wrought of the notion that peace is engendered by a certain kind of attitude: that if we teach teenagers and young adults to think and talk more about peace, or if we condition them to have a sort of knee-jerk aversion towards anything military, then the world will consequently be a more irenic place. This concerns me as a psychologist and educator, because history provides scant evidence that war can be avoided by having either peace or antimilitarism as goals unto themselves. Neville Chamberlain’s overtures toward Nazi Germany prior to World War II provide one of the most salient counterexamples to this nostrum.

This is not to suggest that a careful study of what conditions precede peace within or among nations is not the legitimate province of a high school or college curriculum. But if we really want to teach what distinguishes peaceful societies from aggressive ones, or tolerant ones from those hell-bent on “cleansing” themselves of racial, religious, and ethnic diversity, then I prescribe we consider the empirical case: that what the most stable and domestically peaceful nations have in common is a viable economy with a commensurate “commercial class” of citizens.

Happily, in free societies, individuals are able to choose identities that center upon human action as opposed to an unchangeable history. Eventually, we come to think of ourselves primarily as psychologists, carpenters, or grocers instead of Germans, Catholics, or Serbs. The psychological freedom this gives one is no small thing, especially if the person is born into what he rightly or wrongly perceives to be a persecuted caste. It allows him to see himself as the best electrician in town instead of, for instance, ruminating about being a persecuted Moslem and declaring a jihad forthwith.

This tendency for individuals to develop utile self-concepts also separates them from stereotypes in the eyes of others. For example, there are relatively few Americans whose prejudices would cause them actively to avoid, let alone persecute, the best accountant in town because she is Hispanic, the best mechanic because he is black, or the best grocer because he is Korean. Rational self-interest engenders tolerance: the fact that we tend to value and identify with others for their respective skills or professions. As a result, we overlook the inconsequential differences among us, such as race, creed, or ethnicity.

On a larger scale, commercialism amidst freedom requires finding common and reciprocal needs across the various racial, religious, and ethnic constituents that exist both inside and outside of a heterogeneous society. Thereby, it is a more potent psychosocial inhibitor against civil war, military adventure, or institutionalized persecution than is any church, government, or army. Businesses are destroyed during domestic upheaval; import/exporters loathe whatever restricts trade among nations; and merchants crave as many customers as they can get. Hence, they resist anything that might result in civil revolt, international war, or whatever might arbitrarily exclude one group of people from doing business with another.

But when economic activity is outlawed or severely retarded by government intrusion, people are largely deprived of the opportunity to “become,” so their senses of identity remain doggedly tethered to rigid and irrational lines of caste, ethnicity, religion, or tribalism. And herein lies the danger, because as scarcity always fills the void where a vital economy would otherwise operate, political and social unrest festers, ready to be exploited by those who seek dominance over their fellows. In the absence of property rights, each group will lay claim to the paucity of resources by reference to their ostensive historical predominance over the other, or even appeal to supernatural entitlements. Under such conditions, aspiring despots saw and nurtured near-maniacal levels of loyalty and cohesiveness among their homogeneous constituencies by scapegoating the blame for bad times across strictly secular lines: tribe against tribe, religion against religion, nation against nation.

This is precisely what is happening in places like Somalia and the old Soviet republics. Governmental inhibitions have retarded free enterprise and its requisite division of labor, allowing people the luxuries of prejudice, hate, and bigotry amidst the deprivations of hunger, disease, and pestilence. Conversely, the United States and Canada do not share the world’s longest undefended border because their peoples practice pacific thoughts about one another. Instead, the historical peace between both countries is born of stark commercial interests. Likewise, Germany’s Mexican production of Volkswagens for sale in the United States, or Japan’s American production of Hondas for sale at home, does more to guarantee peace among nations than can all the good vibes in the galaxy.

In the absence of commerce, the various constituents of a diverse society revert to their most primitive senses of self. Unable to be butchers, carpenters, or storekeepers, they identify with groups made of rigid caste and mere happenstance. They are Catholic instead of Muslim, Serb instead of Croat, or black instead of white, each predisposed to blaming the other for any lack of prosperity. When such mayhem is unleashed, it cannot be squelched by armies or “peace-keeping forces.” A nation that relies primarily on a militia to control human congress is the very one that is most likely to erupt into civil war at the first lapse in martial order.

Global harmony is not the byproduct of kind thoughts, friendliness, and promises to share with one another; it is the direct product of human industry and prosperity. Peace tends to break out when people mind their own business. But this presupposes they have business to mind. Factions in places like Somalia, Haiti, and the Balkans will never consider peaceful coexistence until they have something more to lose than gain by continued war and hatred.