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Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Bourne Pronouncement

Freedom, war, and the State.

Two classic writings on the usefulness of war for government planning and two (perhaps three) current news items inspired this week’s column.

First, the “Bourne” in the above title is Randolph Bourne, who famously wrote in 1918:

War is the health of the state.

In times of peace citizens can, or at least in 1918 they evidently could, conceptually separate their country (its inhabitants, customs, and shared system of beliefs), the State  (a “shadowy emblem” of the authority to govern), and their government (the administrative apparatus of the State).  War blurs these differences.

The moment war is declared, however, the mass of the people, through some spiritual alchemy, become convinced that they have willed and executed the deed themselves.

During war citizens conflate the State with society.

The citizen throws off his contempt and indifference to Government, identifies himself with its purposes, revives all his military memories and symbols, and the State once more walks, an august presence, through the imaginations of men. Patriotism becomes the dominant feeling, and produces immediately that intense and hopeless confusion between the relations which the individual bears and should bear toward the society of which he is a part.

Second, in my last column, “Thinking Twice about Doublethink,” I examined Hayek’s argument in The Road to Serfdom that central planning undermines respect for the truth, and how George Orwell’s novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four, employed this theme.  Here is another insight from Hayek’s classic book that relates to Bourne’s thesis.

The most effective way of making everybody serve the single system of ends toward which the social plan is directed is to make everybody believe in those ends.…  If the feeling of oppression in totalitarian countries is in general much less acute than most people in liberal countries imagine, this is because the totalitarian governments succeed to a high degree in making people think as they want them to.

Now, using coercion to achieve such a level of consensus is very costly; thus, Hayek observes, governments fall back on a tried and true substitute.

It seems to be almost a law of human nature that it is easier for people to agree on a negative program – on the hatred of an enemy, on the envy of those better off – than on any positive task.  The contrast between the “we” and the “they,” the common fight against those outside the group, seems to be an essential ingredient in any creed which will solidly knit together a group for common action.  It is consequently always employed by those who seek, not merely support of a policy, but the unreserved allegiance of huge masses.

In another example of how Hayek appears to have influenced Orwell, recall that it’s for precisely this reason that the three global superpowers in Nineteen Eighty-Four are perpetually at war with one another.

Now for the News Items

The first is last week’s open conflict between North Korea, perhaps the most closed and dictatorial regimes on earth, and the economically and (therefore) politically freer South Korea.  According to the New York Times, North Korea has been exhibiting “A Pattern of Aggression.” Whether true or not, the question here is whose interests does such bloodshed better serve. The Times writes:

The attack is the latest in a series of provocations aimed at both South Korea and its protector, the United States, that has seemed to coincide with recent moves by the ailing North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, to position his youngest son, Kim Jong-un, as heir apparent.

In addition to the Kim dynasty’s trying to navigate a dangerous transition, let’s not forget that the majority of people in North Korea since the early 1990s have been on the brink of starvation or been suffering actual famine.

Finally, there is this short item, also appearing in the Times recently, stating that “Poland, Lacking External Enemies, Turns on Itself”:

“Poles always feel they need to have an enemy,” Urszula Slawinska, 38, said one day as she walked along a sidewalk in Warsaw, an average citizen, headed home, uninvolved in politics, yet keenly aware of what was happening around her. “Because of our history we define ourselves, to be Polish meant to protect our country. So now that we don’t have to protect ourselves, we still need to find an enemy.”

It would be hard to find a blunter example of Bourne’s thesis.  But, of course, this is not simply a quirk of the Polish character.

Can the Kim Dynasty Afford Peace?

So, if all concerned manage to avoid further bloodshed, and let us hope that they do, will direct talks between the two Koreas, or indirect talks via the United States and China, lay the groundwork for a permanent détente between the communist North and democratic South?  Given the nature of totalitarian regimes and the need for big government to maintain unity through an external enemy, the answer is – not likely.  Whatever, if anything, the freer South Korea might stand to gain from these tensions, the totalitarian North Korea needs the threat of war much more, given its starvation economy and the shakiness of the Kim dynasty.

Of course, this sort of thing doesn’t happen in mixed economies like ours.  Or does it?  Here’s one more item (though certainly not the only one I could find – can you say TSA?) from CNN, “Is America on the path to ‘permanent war’?”

John Cioffi, a political science professor at University of California, Riverside, says the nation’s “increasingly unhinged ideological politics” makes it difficult for the country to extract itself from battles in Afghanistan, Iraq and Central Asia.

“The U.S. is not on the path to permanent war; it is in the midst of a permanent war,” Cioffi says.

War is indeed the health of the State, all States, and ipso facto the enemy of individual freedom.

  • Sanford Ikeda is a Professor and the Coordinator of the Economics Program at Purchase College of the State University of New York and a Visiting Scholar and Research Associate at New York University. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.