All Commentary
Saturday, April 1, 1972

The Nature of Modern Warfare

A study of the path to war via domestic welfare programs and departure from the market.

In reflecting upon the intensity of the sentiment and the methods utilized in contemporary antiwar protests, it seems manifest that the preference is always for peace; that nobody wants war. So, one must ask why, if no one wants war, do wars continue to occur?

Perhaps wars result, not from the direct intentions of “warmongering capitalists” or any other group for that matter, but as Edmund Opitz observed, they are the “unexpected by-product,” the inevitable culmination, of particular political or economic policies not intended to be aggressive and, in fact, even humanitarian motivated. What one must, therefore, attempt to discern is the generic nature of these particular policies whose underlying elements propel us toward war. Only if we are cognizant of the processes that cause wars can we ever hope to obviate these warlike tendencies?

The crux of this thesis, however, is nearly diametrically opposed to today’s prevailing ethos which attempts to explain war, more often than not, as the result of the insidious machinations of the industrial magnates or the “war-mongering capitalists,” or insists that by its nature the capitalist system must culminate in violent conflicts and, ultimately, its own catastrophic demise.

The position here is to equate classical liberalism and capitalism with peace rather than war. Conversely, it considers the factors begetting war as endemic, not in socialism per se, but in any type of government economic intervention of which socialism is merely one form.

Aggressive Nationalism follows Intervention

While everyone is agreed that the cause of war is aggressive nationalism, the position here is that aggressive nationalism is the necessary outcome of government intervention. In other words, statism fosters nationalism. An in-depth study of nearly 1000 wars fought in the West from 500 B. C. to A. D. 1925 was conducted by the sociologist, Pitirim Sorokin. In contrasting the size of the casualty list to the corresponding population, he determined that the war magnitude of the first quarter of the twentieth century stood at 52 per 1,000,000 (compared with 17 for the nineteenth century) leading Sorokin to conclude that “the twentieth century will unquestionably prove to be the bloodiest and most belligerent of all the twenty-five centuries under consideration.”

These figures are in accord with the two salient contentions of this article. If a general date can be given for the beginning of the abandonment of the principles of laissez-faire for those of government intervention and control, it would be the 1870′s, highlighted by events such as Germany’s appointment of Bismarck as Chancellor and the emergence of the first effects of Britain’s Reform Bill of 1867. Since that time, the trend has been conspicuously away from limited democracy and laissez-faire and toward government economic interference. The question to be considered is why government intervention engenders international conflictsWe can say, generally, that the age of classical liberalism was the nineteenth century and that the age of statism extends from the latter part of that century to the present. In applying Dr. Sorokin’s findings to that of our historical sketch, two things we have noted become manifest. On the one hand is the relative peace and tranquility enjoyed by a world embracing largely laissez-faire principles. On the other, we see, with the substitution of the deification of the state and rise of the controlled economy for the principles of classical liberalism, the concomitant rise of war and international conflict.

The question to be considered now is why government intervention — whether it be socialism or a “mixed” or welfare economy, and whether for humanitarian or insidious purposes — engenders international conflicts and war.

Domestic Ramifications of Statism

The free market is perpetually heading toward equilibrium. Wages and prices are always heading toward a point at which the supply of laborers and of commodities equals the demand for them. Any attempt to interfere with the natural operation of market pricing is destined to engender economic imbalance, begetting in turn, international conflict.

To illustrate how this occurs, we will follow the linkage of events in any government interference. We will assume, moreover, that the intervention occurs under the most propitious circumstances; that it is, in other words, humanitarianly motivated. We will say, for example, that the government has intervened in an endeavor to raise the wages of the hard-pressed or to set a minimum standard for the lowest strata of the working force. Surely, most would exclaim, this is a generous act; surely there could be nothing sinister or pernicious about such a policy; surely this would ease, not aggravate, tension. However, let’s examine it more closely.If wages are forced up, prices may also rise.

If wages are forced up, prices also may rise. Either they will rise nearly simultaneously, or the increased wages will reduce the income of the entrepreneurs, thus driving the marginal producers out of business and discouraging additional investment in those fields. This diminution in the amount of capital investment will entail a reduction in the quantity of commodities produced, thus causing prices to rise. And the same thing is true of endeavors to hold prices down. At the lower prices, more are bought. But the reduced price discourages investment and once again forces the marginal producers out of business, thereby engendering shortages that can only be corrected by either (1) removing the controls and permitting prices to rise or (2) carrying on production by means of subsidies, which requires higher prices in other fields. Any government intervention, therefore, must inevitably create imbalances in the economy; these, in turn, tend to bring a rise in production costs and therefore in prices.

This rise in prices, moreover, must have catastrophic international ramifications. Since domestic wages and prices are artificially held above the level set by the free market, the lower prices offered by imported goods will encourage the buying of the imported commodities in preference to domestically produced goods. As long as prices domestically are maintained at bloated levels, this foreign underselling ultimately will force the domestic firms out of business. Moreover, maintaining wages domestically above their respective equilibrium levels will attract immigrants from abroad.The apparently solution for such problems is a policy of autarchy. The influx of new laborers will either force the bloated wage level down or engender institutional mass unemployment.

The apparent solution for such problems is a policy of autarchy, viz., economic isolation, as best manifested by recourse to tariff and migration barriers, exchange controls, and the like.

International Ramifications: War

It should now be evident that a country intent upon controlling wages and prices cannot permit either imports or immigration. Such penetration would easily and obviously frustrate the planners. Statism, therefore, becomes synonymous with autarchy. With the possible exceptions of the U.S. and U.S.S.R., hardly any nation is adequately blessed with the means of self-sufficiency; statism and autarchy, therefore, must manifest themselves as a policy of aggressive nationalism. As Lionel Robbins observed: “It is really ridiculous to suppose that such a policy is possible for the majority…. To recommend autarchy as a general policy is to recommend war as an instrument for making autarchy possible.”

It may be well to consider this passage further. In the long run, exports must always equal imports. The only reason one gives up an object in trade is to acquire that which he does not possess but values more than what he is giving up; similarly, the only need for exports is to pay for the required imports. Thus, the greater the imports demanded subsistence, the greater the exports required to pay for them.

A nation, in endeavoring to preserve domestic wage and price increases through recourse to tariff and migration barriers, thereby eliminates the possibility of exporting its surplus commodities and thus acquiring the foreign exchange necessary to purchase imports. There are only three ways to procure the necessities of life: (1) to produce them at home, (2) to trade for them, or (3) to go to war and take them. If a nation does not possess the kind or the necessary quantities of natural resources, and if it does not possess enough fertile agricultural land to provide for its population, then it must trade for these necessities. If it erects tariff barriers and prohibits imports — or if other nations erect tariffs that prohibit exports — a nation is then unable to trade for its necessities. Unless one subscribes to the unlikely proposition that the people of one nation will passively acquiesce in permitting either starvation or a substantial reduction in their standard of living, there is only one recourse left: war.

World Wars I and II are replete with support for this hypothesis. It is important to note that between the wars, for example, all European nations resorted to very strict anti-immigration laws, in most cases prohibiting immigration altogether. Every nation was eager to protect its wage level against encroachment from nations with still lower wage levels. Such policies were bound to engender serious international friction.

Moreover, like the “Sozialpolitik” of pre-1914 Germany, Hitler’s Germany endeavored to raise the wage rates of its workers. In doing so, prices were forced up. Since this would have encouraged imports and thus thwarted the statist schemes, tariff barriers were established. However, the German ban on imports meant that no nation could acquire the necessary German exchange to purchase German exports. Germany, an industrial nation, was largely dependent upon foreign foodstuffs. It had to export its industrial commodities in order to obtain much of the needed food. By eliminating imports, it eliminated, in a like degree, the only means by which it could peaceably attain these necessary agricultural products. So, Germany had but one alternative; it had to go to war and take them.

Rise of Aggressive Nationalism

The nineteenth century was governed largely by classical liberal principles. It was, for the most part, a peaceful century. The onslaught of war accompanied the abandonment of these principles. The question to be considered, therefore, is precisely why these policies were discarded. The answer can be perceived if one realizes that an integral element of this liberalism was a democratic rule. It is imperative, however, to appreciate that this was the democracy of Tocqueville; that is, a limited democracy. The sole function of the state was simply the suppression of attempts by individuals to suppress other individuals.Under the classical liberal ideal, the power of the state — the apparatus of compulsion and control — was severely circumscribed. The crux of this concept was the recognition of individual rights; the sole function of the state was simply the suppression of attempts by individuals to suppress other individuals, that is, to provide a secure and peaceful framework to facilitate social cooperation. While the means for determining who held the reins of government was to be decided democratically, the power and functions of government were significantly curtailed; the democracy of the classical liberal tradition was a strictly limited concept.

Before this ideal could be fully implemented, it began, like most ideals, to be abused. As suffrage was extended — which was not necessarily inimical in itself — this democracy became ever less limited. In exchange for votes, the politicians began to promise more and more. The function of the state, accordingly, could no longer be restricted to the protection of the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. The interventionist state thus began to supplant the laissez-faire state, even before the latter had been fully established. These statist measures were, in many cases, humanitarianly motivated, that is, aiding the poor, assistance for the jobless, and so on. Nevertheless, the inevitable corollary of this proliferation of government intervention was the precipitation of aggressive nationalism. It was the inevitable result of an ethos that sanctioned the extension of government into all phases of life. It was, in short, the emergence of the total state. Whether it came as autocracy or as the “despotism of the majority” was irrelevant.

Significance of National Boundaries

In a planned, autarchic economy, territorial boundaries are of supreme importance. An isolated nation must possess all of its required natural resources. The larger the area under control, the better it can provide for its wants and needs. Yet, no country is blessed with a position of complete economic self-sufficiency. Autarchy, accordingly, must manifest itself in aggressive nationalism, in the desire of every country for the control of ever larger areas. What is required to make peace viable, therefore, is a lessening of the significance of boundaries?

This could only be attained, however, if the governments of the world were confined in their activities to protecting the life, liberty, and property of their citizens. Only then would international boundaries lose their significance. It would then make no difference whether a nation was large or small; its citizens could derive no benefit or sustain any damage from the extension or loss of territory. Under a laissez-faire system, where all transactions would take place between individuals unimpeded by government, the size of a nation would not matter. If the primacy of private property and free trade were rules, at least one of the major causes of war would be eliminated.No one would be aided or hurt by a transfer of territorial jurisdiction since all property would be held by individuals and all transactions would take place between individuals.

If the primacy of private property and free trade were the rules, at least one of the major causes of war would be all but eliminated. No one would be artificially or forcibly excluded, by tariff or immigration barriers, from acquiring any needed goods or natural resources. No one would be penalized for having been born a foreigner or of a different race or in a country of limited natural resources. Under these terms, then, at least one of the causes of war would be effectively ameliorated, if not eliminated entirely.


Statism, in so far as it begets autarchy, engenders international antagonisms for which no peaceful solution can be found within the context of our contemporary politico-economic ethos. These antagonisms can be relieved only by a change in ideologies. What is needed to make peace viable is the acceptance of the principles of limited democracy and its economic corollary, the free market? Only by such an advance can we ever hope to surmount at least one of the underlying factors precipitating international conflicts and war.

If this analysis possesses any cogency at all, then at least one thing is surely manifest: all the antiwar marches, protests, demonstrations, and peace songs from here to China cannot improve the situation one iota. While they may be fun, they are nevertheless futile. They are futile because they are premised upon a misunderstanding of war. Yet, wars continue to occur. Accordingly, war will not be ameliorated, much less abolished, by the mere utterance of platitudes or by shock tactics designed to scare us into peace. Only the elimination of its root cause can greatly diminish the threat of war. Such a policy, to repeat, entails a change in attitude, a policy impossible until the leaders and the people of the world are prepared to accept it.


  • Dr. Osterfeld was assistant professor of political science at Saint Joseph's College, Rensselaer, Indiana.