The Corner

On War and Its Moral Equivalents

Steve Horwitz has a long post criticizing both pro-war conservatives and pro-war-on-global-warming environmentalists. An excerpt:

It is particularly ironic that a good number of folks who were rightly critical of the rush to war in Iraq because they questioned the apparent consensus about the existence of weapons of mass destruction there, as well as the ability of the US to “nation build,” appear to be so willing to undertake a “war on global warming.”  I would hope that those who fit this category are as willing to entertain “dissent” on environmental issues as they are with dissent on the War in Iraq.  Principled and courageous dissent can look like something different, and tolerating it can be a lot harder, when you’re on the “pro” side of a war.

More generally I would ask several questions of people critical of the War in Iraq but gung-ho about a War on Global Warming.  Should we not be asking the same deep, critical questions about what we do and do not know about climate change and environmental issues more broadly, and how we acquired that information, as we should have asked about Iraqi WMDs before we go rushing to “war” on global warming?  Though the earth has been warming, it is not at all clear that the consensus on the causes and consequences of said warming is as widely shared among scientists as Al Gore and others would like us to believe.  Should we not also be asking the same questions about the effects that such a war will have on innocents in the third world as dissenters did with respect to Iraq?  After all, the environmentalism-driven rush to biofuels appears to be a significant contributing factor to the run-up in world food prices, which is causing great harm to the poorest folks on the planet.   And shouldn’t we be asking what the consequences of this “war” will be on our own freedoms and our own standard of living, just as critics of the War in Iraq have rightly drawn attention to those same issues in the context of that war?  Finally, is it really all that much more imperialistic to try to create democracy at the point of a gun in Iraq than it is to tell the Third World that they must abide by high Western standards of environmental regulation in the name of a war on global warming and environmental destruction, when the consequences of doing so are sure to  prolong their poverty?

I agree with many of his points, but I think I should offer an indirect objection as well. I don’t object to his opposition to the Iraq war, that’s an honorable position. But I think it’s worth pointing out that the conservative position on war is different than the liberal position on war and its alleged equivalents. This is a point many on the right — libertarians and conservatives alike — often miss.

Speaking generally, the conservative attitude toward war is that, though regrettable,  it is a legitimate function of the state and that victory is a legitimate and desirable outcome  for both the government and the nation. War is one of the few great exceptions to the rule of liberty, a fact recognized by tradition, custom, law and the constitution. The infringements on freedom made necessary by war are, according to basic conservative precepts, regrettable and ideally temporary.

Meanwhile, the progressive mindset sees war from a very different perspective. The progressives who latched on to William James’ “moral equivalents of war”  idea saw nothing regrettable about those infringements. Rather, they saw them as the chief benefit of war. Hence John Dewey’s famous “social benefits of war.”  Long before WWI, the progressives yearned to do what WWI made possible.

For example, Jane Addams in 1902: “[W]e must demand that the individual shall be willing to lose the sense of personal achievement, and shall be content to realize his activity only in connection to the activity of the many.”  Walter Rauschenbusch in 1896: “New forms of association must be created…Our disorganized competitive life must pass into an organic cooperative life.” And: “Individualism means tyranny.”

Hence WWI served as wish-fulfillment for those who wanted wartime unity but lacked a cause to get it. Hence Randolph Bourne’s observation about the “peculiar congeniality between the war

and these men” — i.e. progressive intellectuals.  “It is,” he sadly concluded, “as if the war and they had been waiting for each other.”

I bring this up because libertarians tend to think it is war that breeds collectivism. Obviously, there is a lot of evidence behind this idea and I certainly do not dismiss it wholesale. But I think a more important piece of the equation is this: collectivists breed collectivism.  

In other words comparisons between a real war and a metaphorical one can only take you so far because, on the whole, the conservatives who champion the real war are not advocates of collectivism at home (yes, I think there are small but significant exceptions to this). After 9/11, George W. Bush told Americans to “go shopping.” That may have been ill-advised, but it wasn’t something someone yearning for war socialism would say.

Steve writes:

The use of the war metaphor is troubling on several grounds.  Any time war is invoked as a common cause, both critical thought and our freedoms can easily be lost in the name of militarizing society in pursuit of a moral cause.  As Hayek recognized, the invocation of war is implicitly an attempt to turn a free society into a consciously organized one, with all of the attendant problems such an attempt will bring with it.

 I agree entirely.

It seems pretty obvious that many (not all) environmentalists and global warming alarmists see in global warming what previous generations of progressives and liberals saw in WWI, the Great Depression, WWII, the “Population Bomb,” AIDS, 9/11, Katrina etc: An opportunity to finally shed classically liberal assumptions and legitimize “new forms of association” as Rauschenbusch put it. 

Obviously, there are plenty of sincere, honest liberals and evironmentalists who have no burning desire to usher in collectivism of one stripe or another. But as a general proposition, I think it’s true that the people who invoke the moral equivalents of war as an organizing principle seek to expand what the conservative proponent of actual war wishes to contract, to prolong (or make permanent) what the conservative hopes will be only temporary, and to celebrate as essential what the conservative sees as an unfortunate necessity.