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War and state expansion

Glenn Reynolds has an interesting article at Forbes about the connection between wars and the expansion in state power. He argues – quite convincingly I think – that while war may once have been one of the primary causes of increases in state power, that increasingly, it is demand for other public goods and initiatives that drives state power. For example, I reckon that the environmentalist argument is likely to prove a significant justification for such increases in spending, tax and regulation, as will, alas, the current financial crisis.

The “war is the health of the state” argument is often one that some libertarians use to oppose any wars, even if such wars might have some legal/moral justification, on the grounds that wars inevitably create costs that outweigh the supposed benefits of toppling some nasty regime, etc. An example of this view comes from Robert Higgs, whom I recommend. But the WIHOS argument is not a fixed law, rather a general tendency with some clear exceptions. At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, for example, the UK public sector, such as it was, was retrenched and the income tax was abolished for more than two decades. The end of the Cold War saw significant cuts in military spending. Perhaps what is not so easily retrenched, however, are state controls and regulations over behaviour. Consider World War One. Before 1914, UK subjects did not need a passport; there was no Official Secrets Act and the role of the state, relative to that of our own time, was small. Now it is much larger.

WIHOS is not an iron law, but rather a sensible rule of thumb. Alas, there are plenty of other factors besides war that drive expansion of public spending and controls.

20 comments to War and state expansion

  • Everything is a `war’ for the purposes of the politicians – surely you noticed `the war on drugs,’ `the war on poverty,’ `the war on crime’ … need I go on. War is the health of the state. What other reason does it have to exist?

  • There can be no, if any, developed countries with a bigger or more intrusive government than Sweden. In fact, British lefties often cite the Swedish model as the shining example that we all ought to strive to emulate; a country that has democratic socialism as a default setting and nearly a century of almost-unbroken centre-left government.

    Yet, the Swedes have not fought a war since 1813.

    Can somebody explain the causes for the apparent rude health of the Swedish state?

  • Thad

    Sweden is an interesting example. In the 17th century they had one of the most advanced military forces in Europe. Their success against bigger and richer armies during the 30 Years War made them a model for the rest of Europe. Especially for Oliver Cromwell and his New Model Army.

    One big reason for their success was an extensive system at home of conscription and taxation. A bureaucracy was born that may have lost its warlike reason for being but has held onto power ever since.

    In the 18th century the wars of Charles the 12th bled the nation almost to death. Since then they have been reluctant to get involved. Now they may be heading for a civil war or a jihadi war on their own soil, but that’s another story.

  • Bod

    They have nothing anyone wants.

    In WW2, they were neutral, and the few things they had of value to the Axis and Allies, they were happy to sell to both sides. Their only value to Germany other than special steels, was that it was in between German territory and Norway, which was far more inportant strategically. So Sweden helped out by providing rail access for the Germans too.

    It’s easy to avoid wars if you have no principles.

  • lucklucky

    Where there is a militaristic ideology the state grows trough it . But in recent decades what we see is that Defense budgets are the most volatile(in increase and decrease) that exist in Governments because there is no militaristic ideology behind it.

    To State be able to grow and maintain its size it needs an Ideology. The militarism of first decades of XX century was replaced by many other socialist drives less bent in kill but equally or even more destructive. People want to be saints of goodness specially with money from others…

  • Bod

    Just to add, before the piling-on begins, I probably misspoke when I accused Sweden of being unprincipled.

    Sweden had few choices other than to go along with whatever Germany wanted to do. They had no military, sclerotic government and (as Taylor pointed out) no stomach or pocket for a fight. In short, there was nothing *to* conquer. Sweden was Germany’s for the taking, and while neutral, met all the criteria of being a vassal state. Why tie up a few divisions on pacifying a conquered nation when you have no need to?

  • Bod,

    Principles be damned! I stand to be corrected but I believe that, at the outbreak of WWII, both Holland and Belgium declared neutrality. Much good it did them. They still got invaded. Principles only matter if the other guy gives more than a flying shit about them.


    For sure, the Swedes were once a very martial power but that was at least two centuries ago since when other rubrics have been successfully used to build what amounts to a immoveable managerial state.

    Another case in point is the British Empire. We spent the 18th and 19th Centuries sending armies and navies to all corners of the world to build/defend the empire. Yet through all that time, the government’s share of GDP never got beyond 10%.

    And what about Switzerland? No war for them in the last 500 years. Yet, and contrary to popular belief, the Swiss tax/regulatory model is broadly similar to that of other Western European countries.

    My point is that war is certainly ONE of the causes of healthy state but it is by no means the only one and while I am not attacking the anti-war principle I am concerned lest we fall into the seductive trap of relying on easy but demonstrably incorrect tropes. Please leave that kind of thing to the lefties.

  • Thad

    I just wanted to make the point that once a powerful bureaucracy gets its claws into a nation its very hard to get rid of. Also once a pattern of governmental behavior has been set, its very hard to change. Look at France they are still stuck with the centralizing ideology that Louis XI stuck them with in the late 15th century.

    The UK was able to avoid that (until recently) thanks to its experiences with a/ the Wars of the Roses and b/ the Civil war.

    Switzerland has a very militaristic culture, they regard themselves as a people in arms and they still have municipal rifle ranges in almost every village. They are also a very organized and bureaucratic country, but most the government red tape happens at the local (communal) or Cantonal levels. Their tax system is strongly oriented towards local governments. The opposite of France and the UK.

  • Whitehall

    Interesting that the original sponsor of the Official Secrfets Act was Winston Churchill, early in his career.

  • veryretired

    While I do not disagree with Reynolds, or the idea that war is one of the major stimuli for the growth of the state, there is something deeper at work.

    When humans were hunter/gatherers, violence was a constant fact of life. Studies have shown that a large percentage of primitive men died by homicide, much larger a fraction than modern men suffer.

    When people settled down to raising animals and growing crops, they undertook a job that left little time for practicing or actual warfare. War became a distraction, a threat, and the obvious solution was to pay someone else to take care of it.

    The nobility, who mostly achieved their positions through violence anyway, took “a piece of the action” for protection. It is no accident that the closest model of most, if not all, traditional governments is the mafia—the state for most all of its history was some variation of a criminal gang prospering through the protection rackets.

    But the deeper danger is the spectre of danger. As an earlier commenter mentioned, to politicians everything is a war because they need to heighten the sense of threat to justify their proposals.

    “We’ll protect you from XXX, whether its foreigners or drugs or unemployment or climate change, just give a little bigger piece of the pie.”

    Well, they just got a 700 billion dollar chunk, no one knows where its going, and here they come asking for more.

    I think it’s pretty clear what the war is this time—it’s another battle in the age-old war against the independent, productive citizen

  • The first link of the post to the Glenn Reynolds commentary in Forbes should have been:
    Why Guns Are Better Than Butter

  • Frederick Davies

    I would propose that it is who is in charge of government at the end of the war which determines if the unavoidable changes needed to fight a war persist or we see a return to normalcy. For example, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, the Conservatives were in charge, and the changes in taxation needed to pay for the Wars went with it. At the end of the two World Wars, it was the Left who was left in charge, and the State did not recede. I wonder how Britain would be different if Churchill had not lost the 1945 election.

  • Superautonomist!

    “War and the rise of the State”, by an author whose name I have forgotten, is a book that has been out for years. It makes similar claims, though it points out that democracy often also spreads by war. A country that can draw on more resources than the enemy is likely to prevail, so that state that can conscript more peasants in arms will have more armies- but the price of this is that the peasants usually need to be bribed with voting rights- taxation and representation going together.

  • The author was Bruce Porter of Brigham Young University.

    Good book.

  • Superautonomist!

    I think he still is the Author, taylor! As you say, a good book.

  • If war is the health of the state, then how come WWII wasn’t healthy for the Axis powers? That’s just one counter-example to this bromide.

    In a long-term, international perspective, there is very little correlation between warfare and State “health,” measured either in terms of size or intrusiveness. At best, there is merely a correlation in the wars fought by the USA since WWI. However, this coincided with the global rise of socialist ideology, which took hold in the USA in the form of the Progressive movement and affected the entire world, including many countries that remained at peace during that time.

    Arguing that the Swedish welfare state was “caused” by Sweden’s wars before 1813 fails to explain why the Swedish welfare state didn’t really begin until the 20th century, nor why it has contracted since then. Furthermore, Sweden’s policies became considerably more laissez-faire during the 19th century than they were before or since. What mechanism would’ve led to the first consequence of Sweden’s military history being the increase of freedom, then its decrease more than a century later? That theory is simply not plausible.

    Similarly, Britain fought dozens of wars all around the world during the 19th century, eventually ruling a quarter of the globe and the oceans of the world. By the logic of “War is the Health of the State,” Britain ought to have been the most tyrannical regime in the world at that time. However, quite the opposite was the case, Britain epitomized the heydey of classical liberalism at the time.

    For yet another example, the Dutch Republic fought its war of independence from Spain for decades, and emerged victorious as the richest and freest country in Europe.

    Wars can actually increase freedom via the “democratic effect” mentioned by Bruce Porter in “War and the Rise of the State.” There are myriad cases of this throughout history, from the Persian Wars onward. This doesn’t always happen, but neither is it always the case that wars decrease freedom.

  • Superautonomist!

    Democracies ARE States. Even losers end up with bigger governments. Germany had democracy bestowed on it as the cost of losing. Whilst West Germany let enterpreneurs have a good time, it also increased Welfare to where it is now seen as a ‘right’. And why do governments feel compelled to wage wars on anything (drugs, poverty, ignorance, etc.)? Because calling it a war allows governments to marshall resources, stifle opposing points of view, and raise taxes for the good fight.
    Democracies are GREAT at bureaucracy and red tape!
    Democracies are better than some other governments forms, but they are NOT my ideal type!

  • By what significant metric is the State of the Federal Republic of Germany “bigger” than the Nazi State? Territory? No. Intrusiveness? No. Military budget? No.

    Yes, democracies are states, too, but not all states are equally bad, and democracies are almost always better than dictatorships. (And no, Nazi Germany wasn’t democratic, and Hitler didn’t come to power democratically either.)

  • Paul Marks

    Swiss – the French had no trouble invading them (and treating them as subjects) in the 1790’s.

    But the real defeat was in 1848 – when the Swiss Federal (not really Confederal) defeated dissenting Cantons (and no excuse of slavery in the Swiss case).

    Government remained small in Switzerland – but the framework was laid, the Federal government trumped Cantons. Because a Canton has no right to leave if it does not like the way the Federal government is messing the people about – whether by banning the Jesuits, or by imposing Welfare State programs (a few Swiss Cantons have always voted against such things -but they get forced into line).


    Even in the interwar period its taxes were lower than those of Britain.

    So much for it being Super Mac’s Middle Way – Britain was more statist than Sweden and remained so for quite a while.

    Then (1960’s and 1970’s) Sweden got very high tax indeed (highest official taxes in the world) – but that may be reversing itself a bit now.

  • Superautonomist!

    I was referring to things like taxation levels to support the welfare state. Also, things like centralized bargaining powers given to unions, so they can standardize everything (the curse of Australia- it’s back!!).