I am glad that Brian has invited readers of his article below to veer off into unrelated realms because I intend to do exactly that. Of course, I would have done so anyway but I feel better for having had Brian’s blessing.
Though this post has been sparked off by Brian’s musings, it has nothing to do with Islam. Rather I have homed in on one particular phrase which Brian has used in his post and which has been repeated ad nauseum by others. Namely:
War is the health of the state
If free-market axioms were trees then that one would be a mighty oak. Among libertarians it is an unquestioned and proven truism. An article of faith. The nearest thing we have to a party line.
However, it is a line from which I dissent. Not because I regard the process of war with any favour but rather because, like Brian, I dislike untruth and while the declaration that war is the health of the state may be comfortingly self-righteous and gallery-friendly, it is not true. This is not to say that war is a pleasing state of affairs. Far from it. War is terrible and it is terrible because it means that all sorts of people are going to have their lives ripped from them in all manner of frightening and ghoulish ways. It means countless others left without their limbs, their eyes or their mental faculties. Are any other disincentives required? I cannot think of more compelling reasons to avoid armed conflict wherever possible. In fact, given the awful effect of war on the health on actual human beings, does it not sound frivolously tangential to base one’s opposition to it on the succour it may provide to public officials?
Even leaving aside the grisly fate of its victims, I can wholly understand why so many libertarians and conservatives oppose war on principle. After all, we don’t like big government projects and what is war in this day and age except a big government project par excellence? But that does not mean that war is the ‘health’ of the state and I would submit that British history dispels any notion that it is.
The British spent the entire 19th Century expanding their empire across the entire globe and in every corner of that empire Her Majesty’s footsloggers and cavalrymen were busy fighting wars, rebellions, skirmishes and guerilla campaigns. The glint of Sheffield steel could be seen and the report of Enfield Rifles heard on every continent. On the high seas, the Royal Navy was charged with enforcing the government writ against slave-traders while simultaneously fending off imperial challenges from the French and the Dutch.
Yet, despite all this military activity, the British state was so small as to barely figure in the lives of the average citizen. Comparisons with the leviathan we have now are hardly possible. Nor, at any point in the 19th Century, did taxes exceed 10% of the GDP. Nowadays, people like Brian and I would consider it to be a monumental victory to get that figure down to 40%.
And speaking of British history I have often heard the ‘war-is-the-health-of-the-state’ supporters cite the introduction of Income Tax in Britain in 1799 as proof of their proposition, i.e. it was only introduced for the purposes of raising revenues with which to fight the Napoleonic Wars. This is certainly the case but it is seldom mentioned that Income Tax was subsequently abolished in 1816. It was re-introduced in later years because it had become the pet project of a group of political campaigners who spent years assiduously lobbying for Income Tax not because they wanted the proceeds to fight any wars but because they wanted to redistribute wealth.
A growth chart of the British Welfare State rather bears this out. The Welfare State line climbs steadily upwards not in relation to the number of wars but directly in relation to the increase in enfranchisement. If the historical records are anything to go by, then there is a pretty good case for declaring democracy to be the ‘health of the state’.
I also offer up the case of Sweden. I think anyone would be hard put to find any country in the developed world with a more comprehensive and interventionist welfare state. Yet, the Swedes have not fought any kind of war with anyone in nearly two hundred years. How does one explain the rude and robust ‘health’ of the Swedish state?
All that said, Brian and others are quite right to be concerned about the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ being conducted hand-in-glove with a very sinister agenda of social control by means of biometric systems and ID cards and the such. But the War on Terror is the excuse not the reason. The provenance for all this social control dates back to the late 1980’s and first manifested itself in the global ‘anti-money-laundering’ regime that has been implemented since. The excuse then was the ‘War on Drugs’ but the real reason was the advent of the internent. Yes, our wonderful internet. It was the prospect of ordinary Joes and Janes being able to despatch packages of digital information around the world in anonymity that scared the willies out of our political elites and prompted them to construct a legal framework that would enable them to maintain an audit trail on every citizen.
Anyone who thinks that our political leaders and their security advisers suddenly thought of ID cards on September 12th 2001 is someone who is ignorant of this recent history. While the threat of terror attacks (be they real or imaginary) has certainly added an urgency to these impulses, the citizen-branding scheme was only ever going to be a matter of time. The internet has proved to be as healthy for the state as any war.
I am not suggesting that war has no part to play in the growth of state. It clearly has and clearly does. But it is not the health of the state. It is just one of many phenomena that play a part in the whole process along with technological changes, random events, ideologies, natural disasters, class interests and, let us never forget, the eternal lust for power.
Yet, despite all of that the only true health of the state lies in the lumpen apathy of the citizens and their mystifying readiness to assign great swathes of their individual sovereignty over to those that govern them. Wartime, peacetime, anytime.