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Being nice and prosperous

There is a Reuters story quoting a survey suggesting that the recession could trigger a general increase in violence around the world. As is always important in these kind of claims, we need to be sure that correlation between two things – violence and economic uncertainty – is not being conflated with causation. Consider: Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait in the early 1990s when the world, in general, was quite prosperous, albeit coming out of a short recession in countries such as the US and UK, when the price of oil had also been falling. The violence that broke out in the MEast later in parts of Africa (think Sudan, think USS Cole) took place in the middle to late-1990s, a period when emerging market economies were generally on the rise. The exceptions may prove the rule: what I think is true is that places that are felt, rightly or wrongly, to be unfairly excluded from a global prosperity are often likely to be unstable, and quite violent, but not always.

In fact, it is even arguable that greater prosperity might even cause some forms of violence if reactionary/religious groups regard such wealth as a defilement of whatever it is they want to protect. (I happen to think that explains why some anti-globalisation folk are often, in essence, reactionary snobs). That in part explains the argument of those who said that the West was attacked on 9/11 not for its supposed transgressions in the Middle East, but for its wealth and freedom per se.

Where I think economics does play a more direct role is where you have regimes that are financially busted, with few remaining resources, and where they greedily, and desperately, eye other, resource-rich nations nearby. That explains some, but not all, military campaigns. As in the case of Japan during the 1930s, a hunger for raw materials, coupled with a militaristic ruling ideology and elite, led to the Japanese conquests in parts of East Asia and the Pacific Rim. The same happened with Argentina and its invasion of the Falklands Islands in 1982 (the islands are supposedly close to some very big oil reserves). Ceasar’s conquest of Gaul had a partly economic incentive (all that gold, slaves, etc). And so on.

There may also be some evidence that the more prosperous we are, the more tolerant we are, too. In fact tolerance, which is allied to liberty, and prosperity, are faces of the same coin. In the minds of the great Victorian champions of free trade, such as Richard Cobden and John Bright, free trade and peace went hand in hand. A bit naive, maybe – trade routes need to be protected against thieves and thugs – but it is a view based on an essentially benign view of how most of us live our lives, given half a chance.

8 comments to Being nice and prosperous

  • I personally think that the separation of head of state and head of government is a good idea, as it means that the person you salute is not a venal politician (and there is no other kind). The trouble occurs when pompous politicians decide that the salute is their due, which does sometimes happen (as perhaps here).

    I wouldn’t think the 1982 Falklands war was particularly resource driven. The Argentines have a sense of historic grievance over the islands and a failing military junta used that sense of grievance to attempt to hold power, but only managed to demonstrate that it was as useless at fighting wars (supposedly what it was there for) as at running the country. At the time the islands were considered to be fairly useless in themselves, and the surveys that suggest there may be significant amounts of oil there date from well after the war. So there may have been some speculation about oil around the time of the war, but there was no hard evidence and any resources would have taken a long time to exploit.

    The fishing industry of the islands (for which the largest customer by far is perhaps ironically Spain) has grown a lot since 1982 as well, which was probably more easily predictable but less strategic.

  • Kevin B

    The survey ranked countries on 23 indicators including political stability, warfare, human rights, murder rates, military spending, international relations and the risk of terrorism


    So the survey itself is a piece of subjective nonsense.

    As for the overall thesis…. It would take a lot of rigorous research to separate cause and effect. Are people(s) more likely to attack others when they are poorer than their neighbours? Or are richer nations more likely to attack their poorer neighbours because they have a better chance of winning?

    Take the Troubles. Were the justifications on both sides reaching back in history to the time of Cromwell and beyond mere rationalisations to cover up the economic factors? And did hostilities, (largely), cease because the Republic of Ireland grew rich on EU subsidies and an industry friendly economic policy, or because the generation that was fighting grew old and their younger replacements were tired of the fighting and preferred to party?

    Did Cortez invade Central and South America to bring back gold for his Queen and Country, or to convert the heathen for the Glory of God? Or were these both rationalisations for a simple desire to go forth and conquer new lands?

    My own view is that we’re dealing with humans here and any attempt to assign a simple cause are, well, simplistic, and very likely self-serving.

  • From my experience of traveling the world, there seems to be little relation between how nice the people are and how safe the country is and the wealth of the country. I have been to places in the poorest countries in the world where it was possible to walk outside in the middle of the night almost anywhere in town carrying an expensive camera without the slightest danger of coming to any harm, and I have been to some quite rich places where I felt in danger crossing the road. Do I think a country full of honest and decent people is more likely to get rich than one that lacks these things? Well, yes. But the situation is complex, just the same.

  • TomC

    Francis Watt, in his “Life and opinions of John Bright” states on tolerance: “it was not merely that he (Bright) was perfectly convinced that he was right and that his opponents were wrong – every earnest man must do that; but there was the feeling that his opponents ought to desert their ways, and that as long as they do not it is right that they should be smitten.

    Bright’s 1843 Anti Corn-Law speech in question included this:

    “…we shall have no starving in our streets because cotton is a little dearer than it was. We did not buckle on our armour for a sham contest. We were not hungry. I never had a meal the less, however my countrymen suffered, and my business always yielded some profit. We have no other motive to action than the wish to do away with this cruel injustice. Our opponents know that they are unjust, and they now know also that we know it; we are resolved that the millions amongst whom we live shall no longer be trampled on by the iron hoof of monopoly. We have fought this battle confident of success; we know that success awaits us, for we remember in faith and gratitude that royal lips have declared, by the inspiration of the eternal Spirit, that “the needy shall not always be forgotten: the expectation of the poor shall not perish forever.”

    My great x 2 grandfather, a friend and colleague of Bright, is on record as saying “…If the men in his employ were Tories and voted so ” — which meant voting for the Corn Laws, to which he was most opposed—” they would remain perfectly undisturbed by him — their public opinion and conduct were free.”

    So tolerance, for these two cotton mill owners, Quakers and pioneers of social justice, meant, in the tradition of Classical liberalism, no holds barred in destroying the opponents’ argument, but complete respect for the equal treatment under the law for those with whom one disagreed. That is the true nature of tolerance.

    Otherwise, tolerance suggests compromise. There can be no compromise between freedom and government controls. To accept controls is to surrender the principle of inalienable individual rights and to substitute for it the principle of the government’s unlimited, arbitrary power, thus delivering oneself into gradual enslavement.

    So tolerance is not “allied to liberty, and prosperity…”, which are not therefore, faces of the same coin. Cobden and Bright’s achievement was about the destruction of state power. It is high time we reverted to such intellectual practices.

    Full disclosure – John Bright was my great x 2 great-uncle.

  • lucklucky

    If a society gets more tolerant with wealth then that is the root of its downfall, since was with a certain dose of intolerance that it got wealthy.

    There are things we should never be tolerant with.

  • virgil xenophon

    It seems to me the level of violence in a society has necessarily nothing to do with levels of poverty, but rather more with sociocultural cohesion and the depth to which shared morals are inculcated in the general populace. During the great depression the crime rate was low despite rates of joblessness and poverty which dwarfs those of today and the very nature of violence was much more prosaic. I remember a conversation in the late 70s with a long-time denizen of the “Old Louisville” section of Louisville, Ky., who pointed out that during the depression before air-conditioning was widely available, while in the throes of severe heat-waves, people would take their mattresses and sleep in Central Park (the Louisville one.) Today–or even in the 70s–such a thing would be to think the unthinkable.

  • kentuckyliz

    Increasing prosperity doesn’t always trigger increasing tolerance, in fact, just the opposite. Read Amy Chua, World on Fire. For an intro, watch the CSPAN interview here.


  • kentuckyliz

    Beyond the general question, I have a strong desire to bitch-slap this crazy government. Americanos, email me when the revolution starts.