War is absolutely devastating. There is no dancing around that fact. Not only is it responsible for the loss of countless human lives, it also leaves an immeasurable amount of physical and emotional destruction in its wake.
Opponents of war may decry war until they are blue in the face, begging those in power to consider its human costs. But these cries almost always fall upon deaf ears, as history has tragically demonstrated.
When it comes to politicians and war, the ends always justify the means, even when those means are human lives. And while human life is sacred, this truth alone has never been enough to convince global leaders to seek an agenda of peace rather than one of destruction.
But the market has taught us that incentives work. So instead of relying on a method that has not done much to deter war over the centuries, why not try an argument that plays to the interests of those in power?
As Mises explains in Liberalism, the most impactful argument against war comes in the form of a basic economic principle from which we each benefit: the division of labor.
“How harmful war is to the development of human civilization becomes clearly apparent once one understands the advantages derived from the division of labor. The division of labor turns the self-sufficient individual into the ζῷον πολιτικόν (social animal) dependent on his fellow men, the social animal of which Aristotle spoke.”
The Division of Labor
The division of labor plays a huge role in each of our lives. Every time we go to the supermarket or the office, we are seeing the division of labor in action. Since each individual is gifted with different comparative advantages, it makes sense that each would specialize in the field where their contribution is most efficient and thus, most useful. This is why some of us are farmers while others are lawyers. And it is this system that has given us a market robust with choice.
As Mises explains:
“If a number of men work in cooperation in accordance with the principle of the division of labor, they will produce (other things being equal) not only as much as the sum of what they would have produced by working as self-sufficient individuals, but considerably more.”
If I really wanted to, I could spend my time being a jack-of-all-trades, attempting to supply all my basic necessities for myself. But this would make it almost impossible to master more than one specific trade. So instead of growing my own food, sewing my own clothes, or building my own home, I rely on others who have specialized in each of these fields. By doing so, I free up my time so that I am able to focus on my own unique set of skills and talents.
The division of labor is so important to civilization that Mises writes, “All human civilization is founded on this fact. It is by virtue of the division of labor that man is distinguished from the animals.” And while the division of labor may separate us from nature’s wild creatures, there is nothing more animalistic than war, as Mises also notes:
“War, carnage, destruction, and devastation we have in common with the predatory beasts of the jungle; constructive labor is our distinctively human characteristic.”
Reframing the Conversation
The argument in favor of human dignity may strike a blow to the hearts of many, but it has never been enough to deter the powerful and power-hungry from waging war. But one thing the powerful understand well is self-interest, and therein lies the key to an effective anti-war argument.
“There are high-minded men who detest war because it brings death and suffering. However much one may admire their humanitarianism, their argument against war, in being based on philanthropic grounds, seems to lose much or all of its force when we consider the statements of the supporters and proponents of war.”
This is why Mises proposes reframing the debate. For the warmonger, unconcerned or at least unfazed by the human toll of war, conflict does have political benefits. For these warmongers, as Mises writes:
“War is the father of all things, said a Greek philosopher, and thousands have repeated it after him. Man degenerates in time of peace. Only war awakens in him slumbering talents and powers and imbues him with sublime ideals. If war were to be abolished, mankind would decay into indolence and stagnation.”
And while humanity may not rank high on the state’s hierarchy of values, trade, commerce, and luxurious foreign imports most certainly do. In truth, war is the destroyer of all things and the market is the creator. Since conflict interferes with the free exchange of goods and service among those on opposite sides, it serves only to hurt all parties involved.
Mises touches on this when he says:
“Self-sufficient farmers, who produce on their own farms everything that they and their families need, can make war on one another. But when a village divides into factions, with the smith on one side and the shoemaker on the other, one faction will have to suffer from want of shoes, and the other from want of tools and weapons.”
As has already been discussed, few people pursue isolated production (“autarky”), simply because it is not in our best interest to do so. Our lives would be filled with labor and toil with no room left for much else. To go back to such an existence in our modern world would be unthinkable. And yet war is always on the table, when that too should be seen as a completely unreasonable especially when considering our economic reliance on other countries.
We Need Each Other
There is a misconception that liberals are atomistic in their worldview. But liberals understand better than anyone that isolation would benefit nobody. Understanding the importance of the division of labor reminds us how much value others bring into each of our lives, even if indirectly. And it makes us realize that war should be avoided at all costs.
As Mises writes:
“In order to provide the family of an English worker with all it consumes and desires, every nation of the five continents cooperates. Tea for the breakfast table is provided by Japan or Ceylon, coffee by Brazil or Java, sugar by the West Indies, meat by Australia or Argentina, cotton from America or Egypt, hides for leather from India or Russia, and so on.”
And in our modern world, this economic interdependence is even more intense than in Mises’ day. The fact of the matter is that many, if not most, of our electronics are made abroad. As Americans we enjoy these products not really absorbing what “made in China” really means.
If we were to go to war with an electronic manufacturing giant like China, imports from that country into the United States would stop. Sure, we may not feel the sting immediately, but as soon as you look to replace your old smartphone, and find the new model to be no better yet twice as expensive, you would soon realize how much we rely on our foreign allies for products we use on a daily basis.
As Mises says:
“At the beginning of the nineteenth century by far the greater part of the inhabited world was still divided into a number of economic regions that were, by and large, self-sufficient…The development of a complex network of international economic relations is a product of nineteenth-century liberalism and capitalism. They alone made possible the extensive specialization of modern production with its concomitant improvement in technology.”
War only destroys. Peace, on the other hand, creates. As a line from a song in the Broadway musical, Rent exclaims, “The opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s creation.”
Peace is what has allowed us to each specialize in one area, while benefiting from the division of labor. Peace is what has given the world access to the precious treasures of foreign nations. Can you imagine a life without spices imported from abroad or various food items? If not for peace and trade, the United States may have never tasted chocolate, and what a tragedy that would have been!
And this is something even politicians can appreciate.