Bryan Caplan  

When Has Independence Been Worth the Price?

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I think that the American Revolutionary War was a tragic mistake. After years of bloodshed, it's hard to see how independence led to better policy.

So when has independence improved policy? My favorite modern example is the break-up of the Soviet Empire, but even that is a mixed bag. Almost all of the countries of Eastern Europe and the Baltics quickly adopted much better policies than they endured under the Russian yoke. Russia reformed too, but reformed less, and took a lot longer to get moving. So far, so good for independence. But it's easy to forget that there are many former Soviet republics than make Russia look good - most obviously Belarus and the Central Asian Republics. If they hadn't gained their independence, they would probably be partaking in the economic growth and relative freedom of Mother Russia.

And note: Independence from the Soviet Union looks good because it was amazingly peaceful. If it took a seven year civil war to break up the Soviet Union, it would be pretty hard to argue that it was worth it.

So here's my challenge: Name a War of Independence that really is worth celebrating. I'm not saying it's impossible, but if you take a sober look at policy before and after, and subtract out all the horrors of war, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that independence is grossly overrated.

P.S. This is my last post for a while, but hopefully I'll be seeing quite a few readers face to face at the IHS seminar in Chicago (July 5-11) and Capla-Con in Oakton (July 12-13). :-)


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COMMENTS (41 to date)
Publius writes:

English gradualism v. French revolution. If you have X amount of political capital, better to use it to secure greater economic freedoms than to declare your political freedoms.

The French have been our most stalwart revolutionaries yet have been easy prey for dictators. The less principled British have done much better in the same period.

In modern times, there is the China/Russia parallel. I'll stick with the gradualists...

Zapf writes:

Wars generally are pretty useless, for independence or not.

But what do you think about Gandhi's non-cooperation movement that freed India of British mis-rule?

If India had fought a war of independence maybe the society would still be recovering from the losses and emotional turmoil of either losing or winning the war.

The more you think of Gandhi the more you admire him. No?

P.S. - Yes, I know there were other movements who opposed Gandhi and wanted to follow the path of killing Brits where you could find them in India. I think that plan would have never worked.

SD writes:

When has Independence been worth the price ?

India.

Dennis Mangan writes:

If you subtract the "horrors of war" from Indian independence, it hardly looks worth it.

Renato Drumond writes:

"When has Independence been worth the price?"

Taiwan, South Korea, Ireland, Singapore.

Nick L. writes:

I'll suggest Texas - from Mexico that is?

Algeria - from France?

I'm not sure that there was an actual war, but Costa Rica declared independence from Spain in the 1800's. They seem to have done quite well, and done it in a fairly peaceful manner.

There are others, but what are your key indicators of success? Establishing a peaceful, law-abiding democracy? a stable econonomy? good international relations? Freedom of religious expression? maintaining good relationship with your former masters? and so forth..

Renato Drumond writes:

Re-reading your post, since you asked for examples of Independence obtained by armed conflict, Singapore should be excluded from my previous list.

Patrick writes:

Difficult calculus, as some people would be willing to die for the chance at freedom, while others wouldn't cross a street for the same chance.

So, in order to rank wars, we should maybe (?) count only the collateral damage, and then we have to measure the freedoms gained versus the price paid.

We probably want a quick war (or maybe a coup?) that showed enough resolve to dissuade the former owners. I vote for Norway.

As for India and the Pakistans, I say that "war for independence" was simply a massively bungled transfer of power driven primarily by London's post-war problems.

Josh Knox writes:

Moving out of my parents' house turned out pretty good. I have to pay rent and buy groceries now, but on the plus side, I can throw parties and have people over whenever I want. The tradeoff seems like it has been worthwhile.

David writes:

Yeah, I would say India, South Africa (from the '50's to the eventual repeal of apartheid in the '90's) or... I don't know, ANY of the colonialist sub sarharn African countries. Even though a lot of them find themselves in similar situations now, at least they aren't being dominated in such a demeaning way socially.

Les writes:

I believe that the American War of Independence was a brilliant success. Just look at the U.S. today versus the U.K. which lags behind us in every key measure of freedom, health and prosperity. Also Israel, which certainly gained independence by war, and is a huge success despite being located in a brutal backward neighborhood.

Also Australia, Canada and New Zealand, although they admittedly gained independence by peaceful means. However, the U.S., Australia, Canada and New Zealand all had the benefit of British gradualism and enlightened ideas.

Kurbla writes:

Independence is not about improving policy - it is about ending repression, domination, or simply unfriendly collective. Life in such collective is very frustrating, so wish for separation is justified, even if the future policy and economics in new, independent country will be significantly worse. Sure, people wouldn't accept famine causing deaths of millions as a price to end relatively non-violent domination, but some economical and cultural regression is quite acceptable.

Initially, the price nation is willing to pay for its independence - in human lives - is usually very low. If dominating nation answers by increasing violence, the price separatists are willing to pay will grow.

So, yes, it was worth in most cases.

Randy writes:

Independence has considerable value for the newly independant political class (the new owners). It has little if any value for the non-political class (the tenants). The tenants do nearly all of the bleeding during the revolution and, when it is over, find themselves still tenants on the same land with new owners.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Singapore, from Malaysia. No proper war, granted, but a little light bloodshed.

eric writes:

David: "ANY of the colonialist sub sarharn African countries"

Considering the massive amount poverty and internecine violence in sub saharan Africa post-decolonializaion, this is an intriguing preference. I bet most intellectuals and politicians would agree that as crappy as Zimbabwe is, it's preferable to going back to Rhodesia.

Peter St. Onge writes:

Josh Knox -

Was it still worth it subtracting out the armed conflict?

Ed Hanson writes:

One of the great tools of economics, is the thought experiment that begins with "if all other things remain the same." It isolates a problem. But of course, the greatest mistake many economist make is believing that "all other things remain the same." And so it is when one goes back over 200 years, assumes the first and best revolution never occurred, and is sure that with imperial Britain, the world would be the same. Just plain silly.

Mutt C writes:

Since no one else has mentioned it:

How would the behavior of parent countries change if they knew there was zero chance for a war of independence?

Not for the nicer, I imagine.

If we had fewer Wars of Independence because the parent country made more concessions to the concerns of the colony, maybe a good thing. If peace was always to be achieved by the subject people being more submissive and tolerant of abuses, I doubt that would have made a better world.

Unit writes:

The partisan war in Vichy France?

Tim Lundeen writes:

I have to disagree with your argument that the War of Independence was a mistake. The US Constitution and especially the Bill of Rights created a very different environment here vs England, and the benefits for us today are extremely large. It is hard to know how we would have done in a parallel universe where we didn't have this war or lost it, but looking at England today I would much rather live in the US (and live here in preference to any other country in the world).

Daniel Elmore writes:

I'll second Israel. Their independence from Britain and the surrounding Arab countries allowed to create a modern, prosperous, and free society. Best case scenario without independence: they live under Hashemite rule and prosper much less. Worst case scenario: they live under the Husseinis and don't prosper at all. Nor can one sensibly argue that subsequent wars disprove this. Quite the opposite. Willingness to stay the fight recurring wars only demonstrates how much they prefer their current status over other possibilities.

Scott Wood writes:

I'm surprised to see India mentioned so prominently here. I'm no expert, but I would have thought that the generations of Indian mis-rule following independence would have ruled that one out.

george writes:

so if India and sub Saharan Africa are examples, this highlights an interesting fact. No one argued at inception that a change in rule was good because of the absence of racism or such by itself, and so it must help economic growth. That it hasn't, and that people still don't regret the path, suggests that equality is more important than wealth or even mortality, though the absence of this note at the outset suggests its not a tradeoff people are willing to admit.

Snark writes:

I'm tempted to cast my vote for the chain of events that led to South American independence from Spain, notwithstanding the lacklustre economic performance of the individual countries involved (Argentina, Peru, Uruguay, etc.), both immediately following war for independence to present day. The Brazilian revolt was a relatively bloodless affair by comparison, so I suppose one could argue that conflict was worthwhile.

Quite frankly, only those who paid the highest price for independence are uniquely qualified to answer Bryan's question.

SD writes:

Seconding George's comment above.

I'd rather be free and poor than a second class citizen in my own country.

david writes:

Some one thousand nine hundred and twenty five years ago the Lord Jesus Christ shed His blood on the cross of calvary for the sins of the world that who so ever believed on Him would not perish but have everlasting life. This is the liberty we should be looking to and for.

Snorri Godhi writes:

The American war of independence was hardly a *tragic* mistake, but Bryan makes good points about the Indian wars and slavery (he could have made another good point about free trade).

More generally, there is the problem that, if the natives are able to fight a war of independence, then the oppressors are not very oppressive in the first place -- and could get more oppressive once the natives start fighting.

Nonetheless, there are at least a few wars of independence which I believe, with high confidence, were worth fighting: the Lombard League against the Holy Roman Empire; the Swiss Confederacy against Austria; Flanders against France; the Netherlands against Spain. I believe with less confidence that the Iberian Reconquista was worth it; and I don't know much about non-European history.

Then we have to look at wars to *preserve* independence: the Greco-Persian wars; Teutoburg forest; the battle of Tours/Poitiers; Alfred the Great; the defeat of the Armada; the war of the Spanish succession; the French revolutionary wars (to defend French independence); the Napoleonic wars (to defend European independence from France); WW2: all of these were worth it, and I am only scratching the surface (again, only in Europe).

Note that I did not include WW1, which I doubt was worth fighting.

Peter writes:

It seems fallacious to assume peaceful revolutions would have occurred and/or succeeded were it not for the violent ones.

R. Pointer writes:

Greece from the Ottomans.

Also, you might say that the American Revolution has had positive externalities not solely captured by the American citizenry. Think Marshall Plan, etc.

"Coercion" requires a person to act against her rational preferences, or (when consistent with their rational preferences), at a time sooner or later than she would act without coercion.

If one accepts that definition of coercion, then it seems fair to say that any conflict that results in less coercion will eventually be justified.

Ken writes:

"The more you think of Gandhi the more you admire him. No?" No, not if this is the same Gandhi that advised the Euro-jew to go quitly to the ovens and so turn the nazi heart by "sweetness and light". (to paraphrase)and other, equaly empty words on other subjects.
I rather think the Americian war of Independence was/is well worth the price paid.

johnleemk writes:

No blood was shed when Singapore gained independence. There was some talk in Malaysia of invading Singapore to prevent them from seceding, but the overwhelming sentiment (in the government at least) was to let them go.

Most Malaysians and Singaporeans view Singaporean independence as a de jure secession from the Malaysian federation, but a de facto expulsion; examine the statements of contemporary Singaporean leaders, and nearly all, to a man (including Lee Kuan Yew) say they believed Singapore's place was in Malaysia.

SheetWise writes:

The Americans declared independence -- that didn't have to result in a war. For that one, we can blame the British. Americans fighting a war for American independence was worth it.

Then along comes Lincoln, and reacts the same way the Brits did when the South declares their independence (and they did so with a lot more moral authority). That didn't have to result in war either. For that one, we can blame the North. Americans fighting a war to save the American Union was not worth it -- and it began the long path of corrupting what was a fine form of government.

Independence does have a price. I've been divorced three times, and I can assure you that there is a price. And it is worth it.

Ian writes:

The Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire: a war of independence whose memory is celebrated every year at Hanukkah.

Snorri Godhi writes:

PS: I forgot to mention the Haitian revolution, the only successful slave revolt. All slave revolts would have been worth it, if successful (and sometime even if unsuccessful).

Which raises the question: should we blame the leaders of every unsuccessful revolt for their optimism, or should we blame only the most wildly optimistic?

However, I would argue that terrorism is never successful: no examples come to mind of its clear success. In any case where terrorism might be successful, other, more efficient methods are available. Therefore, terrorism is never justifiable.

HV writes:

Independence revolutions are viewed more often as an absolute necesity to survive than an ROI calculation. Countries that are given independence, or more accurately those that willingly give their colonies independence, take the calculated approach: how expensive is it to expose our standing armies in sometimes hostile foreign lands. The US is considering pulling out of Iraq (a kind of petty colonialism) because it's too painful to Americans and too expensive for the government. The US is NOT considering pulling out of Puerto Rico or Guam because of the exact same reasons, the locals are not hostile, the price does not vastly outweigh the benefits.
But violent revolutions are very different. The revolutionaries, from Patrick Henry ("Give me liberty or give me death"), to the Zionists who founded Israel, to Nelson Mandella, to the Iraqi Shiites, revolution is the only way to assure survival.
The American revolutionaries saw each new British tax as sucking the life blood from the emerging colonies. The Zionists saw their families in Europe sent to the gas chambers, and they saw more of the same comming to Jews in Arab countries. South African blacks saw the social and economic oppression of apartheid enslaving them and then killing them. And finally, Iraqi Shiites see how waves regimes are so intent to repress them. Who wouldn't rebel?

8 writes:

If there was no American Revolution, there would be no other revolutions to speak of. The entire globe would be under the iron fist of Queen Elizabeth II.

Gregory Gargiso writes:

I am not economist or any person of note. But I take umbrage especially at the thought the American war of Independence was not worth it .
Add in the all the tragedies of the Civil war, WWI and II; independence of a few million (at the time) so that almost 300 million could proper later on. Like I said I am not an economist or a communist but those sound like good numbers to me.

Mr. Econotarian writes:

The American Revolution was a RHETORICAL victory. The Declaration of Independence and later Constitution provided an excellent blueprint for limited government and equal treatment under the law.

Where the US lives up to these rhetorical ideals, we do OK.

Gregory Gargiso writes:

This is like a bad "Star Trek" episode. The eternal question, does the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few? or vice versa?
Depending on your perspective, I think I do more than "OK" and so do alot of other people.
But we can play these games all day. What is the standard for "OK" and who sets it?
The greatest hope for the world, who cares if it was Rhetorical.

Steve Sailer writes:

Holland's long war for independence from Spain.

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