Arnold Kling  

The Great War

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John Quiggin writes,


The names of Asquith, Bethmann-Hollweg, Berchtold and Poincare are barely remembered, yet on any reasonable accounting they belong among the great criminals of history. Not only did they create the conditions for war, and rush (eagerly in most cases) into it, they carried on even as the death toll mounted into the hundreds of thousands and beyond. Even as the original grounds for war became utterly irrelevant, they continued to intrigue for trivial postwar benefits, carving up imagined conquests among themselves. Eventually, most were displaced by leaders who were marginally less mediocre, and more determined to win at all costs (Lloyd George, Clemenceau, Ludendorff, Hindenburg and others).

Thanks to Will Wilkinson for the pointer.

The first World War is one of the topics in history that interests me the most. I really think that if more people focused on leadership during that war, the concerns over "market failure" and the faith in political leadership would decline. I challenge anyone to come up with a group of business villains who caused as much death and suffering as the "legitimate" political leaders of 1914.

My proposal for Veterans' Day observances is that they should include a re-telling of the history of World War I along the lines of the Passover re-telling of the Exodus. My goal would be to help innoculate people from believing in the wisdom of the ruling class.


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Mike Moffatt writes:

"The first World War is one of the topics in history that interests me the most."

Me too. And although we're on different points of the political spectrum, I'm with you on this one. There's nothing that will turn someone into a libertarian faster than studying World War I.

Lord writes:

There is always the question of what the alternative would have been and whether that would have been worse. It may have been for those elites, if destruction turned inward rather than out.

david writes:

I venture that re-telling the horrors of World War One would merely further support for a stronger UN or similar international body. A decline in petty nationalism would be replaced by a desire for internationalism or by a desire for universally weaker governments across the board, guess which one is more likely?

The major state to leave the World War One battlefield was of course Russia under Communist revolution, so it's certainly not instinctively obvious to walk away with a Market Solves Everything solution. I'm sure Kling has a sophisticated argument in mind, but a mere retelling is unlikely to suggest such an argument.

Likewise, war resistors and pacifists during WWI were overwhelmingly drawn from the left and extreme left, not the right.

As far as the US is concerned, libertarian and free-market claims to be anti-war and pro-civil-rights have very little popular credibility because when the chips are down prominent libertarians then decide otherwise. The view that there is a military-industrial complex that needs to be dismantled by a heroic politician has much sympathy; the view that selfish myopic leaders provoke war over the heroic protests of the private sector, not so much. Right or wrong I think this a fair assessment of the popular view.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Hmmm - I don't know about the market failure tie in. I don't think many people who think market failure is significant do so out of any great faith in the state. This is just a caricature that always seems to get tossed around in some circles.

The point is there are very obvious and problematic "government failures" and there are less obvious, but still problematic "market failures", and individuals need to make decisions keeping both of those in mind. Nobody is saying "the market is God-awful, trust the state".


Besides, I'm not sure the destruction of WWI is even relevant anyway. I enjoy reading about the period too (WWI and the interwar period, along with the American Revolution, are my two primary reading intersts), but when people want the state to do something in response to a market failure, they're not advocating a world war as a solution to market failure. It's apples and oranges - an unnecessary use of a terrible war to smear the people that do think there's a legitimate role for the state in society.

John Fast writes:

I recommend Blackadder Goes Forth, particularly the final episode, "Goodbyeee."

"I am sure it was better than my plan to get out of this by pretending to be mad. After all, who would have noticed another madman around here?"

[Comment edited for incorrect html link coding.--Econlib Ed.]

JPIrving writes:

I think Prof Kling has a great point. Imagine if Germany, Russia, and Austria-Hungary were (classical) liberal democracies like the United States approximated at the time. So they have strong rule of law, with many boxes to check before initiating war, instead of the arbitrary decision of their leaders. I don't see the war happening under those circumstances. I'm not sure about the systems in UK or France, but I suspect they were more centered around a strong executive. Right?

So I think the point is that if we put our trust in the decentralized forces of the market (weak national government with a weak executive, strong property rights and clear legal codes), at most we might pay "too much" for Windows 98. Sure beats Paschendale.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

JPIrving -
Well I'd be willing to stipulate that a liberal democracy with constitutionally circumscribed powers and a decentralized federal system will limit war... but that's not exactly a libertarian wonderland that ignores market failures (obviously it's not, because I like the sound of it and I'm hardly a libertarian). If it's liberal democracy that we're talking about, sure - I could agree that that model would be a lot less bloody.

Your post is a perfect example of what I'm talking about - that these two things are apples and oranges. Capricious leaders with too much power caused the war, not inattention to a libertarian ideal.

Steve Sailer writes:

Poincare?

France was invaded by the most powerful army yet assembled in history. How's World War I his fault?

SydB writes:

"I challenge anyone to come up with a group of business villains who caused as much death and suffering as the "legitimate" political leaders of 1914."

I don't have the specific numbers, but I'm pretty sure the African Slave trade resulted in the deaths of at least a million innocent people--and certainly the displacement of multiple millions.

Those were business leaders who were responsible, correct? No doubt many of our finest institutions were funded by those who made a living in such free market trade.

Dr. T writes:

"My proposal for Veterans' Day observances is that they should include a re-telling of the history of World War I..."

We had little involvement in WWI. I nominate our Civil War as a story that should be told and retold. It was our own war. It was our bloodiest war. And, it was an avoidable war.

RL writes:

Most all wars, Dr. T., are avoidable in retrospect. That is all the more the tragedy...

Eric H writes:

Daniel Kuehn--

"Capricious leaders with too much power caused the war, not inattention to a libertarian ideal."

Actually,

"Capricious leaders with too much power" = "inattention to a libertarian ideal"

SydB writes:

"My goal would be to help innoculate [sic] people from believing in the wisdom of the ruling class."

If I'm not mistaken, the public were quite excited about war in WWI (as well as the American Civil War before it). And lest people forget, the author of this post, Mr Kling, argued strongly in support of both the US adventure in Iraq and--more recently--in support of bombing Iran.

I think a good lesson is learned by watching The Fog of War, a documentary/interview with Robert McNamara, in which he strongly argues that war is almost never a good solution to a problem. I think that currently holds for both Iraq and Iran.

Daniil Gorbatenko writes:

2danielkuehn,

I think you a bit misinterpret what Arnold was saying.

What he meant was not that the abandonment of laissez faire in the late 19th century caused WWI, although I believe that was exactly the case.

Arnold was largely warning against the belief in wisdom and good will of politicians. Such outrageous examples of poor judgment and power lust as WWI and countless others far outweigh any market failure concerns and speak well for drastic reductions in the power of politicians.

In particular, because the decisions of politicians are by default forced down the throats of all of us, including those who never voted for those politicians.

If you add to this Hayek's demonstration of the inability of any human being(s) to understand, not to mention macro- or micromanage, complex social orders, the case for laiisez faire becomes compelling.

Greego writes:

How can a market 'fail'? A market doesn't have any goals, it's an emergent order based around legal institutions. Only people can fail - businessman can fail to achieve their goals and so can government agents (including those that design and enforce said institutions.)

People who use the term 'market failure' are being inaccurate at best, and intellectually dishonest at worst.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

I am fascinated with WW1 - love Keegan's book, and I have endless books on the naval race - and am generally sympathetic to Dr Kling's argument.

But WW1 is a war that defies any left/right political analysis. International trade was at an even greater percentage than today, there was a tremendous enthusiasm and expectation of being able to solve all the world's problems, governments (especially the UK's) were far more small-govt-classical-liberal than today's, and yet the war itself was popular among all the participants (at first).

Still, Arnold's point is well-taken: this was above all a politicians' (as compared to a political) war.

OneEyedMan writes:

Where could you go for such a succinct retelling?

scott clark writes:

OneEyedMan,

The following link is not a succinct retelling of the origins of the Great War or the continuing series of terrible decisions during the war, but it is a lecture by John Denson about the negotiations around the end of the war and from the terrible decisions made during that time you can get a sense of the sheer lunacy that must have been so pervasive at the time. John Denson has edited two volumes you may want to look into, The Costs of War: America's Pyrrhic Victories and The Century of War, both available at mises.org.

Here is his lecture, "Six Months that Changed the World".
http://mises.org/media/1475

George J. Georganas writes:

I recommend reading the memoirs of all those "great criminals" plus the surviving documents from that time. True fans of the history of that period should know that the protagonists were in almost all cases carried forward into incredible blunders by the force of public opinion. Arnold Toynbee writing about Bertrand Russel mentions the "herd of Gadarene swine". In almost all cases, leaders knew inside them that they were doing the wrong thing. This explains their lousy implementation.
By the way, the US did fine out of WW1. Europeans massacred themselves so thoroughly, that they managed to get dictated to by an outsider to the conflict. A striking parallel is the Peloponesian War and the Antalcidean peace ...

Current writes:

Jeremy: "But WW1 is a war that defies any left/right political analysis. International trade was at an even greater percentage than today, there was a tremendous enthusiasm and expectation of being able to solve all the world's problems, governments (especially the UK's) were far more small-govt-classical-liberal than today's, and yet the war itself was popular among all the participants (at first)."

This is one of the really troubling things about it.

Classical Liberalism was very successful in the 19th century and as a result popular. This increased the faith that people had in government.

It wasn't that government wasn't cynical and corrupt. It was, but because it was smaller that was less noticeable to the ordinary man.

This is something we really have to watch in the future.

Tom West writes:

Greego:
People who use the term 'market failure' are being inaccurate at best, and intellectually dishonest at worst.

If your hammer breaks when you need it then you might easily call it a 'hammer failure'. But you have a good point - the market is simply a tool to be used when it provides the outcome we desire and discarded when it does not.

One certainly does not value the tool except as it provides the desired benefit to the user.

Tom West writes:

Has anyone seen any plausible counter-factual in which England, France, and America don't declare war for anything other than a direct invasion of their own soil?

I'm curious what historians/authors think might have been the alternate outcomes.

Thomas Sewell writes:

"... the African Slave trade resulted in the deaths of at least a million innocent people ..."

"Those were business leaders who were responsible, correct?"

Sounds like you are blaming the people who purchased the slaves, not the people who enslaved them in the first place. I'd think those people (typically local African government leaders at the time) would be at least as much if not more to blame. African slavery and abuses went on long before westerners started buying the slaves and continues well after they stopped buying them.

SydB writes:

The African slave trade had a long history--as did slavery outside of Africa (take a look at eastern european slavery in the past, for example).

That's neither here nor there. Many early Americans--including my wife's ancestors--made a healthy living bringing bodies across the ocean. Millions of them. Many of our early institutions were funded with slave profits.

Mr Kling asked for examples in which millions were negatively impacted. African slaver is an example.

R. Richard Schweitzer writes:

Well, so far as the attitudes toward industrialists, there was the "backlash"
on Merchants of Death back when I was 10 in 1934, and began then to read about the Great War whilst in the rural midwest in the summer.

So, yes there have been deprecations of "business" tied to that war.

one of the best recent treatments of the human factors of those times has been done by Nial Ferguson with his "contrafactual" (what if) approach to the study.

al writes:

The Brits/French/Russians had been fomenting war
on Germany for twenty years. This truth came out
because Lenin made the Czar's archives public.
The German diplomatic corp used that material to
write and publish: Isvolsky and the world war.

The reality is that the war was forced on Germany
when the Russians declared full military mobilization. This has been known for decades

The scary part is that this is not taught in public
schools. Some editions of Britannica tell the lie
that the war began when the Germans violated
Belgian neutrality.

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