David R. Henderson  

Adam Smith on the Bipartisan Support for Attacking Syria

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Henderson at Indiana Universit... Adam Smith on the Glory of War...
With what impatience does the man of spirit and ambition, who is depressed by his situation, look round for some great opportunity to distinguish himself? No circumstances, which can afford this, appear to him undesirable. He even looks forward with satisfaction to the prospect of foreign war, or civil dissension; and, with secret transport and delight, sees through all the confusion and bloodshed which attend them, the probability of those wished-for occasions presenting themselves, in which he may draw upon himself the attention and admiration of mankind.
From Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, I.III.20

And:

Foreign war and civil faction are the two situations which afford the most splendid opportunities for the display of public spirit. The hero who serves his country successfully in foreign war gratifies the wishes of the whole nation, and is, upon that account, the object of universal gratitude and admiration. In times of civil discord, the leaders of the contending parties, though they may be admired by one half of their fellow-citizens, are commonly execrated by the other. Their characters and the merit of their respective services appear commonly more doubtful. The glory which is acquired by foreign war is, upon this account, almost always more pure and more splendid than that which can be acquired in civil faction.

From Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, VI.II.38.

Thanks to Glenn Greenwald for a rough paraphrase and to GMU Ph.D. econ student Jon Murphy, a regular commenter, for tracking down the two Adam Smith quotes.


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COMMENTS (5 to date)
Sam writes:

I haven't read the original, but it seems to me that the Smith passages you cite suggest an explicit "wag the dog" strategy. It's related to but distinct from the phenomenon that Greenwald and Carlson are noting, but I think the latter is more insidious. There's no doubt that on some level the Trump administration will welcome the Syria news as a distraction from domestic political concerns. But Greenwald's critique of the Russia narrative and the rush to war in Syria is actually somewhat different. The key point is that the military-industrial complex (I feel yuckily Marxian uttering that phrase but even if it doesn't quite fit reality, it's correct in spirit) and its allies are the ultimate force behind the war push in Syria. And they are, by and large, no lovers of Trump. But sure, they'll leverage domestic political concerns to take advantage of when best to get Executive Branch sign off.

In other words, the key question to ask isn't (just) why should we let the President distract us from scandals and get personal glory through warmongering. The key question is to ask why the Deep State *favors* this outcome, and why we put up with that.

EDIT: By the way, I'm too young to have proper perspective on the events of the time, but I believe the original 1997 Wag The Dog film -- based on a 1993 novel suggesting such tactics were behind Desert Storm -- must have been at least in part motivated by similar concerns with regard to the Clinton Administration. It's a highly trans-partisan concern.

Sam writes:

EDIT2: I don't know the history, but I am curious about the corresponding UK military interventions of Smith's era were. He would have been in his prime during the French and Indian Wars, and already a wise old man by the time of the American Revolution. I wonder if Smith saw George Washington somewhat analogously to how Dick Cheney (in his more sober moments) must have viewed Osama Bin Laden -- blowback.

Mark Bahner writes:

To me, the saddest thing in this situation is that Tucker Carlson and nearly all others don't even mention that the Constitution requires a congressional declaration of war for a president to wage war.

I think rather than Adam Smith's words in this situation, what is truly frightening is that a substantial majority of the citizens of the U.S.--not to mention members of Congress--seem to view the military as a personal instrument of presidential power.

Weir writes:

"Wholly absorbed in the production of wealth and in the peaceful struggle of competition, it no longer comprehended that ghosts from the days of Rome had watched over its cradle. But unheroic as bourgeois society is, yet it had need of heroism, of sacrifice, of terror, of civil war and of national battles to bring it into being."

This was Marx writing about France, but when I read it I think of Hamilton's ambition or Washington's spirit. Ghosts, and holdovers, entirely outdated and anachronistic in our society. But our society, as Marx says, was brought into being by these relics from an earlier age. Because we're bourgeois, Hamilton's lust for fame is alien to us, and Washington's idea of glory seems foreign, barbaric, ridiculous. What motivated them makes no sense to us. But their motives are beside the point, aren't they? People can do the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for the right reason, but there's still a real world out there, separate to anybody's motives.

Also this quote from WoN, Book 5 Chapter 3, on how the trivial amusement of hearing about military victories overseas while being completely removed from the atrocities of warfare make people more inclined to support military action:

“In great empires, the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war, but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory, from a longer continuance of the war.”

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