Friday, March 21, 2008

Adam Smith on Distant Wars

Davissondave writes (20 March) in the Blog: Alien Intelligencer (‘there is no other’) (here) writes ‘An Amusing War’ and quotes

“Glenn Greenwald offers up (here): this still timely observation by Adam Smith -

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.’

It’s a shame more folks don’t read Smith, especially since his name is taken in vain for so many wrong-headed ideas. Smith also supports government intervention to aid the poor, free public education, minimum wage laws, and abundant taxes on luxury items. If free market libertarians actually read Smith they would be appalled at his liberal, interventionist rhetoric.”

I am pleased to see a correct assessment of Adam Smith’s views for once. The actual quotation is from Wealth Of Nations, Chapter III, ‘Of Public Debts’ (WN V.iii.37: p 920). It remains essentially plausible today, particularly with the instant 24/7 news cycle we have and the vivid images of conflicts in progress on tv (at least until the bad news arrives).

In Adam Smith’s day, news took weeks to arrive back home (from India it took months; from the American colonies and Canada, weeks). Adam Smith also had a remedy for the public’s role in undertaking ‘revenge’ wars:

Were the expence of war to be defrayed always by a revenue raised within the year, the taxes from which that extraordinary revenue was drawn would last no longer than the war. The ability of private people to accumulate, though less during the war, would have been greater during the peace than under the system of funding. War would not necessarily have occasioned the destruction of any old capitals, and peace would have occasioned the accumulation of many more new. Wars would in general be more speedily concluded, and less wantonly undertaken. The people feeling, during the continuance of the war, the complete burden of it, would soon grow weary of it, and government, in order to humour them, would not be under the necessity of carrying it on longer than it was necessary to do so. The foresight of the heavy and unavoidable burdens of war would hinder the people from wantonly calling for it when there was no real or solid interest to fight for.” (WN V.iii.50: p 926)


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