Recently at FreedomFest, Angela Keaton debated Ian Morrison affirming the resolution “War is good for absolutely nothing”. Of course, this resolution was chosen to ensure Morrison’s victory. Keaton must prove that 100% of wars are 100% evil 100% of the time while Morrison must only persuade a listener that any of these numbers could be 99.99… Despite this technical obstacle, Keaton defended her position well, but she didn’t directly rebut Keaton’s principal thesis, so I’ll rebut it here.
According to Morris, the rate of violent death is decreasing among humanity, and we have a Leviathan state to thank for it. Human beings are instinctively violent, and the growing Leviathan increasingly suppresses the violent instincts of its subjects. War is the price we pay for this suppression. Morris cites Hobbes, but Steven Pinker more recently makes a similar point in The Better Angels of our Nature.
Taking the historical trend for granted, we can all agree with Morris that the declining rate of violent death is cause for celebration, but by attributing the decline to statecraft, Morris confuses correlation with causation. Historical evidence supports the opposite relationship as well. Leviathan does not increasingly suppress violence among its subjects. Instead, people decreasingly inclined toward violence suppress the people more inclined toward violence, and the latter people constitute states. Leviathan is not the cause of declining violence. A decreasingly violent Leviathan is rather an effect of increasing resistance to violence among Leviathan’s subjects.
Morris essentially recognizes this relationship late in the debate when he attributes a change in attitudes of statesmen, away from conquest for the sake of conquest, to the influence of classical liberals, like Adam Smith, recognizing that state constituents have more to gain by encouraging an interdependent network of trading partners than by conquering other states to loot them.
Who’s Zoomin’ Who?
According to Ian Morris, the world plays by Leviathan’s rules. Without Leviathan to tame us, we’d descend into a Hobbsean war of all against all. Might he have this relationship reversed? Does Leviathan tame us, or do we tame Leviathan? Is violence decreasing because warriors restrain the violent impulses of common humanity or because common humanity restrains the violent impulses of warriors? When the Pope lectures the U.S. Congress on selling deadly weapons to terrorists, within states and without, is Leviathan constraining the people or the other way around
Libertarians often argue that statecraft attracts and selectively promotes sociopathy. Systematic denial of the harms of intervention is a necessity in politics, a game in which the players routinely decide to impose violent solutions in the absence of information sufficient to weigh the costs against the benefits, because this information is necessarily unavailable to them. An ideological preference for violent solutions, or an instinctive propensity toward them, is a prerequisite for statecraft.
The state is the monopoly of legitimate violence definitively. It concentrates violent impulses and imposes them systematically. Morrison argues that it does so only to restrain violent impulses distributed more widely, but does it? How many statutes restrain violence, rather than restraining non-violent interaction violently? How many states effectively exempt their own constituents from the former? How much violence allegedly constrained by the state is also a reaction to it?