War and the Wealth of Nations

“During the past fifty years the wealth of the world has gone ahead by leaps and bounds, while the morality of the world has moved only at a snail’s pace.”

James A. Shearman / Library of Congress

What is the cause of the terrible calamities which are now falling on the civilized world? Surely it lies in the fact that the economic development of mankind has outstripped the moral development. The nations of the world have grown richer without becoming wiser and juster in a corresponding degree. We all know that the possession of great riches is a dangerous thing—dangerous for the possessor and dangerous for his neighbors. We all know what the dangers are; we know further that they can be averted only if the moral development of the man’s character keeps pace with the economic development of his wealth. I suppose that few of us would object to a man’s increasing his possessions tenfold, provided that his sense of justice and his wisdom were increased to correspond. But if his wisdom and sense of justice lagged behind, while his fortune went ahead, we should be justly alarmed for the consequences both to the man and to his neighbors. This holds good of nations as well as of individuals. And the fact is that during the past fifty years the wealth of the world has gone ahead by leaps and bounds, while the morality of the world has moved only at a snail’s pace.

Indeed, there are pessimists who maintain that morality has not improved, but rather deteriorated. That I do not believe; at all events it is a disputable proposition. It may be true of certain countries, — I believe it is true of Germany, — but it is not true of the civilized world taken as a whole. At the same time it is indisputable that morality, by which I mean justice and wisdom, has not advanced, anywhere, in the degree that is needed to deal justly and wisely with the enormous accession of riches which has suddenly fallen to the lot of the human race. Material prosperity has taken the world unawares; morally the nations were unprepared for it; some of them made ready for war, but none of them made ready for the greater dangers of peace. The nations have acquired all this wealth, but in the deepest sense they don’t know what to do with it; they don’t know how it ought to be handled; they don’t know how to make it a blessing, or even how to prevent it from being a curse. This disparity between the moral and the economic development is the prime cause of our present trouble.

As things now are, — wealth advancing by leaps and bounds, justice and wisdom advancing at a snail’s pace, — rich nations are bound to be quarrelsome nations. They will be quarrelsome in various ways, — in the first place, internally. Within the nation itself there will be class-war, the struggle between the poor and the rich, which may and probably would break out into armed civil strife unless the contending parties were restrained by their common fear of foreign aggression. These internal quarrels—at least the fiercest of them—are centred on the question of wealth, and they are most bitter in those countries where there is most wealth to be divided and quarreled about. And the reasons for this are quite obvious. Wherever classes or individuals distrust one another, they will find means to pick a quarrel. Mutual distrust always follows from the presence of ill-digested wealth in a community. The rich suspect the poor of having designs on their property. The poor suspect the rich of trying to oppress them and take advantage of them. Whether these suspicions are well founded or not does not matter. They exist; neither party has confidence in the good faith of the other; and quarrels are bound to break out the moment a pretext is forthcoming.

Before the present war began all the wealthy nations of Europe were seething with this sort of strife. It was bitter in every one of them; but it was even more bitter in the United States, a country which is probably more wealthy than any other, and at the same time less exposed to the danger of foreign attack.

But while the internal quarrels are serious, more serious still are the external quarrels which are produced by the ill-digested wealth of nations. And here I will call your attention to a simple, obvious, and unquestionable fact. The present world-war is, in the main, a war between rich nations. It is not a war between nations who are fighting, like staring dogs, for the bare means of subsistence. With the exception of Serbia and Montenegro, who of course are not the principals, each of the belligerent powers possesses vast territories and vast accumulations of wealth. Judged by any reasonable standard of human satisfaction, each has within itself not only enough, but far more than enough, to provide for the wants of its inhabitants. If any of these countries cannot produce for itself all that its population requires, it is at all events rich enough to buy from those who can. Every one of them is enormously rich. Unless they were, they could not wage war on its present scale.

I am going to suggest that the enormous wealth of these nations has something to do with the fact that they are at war and a great deal to do with their being at war on the present stupendous scale. We all know that this war has been brought about by a complicated tangle of cause. From among the tangle I shall pick out this one, and ask you to concentrate attention upon it.

My contention is that vast accumulations of national wealth, so far from inclining nations to live at peace with one another, have, in the present backward state of international morality, precisely the opposite effect. The possession of great riches acts upon nations in the same way that we sometimes see it act upon individuals. Instead of making them contented with what they have, it makes them covetous to get more. It gives rise to ambitions which have no limit and suffer no restraint. It provokes jealousy and arouses predatory instincts. A rich but vulgar-minded man, living in the society of men who are richer than himself, is apt to be jealous on that account. The fact that they have more than he has makes him determined to get more himself, possibly at their expense. So among nations. They may all be rich together, but if some are richer than others, then those that are less rich are apt to look with envy on those that are more rich; those that are less rich are apt to look with envy on those that are more rich; those that are more rich on the other hand will suspect that the less rich have designs on their possessions; and so will arise an atmosphere of hatred, envy, and suspicion which sooner or later is bound to issue in strife.

These, I submit, are very simple and obvious truths. Just because they are so simple and obvious I am afraid that they are often overlooked.

But here I must guard myself from being misunderstood. It is not true that all the industrial nations of the world have been equally corrupted by their wealth. None has escaped corruption altogether; but in some the evil is much less than in others. It is not true that every nation is jealous of its neighbors or eager to raid their possessions; and those that are jealous are not all jealous to the same degree. Most of them, if the peoples are distinct from the governments could speak, are peaceably inclined. Some of them wish nothing better than to be left in peace to pursue their own economic development, leaving the rest to do the same. But to produce the state from which war arises it is not necessary that every nation should envy every other. It is quite enough if there be one black sheep in the flock. The presence of one nation whose wealth has so operated on the national character as to make it envious of others and greedy for more will be enough to upset the peace of the world. The action of that one nation, and its known character, will breed a general sense of insecurity in the rest, will cause them to be on their guard and put them in the attitude which is ready to strike. And that attitude when it becomes general will give rise to new suspicions, to new competitions in armaments, and to all those dangerous suggestions of war which the mere existence of armaments never fails to produce.

This, as we all know to our cost, is precisely what has occurred. And my point is that precisely this was bound to occur, and is likely to occur again in a state of society whose moral development is so far behind its economic development as our own is at the present day. The wealth of nations, operating upon a backward morality, becomes a bone of contention, instead of being, as the thinkers of a past generation hoped it would be, the basis of peace. It provokes the cupidity, the envy, the boundless ambition of which war is the necessary sequel. It need not and does not provoke these passions everywhere; but it is certain to provoke them somewhere; and that is enough to upset the peaceable equilibrium of the world. Consider how this enormous accumulation of national wealth has come into existence. It is partly the result of the conquest by the more powerful races of the backward territories of the earth. But in the main it is the result of industry carried on by enormous populations and aided by the discoveries of physical science. Now what has industry to do with war?

Industry appears at first sight to be a force opposed to war. Communities which are engaged in producing wealth look upon war as a fatal interruption of their work, and as a disastrous destruction of the fruit of their labors. Moreover, the nations which are engaged in commerce lose the aptitudes which make them efficient in war, and they acquire other aptitudes which make them inefficient. The desire for military glory is displaced by the desire for economic success and for the satisfactions it brings in its train. And in addition to all this, trade between nations tends to break down the barriers of race and geography; and sets up a network of international interests which act in favor of peace. All this is obvious and familiar.

Unfortunately this is not the end of the story. While it remains true that the actual process of producing wealth is one which works in favor of peace, it is none the less true that the wealth when it is produced becomes a cause acting in favor of war. The peaceful tendencies of the process of industry are undone by effects which the material fruits of industry produce on an imperfectly developed type of human character. These effects are such that bitter strife is the almost inevitable consequence.

Here we come to what seems to me the great defect in Herbert Spencer’s treatment of this question. Spencer thought that industry was going to drive war out of the world. His reasons for so thinking were simple. In the first place he saw that industry had those peaceful tendencies which I have already mentioned. But over and above this, he pointed out that nations devoted to industry would find themselves forced to abandon the kind of social organization which is essential to war. What military requires is centralization, — that is, a state of society which places all the individual citizens under the immediate command of the state, so that the whole community may be ready to act together, at a moment’s notice, against the common foe. And this centralization, which as you know is the characteristic of the Prussian system, while necessary to nations which live by war, Spencer regarded as fatal to nations which live by trade. What trade requires before all else is just that freedom for individual initiative which the citizen must surrender under the state of war. Just as war, to be successful, demands centralization, so industry, to be successful, demands decentralization. Thus the end of war would come about by a natural process of evolution. Industrial communities would gradually find out that the centralized system was opposed to their interests as wealth-producers; that system would gradually be eaten into and destroyed, until at last these industrial communities, which had lost the taste for war in the meantime, would find themselves so decentralized that the carrying on of war would be in any event impossible.

Thus in the end wars would cease automatically. And all this, it will be observed, is to be brought about by the natural development of industrialism—the wealth-making, as opposed to the war-making, instinct of mankind. Industrialism therefore is the great enemy of militarism; the two are engaged in a struggle for mastery; and the end of the struggle will be the triumph of industrialism and the downfall of militarism. Spencer’s own words are these: ‘A long peace is likely to be accompanied by so vast an increase of manufacturing and commercial activity, with accompanying growth of appropriate political structures within each nation [he means decentralized institutions], and strengthening of those ties between nations which mutual dependence generates, that hostilities will be more and more resisted, and the organization adapted for the carrying of them on will decay.’

In Spencer’s opinion, then, a long peace (he does not tell us how long) is all that industrial communities need to cripple the machinery of war, and to deaden the desire for it, so that further conflicts will become impossible.

Now all this appears to be excellent reasoning, and incontrovertible so far as it goes. But unfortunately it stops short at the point where some tremendous forces come into operation of which Spencer takes no account. It describes with almost perfect truth the effect which the process of wealth-making has on the habits or characters of industrial nations. But it says nothing of the effects which come from the wealth itself after it has been produced. How the process of producing wealth acts on the character of nations, is one question, and this Spencer deals with; how the wealth when produced reacts on the nations which have produced it, is another question, and this Spencer leaves out of the account. It is as though you were studying the character of a man engaged in making his fortune by trade. You might conclude that the man, in order to succeed in business, must avoid quarrelsome habits, must consider his employees and customers, must conciliate the good opinion of other people, must learn to live and let live and maintain a generally pacific attitude to his fellow men, and so on. I suppose that Dr. Johnson was thinking of all this when he said to Boswell, ‘Sir, a man is seldom so innocently employed as when he is engaged in making money.’

But it is obvious that we must not stop here. We must ask further, ‘What will be the effects on the man of his money after he has made it?’ The process of earning ten thousand dollars, by industry, may conceivable be a very wholesome discipline. But the possession of the fortune, when earned, may have consequences of a very different order. It may fill the man with pride and ostentation; it may turn him into an offensive snob; it may give him a swelled head. It may have a yet more disastrous effect. Instead of leaving him contented with what he has got, it may only provoke his desire to get more.

Or a worse thing still may happen. His wealth, instead of making him feel comfortable and at ease, may fill him with constant dread lest it be lost or stolen. He may fall into a habit of suspecting that everybody has designs on his fortune, and all those good conciliatory habits which he acquired while earning his money will be replaced by bad suspicious habits, leading him to keep a loaded revolver under his pillow and a fierce dog at his garden gate.

All this applies closely to the question of militarism and industrialism, and especially to Spencer’s treatment of it. Spencer leaves us at the point where the biggest question still remains to be asked. Admitting the truth of all he says about industrialism as a peace-making process among nations, we have still to inquire into the after-effects on the nations of that which industry produces. Industry produces vast accumulations of material wealth. It has made the nations of the West rich in a degree which staggers the imagination. What is the effect of those riches? Does their possession make the nations pacific in their relations with one another? Does it tend to the elimination of jealousy? Does it produce a sense of security and mutual trust among the peoples of Europe? Does it lead us to abandon our armaments? Does it involve the downfall of that centralized system of government which is needed for the carrying on of war? And if by chance war breaks out, does it shorten the period of conflict, and tend to keep the area within narrow limits, and render the conduct of operations less bloody, less cruel? Does it mitigate the passions of hatred or the desire for revenge? Alas, we know that it does none of these things.

In all our studies of industrialism, and of its relation to the question of war and peace, let us bear in mind the distinction I have drawn between the social effect of that which industry produces—national wealth. The distinction appears to me vital. While admitting, with certain reservations, that the industrial process is on the whole pacific, we may yet find that the fruit of the process is the prime cause of war. It may be true, as Spencer teaches, that the effect of industry considered as a process is to break down the system of centralized and coercive government. But when the need arises, as it does arise, of guarding the fruits of industry against the predatory designs of other nations, or when the fear exists, as it does exist, that such designs are in preparation, then it is that these industrial communities are driven, in spite of their own interests, to revert to the military type of organization, thereby losing to militarism all that they have gained by industrialism. Thus industrialism, instead of destroying militarism, may lead to its establishment on a firmer basis than ever.

As the world is now constituted, and as ‘prosperity’ is now understood, it may be said without reservation that in proportion as a nation grows rich by industry, it becomes an object of apprehension to itself and of jealousy to its neighbors. That riches bring no content is a moral platitude when applied to individuals. But our greatest thinkers have sometimes forgotten that the same holds good of nations. In times of peace the richest nations, as we have seen, are apt to be the most discontented. Prior to the outbreak of the present conflict the industrial nations were being strained to the breaking point by suppressed civil war. They were never further from satisfaction. The rich were fighting to become richer; the poor were fighting to become less poor.

And if this were true of the classes within the nations, it was equally true of the nations as wholes. All of them were apprehensive in regard to what they possessed already, and some of them, at all events, covetous of possessing more. Every one of the great powers was guarding its hoard and building up armaments, either to protect its own possessions, or to raid those of its neighbors. The warlike preparations were in proportion to the wealth at stake. I do not think there was ever so much fear in the world as there was during the ten years which preceded the war. And it was the kind of fear which is born of the possession of great riches, — the dread lest what you have should be taken away or diminished, the knowledge that others are jealous, the feverish haste to pile up wealth so as to provide a margin for future losses. The attitude of the great powers constantly reminded one of the miser who lies awake at night suspecting that every sound is the footfall of an approaching thief. It was a poor sort of ‘prosperity.’

We delude ourselves in thinking of national wealth as though it were necessarily enjoyed by the nations which possess it. As things now are, the sense of its precariousness spoils the enjoyment. And the day comes at last when all the wealth which industrialism has been piling up for generations has to be handed over to militarism to provide the means of mutual destruction, the extent of the destruction being measured by the amount of industrial wealth forthcoming for the purpose.

In view of the facts, therefore, I think we shall not be wise in looking any longer to industrialism as the force which is to antagonize war.

But I must add that in speaking of industrialism, I am thinking of it as it is now understood and carried on. That is to say, I am thinking of that kind of industry whose sole object is the production of material wealth—broadly speaking, the industry of the modern world. The last fruit of that kind is not peace, but war, — war produced by the passions to which the possession of mere material wealth inevitably gives rise.

But there is another kind of industry whose final object is not material wealth but the joy of the worker. There is a kind of industry which is its own reward. It was that kind that built the Cathedral of Rheims—the kind that creates beautiful things. There is precious little of it in the world at present. But I am hoping—I cannot say I am as yet convinced—that the present war, by demonstrating the utter futility of the kind of industrialism so long in vogue, will give that other and better kind a chance and an opportunity such as it has not had for three hundred years. It seems to me as if the age of mechanism, the age in which we have lived so long, the age which the future will look back upon as one of the dreariest and saddest in the history of the world, were being burned out and destroyed. If this conflagration does not destroy it, then there must be another. For till it is gone there will be no rest, no peace, for man.

My general conclusion is, therefore, that we shall never get rid of war until we get rid of that type of civilization which directs the energies of nations to the production of mere material wealth. In other words militarism will not go till we get a reformed industrialism. So long as nations are engaged in piling up national fortunes, they are creating the forces that make for war.

The question remains whether the wealth of nations would lose its strife-producing qualities if it were more justly distributed among the members of each community. Suppose some system were introduced which gave to every citizen a fair share of the national wealth. Would that lead to universal peace?

Before that question can be answered, we must understand the meaning of our terms. What do we mean by ‘a fair share’? Do we mean a share which is considered fair by the man who gets it? Or do we mean one which is considered fair by some tribunal, or authority, appointed to settle the matter, but which possibly the man himself may regard as unfair? This, of course, would not remove the cause of strife. To do that you must not merely insure to the citizen his just share of the world’s goods, but you must get him to recognize it as just. Otherwise discontent will remain, and however free the community may be from foreign war, the danger of civil war will always be present.

But the danger would not be over even if we were to introduce a scheme of distribution which everybody recognized as just. We should still have to deal with cupidity and covetousness. Everybody might feel that he was getting as much of this world’s goods as he was entitled to; and yet his desire to get a great deal more might be unabated. ‘This,’ he might say, ‘is all I can fairly claim; but it is not enough to satisfy me.’ There would still be room for avarice and for the play of the predatory instincts. There is nothing in the recognized fairness of the distribution to prevent an astute and covetous individual from practicing on those who are less astute and covetous than himself. Which is only another way of saying that peace is not yet assured.

Furthermore, we have to consider the question in its international aspects. Two states existing side by side might have solved their economic problems to the perfect satisfaction of their respective citizens. Each of those states might possess enormous funds of justly distributed wealth. But though the citizens of each might be perfectly contented when they looked within their own borders, yet they might be profoundly envious when they looked across the frontier. These rich nations would not be prevented from hating, envying, and fighting one another by the mere fact that each regarded its domestic arrangements as satisfactory. So that, unless the problem is solved on an international basis, it is not solved at all.

All of which drives me back to my original conclusion. So long as the world is committed to that kind of industrialism which seeks satisfaction in the possession of material wealth, and devotes its main energies to the creation of that wealth, I see no prospect of peace. The root of strife will remain uncut, and militarism will continue to feed itself on the fruits of industry. There will, no doubt, be long intervals of peace, during which industry will pile up its fruits; but only to find that it has been providing the commissariat for future wars. I place my hope in the gradual opening up to man of other satisfactions than those which attend the possession of material wealth. Difficult as this may seem of realization, I cannot but believe that the present war will leave our material industrialism so shattered and discredited, that men and nations will be willing to entertain other objects of endeavor than the mere creation of material wealth. At least they will be more willing than they have been hitherto.