The Real Meaning of 9/11

first began blogging on the first anniversary of 9/11, and over the succeeding years I’ve blogged a fair bit about 9/11 – how it shows both the power and the impotence of the state; how it feeds the Higgs cycle of ratcheting intervention; how the pre-9/11 mindset is the only realistic one; how it illustrates Aristotle’s superiority to both Seneca and D. H. Lawrence; and how both the 9/11 conspiracy theorists and their critics are confused.

On this latest anniversary I want to talk about how the state breeds war – both in the sense of provoking attacks like 9/11, and in the sense of generating its own misguided responses, like the Iraq war.

Governments engage in war so frequently that people forget to be puzzled at the phenomenon. Yet, given reputation effects, the choice of violence over cooperation tends to be a costly one, as even so pessimistic a thinker as Hobbes acknowledges:

He therefore that breaketh his covenant, and consequently declareth that he thinks he may with reason do so, cannot be received into any society, that unite themselves for peace and defence, but by the error of them that receive him; nor when he is received, be retained in it, without seeing the danger of their error; which errors a man cannot reasonably reckon upon as the means of his security: and therefore if he be left, or cast out of society, he perisheth; and if he live in society, it is by the errors of other men, which he could not foresee, nor reckon upon; and consequently against the reason of his preservation; and so, as all men that contribute not to his destruction, forbear him only out of ignorance of what is good for themselves.

If cooperation tends to be a stable equilibrium, why is interstate conflict so frequent? The answer, I suggest, is that the nature of the state ordinarily allows it to reap the benefits of warfare while socialising the costs. Since the state acquires its war revenues by compulsion (via taxation), and its soldiers too (via indentured-servitude contracts at best and conscription at worst), while the electoral means for providing negative feedback are too occasional and indiscriminate to be terribly effective, the state is able to shift the costs of war onto its own populace. (Thus Bentham well described war as a crime “committed by the ruling few in the conquering nation, on the subject many in both nations.”)

Wars are expensive, both in blood and in treasure; if the taxpayers who provide the treasure were free to choose which governmental functions to fund (as the customers of other service providers are, and as taxpayers have been in stateless or semi-stateless societies) – and if the soldiers who provide the blood had the same freedom to quit their jobs as other employees do – such socialisation of costs would be much harder to pull off; but as things stand, those who bears the costs have no right of exit.

The benefits of war to the state, on the other hand, are usually enormous, even if it doesn’t win (so long as it is not actually conquered), inasmuch as wars and other national emergencies give it an excuse to expand its powers – expansions that, ratchet-like, rarely fall back to their original levels after the crisis has passed. Not for nothing did Randolph Bourne declare war “the health of the state.” Moreover, given its access to the means of education and propaganda, the state can convince its populace that they too benefit from the war; witness the widespread belief in the U.S. that World War II helped the economy, despite all evidence to the contrary.

This isn’t to say that nonstate actors never choose violent conflict; of course they do. Particularly in societies with “macho” mores, cultural factors that push toward violence can often prevail against the economic incentives that push toward peace. In stateless and semi-stateless societies, however, at least the economic incentives push away from war (whether they prevail or not), rather than toward it as they do under states; and in time such incentives can actually overcome the macho mores. As evidence, consider medieval Iceland and pre-Norman England, societies that began in cultural conditions that one might expect to be maximally uncongenial to peace, given the strong social support for a code of honour that included the obligation to participate in bloodfeud; yet the institution of composition or wergild (requiring the payment of hefty compensation to the victim’s family) succeeded in undermining those mores, as the high monetary cost of restitution deterred homicide, while the tempting financial bonanza of accepting the restitution rather than pursuing vendetta gradually wore away the honour-based incentives that had sustained the bloodfeud. More recently, (PDF) Somalia during its stateless period has achieved a lower level of violence than either its (economically and culturally comparable) state-ridden neighbours or its former state-ridden self.

There’s a great scene in the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles when an African chief, hearing about the death toll of World War I, asks Indy how the European powers can possibly afford such a war – how can they afford to pay the massive restitution for all the thousands killed? Indy is shocked at the notion of restitution: is this chief so primitive that he actually puts a monetary price on human life? Indy’s mentor (implausibly, Albert Schweitzer) responds that it’s better than not valuing it at all.

The 9/11 attacks were a textbook example of the warfare state in operation. As with Pearl Harbor six decades earlier, the U.S. government’s arrogant interventions around the world had made such an attack a virtual inevitability. (For every jihadi who joins the fight against the U.S. because “they hate our freedom,” a hundred join because “they hate our bombs.”) And of course the primary victims of the blowback from such interventions are the innocent victims of terrorist reprisals. (9/11 was relatively unusual in that the state establishment got hit as well; yet even so, the political class as a whole clearly benefited on balance through its expanded powers.)

Even leaving aside both moral considerations and the risk of blowback, the U.S. government’s interventions all around the world are bloody expensive; if you saw such costs itemised in a monthly bill, you’d quickly cancel the premium service and stick with the basic. If taxpayers had a choice about whether to fund military interventions, with the decision to go to war impacting the pocketbooks of the decisionmakers, those interventions wouldn’t happen – and so blowback like 9/11 would be prevented as well. And when the state responds to such attacks with a vaguely related war in Iraq, one that lasts far longer than the taxpayers’ enthusiasm for it, that too is made possible by effective lack of exit (as is its avoidance of mass customer defections in the wake of the phantom-WMD scandal).

As for the Iraqi civil war that the U.S. invasion sparked off, we can thank the institution of the state for that one too, since the chief factor that drives such conflict is the expectation that there will arise, or will continue to be, a state apparatus, and the corresponding fear that someone else’s gang will end up in charge of it.

Getting better candidates into power instead of worse ones isn’t completely hopeless as a strategy for furthering peace; but it’s a band-aid at best. It’s a bit like kicking out James II and putting in William of Orange – it focuses on changing the personnel when what really needs changing is the system.

As long as our political institutions have a captive customer base and can acquire resources and labour by compulsion, they will be able to socialise the costs of going to war while reaping the benefits; and so long as this is so, the choice to engage in violence will be less costly to them than it would be to an honest enterprise – and when the state’s costs of violence are lowered, the state will sooner or later buy more violence, be its president an Obama or a McCain.

This entry was posted on Thursday, September 11th, 2008

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