Stanford Professor Ian Morris got a lot of attention this week for an op-ed he published in the Washington Post provocatively titled, “In the long run, wars make us safer and richer.” The article is connected to the release of his book on the subject, arguing that war has social benefits overlooked in the face of its more obvious and painful consequences.
Morris is making the traditional conservative argument in defense of military conflict, as an option in the right circumstances. War is necessary because violence is an evitable accompaniment to the human condition. It’s not that war is good, so to speak, but that war is in some cases preferable to the alternative.
In that conservative understanding of the world, war and peace are not opposites in tension, but companions. War is organized violence, conducted by a state actor toward a purpose. Its opposite is disorganized violence.
Throughout human history, the greatest fear was disorganized violence. Even with the horrible toll of 20th century war, it is disorganized violence that has claimed the most life and material damage across our history. It is disorganized violence that still looms around the edges of civilization, whether in Iraq, Mexico, or Chicago. Peace is what happens when a civilization acquires the power to wage war decisively enough to deter rivals and contain disorganized violence.
The old Hobbesian conservative argument is that war only becomes impossible when governments are too fragile to wage it. When that happens, private violence fills the void with consequences that destroy commerce, thwart knowledge development, and destroy quality of life. War is not good, just like surgery is not good. We choose it because at times is it better than the alternative.
Morris’ argument is interesting in part because of the way it defiantly cuts against general public opinion. More interesting though is the way it highlights the growing gap between conservatism in its older intellectual tradition and “conservatism” as it is understood on the ground in current American political discourse. This passage from Morris’ op-ed stands out as a stark reminder of what conservatism once meant:
People almost never give up their freedoms — including, at times, the right to kill and impoverish one another — unless forced to do so; and virtually the only force strong enough to bring this about has been defeat in war or fear that such a defeat is imminent.
Conservatism was a view of the world that assumed that absolute freedom meant absolute anarchy, accompanied by violence and perpetual destruction. A good civilization was a measured effort to replace some freedoms with duties, and make that process accountable to the people who were yielding a portion of their rights. A good civilization was in a perpetual, organic cycle of change as rights and duties naturally evolved. Good civilizations avoided the disruptions of war or revolution by permanent but incremental transformation, emerging mostly from private contracts.
Conservatives had no trouble recognizing that government was not the only force capable of destroying a man’s freedom. Those threats descended from every angle and could only be warded off with a carefully measured collaboration. War, in that worldview, is sometimes necessary to preserve civilization. Compromise, contract, law and duty are always necessary to preserve civilization. As Morris points out:
“The 10 most dangerous words in the English language,” Reagan said on another occasion, “are ‘Hi, I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.’ ” As Hobbes could have told him, in reality the 10 scariest words are, “There is no government and I’m here to kill you.”
Old world conservatives had a fine appreciation of balance. Among those who call themselves conservatives today the sense of prudence and measure that has always defined the movement is not only absent, but completely forgotten. As a gang of well-armed idiots gathers to “defend” Bundy Ranch in Nevada, or supposedly “conservative” politicians make increasingly incendiary remarks about our own elected government, Morris may be doing us a favor. We would do well to remember what conservatism actually is and why we need it.