Economic Determinism v.s. Human Nature

Norman Angell was a British Labour politician who wrote The Great Illusion in 1909. It was eerily prescient. Angell wrote that the then common belief that increased trade would end war was simply not the case. Human will always want to fight wars, either due to the mistaken belief that it will be profitable or because a nation will feel the need to fight for pride and honor. And not only was war not less likely, it was more dangerous than ever. The economies of the great powers were so intertwined that, no matter what the outcome of any war, both sides would lose. Big time.

This was correct a century ago and it is correct today. No developed nation today would gain anything by starting a war with another great power. China, Russia, Japan, India, America, the nations of Europe, and many other countries would be foolish to fight a war with another great power in the sense that it would not be profitable. Does that mean war won’t happen? Nonsense.

Yet everywhere I see people who seem to believe that human nature has been defeated, that human society is now so developed and rational that war is extinct. These people are everywhere, on all political fronts: from idealistic liberals to optimistic analysts. Some, particularly those in the libertarian crowd (who should know human nature), overestimate the importance of economics. Regarding the current row between Japan and China over territorial sovereignty, one libertarian commentator had this to say:

There’s no way Japan or China will risk the relationship they have with each other… It is inconceivable that either nation would allow this trade relationship to sour over some small islands (China calls them “rocks”) or over Taiwan ““ regardless of any agreements the United States may have with the government of Taiwan… The economic relationship between Japan and China will continue to grow. Japan needs Chinese goods; China needs Japanese technology, investment, and know-how. The histories of these two neighbors are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. Sure, as with all families, the siblings will sometimes fight and argue, but eventually they will stand together.

Sound familiar?

Statements such as these are buying into what Angell called The Great Illusion. Wars may not be profitable, but humans are hot-headed. We fight for honor and pride. The First and Second World Wars were all based on tragic miscalculation. And that risk exists today. And the scary realization that wars are not worth it, but states fight them anyway, should give us all pause to think.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
This entry was posted in Economics, Future Threats and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Economic Determinism v.s. Human Nature

  1. Chirol says:

    It’s indeed not only common but dangerous to mistake likelihood with possibility. Yet, as you note, people do it time and time again.

  2. I am in near complete agreement with this. The only caveat I would add, and it appears to be a large on, is that the existence of nuclear weapons have so greatly increased the risks, that deterrance seems to work better than it ever did or could have in the pre-nuclear world. Great Power war may well be off the table for that reason. Conflict below the level outright war will continue. War by proxy will continue. And, if a state believes it is facing an existential threat, anything goes. But we cannot address this question without reference to nuclear weapons.

  3. J.Kende says:

    Even with the nuclear deterrent Great Power war will return. To assume all great powers are lead by rational actors (or rational actors who share a similar view of what is rational to our own leaders) is foolish. So too is expecting significant innovation in military technology to have plateaued with the atom age. Missle defense, laser weaponry, robotics, nanotech, and space all present military research frontiers that will make the battlefield of the near future look nothing like what we expect today. But even that aside, a Great Power war — while less likely than in the pre-nuclear age — is conceivable today. Miscalculations happen all too often. When they do, “pride and honor” largely take over.

    Excellent post by the way. Is The Great Illusion still in print?

  4. Ben Shobert says:

    Interesting post – I just finished Freidman’s “The World is Flat” – while in some ways interesting I could not help but think that the underlying complexity to human development and progress Freidman used overlooks the reality of human nature and the de-stabilizing features of the world.

  5. Withoutthef says:

    Quite Curzon, and may I add that science and technology are equally deterministic in Western society, as I have recently recorded in my own blog. Thomas Hughes writes marvellously in “Human Built World” of the university-military-industrial complex that keeps war at the forefront of our minds. Of course, modernity is tied to science, and science once more to wealth. Britain are upgrading their nukes: Criticise the Iranians on the one hand and develop nukes on the other – well the NPT is a fine example of human nature – the powerful can have it both ways.

  6. J.Kende says:

    There is more of a difference between Iran and Britian than degrees of power. Trust is the most important of those differences. Britian has a degree of trust within it’s own society and between it and other societies that their ownership and maintanance of nuclear weapons is not a serious global threat. In a nation like Iran however, trust is sorely lacking. Will Iran use it’s nukes to become more belligerant in the region? To provide cover for it’s funding of terrorists which could increasingly engage in proxy wars for Iran? Will they actively proliferate to nations like Sudan? Pass along working nukes to third parties like Al Qaeda?

    Even assuming Britian were to return to a more expansionist global policy, MAD works as a deterrent against Britain. Can the same be said for Iran?

  7. shloky says:

    I look at it this way-

    The Great Illusion is the act of actually buying into the premise that interconnectivity will breed peace in this iteration. An ungrounded OODA loop will put out this nonsense usually sent off course by mainstream success. Barnett has a series of Globalizations, I think I-IV.

    That said I think it will eventually happen (because it works in the short term) but not for a long time after many an illusion.

  8. J.Kende says:

    Reasonable. But I think we are headed more for a Hobbesian world with privateers large and small once that *long* time comes ’round.

    With such a long horizon view it’s unlikely we will still be earthbound. Once political theory goes post geo- all talk of systemwide full connectivity gets blown to bits by how much our system expands and central powers lose their grip.

  9. Dan tdaxp says:

    You don’t need irrationality to have great power war. You only need an incorrect assumption by a great power that a strong norm against nuclear exchange exists. If a country is deluded (by its own international lawyers, say) into believing “Our opponent is more civilized than a nuclear attack. They cannot resort to that. And if they would, the all other states would be horrified,” and in actuality the other country simply launches some missles — BLAM

    Also note that the military-industrial complex is a tool for systematic peace, not war.

  10. alec says:

    I think you forgot one very important spectrum of war which is ideology. Though any seasoned Marxist may argue ideology is a guise for economics, the prevelance of ‘why we fight’ is at least signicantly under the pretext of ideas (democracy, communism, etc.)

    PS. this does not in anyway endorse Fugayama’s ‘End of History’

  11. Curzon says:

    That would be Fukuyama. And that book was awesome!

  12. purpleslog says:

    The Economic Determinism thinking behind PNM Theory has always bothered me. The globalization i, ii, iii, etc shows that globalization is itself not sufficient. What is needed is liberty ideas/norms and economic globalization/interconnectedness.

  13. heirabbit says:

    People generally assume that democracy and economic connectedness/mutual competition are a kind of automatic producer of good things. But in reality we do have to constantly plug for the ideals of personal liberty and free trade, or these systems become as rapidly corrupt as others. The foundation of any society would be its relatively common ideals, and those outstretch the force of arms or law.