The Problem of War in Nineteenth Century Economic Thought
People do not yet sufficiently realize how few troops would be required by a State that has no claims on others, a State which would never try to dominate them, and which, by demonstrating a strength derived from its good administration and internal well-being, would hold out, simultaneously, the advantage of free trade to peace-loving nations and the prospect of destruction to those who should dare attack it. The resistance which such a State would offer to aggression would be the more vigorous the more perfect its internal regime happened to be. If the nation is merely a pack of slaves exploited for the benefit of the privileged classes, if the progress of its industry is hampered by artificial obstacles, and if justice is partial, the citizens will display little zeal in defending a social order wherein they bear the whole burden and wherein all the advantages are enjoyed by others. On the other hand, in an 'economic and protecting' State in which the citizens identify themselves with their fatherland because society there is organized in their interest, they will courageously defend their country. A foreign aggression on such a nation can become really dangerous solely when there is a coalition of several enemies. But such a coalition, Say thinks, is formed only against a State which oppresses others. Coalitions are not formed, he adds, against a nation which always shows good will to its neighbors and perfect willingness to trade with them. On the contrary, every one has an interest in defending such a nation. 'When States are too small for a levee en masse to suffice for their defense, they should join others in a federal pact, and once more one must find in political organization bonds which are so strong that the States which are threatened least may not refuse their aid to those which are in greater danger.'
Though it is painful to admit it, it is none the less true that military life does not perfect qualities useful in civilian life. It accustoms to idleness and servility, which are not only moral vices but very serious shortcomings in economic activity. 'To be a good soldier,' writes Say, 'one must know how to waste one's own time and never to resist an order, even if it is cruel and unjust.'
This waste of time is a military necessity but never an economic virtue. War requires passive obedience, but in civilian life the essential goal of every society—the greatest good of the greatest number—is attained only by the development of individual thought and individual effort. It is therefore useful to society that the forms necessary in military life be, so far as possible, imposed upon the smallest number of men and for as short a time as circumstances permit.
Large standing armies mean a crushing load for the population which is working hard to maintain them. To induce the peoples to take this painful labor upon themselves, national vanity is stimulated. 'They are fed with ideas of power and military vainglory; they are made to consider a great display of force the only solid basis of their security; their eyes are feasted on parades of infantry and cavalry corps; they are intoxicated, in time of peace, with the sounds of military music, the beating of drums, and the thunder of cannon; but all this costs vast sums; it is a luxury which is no less ruinous than any other. Even so, happy is the nation when from the vanity of having fine armies it does not proceed to the vanity of making use of them. Without speaking of the horror of killing one's fellows, every war, when its object is not to gather the fruits of peace, is only a fraud.'
Militarism is immensely costly. Say quotes an example of his own time: Bonaparte, according to him, cost mankind the sum of ten billion francs, not taking into account the massacres and the decay of French institutions. If these ten billions had been used for the benefit of France and the other States of Europe, they would have produced an incalculable amount of good. Diplomats usually see in an acquisition of territory an indemnity for the damages and expenses caused by war. Nothing is wider of the mark according to the French economist, for nothing is gained by the conquest of foreign countries.
Colonies, too, cost more than any monopoly is worth. Their possession is of no advantage to the mother country, whose citizens pay for the exorbitant profits realized by a few monopolists. Colonial conquests, to which the military are so attached, constitute a real loss for the nation.
Is it possible, after this review of the economic consequences of militarism, to hesitate in the choice between the 'aggressive system' and the 'defensive system?' Say decides in favor of the latter. 'Powerful interests, I am well aware, are opposed to the defensive system, but I know one more powerful still which makes it preferable: the interest of the peoples.'
As for the military organization most suitable for the defense of the State, he declares himself a partisan of militias. They suffice to defend the independence of well-governed nations which have no ambitions to conquer. Peoples willing to adopt a purely defensive system would enjoy much greater security at less cost. While standing armies attract war, militias are an institution calculated to favor peaceful relations among nations.