None of this was inevitable. If the horrors of the Napoleonic wars had remained fresh in people’s minds â€“ rather than having conquests glorified by “progressives” â€“ and if the laissez faire policies of Richard Cobden and John Bright had been continued, there never would have been a world war. Maintaining a separation of the economy and the state would have prevented politicians from turning business competition into political and military conflicts. There wouldn’t have been nasty trade wars and empire building, contributing to paranoia and the arms race. If governments had let people live their lives as freely on one side of a border as on the other, there wouldn’t have been much political support for war. What would have been the point? ~Jim Powell
Mr. Powell presents a sweeping case that laissez faire and unfettered free trade will secure peace among nations. This is one of the oldest liberal myths. It relies on the assumption that the greed of the state for power and territory will somehow be magically restrained by the prospect of better long-term profits in the private sector, as well as the idea that people do not identify with their nations but with rational economic self-interest. Above all, it works from the mistake that wars usually have economic causes, when most have not–they are almost always disputes over the right to rule a state or a quarrel over a particular patch of land. Our own War for Independence is a sterling example of how economic interests have relatively little to do with political conflicts: the costs of the taxes imposed by Britain were minimal, almost farcically small, but our forefathers insisted on the principle that was at stake. No trade policy will eliminate those disputes, and no amount of economic interdependence between neighbours or any two nations will be able to overcome a policy conceived to be in the national interest. Instead of economic causes, men will find patriotic, ideological or specifically nationalist reasons to go to war.
What Mr. Powell consistently neglected to mention in his summary of 19th century history is that there were not even nominally liberal governments outside of Britain for the first 40 or 50 years after the Congress of Vienna. Half a century of peace was accomplished under those terrible Restoration monarchies and their benighted trade policies! The only great violent disturbances of those first 50 years were the liberal revolutions themselves, most of which were thankfully put down.
In his run-down of the backlash against liberalism in Europe, he neglected to mention the reason for the backlash in the 1870s and afterwards: the franchise was opened up to all the people disadvantaged, dislocated and generally ruined by the introduction of laissez faire and free trade, and not surprisingly they voted their economic interest and chucked the liberals out in every country save Britain. What became of all the poor liberals beset by a tide of economic irrationality? Almost to a man they either embraced nationalism, never very far from the liberal heart and the principles of 1789 they embraced in the first place, or lost their faith in laissez-faire and became socialists. What is more, without the success of the liberal revolutionaries in the 1860s and 1870s, the flourishing of nationalism in central Europe and elsewhere would not have been possible. The ousting of Metternich, who represented all that was international, pacific and honourable in the Old Europe, as the price of quelling the Vienna rabble of 1848 was the first step to European self-immolation. Well done, liberals.
If Disraeli ordered quite a few overseas wars, it was only to compete with the imperialism of Gladstone’s Liberals who inaugurated the imperialist frenzy in the conviction that they were civilising and liberating those whom they subjected to British rule. Sound familiar?