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Are Free Societies More Peaceful?

Last night I happened to see President Bush appearing on Larry King’s talk show, and he repeated, for what must be the thousandth time, his corny truism that “free societies are peaceful societies.” Mr. Bush was offering his ‘solution’ to terrorism, which contained as one important part the spreading of “freedom,” based on the strange assumption that free societies do not cultivate terrorists. Mr. Bush can hardly be solely blamed for repeating this seductive phrase, since it is one of the cornerstones of the great liberal democratic (or, more properly, democratist) fraud. The myth is that governments, not peoples, desire war, and therefore a government which is the most responsive to the people and which allows the greatest possibility for popular expression will be peaceful.

Would that this were true. However, in an excellent insight that was really ahead of its time, Hegel explained that this was basically incorrect:

In England, for example, no unpopular war can be waged. But if it is imagined that sovereign princes and cabinets are more subject to passion than parliaments are, and if the attempt is accordingly made to transfer responsibility for war and peace into the hands of the latter, it must be replied that whole nations are often more prone to enthusiasms and subject to passion than their rulers are. In England, the entire people has pressed for war on several occasions and has in a sense compelled the ministers to wage it…Only later, when emotions had cooled, did people realize that the war was useless and unnecessary, and that it had been entered into without calculating the cost.~ G.W.F. Hegel, Elements of the Philosophy of Right, strophe 329

The case of Iraq is instructive in this regard. While many opponents of the war argued, quite correctly, that most Americans would ultimately reject the war and refuse to tolerate the costs associated with it, in the pre-war buildup and the initial phases of the fighting the popular response was very favourable. Except for die-hard partisan opponents and a relative few principled opponents of aggressive and interventionist wars, the public welcomed the war and did not need much convincing.

Public opinion is, of course, as Joseph Schumpeter has argued, manufactured opinion, and the public had been taught to think of Iraq as an intolerable threat ever since 1990, but once that suggestion has been planted in the public mind, so to speak, there is nothing more politically suicidal and potentially “un-American” than stating the obvious truth that Iraq posed no threat whatever. This is only to highlight the inherent irrationality of popular opinion (to even refer to such a mass of inchoate sentiments as opinion, thought, is to be too generous), which can be so easily guided by pressure groups’ manipulation of emotions, and the great danger of relying on such opinion as any sort of guard against dangerous excesses or violent solutions. It should also remind us that, however repugnant we find this manipulated opinion and its consequences, the resulting war was not really a failure of democracy, but its natural expression.

The extension of this idea is that democracies (presumed, however incorrectly, to be more or less “free”) do not fight one another, and that they do not start wars–both of these can easily be shown to be false. All major belligerents in WWI possessed governments that relied in whole or in part on a broad franchise and representative government, and the presumably free and popular governments of Union and Confederacy warred against each other for four years more fiercely than any two modern belligerents to that time.

Let us also remember that in the world of Mr. Bush and the other democratists “freedom” and “democracy” are interchangeable, mutually interdependent and practically indistinguishable. In their progressive view, the expansion of franchise and the cultural democratisation of all institutions have advanced some nebulous freedom. A classical liberal view might well find such a view inherently nonsensical, but that is not our main concern right now.

These concepts of freedom and democracy are, of course, bereft of most of their content when democratists use them: they are signals to trigger appropriate responses in public opinion and to conceal the actual programs of the democratists. Nonetheless, for the purposes of dismissing what will prove to be arrant nonsense, because the democratists consider the two to be inherently linked it is fair to consider them together.

The growth of total war is an unavoidable consequence of mass politics, and the insane destruction of modern war can largely be traced to the irrationality of the mass man. The United States also provides an obvious example of an ostensibly free and democratic society starting wars–two in the last five years, in fact, and three in the last fifteen. In their imperial heyday, Britain and France were the vanguard of liberal and relatively democratic societies, and the more democratic they became the more aggressive and expansionist they were.

The beginnings of a real mass democracy in Britain not only preceded but directly encouraged the naked aggression of the Boer War, the expansion of the Empire was originally a Liberal and Liberal-turned-Unionist program enthusiastically embraced and demanded by the electorate, and the Third Republic oversaw the takeover of Vietnam, to name a few examples. Not only were these attacks and conquests in keeping with the rising notion of spreading liberal institutions and civilisation, but they would have been perfectly normal for a free-and-democratic society even if these institutions and customs had never been introduced into their colonies in any way.

By comparison, autocratic governments are supposed to be more prone to fight wars and start wars than democracies. This conclusion sounds more convincing at first, but it requires very close scrutiny to distinguish the scale of most autocratic wars from the much grander scale of democratic wars. It is also important to distinguish between the form of the regime, such as Wilhelmine Germany’s quasi-constitutional monarchy, and the democratic pressures that have pushed regimes into war when war was unnecessary or unwise.

When people have been conditioned to believe that they are part of the state, or that the state in some sense represents or embodies them, many have a tendency to become more adamant and virulent in their demands on other countries than government officials themselves. What might be calmly resolved by diplomats becomes the subject of public disputation, and each person tries to outdo the other in affirming his dedication to the “rights of the nation,” so that no self-respecting politician can climb down or make sensible concessions without ruining his career, and public opinion, such as it is, becomes the real determining factor in whether a government will go to war. Because this opinion is so powerful, its regular and predictable abuse is one of the greatest dangers to a country.

Exceptionally dishonest journalism worsens matters, but if the public were really prone to preferring peace, as the democratist nonsense tells us free and democratic peoples do, they could not be so easily led into support for a war as they repeatedly are by some sensationalised news stories. It is proof of the unreflective and impulsive nature of most people, who end up forming what becomes known as public opinion, that a steady diet of misinformation for even a few months can create in the popular imagination hard truths about a situation that demand military action.

There may be, of course, a group of fanatics in and around government who encourage the hysteria of the crowd, but it is because this hysteria is so easily whipped up that such factions succeed in their goals. If a people of liberal mind and democratic habits were not so willing to identify themselves with the state (because it is “their” state and the protector of “their freedom”–a pernicious consequence of the particularly American habit of idolising the military and equating it with service to “the country”), as Americans are surprisingly wont to do, this sort of war hysteria would be much harder to encourage.

It is also necessary to understand that most despotisms and autocracies are profoundly weak governments, so weak that they must rely on brutality and criminal methods to maintain even a semblance of control. Typically, the fragility and weakness of the regime results in an explosion of propaganda about the invincibility of the state, while the ostensibly free peoples of the world live under the most powerful and invasive governments in history. This invasive government is not an accident or an abuse of the democratic system, but a definite and natural consequence of democratisation.

Weak regimes may have an interest in waging wars to mobilise the population behind them, but because they are so weak and their ability to mobilise the population is so poor they very often cannot wage successful campaigns. Because democracies encourage the notion, albeit actually false, that the state and the people are identified with one another, mobilisation to serve the needs of the state is all the more enthusiastic the more democratic the regime. Indeed, one of the principal beneficiaries from the processes of democratisation and mass politics is the warfare state.

There may or may not be good arguments to defend the “free” and “democratic” regimes that give rise to this proclivity to wage war on a relatively devastating scale, but what is absolutely clear is that such regimes do not inculcate particularly pacific attitudes and by their very nature are better prepared for mass mobilisation for war than any other kind. Indeed, in their only somewhat perverted modern form, such regimes have made a habit of invoking the purported “values” of their own system as justification for fighting in countries where there is no apparent conflict with the domestic regime. Societies under such regimes are more willing to fight for their governments, and are more willing to trust the claims of their governments when an international dispute arises. Ironically, the very process of democratisation that is supposed to make governments more responsive to the ostensibly peaceful people has actually simply made the people that much more obedient to the supposed interests of the state. This may recommend this form of government to the militaristic democratists, but it clearly shows that such societies are not inclined to peace and the creation of more such societies promises a future where war is more rather than less likely.

With respect to the particular question of terrorism, it may be that a republican or democratic government will incorporate the political ambitions of many in a given country, so that there will be a decrease in domestic terrorism. However, a decline in such domestic terrorism assumes a cultural or political consensus about the republican or democratic regime, which has existed in almost no country in history. Also, such a consensus is formed at the expense of a real range of political opinion–the formation of republican or democratic consensus must shut out any view that opposes the assumptions of the regime, as any system will do, which will necessarily shut out and disenfranchise the very elements whose incorporation into the political process is theoretically the most needed to curtail violent Islamism. It also assumes that we are introducing a constitutional kind of democratic government, in which certain guarantees protect minorities or individuals from democratic tyranny. But even if we introduce such a system, assuming that it will take, this in no way addresses the overriding problem, which is that a sizeable percentage of people, at least in the Near East, want neither the secular, managerial democracy (who would?) nor necessarily even representative government as such.

For a considerable bloc, the Western-style “free” society on offer is neither genuinely free from the perspective of a religious fundamentalist nor preferrable to authoritarian or theocratic alternatives. Any kind of broad franchise is liable to empower those people who can mobilise voters through traditional networks of loyalties and personal connections, so they will form governments (or try to) that are directly hostile to this conception of a “free” society. “Spreading freedom,” as Mr. Bush so facilely put it, is not only capable of empowering those opposed to this understanding of freedom if the democratic process is exploited by demagogues, which anyone can see, but if such a democratic regime were successfully established it would have to perpetuate the exclusion of the extremist elements who have an entirely different political vision, just as Western republics and democracies increasingly do and have done for centuries. One thing we may be sure of is that a “free society” or “democratic society” will not end Islamic or any other kind of terrorism on the domestic scene, even if it is successful. Internationally, Islamists have no reason to ever renounce violence, and their recruiting will not be affected in the slightest by the development of “free” societies. Mr. Bush’s “strategy,” if it can be called that, is a losing and failing strategy.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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