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Freedom as a solution to war and violence

Posted By -NO AUTHOR- On 12/28/2004 @ 1:00 am In Commentary | Comments Disabled

Freedom lovers, unite. Your beliefs are incredibly more powerful than you realize. The freedom you prize is not only the solution to genocide and mass murder (democide), as I explained in a commentary on the antiwar.com website, but also to war. Yes, a solution to war!

Free, democratic nations do not make war on each other and, overall, have the least foreign violence. Moreover, this is a continuum. The more democratic two nations, the less likely they will make war on each other. And the less democratic two nations, the more likely war between them. This means that fostering global freedom is fostering a solution to war and foreign violence.

This solution has been around for centuries and in one form or another was integrated into the classical liberal view of government: the government that governs least governs best; and freedom promotes peace and welfare. But new generations of practitioners and analysts alike were persuaded that this was just idealistic thinking, especially because democracies themselves seemed so warlike. And under the hammer blows of socialists of all kinds, it increasingly seemed that the very core of classical liberalism, capitalism, was inherently belligerent and the mother of violence.

However, there has been a resurgence of belief in this solution, now called the democratic peace, because of theoretical work on international relations and empirical and historical research. This research has been the most intensive and extensive of any in the study of war and violence. For war in particular, all recorded wars since the classical Greeks that might involve democracies have been studied in historical detail. All possible historical cases where democracies might have made war on each other have been put under the analytic microscope. All cases of democide in the 20th century have been subject to intensive investigation, looking at the role of power vs. democracy. Even wars among tribes within pre-industrial societies have been studied to see if the more democratic have lesser violence – and they do.

Moreover, other possible factors that might really account for the inverse relationship between democracy and violence, or the lack of wars between democracies, have been checked, such as geographical distance, the lack of common borders between democracies, economic development, a common enemy, cultural similarity, chance alone and so on. But careful empirical and comparative investigation has proved that these other variables have little influence on the relationship.

Possible exceptions to the democratic peace, such as the war of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States, or the Spanish-American War of 1898, were found not to have been really between democracies or to have been cases in which one or another democracy was either newly established or marginally democratic. Many issues and questions have been raised about these findings and I have tried to answer the most popular ones in the Q&A on my website.

How do we explain the democratic peace – the peace of freedom? What is the theory? One surface explanation, probably the most persuasive and oldest (going back at least to Immanuel Kant) is that where you have representative government, decision makers are restrained from making war by the public will. After all, it is argued, the public does not want to bear the awful human cost of war. And in fact, this may well account for the occasional inability of democracies to make war, even sometimes to protect other democracies against aggression (as in the extreme reluctance of the United States to overtly help Great Britain during its greatest peril, the Battle of Britain in 1940). But as the history of the United States, Britain and France well show, and the American war against the Afghanistan Taliban and Hussein’s Iraq show, democratic publics can support military action, and even become jingoistic.

A deeper explanation involves two factors: a structure of cross-pressures, and democratic culture. The first is that democratic structure, the institutions of democratic governance, evolve and create checks and balances on the use of power, and inhibitions due to the political and social diversity that develops. These tie down decision makers and crosscut and cross-pressure interests so that the strength of purpose required to commit violence cannot easily arise. This is particularly true between two democracies where they have a plethora of common bonds and shared interests.

The second argument, democratic culture, is that democracy requires the arts of conciliation and compromise, an attitude of toleration of differences, and a willingness to lose. The development of this democratic culture is what defines democracy as “well established” – it infuses and orients domestic and foreign relations. When democrats recognize each other as democrats, they see each other as willing to negotiate and compromise, to resolve conflicts peacefully. Where dictators and totalitarians thrive, however, rule is by coercion and force, command and decrees. This type of system not only selects a particularly aggressive and dominating personality, but puts a premium on deception, force and, especially, winning. When dictator negotiates with dictator, it becomes a struggle to see who can dominate or win. Losing is not a temporary setback, but fatal.

Beneath these two standard arguments of institutions and culture, however, is still a deeper and more comprehensive libertarian explanation of the democratic peace, one that should resonate with Hayekian and von Mises libertarians. This is that freedom creates a spontaneous society within which individuals can pursue their own interests: one in which they create among themselves expectations – a social order – in terms of their wants, capabilities and wills. The primary mode of power is exchange. The society’s political system is democratic. And this democratic government is but one of many groups and pyramids of power.

This spontaneous society therefore produces a creative diversity of small groups, associations, businesses, institutes, colleges, and the like, and thereby multiple overlapping, cross-cutting and cross-pressuring linkages and bonds that isolate and minimize violence. The cultural norms governing such a society are those of negotiation, accommodation, concessions, tolerance and a willingness to accept less than one wants. This society is not isolated to one democracy. The spontaneous society envelops all democracies – all are perceived as within the same moral and behavioral universe. The forces of a spontaneous society thus work to minimize violence between democratic governments and particularly to make war between them as unlikely as one between United Airlines and Lufthansa.

For democracy’s political opposite, totalitarianism, the social order is based on coercion. The operating framework is repression, controls, spies, concentration camps, torture and executions. The dynamic of obedience is fear. The culture is one of command, and unquestioning obedience and the modus operandi is naked power. Moreover, there is little diversity, no meaningful pluralism independent of the regime. All religion, business, unions, education, trade, sports, cultural activities, and so on – indeed all possible sources of independent power – are controlled at the top. In such a rigid hierarchical system, there can be no crosscutting, cross-pressuring interests. Everything is a matter of “them” or “us.”

At the most fundamental level, then, we have opposition between Freedom and Power. It is an opposition between the spontaneous society and the society turned into a hierarchical organization. This is not to deny the importance of culture and cross-pressures and the influence of public opinion in explaining the democratic peace. Rather it is to say that they are social forces whose presence or absence are best understood in terms of the freedom of a democratic and spontaneous society, or the commanding power of one that is tightly organized.

We thus end up with this explanation. Looking a this as a continuum, at one end there is a democratic peace where freedom creates a spontaneous society whose culture promotes negotiation and compromise; and whose social, economic, political and cultural diversity and crosscutting bonds inhibit violence. At the other end is violence as a product of the appositive of democratic freedom, the massive employment of coercion and force by totalitarian regimes to organize society and mobilize the people to achieve some goal: racial purity, victory in war, national greatness, economic development or communism. In between are those societies ruled by authoritarian regimes that allow more or less freedom to their people and, accordingly, produce more violence than democracies but less than totalitarian regimes.

That is, there is a scale of Power here. The more Power at the center, the more killing.

Power kills. Freedom preserves life.


R.J. Rummel, professor emeritus of political science and Nobel Peace Prize finalist, has published 29 books and received numerous awards for his research.


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