Bastiat, Plunder, Debt, and War

Byron's article the other day on Col. Drake and, indirectly, war as the driver of technological innovation got me to looking up what Bastiat wrote about war. I wanted to find something that showed how war always destroys wealth and never creates it. Maybe Hazlitt's broken window would have sufficed. But it was not a fruitless venture.

I found a long passage pertaining to war, but also pertaining to our conversation about empire, hubris and the political culture in America. Or, in any nation that seeks to take when it's no longer willing to make…to plunder instead of produce. Yes. Painting with a broad brush, but it's worth a read. And, I retyped it rather than cutting and pasting it, to make sure I got the sense of it.

If you don't want to read the whole thing, here is the sense of it: plunder by way of war is as old as the human heart. If we have improved (diabolically) on it at all, we now plunder by way of debt, stealing from the future, or plundering the unborn to adapt and mangle one of Bill's phrases.

You might also say that arming and putting up with sadists, fascists, tyrants, and well-armed gangs and bullies for the last 50 years in exchange for their oil was a kind of a tacit plunder of the millions of Arabs who stayed poor, got angry, and got themselves ready to 1) kill, 2) die. All those years of cheap oil, without acknowledging the real human cost were a kind of plunder. So, we are getting our reckoning for that, too.

Also, it makes you wonder what the average Muslim thinks he'd gain from Israel's defeat or destruction. All that land? All that plenty? All those reasons for decades of relative poverty? Will those suddenly go away if Hamas or Hezbollah can plunder Israel?

Anyway, here's Bastiat at length:

"Surely one of the saddest things that can present itself to anyone who loves mankind is that of a productive age bending all its efforts to infect itself – by way of education – with the thoughts, sentiments, the errors, the prejudices, and the vices of a nation of plunderers. Our age is often accused of a lack of consistency, of a failure to show any correlation between the ideals it professes and the way of life it pursues. The criticism is just, and I believe that I have here indicated the principal reason why this situation prevails.

"Plunder by way of war, that is, rudimentary plunder, simple and undisguised, as its roots in the human heart, in man's nature, in the universal motive force that actuates the social world – his attraction toward satisfactions and his aversion to pain; in a word, in that motivating force that we all have within us: self-interest.

Man, as we have said, strives irresistibly to assure his own preservation, to improve his lot, and to attain, or at least come as near as possible to attaining, happiness as he conceives it. For the same reason he shuns pain and suffering.

"Now, labor, the operation he must perform upon Nature in order to produce anything, is itself pain and drudgery. For this reason he is averse to labor and resigns himself to it only when it is the means of avoiding an even greater evil. Taking the philosophical point of view, there are those who say that labor is a boon. They are right if we consider the results. Relatively speaking, it is a boon; in other words, it is an evil that spares us greater evils. And that is precisely why men have such a great tendency to avoid labor, when, without recourse to it, they believe they can reap its rewards.

"Others say that labor is in itself a boon; that apart from the results it brings in terms of production, it strengthens man morally and physically and is a source of happiness and health. All this is very true, and reveals once again the marvelous fecundity of God's providential design so abundantly evident in all his handiwork. Yes, even apart fro its results in terms of production, labor promises man, as its supplementary rewards, strength of body and joy of soul; and since we have said that idleness is the mother of all vices, we must also recognize that labor is the father of many virtues.

"But while all this is very true, it in no way changes the natural and irresistible bent of the human heart nor the attitude that causes us not to seek work for its own sake. We always compare our labor with its results. We do not devote more effort to a given task if we can accomplish it with less; nor when confronted with two toilsome tasks, do we choose the greater. We are more inclined to diminish the ratio of effort to result, and if, in so doing, we gain a little leisure, nothing will stop us from using it, for the sake of additional benefits, in enterprises more in keeping with our tastes."

"Man's universal practice, indeed, is conclusive in this regard. Always and everywhere, we find that he looks upon toil as the disagreeable aspect, and on satisfaction as the compensatory aspect, of his condition. Always and everywhere, we find that, as far as he is able, he places the burden of his toil upon animals, the wind, steam, or other forces of Nature, or alas! upon his fellow men, if he can gain mastery over them. In this last case, let me repeat, for it is too often forgotten, the labor has not been lessened; it has merely been shifted to other shoulders.

"Man, thus confronted with a choice of pains, the pains of want and the pains of toil, and driven by self-interest, seeks a means of avoiding them both in so far as possible. And is then that plunder presents itself as the solution to his problem.

"He says to himself: It is true that I have no means of procuring the things necessary for my preservation and my enjoyment – food, clothing, and shelter – unless these things have previously been produced by labor. But they need not necessarily be produced by MY labor. They need only have been produced by someone, provided I am the stronger.

"Such is the origin of war."