War and the Fantasy of Protection
A few days ago, I was at lunch with a colleague, an ex-military man, and the talk got to politics. I mentioned that the government was never going to voluntarily shrink in size; it would only collapse in on itself through bankruptcy. He said that he had a lot of respect for Paul Martin, Canada’s Prime Minister, because Martin made some progress tackling the budget deficit in the 1990s. “I was very relieved,” he said, “because all our training in those days centered on containing civil revolt.”
I was, despite my two-decades long investigation into the nature of the State, shocked. I asked him what he meant. “Oh,” he shrugged, “the government was expecting a revolt, so we were all being trained to contain that. They really thought they were going to run out of money, so they wanted us ready to deploy just in case Canadians got real pissed off at them.”
I found that fascinating. And revealing, of course. As the Canadian government was trying to rein in its debt, it was also training its military to turn their guns on Canadians, just in case that didn’t work. Or in case it did work, but the Canadian people didn’t like the effects. No welfare checks. No old age pensions. That would be a recipe for revolution.
It is entirely to be expected, of course. Governments protect their own interests, not those of their citizens. However, it does illuminate an interesting point, which is that – despite the evidence of the 20th century – people still believe that governments exist to protect their citizens. It is an interesting – and eminently testable – theory. To put it to the test, let’s look at some of these State ‘protections’ throughout history. If State power exists to protect citizens, then State power should rise and fall relative to the threats those citizens face. If I say that my dentist drills my teeth because they have cavities, then obviously he should drill less – or not at all – if they don’t have cavities.
The first and gravest danger to a citizen is war. It is governments, of course, that always start wars, but those governments always say that they are protecting citizens from the aggression of other governments. In other words, other governments are bad, therefore war cannot be avoided – and so we must be partially enslaved by our own governments to protect us from these inevitable wars.
This premise is easily testable. If governments exist to protect their citizens from other governments, then as a particular country becomes more secure, its military should shrink in size. So, for instance, after the fall of the Soviet Union, European and NATO military budgets should have been reduced. Furthermore, a country like Switzerland, buried deep in the middle of fractious Europe, should have a military budget far higher than that of America, which has oceans to either side and friendly neighbours to the north and south. Or Japan, for instance, should have been a peaceful country throughout its history, since it is largely immune from invasion. The same goes for England.
Clearly, even the most cursory examination of history shows that no correlation can be made between a country’s security and its military spending. Since there is no relationship between military budgets and external threats, there can be no causality between the two. Thus governments do not have a military in order to protect their citizens from external enemies. The military must exist for some other reason.
Ah, perhaps you say, the Soviet Union has fallen, but what about the threat from Muslim countries? Well, that is also interesting. If our government exists to protect us from other governments, then our government should never sell arms to other governments. If policemen exist to protect us from criminals, then policemen should refrain from arming those criminals, right? A doctor cannot make people sick and then justify his income based on the fact that people are sick. Our leaders cannot use our money in order to arm other governments, while simultaneously claiming that they must take our money because other governments are dangerous.
This is usually countered by stating that only certain other governments are a threat. In other words, our leaders know how dangerous other governments are – both now and into the distant future – and are able only to arm those who will never harm their own citizens. Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Enough said. This position fails, since our leaders regularly arm those who turn out to be enemies.
There is one other argument that needs to be examined, which is whether leaders value their citizens’ safety more than citizens value their own safety.
Imagine a State that passes laws forcing its citizens to perform healthy actions such as exercising and eating well. Obviously, the implicit premise behind such laws is that the State cares more for its citizens’ health than they do. In order to justify this exercise of violence, we must accept that health is the greatest good, and that the State cares more for citizens’ health than the citizens do themselves – and that only State violence can achieve health.
However, no part of this argument is sustainable. Health is not the greatest good; if it were, then chocolate, potato chips, cars, skydiving, children and cigarettes would not exist. The greatest good, of course, is happiness, and sometimes health is sacrificed to that end – as we all know on occasion when we succumb to the dessert tray.
However, even if health were the greatest good, there is no guarantee that violence would be able to ensure it. At the most basic level, the stress of both inflicting and being subject to violence would probably eradicate any health benefits from exercise and better eating. And since health is not the greatest value, people would naturally try to avoid the violent infliction of healthy habits by trying to join those categories of people immune from such compulsion, those with sports injuries, depression, pregnancies, weak bones, diabetes, essential jobs etc. Doctors would be bribed to supply documentation for such excuses, lobby groups would grow to create exceptions, fake health clubs would hand out fake ‘exercise certificates’, and everyone’s behaviour would change to avoid the compulsions of the State.
Health cannot be achieved by violence, because happiness is the greatest good, and violence cannot achieve or maintain happiness either. (Save self-defense, which of course is not violence; it has the same relationship to violence that surgery has to a random stabbing; surgery aims to maintain health at the cost of short-term injury; self-defense aims to maintain happiness at the cost of short-term stress.)
However, to put the final nail in the coffin, let’s take the most extreme example, and imagine that health is the greatest good, and only violence can achieve it. If this is the case, there is absolutely no reason why only those in the State should be able to employ violence for this end. This is not an unprecedented premise. This is obviously the case in realm of self-defense, since a citizen can protect himself or his property without punishment. Thus if health is the highest value, and threatening people is the only way to help them maintain their health, then we should all be able to do it. I should be able to burst into my neighbour’s house and force him to drop his doughnut.
Let us take the lessons learned from this metaphor of health and return to the question of defense. Protection from violence is not the greatest good, and also cannot be achieved by violence, since violence is in itself a violation of protection. If I say that I must rob you in order to protect you, then I am immediately violating the very protection that I am claiming to offer.
However, if we accept that those in the State should be able to steal money from us in order to defend us, then everyone should be able to do so. If my neighbour does not buy a home-alarm system, then I should be able to go over there and force him to order one at gunpoint. In fact, the home-alarm company should be able to do the same thing. Obviously we would dislike that, since the conflict of interest would be obvious – just as it is with the State stealing money and providing services. So if you have a problem with the home-alarm company forcing people to buy its products, then the State can’t do it either, since both are just social organizations populated by people, who are all subject to the same moral laws and misgivings.
Finally, we come to the most important question: even if we accept that the State should protect its citizens, does the State leader care more for his citizens’ lives than they do?
None of us want to die, or be enslaved. Therefore we will take all the steps necessary to protect our lives and property. If someone demands that we give up this responsibility to him, it would only be a rational course of action if that person cares more for our lives and property than we do ourselves.
Let’s call the leader of our country Bob. If Bob cares more for our lives than we do – a position many parents hold with their children – then obviously he would be the first to sacrifice himself for us in times of war, just as parents often sacrifice their own interests for the sake of their children. In the realm of politics and war, this is obviously never the case, since leaders are never the first to die on the battlefield.
If Bob cares more for us than we do, he will be no less likely to wage war if he himself is threatened. Thus the proliferation of nuclear weapons should not have slowed down the rate of war between nations which possess them. Throughout history, certain countries have declared war on each other with depressing regularity. However, since the rise of nuclear weapons, not one single nuclear power has ever declared war on any other nuclear power. What has changed? The number of dead? Of course not – the First and Second World Wars killed tens of millions of people, and more people died in the conventional bombing of Tokyo than the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. It is not the scale of the suffering that has increased. Is it the long-term after-effects of nuclear weapons? That seems hard to fathom, since conventional weapons leave in their wake firestorms, plagues, lack of water and sanitation, landmines, pockets of mustard gas, poisons and other long-term after-effects detrimental to human life.
No, the only significant difference between conventional and nuclear weapons is that nuclear weapons threaten the direct and personal interests of political leaders. They can be killed, or their families, relatives and friends can be killed. In other words, the only difference between nuclear and conventional weapons is that the ruling class is threatened by nuclear weapons. (Of course what applies to nuclear weapons also applies to other weapons of mass destruction, which is why rulers speak about them with such horror.)
Thus it is clear that, when Bob’s own life and family would be threatened by war, he is miraculously able to refrain from declaring it. The answer that Bob is afraid of nuclear weapons not because of his own life, but because he wants to protect his country, is nonsense. If that were the case, then Bob would never declare war against other countries that did not possess nuclear weapons, which he tends to do with fair regularity.
To sum up, the idea that governments exist to protect their citizens is pure nonsense – and as long as we continue to believe it, we are in grave danger. Governments will grab at any justification for using violence against us, and defense is the most dangerous justification of all. The predations, robbery and despair of the welfare state is one thing; the murder, destruction and corruption of the military state is quite another. As long as we surrender our freedoms to governments for the sake of protection, those governments will continue to drum up threats against us, in order to further enslave us by ‘protecting’ us from the violence they provoke in the first place.
Stefan Molynuex, is the host of Freedomain Radio (www.freedomainradio.com), the most popular philosophy site on the Internet, and a “Top 10” Finalist in the 2007-2010 Podcast Awards.