October 29, 2007

What is it good for? War takes toll on generation

War is expensive. It is an outrageous waste of human life and economic resources, and the true cost of a war—including the opportunity costs associated with the loss of untold numbers of lives and livelihoods and the use of enormous amounts of capital for purposes of destruction rather than production—is incalculable.

There is a popular myth that war is good for the economy. Frédéric Bastiat once referred to the idea behind this myth as the “broken-window fallacy”: If a child breaks a window, the analogy goes, he creates jobs. He helps the economy by creating work for glass and frame manufacturers, for Home Depot, and for the repairman who comes to fix the damage.

So can a recession be averted if everyone starts breaking windows? Or if, so as to spread the benefits across more economic sectors, everyone begins to vandalize and destroy all sorts of property? Imagine how many jobs such destruction would create!

It sounds absurd, and it is: While window breaking on a massive scale, as in war, does indeed benefit many economic sectors (hence the “military-industrial complex”), it harms the economy as a whole. Unless you are Blackwater or Raytheon or Lockheed Martin, war—the large-scale destruction of lives and property in the pursuit of political aims—is emphatically not good for business.

Let’s face it: The United States would never have invaded Iraq if citizens and decision-makers had had a clearer notion of what the true cost of that war would be. We would start withdrawing tomorrow if the day-to-day cost of American operations in Iraq were calculated, divided equally among American taxpayers, and levied as a “War Tax.” And if everyone clearly understood that war with Iran would be far more than a simple matter of sending a few bombers over the country’s nuclear sites, there would be a great deal less chatter about using military force as a solution to our current spat.

The perception that war is cheap is a major reason why states go to war in the first place. In order to go to war, a state must have the capability to do so as well as a motive. Satisfying both of those conditions—as the U.S. did in the case of Iraq and now does in the case of Iran—puts the option of war on the table. At that stage, policymakers’ decisions are affected by any number of things, including their own ideas about war and strategy, public opinion, and the severity of the perceived threat they are responding to.

Perhaps above all, politicians weigh the likely benefits they imagine a war will accrue against the likely costs of that war. Here is where miscalculation can be a particularly serious problem: If policymakers have a hubristic sense of their own planning ability or the capabilities of their side, they may engage in wishful thinking, talking up the benefits of war and playing down the costs. And then we get things like the war in Iraq.

The most fundamental solution to this problem is to raise awareness about the human and economic cost of war. A special, visible tax to fund America’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq would be the best way to do this. And on the societal level, educators, parents, and journalists who understand how costly war is should do everything they can to spread that understanding and make unseen costs explicit.

Our generation—the generation that came of age during the Iraq War—should make a particular effort to understand the cost of aggression, so that we may put the brakes on any future effort to repeat the tragic mistakes of this decade.