Cliches of Anti-Pacifism
By Bryan Caplan
I’m a pacifist. I realize that it’s an unpopular position, but I’m still surprised by how quick people are to dismiss the position with cliches. Here are three of the most common.
1. “If you want peace, prepare for war.” This claim is obviously overstated. Is North Korea really pursuing the smart path to peace by keeping almost 5% of its population on active military duty? How about Hitler’s rearmament? Was the Soviet Union preparing for peace by spending 15-20% of its GDP on the Red Army?
No on all three counts. The truth is that preparation for war often causes war by frightening and provoking other countries. That’s why the collapse of the Red Army made the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union safer from nuclear attack than they’d been since 1945. This doesn’t mean that disarmament always makes countries safer. But it does mean that military preparation frequently has the perverse effect of making countries less safe. Discovering the conditions under which this occurs takes a lot more than a one-liner.
2. “Those who beat their swords into plowshares, will plow for those who don’t.” In earlier centuries, this was usually true. But almost all rulers treated their subjects like chattel in those days. The main reason to fear war wasn’t that policies would change if “your” government were defeated, but that you’d suffer or perish before the conflict was resolved. From the point of view of the ruled, pacifism would usually have been an improvement.
In the modern world, the plowshares cliche is even more misguided. Take a look at this list of military spending by country. The U.S. naturally leads the pack, but is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff? While the U.S. has the power to literally enslave most of the world, most Americans think it would be wrong, so it’s not going to happen. The same clearly holds for five of the other top-ten military powers: the UK (#3), France (#4), Germany (#6), Japan (#7), and Italy (#9). Even China, at #2, has far less awful intentions than the plowshares cliche suggests: While it might invade a totally disarmed Taiwan, the next step would be One Country, Two Systems – not mass enslavement of the Taiwanese.
3. “Pacifism didn’t work with Hitler.” True enough. But then again, nothing worked with Hitler. The man was a monster. Poland tried resistance, and was virtually destroyed. Stalin tried alliance, and was stabbed in the back. The Allies tried unconditional surrender, and left most Europe in ruins, and half under Stalinism. Sure, with 20/20 hindsight, Britain and France could have invaded Germany in 1933 – or interrupted his parents a few minutes before his conception in 1888. But two can play at the hindsight game: Pacifism could easily have prevented World War I, leaving no room for the likes of Hitler to rise to power.