The Liberal Peace
By Jayme Lemke
In his newest book—free to read online until March 17!—Chris Coyne offers thoughtful discussion on the extensive contributions to the study of war, defense, and peace that have been made by classical economists, Austrian economists, and others in the mainline tradition. The book is not long, but it is extensive. War is unfortunately an enduring human tradition. As such, economists classical and modern have had a lot to say about the great range of conflicts we’ve gotten ourselves into and the equally great range of defense strategies we’ve used to try to get ourselves out.
Defense, of course, should be in scare-quotes here. Defensive military actions are not always a force for peace and in fact can be downright predatory and destructive. If historical examples don’t spring to mind, Coyne makes this point abundantly clear in many places, including in his second-most-recent book, Tyranny Comes Home, co-authored with Abigail R. Hall.
The best reason I can think of to read this book immediately (or at least right after you’re done reading this post) is that not thinking carefully enough about war and defense is actually dangerous. For people living in conflict zones, this danger is not just long-run or ‘big picture,’ but real, physical, gruesome, traumatizing danger. People around the world are being subjected to these dangers because decision makers near and far are making choices in environments that do not accurately reflect the full costs of war and the full benefits of peace.
Underestimating costs is always a problem, because this underestimation leads people to divert resources away from projects that would be more socially beneficial. In the arena of war and defense, making bad decisions not only handicaps prosperity by diverting resources into less productive projects, but also because it compromises the possibility of peace.
Peace is what the study of war and the search for better policies and institutions in the area of defense is really all about. Peace is pro-social. Peace is productive. Peace is what allows us to build and to become better people and better neighbors than we were yesterday. On this point, Coyne quotes a figure who understood the destructive power of war all too well, Ludwig von Mises:
“What alone enables mankind to advance and distinguishes man from the animals is social cooperation. It is labor alone that is productive: it creates wealth and therewith lays the outward foundations for the inward flowering of man. War only destroys; it cannot create. War, carnage, destruction, and devastation we have in common with the predatory beasts of the jungle; constructive labor is our distinctively human characteristic” (quoted in Coyne 2020, p. 43).
This insight is foundational to the hypothesis of “the liberal peace.” The idea of liberal peace is that some social arrangements reinforce cooperation and others reinforce violence. Specialization, trade, the free movement of people, and bottom-up democratic institutions are all institutional practices based on peaceful, voluntary interaction. As such, so the theory suggests, peace fits better with these practices than with their dictatorial, command-and-control alternatives. Liberal peace is almost a practice-makes-perfect argument. Markets are the daily practice of peaceful cooperation. People who practice peace will be better at carrying through in times of tension. Institutions that encourage peaceful interaction from day-to-day will be better prepared to support peace in times of conflict.
However, Coyne cautions in the conclusion that the theoretical and empirical study of these questions is far from complete. The wealth generated by trade can attract not only thieves but also political predators. As such, institutions that will keep rent-seeking and other unproductive and destructive forms of entrepreneurship at bay are essential to the preservation of a mutually reinforcing relationship between peace and market institutions.
There are many implication of both Coyne’s book and of liberal peace. One important implication is, study economics! If markets and market-preserving institutions are essential to the maintenance of peace, then better economic ideas that emphasize the cooperative and peace-promoting elements of market society have the potential to make the world a better, more peaceful place to live.