Warfare State to Welfare State: Conflict Causes Government to Expand at Home

By Eland, Ivan | Independent Review, Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Warfare State to Welfare State: Conflict Causes Government to Expand at Home


Eland, Ivan, Independent Review


Conservatives should be more leery of jumping into wars, not only because wars kill and the American superpower might become overextended--especially in a time of fiscal crisis--but also because war makes the government expand rapidly at home, even in areas unrelated to national security. This essay shows how domestic government programs and tax regimes seemingly unrelated to war originated during such periods of conflict. The assess-merit confirms what Randolph Bourne famously stated: "War is the health of the state" (1918).

Although social scientists tend to neglect war as a major cause of changes in social policy (Skocpol 1992, 39-40), some noted historians have concluded that war making is the true driver of state making, dwarfing other causes. For example, as early as 1906, German historian Otto Hintze wrote that war was the principal cause of state development: "[T]he form and spirit of the state's organization will not be determined solely by economic and social relations and clashes of interests, but primarily by the necessities of defense and offense, that is, by the organization of the army and of warfare" (1975, 183).

And American history has certainly confirmed James Madison's axiom that warfare is the mother of other sources of government oppression:

   Of all the enemies of public liberty war is, perhaps, the most to
   be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every
   other.

      War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and
   taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instrument
   for bringing the many under the domination of the few. (1865, 491)

Although these thoughts come from an American founder whom many conservatives revere, conservatives often push back and argue that even if evils stem from warfare, war is nevertheless sometimes necessary.

Two problems arise with this standard rejoinder. First, in American history wars were usually less necessary than the excuses given for them, especially U.S. involvement in brushfire conflicts since World War II. (1) Second, Madison, if anything, understated war's evil consequences to the republic.

Wars Cause Government to Grow, Even Domestically

The Madison quote might lead one to conclude erroneously that war's expenses, which lead to debt and taxes, are the only causes of the erosion of liberty when conflict arises. At minimum, however, Madison was also uneasy with standing armies because they threaten people's liberties. This paper goes even further and details domestic government programs (that is, the welfare state) that are seemingly unrelated to war efforts at first blush, but originated or expanded in times of conflict and by means of the new taxes initiated or increased during war to pay for them.

For example, although conservatives routinely criticize Franklin Delano Roosevelt's Depression-era New Deal for ushering in the era of big government, the origins of permanent big government in the United States are really rooted in World War I. Marc Allen Eisner argues that "[t]he New Deal is best understood as part of a larger history, one that dates back at least to U.S. entry into World War I. The models of state-economy relations and administration developed during the war, new patterns of state-group relations, and the experiences of those who were involved in the mobilization process constituted the core elements out of which the New Deal regime was constructed. In essence, this places the war and the 1920s in a more important place than many contemporary histories would allow when seeking to identify the origins of the modern state and to determine what, in reality, was 'new' about the New Deal" (2000, 299-300).

Eisner concludes that "[o]ne may still assert that [Herbert] Hoover and Roosevelt viewed the calamity of the Great Depression from the perspective of active participants in the war mobilization effort, and each in his own way sought to apply the lessons of war to the events of the depression. …

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Warfare State to Welfare State: Conflict Causes Government to Expand at Home
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