Acton Commentary

Commerce and War: Poles Apart


One of the best ways to promote civility in a commercial society — which we could define as a culture dominated and shaped by business activity — involves people refraining from using violence to achieve their ends. In the pre-commercial world, war was perceived on the part of figures ranging from Alexander the Great to Napoleon as the path to greatness and glory. By contrast commercial society thrives upon and inculcates the value of peace. Though it is true that commercial societies have engaged in war, they do tend to accord higher worth to peace more than their predecessors. This owes much to their commercial character. War is commercially beneficial for industries such as arms manufacturing, but generally disruptive to free trade, the forging of commercial links, and society's overall material well-being. As Archbishop François Fenélon of Cambrai (1651-1715) wrote to Louis XIV toward the end of the Sun King's many wars:

Your peoples die of hunger. Agriculture is almost stationary. Industry languishes everywhere, all commerce is destroyed ... Your victories no longer cause rejoicing. There is only bitterness and despair ... You relate everything to yourself as though you were God on earth.

Commercial society's ability to promote peace is closely associated with its undermining of the false notion that one person's gain is always at another's expense. Part of Adam Smith's critique of the mercantile practices of his time was their assumption that one's country's gain could only be at the expense of others. Such theories facilitated much aggressive behavior of nations against each other as they fought to secure colonies and exclusive trading rights. “Each nation,” Smith wrote, “has been made to look with an invidious eye upon the prosperity of all the nations with which it trades, and to consider their gain as its own loss. Commerce, which ought naturally to be, among nations, as among individuals, a bond of union and friendship, has become the most fertile source of discord and animosity.” In Smith's view, “a nation that would enrich itself by foreign trade is certainly most likely to do so when its neighbors are all rich, industrious, and commercial nations.”

Considerable incentives thus exist for commercial societies to avoid war. “Peace is the natural effect of trade,” the French philosopher Guy de Montesquieu wrote. “Two nations who traffic with each other become reciprocally dependent; for if one has an interest in buying, the other has an interest in selling; and thus their union is founded on their mutual necessities.” Another French philosopher, Alexis de Tocqueville, underscored the manner in which commerce undermined incentives for war when observing that “The ever-increasing number of men of property devoted to peace, the growth of personal property that war so rapidly devours, mildness of mores, gentleness of heart, that inclination to pity which equality inspires, that cold and calculating spirit which leaves little room for sensitivity to the poetic and violent emotions of wartime--all these causes act together to damp down warlike fervor.” The less appreciated paradox is that commerce and trade allows nations to achieve many of the objectives they had previously pursued through war. This was apparent to the nineteenth-century French liberal Benjamin Constant:

We have finally reached the age of commerce, an age which must necessarily replace that of war, as the age of war was bound to precede it. War and commerce are only two different means to achieve the same end, that of possessing what is desired. Commerce is ... an attempt to obtain by mutual agreement what one can no longer hope to obtain through violence...

Commercial society's reluctance to embark upon war is not simply a matter of resenting the financial restrictions and potential losses associated with the prosecution, winning, or losing of war. It also concerns protecting the fabric of freedoms upon which commercial societies depend. War has a reorganizing logic all of its own. Societies at war take on forms directed to the successful prosecution of war. ... When nations go to war, governments are given the authority to do things that they are forbidden from undertaking in peacetime and often allowed to expand their powers in those realms where they already exercise considerable authority. This can include acquiring powers that diminish the protections afforded by private property and the rule of law, permit the raising of taxes to exorbitant levels, and redirect commercial society's creative energies into areas of a decidedly non-commercial character. Perhaps the greater long-term problem that war creates for commercial societies is that the state is often reluctant to relinquish its newly acquired powers, thereby reducing the sphere of freedom that underpins commercial society and allows it to flourish.

This article was excerpted from Samuel Gregg's The Commercial Society - Foundations and Challenges in a Global Age , a new book published by Lexington Books. The Commercial Society is available for purchase through the Acton Book Shoppe (www.acton.org/bookshoppe)