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Adam Smith on War

Posted By Don Boudreaux On May 13, 2004 @ 5:39 am In Current Affairs | Comments Disabled

I’ve always liked Adam Smith’s cogent insight about imperial wars:

In great empires the people who live in the capital, and in the provinces remote from the scene of action, feel, many of them, scarce any inconveniency from the war; but enjoy, at their ease, the amusement of reading in the newspapers the exploits of their own fleets and armies. To them this amusement compensates the small difference between the taxes which they pay on account of the war, and those which they had been accustomed to pay in time of peace. They are commonly dissatisfied with the return of peace, which puts an end to their amusement, and to a thousand visionary hopes of conquest and national glory from a longer continuance of the war.

(This quotation is in Book V, Chapter 3 of The Wealth of Nations [1].)

While Smith’s insight strikes me as retaining a great deal of explanatory power, I wonder if and how the Great Scot would modify his remark in this age of instantaneous, vivid mass communication of words, pictures, and video. Does a barrage of daily reports of fellow citizens – both soldiers and civilians – killed in action lessen the enjoyment that wars afford to “people who live…remote from the scene of action”? Probably. On the other hand, the same communication techniques that bring to us instant pictures and reports of dead Americans also bring us instant pictures of American military successes and of events such as the toppling of statues of Saddam Hussein and detailed accounts of how the real Hussein was captured.

I’m unsure if Adam Smith would modify his remark; I doubt that he’d change it substantially.

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[1] The Wealth of Nations: http://www.econlib.org/library/Smith/smWN.html

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