The Nation State as an Agent of War

29 May
Tyler Cowen has a recent post consisting of the abstract to a working paper by Alberto Alesina, Bryony Reich, Alessandro Riboni, “Nation-Building, Nationalism and Wars”. Here’s that abstract:
The increase in army size observed in early modern times changed the way states conducted wars. Starting in the late 18th century, states switched from mercenaries to a mass army by conscription. In order for the population to accept to fight and endure war, the government elites began to provide public goods, reduced rent extraction and adopted policies to homogenize the population with nation-building. This paper explores a variety of ways in which nation-building can be implemented and studies its effects as a function of technological innovation in warfare.
Here’s a link to an ungated version of the paper.

Does this imply that as long as the nation-state is the focal-point of political organization we will be fighting wars? Is that why that United States has managed to engage itself in useless and immoral wars since the end of World War II? Perhaps it’s time we create other ways to organize our political life.

Here’s several opening paragraphs from the paper:

The interplay between war and the fiscal capacity of the state is well known. However, guns are not enough to win wars; one also needs motivated soldiers. In modern times, the need for large armies led to a bargain between the rulers and the population. The elite had to make concessions to induce citizens to comply with war related demands. Rulers promoted nationalism to motivate citizens and extract “ever-expanding means of war – money, men, materiel, and much more – from reluctant subject populations” (Tilly, 1994; see also Levi, 1997).

The “ancient regimes” in Europe used to fight wars with relatively small armies of mercenaries, sometimes foreigners, paid out with the loots of war. As a consequence of the evolution of warfare, countries changed the conduct of war, switching from mercenaries to mass armies recruited or conscripted almost entirely from the national population. Roberts (1956) explained how warfare underwent a “military revolution” starting between 1560 and 1660 and reaching a completion with the “industrialization of war” (McNeill, 1982) that occurred in the nineteenth century. The source of this revolution was due to changes in tactics and weapons, such as, the use of gunpowder technology and the invention of new styles of artillery fortification, higher population growth, changes in communications and transport technology which allowed states to put a large army in the field, and the adoption of techniques of mass weapon production. The electromagnetic telegraph, developed in the 1840s, allowed the deployment and the control of the army at distance. Steamships and railroads moved weapons, men and supplies on an entirely unprecedented scale (Onorato et al., 2014). In the middle of the 19th century, the adoption of semiautomatic machinery to manufacture rifled muskets made it possible, and relatively affordable, to equip a large number of soldiers (McNeill, 1982, p. 253). As a result, the size of armies increased and, as Clausewitz (1832) put it, “war became the business of the people”.

This paper examines nation-building in times of war. Mass warfare favored the transformation from the ancient regimes (based purely on rent extraction) to modern nation states in two ways. First, the state became a provider of mass public goods in order to buy the support of the population. Second, the state developed policies geared towards increasing national identity and nationalism. In particular the states had to hold in distant provinces to avoid the breakdown of the country, which would have interfered with war effort, and to motivate soldiers and civilians located far away from the core of the country. In addition, nation-building in times of war also included aggressive negative propaganda against the enemy and supremacy theories.

When the armies had to increase in size, the elites needed to build tax capacity. This is a well studied point as we argued above, and we return to it at the end to close our argument. We focus here on a different issue, the selection on how to spend fiscal revenues to motivate the population to endure wars. The composition of spending is quite relevant. For instance Aidt et al. (2006) argue that total spending as a fraction of GDP did not increase that much in the 19th century up until WW2. What mostly changed was the composition of the budget: in the 19th century and early 20th century, spending on defense and policing was partly substituted by spending on public services (transport, communication, construction) and later on public provision of public goods (education and health).

* * * * *
In a related post, Cowen linked to a review of John Ferejohn and Frances McCall Rosenbluth, Forged Through Fire: War, Peace, and the Democratic Bargain. The review is by Rosa Brooks and it appeared in The Wall Street Journal. From the review:

Here’s the logic: The rich and powerful prefer to remain that way, and are, as a general rule, disinclined to share either wealth or political power with the poor. Only when elites are faced with external military threats do the poor become valuable to the rich. This is so because armies have traditionally required bodies—and plenty of them.

This, the authors argue, is the awful “alchemy of iron and blood” that produces democracy. Manpower-intensive forms of warfare require the large-scale mobilization of the population, which forces elites facing external threats to grant political concessions to the common man. […]

A third lesson—perhaps the hardest to swallow—is that our most cherished modern liberal political values would likely never have triumphed without war and its multiple horrors, and even the democratic gains produced by centuries of war were “neither easy nor inevitable.” Democracy depended upon a unique combination of circumstances: technologies favoring manpower-intensive forms of warfare; the lack of external sources of wealth that might have enabled governing elites to purchase military power, rather than coax it from their citizens; and so on. Even with all these conditions present, coercion and propaganda were sometimes sufficient to thwart the development of democracy. Russia and China, for instance, have managed, so far, to buck the trend.

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