War and Technological Progress

by John Quiggin on August 22, 2015

One of the big benefits of blogging for me is the chance to try out my ideas on an audience I couldn’t easily reach (or at least hear back from) in any other way. That’s particularly true when I’m writing a book, which is always a difficult process for me. My last post, on the opportunity cost of war produced a great comments thread. Particularly useful was a discussion, started by Chris, of the oft-heard claim that war stimulates scientific and technological progress. I’ve used my response, along with points appropriated from commenters to draft a new section for the book, pointing out how this claim ignores the problem of opportunity cost.

As always, comments of (nearly) all kinds are appreciated, and useful ones may be recycled.

Despite, or perhaps because of, the obvious waste and destruction of war, it’s often claimed that war has economic benefits, and even that it’s necessary to the successful functioning of the economy. One version of this argument, based on the idea of ‘military Keynesianism’ will be discussed later.

In this section, we’ll look at another popular argument, that war is a spur to research and development (R &D), and therefore to peacetime prosperity. This idea has some superficial appeal. Penicillin, nuclear energy, computers and jet aircraft are examples of technologies that were developed, or advanced rapidly, during World War II, and played a major role in postwar prosperity.

In all of these cases, the underlying research had been undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s. The outbreak of war led to a massive push to apply this research on an industrial scale, producing millions of doses of penicillin, hundreds of thousands of jet airplanes, and of course the atomic bomb. ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer was commissioned to compute artillery tables, but did not appear until 1946, when it was used in computations to produce the first hydrogen bomb.

Opportunity cost reasoning leads us to ask what was foregone to release the resources. In large part, the answer is ‘research of the kind that made these developments possible’. War gives great urgency to the “D” part of R&D, at the expense of R. This can produce some impressive short run payoffs.

To be counted against that is the loss arising when scientists are shifted from fundamental research to activities more directly relevant to the war effort, much of it with very little value beyond the immediate needs of the military. The there are the vast numbers of young scientists whose careers were interrupted because of military service, and older scientists.

For quite a few scientists war service has been more than a career interruption. Harry Moseley, widely regarded as the greatest experimental physicist of the twentieth century, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. [Bohr (I think) said that even if no one else had died, the death of Harry Moseley alone was enough to make the First World War an unbearable tragedy.]
The great theoretical physicist Karl Schwarzschild died the following year. Many more died before having any chance to contribute. one can think of the 50 fatality rate suffered by the class of 1914 at the École Normale Supérieure https://books.google.com.au/books?id=EjZHLXRKjtEC&pg=PA329&lpg=PA329&dq=ecole+nationale+superieure+casualties+world+war+i&source=bl&ots=asLFDx9V5p&sig=gr4l5-65JgNhXGRaCHkEz39xzmk&hl=en&sa=X&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q=ecole%20nationale%20superieure%20casualties%20world%20war%20i&f=false.

A tragic and heroic story from World War II is that of the scientists of the Pavlovsk Experimental Station near Leningrad (now St Petersburg), twelve of whom starved to death while protecing the station’s seed bank during the siege of the city in 1941. Other losses include the mathematicians Jean Cavailles, shot by the Gestapo, and Wolfgang Doblin, one of thousands of Jewish scientists and doctors who perished in the Holocaust.

As this example shows, scientific projects themselves were not immune from the destruction. The first programmable computer to be built was not ENIAC, but the Z1 designed by German Konrad Zuse. This computer and its successors, the Z2 and Z3 were destroyed by Allied bombing raids, and Zuse’s work was not resumed for years.

Yet again, the idea of opportunity cost as ‘that which is not seen’ provides a corrective against any attempt to minimise the costs of destruction.



Just An Australian 08.22.15 at 2:10 am

> War gives great urgency to the “D” part of R&D, at the expense of R

So much for the industralists ‘open market philosophy’


Dylwah 08.22.15 at 2:17 am

Yeah, technology and war gets very Whig version of history history. C.P. Snow in Science and Government points out how precarious it can be, making the point that if Churchill had ascended to the PM ship much earlier than he did he would have, on the advice of his science advised Lord Linderman, scrapped radar development in favour of a network of balloon fortresses.




ozajh 08.22.15 at 2:53 am

Professor Quiggin,

Firstly greetings from someone who knew you, albeit not closely, before you were a professor.

I was also immediately taken by the R&D comments in the previous thread, and I will be reading this one with interest.

My question to you is with respect to historical context. It would seem to me that you are using the World Wars (and the American Civil War??) plus the post-WW2 period to define ‘war’ here.

By way of counter-example, any suggestion in West-Central Europe for at least a century after 1648 that war stimulated any kind of progress would have been seen as an unfunny sick joke. Thirty years of continuous war involving the (then) dominant world powers hadn’t produce any R or D at all (some tactical innovations, yes, but no changes in either fighting or support technology).


Quite Likely 08.22.15 at 2:57 am

War can benefit technological progress because as a society we consistently under-invest in science. When a war comes around and we pour huge resources into military research, we gain because we’re getting closer to the optimal level of science spending. We’d gain even more if we tried to stay close to that level all the time via civilian government spending, but that’s less politically viable.


Bloix 08.22.15 at 3:15 am

“thousands of Jewish scientists and doctors who perished in the Holocaust.”

Be careful. The extermination of the Jews was not war.


Alan White 08.22.15 at 4:00 am

Thanks for this. I’d by accident just viewed “The Mystery of Matter” series on PBS which related the Moseley story. It also related (as fact, I don’t know) that Moseley enthusiastically enlisted rather than being drafted, if that matters to the mysteries (sorry).

WWII seems to me to be an outlier for any stats thesis about wars and “progress”. WWI also pressed the D very much over the R’s–the bases for the the heralded mass-murder machine-gun (e.g.)–blow-back mechanisms, staggered magazines, gas-operated reloading, water-cooling for extended operation–all were well-known before the War, and so the D eclipsed the R for that horrid machine during that equally horrid war. As well, the use of chemical weapons just was a D based upon well-known R even if the nature of the atomic structure of the chemicals themselves was undergoing an incredible transformation of quantum-level understanding. But there wasn’t the kind of R available before WWII that was so breathtakingly different in terms of tech. WWI just advanced well-known developing methods of killing with abject amoral efficiency.

But the WWI–II hiatus was unique in the history of understanding the application of nature to producing vast powers of destruction, as you suggest. Fission, air-fuel turbine engines, rocketry. The entire foundation for V2s, Hiroshima, and (with the later upped-ante of fusion reactions), the Cold War.

Korea? Vietnam? The Revenge/Oil Wars since? Minor Ds–but of course significant since (e.g.) drones used previous R for brand-new D. The shock of 911 was that any sundry past R can be recombined with past D to produce a new use for old R&D that has considerable impact, at least if wielded with sufficient destructive cunning.

The new order of terrorism is a metabattle of wits about how to use and prevent the use of stuff that is not primarily the first-order R&D of weapons. It’s a step beyond realizing that split atoms might destroy cities; it’s realizing that one drone with potentially deadly biologic/radioactive material might create incredible mass socio-economic terror in a major city were it to be exploded above it. And of course now, the matter of media itself in such a role of metabattle.


Stephen Clark 08.22.15 at 4:11 am

There are two types of opportunity costs, could have and would have. In the could have category there are resources that could have been used in far more “productive” ways but are not and the war has nothing to do with it. In the would have category there are resources that would have been used in far more “productive” ways but are not due to the war. The could have involves resources that are available but would not have been used anyway because there was not the societal will (read finance) to carry it out. In the would have category there are identifiable projects that are abandoned and their personnel diverted to other efforts or lost out right.

The could category can include 20-20 hind sight in which one could imagine fantastic alternatives that never would have happened anyway, war or no war.

The ongoing or planned or probable projects and their necessary personnel fit far more the notion of opportunity cost.

The focusing power of the desire for survival and the desire for your particular ideology to triumph must also be taken into account. The prevalence of the D in R&D may mean that projects that might have waited decades will now be green-lighted giving a spur to other parts of the economy. DARPA in the cold war. Turing in code breaking in WWII.

In historical contexts the use of resources may be at such a “non-productive” level that no amount of diversion or loss of resources would even register. The measures must be to some extent inertial to their point in time.

Great set of Questions. I’ve been pronouncing Economics dead for some time. When Scholes and Merton get a Nobel Prize for an economic model on the pricing of derivatives it is hard to imagine those resources more poorly used.


Mr Helpful 08.22.15 at 6:32 am

Only “thousands” of jet airplanes were produced during the war. See the numbers here for an indication of the quantities:




Adam Roberts 08.22.15 at 8:00 am

Thinking about the US, and World War 2, for a moment. The The Engineering, Science, and Management War Training program (ESMWT) ran from 1940 to 45, and was specifically designed to get US colleges and universities (over 200 of them) to design streamlined educational programs, in order to fill the military’s need for a great many electrical engineers, chemists, radio technicians and so on. It was, on its own term, a great success. What interests me is what happened in 1945. So during the war the government would say to a specific university (let’s say) ‘you’ve been running a 3-year electrical engineering course and charging $900 for the program: we need many new students brought to that level of expertise, but in one year and we’re only going to pay you $200 per student’ (apols for made up numbers, but you take my point). The universities met this challenge. But, come peace, they all, without exception, went back to the older, pre-war educational models and pricing: the more leisurely and more remunerative model, if you like. A disinterested observer might say: if you can teach these skills more quickly and cheaply, as the war showed you could, why don’t you do so all the time?

This may be of only marginal relevance to your broader point. One argument might be that there are educational advantages to being able to create a sense of ‘exceptional circumstances’ on a large scale.


PlutoniumKun 08.22.15 at 8:09 am

“hundreds of thousands of jet airplanes, ”

On a slightly pedantic point, the number of jet airplanes constructed in WWII was in the hundreds, only the Germans managed to mass produce them before the end of the war. It is certainly true that while the piston biplane was still common in 1939 and the turbine engine was taking over by 1945, the basic science and engineering of the aircraft of the later 20th Century was mostly established in the late 1930’s. It is undeniable however that there was an enormous leap forward in those 6 years, but more in the application of technology than actual fundamental breakthroughs (except perhaps in rocketry).

A point that I think is worth making is that the scientific utility of war is dropping, simply because modern ‘hot’ wars are likely to be shorter than the development cycles of new technologies. A groundbreaking aircraft like the B-29 went from conception in 1939 to a prototype in 1940 to first flight in 1942, and mass production by 1943. Its simply inconceivable that a major new aircraft on that scale could be produced in that timeframe now. Similar with the German V2. Later wars, such as Vietnam and of course in Iraq and Afghanistan were fought more or less with the weapons available in the beginning, despite going on for longer than WWII. The new weapon systems conceived as a result of experience in Vietnam (such as the A-10), didn’t make their operational appearance until a decade or so later.

I’m sure someone has studied this in more detail, but it does seem that there was something about the period from, say, the mid 19th Century and the American Civil War up to WWII which did mean that the wars resulted in genuine engineering and scientific breakthroughs – not just in the weapons, but the production processes to make them (which are arguably more important to the economy than the end products). But off the top of my head I can think of few major breakthroughs which took place during hot wars before the American Civil War (which arguably revolutionised modern mass production techniques in a variety of areas) and after WWII, which were of genuine use to society.

Perhaps a reason for this can be seen by looking at the societies themselves. In WWII, for example, the Japanese pretty much froze technologically and industrially – they knew they could not win a war of attrition so made little attempt to develop new weapons or techniques during the war (their only real innovation being the kamikaze). But Germany was relatively untouched up to 1943 and of course the US could continue without any fear of bombing or invasion, so they could carry out a war while innovating at home simultaneously – few other societies had that option.


Z 08.22.15 at 9:09 am

A couple of small corrections.

Wolfgang Doblin, one of thousands of Jewish scientists and doctors who perished in the Holocaust.

In fact, Wolfgang Doblin killed himself so as to avoid be captured by the German troops on the Sarre front during the 1940 battle for France. I am also not sure that Jean Cavaillès was shot by the Gestapo; it is more likely it was the German army that manned the execution squad. In the meantime, I also remembered the brilliant German mathematician Oswald Teichmüller, who died on the Eastern Front in 1943, though it should be noted he volunteered to fight there as he was a fanatic Nazi.

More importantly, it could be the case that the Holocaust actually had a rather moderate impact on research, so perhaps “one of thousands of Jewish scientists and doctors who perished in the Holocaust” is a rare instance where it is possible the negative impact of the Holocaust is overestimated. There is of course a strong selection bias, but most of the jewish academics from that period that come to my mind either had enough information and social network to flee before the extermination phase of the war started or did survive. A quick check on Wikipedia (which of course cannot be considered authoritative, but which can give a rough order of magnitude) confirms this rough impression: it lists only 14 notable academics dying in the Holocaust (none of which I knew) and only 7 of which listed as Jewish.


Philip 08.22.15 at 9:35 am

I think the example of the scientists killed in war is useful as it is something seen, however the true opportunity cost is unknowable due to lives lost of soldiers and civilians who had not even started to realise their potential in peacetime. However, I have the same thought as in the last thread that just because the resources could have been used for other research doesn’t mean they would have been.

The examples do some a bit too focused on WWII and the west but I can’t think of other ones. Another cost of military R&D, compared to others, is secrecy. For obvious reasons data and ideas will only be shared reluctantly and selectively, if at all, and this could slow or stop innovations occurring and again this is what is not seen. This problem exists in market based R&D with IP and other publicly funded R&D but I would think it is greatest for the military.


Zamfir 08.22.15 at 10:15 am

@PlutoniumKun, I don’t think the point about development cycles is correct. The b29 development ran into several billions of dollars, when nominal GDP was 100 to 150 billion. As a percentage of GDP, the B29 was a much larger program than any aircraft of the last decades. Perhaps ever?

It was finished quickly because enormous amounts of resources were thrown at it without too much attention to cost-efficiency, and because was it was taken into service long before it was ‘ready’ by peacetime norms. Under those conditions, something like the JSF could probably be rushed just as fast.


Zamfir 08.22.15 at 10:25 am

Edit: As addition, such amounts of resources show that development did not come from forgoing research opportunities – it consumed far more resources and employed far more people than were ever used for basic research. Perhaps it also cannibalized research, but most resources came from suppressed domestic consumption and postponed investment in industries that were not essential for the war effort.


Peter T 08.22.15 at 10:54 am

It’s not hard to find examples where military considerations drove sustained investment (both R & D) over decades. For instance, the British Admiralty invested over a century in hydrography, charts, food preservation, navigation, ship-building and more (the first automated machinery producing interchangeable parts was for making pulley-blocks, installed at Portsmouth naval dockyard by the elder Brunel in the Napoleonic Wars). Mapping was largely military – and it’s hard to over-estimate its importance. The first census in Britain was done to settle how much manpower was available for military purposes (estimates differed by around 50% – no-one really knew how many people lived in Britain until then). Much of the steel, machining and precision instrument development of the C19 was pushed by military investment – it was often the only source of sustained, reliable money around. Wars are only a small part of the equation.


P O'Neill 08.22.15 at 11:00 am

Adding to Peter T’s list, war was also the impetus for bond market development in Europe.


PlutoniumKun 08.22.15 at 11:17 am

@Zamfir – if I’m not mistaken, the ‘several billion’ dollar programme for the B-29 was far more than the development costs – it was the costs of constructing nearly 4,000 of them at half a million dollars each. The estimated cost for the full JSF program is already heading for something like a trillion dollars to make maybe 2,000 of them and operate them over several decades. I would suggest the cost is comparable, except that in the B-29 case it was of corse shoved into a mere 4-5 years or so except the 30-50 year suggested life-cycle of the F-35 (if the stupid thing ever does fly). I did suggest the example of the A-10 as a weapon conceived during the Vietnam war due to the discovery that beautiful supersonic jets were no use against the Vietcong. According to Wikipedia it was it took about 7 years from ‘active proposal’ to first introduction – 2 years after the fall of Saigon – and the A-10 of course is a much simpler, cruder aircraft. Its ironic that it only really found its raison d’être 30 years later, in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Peter T – I’d suggest the example of the British Navy is one where the need to be militarily advanced drove technological innovation, rather than war itself – the constant wars between England and France were more like a Cold War which occasionally went hot – it was the anticipation of war, rather than war itself which drove innovation, which I think may be getting away from John’s point (although of course it is an interesting thought in itself that preparing for war may drive innovation while war itself does not).


Zamfir 08.22.15 at 11:43 am

@PK, it’s billions for development, then more billions to produce 4000 of the things… And the first prototypes burned down, engine would keep catching fire throughout the war, cylinders and entire engine were replaced every few flights, etc.

The first flying JSF in 2006 was literally a more mature machine than the last B29. And that’s after 5 to 10 years of development, depending on how to count the x35 program. Suppose that program had got b29 amounts of resources to spend each year, b29 amounts of willingness to tolerate waste, and b29 acceptance criteria for the final product.

A program time of a few years to production for a war-critical JSF is quite believable, it doesn’t happen becuse the US has never again put such an all-overriding priority on aircraft development programs. But if there was a WW2- like situation again (god forbid), we would most likely see such drastic speedups.


Ronan(rf) 08.22.15 at 11:50 am

Perhaps a related and interesting perspective might be chapter 4 of carles boixs New book (political order and inequality ) which looks (apparently in a novel way) at the way various war technologies shaped various state systems in various contexts . I won’t try and explain it as I don’t really understand it as I ‘avent read the book in its entirety, as of time of writing. But In this case the technologies of war help develop the technologies of governance help develop the technologies of production help develop the technologies of war. And so on. Or something like that. (Though perhaps this is taking too long a view)
My own guess is its too deeply entwined to divide any of this out.


Lee A. Arnold 08.22.15 at 11:55 am

Long been fascinated by the philosophy of Cavaillès, whom I wish were available in English edition.

Someone in the other thread wrote that the opportunity costs that are lost by the deaths of individuals are not lost forever, because progress will march on. Thus, without Einstein, someone else would have eventually come to the theory of relativity anyway.

I think Cavaillès suspected that this could be wrong.

In music and the arts, of course, we are readier to accept the irretrievable: that the early deaths of Mozart, Schubert, George Gershwin, John Lennon, are not recuperated by later melodists; i.e. that more pieces that would now be permanent, have been permanently lost.

Surely there are lots of tiny young children lost in wars too, some of whom might have added to the cultural arts, and we grant that these losses are unknown and irretrievable.

Yet, in mathematics and science, we are not so ready to grant this, because maths and science are presumed to be revealing some sort of eternal structure of things — or at least, a Kantian transcendental structure of things (i.e. a necessity proceeding from the structure of our consciousness, which mirrors the structure of things since it is part of the material universe). Either way, we tend to presume that someone else will make these discoveries, anyway.

I think Cavaillès, who was a logician, questioned this. Science is a progressive unfolding, but it is not clear that it is moving toward unique fundamental concepts, and it’s a lot more like music and art than we suspect.

So I think we have to be careful when transposing the idea of “opportunity cost” to scientific lives lost, without providing that these “opportunity costs” might never be recouped in the future.


Peter T 08.22.15 at 12:02 pm

More broadly – until the mid C20, states were very much the largest sources of sustainable finance around for pretty much anything, and almost all of the state budget went on war or preparing for war. So war, via the state, drove finance, investment, technology, administrative development and much else. Not because it was a particularly efficient game, but because it was the only game in town. If you want to look for exceptions, you have to look outside Europe. For instance, China in the lateC18/early C19 invested more in public works and food stabilisation than in war (but its government sector was much smaller than in almost any European state), and Japan was likewise a fairly pacific, but also small, government.

Telling illustration: Peer Vries notes that, in 1800, the total fixed capital invested in the west Yorkshire woolen industry (the largest sector of the largest and most profitable industry in the UK) was around 20% of the fixed capital invested in the naval fleet alone.


Anarcissie 08.22.15 at 1:50 pm

‘… In this case the technologies of war help develop the technologies of governance help develop the technologies of production help develop the technologies of war….’

Science (including its technological progeny) is an effort to gain power, war is an effort to gain power. It is odd that it took them so long to recognize one another.

(Shyly) ‘Hi.’


‘Sorry about that Archimedes thing.’

‘Yeah, well, I guess we all make mistakes….’


Ralph Hitchens 08.22.15 at 3:00 pm

“Harry Moseley, widely regarded as the greatest experimental physicist of the twentieth century, was killed at Gallipoli in 1915.” Quite a few American physicists would accord that honor to Enrico Fermi (an immigrant who thankfully declined to “self-deport”).

But speaking to the nuclear side, the wartime D quite outpaced the R, I think. The huge industrial establishments at Oak Ridge and Hanford would never have been built in peacetime, and nuclear energy for war or peace would have remained a cottage industry. Which, of course, many people in later generations would have welcomed.

I enjoy well-reasoned counterfactual speculation, but as ozajh notes above, not all wars are created equal. Can one say that the current “war on terror,” the war without an end in sight, has jump-started anything more than, possibly, the RPV industry?


Peter Erwin 08.22.15 at 3:30 pm

Lee A. Arnold @20:
Yet, in mathematics and science, we are not so ready to grant this, because maths and science are presumed to be revealing some sort of eternal structure of things…

There are certainly examples of mathematical and scientific discoveries occurring more or less simultaneously in different places: Newton and Leibniz with calculus, for example, or Darwin and Wallace with evolution by natural selection.

Another interesting example is the correct explanation for rainbows (in the sense of: sunlight refracts upon entering a raindrop, reflects off the back side of the drop, and then refracts again going back out), which was hit upon by the Persian astronomer and mathematician Kamal al-Din al-Farisi working in northern Iran sometime between 1300 and 1310, and also by the German monk Theodoric of Freiberg, working in Germany during the same decade.


Plume 08.22.15 at 5:23 pm

Let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of artists, writers, philosophers, poets, etc. etc. who also died in wars . . . . along with the destruction of their works and works to be.

There are cultural opportunity costs, and my own bias rates these as often far greater tragedies than the scientific ones.

But, yes, shifting great minds over to war economies can’t help but retard advancements in other fields. Of course, “finance” is doing this, too, as fewer and fewer young people choose to go into the sciences, the arts, medicine, etc. etc. . . . and opt for more lucrative careers. The economic system itself creates massive brain drain out of fields which could benefit society far, far more than any hedge fund manager could ever hope to. Throw in war, building up for war, maintaining war economies, maintaining covert war economies . . . . and the losses are astronomical.

Btw, think of the research at Bletchley Park. As vital and essential as it was to defeating the Nazis, it was done, exclusively, to crack a code that otherwise had zero utility. Massively important in that obviously existential context/crises, but with pretty much no functional usage outside of it. It also may well have slowed down broader-based programming — with its emphasis on hardware only — and I think Turing even noted this . . . . Will have to check on that, etc.


Stephen 08.22.15 at 6:29 pm

In this thread, “war” seems to mean US wars in the mid-19th/20th/21st century.

Bearing in mind that less important wars by less important peoples have occurred elsewhere and earlier, the very intelligent comment by Ozajh@3 is worth amplifying: states and tribes, or even neighbouring villages, have been fighting each other for millennia with very little in the way of technological progress. From time to time, yes (gunpowder weapons) but with what non-military effects?

Per contra, if you want earlier and non-US examples: Alpert’s canned food (France, 1806); antiscorbutics, James Lind (1747). Both driven by military/naval needs.

But before the Age of Enlightenment (not an American monopoly)?


Richard Cottrell 08.22.15 at 6:52 pm

Hundreds of thousands of warplanes. Some mighty swarm. Figures?


Zamfir 08.22.15 at 8:18 pm

The ‘jet’ part in the OP is a mistake, but hundreds of thousands is correct. Here’s a breakdown for the US from wiki, reasonably well sourced: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_aircraft_production_during_World_War_II

It adds up to 300,000 aircraft produced in the US. Another wiki page comes to 750,000 aircraft worldwide, but it’s sourcing is less good.


Zamfir 08.22.15 at 8:26 pm

The source link on wiki is broken, but the table comes from this 1946 document, page 145



Matt 08.22.15 at 10:52 pm

War and military instruments are the worst of all Keynesian stimuli. A fortune was spent on designing and manufacturing chemical weapons and then it took another fortune to destroy them safely, decades later, after they had done nothing but occupy space as a persistent hazard for 50+ years. Useless makework shoveling sand back and forth between two piles would have been safer and hardly less useful, if the world were so bereft of real needs that you couldn’t find better occupations and the world were so bereft of imagination that you couldn’t distribute claims on consumption without “jobs” to justify them.


uair01 08.22.15 at 11:05 pm

In this lecture the speaker states that nuclear weapons are not that effective and that armies never liked them anyway. They’re expensive, clumsy, bureaucratic and career ending. This would seem to support Matt at 30:


Omega Centauri 08.22.15 at 11:22 pm

Another thing that originated in WW2 that had a big effect postwar was the GI act. Many thousands of returning GIs were able to afford college education because of that.

Of course the national “panic”, which followed sputnik generated a crash program to modernize STEM education in the US.


John Quiggin 08.22.15 at 11:35 pm

Thanks a lot for these comments. One point made by numerous commenters is that the “war -> tech progress” idea relies heavily on WWII. As usual, the “Good War” is bad guide to thinking about war.


max 08.23.15 at 4:56 am

In all of these cases, the underlying research had been undertaken in the 1920s and 1930s.

And in the case of WWI, much of the underlying research was done prior to that war – but the development of artificial fertilizer was entirely war-driven. Likewise, when you say, ‘all of the underlying research was done prior to the war’ I’d have have to disagree. The very basic underlying research was done before the war – but a great deal of the midway part of the research-to-development cycle was done during the war. Nothing can proceed without some opportunity cost somewhere, and I think the issue here is (or should be) the opportunity costs of peace vs. armed camps vs. war vs. something else.

ENIAC, the first electronic general-purpose computer was commissioned to compute artillery tables, but did not appear until 1946, when it was used in computations to produce the first hydrogen bomb.

Almost all the development (and a great deal of the practical research) that needed to made to develop computers were made during the war.

War gives great urgency to the “D” part of R&D, at the expense of R. This can produce some impressive short run payoffs.

I’d argue that war is bad in general. The problem here is is that elites will spend money during wars (because they think they have to), money that otherwise gets spent on assorted Veblen goods and rent-seeking. (see Plume, above, at 25) With computers in particular, the money to develop computers came because of the war – but those computers were hardly useful for anything. Further impetus to computer development came from Cold War (when is a peace like a war?) spending. I could also point to the Mediterranean basin of the Classical period when many developments occurred prior to conquests of the Roman Empire as various kingdoms competed for prestige, but after the total victory of Rome and the conversion to despotism, there were building splurges, but development gradually fell off in other areas. All the evidence I see suggests that development (and research or ‘research’) went along at a good clip between 500 BCE and 1 AD, and in the 500 years following the pace fell off drastically. (I see decent reasons to think that some of the developments occurring around the time of the Renaissance could not have proceeded from the technological level of 200 AD, but I see plenty of reason to think that a great deal of development that began with the Renaissance could very much have proceeded immediately post-200 AD or so. To put it another way, I’d the majority of developments that occurred from say, 1400 AD to 1550 AD or so almost certainly could have been brought about during 200 AD to 500 AD.)

The notion is put forward as ‘war is good’ versus ‘war is bad’ (I’m squarely on the war is bad side), but unfortunately I think the actual argument should be between useful development spending vs. elite status spending (of the sort that is so very popular at the moment).

Or perhaps its simply that the situation alternates between elites spending their money on sending their lessers off to die in idiot wars to elites spending their money pissing contests or status while seeking to leech their lessers at every turn.

[‘Sometimes those idiots accidentally do something useful.’]


Peter T 08.23.15 at 5:41 am

“Nothing can proceed without some opportunity cost somewhere” This is the premise, but it’s simply false if you mean that in the “no free lunches” sense. For instance, something close to 20 per cent of the west European population up to 1900 were malnourished to the point of being useless economically. Food was available, but not the social mechanisms to transfer spending power to these people. Change the social mechanisms and – voila – 20 per cent greater productivity (and 20 per cent more soldiers). Did this cost anything? Not economically (the loss to the upper classes was more than balanced by the gain to the lower). One could find many similar examples.

Competition between states is one of the drivers of greater social equality (Prussian politician c1910: “If the people fight for you, they demand their price; the Reichstag was the price of the last victory; I shudder to think what the next will cost”). Would social democracy have arrived without the need to mobilise the population in the World Wars?

This is not to say that there are not better ways, or that war is economically rational. But we already know that war is not economically rational, so arguments for its disutility are unlikely to change many minds.


bad Jim 08.23.15 at 8:15 am

The Cold War, and the existential threat of nuclear annihilation, did lead to an enormous expansion of public funding of both pure and applied research in many fields. The threat was so general, and extended over so many decades, that generations of researchers benefited, since it was understood that development depended on basic research.

Space exploration and nuclear warfare are practically the same thing, technologically speaking, and out of this we got semiconductors, integrated circuits, microprocessors, and the Internet. There’s a lot of basic science behind these advances. By the 1980’s the commercial market had more pull than the Pentagon, and Intel declined to participate in the VHSIC program, pointing to Chairman Moore’s law. But it probably wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been considered necessary to be able to launch a missile from a submarine to obliterate a distant city.


PlutoniumKun 08.23.15 at 9:02 am

I think one issue with trying to identify the technological costs/benefits of war as this discussion bears out is clarifying what ‘war’ is. There can be no doubt that much technological development owed to long term conflicts – as an obvious example quoted above, 18th Century conflicts between (primarily) England and France drove naval architecture. But this was a mix of war and cold war and old style rivalry. To come to any conclusion, I think we need to be clear whether we are talking about military expenditure in general, driven by conflict, or ‘hot’ wars. I think there is a very distinct difference.

Just to take the WWII one as an example, while most people take 1939 as a kick off point (or 1941 if you believe Hollywood), in Asia it was hot from the beginning of the 1930’s, starting in Manchuria in 1931. To make a cultural point, the beautiful Hayao Miyazaki film ‘The Wind Rises’ which traces the development of the Mitsubishi Zero fighter plane shows that the coming shadow of war (and the consequent massive investment in aircraft technology), long pre-dated 1939. In fact, I would strongly recommend John to watch that film, its a beautiful and suble examination of how peaceable engineers became involved in making weapons of war.


jkay 08.23.15 at 9:44 am

He’s right – we would’ve had earlier Internet, microchips computers, TVs and earlier cheaper plastics to put everything in without WW2 and other war spending.

And true in general, because it’s always been true and always will be, for effort and money spent on war can always be better spent elsewhere.

Wouldn’t it’ve been for Athenian and Greece tech and economy if Themistocles the classkcal Athenian naval genius had been an engineering or math or science genius instead?

Tnanks for the post – it’s a common misperception, amd you’re totally rigbt, in general.


Mark Pontin 08.23.15 at 9:52 am

[1] bad Jim wrote: ‘But it probably wouldn’t have come into existence had it not been considered necessary to be able to launch a missile from a submarine to obliterate a distant city.’

No probably about it.

In 1960, 100 percent of all microprocessors produced were bought by the Pentagon; by 1967, 70 percent wstillere. All of this was almost exclusively for ICBM guidance systems and the early warning systems that were the ancestors of the Internet.

[2] It seems to me Quiggin’s piece itself is fundamentally confused, since it doesn’t want to draw a distinction between spending on war AS OPPOSED TO defense spending.

That is, both war spending and defense spending can muster long-tern nation state funding commitment because both appeal to existential threat as a driver for that spending. But Eisenhower-era and 1960s era America managed the magic trick of mostly skipping the destruction that war imposes (though things weren’t so nice for ‘client’ nations of the superpowers in places like East Asia) while reaping the benefits of war-footing spending. That oft-invoked 90 percent tax rate on the very rich during the Eisenhower era was essentially justified in those terms; likewise, the construction of the U.S. interstate highway system.

[3] Quiggins also overlooks the strange role in the U.S. system that — as Varoufakis in THE GLOBAL MINOTAUR points out — Pentagon spending has as a SRM (surplus recycling mechanism). A big part of how poor states like Alabama get subsidized by rich (blue states) in the U.S. states is with bases and defense spending.

It’s not pretty, but for now it works for the U.S.. The EU has no such SRM, and Greece is in the state it is because of that.

[4] All the above said, I don’t want to over-valorize the U.S. situation during the early Cold War because I don’t think it’s repeatable. As it was a war-footing situation, immense power was given to a trio of near-genius scientist-administrators in the U.S. military: –
Hyman Rickover in the U.S. Navy (responsible for nuclear power, both in ships, subs and civil power stations initially);
Lesley Groves in the Army (picked Oppenheimer and ran the Manhattan Project, then the building of the Pentagon);
and Bernard Schriever at the Air Force (probably the most significant of them all; in building his ICBMs and associated systems (i.e. microprocessors) , he also created the rockets of NASA’s Mercury program and the contracting system that enabled Apollo — and he smashed MIC operators who got in the way.

Individuals like Schriever, Rickover and Groves are uncommon, and in most eras they aren’t going to work for and rise in the military.

[5] Eisenhower, too, looks larger and abler in retrospect than almost everybody we’ve seen since. Not incidentally, he made Quiggin’s argument more cogently than Quiggins does: _

‘Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.
‘This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. It is some fifty miles of concrete pavement. We pay for a single fighter with a half-million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people. . . . This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.’



philofra 08.23.15 at 1:04 pm

Technological progress has not been the only means of advancing and sustaining humankind. We’ve also needed other means of progress to advance and keep ahead of the game, like the progress in human governance. The two world wars of the past century certainly stimulated and encourage that progress also.


Omega Centauri 08.23.15 at 1:55 pm

If you read about the mega-conquerors of the ancient world, the empire builders, you keep running
into the theme that the forced mixing of cultures germinated subsequent advances. Often the most talented subjects from the newly conquered lands would be gathered up and concentrated in the capital to work on imperial projects. There they would come into contact with other talented people from across the empire, and often this lead to advancements.

I don’t see this as much of a theme in the last century, where it is government motivation to spend vast sums on R&D that dominates.


Lee A. Arnold 08.23.15 at 2:21 pm

Peter Erwin #24: “There are certainly examples of mathematical and scientific discoveries occurring more or less simultaneously in different places…”

The Wikipedia article “multiple discovery” lists almost 100 examples, and there are probably lots more.

There are also arguments that some artistic styles (as opposed to individual art works) might have emerged in history, no matter who had done them first. I think that Leonard B. Meyer considered this, while arguing his correct prediction that the late 20th-century culture was going to become polystylistic. (Music, the Arts, and Ideas, 1967)

My favorite case of simultaneous cultural invention is that James Joyce and Jung independently formulated the idea of the “collective unconscious” at the same time. (I am not sure that anyone else has noticed this, although it follows as a consequence of Joseph Campbell’s faulted “skeleton key” to Finnegans Wake.) Joyce probably gave the better expression of it, since it appears that he never believed in it, as anything other than a literary conceit necessitated by a major trend in modernism, and which would, moreover, require its own hilarious punning language, to properly express.

But whether everything that COULD be discovered, WILL be discovered? That is another sort of question, and we may need all the people we can get, and then some more.

The argument that the opportunity cost of scientific lives lost (and other lives too) may be insurmountable, proceeds from at least two things, the lack of eternal conceptual foundations, and “complexity escalation”. Nicholas Rescher:

“A mixed picture emerges. On the one hand, the course of scientific progress is a history of the successive destabilization of theories. On the other hand, the increasing resource requirement for digging into ever deeper layers of complexity is such that successive triumphs in our cognitive struggles with nature are only to be gained at an increasingly greater price. The world’s inherent complexity renders the task of its cognitive penetration increasingly demanding and difficult… To be sure, we constantly seek to ‘simplify’ science, striving for an ever smaller basis of ever more powerful explanatory principles, but in the course of this endeavor we invariably complicate the structure of science itself… [D]espite its quest for operational simplicity (economy of principles), science itself is becoming ever more complex (in its substantive content, its reasonings, its machinery, etc.)” –Nicholas Rescher, The Limits of Science, pp. 64-65.

To put it another way: Sometimes the fundamental concepts change along with the theories, so we have to suppose that there are no fundamentals which we can judge to be eternally secure (and thus Cavaillès argued that science is not exactly the uncovering of concepts, rather it is “the perpetual revision of existing content through deepening and erasure.”) On the other hand, science is an evolutionary process branching into ever greater amounts of content and complexity, and so its possibilities will outrun human resources (indeed logarithmically outrun it, Rescher argues).

So there are two conditions here. First, that we can’t say exactly “what it is” that science is doing, and second, that whatever it is doing, it is requiring increasing efforts. Under either condition (much less both of them) I think it is difficult to argue that scientists are replaceable, and that whatever can be discovered, will be discovered.

There is more to do than we can imagine, and we need all the scientists (and artists, musicians, teachers, philosophers) we can get.


Lee A. Arnold 08.23.15 at 2:31 pm

This problem is especially obvious with the social sciences, where the fundamentals are even less long-lived, and the complexity is greater.

We need all the social scientists we can get, too.

Economics is such a disaster that really hasn’t even gone through a paradigm shift yet: thus it may not be a science, on Kuhnian grounds!

Indeed economics is resisting a long-overdue paradigm shift which would incorporate institutional cost-reduction as 1/2 of value creation, as Coase pointed out, and even though Adam Smith expressed a prime corollary in chapter 3, “The division of labor is limited by the extent of the market.” I would argue that the proper economic framework would put a major crimp into “opportunity cost” analysis, at least in consumer markets, because some opportunity costs can be subsumed by the institutional provision of, e.g. universal healthcare, which can have a lesser cost-structure by the saving of various kinds of transaction costs.


Plume 08.23.15 at 2:34 pm


You should read William Everdell’s The First Moderns. He covers a ton of ground, perhaps too much, but is really excellent at picking up the links and simultaneous explosions of creativity in the humanities, maths and sciences.

It wasn’t just Joyce and Jung. Simultaneity itself was in the air. The cubism of culture and the mind. Joyce was quite different from Jung in that his “collective unconscious” was fractured, fragmented, in need of being put back together again. Like Pound, Eliot, Woolf and most of the moderns, tikkun olam was their job, if possible. And if not possible, to at least describe the shape, context and history of those fragments and that fragmentation, from as many angles as possible — destroying time, hopefully, in the process. Objective correlatives for all of this. No ideas but in things. Making it new again, etc. etc.


Lee A. Arnold 08.23.15 at 2:36 pm

Peter Erwin, the theory of relativity is actually a good case to examine, and you are a good man to ask:

If Einstein had never existed, would scientists have happened anyway upon the current expression of relativity?

How might it have been discovered? It doesn’t fit into the standard model. Would the current ideas of gravity look the same?

Remember that for Einstein, it wan’t derived from previous scientific results, but originated in childhood thought experiments. (Max Wertheimer spent hours quizzing Einstein about this process. See the remarkable book, Productive Thinking, chapter 10.) Einstein also spent a lot of time in epistemological musing upon Kant. Relativity was a remarkably idiosyncratic development.


philofra 08.23.15 at 3:19 pm

Lee: “Economics is such a disaster that really hasn’t even gone through a paradigm shift yet”

If economics is such a disaster like you say, the progression of technology has had something to do with it. Think of robotics and how many manufacturing jobs it has gobbled up. Technological developments has also made it easier to move jobs offshore.

Robotics has caused a paradigm shift in economics!


Plume 08.23.15 at 3:37 pm

Economics will never go through a “paradigm shift” unless/until it decides to stop playing cheerleader for the current economic system. It’s really as simple as that. Right now, we basically have grossly truncated, A to B discussion, all without any critique of an obviously irrational and failed system which:

A: Doesn’t come close to allocating resources in a fair, adequate or sustainable manner for the majority
B: Produces ungodly amounts of inequality, automatically
C: Is leading us to ecological Armageddon, which will obviously make all previous discussion pointless
D: Assumes that the system actually is logical and rational, rather than a bad fiction. It is a bad fiction.
E: Assumes that the use of jargon and self-referenciality will fool the masses into believing it’s not a bad fiction, etc.

In short, economics acts as the official, academic collaborator par excellence. It creates the illusion that there is a great wizard behind the scenes, instead of the reality of its driverless, runaway train.


Zamfir 08.23.15 at 4:00 pm

@Lee, special relativity was definitely in the air. The Lorentz transform was written earlier, and people were looking for a framework to explain it. Relativity, mass-energy equivalence, people were puzzling the pieces together. Poincaré in particular published very similar ideas as Einstein at the same time and people might just have called it Poincaré’s theory of relativity if it hadn’t been for Einstein who wrote a more convincing version.

Einstein then worked on general relativity with mathematicians like Grossman and Hilbert, who seemed to have provided some of the heavy lifting. They might not have looked at this problem without Einstein, but they seemed capable of finishing the theory without him.

The Ehrenfest paradox attracted a lot of ideas like Einstein’s, about non-euclidean geometry to make acceleration work with special relativity. These were small social circles though, the people involved knew Einstein and his ideas.

Einstein seemed to have had the best intuition, but there were much more people working on similar lines. It might have taken longer without him, and the results might have been less associated with a single person. But there’s a fairly believable alternative history where some ‘Lorentz-Poincare’ special relativity gained acceptance in the 1900s, after which people recognized the problems with gravity and accelerating fields, just like they did now, not just Einstein himself. At some point this problem would have ended yp with the same mathematicians who provided the ammo for Einstein’s theory. But all of it might have taken longer with Einstein who was both convinced about the direction, and convincing to others to follow.


Zamfir 08.23.15 at 4:02 pm

Typo: longer without einstein


absurdbeats 08.23.15 at 4:10 pm

How far out are you looking for costs and benefits? And how direct a line?

For example, the Manhattan Project led directly to the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after which the Atomic Energy Commission (1945-1974) sent scientists to Japan to study the effects of radiation on survivors. The duties of the AEC were later folded into the Department of Energy, which in turn took the lead in developing projects which in the 1990s coalesced in the Human Genome Project.

It’s a fairly direct (if improvised or unforeseen-at-the-beginning) line from the Manhattan Project to the Human Genome Project (which was, inevitably, compared to the former), but it’s also a fairly long line—over 40 years.

Then there’s the even more esoteric matter of scientists who chose to enter fields during or post-war which were tied to defense, as well as those who decided to forego study in a particular field precisely because they didn’t want to contribute to the war machine. An example of the latter might be Leo Szilard, a theoretical physicist whose thinking was crucial in the development of nuclear bombs, but who, following the war, was so dismayed by the militarization of physics that he left physics for biology.
On an unrelated point: Richard Rhode’s The Making of the Atomic Bomb is a terrific history not just of the Manhattan Project, but of physics in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as how scientists contributed to the war effort of their respective countries in both WWI & II.


philofra 08.23.15 at 4:40 pm

Speaking of paradigm shifts, world wars have been paradigm shifters. They redrew the boards of Europe, got rid of dead wood in the ruling classes and made the world a more open and accommodating place. In many respects the technological advances, such as those in communication and travel, have contributed to that opening up.

The advanced technological development of nuclear weapons certainly caused a paradigm shift in war. It changed the attitude to war. Such weapons have acted as a deterrent to world wars. If it wasn’t for nuclear weapons and the “mutual destruction” it brought on the “Cold War” between the USSR and the US would have been a hot one.


Plume 08.23.15 at 4:46 pm


And all it took was for America to incinerate a coupla hundred thousand innocent civilians, in one of the worst war-time atrocities on record. Not to mention all the subsequent damage due to the fallout. Totally and completely unnecessary to boot, which adds further weight to the atrocity.

Ike has been mentioned upthread. He said before they dropped the two bombs that it was completely unnecessary and a horrible mistake. Japan had already offered to surrender months before and they couldn’t have withstood Russia’s entrance into the war. We dropped the bomb, primarily, to scare Russia. There was no strategic reason, in the context of WWII, to drop them. It was all about post-war geopolitics.


PJW 08.23.15 at 4:55 pm

The Interstate Highway System.


philofra 08.23.15 at 5:30 pm

John Q: “[it’s often claimed that war has economic benefits,]”

It’s no longer the case. If we had wars like in the past, like the two world wars of the 20th century, the economic cost today would be too great to bear. In fact, there would be no world left to benefit economically from, due to the the prospect of complete destruction.

Modern wars have occurred in the name of changing and improving the world when the world would not change through other means, such as political or economic means. Today the substitute for war is economics, mainly through capitalism, that forces the change and evolution Civilization needs to continue and remain sustainable.

Civilization can’t afford the revolutionary cost of wars as we once did. Nevertheless, Civilization has always had to be in a revolutionary mode to keep with the ‘program’. Today the affordable and most cost affective way to remain revolutionary and agile is through economic activity, which is constantly revolutionizing and churning away.

Wars were the ‘creative destruction’ of the past. Today it’s economics and its handmaiden capitalism which are responsible for the creative destruction Civilization needs to keep from atrophying.


Lee A. Arnold 08.23.15 at 7:57 pm

Zamfir #48,

Thanks for this.


John Quiggin 08.23.15 at 8:57 pm

Mark Pontin @39 Good catch on Eisenhower. Might have been even better if you’d read my previous post where I cited this very passage. Might have been even better yet if you’d bothered to spell my name correctly – it’s written right there after all.


Anarcissie 08.23.15 at 10:40 pm

philofra 08.23.15 at 5:30 pm @ 54:
‘… Today the substitute for war is economics, mainly through capitalism, that forces the change and evolution Civilization needs to continue and remain sustainable. …’

Capitalism depends on the modern state, the social order imposed on a territory and a population by a government; government is the Gewaltmonopol, the monopoly of legitimated original violence; thus, government is the social institution able and willing to make war and exert coercive police power — an ability which will not be respected unless it is physically exerted from time to time. Thus, in a real, active sense, capitalism is a form of war. If you doubt this, look around. It is not only a war against human beings; it is also a war against the Earth itself. If you expect capitalism to get rid of war, you may soon wind up proposing a War to End War or some other such absurdity. Beware.


Robespierre 08.23.15 at 11:11 pm

Not any more than anything, by depending on the State, is a form of war.


Anarcissie 08.24.15 at 1:29 am

Robespierre 08.23.15 at 11:11 pm @ 58 —
Some kinds of institutions or relations can have both a state and a non-state form, for example the family. The state-constituted family depends on the state, but similar institutions and relations may not. State-constituted family life has often included theories and practices of coercive force which could be called ‘war’ or ‘policing’ — indeed, have been, by various critics of it. (One might want to recall the etymologies of ‘family’ and ‘patriarchy’.)

But I find it difficult to imagine a form of permanent, institutionalized domination and exploitation, such as capitalism, which could exist without the highly organized threat and application of coercive force, that is, a state.


philofra 08.24.15 at 2:11 am

Anarcissie: : “Thus, in a real, active sense, capitalism is a form of war”

I don’t disagree with that. War is in humankind’s DNA. But capitalism is a more desirable form of war than the other kind, the really kind like WWI and WW2. Capitalism is the desirable alternative. Capitalism has repackaged humankind’s war instincts into a more favourable, productive manner.


Alan White 08.24.15 at 3:43 am


Much of what you say is true, but I have some quibbles.

Einstein’s revolutionary idea of relativized inertial frames operationally defined put all dynamical explanations to sleep, elegantly preserving the laws of physics in an unprecedented way by elevating the speed of light to that status with the epistemological chips falling as they may. Poincare was close, and Lorentz got the contractions right. But unification of math and theory was Einstein’s unique contribution by making space and time the servants of law, and not its master.

Same with the principle of equivalence, which in effect places all observers in all states of motion in law-abiding frames. That was a brilliant extension of the equivalence of Galilean inertial frames in special relativity.

My point is that the maths and experimental predictive power of physics might well have evolved on a comparable time frame as it actually did had Einstein died pre-1905. That does not mean that the unifying theoretical insight he provided would have.


Collin Street 08.24.15 at 4:20 am

We do know with some certainty that development of von-neumann architecture stored-program computers was delayed, not accelerated, by WWII:
1: the wartime machines all had separate instruction and data memories, because that was closer to how analog computers were programmed and the wartime work was on a pressing time-schedule that didn’t allow development of interesting new theoretical possibilities.
2: turing’s key paper was pre-war but lead to multiple threads of development in different places
3: the secrecy of the wartime developments and the blowing up of the Z-3 meant that for future work the war years were dead time.


Anarcissie 08.24.15 at 4:39 am

philofra 08.24.15 at 2:11 am @ 60 —
I don’t really observe the sublimation you describe. I think it is reasonable to attribute World Wars 1 and 2, and many lesser wars before, during, between, and after, to the energies released by capitalism, of both the physical and the political kind. (All that is solid melts into air, etc.) And not just back then. Only a decade ago our leaders were telling us that, by invading Iraq, they would transform it into a liberal democracy, that is, another polity optimized for capitalist exploitation. The war at the heart of the capitalist state (at least in the case of capitalist poster-child USA) constantly breaks forth in acts of violence. And I’m not even going into the associated social, cultural, and environmental destruction — the war against the Earth. The problem is not solved by calling it a solution.


Robespierre 08.24.15 at 8:25 am

Care to mention other industrial economic systems that don’t depend on the State? Or non-industrial for that matter.


Stephen 08.24.15 at 8:38 am

Anarcissie: : “Thus, in a real, active sense, capitalism is a form of war”.

But looking at the history of Russia, China, etc would you not say that socialism is equally a form of war, though sometimes with different enemies?


Scott Martens 08.24.15 at 9:41 am

Playing devil’s advocate here, so bear with me:

If you’re going to assess the opportunity cost of warfare, especially in science, you have to ask how much fundamental research in peacetime was motivated, in part or whole, by the fears of future war. In the Cold War, this was certainly a big factor. On the longer run, it’s not incoherent to think that an early modern Europe with many tiny states and no peace advanced in science and industry faster than than, say, relatively peaceful China, because of the constant warfare.

Okay, done devil’s advocacy.

In the specific case of computers, I think you’ll find that a sterile direction for making these arguments. First, Turing, Post, Church and the 1936 Wunderjahr are generally overestimated in the history of computing. Neither Zuse, nor the makers of ENIAC, nor the makers of Colossus, cited or even appeared to know about the Turing-Church-Post approach to computability. Nor is there any obvious reason why they would want to: Of the three inventors of effective procedures, only Turing discussed it in terms of machines at all, and even then made no meaningful connection to any actual engineering. No one really made the connection to real computers til Hao Wang in the mid-50s. So to go from 1936 to building real computers any earlier without the distraction of war is really hard to support.

Computers were an idea whose time had come when it came. I am not convinced that absent WWII there would have been any faster development, and without WWII and Cold War pressures there might well have been less.

Nuclear science offers a lot more chances to see development in light of war and without it. Development in that area was definitely faster when researchers were willing to accept some loss of life, and the war definitely helped on that front. (cf. the tragic story of Louis Slotin, who is considered something of a hero of science and engineering because he died working for the war effort, when dying for the same reason outside of warfare would be considered a horrifying workplace accident that demanded lawyers, firings and serious regulatory oversight.)

On the other hand, engineered hybrid grains were identified as a potential boon in the 20s and 30s already (building on basic science a generation before that) but the research that led to modern hybrids in Mexico was basically halted by WWII. Even afterwards, the kind of ag research that had been high priority in the Dust Bowl era was relatively underfunded compared to weapons programs. It’s not implausible that the big breakthroughs of the late 50s and 60s could have happened a decade or more earlier without WWII.


philofra 08.24.15 at 12:07 pm

Anarcissie: “I think it is reasonable to attribute World Wars 1 and 2, and many lesser wars before, during, between, and after, to the energies released by capitalism, of both the physical and the political kind.”

You are right, industrialization and capitalism did create the energies for wars. But I also think that the big wars were due to a disconnect that developed between industrialization/capitalism and the political skills of the times. To my mind, if the political skills of the world had kept pace with the expansion of industrialization/capitalism the world wars would not have occurred.

Wars have not only contributed to technological developments but have also contributed to the development of political skills and networking between nations. If it wasn’t for WWI and WW2 the world wouldn’t have political forums like the UN where many international disputes have been settled.

The Iraq war a major blunder. It was born and spun of political hubris. But it did start the reformation and transformation of the Middle East.


James Wimberley 08.24.15 at 12:35 pm

Peter T in #15
Other contributions of the Royal Navy: Prevention of scurvy with lime-juice. (They ran a controlled experiment IIRC). The voyage of the Beagle – the purpose was hydrography, and Darwin was wangled a berth as dinner companion to Fitzroy the captain, so the Navy can’t claim much credit for the discovery of the fundamental principle of biology. Still, they paid for it; cf. HTML. The Longitude Prize, which was motivated by the cold/hot war with France.


Bill Benzon 08.24.15 at 12:41 pm

@Scott Martins #66: On the longer run, it’s not incoherent to think that an early modern Europe with many tiny states and no peace advanced in science and industry faster than than, say, relatively peaceful China, because of the constant warfare.

From a review of Philip T Hoffman, Why Did Europe Conquer the World?:

It was not a matter of economic supremacy through industrialisation, which arrived only in the last of the five centuries or so that Hoffman’s study covers.

Rather, he argues, it was down to both military and economic advantage gained through “gunpowder technology” – the continuing development of firearms, artillery, ships armed with guns and fortifications that could resist bombardment – which itself derived from the fact that warfare was “the sole purpose of early modern states in western Europe”.

See Hoffman’s paper, Why was it that Europeans conquered the rest of the world? The politics and economics of Europe’s comparative advantage in violence (PDF).

The core of Hoffman’s analysis is the idea that European powers were engaged in a centuries-long “tournament” – a competition that drove contestants to exert enormous effort in the hope of winning a prize.


Bill Benzon 08.24.15 at 12:42 pm

Whoops! That last comment got scrambled. Reverse the order of the last two paragraphs.


Scott Martens 08.24.15 at 12:44 pm

Bill, I knew I’d read the idea somewhere, but a cursory googling didn’t find it.


Chris Bertram 08.24.15 at 12:55 pm

@James Wimberley “Prevention of scurvy with lime-juice.” No!! They discovered that lemons were effective, but later substituted limes in the belief that they would do the job. They didn’t. See here, for a great story



philofra 08.24.15 at 1:43 pm

The most noticeable technology from the Industrial Revolution was railways. Railways became quite an instrument of war. This technology expanded the scope of war.


Plume 08.24.15 at 1:56 pm

Stephen @65,

No. Because Russia and China both used State Capitalism, in a sea of Capitalism. There has never been a “socialist” nation-state in history.

The employer/employee relationship, the appropriation of surplus value, the M-C-M and exchange value unique to the capitalist mode of production all were in place in both nations. All that happened was that the state took the place of private ownership and owned workers and their production. Nothing really changed except for management. Workers were still exploited up the wazoo, etc. etc. and what they produced was not their own.

It’s not “socialism” until there is no appropriation of surplus value and the economy is fully democratized. There is no “socialism” with capitalist modes of production — top down, autocratic, anti-democratic, exploitative, etc.


Robespierre 08.24.15 at 2:18 pm

While a worker controlled economy would not need a State? Seriously, even apart from the no true Socialism, if one wants to diss capitalism, go straight ahead. But the thought process “State is bad -> Capitalism needs the State -> Capitalism is bad” is just dumb.


Layman 08.24.15 at 2:20 pm

No true Scotsman would permit the existence of a socialist nation-state.


Plume 08.24.15 at 2:30 pm

It’s not even a remote whisper of a hint of “no true Scotsman.” In order to approach that, it would need to stop being 180 degrees away from pretty much all socialist theory and practice, going back some 200 years and more.

China, the Soviet Union, NK, etc. etc. practiced that 180 degrees from the entire history of “socialisms.” They didn’t include THE bedrock, core, essential, foundational elements of socialisms. They were nowhere in sight. And Lenin repeatedly used the term, “state capitalism,” to describe what he had implemented.

It’s like calling calling a square a circle and then accusing the critic of this of falling for the NTS fallacy.


Plume 08.24.15 at 2:40 pm

You’re invited to a dinner party. You were told you’d be served chateaubriand, with a fine red wine, followed by organic chocolate mousse, a century old Napolean Brandy and gourmet coffee flown in from Costa Rica.

Instead, you’re presented with cheese whiz on crackers, water and a discount card for dunkin’ donuts.

You complain. “This isn’t what we were promised!!! and it’s terrible!!”
Others at the table respond that it’s terrible, too, but they say it’s the worst chateaubriand, wine, chocolate mousse, brandy and gourmet coffee they’ve ever had. They say this proves that those things should never be served, anywhere, ever again, because they will always and forever be terrible!!

You respond, “But they’re not what you say they are!!”
They answer, “That’s just you falling for the No True Scotsman fallacy!!”


Anarcissie 08.24.15 at 3:01 pm

Robespierre 08.24.15 at 8:25 am @ 64:

‘Care to mention other industrial economic systems that don’t depend on the State? Or non-industrial for that matter.’

Industrialism and capitalism are practically coterminous. The association of industry with war (‘dark Satanic mills’) was noticed pretty early on. For ‘non-industrial (economic systems)’ I would have to know what you mean by ‘economic system’ — a group of hippie anarchists in a remote rural commune are an economic system, but probably not what you mean.

Stephen 08.24.15 at 8:38 am @ 65:
‘But looking at the history of Russia, China, etc would you not say that socialism is equally a form of war, though sometimes with different enemies?’

I think the original idea of socialism, the thing that was supposed to make it different from capitalism, was the ownership and control of the means of production by the workers, or by the people in general. That did not happen in the Soviet sphere, except maybe very briefly; instead, we observe control by a vanguard or elite, a great leader, and widespread abrogation of the freedom of ordinary people. The resemblance to fascism is hard not to notice. Non-state forms of socialism (cooperatives, communes, partnerships) don’t seem very warlike to me but I suppose they could be.

philofra 08.24.15 at 12:07 pm @ 67:

‘… Wars have not only contributed to technological developments but have also contributed to the development of political skills and networking between nations….

To be exact, between the ruling classes of nation-states. Some of the political skills which have been developed in association with modern war are the control of large populations through industrially-distributed propaganda, mass surveillance and policing, concentration camps, ethnic cleansing and extermination, economic manipulation, and so on. There is a vision of the future in which the ruling classes of the world could cohere into a single empire; after all, they have the same concerns, just as primitive slavemasters learned to combine to secure their situations by forming primitive states. But this is still war: humans are willful animals, resentful of control, and occasional acts of violence and terror will be necessary to maintain the established order.


Glen Tomkins 08.24.15 at 3:05 pm

War per se isn’t a spur to R&D — government spending is. War is simply the only sort of government spending we’re willing to go along with whole hog.

This is pretty much the point that Krugman returns to a lot with his thing about the best thing for the economy would be if the Martians attacked. A lot of govt spending and its good effects, on the economy immediately, and on R&D as a long-term benefit, without the downside of all that good obtained only because nations are intent on destroying each other. As long as all the destruction stayed out in space somewhere, it would all be good.

The problem here is cutting out the middleman of war. If we could get past the quasi-religious objections we seem to have against using the vast resources of our highly productive economies on projects that we collectively want, that we as a society have decided is what we should be doing — instead of letting “markets” and other metaphysical entities make such decisions — we could just go ahead and engage the six or seven projects that need doing, without waiting for some war to get us to do them because we have no choice if we don’t want to lose the war.

To some extent, our permanent quasi-war footing since WWII has been an attempt to keep govt in the game by pretending that the existential threat is still out there, that we still need collective action as a matter of survival. But that’s a sham, as neither the late-unlamented Soviet Union nor the current “terrorist threat” we had to invent to replace the SU, are real threats to our existence. So we have vast govt expenditures that aren’t actually guided by the need to work on what is truly needful, but that instead go to making better versions of systems that worked in the last war that actually was a threat. Working on better fighter jets loses any spinoff value after the first generation or two of better fighter jets.


Bruce Wilder 08.24.15 at 3:05 pm

CB @ 72: That linked essay was great — loved it. Thank you.

BB @ 69 The overall thesis worked pretty well for Paul Kennedy, but Hoffman, with his narrow focus just seems determined to demonstrate that the idea of competition and incentives as explanator does not work any better in political science than in economics. It seems like a poor man’s road to the just so story.


otpup 08.24.15 at 3:20 pm

Agree basically with Plume. In the debate over how to classify communist regimes, the left’s critique whether it stems from democratic socialist or left libertarianism (of Marxist pedigree) is not ad hoc. It dates back to the time of the Russian Revolution. Classical Marxism did not believe you could have a socialist revolution in a country that was too backward (e.g., Tsarist Russian, an overwhelmingly agricultural society) and the result would be tyranny. Marx’s notion of revolution was broad and unspecified (and largely sociological in nature depending on what he observed, prematurely, to be the proletarian-ization of capitalist society) and included the notion that the working class might take power politically (which was the trend in Europe up until WWI). And indeed, the workers’ movement in 19C Europe (in which Marx, was a central ideological figure) was both operationally democratic and focused on the universal franchise.

Not only did Marx believe in the idea that socialist revolution was tied to the abundance and social contradictions inherent in capitalist development but Lenin and the Bolsheviks probably believed it too and were banking on the European wide revolution being just around the corner (which was not such a wild speculation in 1918).

In the years since Red October, pro-communists and conservative anti-communists have tacitly cooperated to bury this aspect of the history.


Bruce Wilder 08.24.15 at 3:32 pm

Glen Tomkins @ 80

There is an element of, we have met the enemy they is us, in all warfare. Collective action requires collective consciousness, and that’s not so easy to achieve, though the way warfare evolved in Europe did seem, eventually, to generate the nation-state, as a vehicle for collective consciousness of a kind on a very-large social scale. And, particular wars — particularly the “good war” of WWII — do seem to have galvanized a high-level of collective consciousness and purpose. But, these things both have limits and degenerate over time.


Glen Tomkins 08.24.15 at 3:40 pm

Bruce Wilder,

Well, sure, if the only collective purpose allowed by your free-market fundamentalism is war, then when the war ends, the collective purpose goes away.

But we do have ongoing, vital, collective needs quite aside from winning wars. Overthrowing the quasi-religion that denies the primacy of these needs in favor of property rights, is the only way we’re going to get to the pursuit of our common welfare that doesn’t degenerate over time.


Metatone 08.24.15 at 3:42 pm

Glen Tomkins @80 raises the elephant in the room.

When people say “war creates technological progress” it’s actually a special case of “letting the government spend a lot and organise technology around specific objectives creates technological progress.”

The Space Race is the obvious example there.

However, there is a possible twist to the tale, in line with others who observe that war used to have a certain useful effect, but does no longer. Not sure I believe it, but it is interesting:

Brendan Simms in “Europe: The Struggle for Supremacy, 1453 to the Present” makes the case that for most of that period, war drove the aristocracy to give up some slices of power and money to gain consent for war and better prepare the mass of soldiers (through better living and education) to fight the wars.

I’m not totally convinced, but Simms makes an interesting case. And it’s also clear that now the strategic imperative for “building a better, bigger army” has dwindled, the impetus to take care of the mass of people has too…

Not that that changes the opportunity cost argument. You can always have the counterfactual of enlightened leadership. Alas it doesn’t seem to happen that often at the moment.


Robespierre 08.24.15 at 3:42 pm

The hippie anarchists in a remote rural commune very much do depend on the existence of the State. It’s all well and good as long as nobody gets sick and nobody bothers you.


Bruce Wilder 08.24.15 at 3:43 pm

Glen Tomkins @ 84

It is interesting that you keep mentioning religion.


Plume 08.24.15 at 3:44 pm


War per se isn’t a spur to R&D — government spending is. War is simply the only sort of government spending we’re willing to go along with whole hog.

This is so true. The myth of war’s great boon to economies is all there. What’s really happening is that the government is radically increasing the concentration of capital for productive purposes — in time and space, but especially time. It basically lops off years and years of “regular,” incredibly slow processes, doing in months what it normally takes decades to do. This could be done with anything, and done far better, with far more lasting and beneficial effects.

For instance, if we concentrated time and space for a “Manhattan project” regarding ecological concerns, the results would be every bit as good for the economy itself and far, far better for humanity and the planet. And if we extended that to a “war footing” in that realm, we increase this a thousand fold. Mobilize and sustain the production of eco-friendly agro, transport, energy, cleanup and so on, and we get all of the economic benefits of war mobilization, without the obvious downside. Without the killing, without the waste — at least the same kind of waste, and so on.

It’s never been the wars. It’s always been the national mobilization and concentration in time, space, etc.


Plume 08.24.15 at 3:47 pm


Well said. Terry Eagleton deals with much of that in his strong primer, Why Marx was Right.


Plume 08.24.15 at 3:57 pm

Have linked to it in another thread, but I think Yuval Harari is really on to something. From his TED talk: What explains the rise of humans?

His contention is that, unlike other animals, humans developed the ability to work cooperatively in a flexible manner, which meant including other humans outside of kinship groups. And the main galvanizing force for this is our ability to create fictions, and then to collectively believe in them . . . . and follow this with collective action.

Money is a great example, as are capitalism, nation-states themselves, religions, etc.

None of those things are “real.” They are all fictions we invent and then treat as if they’re realities in the world. Harari’s contention is that we could not have basically taken over the planet without this development, this ability to ignore reality and substitute fictions in place of.

We have extended this and complexified it to the point where we invent fictions to describe those fictions, to classify those fictions, to critique them and call one a fiction and another “reality.” In reality, we are fooling ourselves even with the meta-talk. I think few fields are more oblivious to this than economics, especially mainstream economics . . . . which treats the fiction of capitalism and the markets as if it’s some kind of concrete reality, an observable reality that people get wrong if they don’t adhere to mainstream economic fictions.


Anarcissie 08.24.15 at 4:13 pm

Robespierre 08.24.15 at 3:42 pm @ 86 —
I assure you some people have really toughed it out. I was recently reading an account of some hippie anarchist communards who were too far off the beaten path to rely on mainstream medical care, and too well-armed to worry much about being bothered, at least by random amateurs. However, it was economy you mentioned, and it seems to me the communards went outside to get money almost entirely to pay taxes. This is how people have been forced into the state elsewhere — either forced into the state, or deprived of their homes. At its boundaries, the state reveals its essence, which is war.


Glen Tomkins 08.24.15 at 4:20 pm

Bruce Wilder @87,

It’s a metaphor, and the phrase “free market fundamentalist” is quite current. What I think we mean when we use a phrase like that, is that at least some people’s entire way of thought derives from axioms accepted as if they were Revealed Truth, but which re actually quite one-sided at best.

A committed Supply-Sider, for example, would believe that the only way to improve the economy would be measures that free up the owners to gin up the production of goods and services. Someone who doesn’t take property and production as fundamental, would, in contrast, be able to see that giving the owners a free hand to depress the cost of labor, will have the effect of throttling demand, which is bad for the economy. Real world counter-examples will never sway the supply sider, because the real world gives him or her all sorts of outs, mechanisms that can explain away the failure of his or her predictions.

Please forgive the implied whack at religion involved in attributing such fundamentalist thinking to religion. That’s one of the dangers of the metaphorical interpretation of the world that has led some of us to become fundamentalists of one stripe or the other.


Robespierre 08.24.15 at 4:25 pm

They have toughed it out whithin a State. The amount of bothering (or of infectious disease) depends on their being a State.


Robespierre 08.24.15 at 4:27 pm

There being. Sorry. Started out as their being IN a State, then didn’t go back to change it.


Plume 08.24.15 at 4:37 pm

Anarcissie @91,

Lots of excellent posts from you in this thread.

“The state’s essence is war.” Isn’t there something even more essential than that? As in, “war” seems to me to be more of a means to achieve an end. Subjugation of others on the way to increasing wealth and power for an elite. The state has pretty much always served as the vehicle for this subjugation . . . . If it is not itself always the ruling class, it does the bidding of that ruling class. Its essential purpose is to exploit those outside it, to control them, to get them to do the work necessary to maintain that ruling class . . . . in the style to which they’ve grown accustomed, etc.

War is a means for doing this. It’s really the easy way out, the most lazy-minded, quickest and least complex way to do this. For that ruling class. It’s basically: “Feck it all. No more playing around. We’re dropping bombs!”

Again, it compresses decades into months.

Perhaps, at least initially, there was some hope (by some, after WWII) that American-style, forced globalization of capitalism (subjugation/exploitation/appropriation) . . . . might reduce the need for wars. It would be war by other means, in a sense. But what that pollyannish thinking left out was that this new globalization of the economic system would require even more force and militarization to carry out and sustain. It couldn’t be just war by other means. It had to use war as a means to achieve that globalization as well. To protect and defend. To smash open or create new markets. etc.

I see “war” as a tool to extend, expand and sustain elite power. And I see the modern state as doing the bidding of said elite.


Bill Benzon 08.24.15 at 4:59 pm

“The Space Race is the obvious example there.”

But it was space RACE because the US was convinced it had to beat the Ruskies. Congress wouldn’t have written the checks if it had been all about the science and adventure.


notsneaky 08.24.15 at 5:36 pm

WWII, or more precisely the Nazis and Soviets, also more or less wiped out the so-called “Polish School of Mathematics”. Some of the older ones, like Banach, survived (by working as “lice feeders” and purposefully getting infected with typhus) but most of their students were killed. Kaczmarz, Ruziewicz, Auerbach, Mazurkiewicz (?) … more than half of university level mathematicians in Poland were killed or murdered (see Academic Genealogy of Mathematicians by Chang)


Bruce Wilder 08.24.15 at 6:12 pm

The story of competition among warring princes and monarchs, to secure technological advantage, it seems to me, serves to obscure the extent to which the relevant “competition” was coming from below, as various groups sought to resist or constrain the costly destructiveness and the thinking about what constituted a public interest in promoting the wealth of nations evolved. There’s something screwy about attributing “progress” to the competitive cycles of this viciously extractive, exhausting and destructive political dynamic among elites, as Hoffman and Simms seem inclined to do, and not to the resistance to it, or to its failures and gradual collapse.


Plume 08.24.15 at 6:31 pm

Bruce @98,

That makes a lot of sense. Without that pushback from “below,” we’d have little else but the state as oppressive tool for the ruling class, using war as its big arrow in the quiver of control and exploitation. We’d have even more wars than we do now, and they seem to be endless. It’s also unlikely that we’d see things like the GI bill in the aftermath. Without the rumblings to outright revolts from below, “states” (with few exceptions) would likely be virtual slave masters, with no welfare aspects thrown in. At least no more than was necessary to keep the pyramids growing upward and outward. The prols would only get enough to fuel their labor for the state, etc.


Anarcissie 08.24.15 at 6:41 pm

Robespierre 08.24.15 at 4:25 pm @ 93 & 94 —
The modern assemblage of states makes universal, interlocking, totalitarian claims over the lives, liberties, property, and social relations of the populations and territories they rule, so it is pretty hard to get outside the state these days. Thousands of generations of humans did without the state, but it is no longer permitted. I was more interested in your mention of ‘economy’ because I believe one of the problems with economics is that its subject is poorly defined.

Plume 08.24.15 at 4:37 pm @ 95 —
Much of this discussion has assumed distinctions which I think are questionable. For instance, the distinction between war and peace (under modern conditions) with respect to science. Science arose in the ancient world as a feature of σχολή, the leisure of the wealthy and powerful. We know how they got that leisure. Then, science was mostly entertainment, but in the 19th and 20th centuries it began to have important political and business consequences because it conferred power and could be directed by power. And so it began to be supported and driven by the state (not just the government, but corporations and other major institutions). Thus science, as it is, is war: Minerva springs, fully grown and fully armed, from the head of Zeus.


Plume 08.24.15 at 6:57 pm

Anarcissie @100,

I can see that. Aristotle was quite open about the necessity of a slave state. Great philosophers needed this to give them the leisure time to think great thoughts, etc. etc.

Needless to say, I think that’s pure bullshit. In fact, I’m absolutely convinced that this mindset held back science, maths, the arts, etc. etc. to waaaay beyond tragic degrees. By limiting who can engage in these “higher pursuits,” you can’t help but limit the effects. Limiting them to just males. Limiting them to just the elite males. Depending upon the state, limiting them to just “native born” elite males and so on.


PlutoniumKun 08.24.15 at 7:02 pm

Its annoying me now, because I can’t find the link to the original paper, but there is quite a famous study on nuclear power and how military pressures ensured that all alternatives to light water reactors (the most useful for submarines) was deliberately suppressed by the US in the late 1950’s and 1960’s in order to ensure that even civilian investment favoured what was seen as the most militarily useful designs (essentially, simple water cooled reactors and fast breeders for plutonium). Hence there was very little investment in what were potentially much safer and more efficient civilian reactors, such as molten salt designs.

The basic point being that even when military necessity does ensure that huge additional resources goes into a technology with potentially major civilian benefits, there is still likely to be a major distortion in outcomes. Another example that comes to mind is the massive loss of time and resources devoted to the Space Shuttle (the famous ‘self licking ice cream’), which was pushed for its potential military potential over much cheaper and more efficient alternatives.


jgtheok 08.24.15 at 7:33 pm

A few comments towards the OP, in no particular order:

Comparing outcomes with and without wars runs smack into the whole counterfactual thing… In line with a few earlier commenters, I’d worry that the actual (as opposed to optimal) results of peace often amount to even more conspicuous consumption by the few, plus the occasional innovation for squeezing blood from the many.To even start at making a case, do you have a survey of societies that went for some generations without war (or the convincing threat of such), for comparison? Alas, may yield such a small sample that not much updating of prior beliefs is supported…

Go far enough back in history and the conception of war changes. (I’d draw a line under the Napoleonic wars for the modern model of competing nation-states; your line may differ, but there is a considerable difference from the old ‘sport of kings,’ or even older inter-tribal pillage.) The modern version is perhaps more destructive and more transformative.

It seems hard to make a case for mutual pillage as anything but negative sum. But honestly assessing results is very difficult. Consider the Crusades – seemingly a complete waste by just about any objective metric, yet spun positively in my grade school history classes as fostering long-term innovation and trade. A pretty clear calamity for the victors, but possibly a net positive to the losers? How to even test the assertion?


Bruce Wilder 08.24.15 at 8:59 pm

. . . spun positively in my grade school history classes

And, why not? What we inherit is what’s left, net of what’s lost. We can bemoan what’s lost, but they are really not our losses. What was gained — at least part of it — remains to us.

It’s not like the dangerous chemical and nuclear waste dumps or depleted ecology that we will leave, having kept the profit of industrial civilization and iphones.


Val 08.24.15 at 9:58 pm

War is in humankind’s DNA.

After my last painful experience of trying to talk sensibly on CT about the relationship between war and certain types of social organisation, particularly patriarchal social organisation, I was just going to roll my eyes and let this go. But in the end I couldn’t.

I presume your remark is meant as some kind of metaphor rather than literally, but even at that level it doesn’t make sense. Many human beings (eg in the very country where I live, until about 250 years ago) have lived for thousands of years without waging wars. War is neither inevitable, nor ‘natural’. It’s socially organised, and, speaking as one who has spent quite a few years studying history, and done a bit of reading on the topic, it appears to be associated with patriarchy.

JQ is questioning war from a different perspective in the OP, however, so I’ll respect that and say no more.


Layman 08.24.15 at 10:45 pm

“Many human beings (eg in the very country where I live, until about 250 years ago) have lived for thousands of years without waging wars.”

I’m not sure it’s that simple.



Val 08.24.15 at 11:48 pm

I think that probably gets into a definitional issue – what we are talking about as “wars”. I guess I am more thinking of disputes involving one group taking over another’s territory and/or imposing some kind of rule over them, as ‘wars’ – more like imperial wars I suppose. But I accept that’s not a universal definition. Anyway still OT I guess.


Main Street Muse 08.25.15 at 12:02 am

Is the examination of war and technological process isolated to the 20th century? To the two world wars?

Did Russia or Japan benefit from the Russo-Japanese war? What did the world gain from the War of the Roses? What technological benefits came from the 100 yrs war? From the Revolutionary War? From the very long war the US waged in Iraq?

Are you looking only at wars that involved Europeans and Americans – or did wars waged elsewhere in the world bring us key developments?


bob mcmanus 08.25.15 at 1:11 am

Did Russia or Japan benefit from the Russo-Japanese war?

1) Japan benefited greatly from the 1st Sino-Japanese War ~1895, mostly in terms of a huge reparations payment that provided cash and capital

2) The Russo-Japanese War was a financial loss, and the Japanese deeply resented the forced settlement without reparations

3) Because the other major advanced economies were busy, the 1st World War was a massive boost to Japanese industrialization and development, based on almost monopolistic export opportunities in East Asian markets. Followed by a crash, but they were a 1st world nation by 1919.


philofra 08.25.15 at 1:35 am

Wars create a necessity for remedies and alternatives. And as it’s said, necessity (read wars) is the mother of invention.

And for those who are down on capitalism, capitalism transformed many of wars’ technological inventions into civilian use and helped create sustainable industries out of them, employing millions of people. And if it wasn’t for capitalism, the free market and its transitional powers, society would not have been able to benefit from wars’ innovations. Capitalism harnessed nuclear’s energy and put it to civil use.


philofra 08.25.15 at 1:56 am

There is a War raging in the Middle East. But will there be any technological progress occurring there? If so we wouldn’t know for many years to come. But such progress would be something since the world hasn’t see any technological progress from the region in centuries.

Perhaps we might see another form of progress come from the wars in the Middle East, that of its rival religious and tribal factions laying down their differences and finally learning to coexist as European learned after their two great world wars.


John Quiggin 08.25.15 at 3:11 am

On counterfactuals: The counterfactual objection seems to be just about universally applicable in any discussion of history, and to be even more relevant to the future than to the past.

For example, how do we know that the Iraq invasion turned out badly or that US war with Iran will do so? For that matter, what about a US war with Canada? Perhaps it would stimulate a new era of social progress, as Canadian refugees change the US social mix. What can (or can’t) be ruled out in this kind of discussion?

Can anyone point to a good general discussion about what can and can’t be done with counterfactual reasoning?


Peter T 08.25.15 at 3:37 am

If I were Prof Quiggin’s editor, I would suggest that he not pursue a discussion of the utility of war. It really is outside the bounds of the framework he is using, and one ends up looking as silly as Becker on the family or Levitt on the drug trade. But war does connect with his theme. Complex money-using societies (not just capitalist ones) do seem to need a central debt-generator to make the money, and a sink to destroy money. The state takes on both roles (with war, religion and palaces historically the main sinks). So the question is – what prevents the state from doing something more obviously useful?


Robespierre 08.25.15 at 8:52 am

Ok, time to start a flame. Conquest was, historically, one important way that technologies passed from conqueror to conquered.


Norwegian Guy 08.25.15 at 9:23 am

Surely, war is costly, and resources spent on war could have been spent on research and technological development instead. So it should be possible to get more R & D with less war. If it’s historically been the other way around, that’s interesting and could need an explanation, but what conclusion should we draw from this? That the present day is too peaceful, and we should welcome more war? Given that choice, I’d rather go for a bit less R & D and avoid the bloodshed. If you’re dead, you have no use for science anyway.


Peter T 08.25.15 at 9:24 am

jq @112

Richard J Evans’s Altered Pasts: Counterfactuals in History was well-reviewed.


bob mcmanus 08.25.15 at 10:33 am

Shoutout to Wilder

Nitzan & Bichler, Capital as Power 2009


Chris Bertram 08.25.15 at 11:28 am

@jq 112: Geoffrey Hawthorn’s Plausible Worlds was an attempt to think about this and there’s some discussion in the political context in Steven Lukes’s old book Power.

I thought Evans was overstated.


Chris Bertram 08.25.15 at 11:33 am

(Cass Sunstein on how Evans falls foul of his own strictures against counterfactual reasoning: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119357/altered-pasts-reviewed-cass-r-sunstein )


Anarcissie 08.25.15 at 1:55 pm

Norwegian Guy 08.25.15 at 9:23 am @ 115 —
As I tried to explain with the Minerva (actually, Athena) and Zeus bit, both explicit war, capitalism, and science are part of, different prongs one might say, of a fundamental aggressive thrust toward power. If humans were less aggressive (and less cruel), they would do less war, less business, and less science. They would spend more time pursuing sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Or as someone said to me in a similar discussion long ago, ‘If everyone thought as you do, the world would be one big shabby hippie commune, and I would not be able to reliably fly in large airplanes to France every summer.’ He believed that there must be a state, or states, to support the existence of large, regularly-scheduled airplanes, which is not an unreasonable thought. I adopted it as part of a koan: how many people do you have to kill to have a big airplane? But to complain that one species of aggression exists at a cost to others is only partially true. They also reflect and reinforce one another.

If humans were as ignorant and weak as they used to be, their mighty, pathetic empires could rise and fall without much lasting effect, but now that they are a little smarter and a little stronger, they have discovered how to totally destroy one another and much of the Earth as well, which is somewhat troubling to me at times.


Ronan(rf) 08.25.15 at 2:16 pm

Scott atran -“War isn’t an adventure; it’s a disease, like typhus,” opined Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who authored the marvelous French childhood fantasy The Little Prince and died piloting a plane for the Free French in World War II. If only it were so. War is not a malfunction of human nature, a flaw of history, or a failure of politics. War is no more a disease or a parasite on society, consuming resources and people, than it is a creator of cultures, generating innovation and expansion of resources, populations, and ideas. In war, or under the threat of it, people use their worst, and no small amount of self-justification, to do their best’


Plume 08.25.15 at 2:39 pm

Anarcissie @120,

I agree with most of what you’ve said above. But this:

If humans were less aggressive (and less cruel), they would do less war, less business, and less science. They would spend more time pursuing sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

Not that you’re doing this, but I think this is a terrible fiction invented by the elite to make their own actions appear to be the norm. And to excuse them. In reality, it’s only a very small percentage of our species who could be said to be “aggressive and cruel.” The vast majority would rather be at peace, play around, make love, etc. etc. They don’t seek power and control. Sociopaths and alphas, OTOH, seek control and care little how their desire for power impacts others. They aggressively and cruelly seek the expansion of their power, and too many in the majority acquiesce. But few in that majority do so with any enthusiasm, and many believe, wrongly, that they have no other choice. Any observation of groups, from small children on up, shows this radical division.

One of the key psychological victories of the last century or so is that sociopaths have managed to convince a great many that serial rapaciousness is “human nature.” It’s not. At least not for the vast majority of our species. It’s “natural” for a tiny percentage, who seek to control the fictions we all live by — one of the best ways to gain control. But it’s not “human nature.”

As Kristin Ross points out in her book about the Paris Commune, Russian evolutionists had a different take on the rise of humans . . . which Yuval Harari seems to echo in his latest book. Cooperation was the real saving grace for us, not “competition.” Cooperation kept us alive, led to our thriving. My take from all of this is that Darwin, knowingly or not, transposed the emerging capitalist ideology onto his thesis and let it influence his scientific research. The fiction of competition everywhere, the struggle for scarce resources/market share, etc. etc. led to some major blind spots, even in the way capitalism gets by. Businesses, in fact, “cooperate” within and without, every day. They couldn’t survive if they didn’t. I think the Russian evolutionists were much, much closer to the truth.


reason 08.25.15 at 2:57 pm

Plume @122,
In a very recent Scientific American there was a very provocative article, that speculated that the main advantage that Homo Sapiens (there is a misnomer if ever there was one – I prefer Homo Credulous) had over other closely related species was that he was more flexible in his group attachments, and was able to co-operate in larger groups – including in violent conflict. So co-operation within competition. I’ve never been fully convinced that making co-operation and competition opposite ends of a spectrum makes sense. We are more complex than that.


reason 08.25.15 at 2:59 pm


Plume 08.25.15 at 3:02 pm


That sounds like Harari. Watch his TED talk for a quick taste of his thesis. I think it’s brilliant. A kind of Rosetta Stone for so much that we do as societies, economies, nation-states, religions, and so on.

That flexible cooperation is key. And it’s made possible by mass agreement (conscious and unconscious) on fictions already invented. Our agreement sustains them. They die without that agreement, replaced by new fictions and new agreements, etc.


Main Street Muse 08.25.15 at 3:24 pm

JQ @112 – “For example, how do we know that the Iraq invasion turned out badly or that US war with Iran will do so? For that matter, what about a US war with Canada?”

What were US goals for war in Iraq? To punish those involved in 9/11 and to prevent Saddam Hussein from dropping the nuclear bomb (tech benefit of WWII) on the US. “We don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” said Condi Rice prior to the launch of that war. In that the goals were false, the war’s benefits are obscured for me… curious to hear your take on all that we/they/the world gained as a result of that war.

And yes, let’s talk about that US war with Canada…


steven johnson 08.25.15 at 3:29 pm

Re Hoffman, Carlo Guns, Sails and Empire from the Sixties anticipated much if I remember correctly. Also if I remember correctly, Indian textiles were highly competitive as late as the Industrial Revolution. Part of industrial capitalism’s mighty rise was the creative destruction wrought by the British Empire in India, was it not?

The question has arisen before, providing in a way the impetus for Herodotus’ initiation of the Western tradition of history. How did Greece defeat Asia, the mighty Persian empire?

Heavy infantry, armored infantry, was a decisive element in military victories. The heavy infantry of the Persian monarch was the Ten Thousand Immortals. Permitting satraps in the vast empire their own heavy infantry forces from the local population threatened to give every satrapy the power to rebel. In Greece, the various states must raise their own heavy infantry as best they could to sustain their independence (or at least negotiate terms of dependence upon a leading power.) As a result, in terms of the decisive element the Greeks were always at a numerical advantage as near as I can tell.

Additionally, unused armies tend to be much less effective. The Greeks practiced on each other, the Persians did not.

An aside on an earlier part of the thread: So far as I know, general relativity, unlike special relativity and quantum mechanics, is pretty much the child of one person, Einstein. His mathematical mentors Grossman and Minkowski unlike Poincare do not seem likely to have applied their expertise to physics without his stimulus. I suppose in that sense it counts as an example of an individual contribution that seems somehow apart from history.

But, on the other hand, the apparently universal feeling is that general relativity is some sort of fluke, a dead end, wrong wrong wrong (save for the inconvenience of being confirmed experimentally where possible, and practically useful for GPS.) It is the a goal of physics to get rid of it and replace it with a quantum mechanical theory post haste. Nobody takes it seriously as providing insight into the deep structure of reality. So in that sense it doesn’t count as scientific history being made more or less by one man.


steven johnson 08.25.15 at 3:32 pm

Typo: Carlo Cipolla’s Guns, Sails and Empires!


reason 08.25.15 at 4:12 pm

Plume @125
“And it’s made possible by mass agreement (conscious and unconscious) on fictions already invented…”
Hence Homo Credulous.


Anarcissie 08.25.15 at 5:08 pm

Plume 08.25.15 at 2:39 pm @ 122 —
The power of elites and the extraordinary evils they do arise from ordinary people and their daily lives. The elites are outliers, but the people choose to follow them.

If there is any hope of us humans surviving ourselves, other than by distant chance, it will be by facing the difficult facts squarely. ‘Once, man could not do as he desired. Now, he can do as he desires: and he must change his desires, or perish.’


Plume 08.25.15 at 5:26 pm


I’m not saying that people don’t follow the elites. They obviously do, tragically. My point is that it’s incorrect to project the pathologies of those elites onto the majority. “Human nature” is quite different for both, but the elites want everyone to believe their own pathologies are the norm across the board. They’re not. Those elites have been incredibly successful, not only in getting the majority to follow them on implementing the power elite’s plans . . . . but also in buying into the fictions they invent . . . . one of those being that everyone is just like the sociopaths at the top. It’s simply not true.

There are obviously quite different mental, emotional, even biological dynamics separating leaders and followers . . . between ultras, alphas, sociopaths and their tools. To me, the first step in emancipation is to realize that we’ve been lied to for thousands and thousands of years, and are following myths on top of myths, promoted by those power elites, because . . . . because it works for those power elites. Our ridiculous (in effect, self-hating) agreements about their sick fictions keep them in power and keep us subservient. Our bizarre agreement that we’re somehow the same as our oppressors also serves to keep us subservient. Another essential step in our breaking free is to realize we’re not the same; we don’t want the same things; we don’t want to be endlessly aggressive and endlessly confrontational or acquisitive.

That latter is also an obviously essential fiction for capitalism to continue. The idea that we are what we buy is very recent in the long journey for humanity, but it’s crucial for the survival of capitalism that we continue to agree about that fiction, too.

Whether or not we decide voluntarily to end our beliefs in these destructive fictions, the earth is going to force our hands in the not too distant future. And it won’t be pretty. I think the voluntary approach makes a ton more sense.


philofra 08.26.15 at 2:25 am

Two of the greatest post WW2 inventions were the transistor and the laser. It’s hard to tell whether they were war simulated.


Bruce Wilder 08.26.15 at 3:23 am

A zillion years ago, Karl Popper’s work set off a tangential debate about when, if ever, counterfactual arguments are valid in a scientific context. The upshot was that proper counterfactual reasoning was just a reiteration of analytic theory in a synthetic context; improper, I suppose, mere fantasy.

Fantasies — “alternative history” — where one strings a long, sequential chain together, guided by the conventions and perceived dynamics of dramatic narrative, don’t really have a theory behind them — just the author’s feel for narrative. It is the difference between having a theory of how a car works, and offering the counterfactual, that if you press on the accelerator instead of the brake, the car would go faster, and having a story idea about the motivations and destiny of the driver, saying that if he turned right at the fork in the road instead of left, it would make all the difference. One is science, and basically an explanation of some mechanism at work creating functional relationships among observable events and values; the other is poetry, drawing a case for the meaning of events and courses.

Historians use counterfactuals all the time to restore contingency to historical narratives. They have to do this to delineate “causes” and to explain why historical actors behaved as they did, behavior being shaped by their awareness of contingency. Even if an actor, say, won a bet as a matter of historical fact, it is also important to convey in historical narrative that the actor’s behavior constituted placing a bet, an act of risk-taking, and not just scooping up the winnings with the assurance of accomplished fact — which it can seem to be, in retrospect.

Historians get to create dramatic narratives, which summarize social events of vast, almost incomprehensible complexity; even when they don’t know much about the drivers of social change or the course of someone’s life, they can paper over their string of one damn fact after another with a pleasing dramatic narrative worthy of a novelist. Histories usually suffer from a deficit of adequate theory, to explain social, political, economic events. That’s why one gets constant new ideas about what disease caused Nietzsche’s insanity or careful studies to establish that the Plague of Justinian was bubonic plague. For the professional historian, there’s something suspect about availing one’s self too readily of the prerogative to pontificate or to cover for ignorance, with dramatic conventions. But, of course, historians become historians because they were charmed as children by this special power of the historian to pronounce judgement and to know not just how the story turned out, but how it might have turned out differently, how this or that event “changed the course of history” as they say.


ccc 08.26.15 at 12:49 pm

@Quiggin: It will be very interesting to read the end result in the book. I admire your gutsy way of so throwing your work in progress, warts and all, out to the wolves or at least the not-always-so-gentle CT commenters.

As a starting point for this topic I think everyone should acknowledge:
1 the question “does war boost sum total R&D output compared to a nonwar scenario” is extremely hard to answer. We should be open to the possibility that after doing our best at investigating the question our best conclusion may still turn out to be “we are not even close to knowing what the answer is”.
2 due to lack of decisive empirical evidence on this question ones intuitions on the matter will greatly shape how one things about it.
3 ones intuition on a matter like this are very likely shaped by politics beliefs and many other normatively influential cultural beliefs.

Regarding 3 it is relevant to note that “the war boosts R&D” view fits suspiciously well with traditional right-wing and chauvinistic tropes e.g. belief in cutthroat competition, the heroic male, …

Another thing I wonder is if those with “war boosts R&D compared to a nonwar scenario” beliefs think that that dynamic only applies when the violent class occurs on the international level. Or does more violence and murder in an intranational region also boost R&D output in that region compared to a scenario with less regional violence and murder? If not then what explains the difference?


Alan White 08.27.15 at 12:24 am

steven johnson@127

As I stated upthread, there are very good reasons to believe that Einstein deserves singular credit for not just GR, but SR. (Abraham Pais’ excellent _Subtle is the Lord_ makes a better case than I can here.) The way Einstein inverted the conceptual relationship of the existence of space and time with respect to law–making physical law (by posit) primary, and thus the math of spatiotemporal measurements fall out of that–was as revolutionary for understanding Galilean frames as it was extended to non-Galilean frames by the principle of equivalence (which posits a kind of meta-law for two features of spacetime implying scale curvature). In its own way (as far as I can understand it–and that’s not much), (super-)string theory also takes much the same conceptual stance as Einstein in making law primary and then seeing how features of measurable spacetime fall out of that. (I am more than willing to be corrected here.) If I’m right, then Einstein’s role in inverting the logical priority of law and spacetime in physical explanation was pretty important. And to get back to the OP thesis–if there was no mature Einstein (drafted and killed), then perhaps there would be no contemporary effort to give an account of quantum gravity. Lots of open ends here, but a case can be made, I think.

And I have to say that the overwhelming experimental confirmation of both SR and GR in terms of lots of significant digits indicates that if these are somehow ultimately wrong, what they missed might well be beyond enough significant digits to say that something else is right. I wouldn’t write the obituary of relativity quite yet.


mclaren 08.27.15 at 2:24 am

Because Quiggin decided to be a jerk and close comments for the “opportunities cost” column about war, I’ll make a comment about that column — inasmuch as there’s nowhere else to do so. And if Quiggin doesn’t like that, he can learn to like it.
A recent study by the Policy Economic Research Institute finds that military spennding is the worst way to create jobs in the U.S. economy. Military spending produces half as many jobs per dollar as spending on education.
Moreover, Pollin and Garrett-Peltier go to state: “We show that investments in clean energy, health care and education create a much larger number of jobs across all pay ranges, including mid-range jobs (paying between $32,000 and $64,000) and high-paying jobs (paying over $64,000). ” [op. cit.]
So the opportunity costs Quiggin identifies in his post, while real and valuable to point out, greatly underestimate the true opportunity cost of military spending. By far the biggest opportunity cost, as Pollin and Garrett-Peltier show, involves the loss of GDP growth and the loss of jobs and consequent destruction of aggregate demand post-2009 recession.
Here’s another way to think of military spending: it creates an output gap compared to the U.S. economy with spending on education or clean energy or health care. Just as GDP growth today in America is lower than it would have been without the 2009 economic crash, and consequently Americans’ standard of living and aggregate demand are much weaker than they would otherwise have been, GDP growth is lower in America today because of military spending and Americans’ standard of living and aggregate demand are much weaker than they would have been if America did not waste circa one trillion dollars per year on national security, broadly defined (including the DHS, Department of Energy spending on projects which boil down to thinly disguised stalking horses for weaponry, the NRO which exists primarily to deploy military surveillance satellites, and other vast wastes of money misnamed “security spending”).
We can give a Fermi estimate of the size of the GDP shortfall. Auerbach and Gorodnichenko find that the fiscal multiplier in the depths of the 2009 recession clocks in at 1.75. Viz., each $1 of government spending creates $1.75 of GDP output under those conditions. If America had not chosen to piss away circa 1 trillion per year in “national security” spending (broadly defined) during that period, the U.S. economy would have effectively had 1 trillion dollars of extra fiscal stimulus available. That translates to an output gap of a potential 1.75 trillion, and with a 15 trillion dollar economy, that works out to a GDP 11.6% higher after the 2009 recession than it was.
U.S. GDP growth peaked at 3% circa August 2010. The above guesstimate suggests that U.S. GDP growth would instead have peaked at 3.36% without military spending. The important part of this logic is that the IS-LM model predicts that near the zero lower bound, the IS curve shifts outward. This augurs a much greater impact for fiscal spending than would otherwise be the case (full employment, no recession, interest rates not near the zero lower bound).
The normal estimate of jobs created per percent GDP growth is 1.1 million jobs per 1 percent GDP growth; but near the zero lower bound, this number greatly increases. In 2011 the CBO found that a 1% gain in GDP growth translates to 0.9% employment growth, or 1.2 million additional jobs. By this logic, an extra .36% employment growth equates to an extra 480,000 jobs. So another way of looking at the opportunity cost of America’s military spending is that we have forgone an extra half million jobs per year because of our military spending, as well as that additional 0.36% GDP growth.

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