Concerning Conflict

We live in a world of scarcity. We will never know a time when a single thing, like an apple, can be consumed by more than one person at a time (i.e. not shared, wholly consumed). As a result, humans have developed methods of avoiding conflict over scarce goods such as through the development of, and adherence to, property rights. When conflicts do arise, those involved are directly impacted by the outcome of the conflict. As a result, the vast majority of people avoid conflict whenever possible. This is not the case when conflicts arise between states.

The bellicose leaders of the governments of the United States and North Korea have recently seen fit to rattle their nuclear sabres over the north Pacific. One is an elected bully accustomed to getting his way and the other is a self anointed “supreme leader” of a nation oppressed by his communist regime. These distinctions aside, their common penchant for conflict is increasingly on display. Conflict is far more easily entered into when the combatants have no skin in the game.

Kim Jung-un rules with an iron fist over a nation of people shielded from 21st century advances. Donald Trump commands the most powerful military force in the history of earth. Each willingly proposes to send people under their command into the nuclear breach. Neither will shed blood should bombs begin to rain. Neither will see his son or daughter’s flag-draped coffin return from a distant battle zone. It is this absence of direct consequence which makes each of these fools far more willing to enter into war.

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When Goods Don’t Cross Borders

The Protectionist in Chief has decided that “trade war” is a sound approach to foreign policy. From Canada to Russia and China, among others, the Big Cheese-Doodle has signed on to several efforts to “protect” the interests of American business by limiting and taxing businesses and industries located in nations deemed trading adversaries. As Otto T. Mallery stated in Economic Union and Durable Peace, a quote oft attributed to Frédéric Bastiat, “When goods don’t cross borders, armies will.” As a result, describing Mr. Trump’s initiatives as “war” is far more apropos than his highness might prefer.

When the coercive force of government is employed, markets are kept from being free. In the case of tariffs, nations with competitive advantage are targeted with import premiums or restrictions. The effect of such “protectionism” is to negatively impact the livelihood of those people living in the nations or regions targeted. As a result, the people impacted become belligerent and bellicose, escalating tensions and increasing the risk of conflict. Before long, this sentiment results in military action.

While protectionism increases the likelihood of tensions and conflict, it also negatively impacts the very people supposedly benefited. When a good like imported steel is targeted, for example, the price of this good increases for everyone in the importing nation. The argument is that this makes domestic steel producers more competitive. However, domestic producers are only made more competitive in domestic markets at the expense of consumers in that market. As a result, U.S. consumers pay a higher price for such goods than the rest of the world enjoys. Additionally, the tariffs themselves are paid to the U.S. government, benefiting those who dictate the increased prices.

In the end, tariffs benefit states. While the price is borne by the people within the state enforcing tariffs, targeted nations seek remedies through other means like military confrontation. If military conflict results, individual people subject to the control of the states involved again pay the price. In the end, protectionism hurts individuals and benefits states regardless of where it is tried.

Declaring War

The United States Constitution is one of the earliest examples of a restrictive covenant between a people and their elected representation. The document itself stipulates the composition of political structure while its initial amendments, known collectively as the Bill of Rights, limit federal powers. Had the document itself been sufficient, the addenda would have been superfluous. As it is, neither the structure nor the limitations sufficiently restrain accumulation of power.

These deficiencies are rarely more evident than when related to the prosecution of armed conflict. Once known as “war,” engagement with foreign combatants has come to be known by any number of euphemisms. Each incarnation of the conflict metaphor presented by the U.S. military industrial complex takes us ever further from the impression of death and destruction. Today we have hostilities, police actions, limited engagements, and kinetic military actions but no war. Technically, this is true. War is something that can only be declared by Congress. Drone bombing, on the other hand, requires no such declaration. As a result, the descriptive and restrictive nature of the U.S. Constitution has been all but eradicated by the power hungry in Washington while those who pull the lever in the ballot box pay ever decreasing attention to the results. As it stands, no war need be declared for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, to die. Few but the dead seem concerned with this fact.