The Enormous Expense of Modern Wars

Friday, March 12th, 2010

What are the causes of the enormous expense of modern wars?, Andrew Bisset asks, in 1859 — and he first turns to David Hume for an answer:

Some writers, and particularly David Hume, seem to think that the question is solved by the consideration of the greater facilities and means for borrowing which existed after the Revolution, and did not exist before it.

In his Essay on Civil Liberty, published in 1742, Hume says: “Among the moderns, the Dutch first introduced the practice of borrowing great sums at low interest, and well nigh ruined themselves by it. Absolute princes have also contracted debt; but as an absolute prince may make a bankruptcy when he pleases, his people can never be oppressed by his debts. In popular governments, the people, and chiefly those who have the highest offices, being commonly the public creditors, it is difficult for the State to make use of this remedy; which, however it may be sometimes necessary, is always cruel and barbarous. This, therefore, seems to be an inconvenience which nearly threatens all free governments, especially our own at the present juncture of affairs. And what a strong motive is this to increase our frugality of public money, lest for want of it we be reduced by the multiplicity of taxes, or, what is worse, by our public impotence and inability for defence, to curse our very liberty, and wish ourselves in the same state of servitude with all the nations that surround us.”

Bisset sees the rising costs of war as a direct consequence of the shift away from feudalism:

Under the old English constitution, the legislating classes had a direct personal interest in keeping down the expenses of the government: that is, those who voted for wars and subsidies carried on the wars and paid the subsidies with their own blood and their own money; whereas, under the constitution substituted in the room of it, about the middle of the seventeenth century, those who voted for wars and subsidies carried on the wars and paid the subsidies with other people’s blood and other people’s money.

Those, therefore, who profess to be the advocates of good and economical government, will never attain their object till they obtain the restoration of that part at least of the principle of the old constitution, which gave to those who had the power a strong and direct interest in keeping down the expenses of the government.

A rentcharge proportioned in amount to the incidents or branches of tenure by knight-service in time of peace, and to the main trunk, or a certain number of days’ actual military service, in addition to those incidents, in time of war, would effectually accomplish its object, and save the nation from the ruin in which the system of the last two hundred years, if persisted in, will overwhelm it long before another period of two hundred years has elapsed.

I can only imagine how irresponsibly a government might behave if those in power had no incentive to keep expenses down…

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