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This essay is about war.  As background I will provide a brief summary of the conclusions of the first essay in this “Invisible Hand” series which examined the physical object nature of our money and some of the unfortunate consequences of that nature.  I will be concise so this review won’t take long.

All money in history (and prehistory) has been considered to be or to represent physical objects such as a basket of grain, a cow, a coin, or a paper bill.  Today most money is in computer accounts and though it zips around the world from account to account at almost the speed of light, it still is treated as if it were a physical object of some sort.  Because we treat money as if it were a physical object, anything which is true of physical objects in general will also be true of money.  This obvious point is ignored by economists and others who talk and write about money even though it is the most important truth about money.  The importance of the physical object nature of money cannot be overstated.  What follows are some consequences of that physical object nature.

First, money is like other physical objects in that it can be taken from its owner against the owner’s will by force, fraud or stealth and it can be lost or destroyed.  This means that you need to suspect almost everyone of trying to get your money by fair means or foul.

Second, money must be amoral because all inanimate physical objects are amoral.  Even animals are amoral in that they have neither an ethical sense nor morality, especially when they are used as commodity money.  You can use your physical object money for anything, good or bad.

Third, the money supply is independent of the supply of goods and services for sale because the supply of one physical object is independent of the supply of other objects.

Fourth, money falsely simulates a zero-sum game in monetary transactions because the money gained by one party must be lost by some other party or parties.  Money makes us think that other people can gain money at our expense and that we can only gain money at their expense.  It makes us treat others as if they were competitors, rivals, opponents, or even enemies.

Fifth, money is almost impossible for a society or nation to control.  In every nation that attempts to limit, regulate, or tax trade a black market comes into being; and organized crime flourishes in all nations.

Sixth, money transactions are two-party interactions.  Two-party interaction is inherently unstable because if one party gets an advantage in power such as having more money, that stronger party can use their power to gain still more advantages.  This is particularly true of money.  The old saying “them as has, gets” is true.  Possession of money does make getting more money quite a lot easier.  Naturally, the weaker party in such two-party interaction will eventually want to end the interaction.  Thus the relationship is unstable.

So keeping in mind that review, let’s consider war. For the sake of brevity, from this point on, the term “physical object money” will be replaced with the acronym “POM”.

War is fun, exciting, glamorous, manly, colorful and lots of other attractive things.  That is, it has those attractive properties until you are actually waging war yourself, personally.  Then war is misery, terror, boredom, ugly, pitiful, and muddy.  Few people who have actually fought in a war enjoyed it.  So at the individual level, for the ordinary participant, war is something they would really rather not do.

So what is war?  For this presentation, I prefer a rather narrow definition.  I don’t consider a bunch of guys getting into a fight in a bar to be war.  I don’t consider it to be war when one community of hunter-gatherers raids another group.  All squabbles between people are not war.  To be war, a conflict must involve formally organized violence by at least one sovereign governmental unit.  In other words, if Alabama invades Georgia using its police force, that’s not war.  Neither Alabama nor Georgia are sovereign since they are subordinate to the U.S. government.  The newspapers might call it war but they are trying to sell papers so we’ll ignore their usages.  The other major component of that definition is “formally organized.”  Kids get teams organized for games on vacant lots.  But that’s not a formal organization.  Formal organization requires bureaucracy, roles, or offices with duties and obligations related to one another in a “top down” manner.  The so called wars between the Native Americans and the U.S. government were wars from the point of view of the U.S. government but they were not wars from the point of view of the Native tribes.  The natives had no more organization for fights with the U.S. cavalry than they did for a hunting party.  If you wanted to go along and fight, you could.  If you didn’t want to do what the leaders told you to do that was your right.  Coordination of their activities was informal, though in many cases quite effective.  You will note how much trouble the Cavalry had with the Apaches.

War is not something that happens by chance.  It takes a significant effort by a governmental organization.  World War I would have started sometime soon the summer of 1914 whether the Archduke of Austria had been shot in July or not.  The ruling powers in Austria wanted war with Serbia and they would have created an incident if one had not occurred independently.

I have already mentioned that war is unpleasant for those who actually do the fighting.  It will come as no surprise to you that war has lots of other annoying features besides making those fighting it suffer.  War destroys valuable property.  Even when those fighting the war are armed with knives, clubs, and spears, there is a tendency to destroy the property of others in one way or another.  Fire is a major means of destruction for armies at the low level of technology.  But just trampling the other side’s crops, killing their domestic animals, and vandalizing their homes does quite a lot of damage, too.  Plunder usually makes the victim much poorer.

Another problem with war is that it takes you away from productive labor.  Learning to work together as an effective military unit takes lots of practice.  While you are practicing warfare, you really have no time for other work.  All that time you are drilling with your mates you could have been improving your farm, making more tools, or teaching your children.  Yes, the military does build things.  They even build things (like housing) which would be needed whether they were in the military or not.  So we can say that preparing for war has a lot of opportunity costs.  Just think of all the things they could have done with those resources and that labor.

War reduces trade with other political units.  It’s dangerous to take your wares across the path of an army on the march.  You are quite likely to lose your stock-in-trade.  The distinction between piracy and naval operations by the state is quickly lost on a merchant whose cargo is seized by the navy.

Explaining why wars happen cannot use the reason that the participants are having fun getting killed and wounded, or enjoying marching for miles while hungry and burdened, or having their friends killed.  No, the participants don’t actually like war.  We can’t use the explanation that nations fight wars because war improves the standard of living for their citizens:   Since there are fewer consumer goods produced during a war, there has to be a reduced standard of living.  We can’t say that war prepares humanity to fight other species because we make war only upon each other.   We might say that evolution has given us mental states that encourage fighting.  But that would only explain why individuals fight, not why people formally organize to conduct war operations.

This leaves us with a difficult problem in explaining war, then.  Fighting wars is insane.  It’s a monumentally stupid thing to do.  Wars tend to destroy whole peoples.  The scars of war on the psyche of a nation can last for many generations.  (See the South of the U.S.)  But we do have some clues.  Let’s examine those clues.

The first clue is that war takes place among nations or nation states.  Sometimes the nations are rather informal or temporary as in the case of the armies of the Mongols in fighting China and other nations.  But in no case do hunting-and-gathering societies practice war.  They simply do not have the organization for war.  A war requires a top-down or hierarchical organization rather than a society of equals.  In societies in which organization has leaders who lead by force, who command via coercion, who punish disobedience, the decision to go to war does not depend on the motivation of those who are commanded.  It depends on the motivations of those who command such organizations.  It depends on the kings, high priests, and gods in the form of men.  We only have to come up with some reason why the leaders of such nations/states would want war.  We don’t have to explain why the common citizen would want war in nations with top-down organization.

Does this mean that a democracy would not instigate a war?  Not at all.  Remember that democracy and elections are only how a nation selects leaders.  Democracy does not guarantee that, once selected, a leader is just first among equals, just a person who has no more authority than anyone else.  Remember that Nazi Germany was supposedly a democracy:  Hitler came to office through an election.  The leaders of Rome, a very militarized state, were elected by the Senate of Rome until Augustus.  The citizens of Rome voted for political leaders.  No, what I am talking about is how the government operates in practice.

A second clue is that governments use force to punish those who do not obey.  There are police and soldiers employed by government.  Governments have courts and legislatures to create and enforce laws.  In other words, governments are, by their very nature, top-down organizations.  There is a “supreme court.”  There is a commander in chief.  There are heads of the legislative bodies (and sub-committees).  Outside government we have business organizations.  They also have the top-down organization with a chief executive officer or owner.  Again, the organization punishes disobedience.  Moving on to religion – which, until the last 500 years or so, was usually synonymous with political power as well, the vast majority of religious organizations were also top-down and hierarchical.

In fact, in the minds of many, the very idea of organization implies a commander or leader who tells the others what to do; and who may have a “chain of command” with lesser officers to relay orders to those below them.  Discipline is achieved via coercion and punishment.  The idea is that the way to get people to cooperate is to punish, harm, and sanction those who do not cooperate.

Now you might think that I am wandering off the subject but that is not the case.  I am establishing the context within which it can seem reasonable or rational to go to war.  I am pointing out that in a top-down organization it is only necessary for the party on top, the one in charge, the guy with the most power – it is only necessary for that person or small group to see war as something which can be desirable, beneficial, and rewarding for them.  Because it is possible for some few persons in a nation of persons to gain some benefit or at least the chance for gaining some benefit from a war by that nation.

Let me say that again for emphasis.  It is possible for some few persons in a nation of persons to believe that they can gain some benefit or at least the chance for gaining some benefit from a war by that nation.  This changes the whole situation as far as explanation is concerned.  If a leader is willing for many others to suffer in order to gain some benefit for himself, then that leader may, possibly, desire war.  So we only have to explain why a leader might see some benefit to himself in war.  Of course, we then must explain how that leader can get the rest of the nation to participate in the war.

Let’s refer back to that list of consequences of POM.  The fourth item was that POM falsely simulates a zero-sum game situation in money transactions.  You may have noticed that in government, the subordinates are paid.  That means that the interaction between the leaders and the subordinates simulates a zero-sum game situation.  The leaders and the subordinates are in competition for that money.  The leaders are in the habit of gaining at the expense of others.  The losses of the less powerful or less successful are expected and are not the problem of the winners.  Remembering item six, that money transactions are two-party interaction, we see how it happens that there is always a leader or leading group which has seized control of most of the POM.  Money can be used to gain still more money.  Government power is just one of the means by which those who control money employ their power to gain more power.  So the top-down aspect of the organizations is a product of concentration of power and zero-sum game relationships.

Money gives the power to coerce as we can tell from item two, that POM is amoral; and item five, that money cannot be controlled.  The morality of the religion or of the people may uphold the principle that people should be good to each other, but the nature of POM makes it quite easy for people to ignore that morality and hire other people to harm one’s rivals, competitors, or enemies.  Such hiring cannot be prevented or stopped so long as the money in use is POM.  Also, cutting off one’s access to POM can cause real suffering.  In the third essay in this series we discussed poverty.  Poverty causes great suffering of body and mind.  So to make one poor is to cause them to suffer.  If one is the employer of someone else, threatening to withdraw that employment is a serious threat to the employee.

Therefore, employment with POM implies or announces that the relationship is top-down and hierarchical.  It indicates that failure to obey will be punished.  POM economies are largely organized by money relationships.  Government hires people to carry out and enforce the law.  Businesses hire employees.  Churches hire employees including priests.  Even within the traditional family, the “breadwinner” was in a superior position to the dependent spouse.  So relationships within the family were hierarchical with the father in command of the mother who commanded the children until the sons got old enough (and controlled enough money) to command her.  The wife may have been doing most of the work that earned money but the husband controlled that money.

Given those relationships throughout the society and economy, it is only natural that at each location in the society, the person who had the power would see their own interests and ignore the interests of those subordinate to them.  This pervasive attitude is a product of the nature of POM.  It does not exist in hunting-and-gathering societies.  But it is the norm in agricultural and higher-level societies.

Political leaders gain by having more followers.  Followers can be acquired in democracies by attracting financial support.  That support is usually generated by offering government aid to powerful citizens.  Offering political aid to the poor gains nothing for a politician.  The poor have no money to give.  Followers in earlier times were gained by “recruiting nobles” through offering them lands (with serfs), a source of income in those times.  Political leaders have been using POM to gain power and support since money and government began their development at the same time over 10,000 years ago.  Early on, cities used war against other cities to control their people, seize their lands, and grab any money or other valuables they may have possessed.  Of course, if a city was successful in war, it wasn’t the ordinary people of the city who benefited, it was the leaders.  It wasn’t the ordinary citizens who gained, it was the rich and powerful.  It was the leaders who seized most of the loot.  If the poor got much money war merely increased all the prices (point three in the consequences of POM) which would rise anyway, due to the reduction in production when the army went off to war.  The victorious leaders may have had more gold but, as Spain discovered when it brought back all that silver and gold from the New World in the 1500s, that can destroy your economy.  Spain never recovered from the inflation brought about by all those precious metals.  It was a disaster for the average person, especially if they were peasants or small businessmen.  The inflation was profound and it greatly slowed trade.

The POM gained by the leaders and other powerful groups gave them the impression that they were winning something at the expense of those whom they defeated on the battlefield.  Victory gave them something to brag about and have poems sung in their honor.  It gave the impression that they were stronger than before, that they were on top of the world or at least their part of the world.  In some cases it even got them enough money to pay off the loans they had taken to fight the war.  But somehow there never was enough POM gained to let the government stop taxing the poor.  If you’ve read any political history you will have noticed that politicians and rulers in every nation in all of history are always short of money, except for those rare cases in which they are causing huge inflation.

The motivation exists to gain more money at the expense of others.  This is a product of the nature of POM.  Thus do we understand and explain the motivations of the national leaders.  Next we come to the means by which those leaders can get people to do something which they do not want to do (go to war) and which will lower their standard of living and cost many of them their lives.

We have already mentioned hiring people to do the tasks of government and the military.  That is one part of the means.  One hires soldiers and tax collectors by offering them POM.  But the use of money does not stop there.  One also must buy weapons of war and supplies to be used during that war.  One must contract for constructing military works like castles and forts.  One needs to build roads and other means of communication.  There is a lot of money being spent.

The people who sell their products and labor to the state want the money the state provides.  If offered a job by the state, a laborer does not care whether the work is ethical, whether it benefits society as a whole, or increases the overall public standard of living.  If a contractor wins a bid to build infrastructure for the state to use in military operations, that contractor feels little or no responsibility for how that infrastructure is used.  If a weapons manufacturer can get customers for his product, he cares not whom those weapons will kill.  Tax collectors are “just doing their job” when they take the widow’s last farthing.  In other words, all responsibility for the consequences of their actions is removed by the transference of money to the vendor.  This stems from that zero-sum game relationship in which everyone else is a rival so bad things happening to others is “not my problem”.  The amoral nature of POM allows this to happen.

If a leader wants to go to war there will be support for that course of action by those who sell the materials of war to the government.  The higher ranks in the military will also support such a course of action since it gives them the opportunity for loot, importance, promotion, and glory.  But there are also those who provide propaganda.  Some may be with the church, seeking the favor of the ruler by stirring up national support for war.   There are those who want the slaves that may result.  (In modern times those would be people in the defeated lands; desperate for work, who can be hired for very little.)  War is even glorified for the children through toys and games.  There’s money in that, too.

We see war as one’s own nation defending itself against the evil machinations of foreign nations and their maniacal leaders.  We see our own military actions as defending the faith, the fatherland, the rights of man, or our freedoms.  But let’s consider what the case would be if our money were different.  How we would see and experience things if our money had a different nature.

What if money could not be taken from its owner against the will of that owner?  Then taxes to pay for war would be impossible.  There would be no taxes.

What if money were moral?  Then money could not be used to support killing people.  It could not be spent to destroy property.  It could not be used to oppress anyone.

What if money made it obvious that people are mutually interdependent?  Then it would be obvious that harming other people would be bad for us, too.  We would be opposed to the harming of other people in war or in peace.  We would recognize that to harm our soldiers by sending them to war would harm us as well.

What if money were controllable?  Then people could not hire other people to do things which harm others.  Propaganda could not be hired.

What if money transactions were three-party transactions; in which, A has power over B, B has power over C, and C has power over A?    In that situation the interaction would be stable, so the wealth and power would not go into the hands of just a few.

With all these changes to the nature of money we would have a society in which people were predominantly in relationships of equality.  That is, people would work together rather than working for those who pay them.  One would earn money by benefiting others rather than for obeying someone.

To illustrate this I would like to quote a passage from “Invisible Hand” in which a person from a POM economy is looking for work in a non-POM society whose money has the desirable properties we imagined just now.  The POM gentleman is named Niall and the person who will try to help him find work that will suit him is named Enid.

Enid speaks: “Twenty years ago who could give you a job?”

Niall thought for a moment and said, “Twenty years ago anybody with money could hire me.” Then he paused again.

Enid prompted him, “Who paid you twenty years ago?”

“The guy with the money.”

“Who told you what to do?”

“The guy with the money. If I did what he said to do, he paid me. If I didn’t do what he said, I didn’t get paid.”

“So when that guy with the money gave you a job, he was really trading with you. He was trading his money for your obedience. The deal was that you would give him control of your behavior in exchange for some of his money.”

“Yes, roughly,” Niall agreed.

“So when he gave you a job he was giving you a chance to obey him in exchange for money.”

“In a way, yes.”

“So if the Payers are the only ones with money to give and they don’t tell you what to do, who gives you a job. Who offers you money in exchange for obedience?”

“Nobody?” Niall was getting a little tired of whatever game the old lady was playing.

“Right you are, Niall. Nobody has a job. We may work. We may even labor. We may do what other people tell us to do. But we don’t have jobs.”

“That’s just semantics. You’re just playing games with words. If I work at something and I get paid for doing that work, that’s a job no matter how you slice it.” That ought to straighten her out, Niall thought.

“But,” Enid said, “you don’t get paid for doing that work.”

“What do you mean? What else would you get paid for? When I work I expect to get paid for it.”

“I mean,” Enid said sternly, “just what I said. You don’t get paid for doing work. You get paid for the consequences of what you do. Just because you take orders and sweat and strain and keep that up day after day doing exactly what someone else tells you to do doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily ever get paid anything at all for all your efforts. That’s because now you’re paid for consequences. If the consequences include a great net benefit, then you get paid a lot of money. If the consequences have only a little net benefit, then you get paid only a little. It will not matter how hard you work nor how long it takes you. You don’t get paid by the hour and you don’t get paid by the job. You get paid by the net benefit of the consequences.” By this point Enid was sitting bolt upright pointing her finger right at Niall’s left eye and glowering.

“OK, OK, I get paid for the benefit that will happen.”

“Still not right. You get paid for net benefit, good consequences minus bad consequences. And you only get paid after the consequences are known. A farmer doesn’t get paid for the food he grows and takes to market. He gets paid for the nutrition that people receive from that food. If nobody eats the food, then he doesn’t get paid. If the food isn’t good for them, he doesn’t get paid. Are you getting this?”

“Yeah, yeah, I’m getting it.”

“So,” she continued, “when did you get paid when you had a job 20 years ago?”

“I got paid when the job was done or at the end of the week or whatever.”

“And when will you get paid now?”

“When somebody has benefited from my work.”

“That’s progress. Now if you’re working with someone who has tools for that kind of work and he hands you those tools and tells you what to do with them and you do what he tells you to do, will you get paid?”

“Sure,” Niall nodded absently, “Why not?”

Enid slapped her knee and said, a little angry, “Are you listening to me? What do you get paid for?”

Niall, tiredly, “I get paid for net benefit.”

“Do you get paid for using that guy’s tools?”

“No. I get paid for net benefit.”

“Do you get paid for doing what the guy told you to do with those tools?”

“No. I get paid for net benefit.”

“So, even if somebody gives you tools and tells you what to do with them, is he giving you a job? Remember that he will not pay you.”

“He could give me something else I wanted besides money.”

“He certainly could. Then you would have a job. You would be working for him. You would be his employee, his hireling, his subordinate. He would be your boss, your employer, your superior. Would you care about the consequences of the work you did?”

“I probably wouldn’t think much about them one way or the other.”

“The consequences would not be important to you?”


“Do you see why folks don’t think much of those who have jobs?”

“They don’t think much of slackers either, I notice.” Niall said, playing a trump.

“Which do you think is worse, a slacker who lives off the work of others or somebody who has a job?” Enid asked, leaning back in her chair.

“A slacker is worse, of course.”

“Who built the death camps? Who made the bombs? Who works in the bureaucracies of tyrants? People who have jobs, that’s who, people who don’t care about the consequences of what they’re doing. Who built the cars and factories that made smog and acid rain? Who clear-cut the forests? Who killed the cod? People with jobs. As soon as people get jobs they become totally irresponsible. They no longer admit to any responsibility. ‘I was just following orders.’ ‘I was just doing my job.’ ‘It’s not my fault, he told me to do it.’”

“OK,” anything to get her to shut up and get on with getting him a job, “I concede. But slackers are bad, too.”

“Who do they hurt?”


“Who do slackers hurt?”

“Well, they hurt everybody else. They use resources that other people could use for other things.”

“Correction,” Enid said abruptly, “they only use resources that other people choose to give them. Did you force Darla and Stephanie to give you lunch today?”


“Did anyone else force them to give you food?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Trust me,” Enid said authoritatively, “nobody has been able to make Stephanie do anything she didn’t want to do since she was about three years old. So how did Darla and Stephanie get the food that they gave you?”

“Somebody gave it to them?”

Enid, “Voluntarily?”

“I guess so.”

“Could Darla or Stephanie force some farmer to give them food?”

Niall laughed, picturing little Stephanie twisting the arm of a burly farmer to make him give her food. “I don’t think so.”

Thus endeth the excerpt from “Invisible Hand.”

People just doing their jobs is why we have wars.  People who do not have any concern for the consequences of their actions are why we have wars.  The rich and powerful take advantage of people who have jobs to exploit everyone they can exploit.

I’ll bet you didn’t expect that conclusion.

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