Before the US Constitution of 1787 was ratified, its proponents have claimed a centralized and powerful American state was necessary for the purposes of military defense.
But, as the Anti-Federalists of the time pointed out, the older constitution (known as the Articles of Confederation) had already been sufficient to allow the colonies to defeat what was the most powerful state on earth — the British Empire.
By the time the Federalists were advocating for a new, stronger, more costly constitution, the US was, as Richard Henry Lee put it, “in no immediate danger of any commotions; we are in a state of perfect peace, and in no danger of invasions.”
Then as now, though, advocates for more government intervention wrapped up their agenda in calls for more “security” through a larger, stronger state.
As has happened so many times in American history, the trick worked, and the voters accepted much stronger and expansive government in the name of peace and security.
What they ended up with, though, went far beyond mere military matters.
The new constitution contained a bevy of new powers for the central state to exercise including new powers of taxation, new regulations, and new courts.
These powers on domestic matters were so broad that within two years, Congress had passed the Judiciary Act of 1789 creating a network of domestic federal courts. By 1791, the United States had a central bank. By 1803, with Marbury vs. Madison, the Supreme Court had invented the power of judicial review, deciding for itself what were the limits of federal power.
By the end of the 19th century, the US government had established itself as able to regulate countless industries under the guise of promoting “competition” and fair labor relations.
None of these powers, of course, are key in providing for the so-called “common defense,” although that’s what voters were told was the primary reason for the new constitution.
And to this day, apologists for the new constitution recoil in horror at the suggestion that the Union be disbanded or that member states be allowed to go their own way.
“Why, we’ll be invaded by foreign powers!” is the refrain, either implied, or stated explicitly.
In truth, nothing nearly so broad and unrestrained as the current constitution is remotely necessary to provide for an immense military establishment in the United States.
The Geopolitics of Military Alliances
Broadly speaking, it makes a lot of sense for a number of independent states to join together for purposes of military defense.
This is certainly not the case for other common functions of government. Most of these, from transportation infrastructure, to policing, to welfare benefits, can easily be administered at the level of a small state, or even at the municipal level. All one need to do is look at some of the welfare states of Europe — such as Switzerland and Norway, with populations of 8 million and 5 million respectively — to see that large states are not required in this respect.
Due to the realities of military conflict, however, large frontiers and geographical areas can offer advantages in military defense. This is a primary motivation behind a variety of military alliances, both modern and historical, from NATO to the Hanseatic League.
In the aftermath of the successful war against the British Empire, it made sense to many Americans that the United States would continue on as a military alliance of independent states.
Restricting a Constitution to Foreign Affairs
For many, then, it was clear that even the lose confederation of states that existed under the old constitution offered the necessary benefits of a military alliance. Their recent experience had shown it to be so.
What was not clear was that any further unification was necessary, or that an alliance of a non-military nature was necessary at all.
Understandably, the language of the Articles of Confederation deals overwhelmingly with military and diplomatic matters. Under this agreement, the purpose of the United States government is to engage in activities of external affairs — providing diplomatic and military services. For outside governments, “the United States” would appear to be one entity, although internal relations could continue to be the domain of the independent and sovereign states.
This is what an alliance of mutual military aid, properly understood, would look like. Domestic affairs would be left to the autonomous members of the confederation.
Instead, the United States became a union rather than a confederation, with direct taxation by the American government, and involuntary membership in the “alliance” by all member states.
The Real Source of American Peace
Supporters of an involuntary and highly centralized union often argue that formal legal union, coerced membership, and direct taxation are necessary to “unite us” into a single national unit. It is even implied that, if all member states are not coerced into a single unified state, then the various states will begin warring among themselves.
In response to this, one might first note that the presence of the current constitution did not prevent the Civil War’s bloodbath that lasted from 1861 to 1865.
Second, the assumption that political unity produces peace fails to explain why the US has been at peace with Canada and all the Anglosphere since 1815.
Obviously, those foreign states are not bound by the US Constitution, and we can’t attribute the long period of peace to a presence of a strong federal government.
The likely reason peace has endured among these states is that, when it comes to relations among these states, peace is more beneficial than war. Moreover, the populations of these states recognize that peace is more beneficial than war.
This is true for both cultural and economic reasons. Common bonds of culture, language, and trade are powerful deterrents to war. In the Anglosphere, of course, these bonds are especially strong due to the presence of a common language. But even language barriers can be overcome should the peoples of two states share a strong sense of common history and ideology, as is the case between the French and the Americans.
But it’s not just any ideology that especially fosters peace. The ideology of liberalism and free markets is especially effective.
This relationship has been documented by R.J. Rummel who concludes that the “libertarian peace” is an observable phenomenon in which “libertarianism is causally related to foreign violence: The more freedom that individuals have in a state, the less the state engages in foreign violence.”1
[S]ystems (like the free market) tend to be self-regulating and to isolate and inhibit conflicts and violence when they occur. They tend to encourage exchange, rather than coercive and violent solutions, in conflict between groups and individuals.
Libertarian states are by theory not only less violence prone, but when foreign relations includes the perception of other libertarian states, this inhibition becomes a mutual barrier to violence. Their mutual domestic diversity and pluralism, their free and competitive press, their people-to-people and elite-to-elite bonds and relationships, and their mutual identification and sympathy will foreclose on any expectation or occurrence of war between them…2
Similarly, Steven Pinker has noted the existence of a “capitalist peace” which discourages wars among nations with well-developed and open economies:
[W]hen it’s cheaper to buy things than to steal them, people don’t steal them. Also, if other people are more valuable to you alive than dead, you’re less likely to kill them. You don’t kill your customers or your lenders, so the arrival of the infrastructure of trade and commerce reduces some of the sheer exploitative incentives of conquest …
I don’t think it’s the entire story of the decline in war. But I do think it’s part of the story. There was a well-known study from Bruce Russett and John Oneal showing statistically that countries that engage in more trade are less likely to get into militarized disputes, and countries that are more integrated into the world economy are less likely to get into trouble with their neighbors.
The US Could Have Been a Voluntary Cultural and Economic Union
Clearly, these realities apply to groups of American states as well. In the early United States, the various member states were already heavily influenced by ideologies of a high degree of both economic freedom and market freedom. These factors were important in the motivations of participants in the Revolution.
By the end of the 18th century, trade was widespread among the states. Trade had even resumed with the British Empire, and had become extensive.
Most residents of the former colonies already shared a widespread usage of English, similarities in religion, and similarities in political ideology. These are the factors that unified the colonies during the war in the first place. Unity was not achieved by federal mandates imposed from above. On the contrary, the new constitution and its fugitive slave provisions greatly exacerbated conflicts between slave states and free states.
To turn around and claim, therefore, that the result of a weak constitution would be widespread warfare among the newly independent states is not at all convincing. Were the American states to continue in a loose confederation, there is no more reason to believe that Tennessee would benefit from war with Illinois any more than New Zealand would benefit from war with Australia. Such a conflict would be destructive, pointless, and impoverishing, not to mention politically unpopular among the voters.
Equally unconvincing is the claim that foreign powers would pick off American states one at a time, turning them against their neighbors. This is about as likely as the Russians convincing the Canadians to join in an alliance against the United States — Canada’s largest trading partner.
Today, supporters of the current constitution often dismiss any significant decentralization or reform out of hand, often claiming the status quo is absolutely necessary to preserve an effective military defense. This however, has never been true.
The power of the American military establishment has long been more a product of its industrial power and economic wealth, and this is not enhanced by a strong state with vast regulatory powers as the US enjoys today.
Where the new US Constitution of the Federalists limited strictly to matters of military and diplomatic affairs, we might have avoided the central banks, federal regulatory agencies, and vast taxation powers that followed ratification. Unfortunately, the Federalists had much bigger plans than simply forging a better foreign-policy alliance. The document we now call “the Constitution” has always been a document designed to grant vast new domestic powers to the American state. Unfortunately, its defenders then, as now, flock to its defense using a familiar refrain: We need a big government to “keep us safe.”
1. Sometimes this position is described as the “democratic peace” which is often misunderstood by libertarians themselves. In The Next Generation of Austrian Economics, J. Patrick Rhamey writes:
[T]here is a frequent and unfortunately persistent mischaracterization in Austrian circles of democratic peace theory, often inappropriately conflated with neoconservative foreign policy prescriptions. As but one example, a recent discussion by Hans Hoppe (2013) on the democratic peace grossly mischaracterizes the theory as including the claims ‘In order to create lasting peace, the entire world must be made democratic’ and ‘war must be waged on those states to convert them to democracy and thus create lasting peace.’ Such a claim about democratic peace is a complete invention, as there is not a single piece of democratic peace research in international relations that states either. Indeed, the original conceptualization of the democratic peace in modern political science empirical research was labelled the ‘libertarian peace’ and focused on libertarian normative values (Rummel 1983). Such claims are completely absent in both the normative (Dixon 1994) and institutionalist (Bueno de Mesquita et al. 1999) explanations of the empirical finding, which has been described as ‘the closest thing we have to an empirical law in the study of international relations.’
2. See “Libertarianism and International Violence” by R. J. Rummel, in the Journal of Conflict Resolution, First Published March 1, 1983.
Ryan McMaken (@ryanmcmaken) is the editor of Mises Wire and The Austrian. Send him your article submissions, but read article guidelines first. Ryan has degrees in economics and political science from the University of Colorado, and was the economist for the Colorado Division of Housing from 2009 to 2014. He is the author of Commie Cowboys: The Bourgeoisie and the Nation-State in the Western Genre.