My elder daughter played Piggy in her school’s production of Lord of the Flies last week. I’m biased, obviously, but I thought she was brilliant, as was the performance overall. Casting some girls in what was originally an all-male story made the audience unusually aware of the difference between the sexes: we all knew that little boys, given the chance, would embrace barbarism more enthusiastically than their sisters. Which led to another, larger thought. William Golding’s gruesome tale wouldn’t have the same plausibility today.
Lord of the Flies tells the story of a group of schoolboys, evacuees from a presumed nuclear war, whose plane has crashed on a desert island. The apocalypse from which they have fled is a constant, brooding presence as we observe their descent into sanguinary savagery. Golding, himself a schoolmaster, wrote his macabre story in reaction to the altogether-too-wholesome children’s book The Coral Island. Let me show you, he was telling his readers, how boys would really behave if marooned.
Golding’s opinion of our species was not high – which is hardly surprising given the era in which he was writing. He had lived through two-and-a-half world wars. The two had been, in absolute terms, the most lethal ever fought, respectively killing 18 million and 55 million people. The half – Korea – was coming to its squalid end when the novel was published in 1954, but conflict between the superpowers appeared to be escalating. Vietnam was beginning its own descent into hell as the beaten French withdrew. On every continent, there were reminders of man’s capacity for wickedness, from the repression of civil rights marchers in the American South to the Mau Mau abominations in Kenya.
Golding’s was one of a series of postwar dystopian novels, the most famous of which were George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange. These were years of deep, and apparently justified, pessimism. Plenty of people expected a nuclear holocaust, including Albert Einstein, C.P. Snow and Carl Sagen. The mushroom cloud was a popular icon, adorning record sleeves, book covers and magazines. The next war, it was thought, would obliterate civilization, possibly even end life.
In fact, although he could not know it, Golding was writing at the beginning of the most peaceful epoch in human existence. Never have we been less likely to die violent deaths than now. The decline in bellicosity over the past six decades is near-miraculous – the more so for being counterintuitive. In his magnificent work, The Better Angels of our Nature, which is spread over more than a thousand pages so as to convince and win over the most sceptical reader with data, Steven Pinker demonstrates that on every measure – war, homicide, torture, slavery, violence against women – we are becoming a more eirenic species.
You don’t believe it? You want to know how Pinker’s thesis fits with the invasion of Ukraine, which has seen the fiercest tank battles in Europe since 1945? Or with the monstrosities in Iraq and Syria? Well, it’s in our nature to focus on immediate events. Murders by ISIS and Boko Haram make the television, but no newsreader is ever going to say: “Good evening: there is no war in the Falkland Islands, nor in Yugoslavia, nor in Vietnam.”
Various theories have been put forward to explain our peaceful stretch. The most idiotic of them attributes absence of war to the European Union. In fact, the EU was not so much a cause as a consequence of peace in Europe. The causes were the defeat of fascism, the spread of freedom and the stability of Nato.
“No two democracies have ever gone to war,” it is often claimed. This isn’t quite true. Depending on how you define democracy, you might include the two most recent Israel-Lebanon wars, the 1995 Peru-Ecuador war, Croatia’s war against the rest of Yugoslavia, the Russo-Georgian war of 2008 and conceivably even the Anglo-American war of 1812. It is true, though, that democracy makes countries less likely to begin aggressive wars.
Various other, more eccentric, criteria have also been proposed. It used to be claimed that no two states with McDonalds had fought a war, but Nato bombed Serbian targets during the struggle in Kosovo, and Russia invaded Ukraine. The theory that no two Eurovision contenders would come to blows was exhausted when Putin seized Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
What, then, is the likeliest explanation? There is more than one factor at work, and we should be wary of oversimplifying, but the strongest correlation of all, as Bruce Russett and John Oneal showed in their 2001 study, Triangulating Peace, is with free trade. “When goods cannot cross borders, armies will”, declared the nineteenth French economist Frédéric Bastiat, a view echoed by Britain’s Richard Cobden: “Free trade is God’s diplomacy. There is no other certain way of uniting people in the bonds of peace.”
The reasoning is clear enough. If there are no tariffs, it makes no difference where natural resources are. Why expend blood and treasure in seizing, let’s say, another country’s diamond mines when you can buy the diamonds at precisely the same price anyway? Since businesses like to stay on good terms with their suppliers and customers, trade spreads networks of goodwill across frontiers.
Leftists are quite wrong when they claim that capitalism is selfish. On the contrary, no force on Earth knits people together so harmoniously. Markets teach us empathy, in the literal sense of putting ourselves in someone else’s place. As Samuel Ricard put it in 1704:
“Commerce attaches men one to another through mutual utility. It affects the feelings of men so strongly that it makes him who was proud and haughty suddenly turn supple, bending and serviceable. Through commerce, man learns to deliberate, to be honest, to acquire manners, to be prudent and reserved in both talk and action.”
Sceptics sometimes argue that Cobden, Bastiat and Ricard were confounded by the outbreak of the First World War, but the real expansion of global trade has come over the past six decades. Although tariffs were low in 1914, the means to export were limited. There was no Internet, no air travel, no refrigeration. Shipping was slow, goods heavy, and most firms traded only within a few miles of where they were sited. Today, overseas commerce as a percentage of total economic activity is around 30 times higher than it was a century ago.
Just as important, few now fear a return to protectionism. The same was not true at the beginning of the twentieth century, when Britain’s Tories were splitting over the question of “imperial preference”, and France was conducting a parallel debate about whether to forge an autarkic bloc out of its colonies. Indeed, it was partly in reaction to these protectionist noises that the Germans began grabbing for their own colonies – with, as it turned out, calamitous consequences.
Bastiat and Cobden, in short, weren’t wrong; they were ahead of their time. As tariffs fell across the industrialised world after 1945, war became purposeless. The same process is now seeping into the Southern hemisphere. As Milton Friedman liked to observe, markets are the best way to get people who don’t like each other to work together. Or, in Montesquieu’s words, “peace is the natural consequence of trade”. Amen.