JK Galbraith is exceptionally unwise for a brilliant old man, as demonstrated in this excerpt from his latest book, The Economics of Innocent Fraud : Truth For Our Time:
- We cherish the progress in civilisation since biblical times and long before. But there is a needed and, indeed, accepted qualification. The US and Britain are in the bitter aftermath of a war in Iraq. We are accepting programmed death for the young and random slaughter for men and women of all ages. So it was in the first and second world wars, and is still so in Iraq. Civilised life, as it is called, is a great white tower celebrating human achievements, but at the top there is permanently a large black cloud. Human progress dominated by unimaginable cruelty and death.
Civilisation has made great strides over the centuries in science, healthcare, the arts and most, if not all, economic well-being. But it has also given a privileged position to the development of weapons and the threat and reality of war. Mass slaughter has become the ultimate civilised achievement.
The facts of war are inescapable – death and random cruelty, suspension of civilised values, a disordered aftermath. Thus the human condition and prospect as now supremely evident. The economic and social problems here described can, with thought and action, be addressed. So they have already been. War remains the decisive human failure. [Guardian]
Galbraith speaks as if something has changed in human nature with the development of civilization: it hasn’t, at least not for the worse.
Surely the death and destruction caused by modern weapons and warfare are of an entirely different scale than when tribes threw sticks at each other, but throw sticks at each other, for any number of reasons, they did. Weaponry – an evolutionary advantage over one’s opponents – has always been a driving force behind technological development. Are humans immune from evolution?
The best defense is a strong offense, and neither have human beings ever been shy about pursuing power, glory and territory, so of course weaponry has been at the center of technological development.
Galbraith has it exactly wrong: with development of ever more deadly and destructive weapons HAS come improvements in human restraint and the valuation of life: at least in theory, war is now seen as the last alternative, not the first, and only legitimate for defensive purposes.
Look at all the opposition to, and condemnation of, the war in Iraq: the very fact that the war is roundly condemned as NOT defensive, or “necessary,” that “preemptive” is a dirty word, is proof that the rules of mankind have changed over the centuries, and especially since the second world war.
The fact that nuclear weapons – though possessed by many – have not been used since the end of WW2, that the Cold War ended without nuclear confrontation, that the dissolution of the Soviet Union had a remarkably bloodless “soft landing,” and the fact that the U.S. and its allies cannot be forthright about the “real” reason for war in Iraq – that a very significant portion of the world must be reshaped and that violence is a necessary (though not sufficient) component of that campaign, and Iraq was the most logical place to start – all is testament to a general worldview that says violence is unacceptable other than as a last resort.
Is Galbraith correct that “war remains the decisive human failure”? Of course, but no more so now than at any other time in human history, in fact , less so. For the first time in history, humans have possessed weapons, and fearing enormous consequences, NOT used them – that is progress.