Hamilton vs. Kant on War and Peace

As an Aristotelian libertarian, I’m not a big fan of Immanuel Kant, his philosophy in general, or his take on world peace.  But to say that I’m not a fan of Alexander Hamilton — that statist, bank centralizer, mercantilist, and crypto-monarchist — would be a vast understatement. (For more on what’s wrong with Hamilton, see Thomas DiLorenzo’s “What Hamilton Has Wrought” and Hamilton’s Curse.)

I discussed the democratic peace thesis and problems I see with the Kantian Triangle — resting on republican government, international trade, and international law and organizations — in my previous post, Triangulating Peace? Or, Three Foundations for Oppression? While trade is a peaceful activity and economic interdependence can promote peace among states, it can be perverted and used for corporatist and mercantilist ends by states and international governmental organizations (IGOs), which is why, though it pains me to say it, I must side with Hamilton’s take on the matter, excerpted from Federalist #6 below:

Has it not, on the contrary, invariably been found, that momentary passions and immediate interests have a more active and imperious control over human conduct than general or remote considerations of policy, utility, and justice? Have republics in practice been less addicted to war than monarchies? Are not the former administered by men as well as the latter? Are there not aversions, predilections, rivalships, and desires of unjust acquisitions that affect nations as well as kings? Are not popular assemblies frequently subject to the impulses of rage, resentment, jealously, avarice, and of other irregular and violent propensities? Is it not well-known that their determinations are often governed by a few individuals, in whom they place confidence, and are of course liable to be tinctured by the passions and views of those individuals? Has commerce hitherto done anything more than change the objects of war? Is not the love of wealth as domineering and enterprising a passion as that of power or glory? Have there not been as many wars founded upon commercial motives, since that has become the prevailing system of nations, as were before occasioned by the cupidity of territory or domination? Has not the spirit of commerce in many instances administered new incentives to the appetite of both for the one and for the other? Let experience the least fallible guide of human opinions be appealed to for an answer to these inquiries.

Even if democracies rarely go to war with one another and even if they are less war prone, ceteris paribus, than other forms of government, the Kantian Peace is doomed by its very acceptance of the state, which is inherently given to making war — on its own subjects (e.g., Shays’s Rebellion, mentioned by Hamilton prior to the quoted passage, was used as an excuse for the coup d’état that culminated in the ratification of the US Constitution; the Whiskey Rebellion is another example) and with internal and external competitors.

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  • I’ve been softening somewhat on the international trade associations, of late. I can’t help but think that the only reason this long recession hasn’t become a full-scale Great Depression 2 is the absence of a trade war–that is to say, the fact that the political establishment has not responded to the situation via protective measures. To listen to the rhetoric coming out of Washington, there are those who would like to do so, to “protect American jobs” against such “evils” as outsourcing, Chinese monetary policy, and so on. However, their membership in organizations like the WTO constrains such moves considerably.

    These “managed trade” intergovernmental organizations are certainly far from perfect–unilateral free trade would be preferable. However, they do make backsliding in the area of international trade openness more difficult than it would otherwise be.