War, Debt, and Democracy

NEW YORK – As the United States takes up the decision to lift its self-imposed debt ceiling, we would do well to remember why America’s public debt is as large as it is, and how it matters. With the rise of the Tea Party, Republicans may rail against raising the debt ceiling, but they are likely to back down in the end, because, among other things, debt-funded wars – say, in Afghanistan and Iraq – are easier to defend than pay-as-you-go wars that voters must finance up front with taxes.

Indeed, the looming US debate underscores a more general point: since time immemorial, war has been a double-edged sword. Human societies have slaughtered and oppressed one another on the scale of Mother Nature’s worst scourges. But wars have also brought beneficial change, because mobilizing people for fighting also mobilizes them for politics.

History is replete with examples of war expanding the voice of those who provided the resources to fight. Ancient Athens became a “democracy” – literally, government by the people – when Kleisthenes organized ordinary fisher folk and farmers into a mass rabble capable of defeating Sparta-backed oligarchs. Their political freedom was secured by Athens’ reliance on labor-intensive naval warfare against the Persians and other enemies.

In Rome, the army’s sit-down strike in the fifth century B.C. opened politics to the lower classes. Common warriors were, explicitly and famously, the decision makers among Norsemen and in Swiss Alpine cantons in the early Middle Ages.