Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Review of Caverley's Democratic Militarism

Democracies don't go to war unless they have to, and if they have to, they make dang sure that they win. Or so we've been told. In Democratic Militarism, Jon Caverley paints a very different picture. Best of all, he shows that the exceptions to this rule (if you can even call it that) cannot be attributed to corruptions of the process. When democracies fight unnecessary wars, poorly, they do not do so because of elite capture, popular propaganda, or a breakdown of civil-military relations. No, that's democracy at work.

Caverley's argument is deceptively simple. He starts from the same premises as democratic optimists, namely that electoral accountability ensures leaders enact policies preferred by the average citizen, and that the average citizen is reluctant to pay the costs of war. What it adds, though, is a little political economy. Specifically, Caverley argues that economic inequality, coupled with progressive taxation, ensures that the median voter pays less than her fair share of the costs of war—at least the financial component thereof. Given that democratic states tend to substitute capital for labor wherever possible, especially if they have relatively high levels of inequality, that's not as much of a qualification as you might think. Put simply, democratic states—particularly those with relatively high levels of economic inequality—have reduced the median voter's effective cost of war, and this encourages militarism and aggression on a scale that can be quite reckless and tragic.

Extensive statistical analysis of public opinion, force structure, and conflict behavior provides robust support for many key implications of the theoretical argument (which is formalized in an appendix). Detailed analysis of three cases helps persuade the reader that we not only see the sorts of behavior we ought to see, but for the reasons we ought to see them. That is, Caverley provides ample evidence, drawing on primary and secondary sources, that it was a fear of public backlash that drove the British, American, and Israeli governments to fight ill-advised wars in an all-advised manner.

Some of the most compelling bits of evidence:
  • In the US and Israel, lower levels of household income/consumption are associated with higher levels of support for the use of force/lower levels of support for offering concessions. Yet there is no clear association between household income/consumption and self-reported threat perception. If the poor and middle class demand more aggression, it's not because they believe the world to be more dangerous than their wealthier counterparts do.
  • Higher levels of military spending per personnel are associated with more frequent attempts at militarized compellence, interventions, and the pursuit of revisionist aims in militarized interstate disputes, but only amongst democracies.
  • British imperialism underwent a revival after major reforms extended the franchise. The ruling class was convinced that the cost of maintaining, let alone expanding, the empire outweighed the benefits. But the average voter, who was largely sheltered from those costs, felt differently.
I should admit that I'm naturally sympathetic to the sort of argument Caverley puts forth. If you're a regular reader of this blog, or you've read some of my recent publications, you know that I too am skeptical of the prevailing view of how democracies behave internationally. But I'd recommend this book even to those who are more sympathetic to the conventional wisdom. Maybe especially to such individuals. It is well-written, carefully argued, built upon sophisticated analysis (that is mostly relegated to appendices, where it's unlikely to offend), and extremely relevant. It also speaks to a wide range of topics within IR, from political economy to US foreign policy, inequality and redistribution, military doctrine, counterinsurgency, imperialism, and more. You may or may not be as obsessed as I am with the question of whether democracies "do it better", so to speak, but you'll probably enjoy this book all the same.


  1. Hi Phil, I was just curious about your thoughts on Democratic Peace Theory. Do you think it is a valid explanation?

    1. Hi Michael. I'm a skeptic of the democratic peace. This post (and the paper that will soon grow out of it) explains what I think is really going on.


  2. Phil,
    I wrote a fairly long comment, then signed into my Google account to post it, and the comment disappeared. I can't take the time to write it out again. I don't know whether I shd have signed in first -- I guess so. Anyway, nice to see you picking up the blogging again.

    I will repeat one of the pts that I lost: there was no unified position of the British 'ruling class' on imperialism in the late 19th cent -- the elites were split. But Caverley's bk sounds worth looking at parts of, at least.

    1. Hi LFC,

      Sorry you lost your comment. Blogging will be sporadic for a little while, as I need to whittle down my "to do" list before I can devote time to blogging on a regular basis again, but I'm still here. :)

      I felt Caverley made a good case that the differences were largely (though not entirely) rhetorical, but I'm not qualified to mediate a disagreement on that front.