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.