How to End a War in Ten Days

In the aftermath of Obama’s Afghanistan “surge,” we see a number of lawmakers and commentators proposing a “war tax” — as a way to either fund, or end, the war. After all, if we don’t want to pay for the war, why are we willing to let people die for it?

Indeed, a war tax would be a quick way to end the Afghanistan war, or any war. The first serious study of democracies at war — titled, ahem, “Democracies at War” — found that democracies enter a war with an advantage, either because of a selection effect (democracies only start winnable wars), or because of softer morale factors. But, except in a few cases, that advantage quickly evaporates. Popular support erodes, and legislators pull funding or otherwise starve the effort. A tax or a draft would quickly trigger that effect and end the war, for better or worse.

If we can trust that a war tax would end the war, however, that doesn’t prove that it should. To make that conclusion, we’d have to assume that the public’s desire is always right — and that’s a hell of an assumption. Much of our government, and much of democratic theory, is built on mediating the public will: it’s why we’re a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, and it’s the reason our Founders precommited us to certain bedrock values. In a representative government, true leaders shouldn’t blindly follow the public’s will — they should guide it to responsible outcomes, and cancel irresponsible decisions based more on wishes rather than facts. Tax and foreign policy both directly test those principles: the public will always want tax cuts, but they’re not always responsible; and the public will (almost) always want to end a war, but it’s not always the right thing to do. Whether it is in this case is a question that can’t be resolved by a simple appeal to the populace.

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3 comments

  1. Ames,

    At the moment in the U.S. the problem is actually the flip side – we’re not DIRECTLY impacted by the war (yet), nor by its costs, so we as a nation remain ambivalent about it. The 9/11 attacks receed into memory, the economy is still tanking (loosing a mere 11,000 jobs last month is still loosing jobs), and both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are being fought on the national credit card. Thus, the sacrifices that the nation needs to make to fund those wars are not (yet) hurting mainstreet Americans.

    Lacking that share sacrifice, there’s little dialogue excpet between professional politicians as to whether the nation’s interests as outlined by the President Tuesday REALLY ARE the nation’s interests. Thus, there’s little public will to mediate.

    On the other hand, if people were demonstrating on the Mall every day, then we could talk . . . .

  2. That’s a good point. My argument isn’t necessarily against a war tax, even — it’s against using a war tax as a cynical way to end a war. I almost want to say we should be made to feel the effects of the war, if only so we make responsible decisions, but I’d rather not reach that through a ploy.

  3. It seems to me that democracies could do much better at maintaining public support in the internet age if they would update the public in detail about what they have done, what they have accomplished, what they hope to accomplish, and how they plan to do it.

    Details which should not fall into enemy hands can be referred to in the abstract (e.g. using code names for operations, as is already commonly done) until after they have been executed.

    That’s my main objection to what’s going on in Afghanistan right now: I have no way of evaluating whether we have any likelihood of accomplishing anything good there. In an era when the government apparently still considers torture a valid means of gathering intelligence, it’s difficult to think that we have any business invading or occupying any other country anywhere.

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