Counterfactual Fun

The madness spreads to the Volokh Conspiracy, where Eugene foresees an American takeover of the “British” empire while Tyler Cowen has North America groaning under the yoke of social democracy. Free marketers would do well to avoid mentioning New Zealand, however, whose welfare state was producing sub-par economic growth, provoking a major bout of neoliberal reform after which they started doing even worse (interestingly, New Zealand and Argentina provide just about the only historical examples of rich countries becoming un-rich and they don’t seem to have much else in common). But all this speculating got me thinking about the earlier dispute over whether or not world war one should be understood as a preventative war.

However you want to understand it, though, it’s pretty clear that Germany could have avoided it by telling their friends in Austria that the Kaiser had no interest whatsoever in launching a general war over the Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and that the Hapsburg’s either had to work something out with Serbia (which had put forward a reasonable compromise) or else face the tender mercies of the Czar all alone. Since the Germans went on to lose the war, we can safely say that that would have been the right call, though this may not have been apparent at the time.

Now world war one doesn’t get much play here in the USA (I’m told it’s huge in France) but thinking about this reminds us of just how enormous its consequences were. After all, both Communism and Nazism arose in its aftermath so the entire landscape of twentieth century history would have been radically different. Beyond the most obvious points, the dismantling of the British and French colonial empires would have gone very differently without the financial pressures of the war, the disruption at the French imperial center, the need to mobilize the ideology of democracy as part of the war effort, and the rise of Soviet anti-colonial propaganda. One is inclined to say that having wealthy democracies possess vast overseas empires was totally untenable in the long-run either way, but they might have lasted much longer. And without the impetus of world wars and the coldwar, America, like the contemporary EU, might just be some big rich place without much in the way of military capacity.

Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War argues, rather more implausibly, I think, that Britain should have simply sat things out and let the Germans overrun France. This lets him write a chapter called “The Kaiser’s European Union” which is a fun euroskeptic kind of thing to do, but also a bit silly.