How Economic Inequality Leads Democracies to Militarism

Jonathan Caverly, a former submarine officer and now an assistant professor of political science at Northwestern University, has a fascinating and provocative working paper, which argues that: “[..] democracies will build larger, highly capitalized militaries as inequality in wealth rises.”  the traditional view is that wars benefit elites and let the masses bear the brunt of the cost. Caverly argues that as militaries become more highly capitalized, this is reversed. Capital intensive militaries reduce the need for mass armies, limit military casualties, and shift the cost burden to tax payers. This should make relatively poorer voters more supportive of increasing defense spending and of aggressively using the military to advance security demands. Increases in income inequality make these trends more pronounced.

Caverly has some evidence for these assertions (although he cannot test all implications directly). In cross-national surveys, he finds that lower income people on average are more supportive of increased defense spending. Moreover, the gap between the rich and the poor is largest in countries with larger income inequality (the U.S. in 2006 is the most notable exception). In a detailed study of Israeli attitudes, he also finds that poorer citizens are more favorable towards increased defense spending and especially towards a more hawkish usage of the military (he controls for some obvious confounders here although my knowledge of Israeli politics is insufficient to attest to the merit of all of them).

The study is very strong in challenging the prevailing view that democracies are necessarily more casualty averse. The idea that technological change and rising income inequality may have created a democratic public that is more militaristic is provocative but plausible. I do wish that the paper spent a little more attention to the possibility that lower income people may prefer other public goods than the military even more. This should matter both for theory and empirics. It would also be nice to see more on the U.S. since so many of the potential implications involve the U.S. This is the kind of paper that made me think of ten other possible papers (which is a good thing).

h/t Will Moore at PoliticalViolenceAtaGlance

[Originally posted at The Monkey Cage]

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Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.