The Survival of the Fittest at Home & Abroad

May 1991By Charles K. Wilber

Charles K. Wilber is Professor of Economics at the University of Notre Dame and a Fellow at the University’s Institute for International Peace Studies. He was one of the major advisors to the U.S. Catholic bishops in the preparation of their 1986 pastoral on Catholic social teaching and the U.S. economy. Among his books are The Soviet Model and Underdevelopment and (with Kenneth Jameson) The Poverty of Economics. His latest book (with Kenneth Jameson) is Beyond Reaganomics: A Further Inquiry into the Poverty of Economics.

If we do not want our war against Iraq to be repeated around the globe in the coming years, we must uncover the various factors that led us to abandon diplomacy and resort to military force in the Middle East. “War is not the reversal of habits and ideals we cultivate in peace. It is their concentration by a whole nation….” So wrote the Anglican economic historian R.H. Tawney in his diary during World War I, one month after having enlisted as a private in the British army but before reporting to active duty and 18 months before being severely wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme.

Of course, there are many causes of war, and sometimes wars are necessary, but as long as America is dominated by an ideology fixated on competition and success as the measure of a person’s worth, that long will war be seen as “manly,” as honorable, as necessary to “protect our vital interests.” That long will we be impatient with diplomacy, and quick to resort to war, in resolving disputes with poor and “less successful” countries.

While engaged in the search for peace and the roots of war, we might pause to listen to Tawney when he said that to a considerable extent his war was
the natural outcome of the ideals and standards which govern Western Europe…in its ordinary everyday social and economic life…. Our whole tendency is to exalt the combative qualities, and to undervalue those of the humble and meek, and…the existing economic organization of society is a perpetual evidence that the world gives its applause to energy, pugnacity, ruthlessness.
The prevailing economic philosophy in the U.S. epitomizes this “religion of success,” despite some welfare legislation to ease our consciences. Listen again to Tawney:
The scale of values which horrifies us when it appears in the claim of some Prussians [Stalin, Hitler, Saddam Hussein?] to have a right to determine the future of “weaker” or “inferior” nations, which identifies right with power, and recognizes no obligation which cannot be enforced on them by superior force, that conception of human affairs is only too similar to that which a cool observer would consider to be realized in our industrial system.

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