The moral equivalent of war

Andrew Smith
5 min readJun 9, 2023

War is brutal. It leads to the massive loss of life and destruction, with territory and property in the balance.

But war also provides opportunities for governments thirsty for central planning and mobilizing the citizenry around a “noble” cause. Under the guise of war, the United States government has suppressed free speech and jailed people for simply criticizing the war, nationalized production and threw people into internment camps simply because of their race.

In short, wartime allows governments a basis to suppress civil liberties, ignore their constitutions and go all-in on central planning. But what if governments can deem something so important that it should have the same power to suppress civil liberties and implement extra-constitutional central plans?

So why not declare something as important as a war to justify it?

The Canadian wildfires affecting the northeastern United States are leading to such calls. Rep. Earl Bluemenauer — an alarmist progressive who wants federal subsidies for biking — said “we are faced with another stark reminder the climate crisis is here … We ought to treat it like the emergency it is.”

Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau — who never met a power grab he didn’t embrace — referenced “tackling climate change” in the wake of the wildfires.

This is another case of never letting a good crisis go to waste.

What might a “climate emergency” look like? Bans or severe limits on fossil fuel exploration and development, which of course, would mean significantly more expensive prices for fuels millions rely on to heat their homes and power their vehicles.

But the calls for declaring and giving the executive broad extra-legislative powers to tackle a supposed “climate emergency” is nothing new. It derives from William James’ 1906 speech where he coined the term “moral equivalent of war.” In that particular context, he was calling for conscription into mandatory national service

“Such a conscription, with the state of public opinion that would have required it, and the many moral fruits it would bear, would preserve in the midst of a pacific civilization the manly virtues which the military party is so afraid of seeing disappear in peace. … I spoke of the “moral equivalent” of war. So far, war has been the only force that can discipline a whole community, and until an equivalent discipline is organized, I believe that war must have its way.

Since, the concept of “moral equivalent of war” has been used by governments to justify central planning, because this “emergency” is too important to be left to the citizenry, to the markets, to local knowledge or decentralized decision-making.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt invoked the “moral equivalent of war” to justify broad central planning powers when introducing the New Deal in his 1933 inaugural address.

Our greatest primary task is to put people to work. This is no unsolvable problem if we face it wisely and courageously. It can be accomplished in part by direct recruiting by the Government itself, treating the task as we would treat the emergency of a war, but at the same time, through this employment, accomplishing greatly needed projects to stimulate and reorganize the use of our natural resources.

He spoke of “lines of attack” in the same address, then went on to implement them with a dizzying array of attempts at central planning, most notably the National Recovery Administration that cartelized businesses and attempted to dictate wages, prices and production under the guise of “fair competition.” It was declared unconstitutional, but much of the New Deal was allowed to stand.

Recently, the “moral equivalent of war” has been used to justify suppressing free speech and association during the Cold War, a long-lasting and rather unsuccessful “war on drugs,” and in 2020, to arbitrarily shut down businesses and quarantine healthy citizens in the name of fighting a virus.

But most recently, it’s been invoked in the name of the environment.

That’s nothing new. Jimmy Carter also invoked the “moral equivalent of war” in a 1977 speech aimed at limiting oil and fossil fuel consumption.It ultimately had little teeth because Congress rejected much of its proposals and wisely deregulated energy production instead. That allowed prices to stay low as the economy grew over the next several decades.

Ever since, leaders have been looking for an excuse to ratchet up Green New Deal policies — ones that built off FDR’s “wartime-style” mobilization to remake the economy into a centrally-planned one, but now, using the “climate crisis” as an reason to implement a host of policies that have nothing to do with the environment — “union jobs,” calls for universal health care, increasing the minimum wage, replacing air travel with rail and “investing in marginalized communities.” It calls for bypassing (primarily Republican) state legislatures to give money directly to (primarily Democratic) cities — to ease implementation and do an end-run around voters.

Recently, we’ve seen it put into action on legislation that hits people’s daily lives — bans on new gas-powered cars, natural gas stoves and gas hookups in new construction because of “climate.” A recent fad for “15-minute cities” — a repackaged Soviet idea — has brought on attempts to restrict automotive travel within a city, again with “climate” the justification.

Very little of the Green New Deal has anything to do with the environment, but it’s being used as a front to pass a laundry list of progressive policies.

But attaching the environment to other progressive policy goals — or, as a press release stated, “fighting the intertwined economic, social, racial and climate crises” — allows the ability to equate those goals with the “climate crisis” and thus elevate them along with the environment to the “moral equivalent of war” and justify central planning and government intervention.

Each wildfire — even though they are frequently human-caused and made worse not due to climate, but due to poor forest management practices — along with each major hurricane and other natural phenomena that have happened for millennia brings up another round of calls for “emergency” to justify government power-grabs.

Every time a politician wants to declare a war — whether it’s an actual military war or a “moral” one — be wary of politicians looking for an excuse to increase their own power at your expense.

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Andrew Smith

Andrew Smith is an economics instructor at New Palestine (IN) High School and an adjunct instructor for Vincennes University