Self-defence economics vs military economics

Yesterday, I gave a presentation to the Canberra Security Economics Network. Central point:

*Self-defence is special, military expenditure is not*

Spelling this out

*The need to defend the country against invasion, air attack or naval blockade involves existential risk

  • Any other use of military power should be assessed in terms of (opportunity) costs and benefits

Compared to alternative public or private expenditures

6 thoughts on “Self-defence economics vs military economics

  1. I read the dot points of the presentation. It would be interesting to see the transcript of the presentation. I mostly agree with the overall argument but the world of people has demonstrated it won’t listen to good logic even when substantial parts of it are empirically supportable.

    A few quibbles on the dot points.

    “Angell 1911 argued that 1. wars of conquest are never profitable under modern conditions. 2. therefore rational leaders would never fight such wars. Great War 1914-18 proved him right on 1, wrong on 2.”

    Does this assume that the leaders of the time were rational? Surely, the syllogism can be used to demonstrate the leaders were not rational. Following Bacon, I am not a fan of “the syllogism” per se. Complex interacting reality is not reducible to syllogisms nor to neat axioms and theorems. An interesting question is whether political leaders really control what happens or are they too the puppets of wider and larger forces? I mean the emergent forces and developments of the whole dynamic system which no individual can predict or control.

    “Resources not worth fighting a war over. Even more true of fish.”

    This is incorrect if the resources are of existential importance. South East Asians (about 688 million people and increasing) are heavily dependent on seafood protein. The failure of all their fisheries (not the South China Sea alone) will be of existential concern to the entire region.The fisheries will fail. It’s not a matter of “if” but “when”. Then there will be fights over these resources. The fights will be a negative sum game which will prove the thesis. But the fights will happen nonetheless. At least, that is my prediction.

  2. Correction to my post above, Prof. Q.’s words were “Resources not worth fighting a war over…” He did not predict there would be or would not be a fight over the fish. If I could amend my post above I would re-write that section. The thing is resources *are* worth competing for, in general, in the biological kingdoms of life, just not worth fighting a human war over if we are concerned about the overall sum of the “game” for human welfare. So, my mistake there.

  3. I’m not sure I understand how air attack is considered to be as much an existential risk as invasion or blockade. Would it depend on what kind of air attack?

  4. J-D,

    I think in this context “existential threat” encompasses a life-threatening risk to even just some citizens, not simply an existential threat to the whole nation. So, falling bombs and missiles mean existential threat to at least some citizens. And imagine if the bombs fell on property owned by rich people. Gosh, the outcry from the MSM and PTB would be even greater.

    To make another comparison, imagine if falling bombs and missiles had killed 184 Australian citizens, confirmed dead, in the week up to Fri 26 May 2023. I suspect there would be some kind of outcry to do something about it; possibly even a declaration of war and the assistance of powerful allies sought. But because that’s only the week’s COVID-19 deaths, nobody in power or wealth gives a rats’.

  5. Prof Kathy Eagar tweeted on May 26:

    COVID is now Australia’s third leading cause of death. In 2023 ten times more people will die of COVID than die in car accidents.

    We wear seatbelts, have speed limits and traffic rules to minimise traffic accidents & deaths. We need a similar proportional response to COVID

    Australia’s failed pandemic response has been described as our worst public health disaster since World War II.

    View at

  6. The assumption is that wars are fought primarily for economic gain. In fact, they are fought for many different reasons, now as previously – just as violence is used for many reasons. Some are amenable to calculation of costs and benefits, some not. And, as Russia-Ukraine has most recently demonstrated, some of the things that matter most (leadership, morale, degree of international support, willingness to incur costs) can at best be only loosely informed guesses and at worst are simply imponderable (this is a good reason for avoiding war as far as possible, of course).

    A recent post on Crooked Timber noted the increasing use of violence by Republicans in one US state (not an isolated trend). These people see an existential threat to their identity and status, and are not prepared to accept that future if violence can avert it. National elites can feel the same way (see, eg Germany and Austria-Hungary pre World War I).

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