On the causes of World War I

Many times, I’ve tried to put together a brief narrative of the causes of World War I, and I invariably find (after the fact) that I’ve left something out. So here’s the latest (and, one would hope, final) attempt…

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There were at least three causes that in confluence led to World War I. Let’s take them one at a time and put them together a little later.

1. Germany unable to feed itself

In his book The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919), J.M. Keynes cited contemporary estimates suggesting that immediately before the war, Germany had a population of 67 million, while producing enough food to feed about 40 million. Austria was in a qualitatively similar position. This state of affairs was largely caused by the legacy of feudal land ownership, whereby the aristocracy controlled vast amounts of land and extracted substantial rents from them.

2. The gold standard

Under the gold standard, a nation can expand its money supply only as far as its gold stock allows. To expand its gold stock, a nation must have a trade surplus. So expanding the money supply under the gold standard is only possible if a nation has a trade surplus.

Expanding money supply is the quickest way of ending recessions and thus keeping the population gainfully employed and reasonably happy. But under the gold standard, it is only possible if a nation has a trade surplus, so governments, instead of abandoning the gold standard (which was considered the holy cow of economic policy back then), started working on ensuring that their nations always have a trade surplus.

3. The continuing rule of the military aristocracy

All major European countries (with possible exception of Britain) were de-facto ruled by the military aristocracy, educated, if at all, in humanities and the art of war, not in economics (which, having begun in earnest with Marshall’s Principles published in 1890, was barely out of diapers in 1913). Three things were the direct result of this, (1) the ruling class, unable to comprehend the evils of the gold standard, upheld it, (2) the ruling class, being a military elite, actively sought military solutions to economic problems, and (3) the ruling class extracted substantial rents from its vast land holdings, making domestic agriculture prohibitively expensive compared to that of U.S., Canada, Australia, or Argentina.

Put all three together, and what do you get?

To keep the growing urban population employed, you need to expand money supply, which, under the gold standard, is only possible if your country has a trade surplus. To ensure that you have a trade surplus, you begin pressuring other countries into opening their markets for your exports while keeping imports off your domestic market using tariffs or non-tariff barriers. The pressure tactics gradually escalate from diplomacy to the threat or war, until Europe is completely polarized, with all major countries joining one of the two blocs that eventually went to war with each other. Germany, which desperately needs to export manufactures in order to pay for food, is especially aggressive in its attempts to secure export markets for its manufactures. So Europe becomes a powder keg that sits there waiting for a random spark to ignite its explosion. That spark was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austrian throne, by a group of Serbian conspirators. Had it not happened, another “cause” (having as little to do with the real causes as the assassination of Franz Ferdinand did) would have been found in a pretty short order…

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