Income Inequality and Democratic 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 gave 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


5 Responses to Income Inequality and Democratic Militarism

  1. Vladimir March 13, 2013 at 1:13 pm #

    The author seems to be aware that factors such as religiosity or place of birth may affect the preferences of voters but strangely he doesn’t try to see if they have opinions on social issues that may also correlate with support for fighting or more military spending. How many times have you visited an Israeli Arab or been visited at home by an Israeli Arab? How does that correlate with education, religiosity, support for war/defence spending and place of birth?

  2. Maddy March 13, 2013 at 3:46 pm #

    The author states that the study challenges the current view of democracies being casualty averse. However, I do not think that an increase in military spending necessarily challenges this. The public is not so much wanting to engage in war, but rather, benefit from the public goods increased military spending provides. The author seems to imply that increased military spending will lead to further engagement in wars and military engagement, when simply, it could just be for improvements in technology and forming stronger fronts.

  3. Karl March 13, 2013 at 10:07 pm #

    Poor people are also more likely to see joining the military as an open possibility. During war there is more opportunity to join.

    In ancient Athens the poor were rowers on naval vessels, so they were generally guaranteed an income during war. (They could not afford the year’s pay it took to buy armor and join the infantry.) Their income was sponsored by the builder of the ship.

  4. Scott Monje March 14, 2013 at 12:02 pm #

    “The study is very strong in challenging the prevailing view that democracies are necessarily more casualty averse.”

    Does the correlation hold up as casualties increase? Could the “U.S. in 2006” exception possibly be related to that?

  5. BruceJ March 17, 2013 at 1:09 pm #

    Poorer voters will also be more supportive of capital-intensive military spending because it”means good jobs”. Witness the “45-state” strategy that Lockheed Matin has employed to make the egregiously over-budget F35 program well-nigh untouchable.