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Leveling the Battlefield

What’s the best way to assess a country’s ability to wage war? Apparently, its wages may be a good clue. Countries with greater economic equality are far more likely to emerge victorious in conflicts than less egalitarian ones, according to a new article in the British journal Defence and Peace Economics. By examining the outcomes ...

What’s the best way to assess a country’s ability to wage war? Apparently, its wages may be a good clue. Countries with greater economic equality are far more likely to emerge victorious in conflicts than less egalitarian ones, according to a new article in the British journal Defence and Peace Economics. By examining the outcomes of two dozen conflicts in the second half of the 20th century, the authors found that the combatant nation with a more equitable distribution of wealth prevailed in 74 percent of wars. They then analyzed 80 additional wars stretching back to 1816. Using historical texts to determine the degree of social stratification, they found that the more socially equitable side won 80 percent of the time.

The link between military prowess and equality may stem from several factors: military solidarity in a popular army, the fact that militaries in unequal societies are often distracted by quashing internal dissent, and the existence of a poor fifth column in less egalitarian nations that may sympathize with the enemy.

But, significantly, evidence that more equal combatants generally triumph complicates the belief that free-market economic policies are likely to spell military dominance, argues James Galbraith, an economist with the University of Texas, Austin, and a coauthor of the study. Modern Israel, for example, has experienced an enormous increase in inequality in recent years, a development that, Galbraith notes, coincides with a sharp decline in the country’s military effectiveness, as seen during its indecisive confrontation with Hezbollah last year. "The more we neglect the values of equality and social solidarity," says Galbraith, "the more that will be reflected in difficulty prevailing in military contests." In other words, how much a nation struggles on the battlefield may be determined simply by the number of its people struggling to get by.

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