Review: 'Empire of Guns' Challenges the Role of War in Industrialization – New York Times

Adam Smith, in his classic The Wealth of Nations,” was an early proponent of the now mainstream view that wars are unfortunate accidents that have “crowded out” more productive investments.

In “Empire of Guns: The Violent Making of the Industrial Revolution,” the Stanford history professor Priya Satia aims to overturn this conventional wisdom about the role of guns specifically, and war and conquest more generally, in the world’s economic development.

Given that “Britain was involved in major military operations” for most of the years leading up to and during the Industrial Revolution, Professor Satia argues that imagining an alternative universe in which peace prevailed is a fool’s errand. (“It is impossible to factor the violence out.”) She contends, rather than crowding out infrastructure development, perpetual war actually “produced the financial structures that could fund it.”

Professor Satia’s detailed retelling of the Industrial Revolution and Britain’s relentless empire expansion notably contradicts simple free market narratives. She demonstrates that the deep partnership between the public and private sectors underpinned economic growth. Professor Satia argues convincingly that the expansion of the armaments industry and the government’s role in it is inseparable from the rise of innumerable associated industries from finance to mining.

Government planning played a central role even in the new technologies that are “arguably the most iconic developments of the industrial revolution,” like the steam engine and interchangeable parts manufacturing. Government investment “in manufacturing and technological progress” was viewed as “a national obligation in a time of political vulnerability.” Just as the United States government’s establishment of Arpanet, the precursor to today’s internet, laid the foundation of the current digital revolution, the British government’s financing of a wide range of technological and organizational innovations — many directly or indirectly associated with small arms manufacture — spawned the original Industrial Revolution.

On the subject of guns, “Empire

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