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Wreckonomics: important case made with verve and style

The selection of examples is an analytical strength, ranging from conflict in Sri Lanka, to the drugs policy of the US and the migration policy of the EU

Wreckonomics: Why It’s Time to End the War on Everything
Author: Ruben Andersson and David Keen
ISBN-13: 978-0197645925
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Guideline Price: £22.99

The language of war has become horribly frequent as we grapple with the real-life consequences of terrible conflict. However, the concepts of war are already embedded into the discourse of politics. We have become used to thinking about the “war on drugs”, the “fight against illegal migration” and the “casualties” of a decision.

Less recognised is how such framing deeply influences how we consider complex challenges that have many humanitarian dimensions. Language really matters. The casual use of the vocabulary of war needs to be re-considered, the effects of tone and description demands analysis.

Wreckonomics: Why It’s Time to End the War on Everything offers this reflection. It opens by describing how the use of war-like terms enables either actual war or the use of great force and how this diminishes the consideration of other responses.

The contention is that such interventions have distinctive qualities. They can be very destructive, economically profitable for a select few and, despite frequent failure, are portrayed as successes. The purpose of this work is to analyse the benefits and costs of such security interventions and to ask what role the paradigm of “war” framing plays in the distribution of these gains and losses.


The main features of this “wreckonomics” are described in this provocative and thought-provoking book. They include the outsourcing of costs to vulnerable populations and the concept that chaotic consequences cascade onto those who bear these costs.

A variety of case studies are used to support this thesis. The selection of examples is an analytical strength, ranging from conflict in Sri Lanka, to the drugs policy of the United States and the migration policy of the European Union.

The authors are critical of the efforts to reduce illegal migration. They argue that “border closures have brought economic gains in rendering the cross-border labour force increasingly exploitable”. The contention is that such campaigns are initiated for political purposes, frequently as “a distraction from problems governments cannot or do not want to solve”.

The “war on drugs” is used to make many of these arguments. In 1971 President Nixon described drug addiction as public enemy number one and in a famous speech that said, “In order to fight and defeat this enemy it is necessary to wage a new all-out offensive.”

We know what followed – the increase in drug convictions, the increased availability of drugs and their fall in price. The devastating consequences of the use of opioids are a reminder of the difficulties of this “war”.

Actual wars, from the invasion of Afghanistan to civil war in Sri Lanka, are also extensively analysed. “Wreckonomics” argues that “strong emotions have also effectively been stirred up and manipulated by political and security actors”. The authors do not flinch from the strong use of language, suggesting that this offers scary emotional rollercoasters in a big prize “House of Horrors”.

However, this discussion does not give enough credit to events, voters or governments. The analysis of conflict does not recognise some searing debates. The most notable examples of these assessments are President Obama with regard to the United States’ presence in Iraq and to military intervention in Syria, and the long-standing reservations of President Biden about Afghanistan. These decisions are consequences of the political debate that the authors suggest has not occurred.

Similarly, a wider debate about drugs and prisons policy is well under way. The United States prison population is in decline, decreasing from a peak of 1.6 million in 2009 to approximately 1.2 million in 2020. The United States Department of Health is now allowing states to provide additional healthcare to prisoners before their release. These kinds of measures are either happening or are under consideration in many societies.

This book provides an important critique of the effects of rhetoric and tone on these deeply important issues. However, many of these debates have evolved. The tone has changed, despite increased polarisation in many societies. For a work that is so sensitive to nuance, it lacks a little nuance itself.

The change has been frequently caused by raucous and charged debate, as opposed to moderate academic discussion. But it has happened.

The conclusion of this work is strong. It argues that “we need to get away from our collective fixation on singular ‘threats’ and we need critically to examine the systems that respond to these various threats”. We are warned of the risks of “simple solutions to simple problems”.

Proposals to address these risks include a wider recognition of the costs of policy decisions, creating spaces of dialogue and dissent and focusing on the causes of problems and not just their radical solutions. None of these ideas are simple – any one of them would make a difference to the consideration of ideas that change the direction of societies.

The argument of this book does not adequately recognise important changes in debates and the rise in critical scrutiny of important claims. However, the authors make their important case with verve and style.

Paschal Donohoe is the Minister for Public Expenditure and President of the Eurogroup

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe

Paschal Donohoe, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a Fine Gael TD and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform