Bryan Caplan  

Why Most Economists Are Hawks and Why They Might Be Wrong

Jane Jacobs, Austrian?... Acemoglu, Clark Medal winner...

I've never seen a survey, but casual empiricism makes me think that economists are hawks. Arnold Kling calls himself a Jacksonian - "the patriotic fighters for whom the worst sin is not going to war, it's losing one." But even liberal Democratic economists strike me as pretty eager to settle international disputes by bombing enemies back into the Stone Age.

The use of force is easy to rationalize in terms of basic economics. "We should make them PAY for what they've done!" It's just the law of demand: raise the price of crossing us, and fewer people will cross us. Make the price another Hiroshima, and perhaps the quantity demanded will fall to zero.

There is something to this line of argument, but it is too simple by far. Consider the following example. Suppose you go up to everyone you work with and tell them: "If you even think about getting in my way, you will be in a world of pain!" (Or as Marv puts it in Sin City: "And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I've done to him.") You're raising the price of getting in your way, right? So the predicted effect of this threat should be to make people treat you better.

That's a crazy prediction. Making dire threats might scare some enemies off, but its primary effect would be to create new enemies. People who didn't care for you before will now be out to getcha.

So why doesn't the law of demand work in this situation? Threats and bullying don't just move along the "demand for crossing you" curve. If your targets perceive your behavior as inappropriate, mean, or downright evil, it shifts their "demand for crossing you" out. Call it psychology, or just common sense: People who previously bore you no ill will now start looking for a chance to give you a taste of your own medicine.

The upshot for foreign policy is that people who warn about "sowing the seeds of hate" are not the simpletons they often seem to be. Military reprisals against, for example, nations that harbor terrorists reduce the quantity of terrorism holding anti-U.S. hatred fixed. But if people in target countries and those who sympathize with them feel the reprisals are unjustified, we are making them angrier and thereby increasing the demand for terrorism. Net effect: Ambiguous.

Not convinced? One story I heard soon after 9/11 is that Osama bin Laden was hoping that the American public would "Vote Yes for Lake Afghanistan." (A popular t-shirt when I was a kid was "Vote Yes for Lake Iran.") Anger at the decision to kill millions of Afghans in revenge for 3000 American deaths would galvanize the Muslim world (at minimum) and make recruiting more terrorists easy as pie. Was that bin Laden's plan? I don't know, but it could easily have worked.

Still not convinced? Try this thought experiment. Suppose the Israelis started executing the families of suicide bombers - men, women, and children. How sure are you that the quantity of suicide bombing would fall? It is more than plausible that this heinous policy would enrage the Muslim world, sparking more terrorism rather than less.

Economics is a great tool for solving social problems. After one semester of economics, for example, any decent student knows the solution to rush hour congestion: Raise the price of using the road! Unfortunately, achieving lasting peace is a lot harder than speeding up traffic.

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COMMENTS (29 to date)
Randy writes:


The primary difference between economics and international relations is that in the former, the use of violence is assumed to be a monopoly of the government, while in the latter, the use of violence is an option for all parties in every transaction. What manner of economics would you suggest when all the corporations are run by mafia families - armed to the teeth. I would recommend a strategy of always seeking mutually beneficial transactions, strategic alliances, a touch of intimidation, and constant preparation for war.

anon. writes:

"Casual empiricism"? What the hell is that???

Empiricism means "to follow an empirical line of study", which is to say, one keeps to the facts and looks at the numbers.

Where are your facts? Where are your numbers? "Casual empiricism" seems almost a contradiction in terms.

It's silliness like this that keeps me reading Arnold Kling's blog posts and wondering why Bryan is even here.

That said, as a minor-degreed economist-wannabe, I, for one, disagreed with Kling when the Iraq war started. I've opposed it from the beginning; then again, I'm a college student -- it's in my own rational self-interest to not get blown-up in a foreign country.

Personally, I propose a Constitutional amendment that goes like this: anytime we are to have a war, we take a national vote (yes, a direct-democracy vote). Those who vote in favor of the war are automatically put on a "draft list", regardless of age or any other factor. Anybody with hawkish views who wants to fight is thus given priority in doing the fighting -- including people of Kling's age (and older, since Kling is not very old). Those who wish to stay home and avoid confrontation may do so -- they do so at the ridicule of being "a wimp" or "a coward" by the hawks, but then again, at least the "cowards" will live for wars which may be more-necessary to fight. The dumb, grunty, and violence-prone get sorted out by natural selection. It's a very Darwinian proposal, but a very fair one as well.

Whether we go to war after the vote depends on whether the military's rolls are filled sufficiently to military planners' estimates for manpower. If there is an insufficient number of people who are in favor of the war as to fill the roles, we don't go to war. If the rolls can be filled, then those who fill the roll will go and fight. (note that the vote is in addition to our existing requirements for Congress to declare war -- something it has not done since WWII, I might add.)

The hawks get what they want, and the doves, likewise. The hawks get to fight in some unpronounceable nation they cannot find on a globe, and if they return home alive, they get to gloat about their fighting and traveling.

If they fail to return alive, then they come home a "hero" in a casket, drowning in the possibly-false patriotism of an American flag ("possibly-false", depending on whether the war is justifiable. It's true patriotism if we're attacked first or threatened with attack; it is false patriotism if we attack first without threat (as is the case with the war in Iraq. Iraq was never a threat to us; we could -- and did -- squash them like a bug at any time, and they knew this, hence, Saddam was never a danger to us). Fuzzy lines exist too, such as with North Korea or Iran, IMO, which have made what I would consider "actionable" threats against the U.S., N. Korea in particular).

Jane Galt writes:

As I understand it, there's actually a natural experiment on the Israeli question. The Palestinian organisationss started their suicide bombing tactics on the Jordanians, back when the PLO and Jordan were at war. Since it is very hard to discincentivise someone who doesn't live through the attack, Jordan started killing the families of the suicide bombers. Quick result: no suicide bombers. In *theory*, everyone was outraged, demanding to stick it to the man. In practice, however, no one was willing to risk *their* family in order to be the one who did the sticking.

Of course, there is an intra-ethnic dimension that might well change the dynamic, and Israel, unlike Jordan in the 1970's, cares about world opinion, which is why they bulldoze the houses of the families instead of killing them. But I suspect that the tactic might work, given that suicide bombings are pretty much the only effective tactic the palestinians have.

This should not be taken as an endorsement of the policy; it is grotesque. But there is a tendency of people who are opposed to immoral policies like torture to proclaim that policies which are immoral are also ineffective, which is convenient but untrue.

Hi, anon.

You commented on the oxymoron "casual empiricism":

>"Casual empiricism"? What the hell is that???

"Casual empiricism" is a technical term used by economists, physicists, etc., that refers to using a few readily available numbers to try to get a preliminary grip on what the data will say once a more rigorous empirical study is done. Richard Feynmann's famously dipping an O-ring in ice water at a conference to make the point that it may have been behind the Challenger disaster was a canonical example of casual empiricism. Startling those who would disagree with you by simple use of readily-available, incontrovertible data is part of the long history of the term.

Economists are definitely aware of both the inherent contradiction in the term, and the greater potential for casual empiricism to give wrong results. However, conversation is generally impossible without some sort of guesses, and it's surely better for the guesses to be based on some evidence rather than none!

Lauren Landsburg
Editrix, Library of Economics and Liberty

P.S. anon: Please give a working email address for yourself next time you post your comments, or your posts may be deleted. See If you are indeed a "minor-degreed economist-wannabe," then you may wish to start on that path with accountability. Feel free to email us at from a working email address for future access.

Bob Knaus writes:

Bryan -

Leadership is the art of stating the obvious in a convincing way.

Economics is the art of stating the obvious in a complicated way.

I look forward to your next post, on the paradoxes inherent in the Golden Rule :-)

Ideally, all of us would have learned everything we needed to know about making friends and enemies, and how to handle bullies, from the public school playground by the time we were 8 or 9. Except, perhaps, for those who "down they forgot as up they grew" (e.e.cummings)

Ian Lewis writes:

I find it surprising that most economists would be "hawks". Wars are expensive and usually result in higher taxes and Government Spending. I am not saying that you are wrong, but it seems that the average economist is interested in some bad economics.

Eli writes:


First of all, I agree with Jane/Megan.

Secondly, I think your take on this issue is problematic in a number of ways.

1. Hawks are far more nuanced than you suggest. They are perfectly capable of using both the carrot and the stick. What distinguishes them from Doves, in my view, is not eagerness to go to war, but willingness to go to war.

2. In conducting good foreign policy, to what extent is credibility important? There is a powerful case to be made that many of our current foreign policy woes were caused by using underwhelming force in Vietnam, the Carter Administration, failing to "finish the job" in Gulf War I, and pussyfooting around with N. Korea in the 90s.

3. A moral issue: Neoconservative hawkishness is preferable to Kissingerian hawkishness. It's better to establish principles for which to fight than to use war as politics. It's better during reconstruction to set up a government which accepts the idea of individual rights than to cut corners.

I know that you believe in a very limited (if even extant) military, and that I will probably not be able to dissuade you. I only hope that you will take hawks more seriously than that crazy coworker of mine down the hall that keeps yelling death threats to everyone.

Randy writes:


Re; "Those who vote for the war should be placed on a list of volunteers." Not a bad idea actually.

I had a similar thought, that if we can't get enough volunteers to fight a war, then we shouldn't be fighting it. And if the result of that war is that we lose our freedom, then we would deserve to lose it.

Cardozo Bozo writes:

"Those who vote in favor of the war should be placed on a draft list."

Apparently you've never heard of a free-rider. What is means it that the brave fight and die and the cowards reap all the benefits. Thanks, but no thanks. Either everyone fights, or no one fights. There's no 'deciding' if you want to fight on an individual basis.


My opinion of your intelligence just took a steep nose-dive.

You are suffering from a double fallacy. You're confusing "hawks" with mindless thugs, and you're confusing regimes with individuals. Both of these are pathetic, though for different reasons. If I were Arnold I'd also be very offended.

Anyway ... when the US threatens a nation, we threaten the system, not individuals. In Iraq we threatened "Saddam system", and many Iraqis were given the chance to change sides. Many of them did. Many of them had been driven to change sides by Saddam.

Of course we would be sowing the seeds of hate if we just bombed the Middle East indiscriminately. That's a straw man argument, and frankly, a tired straw man that's been propped up and shot down a few too many times in my opinion. It's a stupid argument because that's not what we're doing. We're killing the terrorists who kill/ threaten moderate Muslims the world over, not just random people. That's why your office-worker example is do incredibly stupid. I have a question for you: In your example, which office-work plays the part of the mass-murdering psychopath who's holding all of the other office workers hostage?

Your simply little scenario works for bullies, but you're completely ass-backwards in your opinion of who the bullies are. Why do you think Iraqi children bring US soldiers gifts, or tell them where bombs are hidden, and all of the other helpful things they do? Why are most Iraqi terrorists caught because of information given to the Coalition by the locals? BECAUSE YOUR LITTLE "OFFICE THREATS" EXAMPLE DESCRIBES THE TERRORISTS, NOT YOUR CO-BLOGGER.

Farkin' aye. If this site becomes a regular dumping ground for moral relativist tripe, I'm out of here. I get enough of this bulls**t at school.

Oh, and why are economists more often 'hawks"? Probably because most of them (certainly not all, as you and DeLong prove) are dispassionate observers of the way the world actually is.

Randy writes:


Re; There's no 'deciding' if you want to fight on an individual basis.

Of course there is. That's why its called an all volunteer force. Now if we could only get the same principle applied to taxes.

spencer writes:

Eli-- how the hell did the Carter admin have anything to do with Gulf War I?

You may have your opinion, and I respect that.
But you can not have your own facts.

Eli writes:


See the comma between "the Carter Administration" and "failing to 'finish the job' in Gulf War I"? They are two different items in a list:

1. Using underwhelming force in Vietnam
2. The Carter Administration
3. Failing to "finish the job" in Gulf War I
4. Pussyfooting around with N. Korea in the 90s

My point RE: Carter was that he and his administration exuded weakness in nearly every aspect of foreign policy, and that we are paying for it now.

Dave Schuler writes:

Damn. I was going to give the same example as Megan did above but she beat me to it. The issue is not whether there are effective measures to eliminate terrorism. The issue is whether we can eliminate it short of implementing measures we have reasonable confidence would be effective.

Arnold might want to re-think a self-characterization as Jacksonian. A Jacksonian also believes that credit is sacred i.e. has no problem borrowing money. GWB is a Jacksonian. Is Arnold? To read what the terms actually go over to my blog, search for “Jacksonian”. I think I've got a link to Walter Russell Mead's article in which he defines the term.

"My point RE: Carter was that he and his administration exuded weakness in nearly every aspect of foreign policy, and that we are paying for it now."

Exactly. Allowing the Iranians to get away with holding our diplomats hostage for over a year showed terrorists just how far they could go. W. Bush is changing the rules, and it's having the desired effect.

Bryan is not analyzing this issue correctly.

df writes:

The use of force is easy to rationalize in terms of basic economics. "We should make them PAY for what they've done!" It's just the law of demand: raise the price of crossing us, and fewer people will cross us. Make the price another Hiroshima, and perhaps the quantity demanded will fall to zero.

This is brilliant. But I thought you libertarians were against war, seeing as it involves the state stealing people's resources to aggress against others. Which one is it?

spencer writes:

Most liberals are not opposed to war, but they make a different assesment of the costs and benefits. In the case of Vietnam the costs had clearly come to exceed the benefits. In the case of Iraq the results are still not known, but clearly the costs have massively exceeded what the people that favored the war calculated.

Mike Linksvayer writes:

Patrick Sullivan: Bryan's analysis is good. You probably think the shifting out of demand for anti-US actions resulting from US policies is far less significant than Bryan does. Or do you deny such a shift entirely?

spencer: Regarding costs and benefits, the strictly financial costs of war are consistently underestimated -- by a factor of ten.

David Thomson writes:

"If you even think about getting in my way, you will be in a world of pain!"

I fail to understand your point. Who in hell is advocating such rude rhetoric? Why would anyone want to say something something so patently stupid? The United States policy is essentially one of being very polite and low keyed---while still carrying a big stick to discourage attacks on our citizens.

“spencer: Regarding costs and benefits, the strictly financial costs of war are consistently underestimated -- by a factor of ten.”

It is also fair to add that sometimes the costs and benefits of not going to war are underestimated. I remain convinced that had the allies reacted earlier to Adolph Hitler---many lives would have been saved.

Bryan Caplan writes:

By "casual empiricism" I mean what I remember experiencing during my 15 years in economics. Maybe there's selection bias (I don't meet a random sample of economists) or recall bias (I remember the hawkish economists more than others). Still, that's how it seems to me. If a good survey comes along, I'll defer to it.

Ray writes:

Skipping over all of the ancillary conversations that have cropped up between here and the article; I would posit that economists tend towards hawkish outlooks because of the very nature of someone who is drawn to economics.

Economists and those who just like the subject are in the practice of looking at the larger picture. Think of the converse; a person who can't seem to grasp economics in general. They tend to see everything as a snapshot and fail to see long term trends.

So you might say econ types are more practical. War is inevitable in some cases and sometimes the bad guy just needs to be taken out.

Bill writes:

Hmm, funny thing about the costs and benefits of war: Had we pre-emptively eliminated Al Qaeda, we might have saved hundreds of billions of $$$ in damages to the US.

Not to toot my own horn or anything, but I called for the invasion of Afghanistan in the summer of 2001. Unfortunately, our "wonderful" president (and the ignorant US population) was too busy playing pacifist to understand the necessity. It's just so wonderful that our leader was so brilliant that it took a little event like 9-11 to wake him up to global realities.

another bob writes:

Speaking "casually empirically", economics DOES NOT enter into the thinking of al queda or the arab muslim world. just look at the economies of arab muslim countries.

For useful thoughts on islamist terrorism, read Sam Harris's book 'The End of Faith'.

nico writes:

What the US did in Iraq and Afghanistan is far from a "Lake Afghanistan" scenario. On a scale of 1 to 10 of retribution (10 being the complete indiscriminant carpet bombing of those countries and 1 being more economic sanctions), I rank US actions as a 5.5. A 5.5 does not shift the demand curve, it just moves along it.

Will writes:

I recently read Axelrod's "Evolution of Cooperation" and was struck by how effective a long term tit-for-tat strategy would be politically. Such a policy makes predicting future American responses easier for our enemies and allies, and it is proven to lead to cooperation (assuming rational entities). The question then is only what corresponds to a commensurate tat given a known tit ;)

Ray writes:

To Bill.

Wouldn't it have been great if France had kicked Germany out of the Rhine before they had geared up their military anymore?

Or if we would have bombed Tokyo before Pearl Harbor.

Or maybe if we would have taken our troops in Europe at the end of WWII and taken the weakened and ill-equiped Soviets out before they reached super-power status.

Arnold Kling writes:

My Jacksonian view on terrorism, and on bad guys in general, is that success depends on reducing the perception of weakness. My reading of history is that bad guys are most aggressive when they perceive weakness in the good guys. I think that if you control for perception of weakness, the coefficient on resentment will be close to zero.

The reason that it would be counterproductive for Israel to go after the families of suicide bombers is that this is a relatively weak tactic--almost a sign of desperation. Instead, you want to appear implacable, determined, and powerful.

Israel is not Jacksonian. It is more of a European society--particularly the Mediterranean cities like Haifa and Tel Aviv. Jerusalem and its environs are almost a different country altogether...

Ray writes:

I tend to define Arnold's Jacksonian as a Roosevelt trait; Teddy that is.

Max Boot's "Savage Wars on Peace" draws some interesting differences between Roosevelt and Wilson. Teddy's heavy handed diplomacy resulted in far fewer American deaths than did Wilson's reluctant warrior stance.

James A. Donald writes:

Bryan Caplan writes:

Try this thought experiment. Suppose the Israelis started executing the families of suicide bombers - men, women, and children. How sure are you that the quantity of suicide bombing would fall? It is more than plausible that this heinous policy would enrage the Muslim world, sparking more terrorism rather than less.

Communist regimes and various despotic regimes, particularly arab regimes, have adopted this tactic. It works. Resistance stops, if the policy is carried out competently.

aaron writes:

If "Isreal started killing the families suicide-bombers"?

How about if the Palestinians took responsibility and did it themselves? Or less drastic and probably more effective, they just ostracized them from the community.

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