Bryan Caplan  

Asymmetric Sell-Outs

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Brian Doherty's history of libertarianism reminded me of a pattern that's struck me before : When wars break out, there are far more doves who "sell out" and support the war than hawks who "sell out" and oppose the war.

Doherty mentions, for example, that when World War I began, anarchist Benjamin Tucker shocked everyone who still remembered he was alive by backing the French. And every historian of the era bemusedly explains how Marxist parties, supposedly united against their respective governments, suddenly discovered patriotism. For a more recent illustration, see the Iraq war. A bunch of libertarians angered their allies by supporting the war; how many conservatives angered their allies by opposing it?

But don't hawks sometimes recant? Yes, but almost never at the outset. They gradually change their minds as hostilities drag on; they don't have a sudden conversion experience when the shooting starts.

If I'm right about the facts, what's the explanation? One story is that war raises the cost of pacifism. But which cost? People who say this usually seem to be thinking about the foreign policy cost. But as I've emphasized, one person's pacifism is highly unlikely to change the outcome of a war, so in marginalist terms, it isn't really a cost.

A much more reasonable interpretation of this story is that war raises the social ostracism costs of pacifism. People back wars once they break out because pacifists are a lot more likely to be spat upon for opposing the war that "our country" is currently fighting than they are to be spat upon for "opposing all war" during peacetime.

This needn't imply cynical calculation; perhaps we're evolved to sincerely support wars because during our evolutionary history, the tribe exiled or killed "conscientious objectors." In short, perhaps early humans who lacked a "rally round the flag" response didn't live long enough to become our ancestors. (That makes me a mutant. I can live with that.)

But why doesn't the incentive/instinct to rally round the flag remain high at all times? There's something very focal about the early stages of a war. Protesting a war the day it starts is a lot like announcing "I object" at a wedding; turning against a war after a couple years is a lot like waiting for a marriage to turn sour, and then confessing, "I never liked him." In both cases, it takes an iron will to send the focal signal of opposition, and a lot less to send the weaker signal.

My colleague Robin Hanson has criticized those who think we have a hawkish bias. Perhaps it would be more precise to say that we are initially biased in a hawkish direction - and that, unfortunately, once we act on this bias, it is very hard to reverse course.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Robin Hanson writes:

I agree that the incentive to show loyalty is a plausible explanation for a bias to *say* you favor war over peace, once it is clear that war is a likely outcome. My complaint was against other bad arguments for a hawk bias.

randy the first writes:

well, when you call out "social ostracism" as a different kind of cost, that is just silly. it is a real cost, a dollars and cents cost. i guess like anything there are degrees to it, but i'm curious to know if that scale is linear or exponential. i'd guess the latter.

more to the point of your post...i think that it's got to do with self-preservation instincts. just as "money changes everything" so does war. we begin to take on the conflict in a personal way. it becomes, and this may sound awful, exciting. novelty is a real drug for human beings, and any kind of stimulus can attract our attention, even if it's an abhorrent kind of spectacle.

there's just no sexiness to pacifism. you only arrive at it through a lot of thought, or a lot of heart.

Eric Wilson writes:

In this issuse of wars and our ability to decided whether we want to be involved in it or not, i like the comparison that was made with the dove and the hawk, and which if any is actually a sell-out. I certainly agree with when a war breaks out, we indeed have more doves that sell out and support the war, than hawks that sell out, and oppose it. I thought that ethically the bigger more mature person was suppose to be a mediator, and try and find logically solutions that would cause us not to bare arms, but pormote peace and tranquility. Instead, we're like the dove and dive head first into the war and want to show are fight and strength to prove or greatness. I know in some situations there is no way around it, but in many i think we can truly find other more productive ways and options.

Cyrus writes:

The question of whether I 'support' a war confounds two separate questions: (1) Do I think the war is just? (2) Do I think the war is prudent.

The pre-war hawk presumably thinks the war is both just and prudent, and nothing about the actual onset of hostilities can change this. Over time, the course of events can may show the war to have been imprudent, and this may change the hawk's mind. But what would be rare is for a pre-war hawk to change their mind during the course of a successful war.

Bu suppose a pre-war dove opposes the war because it is unjust. Before the war, this person will say in public discourse the war is wrong. But the actual onset of hostilities renders this opinion irrelevant to public discourse: the public has chosen to do it, whether it is right or wrong, and the only question left, is how can the war best be carried out. If the former dove continues to desire to be heard in public discourse, they will now talk about prudence, and bringing the troops home on the first day of the war seldom seems at the time like a prudent action.

Randy writes:

I don't believe that many people really "think" much about war at all in its early stages. Most are so busy with their daily lives that the onset of war catches them by surprise. When it happens, there are two basic responses; the excitement response and the security response. To put it bluntly, those who hate boredom don't mind a bit of war now and again, while those who like to be bored are frightened that war will disturb their tranquil existance. Only as the war goes on do people start to think about it from any realistic perspective. Only as reality creeps in do they consider strategy, tactics, costs and benefits. Except, of course, for the professional military, for whom such considerations are a part of daily life.

Barkley Rosser writes:

Well, at the time of our invasion of Iraq there were a rather large number of hawks who were openly skeptical and in opposition, many of them in the military such as General Zinni, or formerly such as Admiral Odom, not to mention the hawks around the senior Bush, such as Brent Scowcroft. What tended to characterize these folks is that many of them knew much more about the situation than the people who were running the policy, but since the latter had agendas and did not want to be distracted by facts, the former were studiously ignored.

Brad Hutchings writes:

Bryan, Forget wars. You could very easily apply the ideas in this post to "global warming". Earlier today, perhaps after skimming this post and letting it color my thinking a little, I for the first time felt like I understood what it was like to be a pacifist during the run up to war. Everyone seems to be jumping onto the global warming band wagon, even people who I would think would know better. Arnold writing an essay saying we ought to hedge against the remote possibility of it being worse than the "mainstream" models suggest?!? Might as well all turn in our cars now and stop using electricity after 4pm.

TGGP writes:

The conservatives that opposed the war were attacked by David Frum as "Unpatriotic Conservatives"

Daniel Klein writes:

Great post.

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