Bryan Caplan  

Thoughts on September 13

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Terrorism has been an infinitesimal risk so far, but on September 11, Arnold told us that he's worried nonetheless:

I understand that if you look at history, the probability of being killed by a terrorist is low. But if you had looked at history in 1925, you would have said that the probability of a capital ship being sunk by an airplane is zero. (I recall reading somewhere that Winston Churchill came rather late to the realization that the airplane altered the strategic reality at sea.) Given the way that technology has evolved, I believe that concerns over terrorism are justified.
Arnold's right, of course, that past safety does not guarantee future safety. But I just don't see that the evolution of technology has been important here. Every terrorist attack I know of in the last ten years used technology that has been available for the last fifty years. What's evolving, in my view, is willingness to use existing technology in horrific ways.

I agree with Arnold that the Bush administration is not the "single root cause for all of the evil in the world." However, I still think that the best way for Americans to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on Americans is to imitate the Swiss by minding our own business. Or to be more blunt, the U.S. should buy peace in the Middle East and elsewhere the same way that Britain, France, Holland, Belgium, and Portugal bought peace with their colonies after World War II: leave them to their own devices. As I argue in the Public Choice terrorism symposium:

To take an example from the not too distant past, terrorism was often used by nationalist movements against European colonizers. The key terrorist dogma was that the mother country exploited the colonies; the key demand, accordingly, was independence. Sooner or later, Europeans opted for appeasement. It was too hard to persuade anti-colonialists that the terrorists’ premise was incorrect. Cheap talk failed. But precisely because the terrorists were generally wrong – the mother countries’ prosperity did not depend on colonial exploitation – it was possible to defuse their demands with cheap action. European governments eventually said, in effect: “If they want independence so badly, they can have it.”
One final thought: Suppose the most effective anti-terrorism strategy would be to continue or escalate our current course. But suppose further that after a couple of years of inconclusive struggle, the median American voter will get discouraged and vote for the "cut-and-run" candidate, leading to humiliating defeat. (That's hardly science fiction. Anyone want to give odds?) My point: Even if the first-best policy would be very aggressive, the best anti-terrorism strategy given democratic constraints could easily be Swiss.

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COMMENTS (30 to date)
Jason Carr writes:

I like this blog and especially enjoyed your book, The Myth of the Rational Voter. What alarms me is that in your post you don't apply the same model of cognitive dissonance to terrorists that you rightly applied to voters. A Swiss strategy would be preferable if the terrorists could be expected to respond to incentives. However, this will never happen as the terrorists are compelled by religious lunacy with a stated objective of global, not local, jihad. When dealing with guys like these, it's best to take them at their word and not try to "read in" to see what they really want. Only a very small portion of people have ever or will ever think like economists -- it's likely genetically ingrained.

The first-best-policy-given-democratic-constraints argument is a weak one, though perhaps the fact that it is prefaced with a "could" indicates that it's not intended to be a strong statement.

Buzzcut writes:

What if the only way they'll leave us alone is if we convert to Islam?

Tom Myers writes:

I believe cell phones are fairly important to a number of terrorist attacks (including 9/11? well, certainly including IEDs); the web, video, etc are also crucial components of their strategy. Still, If I thought technology were even roughly static, I would mostly agree. We don't know enough about nation-building to do it without making major messes, and the cost of terrorism at present is low -- an occasional 9/11 is very very bad but so are all the other options. The trouble is that I don't believe we can keep the future from accelerating, as it has been doing since I went into computer science graduate school more than 30 years ago. Genetic engineering for medical and agricultural purposes will keep on getting better and cheaper. Robots as toys and in manufacturing and for underwater mining and UAVs will get better and cheaper, etc. The suicide bomber, managed by an organization with a few millions at its disposal, will be replaced by the suicide traveler -- no need to hijack planes when you can just cough near people waiting for their flights, knowing they'll die a few days after you do. Desktop manufacturing systems will be able to produce centrifuges and related items; the fact that Tsar Bomba is very old technology will not be much comfort. So personally, I really do think we need a plan of some sort. Still, I hope you're right.

General Specific writes:

Bush isn't the focus of evil. Those saying as such--from the left--are as full of nonsense as the likes of Rush Limbaugh and his paroxysms against Clinton. Best ignored.


Bush IS an important focus of incompetence. That Mr Kling did not address. Iraq will be studied as a historical example of incompetence of the first order--except for those academics interested in the study of propaganda techniques. In that area, and that area alone, the Bush administration has demonstrated a modicum of success. Which includes their ability to shift blame whenever necessary--which is often.

It would be interesting if we could follow an alternate history of the world in which the United States didn't support the future Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, didn't support the removal of Iran's democratically elected prime minister, hadn't accidently shot down an airliner full of Iranian citizens, and hadn't supported Saddam for so many years--nor the Saudi elite.

The Soviet Union would likely have collapsed under the weight of inefficiency with a significantly less (though still weighty) policy against them. Oil would still likely flow from the middle east, but some fat cats in the US may have had less opportunity to line their pockets. And Israel would still exist and be secure--with appropriate support from the US.

So what have we gained from all our meddling? A lot of hatred. I'm not sure what else. Maybe I'm missing something.

Robin Hanson writes:

Since your last post was on the Onion, I'm surprised you didn't cite this Onion article.

James R ament writes:

I like the idea... It may be impractical in specific cases, but I recently read that we have some 200,000 troops in 130 countries other than in the Middle East. While we are not likely to "bring our troops home" from that region quickly, although I would hope sooner than later, what is stopping us from bringing them home from Europe or South Korea and everywhere else? Aren't we just spending billions shoring up other economies? Our military presence all over the world seems to be based on inertia - we've been there a long time, it was important once, and so we stay. It would be a good start for "minding our own business" and allowing (or encouraging) those other countries to mind their own business without our funding.

mk writes:

Suppose the most effective anti-terrorism strategy would be to continue or escalate our current course. But suppose further that after a couple of years of inconclusive struggle, the median American voter will get discouraged and vote for the "cut-and-run" candidate, leading to humiliating defeat.

Well, suppose instead that after a couple of years of cutting and running, the median American voter gets antsy about our impotence in the world and votes for the jingoistic candidate who will rattle sabers and declare war on someone. Leading to an ill-planned war and... humiliating defeat.

This sort of morphed into sounding like I'm talking about Iraq, but I just mean to point out that the whimsical cycles of the median voter may not be something we can very accurately model.

Stephen W. Stanton writes:


There is a chance that your ideological preferences are tainting your analysis. (I may be wrong.)

Take technology, for example... Don't just think of weapons technology. Cheap communications and transportation technology enables a few of ragtag folks to do reconaissance, spread disinformation to cause panics, monitor police, and coordinate low-tech attacks.

Moreover, communications technology now makes it IMPOSSIBLE to leave other cultures alone. They receive our TV signals, phone calls, emails. They see our way of life. We've infected their culture. They must choose whether fight the infection (repression & terrorism) or to succumb to our way of life.

For example: They simply can't allow any liberated women sunning themselves in bikinis. They need to repress those women... AND send a clear signal that such behavior is unacceptable anywhere... By lashing out at western bikini women, say, in Bali.

Long story short, the world is now too small to think some problems are safely "over there".

Stephen W. Stanton writes:

Also... It's hard to become Swiss.

1. Switzerland is small.
2. Siwtzerland does banking for the bad guys.
3. Other nations already attract more of the fundamentalist's attention
4. Now that we have their attention, we can't get rid of it easily.

Super-religious folks tend to carry grudges. These grudges don't go away easily.

Witness Palestine / Israel.... Northern Ireland / England... Chechnya / Russia....

If the US suddenly left and "minded our own business".... I seriously doubt the terrorists would leave us alone. Their other options are more attractive:
1. Press the perceived advantage, building on a clear victory.
2. Continue to use USA as a scapegoat in all slogans (like US politicians use "blood for oil", "Tax cuts for the rich", etc.)

Plus... No matter what happens next, the US will be to blame... For "abandoning" the region, "turning a blind eye to suffering", "hoarding wealth"...

And if we give money to the region, we'll be blamed for propping up evil regimes.

Ultimately, Bryan, I am surprised you don't see a connection to your book. The fundamentalist masses may suffer bias... Bias their leaders will exploit. These leaders gain by having America as an enemy, regardless of the facts.

What makes you think fundamentalists more rational than American voters?

steven0461 writes:

"to reduce the risk of terrorist attacks on Americans"

Do non-Americans not count?

Unit writes:

I don't have any statistical evidence for this but it's my impression that countries that are tough with kidnappers and never pay ransom experience less kidnappings than countries that do pay ransoms on a regular basis. In other words, is the stance "we're not dealing with terrorists" actually paying off?

Vito writes:

Here is Arnold Kling's article, with terrorism replaced it with winning the lottery.

replacements in italics:

"I understand that if you look at history, the probability of winning the super billions lottery is low. But if you had looked at history in 1997, Ernie Jenkles would have said that the probability of him winning the super billions lottery is zero."

Ernie would have been wrong...therefore LETS ALL PLAY THE LOTTERY BECAUSE WE MIGHT WIN!

much better.

Ajay writes:

Although Arnold has a valid point about technology, I don't take his posts about the middle east/terrorism seriously since they're obviously so infected with pro-Israel bias. Take his mad posts about attacking Iran. While I think he's a great blogger, I find his middle east posts irrational and alarming.

As for Bryan's argument, some of the responses are conflating not meddling with foreign governments as ignoring terrorists. They are actually two different arguments. Nobody is saying terrorists should be ignored but that we should stop giving them ammunition for recruiting by stopping the dirty and invasive tactics the US has traditionally used, whether to "combat" communism or terrorism. There will always be radicals who turn into terrorists, stopping US meddling will give less people reasons to do so. Fighting terrorism is about winning the battle of ideas, as some have pointed out, rather than Bush's and some commenters' dim-witted notions of a battle of armies.

Jeff writes:

cell phone detonators are a recent development

General Specific writes:

"cell phone detonators are a recent development"

But radio controlled technology is quite old. It places the person who wants to detonate in the vicinity, but far enough away--e.g. in another vehicle--to meet the needs of escape. And timers are old.

Cell phone detonators might add some form of additional capability or flexibility, but it's not entirely clear what.

James A. Donald writes:

I suspect that the only way they will leave us alone is if we convert to Islam, and even if we convert to Islam, half of them will say it is the wrong version of Islam. After all, they don't leave each other alone.

But it is worth a try, to see what happens.

The try might be more successful were it accompanied by the threat that if that failed, the alternative would be a crusade.

David Thomson writes:

I will have more to say about this when I have the time. In the meantime, Please read the following quote from Norman Podhoretz:

"When people under threat are unwilling or afraid to fight back, they tend to deny that they are being threatened at all. We saw much the same thing in the early stages of World War III, when large numbers of Americans and even larger numbers of Europeans insisted that the real threat to the peace came from the United States under Harry Truman rather than from the Soviet Union under Stalin."

General Specific writes:

"When people under threat are unwilling or afraid to fight back, they tend to deny that they are being threatened at all."

The difficulty with statements such as this: it establishes no criteria for "threat" nor "fight back" and can therefore be misused to argue for action ("fight back") against whatever enemy ("threat") happens to be the focus of attention.

8 writes:

The Swiss are a special case. Notice that they are openly calling for the expulsion of entire immigrant families if their child commits a crime? If we were Swiss and suffered 9.11, all non-American Muslims would be back in the Middle East.

Also, I think you are making an argument specific to Islamic terrorim. I read Arnold's statement as saying terrorism is not going away. Remember Oklahoma City was carried out by Aryan nation/miltia groups, and currently the number one source of domestic terror attacks is environmentalists. How long before biotechnology gives these groups the power to kill thousands?

SheetWise writes:

I don't know why you would find it notable that terrorists ignore the Swiss -- thieves and their thugs generally don't make war with the people who fence their goods.

Technology has introduced many ways to kill an enemy that we have never seen employed, and I'm not convinced we know how to prevent their use. Every war is new -- they don't look like the last one. I believe that what we are seeing today is the new face of war. From our perspective, it's sterile and doesn't appear real. We use all of our resources to move and direct the war off of our soil -- because our weapons are nearly useless fighting a battle on our soil against an enemy who appears to be a civilian. This is the new face of war -- and in the next chapters death will be measured in the hundreds of thousands.

It's unfortunate that some people have to see the bodies before they can act. I notice you use post WWII as a baseline for the historical success of appeasement. How convenient.

Unit writes:

Wars can easily be recalled (just bring the soldiers home), but government programs are forever. Just think the damage that would be done to the US economy if all the money that is currently spent in Iraq were to be spent domestically.

N. writes:

Without adding more fuel to the fire, I wanted to mention that I think this comment thread is better than most, and that I'd really like to see Bryan respond to some of the claims leveled against them here.

...I'd also like to hear some discussion from Bryan on how he reconciles his desire for a Swiss model, which I think seems to rely a lot on homogeneity, with his essentially open border stance on immigration.

Not that I'm trying to put words in his mouth here.

TGGP writes:

I'm for not allowing people from anti-American terrorist-producing places into our country and staying the hell out of where they live. Is there a glaring flaw in that plan I haven't noticed?

James writes:

Wouldn't a Swiss approach involve hiring out the US army to various Middle-Eastern leaders for their border disputes?

One of the reason the Swiss declared "permanent peace" in 1515 was to make it easier to hire out its troops. Switzerland was a political force centuries after it stopped fighting wars on its own account.

ko writes:

I agree with Stephen W. Stanten; however, Bryan may be bringing the Swiss as a ideal versus a perfect model? I also agree with "N." that it may be good to see more explanation.

aaron writes:

Unit, great point!

We've had access to really cheap money that we'd be stupid not to take advantage of. Given the choice of spending it on the creation and expansion of traditional government programs and military spending, military spending should win hands-down!

General Specific writes:

"government programs and military spending, military spending should win hands-down!"

Eisenhower referred to this as the military industrial complex and warned against it for good reason.

It would be nice to hear people actually considering the specifics and merits of particular spending programs rather than generalities like the above.

I guess that's a role for General Specific. To understand when to generalize and when to look at the specifics.

Unit writes:

Gen. Specific,

governments with lots of money on their hands tend to be interventionists. The US gov. currently seems to have lots of money. Voters are faced with the choice: economic interventionism or foreign interventionism? Both entail vast destructions of labor and physical capital, but the first often has lasting repercussions (FDA, employer-sponsored insurance, etc...), while the latter may create some anti-americanism, or some extra terrorism, but at least voters have the ability to pull the plug on the destruction at any time. Unfortunately, these kind of reasonings would assume that voters are rational, at least on a subconscious level, while it seems, from Bryan's book, that they are actually irrational. So I don't know.

General Specific writes:

"The US gov. currently seems to have lots of money."

Seems is the right word. Given the size of the federal deficit, I'd say that's not the case.

"Both entail vast destructions of labor and physical capital, but the first often has lasting repercussions (FDA, employer-sponsored insurance, etc...), while the latter may create some anti-americanism, or some extra terrorism, but at least voters have the ability to pull the plug on the destruction at any time."

Enormous funding of the military industrial complex leads to a distortion of scientific workers and agendas focused on non-commercial needs, people who could be teaching working on unnecessary weapons programs. I'm not against military spending, but the waste and bureaucracy is enormous--and wasteful. It is not possible to make a comparison of the tradeoffs and issues at the drop of a hat. And morally I find the idea that foreign military intervention is better than Bush's useless no child left behind repugnant. I would hope others feel the same.

Unit writes:


domestic policies also create useless casualties, think war-on-drugs or the regulation in the health-care sector, etc... NCLB could be compared to the rebuilding effort in Iraq instead.

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