Bryan Caplan  

Cliches of Anti-Pacifism

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I'm a pacifist.  I realize that it's an unpopular position, but I'm still surprised by how quick people are to dismiss the position with cliches.  Here are three of the most common.

1. "If you want peace, prepare for war."  This claim is obviously overstated.  Is North Korea really pursuing the smart path to peace by keeping almost 5% of its population on active military duty?  How about Hitler's rearmament?  Was the Soviet Union preparing for peace by spending 15-20% of its GDP on the Red Army? 

No on all three counts.  The truth is that preparation for war often causes war by frightening and provoking other countries.  That's why the collapse of the Red Army made the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union safer from nuclear attack than they'd been since 1945.  This doesn't mean that disarmament always makes countries safer.  But it does mean that military preparation frequently has the perverse effect of making countries less safe.  Discovering the conditions under which this occurs takes a lot more than a one-liner.

2. "Those who beat their swords into plowshares, will plow for those who don't."  In earlier centuries, this was usually true.  But almost all rulers treated their subjects like chattel in those days.  The main reason to fear war wasn't that policies would change if "your" government were defeated, but that you'd suffer or perish before the conflict was resolved.  From the point of view of the ruled, pacifism would usually have been an improvement.

In the modern world, the plowshares cliche is even more misguided.  Take a look at this list of military spending by country.  The U.S. naturally leads the pack, but is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?  While the U.S. has the power to literally enslave most of the world, most Americans think it would be wrong, so it's not going to happen.  The same clearly holds for five of the other top-ten military powers: the UK (#3), France (#4), Germany (#6), Japan (#7), and Italy (#9).  Even China, at #2, has far less awful intentions than the plowshares cliche suggests: While it might invade a totally disarmed Taiwan, the next step would be One Country, Two Systems - not mass enslavement of the Taiwanese.

3. "Pacifism didn't work with Hitler."  True enough.  But then again, nothing worked with Hitler.  The man was a monster.  Poland tried resistance, and was virtually destroyed.  Stalin tried alliance, and was stabbed in the back.  The Allies tried unconditional surrender, and left most Europe in ruins, and half under Stalinism.  Sure, with 20/20 hindsight, Britain and France could have invaded Germany in 1933 - or interrupted his parents a few minutes before his conception in 1888.  But two can play at the hindsight game: Pacifism could easily have prevented World War I, leaving no room for the likes of Hitler to rise to power.


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The author at Asymptosis in a related article titled Pacifism: Bryan Caplan Gets It Totally Right writes:
    I often disagree with Bryan Caplan — often quite vehemently — but not always, by any means. He’s one of the people who I’m constantly testing my thinking against. He gets it so right with the following post that I’m going ... [Tracked on November 24, 2010 12:25 PM]
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mobile writes:

Well, kicking Hitler's ass worked with Hitler. That's not a cliche, is it?

Jeremy N writes:

I always interpreted the first cliche a little differently. You seem to be interpreting it as preparing for war will cause peace. I always believed it meant the only way to achieve peace was to defeat your enemies.

Also, according to your interpretation, you seem to assume that the only reason to build up your army is in an attempt to achieve peace. There are many reasons to build up an army, the examples you cite aren't doing it for peace as you say. But that doesn't mean other nations won't be successful. Don't you believe that the United States military power has precluded other attacks? Do you think if the United States were exactly the same over the past 60 years but with no military, we would have been involved in fewer wars?

Paul Bogle writes:

Bryan,

I am confused with point One. Are any of the examples given, Nazi Germany, North Korea or the Soviet Union regimes which prepared for war to maintain peace? Point three in your argument seems to indicate (as well as the historical record) that Hitler was preparing for war for the purpose of waging it, not in pursuit of peace. The North Koreans prepared for war so as to invaded the south. The Soviets invaded Hungry in 1956, Prague in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979 to defend against aggression? I guess I was home sick from school the day we had that lesson.

My personal views are toward non-aggression but consider force justifiable when attacked. Pacifism is a noble and defensible position. I'm just surprised to see such a weak argument on its behalf.

Alex J. writes:

In your first example, you're grouping like with unlike. "The world would be a more peaceful place if North Korea disarmed" doesn't show that "The world would be a more peaceful place if South Korea disarmed." It's South Korea that needs to prepare for war because it wants peace. North Korea doesn't want peace. Kim's working model is Ceaucescu's Romania. Thieu's Vietnam is the South's working model. If the South disarmed they'd be suffering from Kim's ongoing war against the people he rules, just as the Northerners suffer today.

A dude writes:
The U.S. naturally leads the pack, but is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?

Exactly! And what the hell are those Middle Easterners doing on top of OUR oil?

OneEyedMan writes:

I don't want to live under Cuban, Chinese or even Mexican law. It isn't just a worry of perishing or suffering from the warfare, I'm worried about living in a conquered country after the war.

Also, arguing from the military spending list is a serious problem of partial equilibrium analysis. If the rich free countries gave up their militaries that would seriously change the incentives of military spending of the un-free ones.

Tracy W writes:

In earlier centuries, this was usually true. But almost all rulers treated their subjects like chattel in those days.

A striking claim as it flies in the face of most of what I know about European history. For example, the common granting of rights to cities isn't compatible with being treated like chattel, or the tendency of barons to overthrow their kings (although admittedly I once owned a chair that had the same tendency). What evidence do you have support this assertion?

The U.S. naturally leads the pack, but is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?

An Iranian?

Pacifism could easily have prevented World War I,

Then why didn't it? After all, there were pacifists around before WWI - a number of them wound up being conscientious objectors during WWI.

The problem with pacifism is that it can't deal with someone who is determined to be violent. Asserting that it could easily have prevented WWI doesn't get away from that problem.

eccdogg writes:

The problem with pacifism is that it can't deal with someone who is determined to be violent. Asserting that it could easily have prevented WWI doesn't get away from that problem.

Agreed, pacifism if the first best option but it cannot deal with someone who wants to harm you or those you care about.

Or as Kenny Rodgers said:

"I promised you, dad, not to do the things you've done.
I walk away from trouble when I can.
Now please don't think I'm weak, I didn't turn the other cheek,
And papa, I sure hope you understand:
Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man".

http://www.cowboylyrics.com/lyrics/rogers-kenny/coward-of-the-county-8513.html

Mr. Econotarian writes:

I think avoidance of nationalism/tribalism or dictatorship is more important than pacifism.

A country that believes it has a nation/tribal/racial right to someone else's land is dangerous. A non-democratic country that believes that is even more dangerous.

Capitalism helps as well. The data show that countries that trade together highly are less likely to go to war. And democracies will be more careful about going to war than dictatorships.

North Korea is the "perfect storm", a dictatorship with little trade and a nearly religious tribalism that demands South Korea.


darf ferrara writes:

Bryan, are you familiar with the work of L.F. Richardson (another pacifist) on the mathematics of war? Both Arms and Insecurity, and Statistics of Deadly Quarrels have some interesting insights into the causes of war.

Scott Scheule writes:

Alternatively, no single sentence is sufficient to encapsulate a sound argument for anything, pacifism or bellicosity. Life is complicated, especially human life.

One could say something like: "If you want peace, prepare for war, but don't be excessive about it, and always keeping in mind that preparing for war sometimes provokes other countries, and there are some other provisos I don't have time for here, but anyway, my point is, sometimes if you want peace, you should prepare for war."

But that doesn't fall off the tongue quite so smoothly.

Also, mobile, consider copywriting the quote "Kicking Hitler's ass worked with Hitler."

Patrick R. Sullivan writes:

What kept Switzerland out of both WWs?

Kurbla writes:

It is "game" similar to so called "prisoner dilemma". Pacifism is good "strategy" if all sides agree to play these moves. Sometimes they agree, sometimes not. I think that USSR and USA played that game reasonably well in period of "d├ętente."

USA, Britain and many others actually invaded USSR in 1918-20, so Soviets had good reason to prepare for defence. Probably they'd have large army if there was no invasion as well, but it is in domain of speculation.


Floccina writes:

1. you are not really what most people think of when they hear Pacifist because you are willing to fight if directly attached.

2. I doubt that China is ahead of the UK, France, Germany and Japan.

Floccina writes:

Sorry I made a mistake on my (2) I was thinking power not spending even though you said spending.

JLA writes:

Hundreds of years of history support the claim that peace is only a Nash equilibrium when there's a credible threat of retaliation for a deviation.

Scott Scheule writes:

"What kept Switzerland out of both WWs?"

You guessed it. Frank Stallone.

JLA writes:

According to wiki,

"A major manoeuvre commanded in 1912 by Ulrich Wille, a reputed Germanophile, convinced visiting European heads of state, in particular Kaiser Wilhelm II, of the efficacy and determination of Swiss defences."

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Military_of_Switzerland#History

JLA writes:

Further evidence that Swiss stayed out of the WW's because of an active military presence can be found here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Switzerland_during_the_World_Wars

Jim Glass writes:

"If you want peace, prepare for war." This claim is obviously overstated ... How about Hitler's rearmament? Was the Soviet Union preparing for peace by spending 15-20% of its GDP on the Red Army? No on all three counts. The truth is that preparation for war often causes war by frightening and provoking other countries.

You seem to be confusing "If you want war, preparing for war works" with "If you want peace, preparing for war doesn't work".

Your logic usually is a lot better than that.

"Those who beat their swords into plowshares, will plow for those who don't." In earlier centuries, this was usually true...

Earlier centuries like the 20th. Do you really think human nature has changed so much since the 1940s, when the Czechs and Poles were forced to plow others, and the Koreans and Chinese, etc., since the post-war Soviet grab for Berlin, or the 1970s when the North Vietnamese got the South plowing for them? Etc, etc. How long ago was all that in the time scale of evolution?

Take a look at this list of military spending by country. The U.S. naturally leads the pack, but is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff? ... most Americans think it would be wrong, so it's not going to happen.

Let's put aside the number of times the USA has already invaded other countries to take their stuff (Mexico, etc.), and how great a guarantee steadfast, never-wavering public opinion provides against such action in the future (German public opinion was solidly against starting a war all the way until the Wehrmacht's march into Warsaw).

The US nuclear arsenal is the greatest "arm for peace" exercise in history, dwarfing all others. It contained the "monster" Stalin at his 1945 limit, kept the cold war cold until it ended, and now has the world 65 years and counting without a major war between powers and none in sight -- none even barely imaginable. (Who'd fight?) How long has it been since the world has gone so long without a major war between powers?

Now imagine if after WWII we had instead gone the pacifist route of disarming, telling the Japanese "Just don't do it again, or else!" and leaving the Japanese to defend themselves against the Soviets and all the regional Asian good friends they had recently made by rearming with nuke-armed aircraft carriers and submarines and the like ... with Uncle Joe at the same time not concerned with our response to anything he might want to do in Europe, after gobbling up Berlin for starters. Would the world have been a more peaceful place?

Mehtinks you misunderestimate the peace dividend of the "nukes for peace"-enforced Pax Americana.

"Pacifism didn't work with Hitler." True enough. But then again, nothing worked with Hitler. The man was a monster.

The German army was prepared to pull a coup against Hitler if he gave the order to invade Czechoslovakia -- which, unlike Poland, was well armed and could defend itself -- rather than face a suicidal war that couldn't be won against the West. Instead, the West sold the Czechs out for "peace in our time", gave it to him. Hitler told his generals that the West was too cowardly to fight over either Czechosolvakia or Poland. After the Czech experience they concluded, "he's right, he knows more about politics than we do", and swung to his side. Next stop Warsaw.

One thing that *wasn't tried* against Hitler was deterrance through strength. If it had been, even if Hitler was such a madman as to launch a war anyhow, in spite of his generals against a much stronger West, the result would have been much, much, better for a strongly prepared West. Even as it was, the German army had to abandon the French frontier to invade Poland and the German generals believed the French army could have rolled right into Berlin ... if they hadn't been French.

If the French and British had just kept their solemn promise to defend the Czechs, had prepared to do it and followed through, WWII as we know it wouldn't have happened. Libertarians believe in the obligation to keep major contractual promises. Is this trumped by the pacifist imperative?

"military preparation frequently has the perverse effect of making countries less safe. Discovering the conditions under which this occurs takes a lot more than a one-liner.

True, and neither should Clausewitz's "The best defense is to be very strong" be dismissed at all glibly or with cliches.

Hyena writes:

But what do you mean by "pacifism" here?

Absolute non-violence? Non-aggression? No military? A European military? Reduction to the National Guard?

It's a position you really have to flesh out, especially since the slogans you object to refer to the position of absolute non-violence.

Dave writes:

Another anti-pacifist cliche:


"You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you'

-Trotsky

andy writes:

"The German army was prepared to pull a coup against Hitler if he gave the order to invade Czechoslovakia"

Jim, it seems that this isn't actually correct. Although they were building fortification as fast as they could, a lot of it was not ready. If you look on the map, you will see that more than 50% of the border of Czech Republic are with Austria; the Slovaks created a fascist state later anyway. And huge areas around the borders (coming quite deep inside the country) were pretty much German.

I cannot speak how the german army felt about fighting czech republic, however if they did, the Czechs would have very likely lost and I'd guess the country would be pretty much removed from the map. So from a hindsight, this wasn't such a bad move after all. (from the funny side, one wonders why the Czechs have an army, as they've never ever won a crucial fight in history...it's a history of big defeats :)

ajb writes:

I'm sorry. I'm with most of the others on this. If citing the evil doers of Stalin, N. Korea and Hitler are examples of the folly of preparing for war, then Bryan is either failing logic or willfully misreading the quotes he tries to refute.

In a world where there are evildoers, it always makes sense to prepare for war. This is exactly the collective action problem. As an economist, I'm surprised he treats the way out of a prisoner's dilemma by assuming both just behave nicely. HA! This is especially amusing if we DON'T treat all nations symmetrically and recognize that some nations are clearly worse than others and will unilaterally arm no matter what you do.

I mean, does he really believe that Stalin would NOT have armed if ALL of Western Europe had been Caplanian pacifists?

That he resists this logic is the best argument I've seen against pacifists.

Pei writes:

One Country, Two Systems? No, you are too optimistic. Just look at Hongkong. Hongkong is on the road to Socialism, degrading from model of a free society. And I'm a mainland Chinese.

Andy Hallman writes:

@Alex J.

It's South Korea that needs to prepare for war because it wants peace. North Korea doesn't want peace.

I think this is a mistaken dichotomy. I think it's fair to say that nearly all countries, including empires want peace. But their desire for peace is conditional on being in control.

George W. Bush described the United States as a country that has sought peace, and I think he is right. What separates the US from most other countries is that the US demands global hegemony as its conditions for peace.

Andy Hallman writes:
In a world where there are evildoers, it always makes sense to prepare for war.

If Robin Hanson read this, I'm sure he'd say, "How do you know you're not one of the evil doers?" But really, how do you know?

David C writes:

From your link:
1 United States $663,255,000,000 4.3% of GDP
24 Iran $9,174,000,000b 2.7% of GDP

North Korea was missing, but I found this:
North Korea $5.0 billion FY02

Jacob Oost writes:

I don't call myself a pacifist, but I do believe that most or possibly all wars are the end-stage of a long-running economic conflict due to protectionist policies and the like. So I say I'm an ardent free-trader, rather than saying I'm a pacifist, which makes it sound like I'm dogmatically opposed to fighting a war, which I'm not (not dogmatically). "If goods don't cross borders, soldiers will." The words of Bastiat are probably the most insightful words about war that anybody has ever written.

Sam writes:

OK, so forget about Hitler - apparently that's a cliche.

And leave aside any pre-modern warlords like Alexander, Caesar, Attila or Genghis Khan. Let's stick to the modern world.

How well did pacifism work against Tojo's Japan, Mao, Stalin post-WWII when he suppressed the Baltic states, Pol Pot or Ho Chi Minh? How well did the pacifistic "Prague Spring" movement of 1968 fare against the Soviet invasion?

When someone is determined to kill you and take your stuff, does pacifism work?

Ivan writes:

Dear sir,

When you talk about armament as a causant of war you seem to be only looking at one side of the coin. Disarmament have been over the years a greater en thus less desired condition for defeat, concession and absorption.

The fact that in the current pax Americana some countries rely on others for their protection doesn't mean that this historical accident will continue in perpetuity, or that their interests are not militarily protected, as their are aligned with the interests of military powers. And yet if this period does end by whatever reasons, I do not believe that powers would have want to be caught depending on goodwill.

On the end, it comes down to a hawk vs dove game. We all want to live in a world where we can all be hawks but we can't control others. On average it is more desirable for society to be ready for war, if they actually want to avoid it.

Jeffrey Rae writes:

You could have added a fourth quote:

'Only the dead have seen the end of war' (George Santayana)

The willingness to go to war to advance or protect one's perceived interests is an inherent part of human nature.

The American Civil War is the best proof of that idea that I can think of. The British had shown it was possible to abolish slavery without bloodshed (more or less) but the US proved to be politically incapable of pulling off a similar feat, despite having the best system of government ever devised for avoiding war, let alone a civil war. One might add that it was also the bloodiest war the US has ever fought.

agnostic writes:

If it was usually better for the ruled to go pacifist, why have they almost never done that? Either they're all irrational, stupid, etc., or they know better than some cloistered 20th C. scholar about whether it's better to be ruled by Us or by Them.

And they were right, from pre-state societies to mature states. Us rulers are always more constrained than Them rulers because of the in-group / out-group psychology. Wholesale slaughter, rape, destruction of the means of subsistence, etc. -- way more likely when They are in charge, if for no other reason than to teach Us a lesson about bristling under foreign rule.

And whoever said that trading partners are less likely to go to war is wrong -- more likely. Read Keeley's War Before Civilization. It's a common misconception. This also applies to pre-state up through mature state societies.

To get a feel for why, imagine how likely it is that you'll have a major specific quarrel to focus your anger on when you're trading with someone. Very. They promised this but delivered that, this many but gave that many, no we didn't, yes you did, etc.

Same goes for groups that exchange wives and hold celebrations together -- more likely to go to war, for the same reasons. You promised me this for my daughter and I only got that, this much instead of that much; you promised to bring four goats to the party and only gave three, but there was an accident and it wasn't my fault, oh sure there's always an accident, it's true, oh yeah, etc.

Then watch the fireworks fly. Not unlike Thanksgiving arguments at the dinner table...

Rich writes:

"...is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?"

My perception is that this is indeed a strongly felt anxiety in much of the world. And change "country" to "home" and you'll find many Americans saying "yes, that worries me!"

The Left worries about the U.S. government abroad but not at home; the Right worries about the U.S. government at home but not abroad.

Steve Roth writes:

Nice.

I would add my pet concept of "mercenary morality":

Adopting a truly superior moral position -- in deeds as well as words -- in many cases delivers true power: the ability to convince your friends and coerce your enemies (and vice versa). The Bush administration's words and deeds post-9/11 epitomize the squandering of such a morally (or in rhetorical terms, "ethically") superior position, and the power that accrues to it.

Which points out one key place that this post gets it less than totally right:

"is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?"

C'mon! Are you serious? Does any sensible person -- even the nuttiest neocon -- believe that the Halliburton presidency would have chosen to invade Iraq if Iraq didn't have oil? How does that look if you're not an American? It's not crazy to understand why other countries have reasonable concerns on that point.

Jim Glass writes:
"The German army was prepared to pull a coup against Hitler if he gave the order to invade Czechoslovakia"
Jim, it seems that this isn't actually correct. Although they were building fortification as fast as they could, a lot of it was not ready ... I cannot speak how the german army felt about fighting czech republic, however if they did, the Czechs would have very likely lost ...
Fighting alone the Czechs certainly would have lost, which is why they didn't fight after the French and British served them up at Munich. But there's more to it than that.

The Czechs were much better armed and prepared than the Poles, the German military was much weaker in 1938 than 1939, and in 1939 than 1940. In real life the reason for the initial "phony war" on the German side was that its military was both exhausted and misplaced after the Polish fight, they couldn't fight in the West.

If the Germans had invaded the expectation was the fight would be a real one for a couple of months. At the end the German military would have been much weaker than after the Polish fight, Poland would be mobilized with plenty of notice ahead of it, the French and British would be mobilized on the German unprotected rear, and who knows what Uncle Joe would be doing to exploit the situation to his enemy's cost?

The German generals saw that situation as disastrous and were preparing to take steps to avert it. But Hitler told them the West wouldn't fight for either the Czechs or Poland. After the Munich serve-up Hitler made the deal with Stalin and the generals concluded "this guy knows what he's doing" and signed onto his agenda. On to Warsaw and the rest is history.

This is why Churchill and those like him were so apoplectic about Munich. It wasn't merely appeasement and an immoral sell out of the Czechs (plus the delivery of the Skoda arms works and major Czech military resources) to the Nazis -- in terms of pure international power-politics calculated self-interest it was a horrible blunder.

Jim Glass writes:
"is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?"
C'mon! Are you serious? Does any sensible person -- even the nuttiest neocon -- believe that the Halliburton presidency would have chosen to invade Iraq if Iraq didn't have oil?
The simplistic idea that the US invaded Iraq "to take its stuff", that stuff being oil, is pretty much refuted by the fact that the US didn't take its stuff. (Also by the previous US-driven oil embargo that prevented the US from getting that stuff. To get that oil, there were much quicker and less costly ways than fighting a war.)

Of course it *is* true that that area is of critical strategic importance to the US and the world because of all that oil, and the US would never have fought such a war in a barren-thus-unimportant region, no matter how horrid the resident dictator. So point taken to that extent.

But the American people seem strangely ambivalent about US Presidents who go out of their way to manipulate the USA into a war to topple a horrid foreign dictator on a distant continent, simply because that dictator is operating in an area of critical strategic importance to the US by invading over every neighbor's border, using poison gas against civilians, running death camps, being responsible for a million deaths as a result, etc., *when* that dictator has done nothing to attack the US directly and indeed has no ability whatsoever to do so (can't even get across the puny English Channel). In one case the president is a hero and it's "The Good War", in the other...

Jacob Oost writes:
Does any sensible person -- even the nuttiest neocon -- believe that the Halliburton presidency would have chosen to invade Iraq if Iraq didn't have oil?

Absolutely. The argument that the war was fought over oil never made an ounce of sense to me. In the first place, if Bush wanted to "enrich his oil buddies" as everybody on the left-wing blogs seems to think, a far simpler and less costly route would have been to lift the stupid sanctions against Iraq. He would come out as a hero for free trade, a "political genius" for splitting Iraq off from various assorted Islamofascist peeps, and not shed a drop of blood or risk his entire political career on successfully convincing the country to go to war and to stick with that war when things got hairy.

But was never out to enrich his oil buddies, he was out to topple the Iraqi government which he believed posed a serious military threat to the US.

I don't think we should have invaded but it doesn't make me see mustache-twirling plutocratic conspiracies behind every move.

Andy Hallman writes:
Absolutely. The argument that the war was fought over oil never made an ounce of sense to me. In the first place, if Bush wanted to "enrich his oil buddies" as everybody on the left-wing blogs seems to think, a far simpler and less costly route would have been to lift the stupid sanctions against Iraq.

The point is to have control over the flow of oil, not necessarily its price. Oil companies want the price to be high, consumers want it to be low, but both want it to keep flowing, and the US wants to be in control of that flow.

Jacob Oost writes:
The point is to have control over the flow of oil, not necessarily its price. Oil companies want the price to be high, consumers want it to be low, but both want it to keep flowing, and the US wants to be in control of that flow.

Again, that makes no sense. If "control over the flow of oil" was the goal, then Bush and Co. could have made oil drilling and whatnot far less restricted by the government here in the US. That would have been a much cheaper way to give Bush's "oil buddies" control over the flow of a major source of oil. Why plunder abroad when you can plunder at home for less cost?

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