David R. Henderson  

Do People Always Avoid War?

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In two separate blog posts, co-blogger Bryan addresses my comments on pacifism and then argues that people generally avoid fighting. I think he makes good points but he way overstated.

First, Bryan stated:

My prediction: If someone suddenly tried to kill David, he wouldn't "defend" himself. He would run away. So would I. So would almost everyone. As this scene from Fight Club beautifully illustrates, it is very hard to pick a fight with a stranger. Flight, not fight, is humans' standard response to violence. And for the most part, our cowardly reaction is entirely functional.

The quote from me that Bryan was responding to was admittedly exaggerated. And, in spirit, I agree with Bryan about his predictions of my behavior if you expand the concept of "running away." One of the skills I've perfected over the years, when running away isn't an option or isn't a good option, is talking people out of hitting me. I wrote about it in 2006 in an article titled, "I Don't Have to Fight You."

That brings me to Bryan's second post, "War: What Is It Here For?" Again, I think Bryan made some good points and they are points that I have made myself here. But, as some of the commenters said, he took it too far. First, some evidence and then some anecdotes.

The evidence:
1. When World War II began for the United States on December 8, 1941, the United States had a draft. Meanwhile, though, about 100,000 to 140,000 people a month entered the military in the first 3 months of that war. They weren't drafted. Now, you could argue that they were doing it to avoid being drafted into combat. But they disproportionately joined the Navy. Given that the thing that riled most Americans was not Hitler and the Germans but the Japanese government's attack on Pearl Harbor, an attack mainly on the Navy, if you wanted to avoid action, you would be unlikely to join the Navy.
2. Canada fought most of World War I and most of World War II without drafting people into combat. Ditto Australia in World War I.

The anecdotes:
1. When Canada got into the war, my father was 29. He didn't join. He looked around and saw a number of people joining the Army and wanted to be part of an experience his generation was having. When he was 32, in 1942, he did join. He was kicked out for being hard of hearing, but he joined.
2. When I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee against re-introducing the draft and draft registration, Senator Sam Nunn asked me how much it would take to get me to enlist. "To fight in the Middle East or Africa," I said, "infinity." "To fight to protect the United States from an attack on our shores, reasonable: $20,000 or so. [That was about my salary at the time.]" Since then, I've thought about it and if the Chinese government [I find this hypothetical threat highly implausible] attacked our shores, I don't think you'd have to pay me anything to fight.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
Hyena writes:

It wouldn't surprise if people did not, in the abstract, support war but people do support most actual wars.

There wouldn't be any dissonance, either: public opinion, even in a dictatorship, acts as a constraint on war policy. We should expect that most wars which are actually undertaken are of the kind that people would support.

joecushing writes:

After spending some time thinking about this subject because of theses posts, I came to a conclusion. We need an amendment stating that all wars will be fought by willing fighters and funded by willing payers. I think if this were the case, we would have fewer wars but if something like that Chinese invation you mentioned happened, we would have no problem raising the needed troops. By willing fighters, I don't just mean people who previosly joined the military to be trained, I mean people who are willing to fight the war itself.

Prakhar Goel writes:

Dear Dr. Henderson,

You have vastly understated the craziness and naivety of Dr. Caplan's argument.

In many cases, it is rational to start a war for a country taken as a whole. Take players A and B and posit that a war has the same directs costs c for both players. If A can extort more than c from B by instigating a war, then it is in A's self interest to start a war. In aggregate, the players are worse off but A is better off since all the costs are borne by B. Furthermore, note that if this war is one of conquest, then it is quite possible that through better management, A can sufficiently improve B's value by more than 2c thus making the transaction profitable even in the aggregate. Not so fast, you might say, and accuse me of forgetting the Coase theorem. However, note that transaction costs here are immense. For example, it is likely that both A and B have an inflated view of their military prowess.

This may sound purely academic to you but note that this dynamic was precisely the case with nearly every expansive empire in history including but not limited to the Roman Empire, the Russian Empire, the Frankish Empire, the Middle Ages, and the colonial empires of Europe. I am willing to concede that it no longer applies between first-world countries due to advanced munitions. However, if it were not for the lack of expertise and risk-aversion, I am confident that China or the US could profitably conquer the Middle East, Africa, and South America.

adrian writes:

Bryan Caplan is right. He is looking at life from individual Austrian perspective. You are looking at life from a macro statist perspective. You gave scenarios of countries, and that is precisely the problem. Your scenario is analogous to street gangs and mafias. His is attributable to a completely individualist lifestyle such as Anarcho-Capitalism. I suggest you read Robert P Murphy's Chaos Theory for further analysis on the evidence of retaliation and non-aggression.

Shayne Cook writes:

Dr. Henderson:

Given your statement in "Anecdotes", number 2 (and your previous posts), what precisely would you have recommended/done as a matter of U.S. policy/action in response to the WTC/Pentagon crashes in 2001?

fundamentalist writes:

Caplan is a typical short term thinker. Yes, in most circumstances the best thing to do when attacked is to run if you can. But that only works with random acts of violence. What if the attacks are not random, but systematic? School bullies are a good example. Running will work the first time, then the bully will figure out that you will run and prevent it next time. What then? What are you going to do if the bully knows you bring $5 for lunch every day and intends to steal it every day and knows how to prevent you from running?

PS, someone should tell Caplan that we went to an all volunteer army about 40 years ago. These guys volunteer to go to war. I remember reading an interview with a politically incorrect young marine during the Iraq war who said that killing Al Qaeda members was such a thrill and he couldn't wait to get back to it.

Prakhar Goel writes:

@adrian,

Yes my example could apply to street gangs in a country with an incompetent justice system (like ours). There is a high cost associated with the Gang's violence. However, it is also in their rational interest because they can extort large sums in the process.

Instances of rational violence are distressingly common if one is actually inclined to look.

Your comments on the "individual Austrian perspective" and the "macro statist perspective" are incomprehensible. Who cares about perspectives when the truth is at stake?

Also, if you can refer to a book, surely you can condense its arguments down and state some of them here. I didn't make you read 40 pages of text even though I could have directed you to quite a few tomes of sociology (Reflections on Violence by Sorel is particularly good). Please have the curtsy to do the same.

Shayne Cook writes:

Follow up ...

In the interest of debate, rather than baiting, I'll provide my own answer to my question above:

I'm not sure what I would have done. Or more accurately, I've not been able to come up with an initial response to 9/11 that seems clearly superior to what actually happened. It's the follow-on U.S. policies/actions that I consider suboptimal. And I can think of several alternatives that would have been/would be clearly superior.

My question (above) is posed to you because I wonder if you have an alternative initial reaction to 9/11 that I haven't considered.

Richard A. writes:
When I testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee against re-introducing the draft and draft registration, Senator Sam Nunn asked me how much it would take to get me to enlist.
This is a question that is too often asked when dealing with labor shortages, "What wage would have to be paid in order to get YOU to do the job?" The relevant question should be, "What wages need to be paid to make supply equal demand?"
Mark Brady writes:

"Since then, I've thought about it and if the Chinese government [I find this hypothetical threat highly implausible] attacked our shores, I don't think you'd have to pay me anything to fight."

Let's consider an actual war in U.S. history. What is your attitude toward the War of 1812? As many readers know, you were born a Canadian who subsequently adopted U.S. citizenship.

adrian writes:

@ Prakhar Goel

Although your analysis is valid, you as well deal with the circumstance as a macro scnenario. Something noted in Keynes' economics. If one were Austrian on the other hand, you would find that people are not necessarily violent in general. The details of the analysis you give are very true, yet surely we find them in the idea of opportunity cost. Simply put, people would not generally be violent if they realized the ramifications of their actions, and the opportunity costs of expounding such actions.

Thus a person understanding the effort required in being violent, would result in them not being bullies or violent anymore. If you speak of psychology, then this will only make my argument that much stronger. The reason is that as cognitive growth evolves, a person will become smarter and decide not to act violent due to the repercussions they are aware arise from being a bully as a child. Sadly the reason this evolution never takes place, and the reasons that people are violent as adults is due to the society we live in where government is buttressing every person's actions, whether evil or good. Instead of allowing the Free-Market to in general reward profitable actions, in many cases only good ones have perpetual success, the evil ones are as well rewarded due to the bail outs of government.

One thing you must understand is that war is a product of the state, thus Mr Henderson as well as you are suggesting a government exists, and your analysis only supports government since the data is eschewed to favor government. For example, one could find data that shows corporations create many jobs, while at the same time they are a product of the state dealing in cartel behavior. In a situation where there is no government, the outcomes are quite different and for the better. Places are more safe, as was the case before we had a central government in the first place. Also one would see that private law and private police make for the system to be more efficient and thus create various different perspectives on violence. I suggest you perhaps further your knowledge on the Austrian School.

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