Bryan Caplan  

Engage Pacifism

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It's time for a belated reply to Arnold's critique of pacifism.  I wish Arnold would engage the three-premise argument I actually made, but I'll take what I can get.  Here's Arnold:
I just cannot buy into pacifism as some libertarians express it. It seems to me that some libertarians link arms with the far left as blame-America-firsters, with scathing attacks on America's military and its foreign policy. I am not sure what constructive solutions come from this stance.
Actually, dissatisfaction with the "blame-America-first" mentality is what led me to abandon isolationism in favor of pacifism.  As a pacifist, I urge all of America's military opponents to abjectly surrender to it immediately.  As the cases of Germany and Japan illustrate, abject surrender to the American military leads to much better consequences than resistance.  It's a no-brainer. 

Of course, as a pacifist I also urge the American government to withdraw its forces from whatever warfare they're engaged in.  Its enemies are highly unlikely to abjectly surrender, and unless they do, the consequences of American military action are very hard to predict.  This might seen like a weak case for cut-and-run, but think again.  As I explain in my "Common-Sense Case for Pacifism": (1) the short-run costs of war are very high, (2) the long-run benefits are highly unclear, and (3) for war to be morally justified, the long-run benefits must substantially exceed its short-run costs.

Arnold continues:
Sure, it would be great if nationalism and tribalism would wither away, we could have open borders, and no wars. But that is not the world we live in.

I think that one of my favorite Presidents for foreign policy was Eisenhower, who kept us out of Vietnam and spoke out against the military-industrial complex. But he believed in national defense, and in an imperfect world, so do I.

I agree that the world's imperfect.  But this imperfection cuts both ways.  In an imperfect world, the "good guys" often end up doing great evil, the bad guys often imagine that they're good, and "standing up to aggression" often sparks deadly conflicts that appeasement could have avoided.

Arnold likes to say:
[A]t Chicago, they say "Markets work well. Let's use markets." At MIT, they say "Markets fail. Let's use government." At GMU, they say "Markets fail. Let's use markets."
Why then shouldn't the pacifist answer Arnold's "imperfect world" argument with: "Peace fails.  Let's use peace"?


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Two Things writes:

1. Does your pacifism extend to abolishing police forces as well as outward-directed military forces? I'm not sure such purity would be prudent.

2. Would pacifism work for a small country with an aggressive neighbor?

It's all very well to advocate pacifism as a citizen of a superpower. Even if the USA abolished its army and so-forth, less powerful states would hesitate to invade it for fear that the USA would quickly reconstitute its military.

Smaller countries face different constraints. If, say, Paraguay abolished its army and so-forth, it might be irretrievably overrun by Bolivians in short order (well, back in 1932, anyway).

I suppose you could say that control of squatters and looters would be a police matter rather than a military one, whether or not the troublemakers were foreigners. But since you have argued against any police controls on cross-border migration, your argument for pacifism might look unduly optimistic to people in some parts of the world.

Robert Johnson writes:

"(1) the short-run costs of war are very high, (2) the long-run benefits are highly unclear, and (3) for war to be morally justified, the long-run benefits must substantially exceed its short-run costs."

If you add that the long run benefits could be very large, and the short run costs will (probably) largely be born by people other than those who choose to go to war, then you have a pretty good explanation of wars - and commodity bubbles.

AveSharia writes:

Without thinking too hard about it, I have an immediate critique of your three-part Common-sense Argument for Pacifism.

"(1) the short-run costs of war are very high, (2) the long-run benefits are highly unclear, and (3) for war to be morally justified, the long-run benefits must substantially exceed its short-run costs."

The first is that you presume a default state of inaction- that, to justify action (as opposed to inaction,) requires a showing of a positive cost-benefit analysis. Consequentialists who don't distinguish between action and forbearance morally (like me) won't accept this.

Another way of saying this is that it's not clear that your Common-Sense Argument (CSA) takes into account the long-term costs of Pacifism. I suspect you think the CSA does, but I'll leave that be. Suffice to say that, to accept your CSA, one must accept not just that the benefits of war are uncertain, but that the costs of Pacifism are uncertain as well. I do not agree, nor do I perceive this to be the case among hawks generally, and thus doubt the Common-Sense Argument will be very persuasive.

That said, I'm a fan of the site and your work. Keep it up!

Arnold Kling writes:

Bryan writes,


As a pacifist, I urge all of America's military opponents to abjectly surrender to it immediately. As the cases of Germany and Japan illustrate, abject surrender to the American military leads to much better consequences than resistance.

This does not strike me as a defense of pacifism. If you want to defend pacifism,, then you need to argue that abject surrender to Germany and Japan in 1941 would have had better consequences than resistance.

Daublin writes:

The short-run benefits are often very high. Please take on the case of World War II. Unlike Vietnam or Korea or Iraq, a surrender in World War II would seem very bad, and very bad very quickly.

Additionally, I believe we'd see the bad results far more frequently if we had a reputation for surrendering. Someone would step up and start shooting peas at everyone until the country surrenders and they are made its dictator. Surely that's not a good policy. Surely we should at least fight off the little guys.

ajb writes:

Aside from the case of World War II, which should be enough to refute Caplan, I think that the US habit of the bourgeoisie decamping to the suburbs are good examples of surrender to violence with terrible consequences. They destroy too quickly many salvageable areas of the main cities and also contribute to an illiberal and undemocratic alliance of populist activists and demagogues for the poor with wealthy elites with less need of good public schools. The US seems unusual in the Western world in its relative tolerance for disorder and crime in many of its largest and oldest cities. Both the lower middle classes and the poor suffer tremendously from this. It seems that only high real estate prices and demography (fewer young men) have worked to slow this degradation.

Faré writes:

In defense of unconditional surrender, I once wrote this essay, though it was tongue in cheek, and I don't know how far I believe in it: Ode to Surrender.

And yes, I do believe surrender to the Japanese fascists would have been so much better for China and Korea than what happened because of the US intervention. Think of the hundred millions of dead in peace time due to Communism. We HAVE seen the Nips at their worst, and they weren't quite THAT bad.

As for surrendering to the German National Socialists or the Russian International Socialists, I admit that's where I draw the line: when the enemy's ideology calls not only for enslavement but outright mass murder. You can corrupt and play positive sum games with someone who's after fortune and women; but it's hard to corrupt someone who's deriving pleasure from the very killing of his enemies.

Faré writes:

Note that I'm convinced that the Nazis were much less evil than the Communists (and yet were incredibly evil), and that you can't both justify attacking the Nazis and sitting out defensively against the Commies.

IF you're convinced that attacking the Nazis was justified and desirable, why shouldn't "we" have attacked and nuked USSR and/or China, too?

IF a cold war was the right attitude against Commies, so should it have been against Nazis. Even jewish lives could have been saved if war hadn't trapped Jews in Europe then precipitated the nazi "final solution", and they had instead been slowly driven to emigrate to America and/or Israel.

Andy Hallman writes:
Bryan Caplan: As the cases of Germany and Japan illustrate, abject surrender to the American military leads to much better consequences than resistance. It's a no-brainer.

This is very strange coming from an economist who thinks about incentives all day. Would this not embolden the U.S. to demand even more power over other countries if it knew they would lie down?

For a weak individual (and a weak state), the consequence of fighting is usually worse than backing down. We see this all the time in the animal world. However, if the strong know they can push the weak around at their will, they won't hesitate to do so. This is why the weak need to make it clear that they will defend their territory, even when it is not in their self-interest to do so. If the weak can make this threat credible, the strong will not demand so much.

The U.S. will back down and has backed down when the costs get too high. The Marine Barracks bombing in Lebanon in 1983, which precipitated a U.S. withdrawal, is one example of this.

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