Bryan Caplan  

Applied Ignorance

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A key premise of my pacifism:
2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars - most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II - at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars - like the French Revolution and World War I - just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, "Fine, let's only fight wars with big long-run benefits."  In practice, however, it's very difficult to predict a war's long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock's Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.
At Aidwatchers, my former student Adam Martin elegantly applies the premise:

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to succeed at regime change. But I don't.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to bring democracy. But I don't.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign intervention to save more lives than it costs. But I don't.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect foreign leaders to know what's best for Libyans. But I don't.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we're not training and supporting thugs. But I don't.

I wish I knew why, this time, we should expect we won't inspire future outrage and violence. But I don't.

I wish I knew why, this time, the long history of disastrous foreign military intervention will find an exception. But I don't.

I wish I knew why, this time, procedural safeguards on grave decisions are not important. But I don't.

Does anyone with superior knowledge care to offer Adam a bet?  Remember: Since you're confident, and he's ignorant, you have every reason to give him odds.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (8 to date)
Basil Seal writes:

It's a sucker's bet. It assumes a level of rationality in foreign policy decision-making that is not present.

There is a relatively low-barrier to entry into the war marketplace. Withdrawing from the marketplace is vastly more complicated.

War is just one more natural disaster that confronts us. We have about as much chance of controlling it as the weather. There is no policy prescription that will reduce its frequency.

On the other hand, wars generate long run benefits for victors/survivors enough of the time to make the bet plausible. In the case of a country like the United States, the downside mostly redounds to political parties (e.g. Democrats in 1968 and Republicans in 2006). Which further distorts the incentives and lowers the barrier to entry.

The public is generally unaffected. Few families have members or even know anyone in the military. The military itself is self-selecting and generally supports military action. Technology has and will likely continue to reduce casualty rates and mitigate injury - at least for our side. Ten years of conflict has produced something like the casualty rate incurred in an hour on D-Day.

Hyper-partisanship means that anti-war sentiment will last only until power transfers to the out-of-power party. At which point, continuation or expansion or even new wars face little political opposition. For the Democrats Iraq and Afghanistan were win/win. A yes vote followed by a swift victory would pay them electoral dividends or at least neutralize the national security issue. If a swift victory failed to materialize they could switch to an anti-war position with little penalty from their base and ride that electoral wave.

It appears to me the benefits/costs you are calculating are not aligned with the incentives our policymakers are reacting to. When you understand the incentives the calculation changes and war appears to have greater long term benefits regardless of the actual outcome of the conflict.

Now maybe incentives can be aligned through clever policymaking but it hasn't happened yet. Which brings me full circle: war is a natural disaster that appears to be man-made but in which man is merely instrumental.

Mark Brady writes:

Adam Martin's analysis suggests that, if the U.S. government had enough knowledge, it might make sense for them to intervene on such occasions. But doesn't this approach grant far too much good faith to the federal government? Why should we implicitly assume that the U.S. government believes in, and seeks to achieve, the seemingly noble aims to which it publicly aspires, either domestically or internationally?

Jim Glass writes:

In practice, however, it's very difficult to predict a war's long-run consequences.

To put it mildly! Short-term consequences too!

The US Civil War and WWII are just two of countlesss wars that occurred because the antagonists *magnificently* underestimated what their cost would be.

We can add the Japanese war in the Pacific resulting from the attack on the US, in spite of the efforts of Yamamoto and the other admirals to warn the government. (War is greatly intensified real life, full of intense irony. One is how deadset in opposition to the attack on the US was Yamamoto, its architect.)

Examples are endless. Even Napoleon said "starting a war is like entering a dark room", not that it ever stopped him.

People grossly over-estimate their ability to predict the future in real life, and seldom learn otherwise. War is greatly intensified real life, with the stakes much higher.

ChrisA writes:

Is this a war or a rescue operation? There is a difference. If you had a large ship nearby an exploding volcano, wouldn't you be morally obliged to try to evacuate people in potential harms way, even if this could be seen as intervening in a foreign countries affairs. Similarly the Allies were in the position of owning equipment (planes and missiles) that could prevent people being harmed. Although I am libertarian and also generally a pacifist, there did seem a reasonable case to be made to prevent that harm, I certainly would have felt pretty uneasy to see an entire city wiped out when it could have been prevented. Yes, now it is going to get more messy but that is real life, you have to make moral decisions even when the ultimate consequences are not clear and include a risk that the intervention actually makes things overall worse in a utilitarian sense.

I think a more reasonable approach might be to say that we need to get rid of all the planes and missiles in future, but given we have them, we have some duty to prevent massacres if we reasonably think we can.

ajb writes:

Since we won't and don't obviously agree even how to value the outcomes of wars (which count as "failed") or what the benefits and costs of each have been, I doubt this bet would make sense for anyone who truly disagrees with you. For me, this just signals how alien (or charitably, how tendentiously naive and condescending) some of your views are.

mtraven writes:

I have to agree with ajb above. Also, there's something broken about your whole frame of analysis. Obviously, war is an incredibly destructive venture, almost by definition. But generally, someone thinks, rightly, that they can profit from war. Let's say, Lockheed for instance, or any of the other countless companies and individuals who make their money as part of the military-industrial complex.

There is no global utility evaluator who decides if war is a net gain or loss to the whole world and decides whether to engage in it or not, only a lot of individual actors. I can't believe I'm delivering this particular lecture to a libertarian.

mtraven writes:

Also, "pacifist" does not mean someone who simply thinks "war is bad". A pacifist is someone with a principled devotion to non-violence, who refuses to engage in it even when attacked, and is willing to put their life on the line for this principle. Tolstoy, Gandhi, and King were pacifists; you are just an economist.

I'm not really much of a pacifist myself, but I like to recommend this argument for it anyway.

Basil Seal writes:

Apparently there are long term benefits to war even for pacifist nations:

Perhaps the most economically beneficial model is to refrain from actual warfare yet supply the market with the material for conducting the same. Win/win.

[shortened link edited to show actual link. Please do not substitute short links for full links on EconLog.--Econlib Ed.]

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