Bryan Caplan  

Historical Counter-Factuals and Political Philosophy

Pacifism Redux... Robin Hanson on Market Failure...
People frequently try to refute my pacifism by merely saying "Hitler."  "If only Britain and France had declared war and unseated Hitler when he occupied the Rheinland in 1936!" they say.  My quick reply is, "Yes, but I've got a better one.  If only any of the major powers in World War I had been pacifist in 1914, neither Nazism nor Communism would have gained power in the first place!"

If you think that's an unfair historical counter-factual, I agree.  They're both unfair historical counter-factuals.  What's unfair about them?  Both test political philosophies by picking the exact historical moment when - with 20/20 hindsight - they perform most badly.  Using this rhetorical strategy, you can make any philosophy whatsoever look asinine. 

So what would a fair use of historical counter-factuals look like?  It's hard to say, but here's where I'd start: Imagine what would happen if the philosophy in question were popular - or at least influential - for a century.  Alternately, imagine what would happen on average if the philosophy in question were popular. 

I think pacifism does well by either of these standards.  And even if I'm wrong, I'm not obviously wrong.  You can't pretend to refute me merely by invoking the name of Hitler.

Of course, "Fight when it's a good idea, make peace when it's a good idea" counts as a philosophy.  And you might think that this case-by-case approach has to yield better results than pacifism.  But that's only true with perfect foresight.  In the real world of uncertainty, case-by-case optimization is often inferior to simple rules.  Which, as I've explained before, is the heart of my case for pacifism.

P.S. If you have any doubts about the uncertain effects of foreign policy, don't miss Gardner and Tetlock in this month's Cato Unbound on "What's Wrong With Expert Predictions?"  The intro alone is worth the price of admission:

Each December, The Economist forecasts the coming year in a special issue called The World in Whatever-The-Next-Year-Is. It's avidly read around the world. But then, like most forecasts, it's forgotten.

The editors may regret that short shelf-life some years, but surely not this one. Even now, only halfway through the year, The World in 2011 bears little resemblance to the world in 2011. Of the political turmoil in the Middle East--the revolutionary movements in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria--we find no hint in The Economist's forecast. Nor do we find a word about the earthquake/tsunami and consequent disasters in Japan or the spillover effects on the viability of nuclear power around the world. Or the killing of Osama bin Laden and the spillover effects for al Qaeda and Pakistani and Afghan politics. So each of the top three global events of the first half of 2011 were as unforeseen by The Economist as the next great asteroid strike.


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COMMENTS (25 to date)
Ameet writes:

What people forget is that according to Churchill himself, Britain did not have the political willpower nor actual military power to declare war on Germany in 1936. France did, but France did not have the political will either.

Furthermore, I found Patrick Buchanan's argument about Poland and 1939 compelling. The West was not ready in 1936 militarily. It was not ready militarily for Austria. And there was no way France could easily honor its agreement to defend Chechoslovakia in 1938, a reason Munich occurred. Why would they be any more ready in 1939, especially given that after Munich, the PM, Chamberlain, felt there was peace for our time, rather than a breathing space to start rearming?

Also, Poland participated in the carving up of Slovakia after Munich in 1938. It was also a military dictatorship. Britain still was not prepared in 1938 for war, nor 1939 (Churchill called the period between Poland's invasion and the commencement of hostilities in Belgium the "Phony War"). If Britain had not made a guarantee to Poland, WW2 might have been very different - it could have been a war between Germany and the Soviet Union only, with Poland either dissolved by Germany or in alliance with Germany (a Polish leader stated "With the Soviets, we'll lose our souls" indicating a deal with Germany would be preferable), with the West standing to the side, or rearming until ready to join the battle.

I agree that pacifism would have been the best approach for WW1. Absent that, pacifism and defensive rearmament might have been the best strategy for the Western powers pre-WW2 too.

mike kenny writes:

one could play this game many times

i wrote (emphasis added for this comment):

wargaming history class--a history class taught by trying to simulate decisions and situations historical figures find themselves in, so people can try to think 'in history'--given you're caesar and this is what is most salient to you as you stand at the rubicon, what do you decide to do? given you're pompeii fighting caesar in greece, and this is what is most salient to you probably, what decision do you make. both what happened and plausible alternatives are considered (you see what pompeii actually did, but you also see how your own simulation plays out, with the history teacher and relevant experts as umpires)--this doesn't need to be constained to war--it can be about anything where human decisions are made

mulitple plays of the same event and multiple refs could give a view less affected by personal biases of umpires. such wargaming to my knowledge was instituted first by the prussian military as an training exercise.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

I've never understood what you find so compelling about your "quick reply".

The judicious application of military force would have prevented a war in 1914 too. So judicious non-pacifism works well in 1914 and 1939, and pacificism only works well in 1914 (maybe... what if Germany and it's allies didn't partake in pacifism - would you say it would have worked for the Allies in 1914 in that case? I doubt it).

I don't see how your "assume pacificism is popular" makes sense at all. If everyone was pacifist, obviously pacifism would be ideal. But the whole point is not everyone is pacifist. How is assuming (rather than empirically observing) the only conceivable justification for pacifism a reasonable way to arbitrate this?

I think it makes more sense to:

1. Rather than rely on specific historical cases, rely instead on observed patterns of human behavior - how do people generally act, regardless of a specific historical case?

2. Determine what philosophy will perform the best given these observed patterns of human behavior, rather than imagining some behavioral patterns that humans have never exhibited.

By taking these steps, it seems clear that a deliberate, judicious use of force in response to actualized threats will not always be perfect, but will easily exceed the bloodshed and imperialism that will result from one or even many parties engaging in pacifism while others (based on what we know about patterns of human behavior) refuse to (forget Hitler - this applies to the Kaiser and anyone else that would emerge to take advantage of pacifist popularity).

Another way of putting this is that pacifism can certainly emerge from tit for tat in practice, but it's doubtful to emerge in practice from setting out pacifism as a policy at the outset.

Steve_0 writes:

1. You do an anti-intellectual disservice to yourself and your readers in your opening statement. I can't speak to everything every person has ever said to you, but I have seen much more sophisticated arguments posed, that you have not answered. I've not seen anyone merely say "Hitler". invocation of "Godwin's Law" and other such dismissal is an infantile hand-waving-away of what is arguably the greatest lesson of the 20th Century. You can't both rely on WWII as an example when you want, and deny the example to others. Address the sophisticated arguments that people make, instead of creating straw men out of them. You don't do such weak logical work in your other areas of expertise.

2. Your statement about "any of the powers in WWI" is completely without basis. It is no stronger than "If powerful aliens had flown down and intervened". I can't believe anyone would find either of these two possibilities to be weaker than your supposition:
(A) Unchecked, the death toll from German initiation would have still been in the millions, particularly Jews, homosexuals, and other "undesirables". Are you secretly a master-racist? I assume not. But the realistic consequences here certainly make it sound like the *real* alternative you choose (the one you can't control) is an acceptable millions of deaths of innocent, specifically chosen victims. Arguably, some of the deaths of WWII have a different moral status, being that many of them are willing, principled soldiers who voluntarily placed themselves in sure danger in order to oppose something horrible.
(B) Earlier intervention in WWII is not wild supposition. It was well understood; roundly discussed; realistic as a possibility; there was clear reasoning, cause, and justification; and many advocates for this course of action. Arguably, pacifists (at the margin) prevented opposition, and therefore are responsible for innocent victims.

I don't see how anyone could do anything but accept that those two are very realistic scenarios. And it is not clearly evident that your scenario of pacifism would produce any better result. Lack of evidence for the other side is not positive evidence of your own side.

3. You make the pretense that there are only two options, to "war" (as a verb), or to "not war". This is improper. War is too often analogized to a dance. A dance, and in your imagination, war involves two partners deciding to meet, to synchronize and to carry out a coordinated plan which will result in a specific outcome (in the case of war, death and destruction). This is not the actual case with war. Pick a handful of wars and you will see that they have had consequences which could not be predicted in advance. Variation in death toll, and duration. It is not merely hope or fantasy to have a reasonable expectation that making an effort to oppose initiation of force will make a difference. If it did not, all wars would be of the same duration and toll, or would last infinitely long.
As opposed to a partnered dance, war is a competition, like tennis. Pacifism would be akin to having hundreds of balls stack up on your side of the net, returning none. To be a non-participant is to be an ally of the aggressor.

4. Pacifism is an eclipsing value. If you claim pacifism, then you cannot claim any other principle. It is by it's nature over-riding. It cannot even claim to result in it's intended goal, "Peace". One, or even millions, can be pacifists, and still not prevent the initiation of force or the slaughter of millions. Pacifism fails as an active verb, it does nothing.
In cases where pacifism has seemed to be effective (most cite Gandhi and MLK Jr.) it is in fact the already widely culturally accepted values which cause self-restraint on the part of the dominant party. Pacifist led civil rights for minorities in the US could only work as a strategy at such time as the moral landscape was already at the margin, ready to accept it. Pacifism in this cause 50 years earlier in the moral landscape would not have been effective. The same goes for India. Gandhi's pacifism worked against the moral landscape of the British. Against, for instance, a non-caring militant Muslim aggressor, his people would have simply been wiped out.
Forceful opposition stands a chance, but pacifism only works if your aggressor is marginally close to change already.

5. You make moral equivalence between both participants in war, and between all types of death, and all "large numbers". You pretend there are no alternatives to "war" or "not to war". You pretend there are no clearly defined principles or objective ways to decide. You promote a simply heuristic of "favor war always" or "favor not responding always". (Not responding is the only real alternative you can control. You cannot control the aggressor party).
There is no moral equivalence between those who *initiate* force against others, and those who *respond* to force in the service of a principle or defending innocent people.
There is no equivalence between the death of one million innocent victims and one million willing volunteers who place a principle of opposing initiation of force above the value of their own individual lives. For the volunteer, the unchecked possibility of indiscriminate death visited upon their family or loved ones is unacceptable. It is morally preferable in their eyes to make an unsure attempt to influence the outcome. They take the personal risk of their own death, in service of increasing the odds of protecting their own family and loved ones (or even strangers).
Regarding your heuristic, this seems to me like an economics professor deciding micro-economics is too complicated for people to understand, therefore we should only preach "always buy" or "never buy". I assume you also believe that would be absurd. There are margins in decisions of participating in war. There are principles. There are realistic chances of influencing the outcomes. And there is a moral obligation to defend principles, chief among them, non-initiation of force.

You allow for no logical rule. Here is one; do not initiate force. If a party initiates force against innocents, respond immediately and decisively. That is a simple enough heuristic, and one we already practice to some degree. We do not preemptively soak every house to prevent fire. We attempt to respond immediately when fire happens, to put the fire out as quickly as possible. We do not make it a principle to exert massive force to prevent any type of crime. We (in principle) try to respond quickly and decisively so that there is a consistent message of deterrent, and prevention of repeated acts.

Had allies acted quickly and decisively to Hitler's initiation of force, it's certainly arguable that much devastation could have been prevented. A large number of deaths, largely consisting of volunteers, is in all ways preferable to an even larger number of deaths of non-volunteers (and/or all the other potential consequences of a Reich controlled Europe).

Non-initiation is a very close heuristic to pacifism, and should be easy enough to understand, and more logical to parse. Decisive response to initiation, as directly as possible to the specific parties responsible; is also a very simple, yet more logical heuristic than pacifism.

If you want to continue arguing pacifism over alternatives, at least do not pretend there are not more sophisticated alternatives. And please do away with the hand-waving, reverse-Hitlerum, straw-man arguments, lack of recognition of margins, lack of accepting pacifism's moral landscape constraints and necessary conditions, choice of over-simple heuristics in place of more sophisticated and more logical ones, and the over-arching moral equivalence.

Brian Clendinen writes:

Daniel Kuehn,

I am bookmarking your response. My sediments exactly.

My favorite example is actually the Russian Civil War over WWII. If the allies had assisted the whites with a division say 40,000 men they could of easily crushed the Reds. The whites almost were able to do that. No USSR, no Ukraine famine, ect ect. A stronger somewhat free Russia might of prevented WWII by itself.

Tim Starr writes:

Your WWI hypothetical isn't "unfair," it's simply wrong. Who are you counting as "the major powers" in WWI? Turkey? Germany was already ruled by a leader bent on world domination who had direct command of the military and unremovable by peaceful means prior to WWI. He was also willing to mass-murder people to get his way (e.g., Hottentots, the Armenians Germany encouraged Turkey to slaughter, etc.). Germany had already started several European wars (Franco-Prussian, etc.) before starting both World Wars.

Your WWI "counter-factual" is just another instance of the same fallacy I pointed out on your Facebook page: saying "Well, if only the aggressors were pacifists, things would've been different." The aggressors will never be pacifist, by definition. Both Russia & Germany were aggressors in WWI. The pacifist option is only applicable to those responding to aggression, and you've never come up with any example of an effective pacifist response to aggression.

Plus, there are plenty of other examples besides that of Hitler. Hitler's just the best-known and most widely-accepted instance of the failure of appeasement, but there are others. For instance, the US response to Mao's aggression at the end of the Chinese Civil War was to abandon Chiang Kai-Shek, perfectly in accord w/ pacifism. How do you like that result? South Korea remained the beneficiary of steadfast Western military assistance, while South Korea, Laos, and Cambodia were abandoned. How d'ya like them apples?

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Brian -

Although again, the counterfactuals need not be and probably should not be the basis of this sort of argument.

Peter Boettke likes to talk about robust political economy, and I agree that concerns about robustness need to be paramount when we think about these forms of social organization. Pacifism fails miserably on robustness. The only way it succeeds is if you do precisely what Bryan does here - assume that everybody else is a pacifist. Well sure - in that imaginary world I imagine I'd be a pacifist too. It's simply not the world we live in. Forget Hitler. People take advantage of other people. Imagining a world where they don't take advantage of people and then embracing a policy of letting them take advantage of people in the real world is no solution.

Tit for tat is an extremely robust strategy in all sorts of applications. It should be no surprise that it makes the most sense in national security too. Not being a pacifist doesn't mean shooting from the hip at anything that moves. And not being a pacifist will lead to some mistakes. But as long as the world isn't pacifist, it's a reasonable strategy.

If everyone at heart is a pacifist that would be great - pacifism will emerge naturally from tit for tat, and we can all live happily.

As a fan of "alternate history" I'm well aware of the problems of counter-factuals. I agree they don't prove anything.

As for pacifism, I agree with Robert Heinlein: "Pacifism is a shifty doctrine under which one enjoys the benefits of the social group, refuses to pay his share of the cost, and claims a halo for his dishonesty."

I have written several articles and a book on Just War Doctrine, and teach it at Yorktown University. Granted, it has some subjective elements, and does require some forecasting of outcomes, but I think it would do a better job than either pacifism or "bellicism" in deciding whether and when to go to war. I can think of several recent wars that are questionable at best under JWD, and one that clearly failed to pass the criteria.

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

This is your best post on pacifism. The only item that is answerable is this:

"Of course, "Fight when it's a good idea, make peace when it's a good idea" counts as a philosophy."

Its virtue is that your enemies can't rely on a pacifistic response.

Noah Yetter writes:

Daniel Keuhn,

"The judicious application of military force would have prevented a war in 1914 too."
(emphasis added)

With this statement, you reveal having missed Bryan's point entirely.

DougT writes:

"What if everyone does it" is a Kantian categorical imperative. By this test, pacifism works. But on practical grounds, it does not, because not everyone is a pacifist. According to Martha Stout ("The Sociopath Next Door") as many as 4% of the population are concienceless sociopaths who have no empathy or affectionate feelings for anyone or anything.

The Milgram experiments make it clear that the public can be easily swayed by charismatic leaders and demagogues. When they command armies, the proper response isn't to lay down our arms, but to be ready.

"If you want peace, prepare for war." -- Vegetius

David Friedman writes:

I made some of the same points in a chapter of the second edition of The Machinery of Freedom some years back. More recently, I came across an interesting example of the downside of interventionist foreign policy while reading the first volume of Churchill's history of WWII.

How many people know who stopped Hitler's first attempt to annex Austria? The answer is Mussolini, who announced that Italy would not accept such annexation and made his point by moving Italian divisions into the Brenner pass. Hitler backed down.

What changed that? When Mussolini attacked Abyssinia, the allies-to-be told him he was a very bad person but took no effective action to stop him. Mussolini concluded that they were not his friends and were not very dangerous enemies, revised his foreign policy accordingly, and gave Hitler the go ahead for the Anschluss.

In Churchill's view, the allies should either have put up with the attack on Abyssinia in order to keep Mussolini on their side or used force to prevent it in order to bring down his government.

For my older example, consider the Munich agreement. The only reason it happened was that England and France had an interventionist foreign policy--that was why Hitler had to make sure they wouldn't actually intervene if he annexed the Sudetenland. Hence Munich is an example, if anything, not of the faults of a non-interventionist policy but of the bad execution of an interventionist policy.

Evan writes:

Bryan still hasn't sold me on pacifism, but I think his argument against using really specific counterfactuals is quite solid. It would be like arguing against search warrants by citing an example where they made it harder to capture a killer, or arguing against freedom of speech by citing the likely positive consequences of preventing the Communist Manifesto from having been written.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Noah -
No, I don't think I've missed the point. Although you're welcome to explain what you mean rather than just making the accusation.

I agree with Bryan that these counterfactuals aren't the best way to go about it precisely because we all have to say "would have" this and "would have" that. Yes, if everyone "would have" been a pacifist in 1914, I'd be happy to be a pacifist too. I'm saying non-pacificism works as well as pacifism if we play this game, which is precisely why I don't see his own "would have" counterfactual all that convincing (he doesn't seem to find it convincing either).

But Bryan responds by whipping out an even bigger "would have". He writes: "Imagine what would happen if the philosophy in question were popular - or at least influential - for a century. Alternately, imagine what would happen on average if the philosophy in question were popular."

If pacifism actually could be made to influence the way nations behaved then sure - everything would work out great. We could all safely be pacifists. But "would have's" aren't very convincing. Social orders have to be robust to situations where the "would have's" don't happen, and pacifism isn't.

Judicious application of the military to threats isn't perfect and it makes mistakes. Bryan acts as if this is something people would deny.

Daniel Kuehn writes:

Noah -
What Bryan seems to want to do is note that if cooperative behavior could be induced - if we could get a degree of collective action - it would be good to be pacifists. If pacifism is popular and you give it a century, things would be nice.

I'd obviously agree with that.

But it doesn't follow that pacifism is an appropriate position to take. The fact that symmetric non-defection is optimal doesn't make non-defection the "right" policy for an individual, but that's precisely what Bryan is trying to say here.

Under tit-for-tat - a judicious application of military force - it's quite possible that collective action towards what is effectively pacifism could emerge. But it doesn't emerge from Bryan's starting point of pacifism. The only thing a policy of pacifism will give you is a lot of dead liberals and a lot of living illiberals. Judicious application of military force at least offers the opportunity of the emergence of an order of stable peace.

Tracy W writes:

I don't see how any of the major powers being pacifist in WWI would have led to a definitely better outcome. A Kaiser Germany with a history of military success strikes me as something that could have led to something as bad as Nazisim or Communism. The Japanese after all won in WWI and then went on to invade China and commit appalling atrocities there.

Daublin writes:

A better counter-factual is what if the United States, or some other one country, adopted extreme pacifism for 100 years. What would have happened? This is the choice that any individual country faces.

In the case of the U.S.:

1. If you choose the 20th century, Germany and Japan carve up the world. That strikes me as a net loss regardless of what you think of all other American military activity.

2. If you choose the 19th century, the U.S. as we know it would have ceased to exist.

3. If you choose the 18th century, the U.S. would never have come into existence to begin with.

In 1/3 cases, pacifism makes the world worse. In 2/3 cases, the entity that chose pacifism ceases to exist.

I agree that this is a better counter-factual than just picking on World War II, but I don't think it makes pacifism look good.

I think you are largely ignoring the very good tit for tat argument. It's good in theory, and it holds up well in history. We would probably do better to more thoroughly embrace tit for tat.

Tim Starr writes:

David: IOW, Mussolini's intervention against Hitler worked, keeping Hitler from annexing Austria, thus proving the efficacy of interventionist foreign policy. If only the British & French had similar resolve, they could have also kept Hitler in check.

Jaap writes:

Aren't aggression and capitalism apples from the same tree?
Just trying to out-compete the other, just on different levels.

Steve_0 writes:


There are profound differences. "Competition" is a large and vague term. I believe it's important to be more specific if you want to make relevant comparisons.

Capitalism is voluntary exchange between producers and consumers. Each can make choices. Producers compete with other producers, but not through force. They compete by attempting to produce higher quality, or different types of products, or lower prices. All to the accrued benefit of the consumers.

War is not a competition in any sense like a sport, and certainly not like capitalism. There is no attempt to exert one's team to score points, with the possible harm to players. The explicit goal is to destroy the other party with violence, and take the spoils of wealth they have produced. There is no voluntary trade here between consumers and producers.

So, no. I would say they are nothing alike at all.

Steve Sailer writes:

You know what also doesn't cause war, poverty, illness, or unfunny jokes?


You'll notice that Shakers haven't caused any trouble in years, no more trouble than pacifist states have caused recently.

jseliger writes:

"Imagine what would happen if the philosophy in question were popular - or at least influential - for a century. Alternately, imagine what would happen on average if the philosophy in question were popular."

I think the problem is one that a prisoner's dilemma game theory issue covers: if a philosophy becomes popular but can be destroyed by defectors to a countervailing philosophy, it's unlikely to become popular. Which is to say that, if a pacifist philosophy becomes popular and groups or nations that adhere to it are attack by warlike nations, they will presumably suffer and either change their philosophy or be conquered by others. That applies to most of history, anyway.

Still, I wonder about the contemporary world: no country is likely to invade the U.S., most parts of Europe, or China. So in those places, pacifism might make more sense than it would in places where countries are surrounded by hostile neighbors (like, say, India).

Jaap writes:

Thank you Steve, for your clear evaluation of the theories of war and capitalism.
Let me explain my mistake.

As a (former) market maker in stock options, I witnessed a lot of 'crushing' of competitors, 'extortion' of clients/market takers, 'winning' of playoffs (so the winning party can send in quotes more favorably).
To me, my work seemed like the ultimate form of capitalism, take no prisoners, bleed m for all you can. Oh, and as a game, which you wanted to win. Playing competitive games was definitely a plus when applying for such a job (in my time).

As for war, WWI is sometimes caricatured as a King's game, with cousins King George, Kaiser Wilhelm, Czar Nicholas and Franz Josef battling for domination of Europe. A little similar to entertainment games like Civilization. In these 'games' involuntary bloodshed and misery are largely overlooked.

Of course, theory can make a clean distinction.

Nathan Smith writes:

I'm no pacifist but I think there was one moment in history about which the pacifists are completely right, and World War I is it. None of the powers were all that bad, yet the war was a horrible, civilization-destroying disaster. If the other powers had sat back and let Germany, or Russia, or France, or any other of the combatant powers achieve hegemony in Europe, that would have been better than what happened. Any state, any individual, who had refused to take up arms would have made the world a better place; everyone who did his patriotic duty was making the world a worse place. Pacifism is generally naive and escapist, but there was one moment in history, 1914, when it was exactly right.

Steve_0 writes:

Thanks Jaap,

Good dialog. I would point out that "competition" in the loosest sense is built into the essential nature of "living" beings or organisms that live in a metaphysical universe of scarce resources.

A lot of that work competition is only marginally different than sports competition. I don't think anyone in your agency was literally, intentionally killed by an opposing firm.

Also, most of those features are not necessary requirements that fit the core definition of capitalism. Your firm, or even industry may be that way. Would you say that every firm, universally had exactly the same level of competitive attitude? Are there any companies anywhere, in any industry that choose to run their business differently?

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