Bryan Caplan  

Quiggin the Pacifist?

The Toothpick Problem... Uwe Reinhardt Nails It...
My betting partner John Quiggin seems to be in near-perfect agreement with my pacifism:
When is violence justified as a response to manifest and apparently immovable injustice? My answer, with Martin Luther King is: Never, or almost never...

In large measure, my reasoning is consequentialist. Violence directed against established authority rarely works, and hardly ever produces enduring gains. Most revolutions fail, and most successful revolutions produce a new tyranny, often worse than the old, followed eventually by a return to the status quo ante..

But those aren't the only arguments. Symbolic violence involves essentially random harm to people or destruction of goods or productive capacity. Even where a case can be made that the targets are in some sense deserving, random and capricious punishment is always unjust. And the obvious enjoyment that so many of those who engage in symbolic violence take in the activity is morally indefensible.

Violence on a scale sufficient to effect political change is bound to lead to the deaths of innocent people, both directly and indirectly.

Directly, the immediate victims of political violence are likely to be working people - police or soldiers (often conscripts). Once deadly violence has been adopted as an instrument, whether by a state, a nationalist movement or political organization, the class of 'legitimate' targets expands steadily, to include alleged propagandists, collaborators and so on, and then to would-be neutrals. Moreover the tolerance for "collateral damage" invariably increases over time.

Typically, these direct deaths are only the beginning - retaliation from the other side, especially from a state against a revolutionary movement, is usually far more deadly...

A further important point is that the belief that injustice is immovable is often wrong. The advocates of the Iraq War argued that Saddam's regime was immovable, and that the inevitable death and suffering associated with an invasion would be less than that from leaving the regime in power for decades to come. The Arab Spring has shown that claim to be, at best, highly questionable.

How far does this argument go? Not to the point of denying a right of self-defence against an attacker who is trying to kill or maim you, or (with more qualifications) to defend others against such attacks. Or to the point of disallowing resistance to slavery by whatever means necessary.

I don't have a final position on this, beyond saying that the presumption against violence ought to be much stronger than it has generally been.
Yep.  Reading Quiggin's words takes much of the sting out of our European unemployment bet.  If I'm going to lose, I'd rather lose to a fellow pacifist.

HT: Benjamin Kay

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COMMENTS (13 to date)
Brock writes:

How many losses are you willing to have inflicted on you by a violent and unjust regime while you do your pacifism thing?

The thing I like about aggresivism is that it makes fighting unnecessary 9 times out of 10. Most bullies are cowards. And the 10th guy will never bully anyone ever again.

Robinson writes:

Excellent words. However:

"Even where a case can be made that the targets are in some sense deserving, random and capricious punishment is always unjust."

How does this square with your defense of revenge?

I'm sure you would say that political violence (say, rioting and looting) is very different than violence against an individual criminal. So how about political assassination? If someone blames a politician for mass murder, would killing him as an act of political violence or war be unjustifiable, but killing him as an act of revenge be OK?

Perhaps this changes based on whether the accusation against the politician is valid- blaming Hitler for WWII vs blaming Bush for 9/11. So how justified does a person have to be to kill a politician as an act of revenge?

N. writes:

Cold comfort to citizens of totalitarian states.

What would you have them do? Assuming there is no hereafter, how much misery are you willing to tolerate and for how long? The answer, it seems to me, is 'infinite' and 'in perpetuity.'

This is why I am not a pacifist. You may be willing to wait through the numerous wasted lifetimes of others, but I am not.

Most revolutions may fail, but the number is not zero. The future is uncertain. More fundamentally, however, I think you believe that pacifism comes without moral cost, and I would disabuse you of that in the harshest words possible. The cost is the misery caused and lives lost under tyranny without any intervention. You may decide not to act, but I cannot foresee a world where the lives ruined on the basis of your decision not to even attempt to act should fail to fall squarely on your conscience.

Robinson writes:

Brock, Bryan has a great response to that view:

Threats and bullying don't just move along the "demand for crossing you" curve. If your targets perceive your behavior as inappropriate, mean, or downright evil, it shifts their "demand for crossing you" out. Call it psychology, or just common sense: People who previously bore you no ill will now start looking for a chance to give you a taste of your own medicine.
PrometheeFeu writes:


Self-defense will take care of most totalitarian regimes. If the regime is oppressing you personally through its representatives, the use of violence in self-defense against them would be acceptable. (As far as I understand Bryan) If the regime is oppressive enough, everyone then has a legitimate case for self-defense against the regime and its representatives.

ThomasL writes:


He would seem to be saying that futile defence doesn't count as defence. That is if you cannot expect your self-defence against state agents to end in a positive result (and it rarely does) he would seem to be saying you'd be unjustified in pursuing it.

I disagree. I think even lost causes are worth fighting, both figuratively and literally--but then I don't subscribe to a utilitarian conception of morality.

darjen writes:

Cold comfort to citizens of totalitarian states.

What would you have them do? Assuming there is no hereafter, how much misery are you willing to tolerate and for how long? The answer, it seems to me, is 'infinite' and 'in perpetuity.'

No, that is not the answer. Mass peaceful protests and non-violent civil disobedience is what they should be doing. Opt out of the state. Violent revolution, where innocent people invariably end up being targeted, is not the answer.

Matt writes:

How do you define pacifism? Quiggin calls for strengthening the presumption against violence. I highly favor this, but I wouldn't call it pacifism. Strengthening the presumption allows for the fact that our involvement in WW2 was clearly the moral choice.

Brock writes:

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N. writes:


Right, because it worked so well in Burma, where the state makes any public grouping of five or more people illegal. In a state that is willing to use massive lethal force to retain total control, no protest can be peaceful, as the government will exsanguinate any dissent. One cannot readily 'opt out' except through suicide (which many avail themselves of, as I understand it).

Don't get me wrong, I am certainly a fan of Gene Sharp's _The Democratic Revolutionary Handbook_, and similar notions, but there are limits. In Burma, Syria and North Korea those limits have have been exposed; so too were they exposed in Iraq. Utter a word against Saddam and he could have your daughter tossed into a meat grinder while you watched. No exaggeration. Peaceful resistance, against that? Ludicrous.

If one has religious convictions against violence, that is one thing. But if you believe that one go-round is all we get, I cannot imagine
how anyone can conclude that violent struggle against tyranny could possibly be immoral.

Bob Murphy writes:

Bryan, your embrace of pacifism is one of your contrarian positions that I wholeheartedly endorse. However, isn't Quiggin a big interventionist? Is it worth you "picking a fight" with him about this inconsistency--or would that be non-pacifist of you? :)

CBrinton writes:

I think Caplan significantly overstates Quiggin's degree of agreement with him.

Quiggin's statement that "war in pursuit of “legitimate national interests”, as opposed to self defence is almost always foolish and never justified" strongly suggests that, distinctly unlike Caplan, Quiggin believes defensive wars to be justified.

E Pons writes:

I agree completely with the stance that “justifiable” violence against an immovable injustice simply does not exist. Martin Luther King, Jr. himself was an avid advocate for nonviolent disobedience; examples of his devotion to promoting civil disobedience are prevalent in his responsive letters written to Alabama clergymen during his time in the Birmingham Jail, 1963. The clergymen urged him to discontinue his leadership of displays of civil disobedience and that the black community was better off participating in peaceful unification in the court systems. However, King formulates many responses to this letter that deemed the nonviolent actions going on in Birmingham to be both inappropriate for the time and circumstances.

King argues that “ injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” and one act of civil disobedience would be spread by the domino effect. He also implies that civil disobedience is substantially more difficult to follow through with due to the amount of willpower to accept that fighting for justice will be hard as well as the fact that one who is wholeheartedly practicing civil disobedience may very well be injured and even lose their life for the cause. King also says that we have a legal and moral responsibility to defy unjust laws because the phrase “unjust law” in itself is an oxymoron- a law is defined as a declaration that is supposed to innately bring justice.

The injustices that pursued African-Americans throughout centuries in our nation’s history seemed totally immovable and unchangeable at one point in time. However, we can see today that justice has prevailed and continues to prosper for the rights of African-Americans. This is due to the nonviolent disobedience fostered by MLK. We cannot underestimate the power of civil disobedience and that justice will eventually prevail- acting through violence will only undermine the diplomacy and democracy of any group who participates in it.

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