David R. Henderson  

My Talk at Berkeley

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One enterprising student, Scott Gibb, recorded all but the first two minutes of the talk I gave at Berkeley earlier this month. The sound quality is quite high. My talk is titled, "The Case For a Non-Interventionist Foreign Policy." It's here. Scroll down to under my picture and then click on the relevant link. (There are links to talks by Jeff Hummel and David Friedman also.)

My talk, which lasts about 45 minutes, is the lengthiest case I've made for non-intervention. In it, I apply the thinking of Hayek's information problem, unintended consequences, and public choice to the issue of intervening forcibly in other countries' affairs.

One of the biggest problems one has in making the case is going against what so many people think they know about history, especially about World War II. I spend about 10 or more minutes on World War II alone.

The last few minutes are Q&A. Unfortunately, you can't hear the questions. The first one, though, which was rather lengthy, was an accusation that I used "we" when describing the actions of the U.S. government. I told the questioner that I was pretty sure I hadn't and now, having heard the talk, I know I didn't. The reason I was pretty sure about this is that I have been saying for years that using "we" when what is really meant is the government, is sloppy, misleading, and dangerous. See these two articles I wrote ("Who Is 'We'" and "Who is 'We'? Part Two) for more on that.


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COMMENTS (8 to date)
Vipul Naik writes:

I like your use of "we" in the last para of "Who is We" (the first essay).

Both the essays are awesome.

Vipul Naik writes:

There is another sad consequence of using "we" -- the use of the first person makes one more likely to justify the actions being taken or at any rate to be on the defensive. Steven Pinker describes this in his book "Better Angels" in terms of Baumeister and Stillwell's notion of a "moralization gap" as below:

In an ingenious follow-up, Stillwell and Baumeister controlled the event by writing an ambiguous story in which one college roommate offers to help another with some coursework but reneges for a number of reasons, which leads the student to receive a low grade for the course, change his or her major, and switch to another university. The participants (students themselves) simply had to read the story and then retell it as accurately as possible in the first person, half of them taking the perspective of the perpetrator and half the perspective of the victim. A third group was asked to retell the story in the third person; the details they provided or omitted serve as a baseline for ordinary distortions of human memory that are unaffected by self-serving biases. The psychologists coded the narratives for missing or embellished details that would make either the perpetrator or the victim look better.

The answer to the question “Who should we believe?” turned out to be: neither. Compared to the benchmark of the story itself, and to the recall of the disinterested third-person narrators, both victims and perpetrators distorted the stories to the same extent but in opposite directions, each omitting or embellishing details in a way that made the actions of their character look more reasonable and the other’s less reasonable. Remarkably, nothing was at stake in the exercise. Not only had the participants not taken part in the events, but they were not asked to sympathize with the character or to justify anyone’s behavior, just to read and remember the story from a first-person perspective. That was all it took to recruit their cognitive processes to the cause of self-serving propaganda.

Pinker, Steven (2011-10-04). The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (Kindle Locations 10769-10774).

Reference: Advantages of the Moralization Gap: Baumeister, 1997; Baumeister et al., 1990; Stillwell & Baumeister, 1997.

Incidentally, a person I know used "we" to describe the actions of (some) 15th and 16th century European traders/colonists in the Americas.

David Friedman writes:

With regard to WWII and the "lessons of Munich," there are two points I like to make:

1. England and France had interventionist foreign policies--that's why Hitler had to get their permission before acting against Czechoslovakia. Munich is evidence not of the consequences of non-interventionist policy but of badly done interventionist policy.

2. The first time Hitler tried to annex Austria, do you know who stopped him? Mussolini. He moved divisions into the Brenner Pass, and announced that Italy would not tolerate a German annexation of Austria. It was only after the incompetent interventionist policy of the allies in response to Italy's Abyssinian war that Mussolini concluded both that the allies were not his friends and that they were not very dangerous enemies.

My source? The first volume of Churchill's history of the war.

Max M writes:

Scott Gibb? Vipul Naik? David Friedman? Gosh it's a small world! Looking forward to more, Dr. Henderson.

David R. Henderson writes:

@David Friedman,
Thanks on both. Your first point is one I made in my talk. I first learned it from you. Your second point is one I forgot to make but remember hearing from you.

sourcreamus writes:

What was Czechloslovakia's foreign policy?

JoeFromSidney writes:

I address "intervention" from yet another point, that of the Just War Doctrine, which I teach at Yorktown University. To justify going to war, the Doctrine says one must satisfy each of the following criteria:
1. Just cause. There are three classical just causes: repel an attack, retake what was unjustly taken, and come to the aid of the victim of an unjust attack. Without a "just cause," the war is illegitimate.
2. Comparative justice. The attacker must be "more just" than the enemy being attacked. The attacker need not be "perfect," nor the attacked "irremediably evil." "More just" is sufficient. However, the difference between the two limits the degree of violence the attacker is justified in using.
3. Right intention. The attacker must intend to achieve the just cause, and no more. Not vengeance, not loot, not enslavement, but only the just cause.
4. Last resort. Every reasonable course of action must have been tried first.
5. Probability of success. There must be a reasonable likelihood that it will be possible to achieve the just cause. Spilling blood in vain would be immoral. However, fighting a hopeless battle against an evil regime might well be considered a "witness" to a just cause (e.g., "Remember the Alamo").
5. Proportionality. The evil resulting from the war must not outweigh the good resulting from the war. However, evil here is not limited to physical evil. A great moral evil might justifiably be overcome, even at great physical cost.
6. Competent authority. The war must be declared by someone who has the lawful authority to do so. Someone who has a superior to whom he can appeal does not have the authority to commit a nation to war.

These are hard criteria to meet; intentionally so. I believe they add a useful but different perspective from the ones discussed above.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Vipul Naik,
Thank you very much on both comments.
@David Friedman,
I forgot to mention that I quoted you explicitly in my talk.
@sourcreamus,
I don’t understand your question. Could you clarify?
@JoeFromSidney,
Excellent. Two other things to mention: Jus in bello and Jus post bellum. That is, fighting a war justly and acting justly after the war is over. Actually, Wikipedia does a pretty good job of these:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_War

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