Bryan Caplan  

The Upper Hand Heuristic

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As Adam Smith explains, treating other people well is often in our narrow self-interest:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
An odd corollary is that when a person treats us well, we cannot infer that they genuinely care about us.  Maybe they're just treating us well because they desire our repeat business or a favor down the line.

If "X treats Y well" does not imply that "X genuinely cares about Y," what does?  For starters, you have to look at situations where X has the upper hand - situations where Smith's insight does not apply.  If X doesn't advance his narrow self-interest by treating Y well, yet treats Y well nonetheless, we discover that deep down, X really cares about Y.  The same goes, of course, if X suddenly starts treating Y badly as soon as X has the upper hand.

Studying situations where someone has the upper hand often leads to pessimism about human nature.  It's tempting to move from the truism that "When X doesn't need Y, X treats Y worse" to "People are bad."  Yet it's a mistake to focus merely the direction of the behavioral change.  To really judge human nature, you have to look at the magnitude of the behavioral change.  When X has the upper hand, does he offer Y 10% less?  25% less?  80% less?  Does he enslave him?  Kill him for the fun of it?

Once you focus on magnitudes, pronounced pessimism about human nature is hard to maintain.  Sure, there are some cases where people with the upper hand turn to slavery or even genocide.  But these have long been rare, and keep getting rarer.  The world is full of militarily helpless countries that have no reason to fear conquest.  If you object, "That's because the United States protects them," just ask yourself, "Who's protecting them from us?"

I suspect that many economists will ask, "Who cares about others' true motives?"  Response: understanding true motives is often important - especially if you're weighing whether to give someone the upper hand.  Foreign policy is the most obvious example.  If you're pondering surrender, your enemy's motives are a matter of life and death. 

People often assume that anyone trying to kill them must have the worst possible motives.  That's simply not true.  Maybe your enemies are worried you might kill them first.  Maybe they're trying to kill someone else, and you're collateral damage.  Maybe they'll leave you alone if you make a symbolic concession.  When a country makes war on yours, you discover that its leaders aren't absolute pacifists.  But that leaves open a wide continuum of underlying motives.

What's the best way to figure out your enemy's position on this continuum?  Simple: Look at your enemy's past behavior when he had the upper hand.  I call this "the Upper Hand Heuristic."  You can learn a great deal by studying how your enemy treats his opponents after they abjectly surrender.

Take the United States.  As a pacifist, I think the United States government has committed many awful crimes against humanity.  Yet by the Upper Hand Heuristic, the U.S. has looked very good indeed for over a century.  Germany and Japan were America's greatest enemies, but once they abjectly surrendered, their people received amazingly good treatment.  Germans and Japanese were soon freer and more prosperous than they'd ever been before - or would have been if they'd won.  The victorious Soviet Union, in contrast, quickly imposed Communist dictatorships and deported millions of new subjects to Siberia.  Quite a difference.

To take a more recent example, consider the end of the Cold War.  The U.S. didn't beat the Soviet Union as decisively as it beat Germany or Japan.  Yet the mighty Red Army did virtually collapse.  Historically, this could easily have prompted an invasion or demand for tribute.  The response?  The United States left Russia in peace.  China, despite decades of Sino-Soviet conflict, did the same.

I suspect that many of my fellow pacifists will instinctively reject the Upper Hand Heuristic.  When one country invades another, even people who call themselves "antiwar" often rush to take the defenders' side.  This is a terrible mistake.  Real pacifists should urge all sides to stand down.  If one of those sides is a good winner, pacifists should be eager to point this out: "You want peace?  Surrender to X.  For all his crimes, he's gracious in victory." 

Thus, while I never supported the Iraq War, I think that militarily resisting the United States was stupid at best.  Do you want the terrible crimes of the American government to end?  Then swallow your pride and surrender.  Like the Germans and the Japanese, you'll be glad you did. 

P.S. A clever economist will point out that when people use the Upper Hand Heuristic, countries have a reputational incentive to act mercifully even when they don't have to.  If national leaders cared deeply about their countries' long-run reputations, this would be perfectly true.  In practice, however, most national leaders are too myopic to worry about the judgment of history.  So the Upper Hand Heuristic still works well.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
happyjuggler0 writes:

I'm not sure that I agree with your postscript, but perhaps I am merely misunderstanding it. Or maybe I am simply disagreeing with what I perceive as a major framing issue, but we agree overall....

countries have a reputational incentive to act mercifully even when they don't have to.

[...]

In practice, however, most national leaders are too myopic to worry about the judgment of history. So the Upper Hand Heuristic still works well.

First I want to point out that countries and national leaders are not the same thing, yet you juxtapose them. This is not merely a pedantic quibble, it goes to the heart of the matter.

I would argue there is a quasi-permanent "national ethos"/"institutional structure" that leaders (in the US anyway, I wouldn't apply this to a banana republic) must adhere to, whether they like it or not. The US military simply would not let Obama or Bush or Clinton order a massacre of POW's (military or civilian) after "we" win a war against our combatants.

It is that institutional structure that matters when that structure is strong; head of state myopia in my US president example is thus moot. However it is the head of state and/or head of the military that matter when institutions are weak. In the latter case, history will give you a crap shoot when it comes to deciding whether or not to surrender.

Ashton writes:

Do we trust a "gracious" country like America to act as it has in past instances? Simply because the sun has risen several, if not every conceivable time before, does that mean it will certainly rise tomorrow? No, because that doesn't follow. Though, the sun will most likely rise tomorrow.

Physicists have a better time measuring whether or not the sun will rise tomorrow, but there are no physical measurements for human inclination. So, how do we know America tomorrow will be gracious?

Acad Ronin writes:

Did you ever see the Peter Seller's movie, "The Mouse that Roared"? A small, European mini-state declares war on the US, intending to surrender immediately, and benefit from US magnanimity, but then has the misfortune to win.

Ted Levy writes:

To what extent, Bryan, might States, or people, with the upper hand and no IMMEDIATE benefits from being gracious or merciful do so, not out of true beneficence, but from Tit-for-Tat rationales, thinking of future interactions when the relative power may have changed?

Steve Sailer writes:

[Comment removed for policy violation. Email the webmaster@econlib.org. --Econlib Ed.]

Carl writes:

"The Mouse That Roared" ! Thanks for reminding me of that movie, Acad Ronin.
Steve, who isn't in over their head here, might I ask? And who decides which ones are in over their head and which ones aren't?

Fascinating post, Bryan.

"Do you want the terrible crimes of the American government to end? Then swallow your pride and surrender."

Easier said than done! Sure, it might be stupid from a tactical point-of-view to resist an overwhelming force like the U.S military. In the long run, they'll have their way & you won't be rid of them by killing soldiers now and then.

But the funny thing is, even though an individual Iraqi man does not own the whole country, it makes perfect sense that he would try to attack armed invaders of his homeland. As a pacifist you probably regard killing an American soldier in Iraq as immoral. I do, too.... but only intellectually. Where oh where is the seat of our moral sensations? The bowels? The kidneys? For example, my liver desires a prodigious, violent unified Iraqi resistance which kicks the military out & teaches the U.S government a lesson they'll never forget. It's probably best that we stick to organs above our neck though, right?

Perhaps social pressure explains the U.S government's relatvely good showing going by the Upper Hand Heuristic. Which probably explains the growth of secrect operations, stealth weaponry, assassinations, economic sanctions, puppet governments, and other forms of control instead of just good old-fashioned invasion. I think Rothbard once remarked jokingly that all conspiracy theories were true! By which he meant that given the esoteric, bamboozling camouflage the state wears to cloak its actions these days, we are left so utterly in the dark that any of these wacky things could be true. How the hell can you properly find your way in this jungle of ideology&propaganda?

DanZ writes:

"An odd corollary is that when a person treats us well, we cannot infer that they genuinely care about us."

Perhaps Bryan was reading Marx over the weekend.

"... individual A serves the need of individual B by means of the commodity a only in so far as and because individual B serves the need of individual A by means of the commodity b, and vice versa. Each serves the other in order to serve himself; each makes use of the other, reciprocally, as his means. ... [T]his reciprocity is a necessary fact, presupposed as natural precondition of exchange, but ... it is irrelevant to each of the two subjects in exchange [and] ... this reciprocity interests him only in so far as it satisfies his interest without reference to that of the other."

http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch05.htm

Matt C writes:

> Once you focus on magnitudes, pronounced pessimism about human nature is hard to maintain. Sure, there are some cases where people with the upper hand turn to slavery or even genocide. But these have long been rare, and keep getting rarer.

A strange thing to hear from the guy who put up the Museum of Communism.

I am glad that the last 30-40 years have not had any world wars and included fewer democidal atrocities than when Communism was in its heyday.

But considering that those years have come at the end of the bloodiest century in all human history, I think it's a bit, ah, blinkered, to use them to draw any optimistic conclusions about human nature.

I do not see how you can sustain a very optimistic attitude about human nature and the Upper Hand if you take a very long or global view.

An interesting question is what conditions are supporting the current (relatively) peaceful and humane behavior of nations, and if those conditions are stable. I would be content with a world of peaceful, reasonably prosperous, moderately demagogic and economically dirigiste welfare states if I thought it would last. Not sure it will, though.

MingoV writes:
... If X doesn't advance his narrow self-interest by treating Y well, yet treats Y well nonetheless, we discover that deep down, X really cares about Y.
That doesn't follow. Most people do not care for someone they know only superficially. Yet person X often is friendly, courteous, and respectful to barely known (or just met) person Y. Caring doesn't come into play. There are selfish reasons for X's good treatment of Y: the desire for reciprocity (the Golden Rule), maintaining good will that will help with future encounters with Y, establishing a reputation that makes it easier to deal with people who communicated with Y, etc.

The same is true for interactions between 'upper hand' X and Y. The possible benefits to person X from treating person Y poorly (blowing off steam, displaying one's power, getting a sick thrill from being a bully, etc.) will (for most Xs in good mental health) be outweighed by the benefits of treating Y well.

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