David R. Henderson  

Unintended Consequences of Intervention

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Many libertarian and conservative economists I know are good at pointing out the unintended, and usually negative, consequences of domestic government policy. But a smaller subset of these people seem willing to look at foreign policy with the same skeptical eye. As I have written elsewhere [gated], they should be even more skeptical when looking at foreign policy, for two reasons:
1. The information problem: It's often hard for citizens to get information about the effects of government's actions on the domestic front. It's even harder for citizens to get information about the effects of their government's actions in other countries.
2. The incentive problem: One of the things that makes government domestic intervention less harmful than otherwise is that the politicians need to take account of voters. But the main victims of a government's foreign policy are usually not the people who live in the country that government governs. The main victims live in foreign countries--and they don't get to vote.

Steven Kinzer has an interesting piece laying out some of the harmful unintended consequences of the U.S. government's and other governments' intervention in Libya. Here's an excerpt:

Under the regime of Moammar Khadafy, who was killed during the Libyan war, a portion of the army was made up of Tuaregs. They are a nomadic people whose traditional homeland is centered in northern Mali. After Khadafy was deposed, they went home -- armed with potent weaponry they brought from Libya. Seeking to press their case for a homeland in Mali, they quickly overran the lightly armed Malian army.

Into this upheaval stepped another group, shaped not by ethnicity but by devotion to an extreme form of Islam. It has attracted Al Qaeda militants from many countries, including Nigeria, Pakistan, Somalia, and Algeria. They seek to create a pure Muslim state -- and are destroying mosques and Islamic monuments that they believe represent the wrong kind of Islam.

This is an emerging crisis that could engage the world for years. A vast region has fallen out of the control of central government and into the hands of violent radicals. They may cause far more death and suffering than Khadafy ever did.

Four officials in Washington pressed hard for intervention in Libya last year and managed to persuade President Obama that it was necessary to avoid a humanitarian disaster. When the four of them -- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Ambassador to the United Nation Susan Rice, and two staff members at the National Security Council, Samantha Power and Gayle Smith -- decided to lobby for this intervention, did they consider the possible consequences?


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COMMENTS (14 to date)
Ken B writes:

And yet it seems the elections there went pretty well.

Ken B writes:

I don't want to be too confrontational David, but I am always a little unhappy with the kind of abstract argument you give. Sometimes you perhaps don't need all the information. If the cubicle next to mine bursts into flame I am pulling the alarm first and asking if it's a beta test later.

But on to my example, chosen for its tendentiousness: How do your 2 points not apply to desegregating schools in Little Rock?

Jeff writes:

A "pure Muslim state" sounds like the 21st Century version of the "worker's paradise" that the socialists of the 20th century were intent on creating. And it figures to work about as well, too, at least if Iran is any example of what they have in mind.


Cliff Styles writes:

@ Ken B: I think David's point about unintended consequences, understood in the context of your fire alarm example, is that there is a non-zero probability when you pull the fire alarm that you set fire to the building next door?

Tracy W writes:

Kinzer attributes this to "the direct result of an episode that may at first seem unrelated: the US-led intervention in Libya last year."

Isn't this situation in Mali the direct result of the terrorists, and Tuaregs (based on the article)? Aren't they the ones that chose to overrun the Malian army?

And aren't the Muslim radicals the ones that are choosing to enforce pure Islamic rule?

If the Muslim radicals had chosen not to destroy buildings and enforce veils on women, does Kinzer believe that the US would have taken steps to ensure that they did so anyway? If not, how can he say that this is a direct result of the US government's intervention? Why pick on the intervention in this causal chain? Why not pick on the Libyan government as the one who directly caused the US government's intervention, and thus the Muslim radicals enforcing pure Islamic rule? Or whomever caused the Libyan government? Kinzer could work his way back through all of human history.

Would Kinzer hold a doctor responsible for the crimes committed by people whose lives were touched by the patients whose lives they saved? Say, a doctor saves a guy's life, so this guy takes a job which would otherwise have gone to a woman, so she starts up a small business and the competitive pressure from that puts a second guy out of business, so he takes to burglary, and Kinzer would attribute this burglary to the doctor?

It's a world view where only the West are the moral actors. Everyone else just responds.

Ken B writes:

@Cliff Styles: Actually I am beta testing that feature, but so far can only cause the building to smoulder. More long debugging sessions ahead.

:)

I'm not denying unintended consequences. I am also the least likely defender of Samantha Power you can imagine. But I don't really like arguments like DRH's in other contexts, so I am reluctant to embrace it here.

Plus it seems to be an argument about making changes, and can be turned around to point out that, well withdrawing now will have unintended consequences.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tracy W,
Kinzer attributes this to "the direct result of an episode that may at first seem unrelated: the US-led intervention in Libya last year."
Isn't this situation in Mali the direct result of the terrorists, and Tuaregs (based on the article)? Aren't they the ones that chose to overrun the Malian army?
And aren't the Muslim radicals the ones that are choosing to enforce pure Islamic rule?

That’s a very good point. I would have never stated it the way Kinzer did, and I should have pointed that out. Here’s how I would put it: The world is complex and when government A intervenes to accomplish what looks like a good goal, that intervention disturbs the equilibrium so that other people, sometimes bad guys, do something different--and bad. Government A didn’t “directly” cause it; but without government A’s action, there’s a good chance the bad thing would not have happened.

Nathan Smith writes:

I think hawks are happy to concede that foreign policy is ill-informed and has all sorts of unintended consequences, but it's still better to be liberated by an inept US than to live under Muammar Gadhafy or Saddam Hussein. By the way: "The main victims live in foreign countries--and they don't get to vote." Victims? You're assuming your conclusion there. Hawks think that, for example, Western Europeans are not victims of US foreign policy for being liberated from the Nazis, but on the contrary, beneficiaries. Maybe you disagree, but you need to argue the point.

Ken B writes:

DRH:

that intervention disturbs the equilibrium ...

That IS a better way to put it. But doesn't that walk into one of my objections above, that your two-pronged argument is really an argument for the status quo, not for or against intervention? After all our presence creates a new equilibirium but I doubt you would argue we should never withdraw!

David R. Henderson writes:

@Nathan Smith,
By the way: "The main victims live in foreign countries--and they don't get to vote." Victims? You're assuming your conclusion there. Hawks think that, for example, Western Europeans are not victims of US foreign policy for being liberated from the Nazis, but on the contrary, beneficiaries.
To say that the main victims live in foreign countries is not to say that all those, or even most of those, who live in foreign countries are victims. Do you see your logical error?

David R. Henderson writes:

@Ken B,
And yet it seems the elections there went pretty well.
I don’t understand the “yet.” To say that a policy had some of the good consequences that were intended is not to say that it didn’t have other unintended consequences. The post was about one of those consequences for another country, not for Libya.

Ken B writes:

@DRH:
OK, I concede 'yet' is a bit off. Your point is a good one, but I think will fall victim to my equilibrium point: that your abstract arguments are more about disturbing the status quo, which can happen when intervention ends. Should we refuse to withdraw because it might affect somewhere else like Mali? We should try to anticipate all consequences of course, but cannot rely on a precautionary principle.

Tracy W writes:

@Henderson: But, in your scenario, if government A hadn't intervened to accomplish their good goal, then there's a good chance that another bad thing would have happened (namely whatever government A was aiming to avoid by their intervention).

It's like the doctor who sets off a sequence of events by saving a guy's life. If she hadn't acted, there's a good chance the guy would have died. There's no reason to assume that in general the doctor not acting leads to a better world than the doctor acting.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Tracy W,
It's like the doctor who sets off a sequence of events by saving a guy's life. If she hadn't acted, there's a good chance the guy would have died. There's no reason to assume that in general the doctor not acting leads to a better world than the doctor acting.
I don’t think the analogy is a good one. The government uses force on people who clearly are not analogical to the patient in your analogy.
But let’s say your analogy is a good one. I agree with you that one shouldn’t assume. Nor did I. Rather, I derived it from standard reasoning about incentives and others and I have come up with lots of evidence for it.

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