Bryan Caplan  

A Question of War and Peace

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My favorite question from my latest Public Choice final exam:

"There are multitudes with an interest in peace, but they have no lobby to match those of the 'special interests' that may on occasion have an interest in war." (Olson, The Logic of Collective Action)

According to Olson, how should we expect foreign policy to respond to these facts?  Is he right?  Describe a simple way to empirically test Olson's story.
Your answers?  I'll honor the best responses and offer my own around Christmas.



COMMENTS (11 to date)
Alan Shields writes:

Diffuse costs, concentrated gains.

We should expect that most of the costs of war would not be widely felt by voters. We should expect wars where the cost becomes highly visible to become unpopular wars, to be ended in name (if not necessarily in fact) once so noticed.

We should find the pull of concentrated gains as indicated by regulatory capture (war decisionmakers being employed by war suppliers, etc) and funding for war providers continuing whether or not there is currently a war.

To distinguish from Irrational Voter Theory or (can't remember the term but the theory that political action is the will of the public as a whole), we should expect the median voter polled to be against the war, but not consider it a priority when voting. The median voter would also be only vaguely aware of the cost in money or lives. The median voter is probably unlikely to directly know anyone killed in any current war.

To distinguish from Rule of the Elite (uninformed voting is random, informed voting non-random) we should find knowledge of the war to be uncorrelated with voting preferences. Knowledge of the war measured in reasons for the war, costs of the war, and prosecution of the war.

JVA writes:

According to Olson - when 'special interests' want war they get one because they can easily outlobby multitudes that want peace. Therefore war could sometimes happen. Then whoever has had an interest in it is defined as having had 'special interests'. In cases where war does not happen we define that there were no 'special interests' outlobbying "multitudes with an interest in peace".

On a more serious note, what can we predict from this weaselspeak - "group A has less lobbying power than group B and group B may on occasion have an interest in C"? None of these A/B/C is clearly identified. There are all kinds of wars. Person X would support a war against Syria but would not support war against Russia or China. Does X have 'special interest' in war or is X one of "multitudes with an intereset in peace"?

kingstu writes:

My final answer is...

Peace sells but who's buying?

Philo writes:

Olson’s remark is purely qualitative; it fails to specify the magnitudes of the various interests involved. It implies that nations will go to war, and will pursue foreign policies that risk provoking war, more often or to a greater degree than is good for them as collective entities; but it does not say *how much* more often or to *how much* greater a degree.

There is no simple empirical test of Olson’s claim, partly because (as noted above) it fails to specify *how much*, mostly because it is counterfactual: to test it we would have to know, in every case where a nation went to war, how well off it would have been if it had not done so; also, in every case where a nation did not go to war, how well off it would have been if it had done so. (Testing the part about over-aggressive policies that merely risk war would be even more difficult.)

Joe Cushing writes:

We will end up with a system where the political candidates that talk about peace but actually do war get elected. We will end up at perpetual war with so called enemies nobody understands. There will be lots of propaganda to scare people into supporting these wars. We will sell and give away arms to people overseas and then fight wars against them after people forget that we supplied them with the arms they are using against us.

There may be false flag attacks at home to rev up the war machine and to take away rights from the people. If there is no false flag attack a real attack will be exploited for the same purpose. The fewer rights the people have, the easier it is go govern them. The government will spend more money than it can collect in taxes or borrow so it will print money until it can no longer pay gold for every unit of currency it printed. Then we will have a fiat currency that can only be defended by forcing every country on earth to use that currency to buy some valuable and concentrated good--like oil.

We will be at constant war with the suppliers of oil in order to force them to only except our, now worthless, currency in exchange for that oil and to force them to return that currency to the treasury in exchange for promises to pay the same worthless currency back to them. We will be in the business of constantly overturning and destabilizing governments of these oil nations. The government will never talk to the people about the truth of what the wars are about. There will always be propaganda to spread lies about the wars in order to gain support.

Eventually the government will become so overstretched that it will no longer be able to meet its obligations by printing. The currency and the government will collapse. There will be no food in stores for a period of about 90 days. There will be riots and a possible civil war as the currency and military empire collapses.

There will be a period of peace and and expansion of freedom and prosperity. A new government will form and become very powerful as it siphons off the productivity of the peaceful society. We will end up with a system where the political candidates that talk about peace but actually do war get elected....

Ken B writes:

In parliamentary systems minority governments should be more aggressive and less inclined to compromise in foreign disputes. The fragility of coalitions should amp up the influence of "war parties".

Seb writes:

A rationally ignorant majority might be lead to elect a president who claims to be anti-war but isn't; however that president would not be likely to get reelected, since the wars he'd go on to wage would be all over the news (since, under our assumption, very many people really care about peace), and people would pay attention to such news.

So I guess my answer would depend on whether the anti-war lobby has anything to offer the politicians that is worth more to them than getting reelected. It wouldn't make sense for their repayment to be in the form of campaign contributions for reelection then.

To test the story: We could poll voters to see whether people's anti-war attitudes are positively correlated with actual anti-war policies of the people they vote for. If so, this would be evidence against Olson's story. And of course we could poll people to see how multitudinous the anti-war folks really are, and we could try to track what pro-war lobbyists are really doing.

Joe Cushing writes:

Seb,

"A rationally ignorant majority might be lead to elect a president who claims to be anti-war but isn't; however that president would not be likely to get reelected,"

Not only would a rationally ignorant majority be lead to elect a waring president who claims to be anti-war but that president can continue to claim to be anti-war throughout his term, get the peace prize and get re-elected. This happened right under your nose and you don't seem to even know it.

Evan Truesdale writes:

Fundamentally, conflict boils down to the rule of M.I.R.E. (no pun intended when considering where America was said to be by the Media in reference to the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan of recent years, or Vietnam, or Russia in Afghanistan during the 80's). to mean that Money, Ideology, Resources, and Ego are the fundamental requirements that are needed to be met for one to kill another. Without meeting these requirements war cannot be wages for lack of reason. Think ancient Rome and mob rule, without consent of the public action cannot be taken - but the public can have the wool pulled over they eyes (why did Great Brtian fight the Falklands war... for strategic sheep purposes or to maintain a sense of empire for the reason that being an empire feels good on a national satisfaction scale?)

Furthermore, Olsen fails to quantify why the interested parties want 'peace' Suppose they are the Green Party (Germany, USA, wherever - at the core principles it doesn't really matter), what then? Do they oppose a war because of the ecological damage that depleted uranium rounds cause to the real estate of a battlefield (i.e. war is now bad) or are said DU rounds being used to defeat an opponent whose crimes against nature are so extreme that the use of such destructive (on both a long and immediate term) are validated (i.e. war is now a good, or, at least justified)?

On a related note: what of fiscal conservatives who oppose war because of the related costs? What if strategically important natural resources are on the line? Is access to drinking water worth killing a lot of people so that you don't have to import it? (authors note: Give it a couple more years, with the current population growth rate, when the cost of drinking water exceeds fuel in more places than Saudi Arabia, as it does now - then we'll see some truly spectacular violence). For those in power, the ability to claim that they are the providers of the absolute most basic necessities (think Maslow's hierarchy here) that darn well assures the electorate is (or at least the public in governments other than democratic) are behind you. Make everyday civilians have to shower once every two weeks in order to conserve drinkable water and they'll clamor for war.

But what about Ideology? The 21st century has been marked by the clash of civilizations - The West v. Islam. Faith has been a virtually unassailable bastion from which to call for the purgation of ones enemies as "by the blood of the lamb the sword is mine", scourge the heathens / heretics / infidels! Islam is fundamentally a religion of peace - but fundamentalist have no problem twisting the Qur'an fo their own purposes to call for death and purgation of those who don't believe the same way they do (authors note: I picked Islam because I'm sitting in Turkey, a 98% Islamic country as I write this, Catholics have done the same plenty of times, such as the Crusades where the Pope said slaughtering as many Muslims as possible in the shortest amount of time possible was an idea more beautiful than this seasons latest Armani 3-piece suit).

In the end the 'peace mongers' only need to be given the proper impetuous to call for blood. Given the circumstances and motivation, the dove will grow talons. Look to the days following "the day that will live in infamy" the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and September 11th 2001, There the nation was more than happy to "Let slip and let loose the dogs of war." Peace is merely a measure of time between violence.

Test question complete.

Authors note: I'm assuming this was an essay, rather than short answer question and it took me roughly 30min to write while sitting in a busy bar in Istanbul. In the interest of keeping to the timed standard of tests I'm submitting this as-is, minus editing and peer review, integrity is one of the Army Values after all.

As personal sidebar I'd say the clash of civilizations as Dr. Samuel Huntington refers to it actual began many centuries preceding the post-cold war and that Islam and the Christian centric west have been at ends ever since 632 C.E. when the prophet Mohammed died and the Qur'an was effectively completed and the institution of Islam arose. But that's an argument or at least a diatribe for another day.

Philo writes:

I really think Olson’s thesis is true *a priori*; it needs no empirical test (fortunately, since, I claimed above, it is susceptible of none). Wars are destructive—certainly in the short run, almost certainly even in the long run. They occur only through some failure of public choice. It is a gross understatement to say, as Olson does: “There are multitudes with an interest in peace . . .”; people *taken as a collective whole* are better off without war. If the interests of *the people* ruled, war would be extraordinarily rare, occurring only when the two sides had such different information available to them that each side reasonably expected to benefit from the war. So wars deliberately entered into must be serving the interests of groups narrower than *the people* as a whole, a.k.a. “special interests.”

Seb writes:

Hi Joe

"Not only would a rationally ignorant majority be lead to elect a waring president who claims to be anti-war but that president can continue to claim to be anti-war throughout his term, get the peace prize and get re-elected. This happened right under your nose and you don't seem to even know it."

The evidence is on your side here IF you assume that a sufficiently large portion of the electorate is really (sufficiently) anti-war. I'm not convinced that that's the case. My current take is that Obama's reelection (as well as the fact that Mitt Romney isn't any less pro-war than Obama) is testament to the fact that the electorate, overall, is really rather okay with war.

In fact, I've been wanting to amend my previous answer to say that I don't think it's actually very plausible that a pro-war candidate who claims to be anti-war would be elected in the first place; or if he would, then I don't think "rational ignorance" would be a good explanation. Just imagine that the electorate at large cared as much about the peacefulness of presidential candidates as they currently care about whether those candidates are loyal to their wives, have ever done drugs, have great hair, are devoted to their faith, were born in America, etc. Under that assumption, I would think that any sign that candidates' anti-war rhetoric was hypocritical would be loudly divulged by the media and avidly taken in by the electorate. Since there would likely be a considerable probability that such candidates never get caught being thusly hypocritical, the electorate would have to respond to this by making their punishment of those who do get caught disproportionately harsh (and I think the electorate does have power to lastingly ruin the reputation of figures as public as presidential candidates). Again, just imagine the possibility of such hypocrisy being treated with as much hysteria as the possibility that a candidate may have cheated on his wife, may have done drugs, may have been born in Kenya...

All the public choice theory I know I've learned from Bryan (mainly from the online version of his courses), and one thing I've taken away from it is that democracy generally really does lead to policies that are popular with the electorate, rather than the electorate being tricked by cunning politicians into accepting policies that most of them don't like.

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