Bryan Caplan  

A Question of War and Peace: Some Answers

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Before Christmas, I asked EconLog readers for responses to the following test question:
"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.
Joe Cushing and Seb offered my favorite answers in the comments.  My preferred answer:

On Olson's theory, we should expect democracies to frequently engage in unpopular wars that enrich the for-profit defense industry and engorge the military.  The silent majority would largely agree with peace activists, but be too selfish and lazy to contribute money or time to their efforts. 

Olson is almost entirely mistaken.  Democracies engage in very few unpopular wars.  If you look at public opinion, a majority almost always supports wars when they're first declared.  Peace movements are largely comprised of left-wing fringe elements (plus the left wing of relatively left-wing mainstream parties when they're in the opposition). 

The simplest test of Olson's theory is to get public opinion data on a large number of wars and see whether a large fraction were unpopular.  You could also measure the average time that wars continue after public opinion turns against them.  On Olson's theory, you'd expect this figure to be years or even decades.



COMMENTS (12 to date)
Phil C. writes:

An empirical relationship has been demonstrated between public opinion and defense spending. In western nations, when public opinion supports higher military spending, spending rises the following year (lag reflects lead time for congressional appropriations); when public opinion supports lower military spending, it tends to fall.

See Thomas Hartley & Bruce Russett, ‘‘Public Opinion and the Common Defense: Who Governs Military Spending in the United States?’’, The American Political Science Review 86, no. 4 (1992): 905–915 and Robert Higgs & Anthony Kilduff, ‘‘Public Opinion: A Powerful Predictor of U.S. Defense Spending,’’ Defense Economics 4 (1993): 227–238. Their work was updated in Douglas A. Brook & Philip J. Candreva, "Business Management Reform in the Department of Defense in Anticipation of Declining Budgets" Public Budgeting & Finance, 27, no. 3 (2007), pp. 1-50.

Ken B writes:

Olson seems to be in trouble on some issues which are seen to be very highly morally charged. Abortion is one.

Eric Hosemann writes:

" The simplest test of Olson's theory is to get public opinion data on a large number of wars and see whethera large fraction were unpopular."

This can't be as simple as you suggest in a world of almost unlimited executive power. The very definition of war has been blurred beyond the public's ability to recognize it.

Chris H writes:

@Eric Hosemann

I'm not sure I buy that the public doesn't tend to recognize a war when it sees one. We haven't technically declared war on anyone since 1942 but the public still realizes we've fought a number of wars. People realize we bomb other countries, but distance (physical, intellectual, and emotional) combined with group pressure to not appear unpatriotic causes them to be more supportive of war than they otherwise would be. In this regard it wouldn't really matter if the wars were declared for that initial public support.

Ken B writes:

To second Chris H, Olson is himself talking about war de facto not de jure. You could not refute him by changing the constitution of one particular country.

Ted Levy writes:

What Bryan describes is, I think, a fairly recent--post WWII--phenomenon. If you took polls at the beginning of the Civil War or the War of 1812 or the Spanish American War or prior to American entry (Pearl Harbor) into WWII, I think you WOULD have had a majority in opposition. But since the end of WWII we've been on a generations-long constant-war-preparation mentality, and sentiments have thus changed. We are now at the point that you can no longer watch a movie in a theatre without seeing military ads during the pre-show, can no longer watch a major sports event on TV without seeing military jets fly overhead. So now we have a pro-war culture that begins to oppose war only when it drags on, rather than the anti-militaristic culture Ekirch described.

MingoV writes:

"We haven't technically declared war on anyone since 1942..."

The UN Security Council issued Resolution 678 that authorized the use of force against Iraq. President Bush requested and received approval from Congress for leading a coalition of military forces against Iraq based on the UN resolution. This combination of events is similar to what happened in Korea. The USA didn't declare war against a nation but used a nearly identical process to participate in a UN military action.

Alexei Sadeski writes:

This is really only oblique to Bryan's question, but I was wondering about it after watching Django Unchained:

Given that only a tiny handful of people in the south owned slaves, why was the Civil War so popular in the rebelling states?

M writes:

[Comment removed for supplying false email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Eric Hosemann writes:

@Chris H & Ken B:

The distinction between war de facto and war de jure is meaningless within a garrison state engaged in continual violence against its own citizens and foreign peoples. The American public, in grappling with the intentionally confusing propaganda term "War on Terror," has been conditioned to accept this state of affairs. This rhetorical sleight of hand allows the president to use the military however he pleases, and gives cover to congressional and judicial abdication of duty. My guess is the public are too busy untangling it to gauge any war's legitimacy. BTW I am no student of history but my guess is that this phenomenon has played out under all kinds of government, constitutional democracy or otherwise.

Ken B writes:

@Eric: but Olson's argument does not hinge on legal niceties is the point. You argued about the defintion of war being blurred after all. Call it "police action" and then sub in that for "war" in Olson.

As for history, it is quite clear small war parties often got their way in monarchies. Democracy is a big improvement here!

Philo writes:

On your accounting, Olson believed that each voter supported those collective actions that advanced his interests. Since war was against the interests of most voters, a democracy would fight a war only if its political process was hijacked by special interest groups who benefited from war. But actually voters often favor policies adverse to their interests; in fact, they often favor policies that *they know* are adverse to their interests. This lack of connection between attitudes and interests is due to the individual voter’s lack of control, or even significant influence, over collective decision-making. (His one vote is of negligible practical importance.)

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