Bryan Caplan  

Pacifism in 4 Easy Steps

Open Borders in 4 Easy Steps... Does Conflict Immigrate?...

As I said, this morning's Students for Liberty debate was a double-header.  Here's my two minute opening statement for Topic #2: War.

Pacifism in 4 Steps

 1.      In the modern world, there are no wars of "self-defense."  War today inevitably means deliberately or at least recklessly killing many innocent civilians.  This creates a strong moral presumption against war. 

 2.      To overcome this presumption, you'd have to show that long-run benefits of a war are so wonderful than they clearly overshadow its grisly short-run costs.  And you'd have to show that there isn't any cheaper, more humane way to obtain these benefits.

 3.      In practice, predicting the consequences of war is extremely difficult.  Expert predictions are barely better than chance.  "It's complicated" is not a good enough reason to deliberately or recklessly kill many innocent people.

 4.      There are much cheaper, more humane ways to attain the alleged humanitarian benefits of war.  First and foremost: free immigration, so desperate people always have someplace to start a new life.

COMMENTS (16 to date)
Pave Low John writes:

John Stuart Mill has already written the best answer I ever saw to this question.

"War is an ugly thing, but not the ugliest of things. The decayed and degraded state of moral and patriotic feeling which thinks that nothing is worth war is much worse. The person who has nothing for which he is willing to fight, nothing which is more important than his own personal safety, is a miserable creature and has no chance of being free unless made and kept so by the exertions of better men than himself."

War isn't about trying to be humane or kind or even fair. It's about national interests. If you are interested in the human costs of not doing something militarily necessary, call up the families of the people killed on 9/11 and ask them if they think it would have been horrible to have killed or captured Bin Laden back in 1997 when he was in Sudan or in 1999 when we had him in our sights at his compound south of Kandahar. Think of the thousands of lives and billions of dollars we could have saved if Bill Clinton had possessed the balls to order JSOC and/or the CIA to kill bin Laden back when he was blowing up the USS Cole and embassies in Africa. I was in USSOCOM at the time, we were all getting intel briefs on how dangerous bin Laden and Al Qaeda really were. Every knew we needed to do something but we just sat on our asses and waited for the worst. We had all the information necessary and we blew it.

But at least we didn't put any "innocent" people in danger by taking care of the problem back then, right?

Nickolaus writes:


That's a nice try, especially with the emotional appeal and all, but am I supposed to really believe that if we had captured or killed Bin Laden prior to 9/11 that terrorism would have ceased to exist? If not the WTC, isn't it likely that some other major terrorist event would have occurred? We're only talking about just one guy who happened to have a killer beard.

Carl writes:

Let's say that we have two societies. One is warlike, the other fully embraces pacifism. What happens?

roystgnr writes:

As a microcosm of the global problem: does this debate have security provided by a sufficient number of non-pacifists? If not, "I'll stop hitting you when you concede" would be a winning argument.

I can't argue with Caplan's point #1, though.

Andujar Cedeno writes:

Reading the 4 steps convinced me that pacifists are destined to see their bloodlines die out.

Pave Low John writes:

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Brad D writes:

Over the past decade, it's estimated that several million people have died from starvation in N. Korea. Dying from starvation is an ugly, wretched wasting away.

The N. Korean people cannot leave their country. If they escape, any family that remains is imprisoned, often for life.

If the Kim family had been forcibly removed from power ten years ago, would the people of N. Korea be better off today?

Tracy W writes:

Point 1 is an excellent argument against starting a war. But obviously occasionally people start wars anyway. To get to pacifism, you not merely have to explain that it's a morally bad idea to start wars, but also that it's a morally bad idea to do anything in response to a war started against you other than surrender.

And, as for it being a good thing to do things other than surrender, the cases of the Moriori (nearly wiped out by the Maori, and some of my own ancestors were amongst the aggressors), and the Slavs in WWII (the Nazis were planning genocide of the Slavs once they were finished killing Jews) are about as strong I think as examples of the dangers of pacifism as one can get.

Ken B writes:


In the modern world, there are no wars of "self-defense."

As the Tutsis found to their cost. On the other hand, the Bosnians and Kuwaitis found otherwise.

Hugh writes:
In the modern world, there are no wars of "self-defense."

August 2, 1990 - Iraq invades Kuwait.

Is that not a traditional war that took place in the modern world? If not, why not? No iPhones?

(I agree the self-defense wasn't up to much, but that's hardly the point).

Daublin writes:

It's a strong argument with regardings to what is being called "war" nowadays. Namely, sending troops and missiles to another part of the globe to destroy some stuff and somehow, mysteriously, making things better.

However, the use of the word "war" is leading people's minds to a different kind of scenario, more like World War II, where sovereigns are trying to assume control of more territory. In cases like that, your step 2 falls down. When Germany is at your border, you are pretty sure that not fighting is going to go very very badly. It's worth a try to fight back.

MikeDC writes:

Realistically, "war" is neither just sending troops and missiles nor territorial acquisitions by sovereigns.

Perhaps because most of us are Americans and those are our experiences, we'd do better to distance ourselves from them and look at the conflicts being fought elsewhere around the world.

For instance, what's the pacifists advice to folks in Yugoslavia circa 1991-1999?

If you were a Bosnian Muslim in the mid-1990s, for instance, it's well enough to tell the Western Europeans they should let you in, but what are you supposed to do for yourself if they don't?

In a nutshell, the problem of war is the problem of dealing with the aggressive and irrational. But on a group basis rather than an individual basis.

Chris H writes:


Let's say that we have two societies. One is warlike, the other fully embraces pacifism. What happens?

Depends, though the few imperfect cases we actually have to look at don't tend to look that badly for a case for pacifism. One of these cases is Switzerland in World War 2. The Swiss hadn't fought a war in a century, were completely surrounded by Germany and it's allies, never took any aggressive action, and made it through without a scratch. Now you might object that Switzerland maintained a military and would have fought if invaded, but that isn't incompatible with pacifism as Bryan has previously defined it. If one maintains a military and then never uses it, I don't see any reason why we can't call that a kind of pacifism.

But let's not generalize when we can ask could most of the developed world become effectively pacifistic tomorrow? I see no reason why not. For instance, the idea of a war in Europe (outside the Balkans perhaps) seems remote in the extreme. European states are either allies, too small to be military threats to their neighbors, or both. Even Russia isn't that credible a threat given that invading Georgia was taxing on Russian military resources. An invasion of the EU would likely be repulsed even without US support (not to mention the UK and France retain nuclear deterrence). Thus Europe faces little probability of invasion unless it acts aggressively itself. Effective pacifism would be easy there. The same holds true for the United States which could certainly couple that with massive reductions in the armed forces (especially the Army and Marines though I find it doubtful that the US needs 14 aircraft carriers for defensive purposes). Canada and Mexico are friendly and invasion by sea is highly unlikely even with large military cuts.

For defense against terrorism, we know that terrorists assert, and that there is little reason to doubt their sincerity, that military interventions inform their targeting strategies. Ending overseas military interventions could thus be a very cheap way to reduce foreign terrorist threats to Western nations. By any standard for self-defense, a peaceful deterrence strategy seems to work as well as or better than preventative wars.

For reducing tyranny, Bosnia is a decent example, Rwanda perhaps less so because of the speed of the genocide (French troops who did deploy to parts of the country for instance often arrived after the Tutsis had been killed or driven out, though a more conspiratorial view might argue that was the point). Finally freeing Kuwait from Iraq did not clearly lead to more benefits than problems given the brutally put-down uprisings it incited (killing between 80,000 and 230,000 Iraqis mostly civilians) and even if the intervention had been compounded with a full take over of Iraq the result might have been what we see today (heavy instability and a regime that isn't exactly a paragon of human rights). The unpredictability of the results of these actions is an argument against undertaking them. Even in Libya today we're seeing a case where while the previous regime was clearly evil and tyrannical the result has been rather unstable and even helped cause problems in surrounding countries (Mali in particular). Unpredictability should create a high barrier of presumption against those wanting to use military intervention to end tyranny.

roystgnr writes:

If it wouldn't be a violation of pacifism for Valais to send troops to repel an invasion of Zurich, why would it be a violation of pacifism for Valais and Zurich to send troops to repel an invasion of France, or for that matter for the United States to send troops to repel an invasion of Kuwait?

Chris H writes:

roystgnr asks:

If it wouldn't be a violation of pacifism for Valais to send troops to repel an invasion of Zurich, why would it be a violation of pacifism for Valais and Zurich to send troops to repel an invasion of France, or for that matter for the United States to send troops to repel an invasion of Kuwait?

My answer would be it would not be a violation, if Valais siding with Paris, Zurich, or Kuwait would help avoid war. The goal of pacifism is to end war. Deterrence is one (of potentially many) tools to do that. In general, the larger the group that one would attack, the greater the deterrence value. However, that is far too limited an approach to determining the proper size for any defensive coalition.

The first factor to consider is that there is something of a "sweet spot" when it comes to going to war. When one group is far weaker than another, war is unlikely. The stronger group typically does not feel threatened while the weaker group would be suicidal to attack. The worst case is when two groups are close in military power as both sides view the other as a potential threat. If Valais siding with Paris pushes Paris from being a weakling to a threat to Amsterdam, Valais' action has increased the threat of war and should not be considered pacifistic. On the other hand if siding with Zurich changes the power dynamic so that Zurich is significantly stronger than any potential aggressors, the likelihood of war has decreased and the action is pacifistic. There is an important caveat to this however. In some cases, making a particularly war-like side stronger simply makes them feel more secure in their aggressive actions. If Kuwait is known for bullying its neighbors or getting into provocative situations with them, Valais shouldn't side with Kuwait in order to not encourage them to be more aggressive.

Another problem is the issue of credibility. A deterrence only works if the other side thinks it might actually work. The government of Valais may just not be able to credibly state they will actually help defend Paris or Kuwait (either because of logistical issues, political concerns, or cultural differences) and this can lead to a very awkward situation. On the one hand, potential aggressors to Valais' allies might believe Valais' promise of help is a sham and thereby attack. At the same time Valais might still feel compelled to join in, to maintain credibility. The end result is a larger war than what would have happened if Valais had never made the deal. The modern nation state mostly avoids those credibility problems and that is one advantage to keeping foreign policy without many overseas alliances (though very strong alliances like NATO might be almost as good).

Finally, if terrorism is a significant concern that can also put limits on these kinds of defensive deterrence-oriented alliances. If the people of Kuwait disagree with the government of Kuwait's alliance with Valais, one possible response is terrorist actions. This type of situation seems most likely in more autocratic states with large cultural differences. Thus the pacifist case for deterrence is one that is based on the particular circumstances in a situation and whether the result is likely to be fewer and smaller wars or not.

Of course, given how tricky deterrence can be, and the potential for poorly done deterrence to actually increase warfare, an even better option (possibly to be done at the same time) is to maintain a very open society and economy so that there is little point in invasion to begin with. Keeping trade and immigration barriers low (or preferably effectively non-existent) makes potential war-starting problems like "those people have land/resources my people want" moot. Enabling free trade and movement should keep all but the occassional crazy meglomaniacs from invading, and smart deterrence should handle that. Policies of military intervention or overstretched/poorly thought out deterrence systems. For a country like the United States I see no reason why this couldn't lead to peace at least as long lasting as Switzerland has managed.

Jake Shannon writes:

Wouldn't psychopathy render pacifism untenable? Best to be a pacifist that will punch you back, best to be libertarian, no? (Tit for tat in the Axelrod sense...)

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