Bryan Caplan  

Mandela: Reckless But Lucky

Colonialism and Anti-Coloniali... Henderson on Jonathan Macey...
I've heard ugly rumors about Nelson Mandela for years.  Was he a Communist - or a terrorist?  His recent death inspired me to learn more.  Alex Tabarrok nudged me to start with Mandela's autobiography, which presumably puts his career in the most favorable possible light.

By the standards of anti-colonial revolutionaries, Mandela comes off very well.  He writes no eulogies to murderous hatred, and voices no yearnings for collective revenge.  Yet I still have to condemn Mandela as criminally reckless man who knowingly played Russian roulette with forty million lives.  Here's how Mandela describes his successful campaign to move the African National Congress onto the path of violence:
This was a fateful step.  For fifty years, the ANC had treated nonviolence as a core principle, beyond question or debate.  Henceforth, the ANC would be a different kind of organization.  We were embarking on a new and more dangerous path, a path of organized violence, the results of which we did not and could not know.
Mandela is well-aware that in modern warfare, innocents routinely perish:
The killing of civilians was a tragic accident, and I felt a profound horror at the death toll.  But as disturbed as I was by these casualties, I knew that such accidents were the inevitable consequence of the decision to embark on a military struggle.  Human fallibility is always a part of war, and the price for it is always high.
Yet he never faces the obvious moral dilemma: Why on earth are you endangering innocent lives if you have no strong reason to believe the consequences will be very good?  Mandela's path is especially culpable because he was a voracious reader, but obsessed over a single political question: winning.  A typical passage:
I was candid and explained why I believed we had no choice but to turn to violence.  I used an old African expression: Sebatana ha se bokwe ka diatla (The attacks of the wild beast cannot be averted with only bare hands).  Moses [Kotane] was an old-line Communist, and I told him that his opposition was like that of the Communist Party in Cuba under Batista.  The party had insisted that the appropriate conditions had not yet arrived, and waited because they were simply following the textbook definitions of Lenin and Stalin.  Castro did not wait, he acted - and he triumphed.
Throughout his career, Mandela conspicuously ignores the mountain of historical evidence on the godawful overall consequences of violent revolution.  He doesn't just ignore the blood-soaked history of various Communist revolutions, decades earlier and continents away.  He also ignores the blood-soaked history of contemporary African independence movements.  (See here, here, and here for starters). 

Soon after turning to violence, Mandela covertly tours post-colonial Africa, looking for funding.  As far as I can tell, he fails to ask his hosts a single morally serious question.  Any of the following would qualify: "So, how did independence turn out?  What was the body count?  Have the people really been 'liberated'?  Or have the tyrants merely changed nationality?"  While I'm convinced that Mandela was never a Communist, his priorities were thoroughly Leninist: "The point of the uprising is the seizure of power; afterwards we will see what we can do with it."

You could say, "Mandela acted justly because he knew that, once in power, he would rule well."  This seems like a stretch given how little intellectual energy he put into peacetime policy analysis.  But even if Mandela knew that he would make an excellent president, he was far from sure to land the job.  He could easily have died of old age, or been shunted aside by a rival politician promising blood.  Or Mandela's buddies in the South African Communist Party could have taken advantage of the revolutionary situation to do what Communists do best: Stab their social democratic allies in the back and assume totalitarian power.

Toward the end of his autobiography, Mandela makes a striking admission: The ANC's turn to violence was about image, not results.  In 1990, the ANC weighed whether to suspend armed struggle.  Mandela:
... I defended the proposal, saying that the purpose of the armed struggle was always to bring the government to the negotiating table, and now we had done so...

This was a controversial move within the ANC.  Although MK [the armed branch of the ANC] was not active, the aura of the armed struggle had great meaning for many people.  Even when cited merely as a rhetorical device, the armed struggle was a sign that we were actively fighting the enemy.  As a result, it had a popularity out of proportion to what it had achieved on the ground.
So not only did Mandela resort to violence without any strong reason to believe it would lead to good consequences.  In hindsight, he wasn't even convinced that violence made much difference.  But on his own account, the idea of violence had great appeal.  Imagine the horrors the ANC's glorification of bloodshed could have inspired if, say, Mandela had been assassinated by hard-line supporters of apartheid the day after his election.
Fortunately, Mandela was able to win without stepping over millions of corpses.  But he knowingly took this risk - and repeatedly pushed his luck.  He turned down a long list of reasonable compromises, hoping that the ruling regime would submit to his ultimatum: "One man, one vote - or civil war."  He romanticized violence to gain leverage, but never worried that this romance would turn ugly.  Does the fact that Mandela won his game of Russian roulette make his reckless tactics any more excusable?*

Needless to say, Mandela's opponents were awful, too.  But no one's nominating them for sainthood.  The harsh reality is that Mandela was a politician.  Like virtually all politicians, he measures up poorly against the standards of common decency.  Seek your heroes elsewhere.

* Was Mandela's course any more reckless than, say, George Washington's?  It's unclear - but that's another telling point against the American Revolution and its slaveholding philosophers of freedom

COMMENTS (23 to date)
Pajser writes:

Lets say John is in jail and he plans to spend five years reading and weightlifting. Not great, but not horrible either. Suddenly, big guy gave him unpleasant proposal, supported with threat. What should John do? Accept miserable life for while - or fight back and accept consequences? It depends, but this much can be said: if John decides to fight back, his decision is risky, maybe stupid, but it is morally better decision.

Back to South Africa. Who would be responsible if civil war erupted in South Africa? Two groups in clash - black people and white people. Mandela alone is just one man, who was powerful because black people supported his ideas. If they didn't he would be irrelevant. White people were unjust and used violent state institution. When black people decided to respond with violence, it was maybe stupid decision, but it was morally good decision.

Shane L writes:

Interesting and provocative as usual from Bryan.

I had a particular experience discussing Mandela on a history discussion forum recently. Many members had denounced him as an evil communist terrorist for ANC attacks. Yet these members did not share Bryan's moral aversion to war or even the targetting of civilians. They were eager admirers of Winston Churchill, who ordered the mass-murder of German civilians in bombing campaigns during World War II.

I reasoned that if they found Mandela's actions abhorrent, they must feel the same about Churchill. They did not like that!

Of course there was nothing unusual about their strange double standard. I have seen the same among far-left friends who would denounce Churchill and criticise nationalism, while celebrating the most brutal, bigoted, ethnic nationalist Irish terrorists - unelected and unsupported by the vast majority of people - perhaps because they are seen as attacking British imperialism, which is nonsense. Many times people are more moved by loyalty to their ideological team than by principle.

Eric Falkenstein writes:

The key to a political movement seems to be more its perception, that it embodies certain superior moral ideals, where superiority is defined as what people imagine will be popular in later generations. If you can sell that your violent fringe is merely defending itself or some higher ideal, it will be an asset and not a liability.

Christopher Chang writes:

Sane analysis of conflict requires game theoretic ideas. Pacifism passes the Kant's Categorical Imperative test--it's an equilibrium point--but unfortunately, it's an *unstable* equilibrium. It does not pass the Nash equilibrium test. Positive probabilities of retaliation against abuse are, sadly, often necessary to reduce abuse and maximize welfare in the long run.

But, you know what? Aside from possibly the footnote (and I'd need to do more historical research there), I don't actually see anything wrong with what Caplan has written about Mandela. I suppose an actual lesson of Mandela's life is that it's possible to get very lucky after making some very wrong decisions. (He still deserves some credit for his behavior during the second chance, of course.)

This is not what I had expected to conclude when I started writing this comment. I admit I did not previously look closely at Mandela's life.

Jon Murphy writes:

Thank you for posting this. It's very relevant to me right now.

I am a pacifist and struggling with the question "when is violence acceptable in defense of rights?"

I am reading a great biography on Franklin Pierce (I highly recommend it. You can find it here, if you are interested. In the interest of full disclosure, the author is my neighbor and I am a member of the Pierce Brigade, and a portion of sales supports us, but I am not personally compensated for pitching the book). Frankie is very much a limited-government person and a strong believer in the non-aggression principle (this is not explicitly stated in the book, but how I interpret his actions).

Which brings me to my question. Frank was sympathetic to the abolitionist movement’s objectives. He did want to eliminate slavery, but he opposed their violent methods and strong rhetoric. He believed their actions were only increasing the sectorial tensions in the nation and threatening the Southerners, which would then make it more difficult to negotiate on non-slavery issues. Through the extremely unpopular Kansas-Nebraska Act, he tried to fend off the violent abolitionists while also resolving the slavery issue in the territories in a peaceful manner. We all know that wasn’t the end result.

So, here we have an issue of freedom (the enslavement of fellow humans) and two distinct methods of solving it: abolitionist rhetoric and violence and the “peacemaker” approach of Franklin Pierce. Which method is most in line with pacifism and protecting human rights? If I see a person being oppressed, do I have the right to intervene on their behalf violently? Should I seek a compromise or peaceful solution; one that could take years? If the oppressor refuses to negotiate (as is the case of the Southern states) is violence a justifiable response?

I remind Bryan that libertarians are not pacifists. We believe it is okay to use measured force in self defense, to stop transgression of our rights. Mandela was born into a war against him and all his race. He did not initiate the coercion; the coercion had already been initiated by European colonizers.

It is hard to know where to draw the line. Should libertarian purists condemn people who drive on government roads (who thereby accept stolen property)? Should we condemn Milton Friedman for accepting the state as it existed in his time, and accepting what that meant for his own approach? Should we condemn libertarian leaning Economics professors who accept paychecks funded with taxes?

Mandela was unfortunately ignorant of economics. For this I find a way to forgive him.

Mandela remains my hero for how he behaved himself. He was throughout a decent and compassionate human. He moved to peaceful cooperation as soon as the forceful repression of his people had ceased.

In addition to his autobiography, see the book by John Carlin Playing the Enemy and the movie Clint Eastwood made from it Invictus.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Richard O. Hammer

If I may pick a nit with your comment, I object to your statement "[L]ibertarians are not pacifists."

I object because it's unfair to make such an absolute statement. I am a libertarian and I am also a pacifist.

Richard O. Hammer writes:

@Jon Murphy
Thank you for the clarification. Libertarians are not pacifists by definition. The two words differ. I claim more understanding of "libertarian" than of "pacifist".

Yet I am surprised by your question "when is violence acceptable in defense of rights?" because I would have guessed your answer to be obvious: NEVER. I would gave guessed that a pacifist (as you identify yourself) would foreswear all use of force.

Jon Murphy writes:

@Richard O. Hammer

I suspect you are right. There are some pacifists who would foreswear all use of force. On a theological ground, I can understand that.

But it doesn't sit right with me. If I witness something that is in clear violation of human rights, say slavery, shouldn't I, as someone who resists violence, resist that?

I think a peaceful resolution should always be striven for. But where is the line where violence in preservation of rights becomes moral (if it ever does)?

Maybe I am not a strict pacifist, and my labeling is confusing the situation. It's something that I am thinking on.

Enial Cattesi writes:


When black people decided to respond with violence, it was maybe stupid decision, but it was morally good decision.

This is wrong on so many levels!!!

So murder is OK against innocent people as long it is done by the "oppressed"? Even better if the oppressed are some sanctioned "minority", like blacks?

And by what measure is this morally superior? It is because they fought white "capitalists"!

Pajser writes:
John Murphy: "I think a peaceful resolution should always be striven for. But where is the line where violence in preservation of rights becomes moral (if it ever does)?"

Thievery is non-violent crime. However, the system with private property requires that thievery is prevented by violence, even worse - that thief is imprisoned, and it is violence as well. It seems to me that all libertarians accepts that.

If one believes that it is moral to use violence for prevention and punishment of non-violent crime, it is reasonable to claim that it is moral to prevent or punish violent crimes by violent means as well.

For instance, it seems it is moral that black people (including Mandela) use violence to prevent unjust, and necessarily violent discrimination imposed by racist regimes.

Massimo writes:

"when is violence acceptable in defense of rights?"

This is a trade off between the rights of one group versus the rights of another and there is no universal answer.

Even the right to not be discriminated against by ethnicity is the inverse of the rights of others to choose who to exclude and associate with and form their "bubbles".

Even the system of racial apartheid: shouldn't the whites of South Africa have the freedom to form their "bubbles" and exclude other races in their communities in their small corner of the continent? Jews in Israel exclude others based on race, Arabs all over the Middle East blatantly exclude and terrorize others based on race or religion, blacks in Africa, particularly Zimbabwe expelled whites based on race. Even in the US, I've been to majority black neighborhoods in Newark, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Florida where blacks made it very clear that whites were not welcome. In the US, it's not officially written law, but white people know where they are not supposed to go, and are often physically threatened when they forget or test that.

@Shane L makes a great point. It's hard to develop moral judgments that are logically consistent and most people are wildly biased.

Love this post, btw!

Jon Murphy writes:


Thievery is a violent crime. It's a crime of violence against property.

Jon Murphy writes:

Continuing my thought above:

Even given that thievery is a violent crime, I do not think deadly violence, the kind you are talking about, is justified. If I catch the thief in my house, do I automatically get to blow his brains out? Of course not.

Furthermore, if innocents are likely to be harmed, does that justify violence? I'm not sure. It's the whole "kill a hundred to save a thousand" sort of thing.

I do not think violence of any kind can be considered "morally good." "Justified", perhaps, but not "good."

johnleemk writes:

One possibly important distinction between Mandela and Washington is that South African blacks were being subjected to much worse violence at the hands of their oppressor than the American colonists were in the 1770s. While I think many pacifists disavow even self-defence, I think those who believe in self-defence can coherent believe Mandela was justified in taking to violence, even if they reject the use of violence in other contexts.

BTW, there are some interesting parallels between Mandela and Kenya's Jomo Kenyatta. Both were seen as violent radicals by the white government which suppressed their respective movements and imprisoned them; both eventually came to power and totally confounded white expectations about their character and beliefs.

tom writes:

@ Christopher Chang

You are falsely assuming that a pacifist can not retaliate in any way, this is not true. A violent retaliation isn't the only option for creating a stable equilibrium.

Chris H writes:

@Richard Hammer

To understand what Bryan and probably most of the Econlog posters who call themselves pacifists mean by the term (myself included) here's an older entry on it:

Hazel Meade writes:

It seems as if there are many people who believe that Mandela was a pacifist and that he won through pacifist means.

This doesn't seem to be based on anything but a sort of assumption among the squishy liberal set. Mandela just blends together with Ghandi and Martin Luther King to them. They haven't actually studied anything about the ANC and their closest encounter with it was via anti-aparteid disinvestment movements on US college campuses.

John Thacker writes:

Probably a good idea that you linked to your comments on George Washington and the American Revolution, Bryan. Much more likely to get you dismissed as a consistent but misguided pacifist crank by people rather than have the worst assumed about you.

Pajser writes:

Jon Murphy, I checked few dozens of links, all says that theft is non-violent crime. See for instance,


Christopher Chang writes:


Can you clarify what you mean? There are plenty of specific scenarios where nonviolent strategies are fully viable, but pacifism is a more general claim than that.

(Rereading Chris H's link, though, it looks like Bryan is not a strict pacifist. He explicitly states that there are conditions under which he'd "break his principles", and that's good enough to establish the positive probabilities I mention, so his philosophical position is not prima facie silly.)

Massimo writes:


"South African blacks were being subjected to much worse violence at the hands of their oppressor than the American colonists were in the 1770s."

Is there evidence of this? Even a well known, violent terrorist like Mandela was given a fair trial and even with a full guilty conviction, he wasn't killed but was given a moderate and humane prison sentence, and set free.

The South African whites made many attempts to be reasonable and make peace with the blacks although they did want to remain separate but equal.

johnleemk writes:

"Is there evidence of this? Even a well known, violent terrorist like Mandela was given a fair trial and even with a full guilty conviction, he wasn't killed but was given a moderate and humane prison sentence, and set free."

There are questions about the fairness of the trial, and I think many would dispute your characterisation of his prison sentence as "moderate and humane". But let's not focus on Mandela, because you can't really extrapolate from a single data point. Look at all the laws passed to enforce apartheid -- how do they compare to the laws the British passed to oppress the colonists? See:

How did the British respond to the Boston Massacre? By prosecuting the responsible soldiers for manslaughter. How did the South African government respond to the Sharpeville massacre? By passing the Indemnity Act 1961 to indemnify the government and all its agents from any repercussion of the massacre.

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