Bryan Caplan  

The Worst They Can Do

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All modern governments do terrible things during wartime.  Most deliberately murder innocents; the rest at least recklessly endanger innocents.  Morally speaking, all sides in any serious military conflict are led by war criminals.

Unfortunately, however, these genuine insights often lead my fellow pacifists astray - and hinder the quest for peace.  The problem: People easily slide from the moral claim that "The people running government X are deliberately doing great evil" to the descriptive claim that "Negotiation with the people running government X is hopeless."  When we're talking about modern governments, the two claims have little connection. 

How is that possible?  Suppose government X bombs one village in your country, killing a hundred innocents.  Before you spurn negotiation, you ought to ask, "How does what X did compare with the worst X can do?"  If government X had enough firepower to level a hundred villages, the fact that they only destroyed one village raises a big question: How come they only did 1% of the evil that was in their power?

There are many possible answers.  Maybe they're saving their bombs for other victims.  Maybe they're trying to trick you into surrendering, so they can commit atrocities at their leisure.  Etc.  But the most obvious explanation is, "They feel at least a little bit guilty about killing innocents, so they're trying to kill the minimum number necessary to achieve their war aims." 

Morally speaking, that's a crummy excuse.  Pragmatically speaking, however, it's a great opportunity.  It's a chance to calm down and ask, "What exactly are X's war aims?"  "Would giving in to their demands really be so bad?"  "Would they settle for a bit less?"  Etc.  These seem like naive questions... until you compare what your enemy is doing to the worst your enemy can do.

Hawkish Americans should actually welcome these observations.  Since the end of World War II, the United States has plainly not done the worst that it could do.  Not even close.  Imagine how much the U.S. could have extorted by using its four-year nuclear monopoly to the hilt.  Picture what U.S. occupation forces could have done to the Communist Parties of France and Italy.  Think how easy it would have been for the U.S. to assume control of the British, French, Dutch, and Japanese Empires if it had been willing to summarily execute anti-colonial activists.  The fact that the U.S. government killed a few million innocent people rather than a billion is, to put it mildly, damning with faint praise.  But it strongly suggests that even abjectly appeasing the United States was not only livable, but preferable to the Cold War that actually happened.

Of course, some sides do approach the worst they can do.  Yes, the Nazis.  But focusing on the ratio of actual to potential evil-doing remains a powerful pacifist heuristic.  Why?  Because, thanks to in-group bias, human beings readily rationalize their unrestrained evil-doing as the only non-suicidal response to their opponents' infinite evil.  And if the rationalizers honestly tested their infinite evil hypothesis by picturing the worst their enemies can do, they would often have to reject the hypothesis.  This would deprive them of their own lame excuse for limitless evil-doing.  This could in turn undermine hawkish arguments on the other side, potentially starting a virtuous spiral.  That's hardly a guarantee - but war is no guarantee either.

Pacifists, I'm dismayed to admit, have often apologized for totalitarian atrocities.  Critics could claim that my "worst they can do" heuristic is a thinly-veiled apology for Western atrocities.  They should give me the benefit of the doubt.  I'm not apologizing for anyone.  My claim is simple: Peace requires negotiation, and the mere fact that one side has done great evil does not show that negotiation is futile.  If you seek to weigh the viability of negotiation, it is far wiser to compare the ratio of actual to potential evil.  Peace-makers of all parties should spread the word.

COMMENTS (12 to date)
Matt Powers writes:

There is one big assumption to this argument: That the "evil government" is willing to negotiate. Both parties have to be willing to negotiate for any hope of success. I mean, unless your argument is merely that "negotiation isn't out of the equation yet", then I suppose your argument works fine.

J writes:


1) To pick a nit, during the US's four-year nuclear monopoly, we actually didn't really possess the technology to deliver a nuclear bomb to a Russian city, nor did we have enough nukes to make it worthwhile anyway. Besides, the US gov't knew other powers would have nukes before long, so it wouldn't exactly have been in the US's interest to go around turning future nuclear powers into mortal enemies by nuking them.

2) You really really really really really really really really need to read John Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. The sad truth is that great nations maximize their safety by maximizing their relative power. To take a well-known example, the Soviets stuck around in Eastern Europe because it maximized their safety. Both Napoleon and Hitler invaded Russia from the west, and taking over Eastern Europe was a way to provide against that happening again. It almost makes me laugh to think of you tapping Stalin on the shoulder and informing him that, actually it's immoral for his troops to be in Eastern Europe, and the dictates of objective morality compel him to go back home so the Polish can establish an anarcho-capitalist utopia.

Mico writes:

Where does innocence begin?

1. A terrorist.

2. A man who builds bombs for the terrorist, but does not plant them himself.

3. A man who builds bombs for a state government that uses them to kill civilians.

4. A man who builds components that are later used to build bombs for a state government that uses them to kill civilians.

5. A farmer, who produces food that goes to people who are building bombs for a state government that uses them to kill civilians.

6. A hairdresser, whose business is taxed to purchase bombs for a state government that uses them to kill civilians.

Unless the penalty for not having a job or paying your taxes is torture and death, who exactly is innocent in a war between states? And even to the extent those people may not be morally culpable, do they really have a right to immunity from attack given that they are lending material help to the war effort?

Libertarians seem to apply morality consistently to states in war ("You can't kill people except in self-defence."), but still accept the state's arbitrary legal distinctions when applied to those within them ("You can build bombs with impunity provided you're not wearing a uniform.").

What's the reason for this? Just a desire to agree with US Liberals on something?

Jameson writes:

Six is pretty obviously innocent. According to the description, the hairdresser didn't even consent to aiding the war. Five is *slightly* ambiguous, but it's kind of unreasonable to assign any real guilt. Four is slightly more ambiguous, and it seems like it depends on what uses these "components" have other than building bombs. Einstein, for instance, is not guilty for nuking Japan just because physics let to nuclear weapons.

So actually, in your spectrum, there is pretty clearly innocence somewhere (6) and probably innocence about half-way through. I'm not sure why you thought this was such a "gotcha" example.

One way to think of it might be that libertarians tend to morally judge people based on their marginal contribution to harming other people. So, the guy who gives the order to drop the bomb (e.g. the POTUS) is probably the most culpable, since his order makes the difference between bomb and no bomb, and there is no one else who can give that order. You might argue that the soldiers who actually drop the bomb are even more culpable, but that's not true: soldiers are both under compulsion and expendable, we can find others who are willing to follow orders, and thus the contribution of the soldiers who just carries out orders really is demonstrably less than the one who gave the orders. Carry this principle down to the guy making components which could potentially become bombs and you're looking at someone who's practically innocent, even if there might be a tiny measure of guilt.

Pajser writes:

I agree with Mico; all adult, mentally healthy citizens, not only governments are responsible for war crimes. Even if they dissent openly and vigorously, like Chomsky, they still have their share of responsibility. One must leave the country, even stop every trade with criminal country in case - not to be responsible.

The main claim that enemies are less evil than Satan is right. It is well accepted, Jesus advocated unconditional love toward enemies. But it doesn't hurt to remind.

If one wants to change people mind, resistance is beneficial. Ordinary citizens do not care about war crimes in distant countries. They pretend they have more important things to do. If told about resistance, they start thinking "hey, it is our soldiers who die there, is it really necessary?" Animals do not resist - and people kill and torture billions of them.

Jeff writes:

Making concessions in order to avoid potential violence seems like a great way to encourage further aggression. Sure,your enemies might accept something less than 100% of what they seek now in exchange for ending the conflict, but if the terms are too generous, they will be tempted to come back for more.

Example: does anyone think a land for peace deal in Israel would actually end the conflict there?

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

Another reason why many governments don't "do their worst" is because they fear retaliation in kind.

Good example: Little use of poison gas in World War - except against populations that could not retaliate (Nazi concentration camps and in Japanese atrocities in China).

Alex Nowrasteh writes:

About above comment, I meant "World War II"

TMC writes:

How did this all work out for Chamberlin?

Pajser writes:

Mico: "Libertarians seem to apply morality consistently to states in war ... but still accept the state's arbitrary legal distinctions ... What's the reason for this?"

The populism, I guess. The libertarians get better reactions if they attack privileged group (the government) instead of collectivity (the state, the nation, the country) which is more accurate to the intended meaning but still triggers some positive emotions.

MingoV writes:
Peace requires negotiation
Peace has been achieved via unconditional surrender. That is not negotiation. Peace has been achieved via slaughter or slaughter and enslavement of the entire enemy population. Nuclear weapons, and, perhaps, biological weapons, can achieve complete slaughter of a billion people within an enemy nation. No negotiation required.
Mico writes:

Jameson: The US would certainly convict someone who knowingly supplied bomb components to a terrorist, and I don't think a reasonable person would regard them as "practically innocent" and a victim of injustice.

So if the libertarian view of war is to ignore state fictions and treat all actions as we would those of private individuals doing the same thing, I don't see a whole lot of people who have any real claim to immunity from attack in inter-state wars. The majority of small children, the profoundly disabled, and the elderly perhaps.

In that case dropping a bomb on a city block isn't *mostly* hitting illegitimate targets to get a few legitimate ones; it's *mostly* hitting legitimate targets, and also some illegitimate ones. The libertarian view should be that Dresden and Hiroshima were legitimate: almost everyone killed was materially contributing to the war effort and making no serious effort to avoid doing so.

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