Bryan Caplan  

The Weak-Willed Do-Gooder

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Imagine Smith sees a problem in the world.  He knows how to fix the problem.  He's got the resources to implement this remedy.  He sincerely wants to do good.  If he decides to fix the problem, is there any reason to worry that he'll make the problem worse?

Yes.  Perhaps Smith, though well-intentioned, lacks follow-through.  He routinely hatches big plans, then loses interest or focus half-way through.  He is, in a phrase, a weak-willed do-gooder.

What's so worrisome about weak-willed do-gooders?  Simple: For many problem, half-hearted solutions have worse consequences than leaving well enough alone.  This is obviously true on a purely selfish level.  Investing your life savings in a business, then walking away two months later, is much worse than parking your funds in a checking account. 

The same principle often holds for philanthropy.  Suppose a poor soul needs a time-sensitive series of surgical procedures.  Paying for step one, then skipping town, could easily be fatal for the patient.  On a larger scale, imagine giving an impoverished village half the stuff it need to modernize, then suddenly walking away.  Your "assistance" might lead them to drop their only source of livelihood before they have a viable alternative.

The most horrific example of weak-willed do-gooding, though, is probably "humanitarian" military intervention.  The U.S. invades a country like Iraq, toppling its totalitarian government.  If the U.S. were to stay until a free and prosperous society takes root, the war plausibly passes a cost-benefit test.  Unconvinced?  Compare North and South Korea, then try to tell yourself the Korean War was fruitless. 

Nowadays, though, the U.S. rarely packages its liberations with steely resolve.  Instead, modern American do-gooders spend a few years setting up a new and improved government, get bored, and walk away.  The result: Not freedom and prosperity, but civil war.

What's the right lesson to draw?  Hawks gravitate to the puritanical solution: "The U.S. has to become a strong-willed do-gooder.  Overthrow the dictatorship, then stay without hesitation until the job is done."  But this is wishful thinking.  Hawks are well-aware that the modern U.S. is weak-willed.  Until they figure out how to root out this vice, saying, "We'll solve our weakness of will after we win the war" is irresponsible.  Why?  Because given the current state of the American psyche, they should expect the policies they advocate to end badly.

You could protest, "But weakness of will is a notoriously hard vice to eliminate."  That's precisely my point.  If your humanitarian ambitions are going to predictably founder on the rocks of human ADHD, the true humanitarian stops before he starts.  Yes, this sounds worse than "Let's do our best, and see what happens."  But advocating what is better over what sounds better is the beginning of virtue.

COMMENTS (20 to date)
Chris Hallquist writes:

I agree with your bottom-line anti-invasion point, but do you really think it was a mistake to leave Iraq? The Iraqi government wanted us gone, and it's not clear how we were *ever* going to fix Iraq's problems. There was never a big anti-US insurgency in South Korea. The situation in Iraq was closer to Vietnam.

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Dan Hill writes:

"advocating what is better over what sounds better is the beginning of virtue."

Advocating what sounds better over what is better is the nature of politics.

It doesn't matter if a policy works, in fact it doesn't even matter if it is counter-productive, as long as you can spin it so it sounds good enough to get you elected. See minimum wage laws.

sam writes:

Bryan, What in your opinion has changed the direction of American's "will"? And isn't it in this case the will of the executive?

blsdaniel writes:

Two things;

First, we left the Syrians under the Assads alone, and I see little room for the belief that things ended any better for Syria than they did for Iraq. Quite the opposite, in fact: the latter has been facing a rebellion, the active phase of which has been going on for a few months; Syrian has been facing a full blown civil war for years.

Second, things are hardly over in Iraq. The government has suffered a humiliating defeat. The question now is, will Iraq's government take the necessary steps away from yet another strongman dictator in the form of Maliki and towards a government that can command the, at least marginal, loyalty of all of its citizen groups. It wasn't "over" after the surge and the Sunni awakening restored a semblance of quiet, and it's not over now.

Shane L writes:

I doubt it's about will alone: surely the Korean War, for example, was fought by the US because the government was afraid that spreading communism would threaten the US. There was a real chance that communists would take all of East Asia and then once again the US would have an unfriendly Pacific with Pearl Harbour looking vulnerable.

With Iraq, no such threat existed. There was no global Ba'ath ideology threatening to spread across Eurasia and the Americas. Hussein offered no attractive political or economic alternative and was only a fairly minor regional threat with his army that mostly collapsed in the face of invasion.

No wonder the Korean War was fought fiercely and the southern peninsula occupied for a long time, while the Iraq War has been followed by withdrawal. The national interest stakes aren't so high nowadays. Perhaps modern Americans are also less comfortable supporting a repressive autocracy as South Korea was for a long time; Iraq's failure to transform swiftly into a liberal democracy may have been demoralising when the interventionists had talked at length about bringing democracy and freedom to Iraq.

Here, by the way, is a remarkable interview with Dick Cheney from 2003, getting almost everything wrong about the upcoming war in Iraq:

Jameson writes:

I liked the build-up of this article.

Pajser writes:

Intervention in Iraq was justified with claim that Iraq had some chemical weapons. After chemical weapons were not found, one should conclude that aggression was started without just reason - and it is massive war crime. However, Americans didn't reacted consistently, and it indicates that some hidden motive existed, most likely well known one: self-interest. Then second explanation was offered: building democracy in Iraq. One should assume that it is not real reason for aggression either. That assumption can easily explain lack of persistence in building of democracy in Iraq; it is not weak will of good-doer, but lack of incentive of evil-doer to maintain credibility of the rationalization once it served its purpose.

I believe that some American interventions were justified (Kosovo and Libya, for instance), but I doubt that any intervention had introduction of democracy as motive. If democracy in foreign countries is value for Americans, it would be completely impossible that they organize or support putsches like they did many times.

Jeff writes:

Good stuff. To further your point, I would add that the line between rooting out weakness of will and indulging in the sunk cost fallacy is a very fine one. Is there an easy way to differentiate between the former and the latter?

MG writes:

One could build on this point further. Apply intelectually rigorous cost-benefit analysis to such do-good decisions.

They would keep well meaning hawks/bleeding hearts (depending on the nature of the intervention) from waging unsustainable wars (of all kinds). But they would also keep dogmatic libertarians from evading sensible opportunities to achieve narrow and quick victories -- especially when top-down intervention is really the only way to achieve the (narrow and quick) objective.

Churm Rincewind writes:

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TMC writes:

Chris, Iraq (publically) wanted us gone, but like Saint Augustine, not yet. The quick pull out was pretty stupid, and Iraq was not happy about it.

Shane, read the interview, seems to hold up better than I thought. We did overestimate the nuke portion, but this seems to show that was not the primary reason to go.

Navjot Kaur writes:

In the case of Iraq, U.S should have resisted the growing chorus of voices calling for military action in Iraq. First reason is because of the law of unintended consequences. Many of the loudest voices that called for the military action were the same people who helped launch the 2003 intervention in Iraq, which was basically one of the greatest policy disasters in U.S history. After hundreds of thousand American and Iraqi causalities and after several trillion dollars later, the bombing had no effect.
The second reason is that there is no military solution. It is difficult identify the target members of Islamic state in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and much of the civilian causalities that occurred in those urban areas were inevitable. So the result of the U.S bombing of the unnecessary suffering and death were seen as a propaganda victory for ISIS.
We can never fix Iraq's problem, until Iraq learns to solve its own problem and govern itself.

Daublin writes:

Chris, the Iraqi government probably wanted the U.S. to support it. Why wouldn't they? Whichever government the U.S. supports is the one that you want to be a part of.

Meanwhile, the Iraqi public, like Bryan Caplan, probably just wanted peace, and didn't care *that* much about who was nominally at the helm. I have little doubt they would accept peace and prosperity if the cost was having Americans supply enforcement costs for free. I'm certain thei wanted Hussein out; nobody really likes a president that is wiping out entire cities.

Bryan, I don't think it's so obvious that the U.S. was going to be weak-willed about Iraq. Hussein practiced genocide, legalized honor killings, removed women from all walks of public life including the government, and lived an extravagant lifestyle in plain sight of a poor and suffering populace. From Bush's perspective, the regime change in Iraq probably appeared likely to be a popular move. Handled by a different president, I suspect it would have been.

sourcreamus writes:

What Vietnam and the Iraq war showed is that America can not be outfought but it definetly can be outlasted. WW2 took less than four years and the Korean War lasted 3. They both had many more casualties but they lasted a relatively short period. Our electorate is too rich and too impatient to support a war that stretches out over more than four or five years. The problem is that our enemies know this and plan accordingly. Some parts of America still believe in the "pay any price, bear any burden" vision of a country that no longer exists. Our military plans need to reflect the new reality.

Jeffrey Rae writes:

Sourcreamus has observed that:

'What Vietnam and the Iraq war showed is that America can not be outfought but it definetly [sic] can be outlasted. WW2 took less than four years and the Korean War lasted 3 [years].'

I don't mean to sound like a pedant but I should point out that for most of the countries involved it took six years (having started in Poland in September 1939 and not at Pearl Harbour in December 1941).

Moreover, while US participation in WW2 was essential to the Allied victory, it was not sufficient. Britain and the Commonwealth stopped Hitler from invading the British isles, which then became the base for the bomber offensive, North Africa, Italy and D-Day. In the meantime, the Russians bled the Wermacht of its best in the East.

A good case can be made that the Germans had passed the zenith of their strategic gains just before the US entered WW2, when they failed to take Moscow before winter set in at the end of 1941. It was then only a question of how long it would take the Allies to wind back their strategic gains.

And we probably also have to thank Herr Hitler for having the foresight to declare war on the US after Pearl Harbour, when it made no strategic sense but ensured that the US would have to fight both Japan and Germany.

Shane L writes:

TMC, Hussein did not have meaningful links with Al Qaeda, but now Al Qaeda or splinters organisations dominate large sections of Iraq. Cheney predicted that Americans would be greeted as liberators; instead there was a horrific war against the US and the new Iraqi government, killing hundreds of thousands of people. Cheney said the Sunni, Shia and Kurds would all get on fine because they consider themselves Iraqi first; instead Kurds are pushing for independence and Sunni and Shia are locked in desperate, bloody conflict. The weapons of mass destruction didn't exist. All very incorrect and naive.

Miguel Madeira writes:

"Hussein [...] legalized honor killings, removed women from all walks of public life including the government"

Since when? AFAIK, the Baathist Iraq was a very secular government and probably one of arab countries where women had more independence. I suspect that you are mixing the two fronts of the war, Iraq and Afganistan (where indeed the Taliban "removed women from all walks of public life")

RH writes:
First, we left the Syrians under the Assads alone, and I see little room for the belief that things ended any better for Syria than they did for Iraq.

We didn't leave Syria alone. We gave weapons to the opposition and hope of an intervention or greater assistance at some point. We also stopped recognizing the regime they were fighting and put major sanctions on it. If America had done nothing, the government probably would have put down the rebellion brutally, but the vast majority of citizens would've been better off.

Fonzy Shazam writes:

Very good post. One quibble: there is nothing "modern" about the weak willingness. I don't think there is a single counter example. The only success stories of American occupation after war are Germany, Italy, and Japan. These weren't successes because of strong will; they were happenstance due to cultural and economic factors in the underlying countries.

Floccina writes:

Sourcreamus I am against the wars but the USA military is still in Korea today. Further the War in Iraq was over in a few months it is the post war nation building project that was ended.

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