David R. Henderson  

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on War and Presidential Success

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Charitable Arbitrage... I Dream of Repentance...

Over at EconTalk, Russ Roberts has an interesting interview with political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the incentives that U.S. presidents have had to get their country into war. It tracks a lot of the same territory that Zachary Gochenour and I covered in our "War and Presidential Greatness." In it, we showed that, even correcting for the obvious other variables, there is a strong positive relationship between the percent of his own people killed in his wars and the "greatness" ranking that historians give a U.S. president. Bueno de Mesquita talks about this but focuses on something else that is even more important to a given president: getting reelected.

His stories about Lincoln, some of which I knew, are fascinating.

His stories about George Washington, none of which I knew, are even more fascinating. Bueno de Mesquita claims, quite plausibly, that a huge part of George Washington's motive for fighting the Revolutionary War was to protect his substantial, and critically placed, landholdings in the Ohio Valley. I'm not saying that I agree with him, but his story made me realize that a large part of my belief in GW is romantic: because I learned about him so early in life, that romantic view is harder to shake and I've been less willing to put GW under the public choice microscope than with any current or recent president.

An excerpt about GW's wealth:

His last position, just before becoming President, was President of the Patowmack Canal Company--the Potomac Canal, as we know it, from the Potomac River. What that canal did was bring, make it possible to bring produce from the Shenandoah Valley--which George owned--up to the port in Alexandria, which had been built by Lawrence, by the Ohio Valley Company, in which George had a direct interest, and shipped goods out. So it was a very profitable undertaking--or so he thought it would be, in the long run, for him. And that's what motivated him. Most people think of Washington as--besides a great hero, which he certainly was--as kind of a gentleman farmer. Economists have estimated the worth in real dollars adjusted for inflation, not appreciated, of George Washington's estate, in contemporary terms; and it's about $20 billion dollars. He is by far the wealthiest President. He is the 59th wealthiest person in American history. Three of the American founding fathers are in the list of the top 100 wealthiest Americans in all of history: Hancock, who was wealthier than Washington--made his money smuggling; and Ben Franklin, who was not quite as wealthy, who made his money because he had a monopoly on the printing press. These are the folks who led the Revolution. These were not the downtrodden. These were not the oppressed. These were people who stood to lose huge amounts of wealth because of the King's policies. And so they fought a Revolution. Which was, by the way, not very popular. Sixty percent of the colonists either were neutral or opposed to the Revolution.

This reminds me, by the way, of co-blogger Bryan Caplan's argument (here and here) that the Thirteen Colonies would have been better off not fighting the Revolutionary War.

Bueno de Mesquita also points to the case of my native Canada, which avoided a revolutionary war:

The end of the chapter on Washington, just a little graph that shows, current best estimates available, of per capita income each year, in the colonies, and in Canada. And, Canada has some serious disadvantages, much worse weather, much less densely populated, and so forth. But they track very closely, during the time that George III is alive, they actually depart well after he dies in 1820. So, it doesn't look as if the colonists either did vastly better once they got rid of the English; or the Canadians did particularly badly when they kept the English--because they didn't get their independence till 1860. [DRH correction: 1867, although that doesn't matter much. Also, Canadians got their independence in stages, with the final stage being in 1981, I believe.] So this is not much evidence for this claim of tyranny. And they could have settled it.

There are a lot of other interesting nuggets in the piece.

One is Bueno de Mesquita's criticism of JFK. Although I've never written this, I've long believed that JFK could easily be our worst president because he was willing to risk nuclear war for his own political advantage. Although I was a supremely confident 11-year-old at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, thinking that no way would Kennedy risk killing his own family, I was wrong to be. He lucked out. An excerpt:

In JFK's case, he believed he would be impeached and he would lose the Democrats in the House if he did not take a tough stance against the Soviets. Even though, by his own estimates, the risk of nuclear war was one-third.

I shudder at that number. I had no idea that JFK himself put the probability of nuclear war as high as one third.

Overall, I was pleased to see Bueno de Mesquita take a non-romantic view of America's wars. The late James Buchanan defined public choice, which he helped create, as "politics without romance." Unfortunately, Jim, unlike his late colleague Gordon Tullock, was unwilling to look at war through the public choice lens. Bueno de Mesquita is.

My one little disappointment is that there was no mention of Woodrow Wilson's disastrous entry into World War I. That helped make the world safer for fascism and Naziism. But, so many bad presidents, so little time.


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CATEGORIES: Public Choice Theory




COMMENTS (18 to date)
JK Brown writes:

What is not addressed, in the interview at least, is that Canada gained its independence non-revolutionarily in large part because the United States had been the first mover. The American Revolution started out and was a part of another English civil war or a resumption of hostilities depending on viewpoint. The revolt prompted changes in England returning some of the liberties won by the colonists to the English subjects. Not to mention, having let the US go, it was harder to argue for a hardline opposing Canadian separation.

Had there not been the American Revolution, with the political changes in England that resulted, along with the example of the economic benefits to England of an independent former colony would the Canadian independence been so amicable?

David R. Henderson writes:

@JK Brown,
Good question.

Roger McKinney writes:
the Canadians did particularly badly when they kept the English--because they didn't get their independence till 1860.

That ignores the effect the US revolution had on British policies. Had the US not rebelled, they and the Canadians might have been much worse off as British policies grew worse. The US rebellion caused the British to change their policies toward colonies in order to prevent more rebellions.

It's similar to the effects of the Reformation on the Catholic church. Catholics owe a great debt to Protestants for forcing the Catholic Church to clean itself up.

I'm willing to accept that GW had multiple motivations as all people do, but my adult reading of the history shows that the financial aspect played a small role.

I agree that historians are war mongers and love the presidents who get the most people killed.

The problem with JFK is that he took a publicly "hard" stance toward the USSR, all the while negotiating in secret. He traded our radar sites in Turkey for removal of Soviet missiles.

Richard writes:

I find the Lincoln discussion very unconvincing. Around the 35 minute mark de Mesquita says that Lincoln didn't let the south secede because he wanted to go to war, which would help him win reelection. That would've taken an incredible level of foresight. I mean, people didn't start figuring out that war makes reelection more likely until pretty recently. And a lot can go wrong in war. Couldn't Lincoln have found a less risky and uncertain path to ensure his reelection?

Also, my understanding is that in the first inaugural Lincoln endorsed the Corwin Amendment, which would have made slavery permanent in the Constitution, for the sake of avoiding war. Why would he have done that if going to war was his goal?

It seems like de Mesquita always takes the most uncharitable interpretation possible when he doesn't like the policy of the president. The discussion about Obama pushing out Mubarak because that's why his constituents wanted is puzzling (1:01), as I doubt there's a single American who voted based in 2012 based on who we wanted to run Egypt.

LD Bottorff writes:

I understand that some of the founders were wealthy men who had much to gain by the war, but many of those who fought the war perceived that they had much to gain. The state governments tried to draft armies to fight the British, but evasion was fairly easy. Men joined the Continental Army in great numbers because they believed in the cause.

I certainly agree with your assessment of Woodrow Wilson. Our entry into WWI was a huge waste of American lives and probably contributed to the lives lost in WWII.

Andrew_FL writes:

I am going to reiterate my view that this correlation of historian's rankings of Presidents with war is spurious.

Had World War II never happened, the ideological biases of historians would almost certainly cause them to rank FDR near the top of Presidential rankings anyway. If Lincoln had ended slavery without the Civil War, he'd also be ranked similarly high.

I'm sorry to say I was not impressed by your statistical analysis of this question.

Mactoul writes:

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E. Harding writes:

Wilson tends to get off remarkably easy among modern historians for his disastrous handling of foreign affairs (he did not get off easy at the time; Harding won in the largest popular vote landslide in U.S. history, and, for that matter, Truman wasn't especially popular in his time in office, either), but the wars in Vietnam and Iraq did not do anything to help historians' perceptions of LBJ and W.

Weir writes:

Wilson made a cameo at the end of the war. From America, it looked like he'd played a starring role. But the disaster of America's entry was a disaster back home in America. What use were the Americans? What good was the 105th Regiment Machine Gun Company, wandering around, lost, when their commander couldn't read his maps or his compass?

The American soldiers should have been kept a long way back from the front, for their own safety. One third of the Americans were illiterate. Their strength was in numbers. There were lots of them. But that had always been the American way of war, traditionally. Quantity over quality.

Every Australian soldier was a volunteer, every American a conscript. But sacrificial virgins don't win wars. The Americans got themselves shot up, and for what?

It was the Brits who won the battle of Cambrai in November 1917, driving British tanks over German wire. It was the British, the Canadians and the Australians who won the battle of Amiens. Americans helped win the battle of Hamel, with an Australian leading them. But American policy was for inexperienced Americans to serve under inexperienced Americans exclusively. Monash and Rawlinson had to go behind Pershing's back to sneak a handful of American companies out from under him. Pershing got wind of it with one day to go and ordered them back. So the American soldiers who made a difference in World War I were acting in defiance of American orders.

Plus, it wasn't an American who come up with the creeping barrage. The Americans didn't come up with sound ranging or flash spotting. As bad as Wilson was, he wasn't responsible for fascism, or even for aerial photography. The American obsession with America turns the Germans, in fact, into bit players in German history.

Back when the Germans were committing genocide against the Herero and the Nama in Namibia, you could argue that, as long as the Germans have a free hand in 1904, nothing will happen after that. This is the same argument that actually does get made for giving the Germans a free hand again in 1914. History stops in 1914, with the Germans merely massacring civilians in Belgium in 1914, merely bombing British villages, merely building slave camps in France for Belgians to be deported to.

The Germans did all this in 1914. And people make the argument, in complete seriousness, that if the Germans had been allowed to carry on as they wished in 1914, then nothing will happen after that. People sincerely believe that there is an utter disconnect, no continuation whatsoever, between the Germany that went to war in 1914 (and 1904) and the Germany that lost the war in 1918.

Americans give Hitler too much credit. And Wilson too. The history of Germany is imagined to have been altered utterly by one man, Wilson or Hitler. As if nothing was happening in German society except that one Austrian or one American changed everything after 1918. As if fascist ideology has no history before 1918.

And yet an American who read a lot of German books, the Sage of Baltimore, lauded "the new German spirit" already in 1914 in the Atlantic Monthly, praising Germany's "supremely efficient ruling caste," its "proud harshness" and specifically its "war: the supreme manifestation of the new Germany, at last the great test of the gospel of strength, of great daring, of efficiency."

"War is a good thing," Mencken said, "because it is honest, it admits the central fact of human nature." The new Germany, young Germany, Mencken said, "was founded upon no romantic theory that all men were natural equals; it was free from the taint of mobocracy; it was empty of soothing and windy phrases. On the contrary, it was a delimited, aristocratic democracy in the Athenian sense--a democracy of intelligence, of strength, of superior fitness--a democracy at the top."

The stubborn little fact is that Germany had not yet lost its war when Mencken, among others, swooned before its "national hero" or "national Messiah" already in the first half of 1917. "The doctrine of Ludendorff is simple: the whole energy of the German people must be concentrated on the war. All other enterprises and ambitions must be put out of mind. All business that is not necessary to the one end must be abandoned." "Once his mind is made up, he gets to business at once." Germany was still winning its war when Mencken imagined he'd found a champion against the "gabble and babble" and "futile turmoils" and "weakness" of decadent, middling, middle-class capitalist democracy.

Because fascist ideology has a history, and it pre-dates Hitler and Wilson.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andrew_FL,
Had World War II never happened, the ideological biases of historians would almost certainly cause them to rank FDR near the top of Presidential rankings anyway. If Lincoln had ended slavery without the Civil War, he'd also be ranked similarly high.
I recommend reading our whole article. Here’s the relevant quote to handle your point, a point that various commenters made pre-publication and, therefore, one that we handled:
These results are robust to slight variations and to different econometric tests. The statistical significance of the MDPC rank variable remains strong, although diminished, when the top two presidents (Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln) are removed from the sample.

Andrew_FL writes:

@David R. Henderson-My main concern is actually that there is no variable that accounts for ideology that I think *happens* to correlate with your war variable by accident for a large portion of the sample period.

Todd Kreider writes:
"I shudder at that number. I had no idea that JFK himself put the probability of nuclear war as high as one third."

Presidents say a lot of things, and we have no idea if JFK really thought the odds were 1 in 3 and there is no reason to think the odds at the time were nearly that high.

Bill Clinton as written that his administration prevented a nuclear war between Pakistan and India in 1999.

Well, OK....

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andrew_FL,
My main concern is actually that there is no variable that accounts for ideology that I think *happens* to correlate with your war variable by accident for a large portion of the sample period.
That’s interesting, given that the concern you stated at first had to do with FDR and Lincoln. And notice that we did handle that concern.

Andrew_FL writes:

@David R. Henderson-That I was unclear in my original comment is on me, fair enough. I obliquely implied I believed there was a real reason for the apparent correlation in that comment by alluding to the ideological biases of historians. Lincoln and FDR were intended as examples, not outliers.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andrew_FL,
Ok. What ideological variable would you include?

Andrew_FL writes:

AFAIK no such measure has presently exists, it would have to be created by a separate analysis.

If you think the lack of such a measure is an adequate reason to dismiss this alternative hypothesis I'm afraid we have nothing more to discuss.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andrew_FL,
If you think the lack of such a measure is an adequate reason to dismiss this alternative hypothesis I'm afraid we have nothing more to discuss.
Fortunately, I don’t think that. So we can keep discussing.

Matt writes:

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