The ‘lump of terrorism’ fallacy

by Henry on September 7, 2003

The Washington Post reports today that

The occupation of Iraq—once the home of the caliph, or universal leader, of Muslims—is a galvanizing symbol for radical Islamic groups. On Internet sites and in mosques across the Islamic world, thousands of potential fighters are hearing—and heeding—calls to go to Iraq to fight the infidel, according to European and Arab intelligence sources who have tracked some of the movements of the recruits.

Dunno how true this is – Juan Cole thinks that the Post is exaggerating wildly – but it got me to thinking about how the “flypaper” theory beloved of Glenn Reynolds and his crowd is based on a fundamental error of logic. If you look at it closely, it distinctly resembles a fundamental mistake that economists call the lump of labour fallacy.

Much bad economic punditry starts from the premise that there’s a ‘lump of labour’ – a fixed amount of work to be done in the economy. On this argument, if you want to reduce unemployment, you can do it by lowering people’s working hours, so that work is ‘freed up’ to be shared with the unemployed. Of course, this argument doesn’t hold water – the demand for labour isn’t a fixed constant in real economies. Instead, it varies, depending on a host of other factors (which themselves are likely to be affected, perhaps in perverse ways, by any ham-handed efforts to ‘share the jobs around’).

Similarly, the ‘flypaper’ theory implicitly assumes that there’s a fixed amount of al Qaeda terrorism sloshing around in the international system, so that it’s a good1 idea to divert it from the US to Iraq – more terrorists attacking troops in Iraq would mean less terrorists attacking the homeland. But there isn’t a fixed amount – instead, US actions in Iraq are almost certain to affect the ‘supply’ of al Qaeda terrorists. Indeed, the WP article suggests that the US occupation is leading to a substantial increase in the willingness of potential fighters to take up arms, so that the invasion isn’t just drawing existing al Qaeda combatants to Iraq; it’s creating new recruits.

The jury is still out on whether the Post is right or not on the facts – but it’s demonstrably true that the actions of the US (in invading Iraq, in how it behaves within Iraq) are going to affect terrorism on the supply-side. Pro-war types can still try to make the case that the US invasion is going to decrease terrorism in the long run (they have their work cut out for them), but ‘lump of terrorism’ theories like the flypaper argument are bogus, and should be treated with the ridicule that they deserve.

1 Of course, ‘Good’ here means ‘good for Americans,’ not ‘good for Iraqis.’

{ 25 comments }

1

taak 09.07.03 at 9:34 pm

It’s fairly obvious that the cost structure of carrying out an attack against mainland America and its ground troops in Iraq are substantially different. Therefore, if specialization is applied, one terrorist attack in Iraq does not come at the cost of one comparable attack in the United States.

To put it another way: What, Al Qaeda is going to recall its sleeper cells here to Iraq now?

2

Beldar 09.07.03 at 9:44 pm

It’s true that there’s not a finite supply of existing terrorists, and that what we do in Iraq or elsewhere is likely to affect the rate at which new ones are converted or recruited.

It’s also surely true, however, that there is not an infinite supply of potential terrorists. At some point, the supply of easily converted and easily recruited will be exhausted.

US actions don’t merely affect the recruitment/conversion rate in a positive direction. There may have been some potential terrorists, for instance, whose main reason for outrage at the US was the basing of American forces in Saudi Arabia; that motivation to become a terrorist no longer exists. Gradually rebuilding Iraq, establishing democracy there, and returning control of the country to the Iraqis will similarly affect the rate of terrorist recruitment.

By observing that the supply of terrorists isn’t static, you don’t thereby explode the “flypaper theory.” You just point out that the interim results and trends are going to be more complicated to calculate.

3

SteveMG 09.07.03 at 10:07 pm

We may add into this mix Bernard Lewis’s thesis which is – to perhaps mischaracterize it by summarizing it too tightly – that radical Islam was encouraged to attack the West due to their perception of weakness. That the U.S. would – as they did in Lebanon and Somalia – run when suffering casualties or harm.

This perceived weakness, Lewis posits, gave greater fuel to radical Islam leading it and its adherent to believe that a few critical strikes against America would suffice in driving her out of the region.

Are we increasing the supply of terrorists by responding? Or were we doing so by not responding? In all likelihood, both. But our chief concern is not with small, unorganized poorly trained terrorists who grab a gun and run to Iraq; but, instead, with those larger, well-trained and organized radicals armed and supported by states. In the current environment, we need to stop state-sponsored terrorism; the smaller (perhaps not numerically) elements will be dealt with later.

SMG

4

Mario 09.07.03 at 10:45 pm

I don’t think anyone is saying that the Islamists are going to run out of terrorists, just that the battleground has changed from the West to the Middle East, specifically Iraq. Even if the supply of combatants is increased, if they are all going to Iraq, we are safer. At least there we can fight them militarily.

5

Omri 09.07.03 at 11:39 pm

You’re setting up a bit of a strawman. The flypaper theory holds that because the US is explicitly doing
everything to piss al-Qaeda off in Iraq (making the place secular, less Sunni, and less Arab), al-Qaeda must
respond or else be seen as ineffectual (and thus see
its income sources dry up). Carrying out attacks
with any hope of success requires the willingness to
expend finite numbers of trained men and finite amounts of dollars, and it’s best that it be done in Iraq. (And yes, the Iraq occupation is supplying al-Qaeda with countless untrained men, but these are largely useless – case in point, Richard Reed.)

6

Fear is the Mind Killer 09.08.03 at 12:13 am

So you think the supply of terrorists is finite? I suppose that is technically true, in the way that the number of stars is finite. However, for evidence that the supply is not, as a practial matter, constrained, look at Palestine.

7

omri 09.08.03 at 12:21 am

Keep in mind I said trained men.
Al-Qaeda has only so many of those, and its
ability to train more has been sharply curtailed
by their loss of Afghanistan. Yes, they have a limitless supply of tyros, but they are useless.

8

fear is the mind killer 09.08.03 at 12:31 am

Sorry, but, again, look at Palestine. Would you say that the intifada has been “useless”? Increasingly, I fear that we have bought ourselves our own little West Bank (the size of California).

9

omri 09.08.03 at 12:41 am

You think the Hamas doesn’t have trained bomb
makers setting up its bombs, and trained urban
fighters defending its positions and laboratories?
Hamas has the Palestinian Authority covering
for it and making sure it can continue to train
men. al-Qaeda doesn’t. All al-Qaeda has is the men
who survived to reach the Pakistani Northwest Frontier Province. Now those men have the unenviable choice between staying in the NFP until their money runs out or going to Iraq and getting killed.

10

Walt Pohl 09.08.03 at 12:42 am

But it’s not just how events in Iraq directly affect al Qaeda recruitment. There is also the question of how events create al Qaeda sympathy, which makes it easier for them to put together the resources necessary to train more men.

That’s why these kinds of calculations of interest are a waste of time. No one is smart enough or has enough information to determine whether the flypaper strategy will stop more terrorists than it creates.

11

omri 09.08.03 at 12:56 am

Sympathy for Al-Qaeda is useless compared to
admiration for Al-Qaeda. The latter declined
considerably after AQ lost Afghanistan. Recall
that after 9/11 pro-AQ demonstrations and
recruitment shot up, and after the fall of
Kandahar it declined considerably. If AQ actually
pulls something off in Iraq, there will be recruits.
If it fails, and is thus shown to be impotent,
there will be even fewer ecruits coming as it is.
And, AQ still has still not solved the problem of training recruits so they can actually do something.

12

tc 09.08.03 at 1:25 am

Didn’t the USSR try out the “flypaper” theory in Afghanistan? They killed a whole lot of Muslims, but there were always more to take their place.

13

Armed Liberal 09.08.03 at 1:28 am

This is a pretty central question to one’s response to the current conflict. For myself, I tend to think of these things as dynamic, and so look at change rate as more important than real quantity. So are we making terrorists faster than we are eliminating them?

We make them when we convince otherwise uncommited people to join the other side, and raise the level of commitment for those who have already joined.

We eliminate them by … well, eliminating them on one hand, and discouraging them from joining or raising their level of commitment on the other.

My guess is that our actions are triggering (at least) two contradictory responses in the candidate pool; on one hand “Wow! Those guys are serious! I’d better stay home!” and on the other, “Now I’m really getting mad!” The third variable is one I quoted John Boyd on over at WoC:Undermine guerilla cause and destroy their cohesion by demonstrating integrity and competence of government to represent and serve needs of the people – rather than exploit and impoverish them for the benefit of a greedy elite.* That’s a basic action, and one we all ought to be able to support.

The asterisk is Boyd’s, and his footnote is priceless:

*If you cannot realize such a political program, you might consider changing sides.

A.L.

14

fear is the mind killer 09.08.03 at 1:35 am

No, I agree that Hamas has trained personnel making bombs, etc. But they are able to leverage their trained people by sending untrained volunteers to kill themselves and take a few of the enemy with them. If this catches on among Muslims, we have one bloody hell of a time ahead.

As for the PA protecting Hamas, I actually find it difficult to believe the PA is protecting anyone at this point. They have been rendered impotent. (Which is part of the problem.) I think Hamas is protected by blending in among ordinary Palestinian civilians, who support them. This is classic guerilla warfare, and it seems clear that we will have a pretty long (perhaps permanent) stretch of that to look forward to in Iraq.

15

Jon H 09.08.03 at 3:22 am

mario writes: “the battleground has changed from the West to the Middle East, specifically Iraq.”

The battleground was always primarily in the Middle East.

9/11 was exceptional. The Cole wasn’t bombed in New York harbor, was it? Embassies were bombed in Africa – Al Qaeda didn’t target buildings on the mainland.

16

Jon H 09.08.03 at 3:30 am

omri writes :”Keep in mind I said trained men.
Al-Qaeda has only so many of those, and its
ability to train more has been sharply curtailed
by their loss of Afghanistan. Yes, they have a limitless supply of tyros, but they are useless.”

Why would Al Qaeda be wasting the trained men in Iraq, when it has a limitless supply of tyros available to perform harassing strikes with explosives and RPGs? Given the amount of unguarded munitions in Iraq, and the amount of native Iraqi expertise, I doubt Al Qaeda would have to import anyone from Pakistan. They could probably buy the advice of an Iraqi explosives expert or ten, on a per-case basis.

The Al Qaeda terrorists we’re most concerned with are the more educated ones who could function easily in the West, especially those who are based in Europe, like the Hamburg cell involved in 9/11.

Attracting random local cannon fodder into Iraq doesn’t help protect us from this type of person. It helps Iraq’s neighbors, though. Our boys are getting killed so Saudi Arabia’s don’t have to.

17

Jon H 09.08.03 at 3:37 am

beldar writes: “There may have been some potential terrorists, for instance, whose main reason for outrage at the US was the basing of American forces in Saudi Arabia; that motivation to become a terrorist no longer exists”

On the other hand, there are some important Shiite holy sites in Iraq. It’s not inconceivable that a Shiite group could adopt Al Qaeda tactics to drive us out of Iraq – perhaps including attacks on the mainland.

18

omri 09.08.03 at 3:51 am

Jon_h asks “Why would Al Qaeda be wasting the trained men in Iraq, when it has a limitless supply of tyros available to perform harassing strikes with explosives and RPGs?” Because the explosives have to be obtained and transported, as do the RPGs.
Note that RPG attacks have declined to a near-rarity, probably because the local supply is exhausted and nobody is willing and able to bring more in. Bomb attacks require bringing in bomb makers from wherever they’re hiding, which is what the Rumsfeld wants. And Hamas-style
attacks are useless because in Iraq AQ needs to
protect the surrounding civilians and target only
the soldiers (Hamas, needless to say, is not suffering from that problem). That leaves us with what exactly? Even in Afghanistan, AQ was not able
to train many snipers, and that leaves us with the occasional suicidal AK-47 spray’n’pray attack.
The only thing on this list that is worthwhile is to bring in bomb makers.

19

Pacific John 09.08.03 at 4:54 am

>All al-Qaeda has is the men
who survived to reach the Pakistani Northwest Frontier Province.

And years worth that trained and went back to approximately 50 countries (per Bergen).

The the small arms thing, there is not a finite number in Iraq. They are cheap, available everywhere, and easy to smuggle. As seen in Somalia, even druged-out kids can figure out how to pull a trigger.

Zakaria had a decent piece on the non-finite pool of terrorists. It seems the female suicide bombers in Russia are family members of dead Chechins. Say, have we killed any Iraqi civilians? I’d be sort of ticked if an army came here and killed my wife or kids.

20

linden 09.08.03 at 7:29 am

What the Russians have done in Chechnya is simply not comparable in magnitude to the Iraq war. Russia created its problem through its awful policies.

If the reconstruction could begin to approach something called competence, this type of problem probably won’t ever come into existence.

I don’t think anyone has ever argued that the fly paper strategy will snuff out every single terrorist on the planet. That’s silly.

21

andrew 09.08.03 at 7:40 am

…”The Al Qaeda terrorists we’re most concerned with are the more educated ones who could function easily in the West, especially those who are based in Europe, like the Hamburg cell involved in 9/11. Attracting random local cannon fodder into Iraq doesn’t help protect us from this type of person”…

I agree with this statement. It’s a segmented market, guys. They are not the same types of people, they have different motivations and resources. Some who might attack b/c the Americans are convenient and pissing them off, were not going to buy a ticket to Los Angeles before we “brought the fight to them.”

I can forgive the TV watchers for thinking that the War is a success as long as Muslims somewhere are dying, but book-readers should be held to higher standards.

22

Diana 09.08.03 at 4:07 pm

That leaves us with what exactly?

The motivation to do a better job to drive out the infidel.

What you have described are merely obstacles, which can always be overcome by human ingenuity.

23

Diana 09.08.03 at 5:09 pm

PS according to today’s Daily Telegraph:

Patrick Bishop in Baghdad writes: Two heat-seeking missiles were fired at an American military cargo plane after it took off from Baghdad airport at the weekend. The missiles exploded before they reached the C141 aircraft flying at 14,000 ft.

24

Sandwichman 09.11.03 at 7:11 pm

For background on the lump of labour fallacy, Henry Farrell links to a quote from Paul Samuelson posted on my TimeWork Web site. I like Farrell’s analogy and appreciate the link. The problem is I was quoting Samuelson in the course of debunking his version of the lump of labour fallacy. Admittedly, that context is not clear from the page on which the quote appears; one would have to backtrack two pages to encounter the context.

Could it be possible, though, that the flypaper theory is indeed a fallacy even though the lump of labour is only a “faux fallacy”? Perhaps. Both fallacy claims rely on identifying and disproving an “implied assumption.” In the case of the lump of labour fallacy, I have shown that no such assumption is necessary for the success of work-sharing proposals. Many proponents of shorter work time have stated unequivocally that they make no such assumption. But then there are both “naive” and “sophisticated” arguments for work sharing and the naive arguments may well depend on at least a loose form of the fixed-amount-of-work assumption.

In the case of the flypaper theory, I suspect that there are only naive arguments. After all, the so-called theory has circulated as an after the fact rationalization, only after weapons of mass destruction (i.e., not nefarious “efforts to conceal plans for a future programme”, etc.,etc.,etc…), Saddam’s links to al Qaeda and a flower-strewn welcome to the liberating occupiers have all failed to materialize. And not only is there not a “fixed amount of terrorism” as the naive version of the flypaper theory would assume, but there arguably is a politically limited amount of “flypaper” — a complication that any more sophisticated version would have to take into account.

Of course, maybe when the occupation runs out of flypaper, Bremer can call in some of that Homeland Security duct tape.

25

Tom Maguire 09.12.03 at 6:35 pm

I think the anaolgy between tghe US occupation of Iraq and the Israeli situation in Palestine is misdrawn. I have no doubt that, in Iraq, there are unreconstructed Ba’athists who want the US out, and the old order restored. However, I suspect the vast majority of Iraqis want the same thing the US wants – a sensible Iraqi government with the US gone. If my guess as to popular opinion in Iraq is correct, then our differences are hardly irreconciliable.

However, the West Bank is a much different problem – there are (evidently enough) Israelis who won’t consider giving it back, and (apparently many) Palestinans who won’t consider not having it. Add to that the (seemingly plentiful) Palestinians who seek the destruction of Israel itself, and the path to peace is puzzling.

That is quite different from what the US is facing in Iraq.

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