This is a quibble with something in John’s long discourse on the war. It’s more of a question, than a quibble, really. John rightly points out that, in assessing the true consequences of some policy or action, we have to take into account the opportunity costs:
A second common feature of pro-war analysis is a failure to take account of the opportunity cost of the resources used in war. The $300 billion used in the Iraq war would have been enough to finance several years of the Millennium Development project aimed at ending extreme poverty in the world, and could have saved millions of lives. But even assuming this is politically unrealistic, the money could surely have been spent on improved health care, road safety and so on in the US itself. At a typical marginal cost of $5 million per live saved, 60 000 American lives could have been saved. This is morally relevant, but is commonly ignored.
Please don’t think about the war, or John’s more general argument about it, for the moment. Assume that all we are doing is trying to figure out the consequences for the purpose of moral evaluation (whatever weight you think the consequences should have—for me, its less than for John, but more than for some). What are the real opportunity costs that we should figure in?
John admits that it is highly unlikely that the costs of the war would have been used to end extreme poverty and thus save millions of lives. And certainly the money could have been spent on improved health care and road safety for Americans. But pro-war leftists might believe that in fact the money would have been used to exacerbate inequality—to support the addictions of the wealthy rather than to benefit anyone. Or to up the funding for Star Wars. Or something equally wasteful. If they are right then John’s alternative purposes are not, in fact, morally relevant, at least to our (the left’s) evaluation of the war.
It seems to me that on a strict accounting of consequences (for the purposes of evaluating a policy or action) we should only ask this “what would the money, actually, have otherwise been used for?” Of course, there is always uncertainty about this. But I have something close to certainty that it would not be used for purposes as good as John (rightly) says it could have been used for.
Assume that I am right about this, or at least assume that the pro-war left believes it—if it is true that Bush and Congress would otherwise have done no good with the money, the pro-war left is entitled to treat the monetary costs as irrelevant. And, indeed, the anti-war left is obliged to do the same.
My suggestion might seem paradoxical. While it might be fair for the pro-war left to defend an accounting which assumes there are no opportunity costs, it would be very odd to allow Bush et al, themselves to do the same: they cannot, surely, say in their own defense “Look, Quiggin, you are assuming we’d have otherwise done something valuable with the money, but we wouldn’t have done”. Why? Because they have control over what they do, so there is nothing inevitable from their perspective about the waste of the resources. They could have used it for some better purpose (than, say, tax relief), and they would have deliberately refrained from so doing (because they are, under these assumptions, basically bad guys).
If there’s a resolution of the paradox it is this. As outsiders to the action we (the left), in evaluating the war, are entitled to treat as fixed the motivations, intentions, and actions of Bush and co. in so far as those are peripheral to the war. Bush et. al., being agents and having power over both the war and other aspects of policy, are not entitled to treat their own motivations, intentions and actions in that way, because they have the power to change them. Of course, in our all-things-considered moral evaluation of Bush et. al. we should consider all their motivations, intentions and actions; but the pro-war left is restricting their positive evaluation to the war itself.
(Note: hold your breath, and John’s reply will follow soon!)