The opportunity cost of war (slightly updated)

by John Quiggin on August 18, 2015

What is true of natural disasters is even more true of the disasters we inflict on ourselves and others. Of these human-made calamities, the greatest is war. The wars engaged in by the US, Australian and other governments come at the opportunity cost of domestic programs that could save thousands of lives every year. The cost of war, in terms of American (and Australian) lives, is many times greater than battlefield casualty counts would suggest.

That’s the theme of this extract from my book-in-progress, Economics in Two Lessons. You can find a draft of the opening sections here.

Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe during World War II was arguably America’s greatest military commander, and served as President of the United States at the height of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. It is striking, then, that more than any US political leader before or since, Eisenhower showed an acute understanding of the limitations of military power and of the economic costs of military expenditure. He is, perhaps, best remembered for warning of the dangers of the ‘military-industrial complex’ as a standing lobby for armaments spending.

Even more penetrating was his observation that

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed
The logic of opportunity cost has rarely been put more simply or sharply, particularly as it applies to military expenditure.

Nearly 50 years after Eisenhower’s death, the lesson he stated so simply and forcefully has not been learned. Every crisis in the world brings forward a call for military intervention, often from people who regard ‘foreign aid’ as a proven failure.

The failure rate for these interventions is far higher than for ordinary foreign aid projects. Of the major US military interventions in the past 20 years (Kosovo, Somalia, Gulf War I, Afghanistan, Gulf War II, Libya and Iraq/Syria) only Kosovo could be regarded as a clear success, and even there the outcome is a weak state bitterly divided between two hostile communities, kept apart by armed peacekeepers. (Gulf War I succeeded in the terms originally set out, but, beginning with the incitement of the failed Shi’ite failed uprising, set in train the disastrous process that ultimately produced Gulf War II , and, another decade later, the War against ISIS).

But even when military action works as planned, it is hard to justify in terms of opportunity cost. The total figures are staggering. The Afghan and Iraq wars between them are estimated to have cost the US between $4 trillion and $6 trillion dollars in wartime expenditures and future medical bills for veterans (Bilmes). That’s ten times the total amount of aid received by the whole of Africa since 1945, an amount regularly cited to show the futility of foreign aid.

Rather than attempt to apply opportunity cost calculations to such stupendous numbers, let’s look at the opportunity cost of maintaining a single additional combat soldier in Afghanistan. The direct cost has been estimated at $2.1 million per soldier per year. Indirect support costs (for example, the Pentagon bureaucracy) and the need to provide for future medical care would greatly increase this.

We could look at the opportunity cost in terms of alternative ways of providing aid to Afghanistan. The US development agency USAid provides around $70 million a year in educational and social services aid to Afghanistan, a sum which is claimed to enable one million additional children to enrol in school, among other benefits.

Obviously there is plenty of room for more expenditure of this kind, in Afghanistan or elsewhere. So, the opportunity cost of keeping 35 soldiers in the field is school education for a million young people.

Most advocates of the war, faced with this kind of calculation would say that the object of the war is not (primarily) to promote the welfare of Afghans but to protect Americans from the threat of terrorist attack. It might seem to be impossible to place a monetary value on such protection. However, it is at least possible to identify the opportunity cost, and the US government does so explicitly. As we will see later, US government interventions aimed at protecting Americans from threats to their life and safety are typically approved only if the cost per life saved is less than the ‘Value of Statistical Life’ for the agency concerned.

In particular, this procedure applies to policies aimed at protecting Americans from terror attacks within the United States. In a September 2007 Department of Homeland Security proposal to expand air travel security, the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol estimated life-saving benefits using two separate life values: $3 million and $6 million.

However, no such analysis is applied to overseas military action. Nevertheless, the logic of opportunity cost applies, whether or not it is taken into account by planners. Each additional soldier deployed in Afghanistan comes at the cost of the alternative use that could be made of the required funding. Taking the high end $6 million VSL range for the Department of Homeland Security the opportunity cost of the $6.3 million spent to deploy three additional soldiers is the funding of a domestic security program that would save one American life per year.

If the casualty rate for soldiers in the field were anything like one in three, the war would have ended long ago. Yet the same cost in lives, in the form of foregone opportunities to protect Americans at home, has been accepted with bipartisan support, because it is invisible, unless viewed through the lens of opportunity cost.

Bastiat’s contrast between “that which is seen” and “that which is not seen” has never been more apposite.

{ 186 comments }

1

Greg Sanders 08.19.15 at 12:58 am

I would tend to put Gulf War I in the success column, although I think there’s a strong argument for the subsequent sanctions regime as being a humanitarian disaster and the closer relationship with Saudi Arabia as being one source of future problems.

Gulf War I did not remove Saddam Hussein from power or democratize any regional countries. It did roll back an invasion and uphold the norm of not changing borders via force and did so with the support of the Security Council. The U.S. also had its expenses greatly offset by other participants in the coalition, particularly Saudi Arabia.

I think there’s an argument for not intervening in wars between dictatorships, but if you’re going to dismiss Gulf War I, then I’d argue for elaborating on your reasoning.

2

rea 08.19.15 at 1:17 am

In very, very round numbers, Afghanistan has a population of 30 million, average per capita annual income is about $2000, and the US and its allies have poured at least $1 trillion into the war over the course of 14 years. Arithmetic was never my strong point, but it looks to me as if we could have doubled the income of everyone in Afghanistan for those 14 years, and it would have been cheaper.

3

Bloix 08.19.15 at 1:21 am

Although I agree in the main with your argument, I have to say I also agree with Greg Sanders. The Gulf War was a rousing success on its own terms: fought by the largest coalition of states since WWII, it maintained the independent status of Kuwait while unifying international sentiment against Iraq. From the economic point of view it was even more successful: it prevented Saddam Hussein from achieving his major war aim, which was to reduce Middle Eastern production of oil (by control of Kuwaiti oil fields and implied threats to Saudi Arabia) and thereby to force a sharp and sustained rise in oil prices, which would have dealt a severe blow to the US and Western European economies.

4

The Temporary Name 08.19.15 at 1:30 am

it looks to me as if we could have doubled the income of everyone in Afghanistan for those 14 years, and it would have been cheaper.

The US also takes in about 3 million temporary workers a year. Maybe Afghans could have just moved over that period.

5

Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 1:39 am

While I sort of agree with the individual details of this — the Eisenhower quote, the concept of war spending displacing other spending — it’s also a characteristic kind of economic analysis that places enough of the subject out of bounds so that it becomes unintelligible. Why would anyone go to war if this were all there were to it?

I think it’s clear that many people enjoy war, especially vicariously when the war is actually being fought by other people. This psychological benefit is a component of the utility function, if we have to write in economic terms, just like anything else. So these people might well look at periods of peace and talk about the opportunity cost of peace: all that wasted time when we might have been killing and maiming people.

I think it’s also clear that doubling the income of everyone in a poor nation, preventing deaths of foreigners, or generally doing what the median CT reader would consider to be good things in the abstract have a very low or even negative place in many people’s utility functions. So this analysis doesn’t really tell us anything. It tells us that war is a very bad thing if you don’t like war. But we sort of already knew that.

6

Bill Murray 08.19.15 at 1:44 am

the outcome is a bitterly divided between two hostile communities

a bitterly divided what? inquiring minds want to know

7

cassander 08.19.15 at 2:44 am

>The logic of opportunity cost has rarely been put more simply or sharply, particularly as it applies to military expenditure.

Nor has it been applied to domestic government spending. If it were, how do you think subsidies for solar power, federal education spending, or food stamps would hold up?

>Nearly 50 years after Eisenhower’s death, the lesson he stated so simply and forcefully has not been learned.

Sadly, no. particularly the part when he said “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present and is gravely to be regarded.”

@bloix

>The Gulf War was a rousing success on its own terms: fought by the largest coalition of states since WWII,

The iraq invasion had a coalition that included more foreign countries who contributed a larger share of the soldiers sent. If international cooperation is your metric for success, the iraq invasion was a stunning success.

>and thereby to force a sharp and sustained rise in oil prices, which would have dealt a severe blow to the US and Western European economies.

Saddam’s goal was nothing so grand. I’m quite certain all he wanted was to despoil his kuwaiti creditors then use kuwaiti oil to pay back creditors who were less geographically convenient.

8

UserGoogol 08.19.15 at 3:09 am

Rich Puchalsky: People might think that way, but they generally don’t actually say it. The Iraq War produced many arguments trying to justify itself, but hardly anyone said that blood and carnage is just something we should be seeking out for its own sake. (Quite the opposite, since most arguments for the war were preventative in some sense.) Even “suck-on-this” was making an instrumental argument about how the Iraq War would discourage terrorism.

9

Plume 08.19.15 at 3:10 am

Federal spending on solar power, education and food stamps are woefully low. They should be radically increased, and it would benefit all of us. Obviously. And the earth, of course.

More on Eisenhower: He was one of at least a half dozen generals who believed there was absolutely no reason to drop the bomb some 70 years ago, that Japan was already finished, and he knew that they had offered to surrender months before we incinerated hundreds of thousands of Japanese. Hiroshima and Nagasaki remain among the worst and most unforgivable atrocities in the entire history of warfare, and Americans are still being force fed the nonsense that they were necessary. The real reason for dropping them was to give notice to the USSR that we were not to be trifled with. It was nothing more than that.

It’s amazing to consider that as “conservative” as Eisenhower was in his day, there isn’t a single prominent Democrat today, at least in the leadership, who could accurately say he/she is to Eisenhower’s left. Obama is certainly well to Ike’s right on the vast majority of issues.

Opportunity costs: America has never taken “the peace dividend.” Tragically, we are the most warmongering nation on earth at the moment, and have been at least since WWII. Imagine how amazing life could be if we had NOT gone into Korea or overthrown Mossadegh in Iran. Imagine if we had never set foot in Vietnam, or Iraq, or Afghanistan, or engaged in the dozens of covert wars initiated by Reagan in Central America and Africa, especially. Imagine.

We could easily afford full single payer for every American; free tuition for all public education, cradle to grave; bullet trains linking every major metro area; radical environmental cleanup and protection; radical shifts to sustainable agro, energy, transport and cleanup . . . for starters.

In short, America could have outdone the Scandinavian nations tenfold, if it had chosen to stop its warmongering. If it had chosen peace instead of endless war.

10

John Quiggin 08.19.15 at 3:31 am

I’ve updated the discussion of Gulf War I in response to comments. Please, nothing more on this side issue. I want to focus on improving the arguments for the book.

Also, I don’t want this discussion derailed by trolls like Cassander. Nothing more from you on this thread, please, Cassander, and no further responses.

11

John Quiggin 08.19.15 at 3:33 am

Rich, you seem to be restating the point (common among economists) that any observed behavior must be utility-maximizing. That’s either trivial (your case here, I think) or wrong.

12

Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 3:35 am

UserGoogol: “People might think that way, but they generally don’t actually say it. “

All right, but if they are thinking that way, then we should say it even if they don’t. Consider the absence of public displeasure with the Iraq War after the fact. It is looked on in retrospect as both a mistake and a crime by the left, who opposed it in the first place. For evidence, try the U.S. Gallup poll on this page. “[…] do you think the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq […]” went from 23% to 42% within a year, maxed out at 63% in 2008, and is now at 51%. There’s at least a core third who never disapproved even of our most discredited recent war. And the disapproval that does exist has not translated into any kind of action against the people who brought us the war.

So, no, people have not yet started to openly say that they like blood and carnage for their own sake, but the justifications that would cover this up are increasingly flimsy. No one really has a retrospective justification for the Iraq War, but this doesn’t really trouble anyone not on the left.

13

Randy McDonald 08.19.15 at 3:40 am

Plume:

“Imagine how amazing life could be if we had NOT gone into Korea”

Yes. All of Korea could be like the DPRK, not just the northern half with one-third of the Korean population.

I know too many Koreans to think this would be a good outcome for them.

Sometimes war is necessary, the least bad option.

14

Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 3:48 am

JQ is right that “any observed behavior must be utility maximizing” is a bad bromide which I fell into in an attempt to imitate economist-speak. I’ll rephrase it as: the reason that a country like the U.S. goes to war is because some people get positive benefits from war. These benefits include both the usual financial benefits to the oligarchical class, which gets to skim off public funds in various ways, and the psychological benefits of vicarious participation in war to a much larger public. Arguments against war that point out that war has opportunity costs appear to me to be doomed to futility, because I think that the number of people who calmly calculate the costs and benefits of war in financial terms and then decide that it has a net benefit is very small. (The number of people who calmly calculate this decision in financial terms is small: the number of people who do so and then get an obviously wrong answer is even smaller.)

15

Omega Centauri 08.19.15 at 3:55 am

Measured over a broad population war almost never pays, but that’s not the calculus that matters to the political cost. As we saw shamefully exploited after 9-11, the potential political cost of being seen as weak against terrorism became almost infinite, so that nearly any cost was not too high.

To nitpick, I would argue the $2 million per soldier per year must include support costs (isn’t everything but soldier pay support).

We occasionally have benefits. We’ve all heard how especially in the unbombed US, that our industrial scientific and managerial capabilities were greatly advanced during WW2. There is nothing like the motivation of a crisis that is perceived as existential to concentrate the mind. I’d argue that none of our wars since have generated enough of a sense of urgency to repeat that however. Some of the things that are advanced by wartime include medicine -especially emergency medicine. There are at least a few things on the positive side of the ledger which might offset a small fraction of the opportunity cost.

16

LFC 08.19.15 at 3:59 am

@Rich Puchalsky
Are you personally acquainted with anyone who derives “psychological benefits” from “vicarious participation in war”? Or are you just assuming that many people who watch pictures of carnage on TV must be deriving psychic rewards from it? Isn’t this just another variation on your usual refrain that most people are bad, aggressive, and love to lord it over their perceived inferiors in a social hierarchy?

For an anarchist, you seem to take a rather grim view of ‘human nature’. Instead of reading your comments on this theme, we could all just turn off the computer (or the phone, or the tablet, or whatever the f*ck people use to read the Internet) and sit down with a paperback copy of Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents (which was not Freud at his best). Same message, afaict.

17

Plume 08.19.15 at 4:01 am

Randy @13,

When we entered the war, the South was easily the more contemptible of the two regimes, and it wasn’t close. Its leader, Syngman Rhee, was a fascist thug, who had carried out several massacres of the innocents, and continued to do so while we were “in country.” He has also threatened to attack the North before the North decided to fight back. And there never would have been any division of the country in the first place if not for the allies playing god with that peninsula after WWII. America caused the civil war and then made it far worse by going to war there.

(The South had other dictators after Rhee, like Park Chung-hee)

The result? 2 million to 4 million Korean civilians dead, because of our invasion. That blood is on our hands. And Americans continue to make the ludicrous inference that if we hadn’t invaded, things would have been far worse. In reality, it’s far more likely that Korea would have united around a left-populist government, kicked out the fascist thug in the South, and the overall well-being of Koreans would have been vastly better. The North became authoritarian as a result of our invasion, not prior to it.

There is no North/South split if the allies hadn’t tried to carve up the peninsula in the first place after WWII, and even then, if we had stayed out of their affairs, chances are very good that unification would have happened on its own.

We had no business invaded Korean. None. Nada. Zilch. And our invasion caused the deaths of millions.

18

John Quiggin 08.19.15 at 4:11 am

Please no further discussion of the Korean War, or of the (de)merits of any particular war. I’m really keen to keep the thread on-topic, and would appreciate more discussion of the way I’ve approached the issue, like that offered by Rich P, for example.

19

js. 08.19.15 at 4:26 am

I think it’s clear that many people enjoy war, especially vicariously when the war is actually being fought by other people

Even if this is true, and I’ll grant for the sake of argument that it is, do you not think there are also many people who do not “enjoy” war, vicariously or otherwise, who end up supporting wars for all sorts of misinformed considerations, ones where the points raised in JQ’s post might or would be directly relevant?

20

Plume 08.19.15 at 4:27 am

John @18,

But isn’t that all about “opportunity costs”? The very fact that America keeps going to war, again and again and again, is because we so easily rationalize doing so. We are never wrong. Ever. Apparently. Rah rah rah, John Wayne, Rambo, Bush on the flight deck, etc. etc.

You are absolutely correct that, like good programming language in reverse, if not this, then that . . . . but how do we stop doing the “this” part, if we always think it’s forever justified?

It is amazing that when it comes to spending on the poor, it’s all about “opportunity costs,” especially in the GOP. But wars? They get to slip by all of that. Nothing is measured. Nothing is calculated. Except BS like cake walk and it will pay of itself.

I’ve never heard that when it comes to spending on the poor or the environment . . . which does, actually, “pay for itself” many times over. War never does.

21

LFC 08.19.15 at 4:27 am

Generally I follow the OP’s logic, but the opportunity-cost analysis could be extended to cover, e.g., the cost of global arms spending and/or the cost of the US mil. base network. Re arms spending: e.g., China and India spend substantial sums on military ‘modernization’ and on buying or (esp. in China’s case) making and selling weapons. Many more ‘developed’ countries (US, France, Israel e.g.) are also involved in the arms trade. On the US mil. budget: there is no strategic justification for e.g. spending hundreds of millions to replace the US’s fleet of nuclear-armed submarines, given the absurd level of overkill the total fleet represents.

The one aspect of the OP that seems a bit dubious to me is the USAID tradeoff example in Afghanistan, the reason being that if the Taliban were still in power USAID really couldn’t operate there at all. So in that particular case the US military operation and the US aid effort seemed to go together, or to put it differently the former was a condition of possibility for the latter, or so one might argue. (The US soldiers remaining in Afghanistan now mostly have a training role, since the end of combat operations by NATO/ISAF at end of last year.)

22

Collin Street 08.19.15 at 4:29 am

Are you personally acquainted with anyone who derives “psychological benefits” from “vicarious participation in war”?

No, because I chose my friends better than that. Because of biased samples — self-selecting and deliberate bias by the selector — the mental stability of the “average person” is grossly overestimated by everyone who doesn’t work low-end retail.

23

LeitrimNYC 08.19.15 at 4:43 am

The USAID mission in Afghanistan expends at least $1 billion a year in aid, with the DoD and State Dept contributing billions more in reconstruction funds on top of that. Not saying this money is well used or has accomplished anything, but the amounts are way more than $70 million a year. There are individual contracts worth more than that.

24

ZM 08.19.15 at 4:48 am

“Of these human-made calamities, the greatest is war. The wars engaged in by the US, Australian and other governments come at the opportunity cost of domestic programs that could save thousands of lives every year. The cost of war, in terms of American (and Australian) lives, is many times greater than battlefield casualty counts would suggest.”

I think there are two problems with these statement:

1. I don’t think the greatest human-made calamity is war at the moment. The environmental problems such as climate change are potentially the worst unless fixed soon and will also last longer than war and its effects. And war and these environmental disasters have some similar causes these being vying over control of resources.

2. It sounds somewhat parochial to limit the opportunity costs of war to “our side” – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan killed hundreds of thousands of people in Iraq and Aghanistan, injured and disabled people, polluted the environment, destroyed buildings and infrastructure, increased unemployment, in 2000 17% of Iraqis lived in slum like conditions, in 2011 50% of Iraqis lived in slum like conditions etc

25

Meredith 08.19.15 at 5:42 am

I confess to not having read all the comments. I was arrested by Rich@5:
“I think it’s clear that many people enjoy war, especially vicariously when the war is actually being fought by other people. This psychological benefit is a component of the utility function, if we have to write in economic terms, just like anything else. So these people might well look at periods of peace and talk about the opportunity cost of peace: all that wasted time when we might have been killing and maiming people.”

This seems very wise to me, though I’d amend, they “enjoy” it even when they (or their husbands and sons and brothers) are doing the fighting and sometimes dying. “Enjoy” may seem a strange and unkind word for forlorn widows and orphans, but somehow I think it is right. A culture of militarism is so deeply engrained…. Much in that culture is noble, and certainly those who have known it have experience to listen to. Including Eisenhower’s.

English on American shores were military from the gitgo. I don’t know how the military organized itself in England in 1630, but boy, were those Puritans trained and ready to go. All about Indians (and French). Also (more in the South) about African slaves. But always always, that gun in hand (hello, second amendment).

26

Peter T 08.19.15 at 6:00 am

Underlying the OP is a very simple model of the economy – one where the point-persons of flatland bump around trading with each other, like molecules, and the state sets the rules and skims energy off the bumping. But economies, like societies, have structures (it’s not flatland but a very hilly terrain indeed). In these structures states do much more than set the rules. They are one of the key paths through which activities are mobilised and ordered, and that mobilisation and order is key to much wealth production. In other words, if the state does not engage in some common pursuit, there is no money there at all to spend on other things – the money is an outcome, not an input.

Historically, war has been one of the main ordering purposes of states. We have clearly reached a point where it cannot remain so. Although the costs and benefits cannot be measured in money, the costs now far outweigh the benefits. Yet we need something to fill the gap.

27

Peter T 08.19.15 at 6:07 am

And I would second Meredith and Rich. Many people do “enjoy” war. They are attracted to the opportunity for heroism, sacrifice, meaning, glory, the thrill of employing all one’s faculties in the deadliest of games, the competition, the comradeship. Witness the attraction of ISIS for young men from across the world…

28

Randy McDonald 08.19.15 at 6:30 am

I would suggest that there are opportunities where non-military actions are the least bad options, at least in that they allow for less terrible outcomes to occur.

What would have been the likely range of outcomes in Kosovo if not for the 1999 NATO intervention, for instance, and those outcomes’ costs for all the populations involved? I would suggest that optimism is not likely to be justified. We could go on, and on, talking about different scenarios. The second Gulf War left everyone involved badly off, but what of the first? In that it’s pretty unlikely that Saddam would have voluntarily withdrew from Kuwait once he occupied it, life for Kuwaitis would certainly be much worse.

Sometimes the least bad outcomes are all we can hope for.

29

Chris Bertram 08.19.15 at 6:57 am

Leaving all the killing and maiming to one side for a moment, one thing the OP doesn’t consider is the technological boost given by at least some wars. War is costly, true, and resources spent on war could have been devoted to other purposes. But it seems plausible that many resources in the post-WW2 world wouldn’t have existed (or at least not as quickly) if there hadn’t been powerful pressure to invent and develop new technologies in war. So, medicine, computing, atomic energy ….

Now, I don’t think this should be any kind of element in ex ante decision-making, but isn’t it relevant to making the ex post assessment?

30

John Quiggin 08.19.15 at 7:13 am

LeitrimNYC @23 Good catch! I meant to refer to spending on educational and social programs (fixed now). As regards the cost effectiveness of the total aid program, even allowing for colossal waste it has to be better than 500 extra combat troops (a 5 per cent increase).

31

Robert Eastwood 08.19.15 at 7:46 am

Check out William Nordhaus’s very careful 2003 attempt to estimate the cost of the impending Iraq war. If I remember correctly, he gave quite a wide estimated range, with the top of the range being $1.5tr. If, taking due account of indexation, for example, he seriously underestimated the cost, it might be instructive to analyse why.

32

Ronan(rf) 08.19.15 at 7:48 am

That there are “physchological benefits” to war seems to me to be too general to be saying anything useful. (And arguable, at least, as a main cause of war). Afaik , what we do know about the reasons individuals fight and support (or “enjoy “) wars is that for every negative reason (revenge, some vague bloodthirstiness ) more do it for quite admirable reasons; honour, in group solidarity, adventure, idealism. Namely that they feel it’s the morally right think to do.
The average soldier/war supporter might not be a single minded utility maximiser, but she’s generally not a monster or helpless victim either

33

ccc 08.19.15 at 7:56 am

Chris Bertram 29: “But it seems plausible that many resources in the post-WW2 world wouldn’t have existed (or at least not as quickly) if there hadn’t been powerful pressure to invent and develop new technologies in war.”

Doesn’t seem plausible to me. Counterfactuals are difficult to argue for however.

Some research has benefitial spinoff effects of course but I doubt it is in general true that if we want to get useful results about area A we should devote RND to another area B instead of spending RND on area A. Is military RND special?

34

ccc 08.19.15 at 8:13 am

Rich Puchalsky @ 5: “many people enjoy war … This psychological benefit is a component of the utility function”

1 what is and is not to be counted as utility for an individual in a utility function is a normative question.

2 when thinking through the normative issue of what to count it is not obvious that everything that is in some sense “enjoyment” should be counted. A classic case is the “sadistic pleasures” a sadist might get from torturing a victim. If there are enough sadists doing it to a single victim is the torture then to be seen as overall beneficial from the POV of the utility function? An alternative is to give certain “toxic” pleasures zero weight in the utility function or even count them as negatives.

3 even if some enjoy war in some ways it is not obvious that the enjoyment they get is greater than what they would get without war. To enjoy war one would, I suppose, need to have a number of other psychological features. Those features might make the person experience overall less enjoyment. For example experiencing a “thrill of conflict” may feel good but it could also be accompanied with negative experiences of fear, anxiety and anger. In the background here lurks the distinction between utility as quantity of experienced enjoyment vs utility as revealed preference (revealed in choice/action pattern). With the revealed preference view peoples wishes (support) for war is evidence for their enjoyment of war. With the other view people might be in the grip of psychological features that pull them to support war even though that gives them overall less enjoyment (even if we set aside increased risk of death for oneself or loved ones).

35

Chris Bertram 08.19.15 at 8:24 am

@ccc “I doubt it is in general true that if we want to get useful results about area A we should devote RND to another area B instead of spending RND on area A. Is military RND special?”

I doubt this too, so you are right. It can nevertheless be true, that without the pressure of some emergency, we wouldn’t have allocated resources to RND in the way we did.

36

ccc 08.19.15 at 8:37 am

Chris: ” It can nevertheless be true, that without the pressure of some emergency, we wouldn’t have allocated resources to RND in the way we did.”
Agree. Though again hard to argue the counterfactuals here. I have some “emergency brings focus and effort” intuitions, but on reflection I’m not sure I can trust them. I think we humans could have, without all those resources and all that manpower spent on military RND, still decided to devote the same amounts of resources/effort directly to other problems e.g. in medicine. After all people would still have suffered from disease, accidents, psychological distress and all the other risks of human life. But I may be wrong. If I am wrong, if conflict and war are necessary triggers for us to do our best in areas like medicine, then I’d consider that a strong reason for attempting genetical enhancement of the human genome, perhaps along the lines of what Persson & Savulescue argue in their Unfit for the future.

37

Peter T 08.19.15 at 8:47 am

If we mobilise and allocate resources to some general end, then we are immediately in the spheres of internal politics. Why these people and these ends, and not these other people and ends? People will go to war – or yield to war – what they would not otherwise (see the Maryland slave-owners who refused to be bought out, but did not contest forceful emancipation).

Moreover, there is no compelling reason for any major group to forgo income, suffer loss or have lifestyles upended. Move the issue to one of group survival/aggrandisement and these problems are much diminished. So war, or something similar, has driven not just invention, but mobilisation of resources, social re-arrangements, massive investments and sustained efforts over many decades that it is hard to see happening otherwise.

38

John Quiggin 08.19.15 at 9:03 am

@Chris & ccc I think this is another example of Bastiat’s “that which is not seen”. War gives great urgency to the “D” part of R&D, at the expense of R. This can produce some impressive short run payoffs. To be counted against that are the vast numbers of young scientists whose careers were interrupted (or ended in death) because of military service, and older scientists who were shifted from fundamental research to activities more directly relevant to the war effort.

This is an important point, and I plan to include it when I revise this section. Do any readers have specific examples that would be apposite, for example, promising young scientists killed in war.

39

novakant 08.19.15 at 9:05 am

So what if war didn’t come with opportunity costs, brought economic benefits to the countries waging it and achieved the desired goals (such as “democratization”, getting rid of dictators) in the countries were it was waged?

Shorter me: War cannot be justified by utilitarian calculations, it might sometimes be justified in some sense or other, but it is by definition always wrong.

40

Andrew Fisher 08.19.15 at 9:24 am

Firstly if you are going to consider the opportunity cost of war rather than peace, you need to establish the actual cost of the war, and differentiate that from the cost of the peacetime military establishment. Soldiers are paid, equipped and trained in peace as well as war so much of the cost of any individual war is not a true opportunity cost.

Secondly, you need to address the standard defence of peacetime military spending, which is couched in terms of insurance. I certainly recognise that I lose money on average by buying insurance, since otherwise my insurers would go out of business, but I am content to turn the risk of catastrophic loss into the reality of affordable losses. Peacetime military spending in the US and similar western democracies is certainly very affordable. The success of this analogy to insurance therefore depends on understanding how we can quantify the likelihood of something catastrophic happening (which we probably can’t, in any meaningful way) and just how catastrophic it would be (possibly more interesting as an issue for an economist).

Thirdly we must surely acknowledge that a cost/benefit analysis about going to war is made by two actors – in this case governments – just as a decision to trade in a market is made by the market participants. Both decisions have externalities which are not very helpfully considered as opportunity costs, it seems to me.

41

Peter T 08.19.15 at 9:34 am

“War gives great urgency to the “D” part of R&D, at the expense of R”

Preparing for war focuses on the R. See, for instance, the British and French investments in food preservation, navigation, hydrography, etc, all carried on over decades. Or the US investment in reliable aircraft engines in the 20s and 30s. Or the internet.

My point is not that war can be justified on utilitarian grounds – it cannot. The point is that mobilising large resources and directing them at some wide-ranging end is not something the market does well, or often at all. For a state to do it, it must have some collective end in view, and that end has often been either conquest or defence.

42

ccc 08.19.15 at 9:37 am

John @ 38: “War gives great urgency to the “D” part of R&D, at the expense of R”
Sounds correct in general. But we have two questions here:
1 For some fixed amount of R&D resources does war cause a shift of some R to D?
2 Does war cause an increase in the amount of R&D resources? (Due to the kind of urgency effect Chris B mentioned as a possibility.)

“Do any readers have specific examples that would be apposite, for example, promising young scientists killed in war.”

I do not on the spot recall any such case. By comparison it is very easy (for me) to recall cases that fit the “did military research during the war that later had positive spinoff effects” pattern e.g. Turing. But it is much harder to know of, and even harder to recall as vividly, some would/could be Turings who were snuffed out early by war even if there were a lot of them compared to the actual Turing and the many details of his life that we have available. I suspect there could be a psychological tendency to in hindsight want to see war as having had positive spinoff effects, to make the obvious awfulness of it seem a little bit less abhorrent.

43

ajay 08.19.15 at 9:42 am

What is true of natural disasters is even more true of the disasters we inflict on ourselves and others. Of these human-made calamities, the greatest is war. The wars engaged in by the US, Australian and other governments come at the opportunity cost of domestic programs that could save thousands of lives every year. The cost of war, in terms of American (and Australian) lives, is many times greater than battlefield casualty counts would suggest.

The same is surely true, even more so, of the insanely destructive wars waged by the (North) Vietnamese. Thirty years of war, at staggeringly high cost in lives and resources, against first Japan, then France, and then South Vietnam and its US and Australian allies. Think of how much happier and wealthier they would be had they decided to remain a peaceful French territory! Is it really worth the slaughter of millions to avoid being, basically, a big Martinique?

44

ajay 08.19.15 at 9:45 am

“Do any readers have specific examples that would be apposite, for example, promising young scientists killed in war.”

Harry Moseley, “the greatest experimental physicist of the twentieth century”, killed at Gallipoli. Bohr (I think) said that even if no one else had died, the death of Harry Moseley alone was enough to make the First World War an unbearable tragedy.

45

ccc 08.19.15 at 9:56 am

Andrew Fisher: “Peacetime military spending in the US and similar western democracies is certainly very affordable.”
How do you reach that conclusion? In terms of actual decrease in risk for bodily harm for the individual the “military insurance” appears to be wastly overpriced yet still “overconsumed” compared to a possible “traffic safety insurance”. Diverting resources from military R&D to traffic safety R&D would, I’d wager, have better expected benefits in terms of the number of american lives saved.

It may also be useful in general to channel Corey Robin on the notion of security here:

“Unlike other values — say justice or equality — the need for and definition of security is not supposed to be dependent upon our beliefs or other interests and it is not supposed to favor any one set of beliefs or interests. It is the necessary condition for the pursuit of any belief or interest, regardless of who holds that belief or has that interest. It is a good, as I’ve said, that is universal and neutral. That’s the theory.

The reality, as we have seen, is altogether different. The practice of security involves a state that is rife with diverse and competing ideologies and interests, and these ideologies and interests fundamentally help determine whether threats become a focus of attention, and how they are perceived and mobilized against. The provision of security requires resources, which are not limitless. They must be distributed according to some calculus, which, like the distribution calculus of any other resource (say income or education), will reflect controversial and contested assumption about justice and will be the subject of debate. National security is as political as Social Security, and just as we argue about the latter, so do we argue about the former.

Even when it comes to the existential survival of the state, diverse constituencies will respond to that threat in diverse ways, depending upon their proximity to physical danger, their identification with the state, the level of sacrifice that might be expected of them, and so on.”
https://www.jacobinmag.com/2012/12/yours-mine-but-not-ours/

46

Asteele 08.19.15 at 10:14 am

43: I’m glad our resident, hey colonialism is great comm enter is here, seemingly obvlious to the views of the every one who as lived under it;

47

PGD 08.19.15 at 10:39 am

I think Rich @ 5 & 14 and Peter T @ 26-27 are very much on to something. I take their message as being that JQ is in some sense missing the point. If human beings in general accepted the rationalist, pragmatic assumptions that are the basis of his analysis, war would be vanishingly rare. It isn’t. The reason for that is not that people have overlooked JQ’s points, but that they simply don’t care about them. They care about other things. That doesn’t mean anything JQ is saying is wrong, or that it might not be useful for him to make the argument in the hope that more people will adopt his perspective. The book is after all about the economic perspective and it’s useful to make clear the irrationality of war from that perspective. But it would also be useful to come to a deeper understanding of the psychological and social-structural (re Peter T’s point) underpinnings of war.

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PGD 08.19.15 at 10:45 am

From a more purely economic perspective, it is also useful to think about the potential macroeconomic benefits of war. This seems to be visible in e.g. the US mobilization for WWII, and maybe even in post-war European economic miracle. This is a tricky issue as wars obviously can be very destructive from a macro perspective as well (Europe between WWI and WWII). I think these benefits are only in part Keynesian in a crude way — they also seem highly dependent on specific institutional changes associated with specific wars. It is also always possible to argue that one could get these benefits to through some other form of mass economic mobilization, some ‘moral equivalent of war’, but here one runs into Rich and Peter T.’s point again — societies seem willing or able to mobilize around war in a way they aren’t around other things.

49

ZM 08.19.15 at 11:07 am

John Quiggin,

“Do any readers have specific examples that would be apposite, for example, promising young scientists killed in war.”

I went to a talk on the topic of science and war for the ANZAC Centenary lectures a couple of months ago.

It was very interesting as before WW1 Australia was a rural and resource economy it had no national science policy then Billy Hughes started a national science organisation headed by the Governor General, Governors of the States, and Australia’s University Chancellors.

Germany had a national science policy earlier than this, due to nationalism and industrialism.

Scientists played varying roles. One invented a terrible poison gas for instance and when it was used in battle his wife shot herself. The most talented scientist who died was Henry Moseley:

“Henry Moseley : The Single Most Costly Death Of The War

… On this scale of genius cut short, the death of Henry Moseley on 10 August 1915, at the age of only 27, might make his life the most fleetingly brilliant of all. His death is all the more poignant for what he might have achieved. In a few short years he laid out the basis for the modern periodic table, predicted the elements that would fill in the gaps and showed that x-rays could be a supreme analytical tool. Few achieve in a lifetime of research what he achieved in a career of just 40 months.

The Gallipoli campaign, the failure of which would consign Churchill to two decades in the political wilderness, needed reinforcements. … Among the carnage Henry Moseley was cut down, three months before his 28th birthday. Isaac Asimov called it ‘the single most costly death of the war’.

It is impossible to predict what else he might have turned his penetrating mind to, but Joseph Nordgren, an x-ray specialist at Uppsala University, thinks Moseley could have counted on a Nobel prize. Indeed, he was nominated for the 1914 prize for physics. …. Nordgren says that Manne Siegbahn, who was awarded the 1924 prize for his work on x-rays, didn’t make a tangible discovery. ‘Siegbahn’s improvements made other discoveries possible. But if you want to find a distinct discovery [by Siegbahn], a paper for example, it’s very hard’…. His improvements, impressive as they were, were built on an earlier discovery. The discovery was Moseley’s.

Moseley then, was both lucky and tragically unlucky. Lucky that he lived in an age where science became more open and more exciting with each new discovery. Unlucky that he also lived in an age where war was seen as a game, and years of relative peace had erased the pain of bloodshed from the collective memory.”

http://prospect.rsc.org/blogs/cw/2013/08/12/henry-moseley-single-most-costly-death-war/

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JohnTh 08.19.15 at 11:12 am

The benefit that supporters of war tend to cite is that maintaining armed forces and using them leads to being enslaved and thus in principle losing everything (a loss equivalent to many trillions).

In some respects therefore the decision to maintain significant armed forces is a classic prisoners’ dilemma – if a nation could be certain that the others would disarm, then they would too. However, to have insignificant armed forces in a world where others have very large armed forces does seem to expose one to genuine long term risks (the US is partially an exception to this as logistically it is hard for Eurasian powers to get at). Therefore most nations maintain reasonably substantial armed forces for rational reasons.

An argument could then be made (on the basis of some of the more socio-historic type reasons listed above) that waging limited war is an inevitable concomitant cost of maintaining significant armed forces – it’s simply not realistic in practice to have all this massively expensive armed potential lying around and not use it some of the time, and historically almost all significant armed forces seemed to get used for foreign adventures or squashing internal dissent occasionally (although in some cases like Egypt and China they take odd detours into becoming business conglomerates). Therefore it could be argued that bigger nations are faced with a stark choice between A) the package of significant armed forces + occasional limited war or B) eventually being overrun. This doesn’t reject your logic that each individual limited war is a pointless waste, but it puts a context as to why we seem to be stuck with them regardless.

Incidentally I have seen this line of argument used (can’t remember where) to defend a military posture for the UK that consists almost entirely of the Trident nuclear missile system and nothing else. You can prevent a catastrophic invasion of the UK with Trident but it’s completely useless for waging limited war with, thus saving us a fortune in additional war expenditure….

51

Cheryl Rofer 08.19.15 at 12:10 pm

A quick google search on John’s #38 request for scientists who died in war gave this story of Russian botanists who died in the siege of Leningrad in World War II. Henry Moseley has been mentioned upthread. I suspect that more might be found with more intensive searching.

More anecdotally, there was a great exodus from Los Alamos after the war to return to the scientists’ more usual pursuits at their universities, so great that there was serious doubt that Los Alamos would survive. This tends to support the idea that the work that is done in wartime is not the first choice scientists would make on their own. Whether that is a benefit or not depends on the values one puts on the more applied work of wartime or the more basic science that most university scientists prefer. I think that would be hard to quantify.

Whether World War II accelerated progress toward peaceful nuclear energy is, it seems to me, also a difficult question. Fission was investigated before the war and understood to some degree. Physical parameters were determined that were necessary for civilian development, but the requirements of nuclear weapons and energy production diverge, particularly in practical aspects like reactor design. I’ve recently argued that habits of mind and managerial practices carried over from the military in fact damaged the civilian program later.

Not a clear plus or minus in my mind.

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Phil Koop 08.19.15 at 12:17 pm

“Do any readers have specific examples that would be apposite, for example, promising young scientists killed in war.”

There was also Karl Schwartzchild, for whom the familiar “Schwartzchild metric” and “Schwartzchild radius” are named. He was hardly young, being over 40 when he signed up, but I think it’s fair to say his career was cut short given that he produced three ground-breaking papers while actually at war.

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Trader Joe 08.19.15 at 12:20 pm

I share the thought articulated above that utility and opportunity cost aren’t usually the main deciders of the go/no go reason for war. There are any number of even fairly mundane actions that seem to bypass the brain of ‘economic man’ and go right for the heart (or other soft bits) of reactionary man or even neadrathal man.

The other thought I’d like to introduce is the idea that there is a divergence of opportunity costs between the victors of war and those defeated. I think its probable that the opportunity cost is negative in both cases – but those who find themselves with the need to rebuild have the opportunity, at least over the long-term, to reconstruct in a way that might create growth rates capable of overcoming the upfront loss – Japan and Germany come to mind, although I think its been proved that even the great economic successes these enjoyed don’t compensate the loss.

Still, its clearly a different path than that plotted by say the US/UK as victors or even Italy or France who didn’t see the same reconstruction opportunities.

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David 08.19.15 at 12:23 pm

As often, I think there are several different ideas here which need to be distinguished from each other. Simplifying, they are (1) the costs and effects of war (2) the utility of war, as opposed to other theoretical options, as a policy tool (3) the attractions political, economic or other of war as an option, (4) the economic effects of defence spending in peacetime and (5) the way in which governments make spending choices more generally. Different arguments apply in each case.
All Eisenhower’s speechwriter was saying is that, as we all know, a given amount of money can only be spent on one thing. If I buy I copy of your book, then I can’t send the same money to a charity supporting Syrian refugees. Everything, in other words, has an opportunity cost all the time. It’s wrong to assume, though, that the actual process of deciding government spending works like this: in no government I have ever known do explicit trade-offs between social and defence programmes take place. Usually it’s an anarchic free for all in which political power translates into higher budgets. There’s no reason at all to suppose that in practice reductions in the defence budget would be reflected in increases in, say education.
Ironically, something very like the opportunity cost argument nearly lost Britain and its allies the Second World War: the orthodox Treasury view, echoed in many other countries, was that defence spending could not be increased, because this would have to be at the expense of other programmes, or higher taxation, both of which were regarded as impossible. Fortunately, the Soviet Union had a different approach to opportunity cost analysis, and built up its military at the same time as investing massively in education, infrastructure and social programmes. Which is a good thing, or we’d be having this discussion in German, if we were having it at all.
Eisenhower was not talking about wars. If he had been, he would be disowning the very operations of which he was the supreme commander. He was talking about peacetime defence expenditure, which increased enormously in the US in the 1950s, and worried a lot of people because of its political implications. I think we’ve got over at least some of those worries, for two reasons. First, most military spending does not go on wars, but on supporting foreign and security policies. Britain and France retain nuclear weapons as status symbols, because of rivalry with each other, as a way of remaining P5 members, to preserve their positions with the US etc, even if they are hypothetically also available for practical use. But in both cases the opportunity cost (from a fixed defence budget) is other programmes, not some hypothetical social spending bonanza. Likewise, Sweden had (and still has) a relatively high defence profile as a way of underlining its neutrality and commitment to territorial integrity, not because it’s going to try to take back Norway. Second, much “defence” spending is actually indistinguishable from non-defence spending. In most militaries, around half the budget goes on personnel, many of whom are civil servants, and their related costs. Much of the rest goes on civilian purchases, ranging from fuel and clothing to commercial vehicles and civilian electronics components. The idea that defence spending is an “arms bill” that can be traded against higher social spending is an anti-militarist myth. (Incidentally, some defence spending has direct social benefits: French military teaching hospitals are among the best in the country and are open to all).
This is not to argue for more (or less) spending on defence, simply to point out that the opportunity cost arguments are actually rather complicated. It’s certainly true that military interventions have a long record of failure, and that most of these failures have been very expensive. No argument there. But how, methodologically, do you identify the opportunity cost of (say) the 2003 Gulf War? Would the money have been spent on poverty reduction in the US? On tax cuts for those with too much money already? On other military programmes? There’s also a difference between opportunity costs and simple alternatives – political solutions are always cheaper, but can’t necessarily address the problem.

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Z 08.19.15 at 12:28 pm

Do any readers have specific examples that would be apposite, for example, promising young scientists killed in war.

In a book about economics, the name of W.Döblin could probably appear (his works anticipated what we would now call Ito or stochastic calculus; his biography of a Jewish German born in 1915, exiled in France in 1933 and dying in 1940 is also a good synthesis of the opportunity cost of war). In France, the logician J.Cavaillès is also frequently quoted (though he had already fulfilled his promise when he died, I guess).

For promising scientists, one can think of the 60% casualty rate suffered by the class of 1910 at the École Normale Supérieure. Compared to the fate of those who did survive, it is hard to believe that none of the names appearing in the link below would have remained in the history of science.

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Z 08.19.15 at 12:30 pm

OK, link fail, google “monument aux morts en landowski” if interested.

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Njnnja 08.19.15 at 12:33 pm

WW2 created the conditions for the post-WW2 boom, or at least, ended the Great Depression. From the left, one can argue a simple Keynesian story that government war spending got us out of the depression directly, or from the right, one can argue that WW2 created the conditions necessary to escape the sub-optimal equilibrium of the Great Depression (namely, a bad economy made democracies want more statist policies, which, under this critique, hurt the economy further).

Whether you believe that the lack of animal spirits needed some goosing by government, or that the only way to curtail the negative effects of statist New Deal policies was something as disruptive as total war, both explanations seem to fit the clear observation that the US stopped seeing 25% unemployment after the war.

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Ronan(rf) 08.19.15 at 12:45 pm

” The book is after all about the economic perspective and it’s useful to make clear the irrationality of war from that perspective. But it would also be useful to come to a deeper understanding of the psychological and social-structural (re Peter T’s point) underpinnings of war.”

There’s a difference here, I think , between why individuals fight in/ support wars and why states do. States or organisations could more plausibly be seen as behaving instrumentally than individuals.
Also, Noting that people fight for honour , relationships, in group solidarity etc also allows for more scope in managing peoples violent urges. If the perpetrator of a violent act thinks what they do is right, it means there are ways of developing norms and structures that could channel their exuberance more positively. Afaik this is what a lot of violence intervention programs do.
This is where rich is wrong, IMO. Afaict he imagines violence is pathological, the result of some deeply ingrained desire to dominate. Where in reality it seems to be primarily moral, a desire to right a perceived wrong.

59

Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 1:00 pm

I think that PGD @ 47/48 understands what I’d meant. As for this:
“It is also always possible to argue that one could get these benefits to through some other form of mass economic mobilization, some ‘moral equivalent of war’, but here one runs into Rich and Peter T.’s point again — societies seem willing or able to mobilize around war in a way they aren’t around other things.”

I’ll respond with a quote from Keynes _General Theory_ (sorry if the quote has appeared in this series already, which it probably has since it’s so apt):

When involuntary unemployment exists, the marginal disutility of labour is necessarily less than the utility of the marginal product. Indeed it may be much less. For a man who has been long unemployed some measure of labour, instead of involving disutility, may have a positive utility. If this is accepted, the above reasoning shows how ‘wasteful’ loan expenditure may nevertheless enrich the community on balance. Pyramid-building, earthquakes, even wars may serve to increase wealth, if the education of our statesmen on the principles of the classical economics stands in the way of anything better.

Pyramid-building is the example I’d like to focus on. Old sand Middle Kingdom Egyptian society needed a mass economic mobilization in order to build these tombs, and the tombs were arguably useless (except perhaps for purposes of cultural solidarity) but at least not actively destructive in the ways that wars and earthquakes are. I thought I saw referenced somewhere, but can’t find, a historical-economic paper that argued that this pseudo-Keynesianism was an active factor in the long-term success of Egyptian society of this period. Not just in terms of the spending itself, but also in terms of large-scale social projects requiring the creation of the social coordination and infrastructure needed to build them.

LFC upthread mentions “human nature”, but I’m not talking about some kind of immutable human nature. Research on authoritarian personalities hasn’t, to my knowledge, been done cross-culturally in any serious way, but I go under the working assumption that attraction to a specific kind of social domination is cultural, and is common within imperial cultures.

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Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 1:03 pm

Oops. Should have been “Old and Middle Kingdom”.

61

reason 08.19.15 at 1:22 pm

“Harry Moseley, “the greatest experimental physicist of the twentieth century”, killed at Gallipoli. Bohr (I think) said that even if no one else had died, the death of Harry Moseley alone was enough to make the First World War an unbearable tragedy.”

Being a skeptical of the “great man” theory of history, I’m not sure I can see it this way. If his loss was such a tragedy, can we see it in a chart of the rate of technological progress (not that his loss was not a personal tragedy). It seems to me the amount of resources devoted to basic research is more important than individual contributions, no matter much our human nature wants to see it otherwise.

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Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 1:46 pm

Ronan(rf): “Afaict he imagines violence is pathological, the result of some deeply ingrained desire to dominate. Where in reality it seems to be primarily moral, a desire to right a perceived wrong.”

Just as I’m not aware of many people who have done calm, economic-rational cost benefit analysis of war and come to the conclusion that wars have net benefits, I’m not aware that many people have thought morally about war as a way of righting perceived wrongs and come to the conclusion that they are morally good ways of doing so. Moral writing about war tends to come to the opposite conclusion, for obvious reasons within the consensus system of morality that most people in our contemporary culture(s) hold to .

I don’t know how you separate out a poorly thought through “desire to right a perceived wrong” from what I’ve described. If I said that when someone gets in my way I like to punch them in the face, that’s “a desire to right a perceived wrong”, isn’t it?

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LFC 08.19.15 at 2:03 pm

John Quiggin @30

LeitrimNYC @23 Good catch! I meant to refer to spending on educational and social programs (fixed now). As regards the cost effectiveness of the total aid program, even allowing for colossal waste it has to be better than 500 extra combat troops (a 5 per cent increase).

(1) Unless I’m misremembering something, the NATO/ISAF combat operations in Afghanistan ended at the end of 2014. There are special ops forces and trainers remaining, but afaik no non-Afghan soldiers in Afghanistan are any longer engaged in combat missions (or whatever the correct terminology is) against the Taliban (and related groups).

(2) There could have been no USAID spending in Afghanistan at all, afaik, if the Taliban were still in power. The tradeoff examples, istm, have to be considered against the background fact that the military intervention from Oct 2001 is what made the aid missions possible in the first place. Against that backdrop I suppose it is legit to discuss tradeoffs — how much each additional combat soldier took away from education funding, e.g. — but it shd also be acknowledged that a lot of the aid was either ill-spent or resulted in projects (such as roads) that are now crumbling b.c the Afghan govt did not maintain them. Discussing aid in a conflict zone as if it were equivalent to aid in a non-conflict zone seems unhelpfully oversimplified to me. At some point the “colossal waste” (and corruption) in aid in Afghanistan to which JQ refers will overwhelm the benefits to people of a given aid project. Depends on the specifics on the ground.

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LFC 08.19.15 at 2:08 pm

To put the point in (2) above another way, without the invasion of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 there would be virtually no girls attending school because the Taliban would still be in power. Not to acknowledge this when discussing how many more girls (and boys) could have been enrolled in school if only there had not been so much spent on the military aspect seems a little strange.

65

jake the antisoshul soshulist 08.19.15 at 2:12 pm

@ reason
“Great Men” are usually just the focus of certain movements and changes.
But, science is given to leaps forward due to individual breakthroughs. As the quote
“standing on the shoulders of giants” indicates, there must be a foundation of knowledge
for the genius to leap from. Without Einstein, some one else would have developed the theory of relativity, but it could have taken many more years.
I do agree that basic research is critical for two reason. First, you have to have the data from which to infer the next step. And second, we cannot count on genius.

66

UserGoogol 08.19.15 at 2:21 pm

I think people need to mark the difference between being non-rational and being irrational. People don’t make their actions because of an explicit cost-benefit analysis and that’s fine, (people aren’t and shouldn’t try to be perfect utility maximizers) but if their actions wildly fail to meet a cost-benefit analysis, that’s still bad.

Of course, if the argument is that there’s other benefits which aren’t being taken into account (and some of the replies here are making that argument) well then that’s different. But simply saying humans aren’t utility maximizers doesn’t address the issue that war seems to cause costs in excess of its benefits.

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LFC 08.19.15 at 2:21 pm

R.Puchalsky
I’m not aware that many people have thought morally about war as a way of righting perceived wrongs

Some people in the past have thought about war in these terms, though whether they were right to have done so is a separate question. For example, Grotius’s three ‘just causes’ for war were: self-defense; recovery of property; infliction of (deserved) punishment for a wrong that had been committed.

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LFC 08.19.15 at 2:28 pm

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David 08.19.15 at 2:30 pm

“I’m not aware that many people have thought morally about war as a way of righting perceived wrongs.”

The discussion here is rather narrowly focused on western wars of choice. If we take “war” to be a special case of “conflict”, then of course there is a long history of groups resorting to struggle as a way of righting a perceived wrong. The ANC in South Africa is a good case in point, not least because this was not a rational, cost-benefit analysis, but rather a moral position that many of them found it impossible to avoid taking.
Likewise, as Clausewitz said, it takes two sides to make a war. If one side simply surrenders, there’s no war. The French and Italian resistance movements are good examples of people who refused to accept surrender, and turned to violent resistance, even although the opportunity costs of so doing were considerable, and there was little prospect of success. For the side being attacked, there is an opportunity cost in not fighting. If the French had not resisted in 1914, for example, quite a lot of brilliant people might have died, but all sorts of other negative stuff might have happened.

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Philip 08.19.15 at 2:32 pm

The quote from Eisenhower seems a bit ‘zero summish’ to me, like saying all the money spent on sports, the arts, or other entertainment could he spent on nurses, teachers, and doctors. Could the revenue used for war really be raised for other government spending programmes? Or the GI bill, would the government have funded that many university places in other circumstances? This is where opportunity cost gets too fuzy for me with so many counterfactuals and the law of unintended consequences, while it’s still a useful concept trying to actually calculate it seems meaningless. How many of the people killed before going to university would have been great scientists otherwise? Plus my instinct is to include the costs to the other side even if the decision makers don’t, it is basically a negative externality so you should have the invaders giving compensation, the invaded paying a bribe, and diplomacy used as a way to get an agreement.

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Stephen 08.19.15 at 2:47 pm

Rich@61: “I’m not aware that many people have thought morally about war as a way of righting perceived wrongs and come to the conclusion that they are morally good ways of doing so”.

I thought there was rather a long tradition, from Augustine and Aquinas onwards, of moral philosophers doing exactly that?

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Stephen 08.19.15 at 2:52 pm

Two possibly relevant quotations from my possibly unreliable memory:
Voltaire: a rational army would all run away.
Clausewitz (summarised): it is when an army retreats in disorder that it suffers really heavy casualties.

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novakant 08.19.15 at 2:59 pm

without the invasion of Afghanistan in Oct. 2001 there would be virtually no girls attending school because the Taliban would still be in power.

This is of course complete nonsense: you have no way of knowing what would have happened had the US not invaded and the US invasion didn’t actually stop the Taliban, did it? In fact there were a number of diplomatic options available that would very likely have done a much better job of reigning in the Taliban than the slaughter unleashed upon Afghanistan.

This bellicose “humanitarian” logic (we need to destroy them to save them) is just sickening.

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Greg Sanders 08.19.15 at 3:20 pm

John Quiggin: Thanks for the update. I’m following your logic there now.

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ajay 08.19.15 at 3:33 pm

Do any readers have specific examples that would be apposite, for example, promising young scientists killed in war.

There might also be a list of promising young scientists saved by war; for example, all those who fled continental Europe for Britain in the 1930s and who would, if Britain had not fought against Germany, probably have ended up being murdered.

76

Alice Thomas 08.19.15 at 4:04 pm

I once hired a superintendent for construction on a small tract in Southern California who had an interesting observation – acquired from his military service in Korea

“It was the most miserable real estate and weather that I had ever seen – so why didn’t we just buy the damn country? It would have been cheaper.”

And it would not have involved killing so many (my comment).

77

LFC 08.19.15 at 4:12 pm

novakant @72
I wasn’t saying the invasion of Afghanistan was A Good Thing. I was merely pointing out it’s likely the Taliban would still be in power w/o the invasion and thus it’s likely there would be no girls attending school. I’m not saying the invasion was justified b.c it resulted in girls attending school (indeed I don’t think that in itself could have justified or did justify the invasion), simply pointing out that was a result. Hence your charging me with “bellicose ‘humanitarian’ logic” is a misreading of my comment.

I notice you don’t bother to address the main point of my comment: namely, that the discussion of tradeoffs and aid in a conflict zone shd take into account various background circumstances. JQ says USAID could have spent more on education in Afghanistan if so much hadn’t been spent on the military there, and I was simply pointing out that USAID would not and could not have been in Afghanistan at all, afaik, if there had not been an invasion. I don’t know the extent which the Taliban, when in power, allowed aid agencies and NGOs to operate, but I suspect it was fairly restrictive. Somehow I thought that’s relevant, but perhaps to the specific pt JQ is making it isn’t. I’m not sure.

78

LFC 08.19.15 at 4:15 pm

Stephen
I thought there was rather a long tradition, from Augustine and Aquinas onwards, of moral philosophers doing exactly that?

Yes. As I tried to point out @66 and 67.

79

LFC 08.19.15 at 4:23 pm

Further to novakant:
I tend to be, in general, skeptical of ‘humanitarian intervention’ as a claimed ground for intervention. I don’t completely dismiss it out of hand a priori, but I am skeptical. In the case of Afghanistan, *if* the invasion was justified the justification does not relate to ‘humanitarian intervention’ but to an interp. of the self-defense provision in the UN Charter. Whether that argument is persuasive can be left for another occasion.

80

Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 4:47 pm

If LFC and David want to argue by truncating a quoted sentence without notation (and in David’s case, even putting in a period), then they can. But the sentence was “I’m not aware that many people have thought morally about war as a way of righting perceived wrongs and come to the conclusion that they are morally good ways of doing so.” In particular, Aquinas / Augustine just war theory has little to do with serious moral analysis of contemporary wars, and generally amounts to admitting that they are almost all unjust or giving all of them and by extension almost any war a blanket moral pass.

81

LFC 08.19.15 at 5:09 pm

R.Puchalsky @79
The ‘righting perceived wrongs’ or ‘inflicting punishment’ aspect of just war theory, as laid out in the classical texts, probably doesn’t have all that much contemporary relevance — so to that extent we agree. Under int’l law and the UN Charter (as geo, among others, has frequently reminded us here), state X cannot decide that state Y has ‘wronged’ it in some way, even if it’s quite clear that state Y has ‘wronged’ it, and then proceed to attack Y. That’s barred by Art. 2(4) of the UN Charter. The exception is self-defense.

82

Greg 08.19.15 at 5:14 pm

I was going to make the point, like others, that a war requires two sides and there is a huge difference between the cost/benefit calculation of a war of choice, and that of a defensive war of survival, or say an insurgency.

But the extract in the OP specifically talks about discretionary overseas military interventions by Western powers, although it could make this even more explicit. I think LFC’s point stands about the relationship between invasion and aid programs, but most of the other wrinkles people have raised only come in when you generalize from these wars to War. As long as the book stays specific (the title doesn’t help IMO) I think they can be avoided.

83

LFC 08.19.15 at 5:14 pm

p.s. In *rare* cases ‘humanitarian intervention’ *might* also be an exception, but that remains controversial (obviously).

84

David 08.19.15 at 5:18 pm

#79. Cut and paste error. Like LFC I agree that these ideas have little contemporary relevance, and, indeed that they can be dangerous. That’s why I wanted to shift the argument, just a little, towards wider issues of the use of violence as opposed to other options, when you actually have been wronged. (And in South Africa, which I used as an example there was actually little doubt that wrongs had been committed and little doubt also that non-violent solutions could not right them.)
I think self-defence is a bit of a diversion. It’s an inherent right that states have always had, and if an invader crosses your border you obviously have the right to fight back. There again, states don’t always do so – think of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

85

Bruce Wilder 08.19.15 at 5:25 pm

On some very basic level, it seems almost a category error to apply cost-benefit analysis to the decision to fight (although cost-benefit analysis may be usefully applied to the business of organizing resources for the fight). In the parables of game-theory, you choose to cooperate or not-to-cooperate. To cooperate is to realize the benefits of cooperation. In traditional economic terms, cooperation is identified with specialization and trade. To cooperate in specialized production and trade sets up the context in which beneficial opportunities and opportunity costs arise: resources are applied to producing goods, and the choice of which goods to produce and which goods to trade on what terms presents itself.

To not-cooperate — to fight (among several non-cooperative behavioral options — is to take an alternative path, where the benefits of cooperation are deliberately foregone. The prime object of the non-cooperation of fighting is trade in bads. There’s no positive-sum game of trade in goods going on; instead, there’s a grim negative-sum game of destruction and the infliction of harm.

To observe that war seldom pays off in cost-benefit terms in comparison with cooperative trade leaves in ambiguous limbo, the extent to which one state of affairs contains the other, frames the other. The purpose of war — the continuation of policy by other means — must be peace, and cooperation — though perhaps on different terms than originally on offer. Peaceful cooperation in specialization and trade must, it is tirelessly emphasized even by the libertarian theorists, be contained and supported by the provision of public goods, including the administration of rules and the arbitration of disputes. What puts violence outside the strategic space, in which cooperative and mutually beneficial trade takes place, is a threat of violence.

A point that I have made to Plume with no effect is that the deeper the commitment to cooperation, the deeper the investments in specialization, the more points for conflict arise and the greater the stakes potentially in dispute: the opportunities to gain from strategic and opportunistic non-cooperation multiply. What I am referring to may correspond to the social landscape of structures Peter T cited earlier.

Just as natural disasters are simply the more extreme events of a continuous range of variability and consequent risk, that economies must deal with, so war is just an exercise in violence and non-cooperation on a greater scale. Violence and the threat of violence, usually on a smaller scale, is what contains cooperation in a strategic space that excludes many forms of non-cooperation as options. It isn’t narrowly rational in the sense of in which we calculate on costs and benefits within the container of cooperative production and trade, and cannot be, because it must provide that container.

This view of things puts war on a continuum with such phenomena as labor strife and altruistic punishment, as well as the public administration of justice and the private pursuit of torts. I doubt that most labor strikes or riots, viewed in isolation from their general and evolutionary effects on political, social and economic structures, pass a cost-benefit test. Sending a person to prison for a crime would not pass a cost-benefit test. In the classic exemplar of the playground bully, violence and the threat of violence is used to extract and extort; only where the bully is met with some countervailing power, whether the effective supervision of adult authority or cooperation among the bully’s targets or some heroic individual fighting back, can the circumstances for mutually beneficial cooperation be (re-)established.

I don’t offer this as justification for the pathological irrationality of war and violence, only as a criticism of ways of thinking about that pathology that overlook the difficult balancing of cooperation and conflict in a species with many cunning, devious, lazy, negligent, malevolent, stupid and ruthless individuals.

86

Bruce Wilder 08.19.15 at 5:50 pm

Alice Thomas, quoting another: “so why didn’t we just buy the damn country? It would have been cheaper.”

I think that’s a bit of a mystery.

On a general level, social and political psychology plays an important role and may offer opportunities for policy intervention. Rich offered a link upthread to Altemeyer’s work on the common political attitude cluster commonly known as authoritarian. Altemeyer’s work suggests that a social group that is too homogeneously made up of authoritarian followers is prone to pathological collective behaviors. In particular, authoritarian followers are prone to feeling hostile and fearful with reference to perceived out-groups, and experiments suggest that an homogenous group of authoritarian followers will both miss opportunities to cooperate and will provoke conflict with their propensity to be compulsively suspicious and hostile.

In less homogenous groups, where there are more cosmopolitan potential leaders, having some authoritarian followers actually strengthens the group’s ability to act coherently as a group, so it is not a simple question of those people being evil irredeemable racists, or whatever.

Another problem Altemeyer identifies is that authoritarian followers are not good judges of leadership character, and they are easily manipulated and misled by certain rhetorical tropes and dictatorial leadership styles, so people with what social psychologists sometimes call a social dominance orientation find it easy to demagogue them.

87

Antoni Jaume 08.19.15 at 6:11 pm

Chris Bertram 08.19.15 at 6:57 am

It has been a long time since I’ve decided that the relation between R&D and war is caused by the fact that the wealthy stand to lose everything if they lose the war. In peace time most find it preferable to ensure the poor do not get the full product of their work.

88

Ronan(rf) 08.19.15 at 6:23 pm

I said violence, not war. The reasons a group or state engages in war can be instrumental. The reason an individual engages in/or supports violence *can* be (and IMO primarily are) moral. The reason an individual supports or fights in a conflict is generally due to a perceived moral obligation, rather than an authoritarian character or desire to dominate.
A person doesnt have to be able to calculate a cost benefit analysis in a sophisticated manner for the concept to have some applicability to human decision making, and she doesnt have to be Augustine to live by a moral code. David mentions the ANC, but there’s no reason that violence enagaged through moral systems less understandable to educated western eyes (say the Taliban) arent also morally driven, or violence that is less excusable to ideological driven perspectives (say humanitarian interventions, or Iraq) arent perceived as the right thing to do by a lot of their architects. Think of the gang member who kills to avenge his friends death. This is usually seen as fulfilling an obligation to his friend and gang, a moral neccessity.
To talk about a moral belief system isnt to expect coherency, or to engage in moral relativism, but to think about how people conceptualise their behaviour, individually and within larger communities who share their values. Just because we might not share someones moral code doesnt mean it’s not a genuinely held system of values and obligations. So it is a distinction that matters IMO; whether your opponent is driven by character defects, or by contextually specific moral codes that make demands and tie them to obligations.

89

Ronan(rf) 08.19.15 at 6:25 pm

This is actually pretty far off topic, so I wont say anymore on it (my apologees to JQ for the derail)

90

Stephen 08.19.15 at 7:03 pm

Yonan: I realise the thread is wandering, but I do want to say that it doesn’t seem to me to matter a damn whether the Nazis were, or ISIL are, “driven by character defects, or by contextually specific moral codes that make demands and tie them to obligations”. I think one could make a fairly good case for the latter.

91

Stephen 08.19.15 at 7:03 pm

Ronan, dammit

92

Stephen 08.19.15 at 7:08 pm

Ric@79: is it that you aren’t denying that there is a centuries-long tradition of highly intelligent moral philosophers arguing about what is, or is not, a just war; but rather, that you don’t agree with their conclusions and so would prefer to ignore their existence?

93

Rich Puchalsky 08.19.15 at 7:56 pm

I’d rather get back to pyramids than debate whether when someone says that it’s time for the U.S. to “pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall” it’s a personality defect or adherence to a moral code or a forthright enjoyment of and advocacy for war. I think that pyramids are a useful way of decoupling the destructive / potentially beneficial aspects of disaster (things are broken, so there is the opportunity to rebuild them differently) from the constructive / potentially beneficial aspects of disaster (a reason to build something, even something useless, can produce good effects).

I do agree that the “authoritarian followers” as well as the “social dominators” that Altemeyer identifies are not simple bad guys. Since we can’t dissolve the people and appoint another one, their preferences have to be taken into account, and they often want things that are not what the median CT reader wants. It’s a mistake to treat war as if it’s this grinding negative-sum event for everyone when a significant part of the public goes along with war because it is positive for them.

94

Stephen 08.19.15 at 8:30 pm

Rich: we’re talking past each other. You want to discuss whether your values justify recent US wars. Maybe that’s the only thing worth talking about, for a USAian. A broader topic would be which values justify which wars, but that may not be what interests you.

95

Matt 08.19.15 at 8:44 pm

“But USAID can’t help the people of Afghanistan at all without US military protection” is a justifiable utilitarian argument only if USAID has run out of people to help in areas that are needy but not in the midst of armed conflict. There are more illiterate people in India than in Afghanistan, for instance, and additional schools in India can probably operate without the extraordinary measure of foreign military occupation.

96

LFC 08.19.15 at 8:48 pm

A point in JQ’s defense: as I read the OP, he’s not taking any position on the causes of war or the motives for fighting. He’s saying that whatever those causes may be in a particular case or in general, the money expended in fighting (and associated activities) could have been spent otherwise, often more productively/beneficially/whatever. At that level of generality, the point seems pretty hard to contest, and applying it to esp. misguided cases of the use of military force (e.g. ‘o3 invasion of Iraq etc.) brings it into sharper focus. (That still leaves open the issue of when force or violence might be necessary and/or defensible, with the armed struggle against apartheid, mentioned above by David, being a sort of paradigm instance of a fairly recent case where a strong, albeit not open-and-shut, argument cd be made for force. But I think it’s not directly relevant to the OP where the examples are mil. interventions abroad by the U.S. and allies.)

Also on the OP: the U.S. agencies’ use of ‘Value of Statistical Life’, although not surprising, is somewhat unfamiliar and non-intuitive (at least to me) and might need some elaboration, at least in a footnote.

—-

B. Wilder @84
I don’t think war (or ‘non-cooperation’) “contains” or “frames” cooperation. I’m not at all persuaded that war is on a continuum with the domestic administration of justice etc. A threat of ‘violence’ in the form of criminal prosecution may “contain cooperation in a strategic space” that excludes certain forms of non-cooperative behavior, but I think that’s quite different than the war issue. As for this — “The purpose of war … must be peace, and cooperation — though perhaps on different terms than originally on offer” — I’d say, from the initiator’s standpoint, always on different terms from those originally on offer; otherwise there’d be no reason to resort to war. (There is a whole contemp. literature on the ‘bargaining theory of war’, going back to Fearon’s ’95 article, but I don’t think JQ needs to engage it b.c he’s not addressing the causes of war. I can’t properly summarize the argument, prob. b.c I never studied it carefully, but there are various summaries, doubtless of varying degrees of accuracy, available online. Phil Arena had a good one on his blog a long time ago. I think it’s all basically irrelevant to the OP, though.)

97

LFC 08.19.15 at 9:07 pm

Matt @94

“But USAID can’t help the people of Afghanistan at all without US military protection” is a justifiable utilitarian argument only if USAID has run out of people to help in areas that are needy but not in the midst of armed conflict.

I was not making a utilitarian argument for, or about, anything! I was merely arguing that if one is going to say “for every additional U.S. soldier funded in Afghanistan, USAID can educate so-and-so-many additional children with the same amount of money,” then one should probably add, as a background or contextual statement, that this posited tradeoff would never have arisen in the first place if there had not been military action. It was a point about the expository framework of the example, a narrow point having to do with the narration or the exposition of this particular example. Period.

I was not saying that the military action in Afghanistan was justified because it allowed AID to go in there. In fact I think that particular argument, if offered as a justification for the invasion of Afghanistan, is quite absurd. I already said upthread the only possible justification that carries any weight w/ me is that it fit within the self-defense provision in the UN Charter, and I think that can prob. be argued both ways. I don’t know how I can be any clearer on this.

98

LFC 08.19.15 at 9:09 pm

Sorry, the blockquote above should end after the first paragraph. The rest of the comment is my response and shd not be in blockquotes.

99

Matt 08.19.15 at 9:35 pm

I was merely arguing that if one is going to say “for every additional U.S. soldier funded in Afghanistan, USAID can educate so-and-so-many additional children with the same amount of money,” then one should probably add, as a background or contextual statement, that this posited tradeoff would never have arisen in the first place if there had not been military action.

But the soldier/teacher tradeoff is still there without US soldiers in Afghanistan, if you are willing to fund more teachers for needy places that aren’t war zones instead of sending fewer teachers (and some soldiers) to needy places that are war zones. JQ even noted in the OP “Obviously there is plenty of room for more expenditure of this kind [education], in Afghanistan or elsewhere. So, the opportunity cost of keeping 35 soldiers in the field is school education for a million young people.” (My emphasis).

100

novakant 08.19.15 at 10:47 pm

Sorry LFC, I was a bit harsh – I have very little patience when it comes to discussing war, probably because some people very close to me have lived through wars as civilians and their perspective is completely different from most people discussing war in the abstract.

101

Timothy Scriven 08.19.15 at 11:24 pm

Re: OP- The Dead Kennedy’s disagree

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c9hYAQQFsoc

Another way of putting this- perverse political economy effects might mean that war is the only viable way to conduct a stimulus package, thus there’s no opportunity cost- since the only other alternative was a fall in aggregate demand because, for example, getting people to build infrastructure instead is not possible for political reasons.

102

Peter T 08.20.15 at 12:26 am

Let’s talk pyramids instead of wars (and may I recommend John Romer’s splendidly empathetic book on Early Egypt). Bunch of fishers/farmers/hunters who express their communal identity through rituals that include the dead build ever more elaborate tombs and religious sites. This feeds back into stronger organisation, which is applied to farming/fishing/defence/law, which generates more wealth, which feeds back into more elaborate tombs and associated temples….

An analysis which takes the wealth for granted would find all the tombs etc of negative value. But the tombs do not just consume wealth, they enable the production of wealth. Without them, you would just have a bunch of fishers/farmers/hunters in small huts, happy but poor.

States are our current pyramids. The ability to make war is an expression of the level of organisation that generates our wealth. They don’t have to make war (and indeed modern war is more likely to degrade than enhance their level of organisation), but they need to do something that, in economic terms, consumes wealth in order to generate the organisation that makes wealth.

103

Rich Puchalsky 08.20.15 at 12:52 am

Peter T: “They don’t have to make war (and indeed modern war is more likely to degrade than enhance their level of organisation), but they need to do something that, in economic terms, consumes wealth in order to generate the organisation that makes wealth.”

Yes, exactly. (Although I’d be more likely to say that “contemporary wars of choice are our pyramids” rather than “states are our current pyramids”: the states would seem to take the place of the organization of the fishers/farmers/hunters in the analogy). This is one of the things that I mean when I periodically say that we have a crisis of overproduction. Contemporary wars-of-choice are resource dumps: they consume what we need to have consumed to have society keep going. That’s why talking about the very high economic cost of a contemporary war of choice is not really an argument against them: they don’t work unless they cost a lot. It’s also why it doesn’t matter that they are generally all lost.

So, if we accept that the function of a contemporary war is to have a massive bonfire of resources, why not spend the resources positively (building infrastructure, etc.) as in JQ’s original post? We can’t spend the resources positively because that would destabilize the bottom of the social, metaphorical pyramid: the people at the bottom need to be desperate or the whole structure doesn’t work. But since contemporary wars of choice kill people by the millions in the attacked countries, it really would be better if we could build some literal pyramids that use up resources without harming people.

104

John Quiggin 08.20.15 at 12:53 am

States are our current pyramids. The ability to make war is an expression of the level of organisation that generates our wealth. They don’t have to make war (and indeed modern war is more likely to degrade than enhance their level of organisation), but they need to do something that, in economic terms, consumes wealth in order to generate the organisation that makes wealth.

Perhaps because I’m an Australian (we were long ago described as regarding the state as “a vast public utility”) I find this very strange. States have vast numbers of things they need to do, including those mentioned in the OP. The famous “fiscal crisis of the state” reflects the fact that the demands on states far outstrip the resources available to meet them.

105

Bruce Wilder 08.20.15 at 2:12 am

The experience of China during the 3rd century BCE, when the empire emerged out of the aptly named warring states period might be instructive.

The state of Qin undertook three great hydraulic projects, which served to moderate disruptive floods, irrigate vast tracts of arable land, facilitate trade and military transport. The first begun was the Dujiangyan irrigation system, which still exists and functions well apparently. The second, the Zhengguo Canal, named for its designer, is the subject of a charming legend. The king of Han, Qin’s neighbor to the east, hearing of Qin’s interest in costly water projects, sent the ambitious Zheng Guo to Qin, hoping that the young engineer’s penchant for promoting gargantuan projects, would lead Qin to exhaust itself. And, indeed, halfway thru the long, costly project, Zheng Guo was threatened with execution when the intention of the Han in sending him was discovered. He talked his way out of a tight spot, though and the great irrigation canal was finished, opening a vast arable tract. Qin was able to feed an enormous army and conquered first Han and then all of the states of China.

Qin Shi Huang, leading Qin for 25 years, declared himself emperor in 221 BCE, and ruled for just over an additional decade. As emperor, he is credited with initiating a series of ambitious projects, including the Great Wall, standardization of the currency, weights, measures and the written language, and a vast network of roads and canals, including a third great hydraulic project, the Lingqu Canal, which provided a vital link between the basins of the Yangtze and the Pearl River, beginning the integration of northern China with southern China. His tomb, guarded by its vast terracotta army, is a further testament to the organizational productivity of his regime.

106

Bruce Wilder 08.20.15 at 2:17 am

JQ: The famous “fiscal crisis of the state” reflects the fact that the demands on states far outstrip the resources available to meet them.

Or, possibly, it reflects the difficulty of solving problems of political coordination and breaking political stalemate. Which isn’t quite identical with a shortage of resources.

107

Bruce Wilder 08.20.15 at 2:27 am

LFC @ 96: I’m not at all persuaded that war is on a continuum with the domestic administration of justice etc.

Nor do I.

They may have common ancestry in the evolution of the state, but their last common ancestor is several centuries back, and for very good and excellent reasons, much effort has been invested in separating, and keeping separate, these domains for the (supposedly) rational regulation of force and violence by the state. None of that separation or the reasons for it seemed directly relevant to the OP, however.

108

david 08.20.15 at 2:51 am

Hmm. Since you mention Eisenhower – the defense of armed liberal internationalism is usually invoked in opposition to an equally caricatured depiction of post-Depression era of mostly-autarkic states interacting through bilateral and often secret negotiations

That is to say, the counterfactual is not a world in which Americans stay home but other things stay the same, but in which Americans stay home and the wider world is dominated by political movements hostile to liberal-democratic capitalism, which was once Soviet communism but now would be Islamic extremism, assorted east-of-Berlin, west-of-Japan ultranationalisms, etc. The economic (net) benefits of world trade in a world-system where GATT MFN norms dominate should be included. It might not be a system that one likes or regards as having positive net benefits – you can probably consult Plume for opinions – but nonetheless it should figure in the scales.

Japan today has no interest in conquering resource-rich regions of Asia, but it is also today a country that can just buy the oil and rubber that it needs. Yes, it might have to pay a high price for it, but that’s different from a total denial from a tolerably industrialized quality-of-life for a large portion of its people.

Conversely, a world-system where aggressive protectionist/territory-oriented ultranationalism is capable of acquiring prestige domestically (if perhaps unsustainably in the long-run, where we may all be literally dead) is not necessarily less armed in global terms. Neville Chamberlain had to put off domestic priorities in order to afford British rearmament, well before the Germany began actually picking off bits of Czechoslovakia.

109

Peter T 08.20.15 at 3:11 am

“the demands on states far outstrip the resources available to meet them.”

The demands on states have always outstripped the resources available. That’s what pushes them on. And they are always public utilities. If, however, they are only that, they tend to fail as disagreements over who constitutes the public and whose utility comes first erode their ability to function.

Some forms of war (Rome, Mongols, Britain) are a successful (for them) response to this pressure. The idiot Cheney thought that he could repeat Clive in Iraq, just as Hitler thought he could repeat Sheridan in Russia. But the cost/benefit calculation is beside the point. Pyramids – and the associated mortuary temples, priesthoods, embalmers, tomb complexes and so on consumed a large fraction of the wealth of Egypt, but they were the central organising element that drove the production of that wealth. We Australians have organised the state around the general welfare more than most, but the central mythos is still one of sacrifice and duty (Gallipolli and all that).

110

xyzzy 08.20.15 at 3:13 am

CCC@38:

Is military R&D different

In the US, it’s certainly run differently.

The civilian agencies (especially the NIH) tend to favor safe, incremental projects, but give individual researchers a lot of autonomy. There’s certainly bureaucratic oversight (e.g., for purchasing), but the grantees work independently and without much, if any, interim feedback. DARPA and the other defense/intelligence funding agencies prefer ambitious (sometimes overly so) moon-shots, often on aggressive timescales. Program managers run a portfolio of similar projects and do a lot of managing within and across those projects. These projects are also often structured as contracts with specific deliverables (build an X, design a Y, test Z under conditions A,B,C, etc), in contrast to the open-ended NIH/NSF grants.

In theory, a civilian agency could act either way. The NIH periodically makes noise about changing the grant system so they’re not (effectively) repaying people for work already done as “pilot data.” However, I suspect that the military agencies do have a little more latitude for trying and failing at ambitious or silly-sounding things–if nothing else, the military agencies have more bipartisan support.

111

john c. halasz 08.20.15 at 3:15 am

B.W @105:

Very fine pedantry!

112

b9n10nt 08.20.15 at 5:09 am

I already had the concept of
Externalities to hold my own at the dinner table,
and see Economic Democracy

So…Why do I need Opportunity Cost?

Because,
When the frame switches from
Economics as +/+ trade
To 
Economics as opportunity cost
We can switch the frame too
On the same Picture 

The intellect is always running to safety,
Isn’t it?

113

Maya 08.20.15 at 12:29 pm

Can the economist counter-factually calculate the costs of non-intervention in Syria? I mean, one knows how much an action costs, but how can we weigh this against the costs of non-action? Surely we’d need calculate all the sums spent for refugees, all the lost property and lives and the costs of a prolonged civil war that is very likely to have long term costly consequences, the costs of spill over to Iraq etc… Presumably much of this could have been prevented by an appropriate response of the international community at the end of 2011 – beginning of 2012. Of course, then comes the question: opportunity costs for whom?

114

Rich Puchalsky 08.20.15 at 1:03 pm

“Can the economist counter-factually calculate the costs of non-intervention in Syria?”

What is a “cost of non-intervention”? Let’s assume, based on historical precedent, that intervention in Syria would kill many people and that eventually stability would be achieved under the leadership of a new or old dictator who we sponsor who we “have” to attack and put down in turn in another decade. Since that’s the alternative to “non-intervention”, shouldn’t that be the cost comparison?

“Presumably much of this could have been prevented by an appropriate response of the international community at the end of 2011 – beginning of 2012” is assuming the conclusion to your argument in its premises. Is the international community the kindly social worker of nations, ready, willing, and able to make Syrians treat each other well no matter what their politics are?

115

Rich Puchalsky 08.20.15 at 1:15 pm

Peter T: “The demands on states have always outstripped the resources available. “

I don’t think that this is actually true any more. Certainly if “demand” is taken to mean “absolutely anything that someone imagines that they want” then it is true. But in terms of basic necessities and most basic luxuries of life, everything can be provided to everyone with redistribution. But most of the control structures of our societies are set up to prevent this redistribution and keep the bottom of society as desperate as can be managed. To return to the subject of the thread, I don’t think that it’s really possible to understand why people keep on having big bonfires of money without understanding that the money itself would lose its value unless many people were kept desperately needing it, and that it has to be consumed somehow without just giving it to them.

116

LFC 08.20.15 at 1:46 pm

david @108

Assuming, just for the sake of argument, that “a world-system where GATT [WTO] MFN norms dominate” is desirable (or more desirable than certain alternatives), I do not accept the view — which, for some, seems to be an article of faith — that the U.S.’s current global military footprint is necessary to keep that system in place. Cut the number of U.S. military bases around the world in half (from 700/800 to 300/400), and I doubt that the system of world trade would be much affected. Many of those U.S. bases don’t have much or anything to do with safeguarding trade routes and shipping lanes.

Should the U.S. be paying Djibouti tens of millions of dollars a year to lease a military base there, even assuming (which I don’t know is the case) that a certain fraction of those resources is devoted to fighting piracy in the Indian Ocean region? India wants to be a Great Power: let the Indian navy safeguard the shipping lanes in the region. Why does the U.S. have to do it? Having India do it would also presumably make less necessary the U.S. naval base on Diego Garcia, where the U.S. has been responsible for displacing a lot of the inhabitants (see David Vine’s book on it).

The Pentagon, which has the entire world divided into military commands, and the U.S. military-industrial-R&D complex have an obvious interest in keeping alive the proposition that the U.S. is (as Madeleine Albright notoriously put it) the “indispensable nation,” the only country capable of providing “global security.” But this is a self-fulfilling (or self-perpetuating), circular proposition, because as long as the U.S. keeps its defense budget so high, certain other countries can keep theirs relatively low. The U.S. is the only country that has seen fit to ring the entire world with military bases, and the base network has become self-perpetuating, its existence maintained by a combination of bureaucratic inertia, public inattention, and a steady stream of new supposed “threats” that require to be dealt with.

The only way to test whether the existing U.S. global base network and U.S. global military footprint are truly necessary for “global security” is to begin to reduce them and see what happens. If an increase in ‘chaos’ or terrorism or trade disruption ensues, the footprint can always be restored to its former dimensions. If the amount of ‘chaos’ and disruption stays roughly the same (or even goes down), then we will know that the existing base network was not necessary to “global security” and is simply a mechanism used by the U.S. defense establishment to perpetuate its current size and global reach.

(p.s. to david: you hyphenate “world-system,” but you don’t sound like an adherent of Wallersteinian world-systems analysis.)

117

Plume 08.20.15 at 3:49 pm

The idea of government redistribution downward, after the fact, has always struck me as pretty stupid, and it is incredibly ineffective. For it to be considered effective, there would be no need for permanence along those lines. And, to make matters worse, there is a permanent war against it, which guarantees its permanent weak-tea effects, etc.

A far smarter, more ethical, moral and humane way to do things would be to guarantee fair wages, trade, comp, benefits, etc. etc. up front — before the paychecks are even written. By law. By public writ. Then the government doesn’t have to “redistribute” much at all after the fact. And, of course, capitalism always redistributes radically, criminally upward, which then requires a counter move. “If this, then that” . . . Just reverse engineer this and don’t do the initial redistribution upward. Very little downward counter moves are then needed — at all.

___________

On the subject of our military basis and spending. The official count is roughly 700 bases, last time I checked. But we have hundreds of unofficial bases as well. Total Defense spending is well over one trillion, not counting wars. So it’s not just the “opportunity costs” of wars themselves that are tragic. Year in, year out, America wastes trillions of dollars, mostly on stuff that blows up, and to maintain personnel that comes in at less than 1% of the country.

There are very few things a government can do more wasteful than Defense/Offense spending. The vast majority of the country can’t and never will utilize** what is done in that realm, and most of the equipment has to be constantly replaced, even in “peace-time.” Though the latter designation is becoming more and more muddied by conditions. It seems we are never there.

**Exceptions being things like the Internet (DARPA, etc.)

118

Stephen 08.20.15 at 6:43 pm

LFC: “The only way to test whether the existing U.S. global base network and U.S. global military footprint are truly necessary for “global security” is to begin to reduce them and see what happens”.

Yes, that worked so well in Iraq and Afghanistan, didn’t it?

As for the US commitment to NATO, further reducing that might have some consequences I wouldn’t like to see, and I doubt if many Americans would like them either.

119

Igor Belanov 08.20.15 at 7:12 pm

Please enlighten us. It doesn’t involve T-34 tanks on the English Channel again does it?

120

LFC 08.20.15 at 8:10 pm

Stephen:
I don’t think a c0nversation between us on these issues will be very productive or illuminating. But I didn’t say anything specific about NATO. The U.S. and NATO have recently and publicly increased their visibility in and commitment to the Baltic states, which are NATO members. I have no particular problem with that. But on the broader question(s) we are probably not going to agree.

121

Plume 08.20.15 at 8:34 pm

Our military presence in the world tends to stir up warfare, terrorism and major strife. We cause a ton of it by our mere presence, which few in the world want outside arms merchants and the worldwide MIC. Then along come the warmongers who say, “See, we need more military presence to combat this!!” As in, to combat catastrophes that wouldn’t exist if we just minded our own business.

It’s more than just “blowback,” which we’ve received a thousand fold for the vast majority of our overseas military ventures. We cause major instability, pretty much wherever we go.

More “opportunity costs” there, because it’s a monster that feeds on its own errors. Sunk cost syndrome kicks in after this and it never ends.

No country in the world is a greater threat to “peace and stability” than the good ol’ USA, and it’s been that way at least for 70 years.

122

John Quiggin 08.20.15 at 11:13 pm

ajay @43 Agreed in advance! As I wrote a couple of years ago about the wars of the last 50 years ago

In no case have there been benefits remotely commensurate with the cost, for either side (for all the millions of lives lost, is Vietnam much different now than if the war had never been fought?).

You had a fair few comments on that post, so I’m glad to hear my words coming back to me.

123

Peter T 08.21.15 at 2:54 am

If the Vietnamese had spent some billions of money to achieve the current outcome, then it would be judged to have been worth the cost (at least to them). When they spend blood, the judgement is different.

124

john c. halasz 08.21.15 at 4:14 am

“The Laughing Boy”:

125

reason 08.21.15 at 9:23 am

Being always a skeptic, I’m not sure passivity is a real alternative to war either. We always have to fear the parasite, the Genghis Khan approach to life. If war never pays, why then are there parasites and carnivores (or why was there apparently successful feudalism and imperialism)?

126

Plume 08.21.15 at 2:28 pm

Reason,

No, the answer isn’t passivity. Not at all. It’s engagement via humanitarian, diplomatic, cultural exchange modes, etc. Vigorous engagement, if the other party or parties are willing. And they must be willing.

One of the biggest reasons why right-libertarians have this so wrong is that they want true “isolation,” other than business interactions. While they generally have the right idea about wars, they basically ruin all of that by hating the very concept of collective, international help. Ron Paul, for instance, fought for more than two decades to kill UNISEF and pretty much defund any and all humanitarian AID programs. What we really need is to reverse our thinking on this. Stop the wars, but radically increase our humanitarian aid, cultural exchange programs, scientific and educational exchange programs, as well as political diplomacy. To me, nothing could be more logical or obvious.

127

BB 08.21.15 at 2:36 pm

Hello John Quiggin.

Related to your comment #38, I thought of this guy named Sam Ruben (1913-1943) who died in his lab after an accident working with phosgene (he had a car crash the night before). I read about him in Eating the sun by Oliver Marton, great book. I think he matches your profile of promising, fundamental, scientists that were then forced to work for the government in support of the war effort and died in the process.

128

Stephen 08.21.15 at 2:53 pm

LFC@120: I think we might agree on more matters than you suppose. That US military commitments are on the whole excessive, or overstretched; that some US military spending is misguided; that recent US military actions have mostly varied from ineffective to counterproductive to catastrophic; and that US commitment to NATO and especially the Baltic states is a case where US actions have been valuable and should not be ended by US withdrawal into isolation.

So where do you think we differ?

129

novakant 08.21.15 at 3:01 pm

In no case have there been benefits remotely commensurate with the cost, for either side (for all the millions of lives lost, is Vietnam much different now than if the war had never been fought?).

I agree that the US should have minded their own business, what on earth did they want in Vietnam? But since you mention “both sides”: do you really think the Vietnamese should have just bent over to get f@cked by their imperial overlords?

130

kidneystones 08.21.15 at 3:12 pm

This is, I think, slightly on topic: what are the opportunity costs to Labour if Burnham and the Labour elites overturn a Corbyn election, especially with a promise to apologize for the Iraq war and actually behave a little bit like a leader with principles. I’d say the Scottish voters never return to Labour and the Greens/UKIP get a big boost.

A Corbyn victory makes it more difficult for Cameron to bomb another country, not impossible of course. I can’t recall caring much about which suit Labour pushed forward to the microphone. Launching a legal challenge over this election is an extremely bad idea, in my view.

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-leadership-andy-burnham-calls-for-urgent-meeting-over-concerns-that-large-scale-tory-infiltration-could-lead-to-legal-challenge-10465250.html

131

Stephen 08.21.15 at 3:15 pm

Igor @ 119: any surviving T34 tanks are museum pieces and are now most unlikely to be deployed against the English Channel, or anywhere else.

The possibility of rather more modern Russian tanks moving towards Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius or Kiev is unfortunately less unlikely, and would be made more likely by a US withdrawal into isolation. The consequences of such moves would be felt much further into Europe.

But if your T34s on the Channel coast are relevant to the period after 1945: given a reasonably determined set of non-communist Western European governments, with US troops on this side of the Atlantic and a US commitment to European defence, then T34s by the Channel were never likely. Without the US commitment, it’s not clear how many European governments would have stayed resolute, or even non-Communist.

132

kidneystones 08.21.15 at 3:15 pm

This, too, is worth reading: lifelong Labour supporter goes Green this year, wants to come back to support Corbyn – elites say, NOPE!!

http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/you-too-could-be-called-a-star-by-the-compliance-unit-the-hysterical-labour-purge-has-gone-too-far-10465047.html

133

Plume 08.21.15 at 3:20 pm

It’s quite likely that our aggressive expansion of NATO — right up against Russia’s borders — led to Putin’s aggression toward former Soviet Satellites and nations nearby. We seem to believe we can operate in a vacuum, that what we do is a priori justified, righteous, moral, and that when other nations react to our offensive gameplan, we’re simply not responsible for any of it. We always wear the white hats to their black ones.

In reality, America’s criminal and foolhardy actions overseas set countless tables for more and more wars, dictatorships, oppression within and outside of dozens of countries. There is no ISIS, for example, if Bush had not invaded Iraq. And there is no Al Queda if Reagan hadn’t supported Bin Laden and his soldiers in Afghanistan, etc. etc. . . . . and then set him off by occupying what are considered holy lands. We made a monster out of Hussein, propped him up, armed him to the teeth and egged him on against Iran. Our overthrow of Mossadegh in Iran, followed by our backing of the murderous shah, set the table for the 1979 revolution. And throughout the Americas and Africa, going back decades, we’ve funded guerilla warfare, covertly and overtly, which has kept those regions in turmoil.

Reagan was so intent on crushing leftist governments, for example, he sold arms for hostages to Iran and got the CIA to run drugs and drug laundering schemes to support the Contras. The deadly effects on the people in those countries and our own, especially our inner cities, is tragic and scandalous to the nth degree.

“Opportunity costs”? How about an entire generation, at least, of drug addiction, drug wars, etc. etc.? How about the slaughter of the innocent, well into the millions — both directly from our own military actions and the reaction to them?

134

David 08.21.15 at 4:40 pm

The Cold War demonstrates that you don’t actually have to start fighting to incur opportunity costs. The incapacity of western elites to understand that after four years of war, more destruction than any country had ever suffered in history and twenty-five million dead the Soviet Union would regard virtually any measures as justified to make sure that never happened, again began a vicious circle that not only drained resources away from more useful programs, but also nearly ended the world on several occasions . Narrowly-avoided nuclear war has to count as an opportunity cost by anyone’s reckoning.

135

kidneystones 08.21.15 at 5:02 pm

@132 You forgot about magically removing all notion of agency from an entire generation because we’re all so damn powerless. Pass the Cheetohs – anybody seen my Game Boy?

136

Rich Puchalsky 08.21.15 at 5:16 pm

novakant: “I agree that the US should have minded their own business, what on earth did they want in Vietnam? But since you mention “both sides”: do you really think the Vietnamese should have just bent over to get f@cked by their imperial overlords?”

I think that a whole lot of Vietnamese would be alive instead of dead now if they had, and I can’t see what they gained historically from those deaths. Were the Vietnamese people exploited any less by their state than they had been by imperial overlords? I guess that wars of colonial liberation are supposed to provide national pride, but if you think it’s worth going to war for national pride, you’re going to find yourself going to war a whole lot.

137

The Temporary Name 08.21.15 at 5:21 pm

But since you mention “both sides”: do you really think the Vietnamese should have just bent over to get f@cked by their imperial overlords?

Which imperial overlords?

138

Plume 08.21.15 at 5:26 pm

A relevant article today in Salon from Noam Chomsky:

America is the gravest danger to world peace

“The Greatest Threat”

Opponents of the nuclear deal charge that it does not go far enough. Some supporters agree, holding that “if the Vienna deal is to mean anything, the whole of the Middle East must rid itself of weapons of mass destruction.” The author of those words, Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Javad Zarif, added that “Iran, in its national capacity and as current chairman of the Non-Aligned Movement [the governments of the large majority of the world’s population], is prepared to work with the international community to achieve these goals, knowing full well that, along the way, it will probably run into many hurdles raised by the skeptics of peace and diplomacy.” Iran has signed “a historic nuclear deal,” he continues, and now it is the turn of Israel, “the holdout.”

Israel, of course, is one of the three nuclear powers, along with India and Pakistan, whose weapons programs have been abetted by the United States and that refuse to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

. . . .

According to the leading western polling agencies (WIN/Gallup International), the prize for “greatest threat” is won by the United States. The rest of the world regards it as the gravest threat to world peace by a large margin. In second place, far below, is Pakistan, its ranking probably inflated by the Indian vote. Iran is ranked below those two, along with China, Israel, North Korea, and Afghanistan.

139

LFC 08.21.15 at 5:43 pm

Stephen @127
LFC@120: I think we might agree on more matters than you suppose. That US military commitments are on the whole excessive, or overstretched; that some US military spending is misguided; that recent US military actions have mostly varied from ineffective to counterproductive to catastrophic; and that US commitment to NATO and especially the Baltic states is a case where US actions have been valuable

When phrased like this, we do have some areas of agreement. I think I’m somewhat more critical of U.S. foreign policy as a whole than you are. I don’t think NATO expansion was a great idea, but now that’s it an accomplished fact NATO does have to make clear, as it has been doing, that the Baltic states will be defended.

140

LFC 08.21.15 at 6:07 pm

Plume @132
there is no Al Queda if Reagan hadn’t supported Bin Laden and his soldiers in Afghanistan

Al Qaeda came into existence in 1988, when Zawahiri’s jihadist group merged with, or was incorporated into, bin Laden’s group. Until the fight against the Soviets in Afghanistan, and probably during it as well, a main enemy/target of the Zawahiri group remained the Egyptian regime; Zawahiri had been imprisoned (and tortured) for several years in Egypt after Sadat’s assassination. While the CIA did funnel money to the mujahideen in Afghanistan and while the presence of U.S. soldiers in Saudi Arabia did inflame Bin Laden, I think it goes too far to say the U.S. created al-Qaeda. It’s not a straightforward question, because the U.S. is so entangled with Mideast and S.W. Asian politics in the period, but I think the way you’ve put it is an overstatement.

141

Plume 08.21.15 at 6:39 pm

LFC,

Perhaps. But you will admit that if we hadn’t stuck our noses into that part of the world, militarily, endlessly, decade aftter decade, chances are pretty good that there would be a hell of a lot less turmoil, and far fewer terrorist groups. Again, we really don’t seem to get that our actions have major consequences. It’s as if we’re in this pretzel loop . . . . on the one hand, we see ourselves as the lone super-power; on the other, we think we can act without repercussions, as if we’re quiet little church mice. Obviously, being the lone super-power is going to radically increase the effects of everything we do, and we never seem to get that. And, to make matters far worse . . . . we often view ourselves as the underdog in these things, if not consciously.

Everything is a grave threat to us, even though we tower over every other nation many times over, militarily. It constantly gets us into major trouble, and millions of innocents end up dying as a result.

For instance: Even after we set the table for Hussein to grow into Frankenstein’s monster, he was never a threat to us. That was proven in the first Gulf War, in a matter of weeks. At his height of power, his army crumpled like a bad suit, when faced with American power. By the time of the second war, he was a fragment of a shadow of a whisper of his former self, but Bush and company had little trouble convincing a large part of America otherwise.

For me, well before the invasion, I couldn’t have cared less if he had “WMD” or not. I knew he wasn’t a threat to us or his neighbors. We controlled his skies; he had no air force; he was alone and friendless; and we had already shattered his army and his economy. With or without WMD, he was no threat. In short, we have a kind of mass neuroses when it comes to these things. We know we’re the top dog, and we think we’re the most vulnerable nation on earth at the same time. A very dangerous and irrational mix.

142

Stephen 08.21.15 at 8:00 pm

LFC@139: but what do you think the alternative to “NATO expansion” was? The governments of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Czechs, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, with the full support of their peoples, asked to be admitted to NATO, partly or largely because they hoped that would give them protection against being reincorporated into the Russian zone (which, God knows, they had experienced, suffered from and had reason to fear and to abhor).

Should the Western members of the existing NATO have turned them down?

Or should they have said, hey, if the Russians want to take you over again, not our problem, peace in Europe depends on not annoying the Russians?

143

Stephen 08.21.15 at 8:02 pm

David@134: “the Soviet Union would regard virtually any measures as justified to make sure that never happened again”.

Sure, but how far did Stalin think “virtually any measures” went? Occupation of the rest of Europe?

144

LFC 08.21.15 at 11:04 pm

Stephen:
I haven’t thought about this in a while, so it actually took me a couple of minutes to remember that one position (which I thought made some sense) was that NATO, having been born in 1949 basically as a Cold War alliance (though retrospectively some tried to argue otherwise), should have declared victory after the events of 1989-91 and closed up shop. It should have been replaced, if that was deemed desirable, by a new organization with new aims. Maybe that was never a real possibility, I don’t know. I didn’t follow the debate on NATO expansion all that closely. I’ll leave it at that. I’ve expended more time on this thread than I intended.

145

novakant 08.21.15 at 11:06 pm

I guess that wars of colonial liberation are supposed to provide national pride, but if you think it’s worth going to war for national pride, you’re going to find yourself going to war a whole lot.

Well, you can just say this so smugly because you, like it or not, belong to the ruling class – if a foreign power was trying to change your way of life by dropping Napalm on your neighbourhood for a couple of years I’m sure some sort of self-defense mechanism would kick in, or maybe you’re Jesus. If you don’t allow for self-defense (as is the case in the UN charter) you’re just an enabler of the powerful and the ruthless, who will use violence at will.

146

Rich Puchalsky 08.21.15 at 11:46 pm

novakant, I’m not a pacifist in that I do pretty much accept that people are going to defend themselves. But I think that your summary above is ahistorical. Foreign powers didn’t start dropping napalm on Vietnam until the war was well underway. If the people of Vietnam were supposed to have had any choice about whether to pursue the war or not, then not pursuing it would have led to no napalm being dropped. For instance, the partition after the First Indochina War could conceivably have been negotiated into a de facto border.

147

Plume 08.21.15 at 11:59 pm

Rich,

So the Vietnamese people — and the people of Laos and Cambodia — were just supposed to accept being subjugated, crushed under the thumb of the French for nearly a century, the Japanese briefly after WWII, and then again under American supported fascists? The onus was on them to avoid war? Really?

Again, for a supposed “anarchist,” you sure have some strange views when it comes to easy acceptance of economic authoritarians and oppressive colonial powers.

148

john c. halasz 08.22.15 at 12:10 am

@146:

Check your facts. It was the U.S. that reneged on the 1954 Geneva Accord, which would have unified the country under a general election and helped to set up the Diem regime in the south.

149

Ronan(rf) 08.22.15 at 9:23 am

Relatedly to questions of self interest vs morality on reasons for war mongering raised above

http://rachelstrohm.com/2015/08/19/an-ethnography-of-economics/

150

Ronan(rf) 08.22.15 at 9:29 am

(Ps I’m not implying rich holds the vulgar materialist perspective linked above, which I know he doesn’t. This is a hazy add on rather than reply to anyone)

151

pklausner 08.22.15 at 10:59 am

Kosovo could be regarded as a clear success,

Seriously? Serbs and gypsies got mostly ethnically cleaned out. The Albanians left by the hundreds of thousands. Right now tens of thousands are pushing into Germany, since no more breadcrumbs are left to find in Greece. Ok, kind of serves the Germans right; for driving the war against Serbia and stuffing the Greeks. Is that clear success?

152

David 08.22.15 at 3:59 pm

@143. In 1945 the Soviet Union was bankrupt and starving and the government was desperate to demobilize as fast as possible. Stalin was not interested in taking over any more territory, not least because the Soviet Union did not have nuclear weapons and would not have for some years. Soviet troops withdrew from Austria on schedule, but it’s doubtful if Stalin (or the average Soviet citizen) felt any need to justify the retention if huge (if not very high-quality) forces in and near the Soviet Union given what they had been through.
But this is a very interesting opportunity cost example. Although Soviet postwar economic recovery was very impressive, the absolute priority given to military expenditure meant that lots of other things had to be sacrificed. This was considered justified at the time, but of course it illustrates that decisions about defense and war are rarely entirely rational, and so rarely suitable for rational economic analysis.
For what it’s worth, the mood in the US at the time, justifying the Cold War military buildup, was pretty extreme as well, even if nowhere as paranoid as in the Soviet Union. Some of the NSC documents from the 1940s make you wonder if the authors were entirely sane.

153

novakant 08.22.15 at 4:06 pm

If the people of Vietnam were supposed to have had any choice about whether to pursue the war or not, then not pursuing it would have led to no napalm being dropped.

And you’re calling me ahistorical? rofl. Besides you do see how unkind souls might interpret your statement as blaming the victim, no?

154

Rich Puchalsky 08.22.15 at 7:14 pm

Are you allowing the people of Vietnam any agency or not, novakant? “In no case have there been benefits remotely commensurate with the cost, for either side (for all the millions of lives lost, is Vietnam much different now than if the war had never been fought?)” was written by JQ in the context of agreeing that “the insanely destructive wars waged by the (North) Vietnamese” were a bad thing.

Let’s assume, based on historical evidence, that the U.S. and other imperial powers will break every agreement, attempt to assassinate your leaders, engage in economic disruption and hostile propaganda, and support coups to overthrow your government. It is not excusing the U.S. or blaming the victim to still say that if you can, you should avoid war in response to all of these, because once war starts even worse crimes will be committed against the people. It is not saying that imperial domination is wonderful to point out that exploitation under the Communist Party of Vietnam was harsh, and ask what did the people gain by replacing imperial domination with state capitalism.

155

LFC 08.22.15 at 8:49 pm

@Ronan
This is a hazy add on rather than reply to anyone

I just to want to point out, as I’m sure you’re aware and mention yourself @88, that there is a difference between (1) why a particular villager in Liberia or Sierra Leone decided to join a particular militia, or why for that matter someone goes to an armed forces recruiting station in developed country X and signs up; and (2) why countries’ or groups’ leaders decide to make a decision to go to war in a given situation. The OP, while (probably wisely) avoiding discussion of motives and causes, focused on states/groups, not individuals, in its discussion of opportunity costs, and so did a lot of this thread. This doesn’t mean (1) is completely irrelevant but it is a different question/situation, b.c. the opportunity costs or the ‘choice structure’ for an individual won’t be quite the same as those for a society or state or sub-group.

p.s. on yr link @149: It’s also somewhat predictable that an anthropologist wd complain (btw I have that review essay in hard copy, never really read it) that you can’t know people’s motives without talking to them, so Collier, e.g., should get out more and talk to more people or else he shd STFU. Btw I hope R. Strohm has more than that one memorized quote when she goes to answer the big N/small N question on her comp. politics exam. She says the quote shows that big N and small N methods collapse into each other, or words to that effect, which I don’t think the quote shows at all. But whatever.

156

Stephen 08.22.15 at 9:20 pm

LFC@144: since you’re still adhering to this thread, could I ask what you think the alternatives to NATO expansion post-1989-01 might have been?

You suggest NATO could have declared victory and dissolved itself, possibly to be replaced by something else. Fine, but it seems to me that the alternatives were
1) Shut it down altogether, no remaining alliance, each European state to look after itself. Russia left unthreatened but, if revanchist, undeterrable.
2) Yanks go home, remaining European states form alliance. Strong enough to deter Russia? Acceptable, if truly independent, to US?
3) Replace iNATO by another European/American alliance, different name, with mutual guarantees of support if attacked, covering the same area as before. No change in the West: former Soviet satellites and republics left deeply vulnerable.
4) Replace it by an alliance including Russia and other states of the former USSR. But how can that be presented to Russians, or at least Putinesque-paranoid Russians, as anything other than a conquest by the West?

Your views?

157

Stephen 08.22.15 at 9:26 pm

David@151: very true, but trmrmber that in 1945 Germany/France/Britain were also bankrupt, Britain keen to demobilise (Germany utterly disarmed and in ruins, France largely demobilised post-1940), Germany was probably nearer to starvation than Russia was, Britain short of fuel and food (rationing post=war was more severe than ever in the war), and if the USSR had no atomic weapons neither did any European state. In the contet of an American withdrawal into isolation …

158

Ronan(rf) 08.22.15 at 9:40 pm

LFC- Well yeah I did acknowledge that above, but I also think it’s more complicated than that. I think there any number of plausible similarities between why the president of the US or an insurgent in Liberia chooses to fight or support a war. I mean look at the rhetoric of the Bush admin pre Iraq; revenge for 9/11, obligations to lead the free world, responsibilites to defeat tyranny/protect the homeland etc These claimed motives might be only rhetorical (although I dont believe they are) but even if so, the fact that these framings are used shows that this conception of war and violence resonates with their publics.
This doesnt mean that violence cant still be instrumental (violence still serves a purpose, people still have mixed motives) or that it’s irrational (acting morally isnt irrational) it just means that people are primarily (though of course not always) driven by obligations, in group solidarity, honour, morality etc rather than pure self interest.
I dont think that’s in conflict with claims that states (and insurgencies,terrorist groups etc) use violence strategically or in pursuit of defined interests (though it complicates the picture on how those preferences are formed)
Whether or not it has relevance to states and non state actors after their various preferences and motives and interests are aggregated into policy ? Sure, why not ? To some degree? Id be surprised if you thought that values were irrelevant to FP formation. And what is an alliance or a responsiblity to a social group in another country than a morally felt obligation ? These are also strategic concerns, but strategic concerns loaded with normative preferences, and at times that make very little strategic sense.
I dont think Strohm is going on the say so of one anthropologist, but a considerable amount of evidence and research

159

hix 08.22.15 at 9:51 pm

The thaught that a bunch of umotivated drunk Russian conscripts would be some kind of threat for western Europe that could not be handled without US help would be amusing if the topic were not so serious. Its also a thaught from a parrallel universe without nukes that ensure every high developed nation can get the the capability to destroy the world at moderate cost if the nation is so inclined.

160

LFC 08.22.15 at 10:52 pm

Stephen @155
W/r/t #4, I think this could have been presented as something other than “conquest by the West.” Have to remember Putin did not come to power until later. There were moves in the direction of including Russia as some kind of ‘associate member’ via the Partnership for Peace, if I recall the name of that initiative correctly. In short, it seems to me there were possibly some missed opportunities here. More creative thinking was needed than just “NATO can [somehow] help nascent democracies transition to democracy and capitalism/markets/neoliberalism/fill-in-the-blank/etc., so let’s expand it almost to Russia’s borders.”

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novakant 08.22.15 at 11:16 pm

Are you allowing the people of Vietnam any agency or not, novakant?

It seems to me you’re denying the Vietnamese all agency by deciding what’s best for them from the comfort of your armchair.

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Rich Puchalsky 08.22.15 at 11:28 pm

My expression of opinion is denying Vietnamese people all agency?

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LFC 08.22.15 at 11:52 pm

@ronan
Yes, I do not think values are irrelevant to foreign-policy formation. I think the considerations you mention do operate more at the level of individuals but I acknowledge they are sometimes relevant at the level of leaders/decision-makers/collectives. (And if I had my own even semi-original, non-absurd theory about any of this, I prob. wouldn’t be writing blog comments.)

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john c. halasz 08.23.15 at 12:46 am

R.P. @153:

You’re just arguing adventitiously in a historical vacuum and engaging in a self-manipulative procedure that I term “putting yourself in the right”.

What did the Vietnamese people gain from the war? Well, how about, for better or worse, independence and unity, (from China, as much as the Japanese, French and Americans)? And as for the agency of the Vietnamese people, they fought, suffered and died on all sides for 30+ years. It would seem that they exercised plenty of agency, unless you think agency is only a hierarchical imposition from the top and center and never a response from below. And, pray tell, what sense does it make to apply a stretched chain of consequences 70 years later with “perfect” hindsight from another historical era, to a prior era whose horizons could never have anticipated such distant “outcomes”?

“Let’s assume, based on historical evidence, that the U.S. and other imperial powers will break every agreement, attempt to assassinate your leaders, engage in economic disruption and hostile propaganda, and support coups to overthrow your government. It is not excusing the U.S. or blaming the victim to still say that if you can, you should avoid war in response to all of these, because once war starts even worse crimes will be committed against the people.” Really? It is always better for weaker nations to submit to the demands of stronger ones, especially after a century or more of colonial subjection? One can agree that wars are horrifying and always only a last desperate resort, without denying a “natural right” to self-defense against aggression.

JQ, as is his wont on these sorts of topics, observes that wars are not “rational” in utilitarian/economistic terms, that they are “negative sum games” in which the “costs” exceed the “benefits”, (however defined), even in most all cases for the putative victors, if any. But he then fails to draw the obvious conclusion that wars are not to be accounted for or explained in such utilitarian/economistic terms, (even if they involve economic “causes” and consequences), but would require a much different framework of accounting/explanation to deal with their historical phenomenology, as it were. Because they are much more a political than an economic matter. Politics concerns conflicts and their resolution, not material surpluses and their optimization and distribution. And thus all political orders are latently or explicitly, potentially or actually, rooted in violence, in the mutual coercion that maintains any cooperative order. (The “rule of law” is always at least as much about the generation and imposition of power as about any concerns for “justice” or “rights”). So JQ just hews to a status quo proceduralist liberalism, assuming that the “better argument” would hold sway and automatically provide legitimation for the current order of violence, (despite all strategic orientations, sophistical manipulations, and genuine argumentative gaps and impasses, which is sufficient, at least, to vouchsafe his unimpeachable “good intentions”. But that’s not any real guidance for dealing with these thorniest of issues.

You here seem just to be peculiarly afflicted with a version of the “white man’s burden”.

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Matt 08.23.15 at 2:14 am

I guess that people are really strongly wedded to the myth that fighting bullies instead of capitulating them is likely to make your life better. If oppressed people ended up materially worse off by taking up arms against their oppressors, this world wouldn’t have any justice built in to it! And then where would we be? It would be like believing that slave owners aren’t really punished in Hell and slaves aren’t really rewarded in Heaven. It just can’t be. I won’t stand for a world like that.

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LFC 08.23.15 at 4:41 am

j.c. halasz @164

Politics concerns conflicts and their resolution, not material surpluses and their optimization and distribution [sic — as if a whole lot of political conflict were not precisely about the distribution of material surpluses] And thus all political orders are latently or explicitly, potentially or actually, rooted in violence, in the mutual coercion that maintains any cooperative order. (The “rule of law” is always at least as much about the generation and imposition of power as about any concerns for “justice” or “rights”.)

What you’re saying is basically the same thing that Bruce Wilder said @85:

What puts violence outside the strategic space in which cooperative and mutually beneficial trade takes place is a threat of violence .

…. Violence and the threat of violence, usually on a smaller scale, is what contains cooperation in a strategic space that excludes many forms of non-cooperation as options. …

This view of things puts war on a continuum with such phenomena as labor strife and altruistic punishment [whatever that means], as well as the public administration of justice and the private pursuit of torts.

When I questioned this view, Bruce W. apparently backtracked from it @107 in a somewhat cryptic comment that I didn’t reply to.

Be that as it may, the view you (j. halasz) express here and the view that BW expressed @85 both go wrong, ISTM, by assuming that because “all” — I would say most, not all — political orders rely on the implicit threat of state-directed violence against ‘rule-breakers’, there must be the possibility of war lurking in all political orders. This does not follow, istm. And if you’re not drawing this conclusion or inference or deduction, then why bother pointing out that “all political orders are latently or explicitly, potentially or actually, rooted in violence, in the mutual coercion that maintains any cooperative order”? Either (1) this is supposed to somehow connect to an argument about war — and, if it does, neither you nor Bruce W. have persuasively made the connection — or (2) it’s irrelevant. I suppose your and Bruce’s implicit, unstated argument might be that war is perhaps sometimes necessary to the maintenance of “international order,” as coercion in the form of criminal prosecution is necessary to the maintenance of domestic “order.” But if that’s what you mean (and I’m not sure it is), it doesn’t undercut the point that there are still opportunity costs that can be weighed, at least retrospectively if no one bothers to try to do it prospectively.

And this leads to the point that I think you are overreading JQ’s post. He’s not trying to “explain” war in “economistic” or rationalist terms. He’s not trying to explain war, period. He’s saying that war and military spending have costs in the form of lost resources that could have been used to do other things. He believes these costs usually outweigh the benefits, but that’s actually a separate point. Neither point is a theory or an explanation of the causes of war or the ‘roots of violence’, nor is it presented as such.

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John Quiggin 08.23.15 at 9:03 am

I wasn’t offering an explanation of war, let alone claiming a complete one. But, obviously, I wouldn’t bother writing what I did if I didn’t think misperception of costs and benefits was one factor.

More generally, I wouldn’t bother writing anything if I thought all behavior was hardwired.

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Bill Benzon 08.23.15 at 9:14 am

Matt @99: yes.

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David 08.23.15 at 9:44 am

On the question of the future of NATO after 1989 (I was there) in a curious kind of way opportunity costs were taken into account.
Logically, NATO, the product of fear and paranoia in the 1940s, should’ve folded up after 1989, and many people argued that it should. But that was to ignore significant opportunity costs for western elites. For the US, a dominant voice in European security issues, for the UK, influence over the US, for the French the hope of not being abandoned again as in 1940, for the Germans military respectability and acceptability, for small countries a counterweight to the Franco-German axis in the EU, and so on ….. Of course this could not be said publicly, and so me kind of justification had to be offered to NATO publics for continuing the organisation, and, more or less accidentally, enlargement was decided upon. At the time, it was vaguely recognised that the opportunity costs of continuing and expanding NATO might include Russian unhappiness, but as it was common to say in Washington at the time, “who cares?” There was nothing the Russians could do about it, and, under Yeltsin, no will anyway. By the time Putin arrived, it was too late: NATO was trapped in a logic of expansion which one day was going to put US troops on the Russian border. But that day was always “not yet”, and “we’ll deal with that when it happens”. The opportunity cost of expansion (the loss of any hope of a creative relationship with Russia) has turned out to be much greater, in my view, then the opportunity cost of winding the organization up.

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novakant 08.23.15 at 10:55 am

I guess that people are really strongly wedded to the myth that fighting bullies instead of capitulating them is likely to make your life better.

Fortunately humanity doesn’t solely consist of utilitarian bean counters and some people have a different idea of what “a better life” means and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it – there would be no resistance fighters without these “myths”, only conformists and collaborators.

But even if we accept utilitarianism and it’s ideas of happiness wholesale – it is simply not a very good long-term strategy since it quite obviously encourages those with the biggest guns to f@ck people over again and again – and they will do that, just like capitalists will always try to squeeze the last bit of profit out of everyone. Hence the need for pushback.

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Ronan(rf) 08.23.15 at 11:17 am

“I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims….”

http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/epic/

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Stephen 08.23.15 at 1:11 pm

David: you say NATO offered “the French the hope of not being abandoned again as in 1940”. I don’t see why it was particularly the French who saw NATO as a way of ensuring they were not abandoned by their neighbours if threatened.

And I really don’t see why you think the French were “abandoned in 1940”. Wasn’t it more a matter of the French abandoning themselves?

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Peter T 08.23.15 at 2:38 pm

That war mostly does not pay has been known for some time. So nothing very much is added by the reiteration. Rather the persistence of war points to the limits of cost-benefit analysis, and the need to step outside this frame if we are to make progress on this.

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David 08.23.15 at 4:21 pm

Stephen,
I think the French would instance(I don’t necessarily speak for them here) four or five things . (1) In 1919 Wilson pressured Clemenceau into making concessions at Versailles in return for a bilateral security guarantee that he knew in advance (as was later disclosed in official documents) the Senate would never ratify. (2) The pressure put on French governments in the 1930s by the US (to whom they owed a lot of money after WWI) to reach a peaceful accommodation with Hitler, as well as (disputed) accounts of military material ordered from the US not being delivered in time for the German attack in 1940 (3) The British withdrawal from Dunkirk and the subsequent destruction of the French fleet in Oran by the British and (4) the unremitting hostility of Roosevelt to De Gaulle, who tried numerous times to sideline and replace him, and who favored the setting up of a military occupation government in France in 1944, using many of the figures from the Vichy regime. De Gaulle managed to head off this particular trick, which would certainly have started a civil war. (It should be mentioned that Churchill was almost equally antipathetic to De Gaulle.) The subsequent betrayal at Suez simply confirmed the French in the belief that they had been right all along.
The issue is not, really, who’s right and who’s wrong. The fact that the French lost in 1940 through a combination of simple bad luck and a disinclination of their political and military elites (unlike the common soldiers) to fight the Germans, is true enough, but it’s also true that in all the myth-making about 1940, a sense of abandonment features heavily, and always has. So while the French pursued various policies (independent nuclear systems, withdrawal from the NATO military structure) which might have saved them if the Americans did what the British had done in 1940, they also did their best to keep the Americans involved as much as possible. “At least they’ll be over here already next time” was the argument used in the 1980s, and there was also a security treaty which had been ratified by the Senate, and thus was more likely to be respected.
The French were not the only ones to feel abandoned in 1940 of course – the British did as well. But their anger was mostly directed against the French. In reality I’m not sure anyone in the Cold War really believed in Americans security guarantees, but countries other than the French were generally too polite to say so. As a result, NATO policy consisted to some extent (as one General put it in my hearing) of making sure “the first soldier to die is an American.”

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Stephen 08.23.15 at 6:56 pm

David: in response to your points: (1) sure, Wilson’s conduct in 1919 was duplicitous towards the French, and at other times to most people. To be re-elected in 1916 on a pledge to keep the USA out of the war, and then to take them in in 1917 … but how does that lead to the French being abandoned in 1940?

(2) I don’t know about the US pressuring France to reach a peaceful accommodation with Hitler in the 1930s. My impression, perhaps wrong, is that very little or no pressure was needed, for perfectly understandable reasons (Verdun etc). As for non-delivery of material from the US pre-1940: I doubt whether that could apply to tanks (US tanks then being rubbish) or artillery (French very well supplied). It’s a while since I read Ernest May’s “Strange victory”, but my memory is that at the time of the French surrender they had hundreds of French aircraft not yet committed to the battle; and that the US aircraft on order were eventually delivered to, and paid for by, the British who found them second-rate at best.

(3) Dunkirk: the best-equipped portion of the British armies in France had, in accordance with French strategy, been sent forward into Belgium where they were with French troops cut off by a German advance to their south, breaking through French positions that might have been but were not defended. The options then available to the British were: stay where you are, be surrounded and surrender together with the French; or withdraw to the coast and be evacuated to England. They chose the latter. Together with the British, over 100,000 French troops were evacuated, most of whom chose to return to France and surrender there.

The British attack on the French fleet at Oran happened after France had surrendered, and after the French admiral their had refused reasonable and peaceful offers to prevent his ships being used in support of the Germans. (The admiral at Alexandria was much more sensible.) How either of these actions are to be construed as “abandoning the French”, I cannot say.

(4) Roosevelt was undoubtedly hostile to de Gaulle, but not in 1940 when he was concentrating on re-election and on keeping the USA out of the war. Churchill was sometimes exasperated by de Gaulle, but his “almost equal antipathy” involved giving de Gaulle recognition in London, giving him the BBC to broadcast messages to France, helping him to set up RF section of SOE to arrange Gaullist operations in occupied France and giving them training, armaments, wireless communications, RAF aircraft and RN ships to move people in and out of France. Almost equal: well, for some remarkably small values of “almost”.

As for your comment that French policies post-war “might have saved them if the Americans did what the British had done in 1940”: well, what the British did in 1940 was to fight on till the French surrendered, fight on afterwards, and afterwards take a large though never-forgiven part in liberating France.

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David 08.23.15 at 7:16 pm

Stephen,
we can debate this endlessly, but, as I said, I was trying to explain French behavior, not defend it. All of your points are reasonable interpretations as far as they go, but it’s precisely because they didn’t share your view that the French reacted as they did, and why the dominant myth of 1940 (elastically defined I agree) is that of betrayal by the Anglo-Saxons and the wish to ensure such betrayals were less likely in the future. Hence NATO. As regards Churchill, though, there’s a significant difference between his treatment of de Gaulle before and after the North Africa landings in 1942. Earlier, Churchill was very supportive of de Gaulle because, frankly, there was no real alternative. But we know from official documents of the time that, once Algeria (and thus French territory) was reconquered, Churchill was very keen to have someone else than de Gaulle in charge, and spent some time maneuvering to bring this about.

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Stephen 08.23.15 at 7:35 pm

David: I quite understand that you’re trying to explain, not defend, French behaviour. (Would I be happy trying to explain, not defend, the policies of Mussolini? Probably not.) It is indeed very true that the French generally believe in a mythical version of 1940. I once spent a couple of hours arguing with a retired French admiral about Oran, he seemed to think that a German conquest of France was quite acceptable but a British attack on an anti-British section of the French navy was absolutely unforgivable.

De Gaulle was indeed a difficult person for Churchill, or anyone else, to get along with, but Churchill’s major contribution to pouring resources (arms, aircraft, people) into France via SOE was well after the (probably also unforgivable) liberation of French North Africa by non-French troops.

As for how far the French commitment to Nato involved their fear of subsequent betrayal by les Anglo-Saxons: remind me how that was assured by French withdrawal from OTAN?

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john c. halasz 08.23.15 at 7:48 pm

LFC @166:

Just to clear up a few points.

I expressed elsewhere that “opportunity costs” is a weak and dubious economic concept. The idea that they would resolve without remainder into market prices is nonsense. (The I would think that is what JQ is aiming to get across with his Hazlitt book). And such a notion is entirely a counterfactual construction. Obviously, there are trade-offs and whenever one chooses the realization of one possibility other possibilities are thereby excluded; that’s pretty basic. But there are other “costs” involved beyond individual decisions, fixed costs, sunk costs, path dependencies, etc. But if opportunity costs and toting up costs and benefits in such terms doesn’t bear much weight in it’s own domain of application. extending it beyond that domain makes even less sense. (I would guess the Busheviks were using some lunatic version of cost/benefit analysis in invading Iraq, which was to be converted into a Cato Institute wet-dream staffed by Young Republicans).

So JQ is pretty much just trafficking in banalities. (Rich Puchalsky was engaging in fact suppression and counterfactual historical revisionism). That wars and preparations for wars have “opportunity cost” is almost too obvious to state. (Though multipliers are model artifacts rather than brute facts, the usual estimate for military spending is at most .7, a drag on the economy, unless you by the contention of some Marxists that it constitutes an outlet for excess capital accumulation and maintaining profits). That “resources” could much better be expended elsewhere and otherwise is not a proposition that would provoke much disagreement, at least ceterus paribus. There are two frustrations that are not being addressed however: 1) what level of provision for military defense to deter wars and aggression is required (and how is that to be determined in a world or uncertainties and threat inflation), and 2) why is it that only war and military expenditures seem to allow for the sort of mobilization of “resources” for some “ultimate” purpose, in a way that no other projected ends seem to allow or inspire. (The “Arsenal of Democracy” which ended the Great Depression in the U.S. os often cited by Keynesian maximalist as a model for a true full employment economy; but it was dismantled and we got NSC 68 instead). But even stating that wars are costly far beyond benefits, wasteful and destructive, already amounts to understatement. Wars tend to involve immense collective sacrifices, as well as coercive solidarities, that far exceed any sort of economic accounting, even “moral” economy. So if JQ is not explaining anything about war, he’s also not adding anything to the stock of understanding.

For the rest, there is the “Hobbesian problem of order”, (for which Hobbes himself provided no adequate “solution”), and the textbook definition of the sovereign state as the organized monopoly on legitimate violence, (though I think that in that strange alchemy between violence and legitimation, the “organized” part gets under-emphasized). No, I am not committing a genetic fallacy that just because states arose from military violence, such violence is alw2ays their essence and states don’t evolve other functions. For that matter wars don’t necessarily occur between states, but can occur within states or involve non-state actors. Nor am I claiming that state-directed violence against law-breakers derives directly from war-making powers, (though there is often enough a connection, both ideologically and functionally between foreign and domestic security apparatuses). Nor do I think of the potential violence involved in social conflicts as just physical, let alone lethal force. Structural and symbolic violence, the obliteration of the position of others, are at least as important in maintaining political domination. I would just tend to say that not all law-breakers are created equal and that the criminals are not just to be found among the hoi polloi, but still more among the ruling elites. ( I would think that #BLM might be a better example than ordinary law enforcement) . But the analogy is based on the fact that war is always a suspension of settled sovereign order, which is why it always resembles a criminal enterprise and invites further criminality.

Philosophically speaking, the further point is this: there is no total “reason” grounded in absolute premises, nor unconditioned and unlimited “universality”. So relying on rational argument and reasonable persuasion alone to resolve political conflicts, which are endemic, is something of a fool’s errand, however well intended. All arguments sooner or latter arrive at aporetic impasses. Further, arguments are never simply disinterested exercizes about arranging the furniture in the heaven of ideas, but rather always, in however mediated a fashion, connect up with practical projects and concerns, such that impasses and oppositions are conflicts as well. (The word”argument” is itself ambiguous, which is why even the most abstract and formalized arguments can degenerate into angry polemics). So the resolution of political conflicts and the securement of authoritatively binding agreements allowing for the undoubted benefits of social cooperation across differences must always rely one non-rational supplements to argumentative persuasion, not just violent force, but fraud, corruption, unprincipled compromises, repeated ‘games, etc.. (Brute force is itself never enough, which is why winning the war is often less difficult that winning the peace, i.e. legitimating any settlement). Impotently appealing to “good will” in some transcendental noumenal sense and uttering the truism that war is bad doesn’t do any actual good. We all live in the world and not above or outside it and we all have to deal one way or another with its grotesqueries. If one wants to avert wars and open up more productive or fruitful paths to conflict resolution, then struggling to understand the phenomena grouped under the rubric of war and apply what one can learn to situational analysis would seem more reasonable, even if at the same time irrational. Simply scrubbing one’s conscience clean to avoid any complicity one way or another is no solution.

“From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven suffereth violence, and the violent bear it away.”

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john c. halasz 08.23.15 at 8:00 pm

@175:

“Together with the British, over 100,000 French troops were evacuated, most of whom chose to return to France and surrender there.”

I checked that one out. Dunkirk ended on June 4. The Germans reached Paris on June 14. The British ferried the French troops back across the Channel to fight on the southern front, not simply to surrender.

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Stephen 08.23.15 at 8:22 pm

@179: Most of the French troops evacuated from Dunkirk by June 4th spent some time in England (for understandable reasons) before being returned to France. The second phase of the German offensive began on June 5th. By June 9th, the surviving units of the French air force withdrew to North Africa, On June 10th, Paris was declared an open city.

I would not dispute the courage of some French units that fought before, and after, Dunkirk. But the French who chose to return rather than stay in Britain achieved nothing that I know of. Of course, some may have felt they were doing the right thing for France.

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John Quiggin 08.23.15 at 9:09 pm

John C Halasz: We have a mutual view that the other’s contributions are worthless banalities. So, I’d appreciate it if you would stop commenting on my banalities, and post yours somewhere else.

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Matt 08.23.15 at 9:14 pm

Fortunately humanity doesn’t solely consist of utilitarian bean counters and some people have a different idea of what “a better life” means and are willing to make sacrifices to achieve it – there would be no resistance fighters without these “myths”, only conformists and collaborators.

But even if we accept utilitarianism and it’s ideas of happiness wholesale – it is simply not a very good long-term strategy since it quite obviously encourages those with the biggest guns to f@ck people over again and again – and they will do that, just like capitalists will always try to squeeze the last bit of profit out of everyone. Hence the need for pushback.

I enjoy a little schadenfreude that Vietnam finally kicked out its colonial oppressors and their allies after 30 years of armed struggle, because I believe the colonial/capitalist war against the communists was morally illegitimate. But 20 years after the war the Vietnamese were earning peanuts making products for Nike, and the government that liberated them from colonial oppression apparently did so to guarantee its own monopoly on oppression. It seems like non-elite Vietnamese didn’t materially win much from winning the war.

I am glad that some people believe myths about resisting bullies, or at least believe that they must resist regardless of the true likelihood of success, precisely because of the horrible incentives if everyone just complied every time a better-armed bully showed up and started making demands. Yet I also believe that fighting instead of complying usually produces its own horrible problems.

I think it is horrible that the Egyptian military staged a coup against its elected government. I think it is horrible that Saudi Arabia is still ruled by a hereditary dictatorship. I don’t want the Egyptian military or the House of Saud to get away with it. But I look at Libya and Syria and think that ending tyranny may have an unacceptably high price, especially since there’s no guarantee that the winners of a civil war will be especially aligned with the Enlightenment values I regard as the opposite of tyranny. If I wish Syrian-scale armed struggle on Egypt, because I believe so strongly that tyrants shouldn’t get away with it, I’m also wishing an incredible horror on the Egyptian people.

Americans are good at remembering to fight: we recall the Munich Agreement and (mis-)apply it to every situation that even vaguely suggests military action. We remember “I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.” We’re apparently not so good at identifying, remembering, or learning from times that escalating to armed conflict failed to solve the original problem and introduced more problems of its own.

It reminds me of how American English has no proper translation for the term “war criminal.” We have no term for the times you shouldn’t go to war against tyrants. Nor is there any term for powerful Americans who committed atrocities in wartime. In American English the very idea is inexpressible, like hot snow. The rare American who calls a President a war criminal is widely regarded as someone with a brain disorder, like someone who mistakes his wife for a hat. “American war criminal,” “stupid rebellion against tyranny” — things that we are (mostly) unable to even talk about. What a lousy way to find out that the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is correct.

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Bruce Wilder 08.23.15 at 9:30 pm

Matt @ 182

Yes, it matters more who writes the menu than who orders the meal.

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john c. halasz 08.24.15 at 2:10 am

Deleted. I asked nicely, but you didn’t pay any attention – JQ

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David 08.24.15 at 9:15 am

Stephen,
OK, here we go. Those who think this is a bit nerdish can skip to the last paragraph which is about opportunity costs.
It goes back to the structure of NATO, or more precisely its military component, which was created in a panic in the early 1950s, anticipating a war in Europe within a couple of years. The Supreme Commander (SACEUR) was of course an American, although there was little option at the time. The command system was and is effectively owned by the Americans, and SACEUR is also the commander of all US forces in Europe, and takes his orders directly from the US President. There has never been much doubt which of these hats was more important. This arrangement effectively gave the US a lock on all military decisions involving troops of NATO nations, and as recently as the NATO deployments in Bosnia and the operations in Kosovo in 1999 it was essentially impossible to get anything done without layers of approval from Washington.
Why did this matter to the French? Well, there were highly complex command arrangements involved (I can’t remember all the details now) and nations “assigned” forces to NATO to come under NATO (effectively US) command in time of crisis. This was logical enough, but of course SACEUR would be following US political directives, and few Europeans actually believed that in practice the US would risk nuclear annihilation to preserve Europe. It was tacitly assumed that a US-Soviet deal would be reached over the heads of the Europeans, who, without forces under their own control could do nothing. The French hypothesized that, in such a situation, their troops could simply be “surrendered” by SACEUR as part of a deal, or their country occupied, without them being able to do anything about it. This was not an entirely theoretical issue. In December 1944, French troops who had liberated Strasbourg were ordered by Eisenhower to withdraw from the city in response to the German Ardennes offensive. This would have opened the population to German reprisals but Roosevelt told de Gaulle that it was a military decision and he could not overrule Eisenhower. Fortunately the crisis passed and Eisenhower got over his panic, but the French were haunted ever after by the fear of a repetition.
De Gaulle, once he came to power, inherited a great deal of unhappiness with the rigid, US-controlled NATO structure, and he tried, as others had, to modernise it and make it more flexible. The US refused, and de Gaulle eventually decided to withdraw from the Integrated Military Structure, putting French troops back under national control. In great secrecy, agreements were then negotiated to put French troops under NATO control at certain defined points, but with the proviso that they could also be returned to national control. (The documents have never been published as far as I know, so I’m relying on what various people have told me.) Thus, the French claimed privately that the difference between them and the US was that they were committed to European defence in practice, rather than in theory, whereas the US was committed in theory but not in practice.
This gave the French a national option outside US control. With their nuclear forces (which unlike those of the UK were never under NATO control), they could defend their national territory with troops not declared to NATO or recovered from NATO control.They also retained the ability to command these forces nationally, which neither the British nor the Germans had. It was essentially a last-ditch option, but was based very heavily, as I recall, on memories of what they regarded as a history of betrayal, not only in 1940 but on other occasions as well.
On Dunkirk, incidentally, manpower was not really the French problem. It was the unwillingness of the French elites to fight the Germans, and the fear of revolution if the war continued much longer. the Army effectively blackmailed the government into surrender.
OK, on opportunity costs, this discussion began with me remarking that military arrangements of all kinds, not just war, have opportunity costs, and for many nations the end of NATO would have meant very important ones, politically, but also financially. The earlier French decision to withdraw from the military side of NATO did also have important opportunity costs – they could have bought equipment more cheaply from the US, shared in R and D etc – but in their view national independence was worth the cost involved.

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Ronan(rf) 08.24.15 at 5:15 pm

I agree with Bruce , it’s about who rules you , where u see your values and identity accommodated within the ruling structures, not having a few more pennies in your back pocket

“The obligation to avenge a murdered lord is treated as so absolute that to fail to do so is tantamount to killing him oneself …. The obligation to avenge is one of the basic elements of the bond between lord and retainer or father and son, and the man who fails to perform that obligation dissolves the ties that linked him to the deceased “

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