Caplan’s Pacifism

Bryan Caplan echoes my own pragmatic/consequentialist arguments for pacifism :

P1: The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.
P2: The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.
P3: For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.
C: [B]efore you kill innocent people, you should be reasonably sure that your action will have very good consequences.

Tyler Cowen responds with a series of counterexamples:

There is not enough consideration of specific times and place.  Had England been pacifist in 1914, that might have yielded a better outcome.  Had England been pacifist in 1939, likely not.  Switzerland has done better for itself, and likely for the world, by being ready to fight back.  Pacifism today could quite possibly doom Taiwan, Israel, large parts of India (from both Pakistan and internal dissent), any government threatened by civil war (who would end up ruling Saudi Arabia and how quickly?), and I predict we would see a larger-scale African tyrant arise, gobbling up non-resisting pacifist neighbors.  Would China request the vassalage of any countries, besides Taiwan that is?  Would Russia “request” Georgia and the Baltics?  Would West Germany have survived?

Interestingly, John Dewey famously called the World Wars wrong using a similar standard, supporting the first and opposing the second. Decision-making under uncertainty is hard! Still, I think Cowen is being a bit unfair here. This parade of horribles could likely be run through Caplan’s Common Sense Pacifism test: we should ask for each whether there was “reasonable certainty” that the war would have “very good consequences.” Cowen claims a commonsensically pacifist world would be a worse world, but I think he’s attacking an absolute pacifism, not Caplan’s common sense version. Some now-well-regarded wars would fail the test, and the current geopolitical world would be differently aligned, but I don’t think Caplan is arguing that Georgia ought to give in to Russia.  For one thing, I think self-defense against the incursion of neighbors is likely going to pass this test (as opposed to “self-defense” like the “preemptive” invasion of Iraq.) Take India: does its use of violence to repel Pakistan pass Caplan’s test? Arguably, yes: the hostilities along the border are relatively cheap and harm few civilians, but these measures have substantial long-run economic and political benefits. (Although note Amartya Sen’s arguments against India developing nuclear weapons.)

UPDATE: Another way of reading Caplan is that the burden of proof ought to fall on the warmongers rather than the pacifists, and that the standard of proof ought to be “reasonable certainty” of “very good consequences.” This standard may or may not already underwrite the various Just War theorists, but perhaps Caplan is simply noting that many of the older standards and precedents may have changed in light of new ways of making war that increase the costs and thus raise the estimation required for “very good consequences.”

More War: The Intervention in Libya

The war in Libya happened so fast that most of the commentariat seemed to be caught flat-footed. The international community had apparently decided to go to war without properly vetting their decisions with bloggers! As a result, we got more than our fair share of bad arguments. I’ve been trying to formulate a position of my own, and I’m struck by a strong ambivalence. I don’t like war, and I don’t like three wars at once, but I’m glad my feelings weren’t consulted. It’s David Rieff versus Samantha Power all over again, and I don’t know who is right this time, either. It’s a lot easier to figure out who is wrong.

Here are some reasons that anti-interventionists have been giving that aren’t very good:

  1. This is US imperialism: News flash. We’re not in it for the money anymore. By definition, an empire is a mercantilist dream, not a money-pit. We’ve proven that we do care about minority rights and the wellbeing of civilians. We just haven’t proven that we’re smart enough to actually protect those rights and interests when we set out to do so. Bad implementation is not evidence of bad motivations, and hypocrisy is a pretty weak charge compared to all the dead people.
  2. The rebels could be worse than Gaddafi: Elites are elites. I’m all for getting rid of elites, but there’s been no sign that the human race is capable of eliminating hierarchy. If they win, at least they’ll share an ethnic identity with the people they govern. Apparently people like that.
  3. Anything to do with Libya’s national sovereignty: Who cares? This kind of principled objection assumes that Libya is a nation-state, which begs the question that the rebels are asking, “Should we be a nation-state if it means that guy is in charge?”
  4. We should have invaded Bahrain, Yemen, or Saudi Arabia instead: Frankly, if there’s a case for military intervention in those countries, it should pass the same test that Libya is failing now. But those protesters don’t have guns, so an intervention would require a full-scale boots-on-the-ground invasion and occupation. Neither the US nor the international community can afford to do that a third, fourth, and fifth time in a decade.
  5. It’s unconstitutional: While it’s true that Senator Obama said that we would not go to war without congressional approval, hypocrisy is not the end of the constitutional conversation. Let me remind all the new constitutional scholars that we haven’t declared war in the manner mandated by the Constitution since 1941.

Here are some reasons that the pro-interventionists have been giving that aren’t very good:

  1. Gaddafi is a dictator and we have to help those who struggle for freedom: Tyranny, though horrible, is quite palatable when compared to war, especially when we remember that war has more often resulted in tyranny than democracy. There’s a reason we use the term “revolution”: for most people, such events involve a tremendous jostling as the top becomes the bottom and the bottom becomes the top. The faces change, but usually the system of laws and the patterns of domination remain the same.
  2. We have to signal our support for other uprisings: How does intervening elsewhere show the Iranians or Bahrainese we care about them? Doesn’t it mostly say, “We noticed you were having a revolution, but we decided not to help”? This feels a little like going to the hospital where your grandmother is having surgery to check in on an old drinking buddy: our aircraft carriers were in the neighborhood, but we didn’t even drop in for a quick chat or punitive bombing campaign.
  3. Anything that compares this intervention to the interventions we failed to make in Rwanda or Bosnia: This is not that. You can’t get the golden years back with your children, and you can’t fight the just wars that you missed because you were busy dismantling your welfare state. On the other hand, this could turn out a lot like Kosovo, where air war extended the conflict and led to more civilian deaths.
  4. Yeah, but if a quick intervention in Libya can prevent a genocide, then it will have been worth it: A civil war is not genocide, even if the side you’re rooting for is losing. And conflicts aren’t often quick, especially when one side holds itself to air strikes and a defensive posture. The most likely outcome seems to be partition, with the west remaining in Gaddafi’s hands and the east in the hands of the rebels. Back when I advocated partition in Iraq, people accused me of championing ethnic cleansing. If there is a partition, we should remember how that went for India and Pakistan and Bengal: partition means there will plenty of time for this conflict to go dormant and then re-emerge. More war.

Ultimately, when it comes to the use of military force in the modern age, everyone ought to be a consequentialist, in the sense of asking about the likely outcomes. Just war theory is an absurd fig leaf when we’re talking about aerial bombardment. Unsurprisingly it does more to justify wars than to limit them.

The reason we ought to be consequentialists is because wars do more harm to civilian populations than we care to admit. Always. Armies suffer fewer casualties than the civilian populations that support them, and fewer still than the civilian populations of contested territories. You might think soldiers, engaged in active hostilities, would face the brunt of the suffering, but nations at war (other than the US) devote their foodstuffs and medical resources to the military. However, the disruption of a drawn-ought conflict is harder on women and children than it is on the men doing the fighting. Women always sufffer the most in such upheavals, because they are ill-equipped to defend themselves in lawless zones and tend to keep their families together rather than ditching their children (as men do) to fend for themselves. Injured soldiers are returned to their homes and women are expected to care for them while also providing for the family. Often the pressure to enter the labor market finds women badly paid and underemployed. Educational opportunities are cut short, again for the good of the men. Then, too, the longterm psychological on survivors and their families are abominable, not to mention the social effects: when the war is over, you’ve got a bunch of shell-shocked young killers wandering around, often still armed and wondering what to do with themselves.

I am not a military expert. Maybe this will turn out to be a good idea. We should judge the consequences, which are always receding into the future. Probably that means that commentators should stick with Mao’s opinion on the French Revolution: “Too soon to tell.”

Why I am still hopeful for Egypt’s revolution

The Day of Thugs (Image from Foreign Policy)

It is said that revolution is what happens when a police officer is transformed from a legitimate authority into a man with a gun. If that’s true, then what we witnessed in Egypt yesterday is a classic counter-revolution: irregular hoodlums attacking peaceful protesters, whose only defense is the military standing by. To ask for the army’s help is to reverse the transformation, returning to these men with guns their aura of legitimate authority.

And just look at how the Egyptian government is spinning the attacks:

“Mubarak’s primary responsibility is to ensure an orderly and peaceful transfer of power. We can’t do that if we have a vacuum of power.”

Robert Springborg puts it this way:

“The threat to the military’s control of the Egyptian political system is passing. Continue reading Why I am still hopeful for Egypt’s revolution

Three Thoughts on the Tuscon Shootings

The immediate response to tragedy ought to be a cautious silence and a quiet search for understanding. Yet when I attended a vigil on Sunday at the US Capitol building, a reporter from WAMU spent a half hour gathering quotes (none of which he used, thankfully) and in the process goaded a few vocal participants into making absurdly uninformed pronouncements about causation and culpability. So instead of a quiet search for understanding, we listened to a few men rant. Obviously, that’s not what vigils are supposed to do, but the reporter didn’t seem to care that his microphone was disruptive. Continue reading Three Thoughts on the Tuscon Shootings

Wikileaks and War

Is this the argument?

  • 1. (Our) wars are unjust.
  • 2. Stopping (our) wars will prevent further injustice.

combined with:

  • 3. (Our) wars depend on secrecy in inception and in daily practice.
  • 4. Thus, (our) wars can be prevented by eliminating the secrecy in inception.
  • 5. Moreover, (our) wars can be stopped by eliminating the secrecy in their daily practices.

Yet it seems daily secrecy and original secrecy play very different roles. Perhaps our wars might have been prevented by leaking, but can they be arrested by leaking? It seems to me that secrecy in daily practice is an operational need, not an existential need. The military keeps its secrets for strategic reasons, as John D noticed:

An obvious pragmatic objection arises: there would be no way for a government to share information with all its citizens without a (large) risk of that information being leaked or sent to the other side. Indeed, this would seem to be almost a certainty in a modern society with a diversity of opinions, not all of which would be in concert with the common good (which is just an abstraction), and an international news-media presence.

Secrecy allows the military to better achieve goals accepted by most citizens, just as it allows them to achieve contested goals without resistance. For leaking to be effective, it should focus on unpopular goals…. yet patriotic sentiments can eliminate the justificatory need for secrecy in the daily practice of war. Citizens become defensive of the war when leaking threatens to eliminate our justifications for its inception.

Yet even in inception, what evidence is there that transparency would be preventative? War isn’t something about which we’re particularly rational, ethical, or data-driven, so transparency may be of little value compared to other strategies. (Which strategies? I don’t know. Public protest? Civil disobedience? Armed revolution? Pacifist art? Deficit hawks and bond vigilantes?)

Also: can an unjust war be salvaged and rendered just by a change in strategy or by an obligation to supply safety and stability to the population we have harmed? What happened to the  “you break it, you bought it” doctrine that future generations of history students will be forced to memorize as the Pottery Barn rule?