Cowen Contra Pacifism
By Bryan Caplan
I don’t have time just now to reply to the many new comments on my pacifism, but I can’t let Tyler Cowen’s critique go unanswered. At the outset, let me say that I realize how crazy and naive my position sounds, especially if you only hear a one-sentence summary. I freely accept the burden of proof, and don’t expect to change anyone’s mind overnight. But I’m standing my ground.
I really wish Tyler had actually named the premise(s) in my original argument that he rejects, and explained why. But here’s my reply to what he actually said. Tyler:
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?
I say there is not enough consideration of uncertainty in Tyler’s examples. With hindsight, we know that Britain’s entry into World War I (along with the entry of every other participant) had disastrous consequences: four years of slaughter, a worldwide flu epidemic that killed 50-100 million additional people, Communism, Nazism, and World War II. These horrors could have been avoided if any of the major players had swallowed their stupid pride. Nevertheless, entry into World War I seemed like a good idea at the time to a wide range of responsible opinion.
Critics of pacifism love to focus on a single rare scenario: A blatant, merciless aggressor who speaks only the language of force – and whose defeat predictable returns the world to a civilized status quo ante. But it’s damnably hard to know when you’re actually in that situation. In the real world, all of the following scenarios are at least as common:
1. Your government says you’re facing a blatant, merciless aggressor, when you’re merely facing a minor annoyance.
2. Your government says you’re facing a blatant, merciless aggressor, conveniently ignoring the many actions your government has taken to provoke him.
3. Your government and the enemy government have an honest disagreement about who aggressed against whom, and your government’s “retaliation” merely makes the other side more eager to retaliate against you.
4. Your government is the blatant, merciless aggressor – and cloaks its infamies in the language of self-defense and justice.
5. You really are facing a blatant, merciless aggressor. But his demands are limited and meeting them will return the world to a civilized status quo ante.
6. You really are facing a blatant, merciless aggressor, and his demands are high. But defeating him will be very costly, and another, even worse aggressor is biding his time to take advantage of the aftermath.
Etc. (Note that I haven’t covered logical space; I’m just listing some common cases). If you were omniscient, of course, you could just tailor your views on the best response to the specific case you’re in – as Tyler recommends. But in the real world of severe uncertainty about which state you’re in, the pacifist approach does surprisingly well.
Note: Even if you think that your side never makes such elementary mistakes, you’ve got to admit that people on the other side make them all the time. The upshot is that pacifism would work wonderfully for them. And you should thank me for bringing this neglected option to their attention.
Of course, if Tyler or any other foreign policy expert really does want to claim enormous powers of discernment, I’m happy to bet them after they give me favorable odds. If they don’t, we should draw the logical conclusion: Their excuses notwithstanding, they know deep inside that their crystal balls really don’t work.
There is also a Lucas critique issue of how the bad guys start behaving
once they figure out that the good guys are pacifist, and I don’t see
him discussing that either.
Good point, but it cuts both ways. Once a country has a credible reputation for pacifism, all the standard pro-war propaganda and rationalizations for escalating savagery start sounding truly absurd. Maybe even absurd enough to overcome anti-foreign bias.
It would be a mistake to add up all
the wars and say pacifism is still better overall, because we do not
face an all-or-nothing choice. Many selective instances of
non-pacifism are still a good idea, with benefits substantially in
excess of their costs.
I explicitly acknowledged this point in my original post. The problem is knowing which scenario you’re in. Discussing history with 20/20 hindsight is no help here.
Bryan, however, has to embrace pacifism, otherwise his moral theory becomes too tangled up in the empirics of the daily newspaper…
Which is exactly where I am urging him to go.
If you want to understand foreign policy, read history, not the newspaper. When you read history, you get distance. You learn how events looked to people at the time – and how wrong they usually were. You learn about unintended consequences. You learn about the poison fruit of group-serving bias. Daily newspaper reading, in contrast, feeds the illusion that whatever people in your society and government are doing and saying is reasonable and justified.