Lessons from the Yellowjacket War
By Bryan Caplan
On July 13, I’m debating pacifism with Ilya Somin at the GMU law school. (The debate’s open to the public). Yet last weekend I declared war on four nests of yellowjackets on my property. I won, but one stinger pierced my protective glove. My hand soon swelled up like a catcher’s mitt.
Question: Isn’t there a contradiction between my pacifism and my war of choice against the yellowjackets? Not really. None of my arguments for pacifism apply.
1. The immediate costs weren’t awful. Like most people, I don’t think dead bugs are a big deal. And on the human side of the ledger, my swollen hand hurt, but a lot less than a bad sunburn. Since I wore heavy winter clothing, my injuries couldn’t have been much worse.
2. The long-run benefits were fairly certain. Based on past experience, I saved my family about five stings in exchange for suffering one sting myself. And there’s zero chance that yellowjackets will join forces to get revenge, sneak attack me next week during my evening walk, or form an alliance with deer and squirrel to evict me.
3. To be morally justified, the long-run benefits of my war didn’t need to substantially exceed the short-run costs. Why not? Because I was fighting bugs and, like most people, I don’t think bugs have rights. Since there was no need to avoid killing “innocent yellowjackets,” I poisoned their nests with a clean conscience.
Final reflection: Yellowjackets are viciously territorial; they sting anyone who even
thinks about getting too close to their nests. If these insects could
speak, I have no doubt that they’d justify all their actions as
“defensive” and chant
“If you want peace, prepare for war.” Which is precisely why I
resolved to destroy them. If yellowjackets imposed milder punishments
on perceived trespassers, I would have left them alone. If you think that violates the law of supply, think again.