A Question of War and Peace: Some Answers
By Bryan Caplan
Before Christmas, I asked EconLog readers for responses to the following test question:
“There are multitudes with an
interest in peace, but they have no lobby to match those of the ‘special
interests’ that may on occasion have an interest in war.” (Olson, The Logic of Collective Action)
According to Olson, how should we expect foreign
policy to respond to these facts? Is he
right? Describe a simple way to
empirically test Olson’s story.
On Olson’s theory, we should expect democracies to frequently engage in unpopular wars that enrich the for-profit defense industry and engorge the military. The silent majority would largely agree with peace activists, but be too selfish and lazy to contribute money or time to their efforts.
Olson is almost entirely mistaken. Democracies engage in very few unpopular wars. If you look at public opinion, a majority almost always supports wars when they’re first declared. Peace movements are largely comprised of left-wing fringe elements (plus the left wing of relatively left-wing mainstream parties when they’re in the opposition).
The simplest test of Olson’s theory is to get public opinion data on a large number of wars and see whether a large fraction were unpopular. You could also measure the average time that wars continue after public opinion turns against them. On Olson’s theory, you’d expect this figure to be years or even decades.