Extracting Information from Recent Events
By David Henderson
In a recent post, co-blogger Bryan Caplan cautions against taking any recent event and glibly asserting that the event shows whatever the person using it wants the event to show. I agree wholeheartedly with that caution.
But that doesn’t mean that we can’t try to extract information from events. Bryan is, after all, a Bayesian, as am I. So whatever probability we put on something, we should allow recent events to affect that probability, even if only marginally.
So take the event that Bryan did not identify but essentially admitted that he was discussing: the Charlie Hebdo murders. (He didn’t identify it because, as he said, he wanted his piece to be more timeless. His point applies whether we are talking about the Charlie Hebdo murders or other awful events.)
One person who has, with zero apparent doubt, proclaimed that those murders were “blowback,” that is, unintended consequences of an interventionist foreign policy, is Ron Paul. I’ve known Ron Paul for years and have a fair amount of admiration for him. I think his performance in his debate with Rudy Giuliani in the 2007 presidential campaign was magnificent. But, and I do mean this as a criticism, Ron Paul is no Bayesian. He seems to have close to zero doubt about all his beliefs. I remember meeting with him in his office once and trying to persuade him that he was wrong in claiming that the Consumer Price Index understates inflation and that it’s just the opposite. I got nowhere. There was not even a “I’ll look into it.” He was just positive that he was right and the fact that I was a Ph.D. economist whose work he respected did not matter.
It was no surprise, given that Ron Paul does think that blowback is an important effect of U.S. foreign policy, that he would also think it an important effect of French foreign policy. But given how non-Bayesian Ron Paul is, one should not take his word for it but should, instead, carefully weigh the evidence.
I have not carefully weighed all the evidence because I don’t have a lot of the evidence. Neither does anyone else who is addressing the Charlie Hebdo murders.
But there is already some evidence of blowback.
Reason Foundation senior policy analyst Shikha Dalmia, who is a friend and whose work I generally admire, challenged Ron Paul’s claim of blowback, writing:
This flies in the face of the declared motives of the attackers. The journalists — whom the assassins identified by name before summarily executing them — were not agents of French foreign policy. Their sin was that they violated an Islamic injunction against drawing pictures of the prophet — and in unflattering ways to boot.
But my antiwar.com colleague Justin Raimondo responds as follows:
Al Qaeda, which took responsibility for the attack on Charlie Hebdo soon after the smoke cleared, has repeatedly declared they are retaliating against decades of Western intervention in the Middle East: this has been a staple of their propaganda since Day One. And Amedy Coulibaly, who worked in tandem with the Charlie Hebdo attackers in murdering four people in a kosher delicatessen shortly afterward, was quite explicit about his own motivation. While Coulibaly was holding the hostages, he answered when French radio station RTL rang the store phone, slamming the phone down but leaving it off the hook so that his rant directed at his victims was heard and recorded:
“‘I was born in France. If they didn’t attack other countries, I wouldn’t be here,’ [he said].
“In RTL’s recording, the man purported to be Coulibaly tells the hostages that they are accountable for France’s actions against Muslim militants abroad, in part because the hostages pay taxes and elect the government’s leaders. ‘But I am telling you, it’s almost over. Militants are going to come. There are going to be more and more. They (France) need to stop. They need to stop attacking ISIS. They need to stop asking our women to remove the hijab …’ You pay taxes, so that means you agree…’ with France’s actions in Mali and the Middle East, the apparent gunman says in the recording.”
Dalmia is right that the Charlie Hebdo people were not agents of foreign policy. But that’s not enough of an argument. Much blowback is against people who are not agents of foreign policy. Virtually none of the New York or Pennsylvania victims of 9/11 were agents of U.S. foreign policy. But Osama bid Laden made clear that he was attacking them over his upset about U.S. foreign policy.
Do I know that the Paris attacks were blowback? I do not. Nor do Ron Paul or Justin Raimondo. Does Shihka Dalmia know that they were not blowback? She does not. We simply don’t have enough evidence.
But the overwhelming majority of recent events are sound and fury, signifying nothing. Serious thinkers don’t base their worldview on what happened yesterday, or last week, or last year. Instead, they endlessly ponder the totality of human history, a body of evidence that makes all recent events combined look small and hollow.
Each of those statements is correct. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t also ponder recent events and try to extract the information from them that we can.