Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on War and Presidential Success
By David Henderson
Over at EconTalk, Russ Roberts has an interesting interview with political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the incentives that U.S. presidents have had to get their country into war. It tracks a lot of the same territory that Zachary Gochenour and I covered in our “War and Presidential Greatness.” In it, we showed that, even correcting for the obvious other variables, there is a strong positive relationship between the percent of his own people killed in his wars and the “greatness” ranking that historians give a U.S. president. Bueno de Mesquita talks about this but focuses on something else that is even more important to a given president: getting reelected.
His stories about Lincoln, some of which I knew, are fascinating.
His stories about George Washington, none of which I knew, are even more fascinating. Bueno de Mesquita claims, quite plausibly, that a huge part of George Washington’s motive for fighting the Revolutionary War was to protect his substantial, and critically placed, landholdings in the Ohio Valley. I’m not saying that I agree with him, but his story made me realize that a large part of my belief in GW is romantic: because I learned about him so early in life, that romantic view is harder to shake and I’ve been less willing to put GW under the public choice microscope than with any current or recent president.
An excerpt about GW’s wealth:
His last position, just before becoming President, was President of the Patowmack Canal Company–the Potomac Canal, as we know it, from the Potomac River. What that canal did was bring, make it possible to bring produce from the Shenandoah Valley–which George owned–up to the port in Alexandria, which had been built by Lawrence, by the Ohio Valley Company, in which George had a direct interest, and shipped goods out. So it was a very profitable undertaking–or so he thought it would be, in the long run, for him. And that’s what motivated him. Most people think of Washington as–besides a great hero, which he certainly was–as kind of a gentleman farmer. Economists have estimated the worth in real dollars adjusted for inflation, not appreciated, of George Washington’s estate, in contemporary terms; and it’s about $20 billion dollars. He is by far the wealthiest President. He is the 59th wealthiest person in American history. Three of the American founding fathers are in the list of the top 100 wealthiest Americans in all of history: Hancock, who was wealthier than Washington–made his money smuggling; and Ben Franklin, who was not quite as wealthy, who made his money because he had a monopoly on the printing press. These are the folks who led the Revolution. These were not the downtrodden. These were not the oppressed. These were people who stood to lose huge amounts of wealth because of the King’s policies. And so they fought a Revolution. Which was, by the way, not very popular. Sixty percent of the colonists either were neutral or opposed to the Revolution.
Bueno de Mesquita also points to the case of my native Canada, which avoided a revolutionary war:
The end of the chapter on Washington, just a little graph that shows, current best estimates available, of per capita income each year, in the colonies, and in Canada. And, Canada has some serious disadvantages, much worse weather, much less densely populated, and so forth. But they track very closely, during the time that George III is alive, they actually depart well after he dies in 1820. So, it doesn’t look as if the colonists either did vastly better once they got rid of the English; or the Canadians did particularly badly when they kept the English–because they didn’t get their independence till 1860. [DRH correction: 1867, although that doesn’t matter much. Also, Canadians got their independence in stages, with the final stage being in 1981, I believe.] So this is not much evidence for this claim of tyranny. And they could have settled it.
There are a lot of other interesting nuggets in the piece.
One is Bueno de Mesquita’s criticism of JFK. Although I’ve never written this, I’ve long believed that JFK could easily be our worst president because he was willing to risk nuclear war for his own political advantage. Although I was a supremely confident 11-year-old at the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, thinking that no way would Kennedy risk killing his own family, I was wrong to be. He lucked out. An excerpt:
In JFK’s case, he believed he would be impeached and he would lose the Democrats in the House if he did not take a tough stance against the Soviets. Even though, by his own estimates, the risk of nuclear war was one-third.
I shudder at that number. I had no idea that JFK himself put the probability of nuclear war as high as one third.
Overall, I was pleased to see Bueno de Mesquita take a non-romantic view of America’s wars. The late James Buchanan defined public choice, which he helped create, as “politics without romance.” Unfortunately, Jim, unlike his late colleague Gordon Tullock, was unwilling to look at war through the public choice lens. Bueno de Mesquita is.
My one little disappointment is that there was no mention of Woodrow Wilson’s disastrous entry into World War I. That helped make the world safer for fascism and Naziism. But, so many bad presidents, so little time.