Why do countries and groups within countries engage in large-scale violent conflict? Social scientists’ knee-jerk impulse is to look for objective conflict of interest: It’s about land, oil, or whatever. But if you watch a standard news channel like CNN, you get a very different explanation: Groups are fighting because they hate each other.

My considered view is that the CNN model fits the facts of the modern world far better than objective conflict of interest stories do. Almost every country and group would do better materially if they just settled their differences and got on with their lives. In fact, most of the time losing groups could unilaterally better their situation by abjectly surrendering. I’ve opposed the Iraq War from the start, but I still think Iraq would be doing great if the people of Iraq just abjectly accepted American domination. (Ask the Germans or the Japanese. Once you stop fighting, it’s clear sailing).

Now if you say that the cause of war is simply mutual hatred, many economists will demand an explanation. “Why do these groups hate each other?” It’s easy to point to various unpleasant incidents. The problem with this approach is that objectively big grievances often lead to no hatred at all. Is Germany worried that Israel’s going to seek nuclear revenge for the Holocaust?

Ed Glaeser’s paper “The Political Economy of Hate” makes my point well:

But the fact that demagogues form hatred by telling tales of past crimes shouldn’t fool us into thinking that the level of hatred is actually a function of past injustice. Group-level hatred has often formed against the most victimized (and innocent) groups in history, such as American Blacks in 1876 or German Jews in 1933. Likewise, when members of a group perpetrate vast atrocities, people often fail to hate them. The decades after 1945 have not witnessed widespread anti-German or anti-Japanese hysteria. Hatred may increase with the true level of past crimes, but the elasticity appears to be quite small.

I’m not normally one to praise the media. But when I compare the CNN story about a random violent conflict to the kind of story you get from social scientists, I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. At least in the modern world, the media’s simplistic atheoretical approach fits the facts.