Last night, I asked:

Who was the first economist to win the Nobel prize? It’s not as obvious as you might think. A hint (it’s a very subtle hint) is in the category in which I listed this post.

Commenters blake r, kevin, and Liam got it: it was Frederic Passy who, in fact, was not only the first economist to win the Nobel Prize but also one of the first two winners of the Nobel Peace Prize. I wrote about it at length in “Economists and the Nobel Peace Prize” in October 2007. In that article, I pointed out that the awarding of that first prize to Passy and Jean Henry Dunant showed “that the initial granters of the Peace Prize understood that it ought to go to people who did something for world peace.” Over time, though, the awarders, perhaps unwittingly, have set up an incentive for politicians to make war.

I wrote:

But many of the people on the list of past Nobel Peace Prize recipients are, to put it mildly, suspect. The list of suspects starts early. Theodore Roosevelt won the award in 1906 for helping end the Russo-Japanese War. Woodrow Wilson won the award in 1919 for promoting the League of Nations. Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho won the award in 1973 for the Vietnam Peace Accord, although Le Duc Tho refused the award on the grounds that there was no peace in Vietnam. Menachem Begin and Anwar al-Sadat won the award in 1978 for negotiating peace between Egypt and Israel.

That’s just a sampling of the strange awards. Why strange? Because, though they received the Nobel Peace Prize, everyone on the list was incredibly warlike, imperialistic, or brutal, or all three. Theodore Roosevelt was one of the first U.S. presidents to make the U.S. into an imperialist power that, ever since, has gone around the world sticking its nose – and its arms – into other people’s business. Indeed, as Reason managing editor Jesse Walker pointed out, Roosevelt described the Spanish-American war as “fun.” Woodrow Wilson got the U.S. into World War I when there was no good reason for doing so. His doing so made the German government realize it could never win the war, leading the Germans to surrender. This led to the Versailles Treaty, whose terms were tilted heavily against Germany despite Wilson’s assurance to the German government, before it surrendered, that this would not happen. The Versailles Treaty, in turn, upset Germans so much that some of them, who probably never would otherwise have done so, supported Hitler or at least acquiesced in his brutal moves, both domestic and international. For that reason, Wilson arguably did more to create war in the 20th century than any other American. Henry Kissinger, while working for Richard Nixon, had a large role in the decision to bomb the bejesus out of North Vietnam and the decision to bomb Cambodia. Le Duc Tho defended North Vietnam but also attacked South Vietnam. Menachem Begin was an Israeli terrorist who later became president of Israel and invaded Lebanon. Anwar al-Sadat started the Yom Kippur war, an attack on Israel, in 1973.

I also pointed out that it’s quite understandable why the incentive to make war happened:

Imagine you’re sitting in Sweden and you’re on the committee trying to choose the winner. You really do want peace. You notice that some of the most brutal people in the world have stopped being brutal and are suing for peace. You want to encourage that. And so you argue for giving them the prize. That seems like a reasonable incentive. The problem is that when people understand the incentives, they also understand that to get into the position of stopping killing people, they have to kill people first. The solution here would be for the Nobel committee to swear publicly that they will never again give the prize to anyone who got his country into anything other than strictly a war of self-defense. They should probably go further and say that they would never give the prize to anyone involved in war. Even wars of self-defense don’t always have to be fought – some situations, as Passy noted, can be negotiated.

Towards the end of my 2007 piece, I quote some thoughtful comments on war and peace and incentives by Nobel prize winner Roger B. Myerson.

Update: Commenter Erich Schwarz claims that I don’t remember the Zimmerman Telegram. I have no idea why he claims that: I do remember it. Zimmerman was proposing an alliance with Mexico if United States decided to drop its neutrality and declare war on Germany. He seems to think that was a good reason for the U.S. government to go to war with Germany. I don’t.