The Upper Hand Heuristic
By Bryan Caplan
As Adam Smith explains, treating other people well is often in our narrow self-interest:
It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.
An odd corollary is that when a person treats us well, we cannot infer that they genuinely care about us. Maybe they’re just treating us well because they desire our repeat business or a favor down the line.
If “X treats Y well” does not imply that “X genuinely cares about Y,” what does? For starters, you have to look at situations where X has the upper hand – situations where Smith’s insight does not apply. If X doesn’t advance his narrow self-interest by treating Y well, yet treats Y well nonetheless, we discover that deep down, X really cares about Y. The same goes, of course, if X suddenly starts treating Y badly as soon as X has the upper hand.
Studying situations where someone has the upper hand often leads to pessimism about human nature. It’s tempting to move from the truism that “When X doesn’t need Y, X treats Y worse” to “People are bad.” Yet it’s a mistake to focus merely the direction of the behavioral change. To really judge human nature, you have to look at the magnitude of the behavioral change. When X has the upper hand, does he offer Y 10% less? 25% less? 80% less? Does he enslave him? Kill him for the fun of it?
Once you focus on magnitudes, pronounced pessimism about human nature is hard to maintain. Sure, there are some cases where people with the upper hand turn to slavery or even genocide. But these have long been rare, and keep getting rarer. The world is full of militarily helpless countries that have no reason to fear conquest. If you object, “That’s because the United States protects them,” just ask yourself, “Who’s protecting them from us?”
I suspect that many economists will ask, “Who cares about others’ true motives?” Response: understanding true motives is often important – especially if you’re weighing whether to give someone the upper hand. Foreign policy is the most obvious example. If you’re pondering surrender, your enemy’s motives are a matter of life and death.
People often assume that anyone trying to kill them must have the worst possible motives. That’s simply not true. Maybe your enemies are worried you might kill them first. Maybe they’re trying to kill someone else, and you’re collateral damage. Maybe they’ll leave you alone if you make a symbolic concession. When a country makes war on yours, you discover that its leaders aren’t absolute pacifists. But that leaves open a wide continuum of underlying motives.
What’s the best way to figure out your enemy’s position on this continuum? Simple: Look at your enemy’s past behavior when he had the upper hand. I call this “the Upper Hand Heuristic.” You can learn a great deal by studying how your enemy treats his opponents after they abjectly surrender.
Take the United States. As a pacifist, I think the United States government has committed many awful crimes against humanity. Yet by the Upper Hand Heuristic, the U.S. has looked very good indeed for over a century. Germany and Japan were America’s greatest enemies, but once they abjectly surrendered, their people received amazingly good treatment. Germans and Japanese were soon freer and more prosperous than they’d ever been before – or would have been if they’d won. The victorious Soviet Union, in contrast, quickly imposed Communist dictatorships and deported millions of new subjects to Siberia. Quite a difference.
To take a more recent example, consider the end of the Cold War. The U.S. didn’t beat the Soviet Union as decisively as it beat Germany or Japan. Yet the mighty Red Army did virtually collapse. Historically, this could easily have prompted an invasion or demand for tribute. The response? The United States left Russia in peace. China, despite decades of Sino-Soviet conflict, did the same.
I suspect that many of my fellow pacifists will instinctively reject the Upper Hand Heuristic. When one country invades another, even people who call themselves “antiwar” often rush to take the defenders’ side. This is a terrible mistake. Real pacifists should urge all sides to stand down. If one of those sides is a good winner, pacifists should be eager to point this out: “You want peace? Surrender to X. For all his crimes, he’s gracious in victory.”
Thus, while I never supported the Iraq War, I think that militarily resisting the United States was stupid at best. Do you want the terrible crimes of the American government to end? Then swallow your pride and surrender. Like the Germans and the Japanese, you’ll be glad you did.
P.S. A clever economist will point out that when people use the Upper Hand Heuristic, countries have a reputational incentive to act mercifully even when they don’t have to. If national leaders cared deeply about their countries’ long-run reputations, this would be perfectly true. In practice, however, most national leaders are too myopic to worry about the judgment of history. So the Upper Hand Heuristic still works well.