Wishful Thinking and Unintended Consequences
By David Henderson
Mrs. Clinton was won over. Opposition leaders “said all the right things about supporting democracy and inclusivity and building Libyan institutions, providing some hope that we might be able to pull this off,” said Philip H. Gordon, one of her assistant secretaries. “They gave us what we wanted to hear. And you do want to believe.”
This is from Jo Becker and Scott Shane, “Hillary Clinton, ‘Smart Power’ and a Dictator’s Fall,” New York Times, February 27, 2016.
The article, which is long, is outstanding. It tells of Hillary Clinton’s key role in persuading President Obama to attack Libya. Scott Shane, by the way, is the author of one of my favorite books of the 1990s: Dismantling Utopia: How Information Ended the Soviet Union.
What’s striking about the article–and this is why I excerpted the paragraph I did–is how a huge decision was made based on little information and some wishful thinking. I saw this up close on domestic policy when I was a senior economist with President Reagan’s Council of Economic Advisers. From everything I’ve read in foreign policy, it’s even more true there and there are two good reasons that I’ve talked about in “The Economics of War and Foreign Policy: What’s Missing?” Defense & Security Analysis, Vol. 23, No. 1, pp. 87-100, March 2007.
The first reason is that, as the NYT article shows, the government’s information problem is more severe: government officials know even less about foreign countries than they know about their own. That is Hayek’s “fatal conceit” squared.
The second reason is that the incentive to make a good decision is even less. The main victims will be people in other countries and they don’t vote in the country of the intervenor.
HT2 Tom Nagle.