Which Rulers Are More Likely to Lie?
Once you realize that political rulers are subject to the same, mainly self-interested, incentives as ordinary individuals, hidden features of the world become visible. Consider the question of who is responsible for the blast at the Al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza.
Until economists started developing public choice theory in the mid-20th century, and despite some exceptions (Machiavelli comes to mind), it was common for political analysts and economists to neglect the self-interested incentives of political rulers, including in democracies. Thanks to this analytical tradition, we can better understand many political phenomena, including atrocities in the current Middle East war.
Self-interest explains much of the incentives of any little barbarian warlord (in this case, self-interest may include, but not only, 72 virgins in heaven). Self-interest similarly explains the behavior of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and American president Joe Biden. The incipit of Anthony de Jasay’s The State gives a methodological heuristic to grasp this: ”What would you do if you were the state?” (Giving up beds of roses grown with your own money in return for nothing?)
Now, to our question, who would have the strongest incentives to take the risk to bomb, intentionally or not, a hospital in Gaza, even if it killed tens or hundreds of civilians?
From a public-choice and rational-choice perspective, we know two related things. First, it is in the interest of the actors of whatever side is guilty to lie: if Hamas (the Palestinian quasi-state terrorist group), in order to erase its own moral turpitude and gain some apparent moral high ground; if the Israeli state, to shift the blame to Hamas or their fellow Palestinian terrorists. Second, constraints and limits (one’s “feasible set” or feasible options) change incentives. The incentive to lie is stronger if the lie has fewer chances of being exposed because, for example, there is no free press or independent organization to investigate on-site; and if the expected penalty for the outed liar is low. This is why autocratic states or barbarians lie more glaringly.
If this is true, the liars on the hospital blast are more likely to be Hamas or the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This hypothesis was buttressed by US intelligence, the Israeli military, private analysts, and open-source imagery. The cause would be an “errant” or “misfired” missile, perhaps after an attempted launch from a nearby cemetery. The pictures taken at the scene also appear to be consistent with a rolling fireball from the missile’s fuel, but not with an aerial attack. (See “U.S., Experts Say Evidence Suggests Palestinian Rocket Hit Gaza Hospital,” Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2023.) This hypothesis of a nearby launch would also be consistent with the terrorists’ practice of operating behind human shields.
On the other hand, it would not be the first time that the US government (and, I suppose, the Israeli government) has lied to its citizens or to the world, but the fact that such lies are regularly found and disclosed attenuates this possibility. Of course, we need to be open to any new evidence that may come up.
At the very beginning of the war, some analysts underlined the risk of an Israeli defense strategy that would not recognize and proclaim the moral necessity of not behaving like the barbarians who had started the war. It was difficult to find such proclamations; we mainly heard talks of vengeance. And when Netanyahu said something to that effect during Biden’s visit, it was accompanied by an ambiguous qualification if the Wall Street Journal‘s report is correct (“Biden Backs Israel Over Gaza Hospital Blast,” Wall Street Journal, October 18, 2023):
Netanyahu said Israel is doing everything it can to keep civilians out of harm’s way, while also saying that “this will be a different kind of war, because Hamas is a different kind of enemy.”
Of course, we know that: barbarians are a different enemy than non-barbarians. A few days after Hamas’s aggression, Financial Times columnist Edward Luce voiced a prescient warning (“Biden, Netanyahu and America’s choice,” Financial Times, October 11, 2023):
Last weekend’s massacres were designed to provoke retaliatory Israeli atrocities in the Gaza Strip. … The rational position is to reject the playbook that Hamas wants.
It seems that affirming the moral-individualist position is also (or would have been) the best strategic decision from an Israeli viewpoint. Occupying the high moral ground is often a good strategy.