The Folly of Pacifism (III)

This is a reworking of two earlier posts (here and here). Follow the second link to see a long list of related posts.

Winston Churchill said, “An appeaser is one who feeds the crocodile, hoping that it will eat him last.” I say that a person who promotes pacifism as state policy is one who offers himself and his fellow citizens as crocodile food.

Bryan Caplan, an irritating twit who professes economics at George Mason University, is an outspoken pacifist. He is also an outspoken advocate of open borders.

Caplan, like Linus of Peanuts, loves mankind; it’s people he can’t stand. In fact, his love of mankind isn’t love at all, but rather a kind of utilitarianism in which the “good of all” somehow outweighs the specific (though by no means limited) harms caused by lying down at an enemy’s feet or enabling illegal immigrants to feed at the public trough.

As Gregory Cochran puts it in the first installment of his review of Caplan’s The Case Against Education,

I don’t like Caplan. I think he doesn’t understand – can’t understand – human nature, and although that sometimes confers a different and interesting perspective, it’s not a royal road to truth. Nor would I want to share a foxhole with him: I don’t trust him.

That’s it, in a nutshell. Caplan’s pacifism reflects his untrustworthiness. He is a selective anti-tribalist:

I identify with my nuclear family, with my friends, and with a bunch of ideas.  I neither need nor want any broader identity.  I was born in America to a Democratic Catholic mother and a Republican Jewish father, but none of these facts define me.  When Americans, Democrats, Republicans, Catholics, and Jews commit misdeeds – as they regularly do – I feel no shame and offer no excuses.  Why?  Because I’m not with them.

Hollow words from man who, in large part, owes his freedom and comfortable life to the armed forces and police of the country that he disdains. And — more fundamentally — to the mostly peaceful and productive citizens in whose midst he lives, and whose taxes support the armed forces and police.

Caplan is a man out of place. His attitude toward his country would be justified if he lived in the Soviet Union, Communist China, North Korea, Cuba, or any number of other nation-states past and present. His family, friends, and “bunch of ideas” will be of little help to him when, say, Kim Jong-un (or his successor) lobs an ICBM in the vicinity of Washington, D.C., which is uncomfortably close to Caplan’s residence and workplace.

In his many writings on pacifism, Caplan has pooh-poohed the idea that “if you want peace, prepare for war”:

This claim is obviously overstated.  Is North Korea really pursuing the smart path to peace by keeping almost 5% of its population on active military duty?  How about Hitler’s rearmament?  Was the Soviet Union preparing for peace by spending 15-20% of its GDP on the Red Army?

Note the weasel-word, “overstated”, which gives Caplan room to backtrack in the face of evidence that preparedness for war can foster peace by deterring an enemy. (The defense buildup in the 1980s is arguably such a case, in which the Soviet Union was not only deterred but also brought to its knees.) Weasel-wording is typical of Caplan’s method of argumentation. He is harder to pin down than Jell-O.

In any event, Caplan’s pronouncement only attests to the fact that there are aggressive people and regimes out there, and that non-aggressors are naive to believe that those people and regimes will not attack you if you are not armed against them.

The wisdom of preparedness is nowhere better illustrated than in the world of the internet, where every innocent user is a target for the twisted and vicious purveyors of malware. Think of the millions of bystanders (myself included) whose sensitive personal information has been scooped by breaches of massive databases. Internet predators differ from armed ones only in their choice of targets and weapons, not in their essential disregard for the lives and property of others.

Interestingly, although Caplan foolishly decries preparedness, he isn’t against retaliation (which seems a strange position for a pacifist):

[D]oesn’t pacifism contradict the libertarian principle that people have a right to use retaliatory force?  No. I’m all for revenge against individual criminals.  My claim is that in practice, it is nearly impossible to wage war justly, i.e., without trampling on the rights of the innocent.

Why is it “nearly impossible to wage war justly”? Caplan puts it this way:

1. The immediate costs of war are clearly awful.  Most wars lead to massive loss of life and wealth on at least one side.  If you use a standard value of life of $5M, every 200,000 deaths is equivalent to a trillion dollars of damage.

2. The long-run benefits of war are highly uncertain.  Some wars – most obviously the Napoleonic Wars and World War II – at least arguably deserve credit for decades of subsequent peace.  But many other wars – like the French Revolution and World War I – just sowed the seeds for new and greater horrors.  You could say, “Fine, let’s only fight wars with big long-run benefits.”  In practice, however, it’s very difficult to predict a war’s long-run consequences.  One of the great lessons of Tetlock’s Expert Political Judgment is that foreign policy experts are much more certain of their predictions than they have any right to be.

3. For a war to be morally justified, its long-run benefits have to be substantially larger than its short-run costs.  I call this “the principle of mild deontology.”  Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.  For a war to be morally justified, then, its (innocent lives saved/innocent lives lost) ratio would have to exceed 5:1.  (I personally think that a much higher ratio is morally required, but I don’t need that assumption to make my case).

It would seem that Caplan is not entirely opposed to war — as long as the ratio of lives saved to lives lost is acceptably high. But Caplan gets to choose the number of persons who may die for the sake of those who may thus live. He wears his God-like omniscience with such modesty.

Caplan’s soul-accountancy implies  a social-welfare function, wherein A’s death cancels B’s survival. I wonder if Caplan would feel the same way if A were Osama bin Laden (before 9/11) and B were Bryan Caplan or one of his family members or friends? He would feel the same way if he were a true pacifist. But he is evidently not one. His pacifism is selective, and his arguments for it are slippery.

What Caplan wants, I suspect, is the best of both worlds: freedom and prosperity for himself (and family members and friends) without the presence of police and armed forces, and the messy (but unavoidable) business of using them. Using them is an imperfect business; mistakes are sometimes made. It is the mistakes that Caplan (and his ilk) cringe against because they indulge in the nirvana fallacy. In this instance, it is a belief that there is a more-perfect world to be had if only “we” would forgo violence. Which gets us back to  Caplan’s unwitting admission that there are people out there who will do bad things even if they aren’t provoked.

National defense, like anything less than wide-open borders, violates another of Caplan’s pernicious principles. He seems to believe that the tendency of geographically proximate groups to band together in self-defense is a kind of psychological defect. He refers to it as “group-serving bias”.

That’s just a pejorative term which happens to encompass mutual self-defense. And who better to help you defend yourself than the people with whom you share space, be it a neighborhood, a city-state, a principality, or even a vast nation? As a member of one or the other, you may be targeted for harm by outsiders who wish to seize your land and control your wealth, or who simply dislike your way of life, even if it does them no harm.

Would it be “group-serving bias” if Caplan were to provide for the defense of his family members (and even some friends) by arming them if they happened to live in a high-crime neighborhood? If he didn’t provide for their defense, he would quickly learn the folly of pacifism, as family members and friends are robbed, maimed, and killed.

Pacifism is a sophomoric fantasy on a par with anarchism. It is sad to see Caplan’s intelligence wasted on the promulgation and defense of such a fantasy.