An Economist's Case for Pacifism


George Mason University economist Bryan Caplan makes the case for pacifism:

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….. 

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….

While I admit that wars occasionally have good overall consequences, it's very difficult to identify these wars in advance.  And unless you're willing to bite the bullet of involuntary organ donation, "good overall consequences" are insufficient to morally justify war.  If the advocates of a war can't reasonably claim that they're saving five times as many innocent lives as they take, they're in the wrong.

I suspect that economists' main objection to pacifism is it actually increases the quantity of war by reducing the cost of aggression.  As I've argued before, though, this is at best a half-truth:

Threats and bullying don't just move along the "demand for crossing you" curve. If your targets perceive your behavior as inappropriate, mean, or downright evil, it shifts their "demand for crossing you" out. Call it psychology, or just common sense: People who previously bore you no ill will now start looking for a chance to give you a taste of your own medicine.

NEXT: More Scenes From the Class War

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  1. Considering the track record economists have for virtually all the rest of their predictions, knowing they’re against a war would seem to be a damn good reason to support it, all on it’s own.

    1. Not to mention that pacifists have never prevented a single war. Whenever some insufferably self-righteous prick (a.k.a. a pacifascist traitor like Bryan Caplan) starts preaching pacifism, your best bet is to back away slowly and reach for your gun.

      1. Let me say, fuck you and the horse you rode in on. And I’ll make sure to keep my guns handy until you do. I may be a pacifist, but I ain’t a pushover.

        1. Fuck you for telling off Shred the Enlightened! You’re a pacifist yet you threaten and type shit to someone you disagree with? What a hypocrite you are.

          I’m Shred the Enlightened! because I agree with what he or she typed. if you don’t like, then don’t fuckin’ read it.

          Do me a favor and get off your high horse, you whiny little dickhead! If you wanna get your head blown off, be my guest.

          As for you Shred the Enlightened, rock on! Don’t let that pacifist pansy (or maybe an excuse for a pacifist) get you gown. Anyone who pacifism like I do is cool in my book.

          1. Dang it! I forgot to type “with” between “I’m” and “Shred the Enlightened!” just as I forgot to capitalize the first I in “if you don’t like, then don’t fuckin’ read it.”

            In now way am I Shred the Enlightened! Instead, I’m one of the people who side with him or her.

          2. Darn! I forgot to add “hates” between “who” and “pacifism.” To make up for it, I declare anyone who pacifism like I do kicks butt.

          3. Not another mistake! I should typed “down” in place of “gown.”

  2. Counterargument: Nuke their ass, take their gas.

  3. It is good to see that my work for peace is still appreciated!

  4. Almost everyone thinks it’s wrong to murder a random person and use his organs to save the lives of five other people.

    Who could believe in such a monstrous principle such as that, anyway? Oh, right… Utilitarians.

    1. Only a extremist like Rothbard would be so obstinate as to be against the utility-maximizing-policy of murdering random people if their various organs can save/improve the lives of 10 other people.

      1. I agree with Cosmotarian Overlord the veil of ignorance commands us all to put our names in a hat and whoever has there name picked must sacrifice their oldest child to have his organs donated…this is the MOST fair way to do things.

        1. Worked for us….eh, kinda. Dammit we were hungry!

            1. I like my meat foreign and exotic

    2. Well, some utilitarians.

    3. What about preference utilitarianism?…..itarianism

      1. Since our resident utilitarian clearly doesn’t take into account the preferences of people who don’t want to be stolen from in order to redistribute their wealth to non-producers, he has clearly demonstrated himself to not be a preference utilitarian.

        1. “The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

          Are you trying to say that Vulcan has it all wrong?

          1. Spock sacrificed himself. He didn’t pick out some random yeoman and throw her in the chamber.

            1. That was only because of his human “half” perhaps?

              Any literal reading will get the red-shirted yeoman and the instruction manual tossed in there.

              Leave it to Congress to get it ass-backwards.

              1. It was his Vulcan half. There wasn’t any way to save the ship without sacrificing himself anyway.

                It was the human Kirk who came back later to save his friend because of the illogical proposition that the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many.

                Spock’s human half didn’t interfere that much with the Vulcan identity he preferred until he was much older, after he had learned that he and Kirk formed a half logical/half emotional whole.

                1. I dunno, Tony, if you go by Fontana’s Yesteryear, Spock’s human half gave him plenty of problems. Then there was his whole desperation to fulfill his father’s approval, which lead to the dreck that was that flashback in ST:V. You can also argue that it interfered numerous times in the Original Series.

                  …and man, am I a happy little geek. XD

    4. Hey! It doesn’t matter if people are starving and there are animals around that could be eaten for sustenance, those animals’ rights are paramount! We must eliminate the unenlightened!
      We have too many people on earth and too few resources to share. Besides, think of the jobs that we’ll create when we rebuild (in a utilitarian paradise).

      Natural Selection + Zero Sum Game + Broken Window Fallacy + False Dichotomy + An Army of Strawmen = War.

      Hey, I just made a case for war!

  5. Brian: I think you got your blockquote tags a little mixed up there.

    1. Joe M—If you are seeing a bunch of empty ones at the bottom of the entry, just refresh. It only appeared that way for about the first 30 seconds.

      1. Are you admiting to attending the SugarFree School of HTML Brian?

        A stich in time…

  6. He missed the most important one: dying for the benefit of or continued existence of a government is a silly prospect whose benefits don’t outweigh the costs — e.g. it’s hard to enjoy whatever benefits you may experience (assuming that there are any) when dead. Economically, this is the equivalent of taking out a life insurance policy on yourself when you have no friends or family.

  7. Clausewitz pointed out that war does not begin when someone invades your country. War begins when you resist the invasion.

    1. “The conqueror is always a lover of peace; he would prefer to take over our country unopposed.”
      – Karl von Clausewitz

    2. Ooooooohhhh, now I get it.

  8. The problem with the argument for pacifism is that nobody listens until they’re ready to stop with the flag waving already, and by then it’s too late.

    1. Hail Fredonia!

      1. You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember, while you’re out there risking your life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in be in here thinking what a sucker you are!

  9. Why should you base your decision on whether or not to enter anyparticuar war on some weird ideological beliefs that you have about war in general?

    Wars suck. Dead people. Injured people. Property lost. Environmental damage. Trauma.

    Well, no shit, Sherlock!

    1. Ayup. I can’t disagree with any of his specific points, but it seems to me like this is a case where fighting wars is bad, but potentially, NOT fighting wars is worse, because unilateral pacifism changes the payoffs. It’s kind of like the prisoner’s dilemma: If we choose to fight, we’re worse off. If everyone in the world chooses to be a pacifist, we’re all better off. If only some people choose to be pacifists, they’re worse off and their opponents are better off…

    2. Are you gonna whine or you gonna do something about your reason for whining?

  10. Unless you’ve actually faced the threat of death in battle, I mean literally shot at or picked shrapnel out of your ass, I don’t think you can begin to think you have the moral justification to send anyone else to die in a war.

    1. If I get raped, do I get to pillage your ass cause I know what it’s like? Huh?

      Anyway, I think doing an economic calculation of the value of the enemies lives is nice and all, but basically run counters to Conquerors mindset, which thinks that getting 5% of a country’s wealth is worth destroying the other 95%, if the alternative is leaving 100% in the hands of not-them. If you’re giving full credence to the value of the opponents lives and right to their wealth, you are not going the type of dude whose going to start a war in the first place.

      1. You can try.

      2. It’s worst than that, really. He’s advocating the end of civilian control of the military. Only current and retired vets that have seen actual combat would be able to run the country. Or a military junta separate from civilian rule would be on the only authority for war.

        1. I read it as an appeal to minimize war: only those who don’t view war as an curious abstract should be in a position to commit troops to war.

          I don’t buy it either, military officers will send people to die, no matter, but I would amend it in that only those who will personally lead the troops into battle can send someone else off to die in battle.

          1. That I could support. The general should always ride point.

            1. I dunno. I think I’d rather be in an army that didn’t get its command structure decapitated on a regular basis.

              1. I think I’d want to be led by someone who is sharing the risk with me and, thus, will take advantage of opportunities to not engage in pointless battles or make sure that unit has the resources to effectively fight.

            2. In the US Army Airborne tradition and practice, the commanders are first out the door on drops.

        2. It wasn’t my intent to advocate rule by military junta, although I grant it certainly reads that way. Actually I prefer things were done the way they used to be with Congress actually declaring wars. However since Congres no longer has the political courage to actually do that, leaving it up to our Commanders in Chief who in recent years did all they could to avoid getting shot at personally when they had the chance, I just think we would be better off with someone who personally understands the costs.

  11. So taking pride in your ‘team’ and unapologetically advocating your interests, up to and including making it known that you will reply to armed attacks, is warmongering?

    Since the post raised but didn’t actually answer the argument that pacifism invites aggression, I’ll address it – it’s not softheaded social science or a cocktail-hour defense of sabre-rattling, it’s simple game theory. If, in the first round, we all agree to get rid of our weapons, then in the second round there’s an enormous advantage available to the person who decides to defect and take up arms against the rest. S/he may suffer the consequences in the third round when the rest of us counter-attack, but a) we all know short-term greed usually trumps thinking ahead, especially among narcissistic folks such as dictators, and b) we’re now back to the initial condition of armed neutrality.

    The repeated failure of pacifism in the real world proves that analysis out, and falls into a similar category as communism — a lovely vision that unfortunately doesn’t comport with immutable human nature.

    1. Look at our current situation with that camel fucker over in Iraq. Pacifism is not something to hide behind.

  12. I think this is more valid as an argument against starting a war.

    I’m not so sure that it works as an argument against defending against aggression.

    How many countries that have been attacked would have been better off if they just rolled over? Have you studied what happened to France under the German occupation?

    How much more aggression would we see if it was not resisted? Would a world where military conquest was cheap and easy be likely to see more or less of it? Would we, as a whole, be better off?

    all it psychology, or just common sense: People who previously bore you no ill will now start looking for a chance to give you a taste of your own medicine.

    But they are pacifists – they have renounced giving you a taste of your own medicine, militarily.

    1. I think this is more valid as an argument against starting a war.

      I’m not so sure that it works as an argument against defending against aggression.

      Except almost all modern wars were “defensive”. What I mean by this is even the aggressor believed he was “defending himself” against the hegemony of his neighbors.

      I guess I’m just not a pacifist. When zombies are crawling through my window, I shoot back. I’m not going to sit down and try to math out the Return on Investment.

    2. RC, the problem is that most of costs considered seem to be deaths in battle, and does not seem to much value potential lost liberty and autonomy.

      At best, it’s an argument to quantify just war theory, at worst, it’s an excuse to submit to oppression.

  13. Meh, this is nothing more than an exercise in intellectual stimulation.

    People go to war for many reasons- sometimes spiritual or religious. Sure, more often than not money is at the root of it, but so what?

    If your neighbor attacks you and enslaves your population, do you simply not fight back because a number cruncher in a green-eyeshade proved that the cost is too high?

    I’m not sure what the point of all this is.

    At that point, we could look at ‘war’ as a concept and I could decide that it’s easier to allow myself to be enslaved by my government as long as I get 100% employment and guaranteed healthcare. Why would I take a principled stand against that?

    1. “I could decide that it’s easier to allow myself to be enslaved by my government as long as I get 100% employment and guaranteed healthcare. Why would I take a principled stand against that?”

      This used to be called “Conscription”

      1. And fighting it apparently doesn’t have a reasonable timeframe for ROI.


  14. 1) Should stick with the moral case. To maximize your economic returns from war, you pillage and enslave.

    2) It’s a better argument to not be an aggressor than to be a pacifist.

  15. I, for one, embrace our new Masonomic Overlords.

  16. The right to defensive war is the same as the right to self-defense. If I’m walking down the street, and someone jumps me and starts beating the crap out of me, it is definitely in my interests to fight back. I can say this in advance.

    As for the last paragraph, I will simply say that strength deters agression, and weakness invites it. Bullies don’t pick on kids bigger than they are, even if they “perceive your behavior as inappropriate, mean, or downright evil.”

    1. Bullies pick on anyone who cannot or will not bloody their nose. Size does not matter for the latter category.

      1. exactly. You don’t need to win, just hurt enough that they’ll think twice next time.

  17. There are unfortunately some people who can only be dealt with by killing them.

    How do you reason with people who want to slay people for insulting their faith?

    1. you corrupt them with sex and alcohol if they are rich… and if they are poor you don’t have to worry, specially if they are 1000 miles away…

      You DO NOT travel 1000 miles to shoot their goats and then expect them to be neighbourly… (Stupid Zohan!)

  18. This economist argument is insufficient. Our government must ALWAYS go to war if necessary for the full and uncompromisable protection of our rights.

  19. It’s an interesting argument, but I disagree. My life is more valuable than your life, and your life becomes less valuable the less connected to mine it is. If you are aggressing, or part of an aggressing force, your life ain’t worth spit.

    You can’t cost out war on an objective basis – you’re a part of this world whether you like it or not.

    One thing I will say about war is that it should only be fought (on my side at least) by volunteers. If we can’t muster up enough suckers who give a shit about the reasons behind the war, we don’t really need to be fighting it.

  20. Actually, I think there is a very strong economic case for pacifism… problem is, it is rational for the majority of the population (which bears the costs of war) but not necessarily for the ruling elites who actually make the decision but stay well away from the fighting…..

    That’s the problem with generalizations… wolves & sheep may live in the same country, but don’t have the same incentives…

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