Paul Krugman Mostly Right on War and Authoritarian Adventurism


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First, please don't hate me. Even a blind pig can find… and all that. New York Times columnist and economics Nobelist Paul Krugman's column today, "Why We Fight," explains why war keeps breaking out in the modern age. Recall that Secretary of State John Kerry admonished Vladimir Putin on ABC News last March for invading Crimea:

"Russia is engaged in a military act of aggression against another country, and it has huge risks, George. It's a 19th century act in the 21st century."

The problem, Mr. Secretary, is that not all countries are actually in the 21st century. (I am looking at you Middle East, North Africa, China, etc.) As Krugman nicely summarizes the history of war:

Once upon a time wars were fought for fun and profit; when Rome overran Asia Minor or Spain conquered Peru, it was all about the gold and silver. And that kind of thing still happens. In influential research sponsored by the World Bank, the Oxford economist Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds. Whatever other reasons rebels cite for their actions seem to be mainly after-the-fact rationalizations. War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

According to economics Nobelist Douglass North and his colleagues John Joseph Wallis, and Barry Weingast in their brilliant book Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, the first "natural states" evolved in which militarily potent elites running patronage networks offered peace in exchange for monopoly rents. In other words, as Krugman observes, natural states are not so different from criminal protection rackets. North and his colleagues persuasively show that natural states were the only type of state-level social order that existed until the early 19th century when Britain became the first "open-access order" state. In fact, such open access orders reduce social violence even more. Unfortunately, while the number of societies that are open access orders has increased (see Freedom House data), natural states run by rent-seeking elites are still the norm, e.g., Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria, etc.

The authoritarians (gang leaders) who currently run existing "natural states" or want to create one (the so-called Islamic State and its would-be Caliph) need to keep their subjects distracted and appealing to tribalism is a sadly tried and true way to do that—thus war. With regard to the Ukraine/Russia imbroglio Krugman notes…

…that governments all too often gain politically from war, even if the war in question makes no sense in terms of national interests.

Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin's hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian growth has been sputtering — and you could argue that the Putin regime needed a distraction.

Krugman concludes…

…if authoritarian regimes without deep legitimacy are tempted to rattle sabers when they can no longer deliver good performance, think about the incentives China's rulers will face if and when that nation's economic miracle comes to an end — something many economists believe will happen soon.


For more background on Russia and Violence and Social Orders see my 2011 article, "Russia's Natural State of Corruption."

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  1. Paul Collier has shown that the best predictor of civil war, which is all too common in poor countries, is the availability of lootable resources like diamonds.

    Or 401k’s, IRA’s, personal savings, sole proprietorship’s, etc., etc.

  2. C’mon Paul, take the next step. Russia isn’t the only one to engage in war in an effort to distract from domestic problems.

    1. Yes. Interesting and precious for a War State cheerleader to call out Russia. Not that that makes Russia unguilty, but seriously, who is the biggest war machine in the world today?

      1. It’s ok when we do it.

        1. Hey! He who breaks the windows, hands out the contracts for glass replacement. We can’t have Russia muscling in on our main national industry.

  3. Man I’d sure hate to live in a country where the government gins up pointless international conflicts in order to distract people from economic woes and chronic public corruption.

    1. HA: (sad knowing smile)

  4. But war qualifies as a Keynesian stimulus, Krugderp.

    1. …and the Military is a jobs program. What’s NOT to love?

      1. And when you blow shit up you have to pay people to rebuild it! That grows the economy!
        Broken windows for everyone!

        1. And as I noted above, if you break the windows, you get to hand out the reglazing contracts.

    2. We just need an alien invasion!

      1. The threat of being thralled by some advanced race of cruel skwerlz would certainly unite the Hit and Run crowd.

      2. I’m not too sure about our chances against a civilization that has actually survived all the derp long enough to develop the technology to star travel.

        Then again, if they are that smart, they probably don’t have the same type of political systems in control of things that we do.

        But if they are hostile, that’s gonna work out for us probably about the same as it did for the Mexicans and Incas, not so well.

        1. But they’ll quickly die off when they realize they’re allergic to water.


          1. And we can upload a virus to their main battle computer from a MacBook!

      3. I suppose such aliens will have achieved their technological prowess because they were ruled by Top.Men.

  5. Its stuff like this that makes it that much more infuriating to read Krugman’s other stuff. The man has a brain, but seems willfully embrace stupidity in support of the Democratic agenda.

    1. love is blindness.

  6. All of this is absolutely true. Authoritarian regimes are nearly always driven to war and aggression by internal factors, usually involving running out of other people’s money.

    Now lets think about this for a second. If authoritarian regimes have their own reasons for launching wars, perhaps the US isn’t to blame for everything and “staying out of it” won’t buy us peace.

    No way, that is crazy talk. If the US just genuflects and begs forgiveness enough, it will get peace.

    1. You sure put that straw man in its place. Good job.

    2. That strawman didn’t put up much of a fight.

      1. It is not a straw man you fucking half wit. It is making a rational conclusion from the fact.

        If authoritarian regimes have their own reasons for aggression, then how is the US never intervening going to deter such aggression? The entire case for in intervention rests on the assumption that US intervention is the cause of more harm than good. The fact that authoritarian regimes act for their own reasons puts that assumption in a lot of doubt.

        Look Hugh, throwing around “STRAWMAN” may be fun. But do yourself and everyone on here a favor and learn what the term fucking means and how to use it properly. Let me give you a hint to get you started down that road; it doesn’t mean “any argument I don’t like”. You seem like a smart guy. So let’s see if we can do a little bit better the next time because screaming buzz words doesn’t really cut it.

        1. They wont be aggressive towards US!

          See my Swiss example.

          1. Sure Rob, if we just agree to effectively pay them protection money and become bankers to various mass murderers like the Swiss were to the Nazis, we can have peace.

            And for the 1000th time, we are not Switzerland. Moreover, do you really think the animals running around the Middle East wouldn’t attack Switzerland if they had the ability? If not, then Switzerland really doesn’t have peace. They are just small and land locked and are down on the list. But they still are on the list.

            1. They have the ability. It would be no harder to attack Switzerland than it is to attack the US. Actually, easier, no ocean in the way.

              What is really easy, is to attack our army that is in the Middle East. Bring them home and the number of attacks on them will drop dramatically.

              1. And again, the Swiss are small and down on the list. The US in contrast won’t ever get that option of being down on the list. And has it ever occured to you that doing nothing and letting your enemies conquer large chunks of the world makes defending yourself when they finally come for you a whole hell of a lot harder? Wouldn’t it be easier to just kill the ISIS animals now rather than waiting until they control most of the middle east and have real military power?

                I am not saying that intervention is always the answer. But saying it is never the answer is just as fucking retarded as saying it always is. You guys are just the mirror image of the worst interventionists you claim to hate. You both have the same answer to any problem.

                1. But saying it is never the answer is just as fucking retarded as saying it always is.

                  When have I said that?

                  I supported the invasion of Afghanistan. I just think we should have left after the Taliban was out of power (which I think was a few weeks). Maybe send some special forces to hunt down Bin Laden.

                  Iraq was fucking stupid.

                  Mucking around is stupid. Go in attack the enemy, defeat them, come home.

                  But dont assume there wont be repercussions a generation later. Sometimes you have to do it anyway, but acknowledge the blowback.

                  1. You know when there were not repercussions Rob? When the West said “we have the maxim gun”. When we actually murdered these stupid bastards instead of wondering “why do they hate us”. That is when we had peace. And that is what people like Hugh don’t fucking get. It is weakness that creates wars not strength.

                    1. You know when there were not repercussions Rob?

                      There are always repercussions, short of genocide.

                      They are minimalized when you get complete surrender on the part of the opponent AND the people accept it too. So Germany and Japan had little blowback (not zero).

                      Hell, even the civil war has had blowback.

                      I agree that weakness creates wars. Especially, when countries are too weak to mind their own damn business. It takes strength to not meddle.

                    2. We’ve never had more peace than we have now and we’d have even more if the USA stopped getting involved in every conflict and dragging out what would end in a few months into a few decades.

                    3. That’s an … interesting example. I’m not sure how using the maxim gun to mow down people resisting European colonialism is an apt comparison to fighting terrorism, or how the Europeans weren’t the murderous bastards in that example. And such actions certainly did have repercussions.

                  2. The Taliban is still kicking. If you’re going to go to war, the point is to achieve a strategic objective.

                    In America, as soon as the public loses interest or the Mob’s fury is sated, you’re more than willing to abandon your allies to face slaughter.

                    It’s like Adopting kids until you’re bored and then you stop feeding them. Don’t bother.

                2. I doubt anyone here has ever said that intervention is NEVER the answer, so you’re setting up a straw man to beat it back.

                  In any case, the real point is that everything we do should be defense of this nation, not protection of certain foreign interests or general meddling in others’ affairs. The various tribes and factions of the ME and surrounding areas have been fighting with each other FOREVER. What makes you think that ISIS (or the current bad guy of the day) is going to rise to the level of a real threat to the US? considering their backwards econ systems, I would consider that to be VERY, VERY unlikely. So, why concern ourselves with the newest freedom-hating regime in the area? They’ll be infighting with other freedom haters in the ME for a while, then someone else will rise up. It sucks for them, but it’s not our problem. Let other countries actually in that region try to sort out the problems before we butt in.

                  1. The best defense is defense.

            2. Moreover, do you really think the animals running around the Middle East wouldn’t attack Switzerland if they had the ability?

              Uhm, if they don’t have the capability to attack *Switzerland* then they’re certainly no threat to us, thus no need to intervene.

        2. Strawman isn’t a buzzword, John. It refers to the fallacy of misrepresenting an argument in a much weaker form. For example, by implying that those of us who oppose US interventionism blame America for everything and that the result of non-intervention will be peace.

          Myself and others on this blog have argued against US intervention in foreign conflicts on a number of bases.

          For one thing, it endangers innocents like the wedding parties blown up by American drones and increases the potential for gross human rights violations like Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib.

          Also that it’s arrogant to think you can roll in and solve a conflict you don’t understand that has been raging for longer than your country has been around.

          Also that foreign adventurism is a waste not only of scarce economic resources but also lives lost in conflicts that don’t concern the US at all.

          Also that perpetual warfare feeds and is fed by the military-intelligence-industrial complex that grows wealthier and more powerful with each new weapon it develops and each new base it opens.

          We have no illusions that (as you imply above) peace would reign if only the US would stay out of it. But to look at the past half-century of world history and conclude that US intervention in foreign conflicts does anything other than make a bad situation worse is frankly retarded.

          1. Notice when he quoted me he cut out my “relative peace” bit, so he could argue against an absolute.

          2. Myself and others on this blog have argued against US intervention in foreign conflicts on a number of bases.

            Which judging from your examples, all of which are fucking stupid. The risk to innocent people, while regrettable isn’t an argument against war since war always involves the death of innocent people. If a war is justified, the fact that it might result in nasty things doesn’t mean it isn’t justified.

            And last I looked, defeating one side and breaking their will to fight is the only thing that ends conflicts. People like you who don’t understand that fact always seem to say “but its complicated”. No it really isn’t/. It is just really hard.

            And foreign adventurism is a waste of resources except when it is necessary. So you are just begging the question.

            As far as “perpetual warfare”, this is what you don’t get, we don’t just choose to go to war. Our enemies choose to go to war for us. You just provided an example of exactly what I am talking about. You honestly seem to think that the US chooses to start every war rather than our enemies doing so. You claim I am using a strawman and then you make the very fucking same argument I accuse you of making.

            You people are just fucking half wits on this issue. You are no better than the worst “just bomb everyone” conservative. In fact, those people should love you since you make any argument against intervention look ridiculous.

            1. Our enemies didn’t make us invade Iraq, or stay in Afghanistan for 13 years, or invade vietnam, etc.

              1. Or enter WW1.

            2. We just need Top.Men. who understand all the intricacies of every major factional player and ready, set, go. Another successful intervention.
              Because if we hadn’t every sane person knows that the world would have blown up in Armageddon.

    3. John, how dare you piss all over the simplistic narrative! Next you’ll be telling us that Hamas would attack Israel even of we cut off aid to the Jewish state.

      I won’t listen!!!!!!

      1. Talk about simplistic narratives …

    4. Staying out of it wont buy THEM peace. It might buy us peace.

      Or at least relative peace.

      How many times has Switzerland been attacked in the last 150 years?

      1. It might buy us peace.

        History argues otherwise. We are not Switzerland and never will be. And Switzerland bought its peace mostly by being completely craven and providing funding and banking to some of the worst murderers in history. So when you give Switzerland as an example, I am not really sure you are making your point very well.

        1. Craven?

          They fought a ton of wars and realized it was foolish. And they were damn well ready to defend their borders in WW2.

          The tank traps along the German border were still there in 1991 when I was working there. For “historical” reasons. Yeah, right.

          They provided banking to everyone. And until we started messing with them the last few years, it was a good system.

          1. The Swiss took and kept most of the the stuff the Nazis looted from their victim. Yeah, the Swiss are fucking craven. The reason why Germany didn’t invade and conquer them was because the Swiss were willing to be their bankers and give them a safe place to keep all of the money the Nazis stole from the people they murdered.

            Fuck the Swiss. Seriously, fuck the Swiss. They were as craven and murderous as the rest of Europe. They just didn’t have the balls to get their hands dirty.

            1. Everyone deserves good banking, even nazis.

            2. Fuck the Swiss. Cheese. There are holes in it. Very enabling.

            3. You been hanging out with Harry Lime again, John?

    5. That’s not exactly the approach that I had in mind. I was thinking of something more like ‘We aren’t bothering you, minding our own bizness, so don’t fuck with us’.

      1. And since they have their own reasons for acting, that isn’t likely to work. The entire point is minding your own business doesn’t buy you peace.

  7. Paul Krugman Mostly Right on War and Authoritarian Adventurism

    Always wrong on economics.

  8. Recently Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review suggested that the roots of the Ukraine crisis may lie in the faltering performance of the Russian American economy. As he noted, Mr. Putin’s TEAM BE RULED’s hold on power partly reflects a long run of rapid economic growth. But Russian US growth has been sputtering ? and you could argue that the PutinTEAM regime needed a distraction

  9. Maybe China will redirect their angst toward North Korea. Some good may come of that.

    1. Nah, they’ve never seemed particularly interested in Korea. Taiwan will probably be enough of a distraction.

  10. So here we have us on the doorstep of Iraq 3.0, and Krugnuts is rambling on about the Russian connection to the Ukraine? Really? And we’re supposed to high five him for this? Fuck that.

  11. Look, even if he’s right, you don’t have to say it.

  12. “natural states run by rent-seeking elites are still the norm,”

    Hey look Illinois is a natural state.

    1. Arkansas is The Natural State. I think it might even be copyrighted.

  13. Lets jsut roll with it man. Wow.


  14. Geez, not more unabashed Putin bashing from Reason contributors! Did it ever cross the minds of those reasonoids that Russia, for all its faults, is actually as free or freer than it has ever been?
    Russia’s natural state of mind is paranoia. But what exactly has Putin done? Giving up the Crimea to possibly be used by NATO ships would be like US losing Hawaii to the Chinese. He did not invade, as there were 40000 Russian troops there who simply (and mostly peacefully) took it over and back to Russia where it had been for centuries.We have no reason to be overthrowing governments or involving ourselves in this country at all.

    1. Poe’s Law?

    2. But what exactly has Putin done?

      Seriously? You mean things like killing journalists and political opponents? Jailing a lot of them though, cause you know, even if Russia killing known people is a problem.

      & note, that?s just the start.

      For all of the US?s current faults, a great number of which are a direct affront to freedom, we are still vastly freer than Russia.

      & Russia was vastly freer and safer in that freedom pre-Putin (though not as stable and not as secure globally).

      & now they?re in a war to control another country.

      I can continue if you?d like.

  15. Krugman wrote:

    War in the preindustrial world was and still is more like a contest among crime families over who gets to control the rackets than a fight over principles.

    But he actively desires a world where that continues forever, no?

    As he doesn?t want private ownership of those lootable resources – he just wants better governments with more strict control and security – so that the resources can be correctly allocated and shared amongst the people of course.

  16. This was a very interesting read. I agree many countries are completely liviing in the 19th century rather than current times. Denver SEO

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