Pacifism: Bryan Caplan Gets It (Almost) Totally Right

I often disagree with Bryan Caplan — often quite vehemently — but not always, by any means. He’s one of the people who I’m constantly testing my thinking against.

He gets it so right with the following post that I’m going to make an exception (first time?) and reproduce his whole post here.

Cliches of Anti-Pacifism

I’m a pacifist.  I realize that it’s an unpopular position, but I’m still surprised by how quick people are to dismiss the position with cliches.  Here are three of the most common.

1. “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?

No on all three counts.  The truth is that preparation for war often causes war by frightening and provoking other countries.  That’s why the collapse of the Red Army made the inhabitants of the former Soviet Union safer from nuclear attack than they’d been since 1945.  This doesn’t mean that disarmament always makes countries safer.  But it does mean that military preparation frequently has the perverse effect of making countries less safe.  Discovering the conditions under which this occurs takes a lot more than a one-liner.

2. “Those who beat their swords into plowshares, will plow for those who don’t.” In earlier centuries, this was usually true.  But almost all rulers treated their subjects like chattel in those days.  The main reason to fear war wasn’t that policies would change if “your” government were defeated, but that you’d suffer or perish before the conflict was resolved.  From the point of view of the ruled, pacifism would usually have been an improvement.

In the modern world, the plowshares cliche is even more misguided.  Take a look at this list of military spending by country.  The U.S. naturally leads the pack, but is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?  While the U.S. has the power to literally enslave most of the world, most Americans think it would be wrong, so it’s not going to happen.  The same clearly holds for five of the other top-ten military powers: the UK (#3), France (#4), Germany (#6), Japan (#7), and Italy (#9).  Even China, at #2, has far less awful intentions than the plowshares cliche suggests: While it might invade a totally disarmed Taiwan, the next step would be One Country, Two Systems – not mass enslavement of the Taiwanese.

3. “Pacifism didn’t work with Hitler.”  True enough.  But then again, nothingworked with Hitler.  The man was a monster.  Poland tried resistance, and was virtually destroyed.  Stalin tried alliance, and was stabbed in the back.  The Allies tried unconditional surrender, and left most Europe in ruins, and half under Stalinism.  Sure, with 20/20 hindsight, Britain and France could have invaded Germany in 1933 – or interrupted his parents a few minutes before his conception in 1888.  But two can play at the hindsight game: Pacifism could easily have prevented World War I, leaving no room for the likes of Hitler to rise to power.

I would add my pet concept of “mercenary morality”: Adopting a truly superior moral position — in deeds as well as words — in many cases delivers true power: the ability to convince your friends and coerce your enemies (and vice versa). The Bush administration’s words and deeds post-9/11 epitomize the squandering of such a morally (or in rhetorical terms, “ethically”) superior position, and the power that accrues to it.

Which points out one key place that Bryan gets it less than totally right:

is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?

C’mon! Are you serious? Does any sensible person — even the nuttiest neocon — believe that the Halliburton presidency would have chosen to invade Iraq if Iraq didn’t have oil? How does that look if you’re not an American? It’s not crazy to understand why other countries have reasonable concerns on that point.

  1. November 24th, 2010 at 11:08 | #1

    Before I finished reading I highlighted this line as almost totally false, and I’m glad you did as well, though with less vehemence.

    The U.S. naturally leads the pack, but is any sensible person worried that the U.S. will invade their country in order to take their stuff?

    It’s like Caplan has no awareness of how Big Oil – with the complicity of U.S. and British governments – has defined and created the problems of the Middle East.

    We’ve gone after people’s stuff, not continuously, but repeatedly for over a hundred years – Cuba, Nicaragua, the Philipines.

    Here’s Smedley Butler.

    http://www.lexrex.com/enlightened/articles/warisaracket.htm

    Denial!

    JzB

  2. November 24th, 2010 at 18:56 | #2

    I normally agree with Caplan, and I even agree with the thrust of this post, but the part you highlighted is really shocking. It’s as though Caplan has not learnt anything about US foreign policy in the last 100 years.

  3. Bill White
    November 27th, 2010 at 12:33 | #3

    I was actually struck by this sentence: “While the U.S. has the power to literally enslave most of the world, most Americans think it would be wrong, so it’s not going to happen.” The antecedent is that the U.S. has the power to enslave most of the world. Iraq and Afghanistan were in 2003, if not the two poorest countries in the world, on the short list of the poorest countries around, with the least effective military in the world. It wasn’t even clear that Afghanistan had a military. But the U.S. DOD seems to have had our hats handed to us in both places. Perhaps having a big military budget is not the same as having a competent military?

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