Winners Wage War

EconTalk Extra
by Amy Willis
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Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the... Terry Anderson on Native Ameri...

war opinion.jpg Warren Harding, widely regarded as one of the worst Presidents in United States history, also had perhaps the best record for peace and prosperity. How can that be? In this week's EconTalk episode, host Russ Roberts welcomes back NYU political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita to discuss the fascinating (albeit depressing) correlation between presidential popularity and war-making. Why does public opinion seem to regard war so favorably? How do we assess the performance of US Presidents, and how should we?

We'd like to hear your thoughts on these questions...Feel free to raise additional questions that struck you regarding this week's conversation, too. As always, we love to hear from you.

1. How does Bueno de Mesquita describe the different ways in which war is waged in autocracies versus democracies? Why is war approached so differently by each?

2. As Roberts notes, this conversation is filled with "what if's," such as, what if the American Revolution hadn't occurred? Perhaps the more interesting part of this thread of conversation dealt with perceptions of British tyranny. To what extent were claims of British tyranny over the American colonists overblown? How might this have affected the course of the Revolution?

3. After their examination of the founding father, George Washington, the two turn to Abraham Lincoln, who Bueno de Mesquita also claims proceeded with the Civil War in furtherance of his own interest. Yet he also claims that proceeding with the war was a mistake. Why was it a mistake for Lincoln, and what does Bueno de Mequita claim Lincoln should have done instead?

4. Toward the end of the conversation, Bueno de Mesquita asks a very provocative question. How would you answer the following: Is the job of the President to be a politician who follows opinion, or a leader who shapes opinion?

5. The conversation closes with Bueno de Mesquita's outline of a plan for the public to be more informed about the potential costs and consequences of war. What do you find to be the key points to the plan, and what do you think it's potential for success?

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COMMENTS (7 to date)
jw writes:

1. There are many confounding factors that the author didn't to take into account when he characterized democracies as "choosing" winnable wars.

Democracies rarely, if ever, go to war with democracies. Therefore, democracies are almost always warring with autocracies. In almost all of these cases, democracies, with their much more efficient economies, can muster technology and manufacturing that greatly increases success on the battlefield. This more accurately reflects the winning ratio cited than presidential choice does.

And with respect to the author's characterization of the wealth of the American Revolutionaries, granted many were very rich. But all were willing to “mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our Sacred Honor” and many did lose their fortunes and lives. Maybe it is in the book, but I have never seen any signer actually write "Wow, I'm going to get even richer if we have a war". The author's conclusion is mere speculation.

They understood that what they were signing was a hanging offense under British law. They also understood that at the time, Howe was landing in NY with a massive army and the success of the war was far from knowable.

Even so, the proto-democracy was able to prevail over the much larger and more powerful parliamentary-monarchy. Somewhat because of the long logistical supply lines and communication and control limitations that the British had to manage, but mostly due to the unique (and impossible to model) talents of the individual heroes of the American military, political and diplomatic corps.

Sol writes:

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Chase G. writes:

My impression was that Bueno de Mesquita would have benefitted from listening to your episode on superforecasting from last December. The majority of his analysis of presidential motives was predicated on the benefit of hindsight, along with the commonplace intuition that Presidents are as self interested as everyone else.

As for his committee of experts proposal, who picks the experts?

TJP writes:

Having a political science degree this podcast was a sort of memory recall from two years ago when I was finishing that degree and my deep convictions about the dishonesty/fraud of data driven political science. I very much agree with nassim talebs criticism of economics but the trouble is political science is even worse and more dangerous. At least with economics you only have poverty with this literature your making decisions/judgments about militaries and governments that can really harm others. I have read lots of the so called peer review literature in the democratic peace theory and there are a handful of criticisms which they never really refute.

What exactly is a democracy and how does one measure democracy and formalize democracy to do research. First I go to Wittigstein’s philosophical investigations because I think most of what these theories/research really do is play word games about defining what goes into democracy/autocracy and its components then play “complex” games of pvalue mining and motivated cause begging with the so called data. What goes into democracy is very complex and where cannot say anything I think one should remain silent. The polity score and the MIDs (militarized interstate disputes and war) is the ways its typically done and this is the biggest monstrosity of scientism. Its built on this preposterous belief that human government can be reduced to -10 to 10 scale. Governments (especially democracies) are complex… as benoit mandlebrot says they are not simply a little more complex they a lot more complex. Defining a democracy is as complex as measuring the coast line of a state. It is constantly changing with every wave and every tide. Even if one compares the parliamentary democracies of the UK to Australia (two rather similar societies) one can still find differences. Many of the components that go into democracy in abstract seem nice but in reality may be not so "liberal." Take voter participation and a historical example. I am skeptical of the principle that unchained liberal democracy is some great human achievement. The participation in 1932 weimar election was very high and two of three biggest parties were the National Socialist German Workers' Party and the communist parties both of which promised to end democracy.

If you accept the ability to measure democracies/autocracies and the ability to do it overtime effectively then one must ask why aren’t all states democracies. The states that become democracies are not some random sample. Many of these states happen to be former territories held by the British empire which in itself is not random because the colonials searched for the best territories (ie port cities, river cities, trading posts, and agriculture areas). So if you accept the data (a big if) your left with the tautology known as the democratic peace theory which is as follows: a preselected group of states that do did not go to war with each other (democracies) don’t go to war with each other (democracies). Or another versions: states that happen to have advantageous institutions and resources don’t go to war with other states that have like institutions. It is explaining peace with peacefulness. Two States that have peace are peaceful because they are peaceful and that is why they have peace. A better question would be why do certain states reach the so called holy grail of “full democracy.” There is many versions of the democratic peace theory so it is hard to critique all of them but they are largely have the same consensus/tautology. As nassim taleb ask is a bad map better then no map?

Response to 4. I am not really sure if public opinion exists. Having been involved in political polling in writing questions and talking to the people themselves I find the method to be rather shoddy. First it is common knowledge the way you phrase the questions changes the responses. Second what is socially acceptable gets said more often then what is not socially acceptable (ie likelihood of voting and church attendance). Third (it is my firm belief) that people are largely unsure about the so called contentious issues like for myself wether I would vote for trump or gary johnson. My opinion on the two was very volatile up until and including the day of the election. Maybe for the ideologues /”principled people” the decision is obvious but the decision to get married to principles before hand is not so obvious and the question is are you going to stay married to your so called conservative/liberal/ libertarian principles. People who become “principled” may be different beforehand then those who “support the man not the party or ideology.” You could also throw in a version of the lucas critique where if you aim for public opinion support / popularity in some abstract test tube and the public knows that is exactly what a politician is doing then you will be actually be less popular (ie Hillary Clinton). Fourth there is difference between abstractally voting(choosing) for something or someone and actually doing the real thing. In the so called trolley problem if one track stood my family and friends and the other track stood a “lot more” of people I didn’t know I am not really sure which one I would choose. There is a schroedingers cat problem at hand where one either voted for or against something whether that is trump or Hillary or war or no war or killing your family or a large group of strangers. Fifth once one decides then it matters to the degree in which one wants to go with their convictions. What these five points get at the idea is that public opinion is a very fuzzy concept. If it does exist then we can really only see it through a fuzzy window at night. And the trouble with fuzzy windows is one can see (or not see) almost anything someone wants to see.


Andrew_FL writes:

Harding is not regarded poorly because he presided over peace. He's regarded poorly because his administration was tainted by scandal.

Richard Nixon presided over war, and his Presidency is widely regarded poorly. The Bushes both presided over war. The first was a one term President, the second may be one of the most hated politicians ever. It seems doubtful historians will differ in their assessment.

Barack Obama is well liked by the left, and has presided over war. He is despised by the right.

Lyndon Johnson is largely liked by progressive historians in spite of the Vietnam war.

I think this alleged correlation is spurious. It depends heavily on the reputation of Wilson and FDR with progressive historians, who dominate the profession, and the near universal well regard of the Presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

Tim L. writes:

The author's charge that Washington "literally" started the French and Indian War is a matter still open to debate. Ellis (His Excellency, p.14) believes the massacre of French prisoners was likely initiated by the Indians fighting alongside Washington during the encounter. I don't think it's a matter of historical record who fired the first shot during this encounter, and Washington was a twenty-two-or-three year old officer on his first command in the American wilderness. The conventional rules of European war did not translate well to the Wilderness, and I suspect that Washington's youth and inexperience caused him to stand idly by while captives were killed and scalps were taken. Not exactly a shining moment, but I think it speaks more to Washington's inexperience than to his character.

The author also paints Washington (and others) as an extremely wealthy landowner who preached revolution as a way to put more coin in their pockets. This theory isn't exactly new, and revisionists have long used the "rich white male" theory as the real reason behind the revolution. Wouldn't Washington, Jefferson, et al had more to gain by keeping the status quo in place? After all, they were descendants of white Englishmen and stood at the top of their power structure. The English Empire was built and advanced by men like the Founders, and showed no signs of becoming anything other than the system is was. Why would Washington join a rebellion against the most powerful empire in the world and risk everything he owned? Make no mistake, the English would have hanged the lot of the Founders had the rebellion failed. Their lands and wealth would have been seized by the King and given over to more loyal retainers. The notion that Washington had no other motivation than a fatter purse to rebel seems a little specious and narrow. The author is correct that there was considerable effort to reach a compromise between the colonies and England in Parliament, but there was also much pressure to punish the colonists for not subjecting themselves to the will of the Crown. As with all taxation, the reasonableness or fairness of the tax is always based upon whether it's your hand in someone else's wallet or the other way around.

The comments on Lincoln and the issue of slavery also seem well known to me. The Civil war was not only about slavery, and there were obviously many reasons history unfolded as it did. The author suggests that the secession issue could have been solved through an economic embargo by the North against the South. He believes the South would have come slinking back after a period, broke and hungry, and been readmitted on the terms Lincoln dictated. It's a policy that sounds strangely familiar regarding a certain country ninety miles south of Florida. The South was actively recruiting allies among the European powers as well as courting Indian tribes within the nation. If England had come in on the side of the Confederacy, the Union navy would have been hard pressed to interfere with English shipping without widening the war in general. An infusion of British troops on the side of the Confederacy would not have been impossible at that point. I don't think it's a guarantee that a wait-and-see approach on secession would have saved the country.

I think the author's assessment of Lincoln's failure to choose good generals is correct, but I think Lincoln was suffering from a lack of top tier talent at the beginning of the conflict. Lincoln wanted RE Lee, but Lee was a son of Virginia first. There were many notable commanders in the south who were West Pointers and VMI graduates, and were talented leaders and hard fighters. It took time to develop the strategy and find the men able to carry it out. I'm not sure that speaks exclusively to Lincoln's competence.

I'm out of time to talk about the rest, but I love the podcasts: I find them informative and challenging. Please don't ever quit!

Wade baker writes:

I m not prepared to defend everything our presidents have done. But my take is that de mesquita is analyzing 18th and 19th century events with a 21st century point of view.

His criticism is hash and lacks humility.

But he challenged my thinking. And I don't agree with his arguments.

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