03 May 2011

War and the Pretense of Knowledge

Bryan Caplan makes an interesting observation:

I say there is not enough consideration of uncertainty in Tyler's examples.  With hindsight, we know that Britain's entry into World War I (along with the entry of every other participant) had disastrous consequences: four years of slaughter, a worldwide flu epidemic that killed 50-100 million additional people, Communism, Nazism, and World War II.  These horrors could have been avoided if any of the major players had swallowed their stupid pride.  Nevertheless, entry into World War I seemed like a good idea at the time to a wide range of responsible opinion. [Note: I highly recommend reading the rest of this post.]

Another thought experiment should suffice to reinforce this point:  imagine if Bush had announced prior to declaring a war on bin Laden and Al Qaeda that it would be ten years before victory would be declared, and that the war would cost trillions of dollars and require the deaths of a couple thousand soldiers, plus tens of thousands of lives in collateral damage.  How many people would have supported the war knowing this prior to the beginning of the war?

I bring this up simply to emphasize how the pretense of knowledge affects decisions regarding war.  Politicians make promises about wars and analysts build predictive models, and all of this is presented with such an air of authority that questioning it seems absurd.  After all, politicians are in a position to know the ins and outs of security details, military analysts would know the power and limits of the armed forces, and intelligence agencies would know what enemies are up to.  Or so we’re told.

Remember how intelligence agencies were certain that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?  And remember how no WMDs were after Iraq was invaded?  That’s a pretense of knowledge.  The intelligence agencies acted as if it was certain that there were WMDs when, frankly, they really didn’t know.   This led to another war, costing hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of lives.

The lesson to be drawn from this is that it is best to view the justification for wars with suspicion.  They are quite costly, and many of the costs cannot be known in advance.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that there are no justifiable wars.  It simply means that, when it comes to war, one must not act with more certainty than is warranted.  Of course, this would lead to fewer wars, and so this advice is unlikely to be heeded.

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