Becker on Preventative War

Gary Becker makes the case for preventative war against terrorist organizations and dictators because traditional modes of deterrence and relatiation may not be effective given the mindset of the perpetrators and their widely dispersed nature.

The only really effective approach is to stop them before they engage in their attacks. This is accomplished by tracking them down and imprisoning or killing them based on evidence that they intend to engage in suicidal attacks. Those planning such acts can also be punished on the basis of intent.

The same argument applies to dictators who are willing to use weapons of mass destruction to attack their enemies when they do not care if many of their populations are killed and maimed by retaliation from other countries. Dictators, like Saddam Hussein, may also greatly underestimate the likelihood of massive responses because sycophants feed them bad information, or they believe that democratic victimized states will be reluctant to make swift and decisive responses.

I have been surprised so many people who I normally consider my philosophical kinsmen disagree with these statements. Terrorists and dictators need to be killed or incapacitated.

Yet, the means to carry out the task may be inadequte, inefficient, or counter-productive. The end result might be consequences that are undesirable. Advocates of laissez-faire economic policies often make the argument that it is not enough to call some state of affairs "market failure" and propose a state solution; the intended solution may make the state of affairs worse. "Government failure" often aggravates "market failure".

So too must a proposed policy to neutralize terrorists and dictators be evaluated. Though I sympathize with Becker's views on the need to actively and preventatively disable terrorists and dictators, I have a difficult time believing the US government will be effective in this task without becoming even more corrupt and creating a worse state of affairs than already exists.


Update: Posner provides his own analysis and argues that a preventative war could have defeated Hitler before WWII began based on a NPV analysis of costs and benefits. Again, I strongly disagree with the idea that the US government can effectively neutralize modern-day would-be Hitlers in their regimental infancy without succumbing to problems of interest and power, and without creating bigger problems than already exist. Share this

The problem is that

The problem is that collateral damage is one of the main sources of new terrorists. If we create 1.1 terrorists for every one we kill, we are losing ground, not gaining it. Some operations kill terrorists on net (Afghanistan), but I bet Iraq creates them.

That's certainly possible,

That's certainly possible, Patri, but do we have any reason for believing the multiplier is greater than 1? Or less than 1 for that matter? More to the point, what is the counterargument to someone who says we are killing more terrorists than we are creating?

I would agree with you,

I would agree with you, Patri, but I suspect though that not all terrorists are the same; destruction of human capital in the terror network should necessarily mean that the new replacements face a learning curve that the prior terrorists had already climbed. Thus there would be a general discount factor on terrorists.

So, one could figure that even if one were creating 1.1 terrorists for every terrorist killed, that 1.1 terrorist may only be, say, 75% as effective as the prior. So, assuming a constant rate of terrorist killing and that on the margin it is easier to kill terrorists the more of them there are, eventually the equilibrium capability of the terrorists will be some degree lower than when you started, regardless of the number you create - because you'll end up with as much or fewer terrorists in general because the more you make the easier, in the future, it is to kill them.

Which is the general idea of prosecuting organized antisocial violence in general- degrade it to 'nuisance' level, at which point people may not see the point in organizing that type of activity (which would make the level collapse even further).

In regards to Mr. Doss'

In regards to Mr. Doss' point, I would say that you need to consider the type of terrorist killed as well. A low level militiaman may well have such little training that replacing him would be quite easy, ie there is a negligable learning curve. However, an Osama Bin Laden or Mohammed Atta, who had specialized training and/or unique abilities would be far more difficult to replace, ie a steep learning curve.

So, for example, the mass destruction in Fallujah to kill what was predominantly low level militia soldiers may well create far more problems than it solves, whereas such destruction to get to an Osama may be "beneficial," if we are to take a consequentialist stance.

True, but there are also the

True, but there are also the disincentive effects to consider too. In the early going there was a "street rate" to hire people to attack US columns, and that rate increased drastically as the actual information on how lethal a US response to sniping was; people realized that at most of the rates it wasn't worth it, so for a time the insurgents had a lack of takers while it worked on another staffing solution.

If the response to general uprising is death, the people about to don the proverbial 'red shirt' will have a different calculus than people who think its cool and macho (and relatively negative-consequence-free) to attack US forces. You're going to get a lot more of the latter and less of the former. The more you shift the calculus towards death, the greater the internal or external motivation is needed to compel the marginal recruit to terror insurgency.

The question returns then to Patri's point, of whether or not you're raising the internal psychic profit to resistance (you're so pissed off at the collateral damage you're willing to endure a very low chance of success v. death to be an insurgent) at a greater rate than you're increasing the cost of insurgency.

If the only active options you have are to, on net, make yourself worse off, then of course you try and cease that activity. For myself, I doubt that we're at the point where action is a net negative, though it looks like our 'profit margin' so to speak is thin and perhaps getting thinner (depending on how the latest offensive in Iraq goes).

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Thanks for the heads up. The glories of wordpress.

Mr. Doss, I'm going to

Mr. Doss,
I'm going to disagree and say that we are, in fact, creating a net negative in terms of benefits to costs in Iraq. I would point you to an Asia Times article from a little while back. It is clear to see that the number of terrorists in the streets of Iraq is growing. Now, we can debate the causes of this, but somthing is causing a surge in their numbers. It is highly likely that civilian casualties in the area, quite possibly near or greater than three quarters of a million people since sanctions were placed, are a part of this increase in opposition.

I would also venture to say that most empirical studies on the matter, even those done by the DoD in the late 90s, show that intervention in regional conflicts is a major cause of anti-American terrorism.

So in both Iraq and the world I would say that US policy is running a net negative in terms of terrorists killed to terrorists created.

The problem with saying, in

The problem with saying, in a general way, that intervention in regional conflicts is a major cause of anti-American terrorism, is that the anti-american terrorism has been perpetrated, to my knowledge, 99.9% of the time by muslims- often from areas far removed from any US regional interventionism.

So to me it simply doesn't seem to be the case (or, more specifically, the case cannot be made) that there is some sort of general response of terror for interventionism (where are the mexican, chilean, argentinian, panamanian terrorists; where are the japanese and german terrorists; where are the serbian terrorists), but a rather specific cultural and civilizational disease of the Muslim Ummah.

For every article saying there are more terrorists in the streets, there are other reports from Iraqis themselves that such is not the case. It is true, for instance, that violence in the former Sadr-ite insurgent zones is gone, and the Mahdi army dispersed/killed. Basra has been quiet for months (I imagine the Brits know a bit more about keeping Imperial Order than US troops do; Iraq is a former British colonial possession anyway). Baghdad is Baghdad- the center of the former regime and the focus of foreign media. Of course there will be more figthing and attacks there.

I don't think it can be said with certainty or even convincingly that the insurgency in Iraq is "growing" or getting worse.

On the other hand, the elections are going on and there is an interim puppet government at least (which is a step forward from direct colonial control); there tends to be a certain social inertia behind these appearances. Here is a case where Bush's stubbornness comes in handy. The more the Iraqis see a new Iraqi government forming (and their own stakes in it), the less fertile the ground will be for anti-American insurgency (as they will more and more see the jihadis as anti-Iraqi, being that Zarqawi murders Iraqis at a blistering pace while almost always missing his US targets).

I don't know that the

I don't know that the issues of striking pre-emptively or waiting and hoping can be reduced to a math calculus without engaging in self delusion. The bottom line is that there are many discontent people in the world who rely on religion and its exponents as the answer to their plight. When the "quest" is clothed in religious ardor and justified by the pertinent scripture, and most importantly, dying for the cause is viewed culturally/religiously as a positive, recruitment appears easy. With the Muslims, the issue is further complicated by the strong religious community of interest that seems to transcend nationalistic interests. That means that the fight is where the Muslims are fighting and recruiting to the cause is the task of the religious leaders who are so inclined wherever they might be, including here. I think that the Germans are waking up to this issue. The Dutch have had their wakeup call and one wonders if they will heed.

That having been said, every movement needs leadership. Eliminating the foot soldiers is productive but not determinative unless and until you have eliminated them at a pace that is much faster than they are replaced by effective recruitment. We will not succeed in surpressing the enemy unless we take out the leadership and that may include mullahs and inmans who preach the violence and clothe it in the mantle of religious devotion.

Comparison to what might have occured had France and Britain attacked Germany in response to the Germany taking of the Rhineland is not helpful. Hitler's rise to power involved opportunistic Nazi's who terrorized the German population into loyalty. I do believe that had Hitler been killed early on, or even during the period when German troops were marching throughout Europe, the Nazi movement would have died off, although not immediately and not until there had been much more bloodshed. Hitler demanded and obtained absolute loyalty from his subordinates, his military and from the German people to him. He was the dictator and those German officers or Nazi officials who doubted or questioned him were shot. Soldiers that hesitated were shot on the spot.

The Jihadis' loyalties are to a fanatic religious belief that is implemented by hostility and aggression toward Western ideas, Christians, Jews and other "non-believers." These loyalties are not directed to a person or to a particular leader. I believe it would be helpful to eliminate Bin Ladin and his crew as well as the Jawquari (I still don't get the Arabesque spellings). However, there are others who will rise to the occasion. What we have to attack and destroy is the leadership capabilities including abilities to communicate. That means redoubling our efforts to get the top men and also to work our way down the ladder with a vengence. When the capacity to organize is destroyed, the war will be largely won.

This is going to ultimately create a major conflict between our notions of freedom of religion and our need to root out the troublemakers. The American Muslim community must take a much stronger position in favor of the American position. The extreme and radical preachers such as those in Phoenix have to be removed from their ability to preach. Together with whichever of the Western democracies ultimately wakes up, we have to erect major disincentives to countries like Syria and Iran to foment this warfare. None of this is going to happen until Europe takes the threat seriously and I fear there will be many more European and yes, American terriorist attacks before that point is reached. I hope it won't be too late.

Michael