Martial Negligence in Game of Thrones and Beyond

I’ve previously argued that George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire is implicitly a great pacifist work.   While rewatching season 2 with my younger son, I re-discovered a scene worthy of a pacifist ovation.  While Talisa, the crucial pacifist character, appears only in the show, the following exchange sheds great light on the role of martial negligence in Martin’s fictional universe.  For context, Robb Stark is the King in the North, Talisa is a battlefield medic, and they’re surrounded by the bodies of maimed and dead soldiers.

Talisa: That boy lost his foot on your orders.

Robb: They killed my father.

Talisa: That boy did?

Robb: The family he fights for.

Talisa: Do you think he’s friends with King Joffrey? He’s a fisherman’s son that grew up near Lannisport. He probably never held a spear before they shoved one in his hands a few months ago.

Robb: I have no hatred for the lad.

Talisa: That should help his foot grow back.

Robb: You’d have us surrender, end all this bloodshed. I understand. The country would be at peace and life would be just under the righteous hand of good King Joffrey.

Talisa: You’re going to kill Joffrey?

Robb: If the gods give me strength.

Talisa: And then what?

Robb: I don’t know. We’ll go back to Winterfell. I have no desire to sit on the Iron Throne.

Talisa: So who will?

Robb: I don’t know.

Talisa: You’re fighting to overthrow a king, and yet you have no plan for what comes after?

Robb: First we have to win the war.

Notice: Rather than argue that war can never be justified, Talisa shows that Robb is unleashing the horrors of war casually.  He has no master plan to bring great good from great evil.  Instead, he has a master plan to do great evil, motivated by vague wishes to do great good.  Proverbially, however, if you fail to plan, you plan to fail.

Is this scene an unfair caricature of the practice of moralized warfare?  Hardly.  U.S. leaders of both parties barely thought about what would happen after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Muammar Qaddafi in Libya.  Roosevelt’s view of Stalin was mind-bogglingly naive.  Wilson, a former Princeton professor, wrote his sophomoric 14 Points, then dumped most of them in a failed effort to build a sophomoric “League of Nations.”  This is what a morally serious case for just war sounds like, but don’t expect to hear anything like it for as long as you live.

Why do even well-intentioned leaders so carefully plan for war, and so negligently plan for peace?  Simple: Despite their self-righteousness, they’re drunk with power.  Well-intentioned?  Don’t make me laugh.  Yes, with great power comes great responsibility… which politicians routinely fail to exercise in reality and Westeros alike.

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In Sync: How Business Responds to Gratis Government

Whenever people criticize government provision of a product, clever analysts often demur that private suppliers who compete with government have exactly the same problems.  Part of Helland and Tabarrok‘s case for the Baumol effect in education, for example, is that prices have risen at the same rate in both the public and private sectors:

Prices are much lower at public than at private institutions. The vertical scale is a ratio scale, so equal slopes mean equal rates of growth. Thus, although prices are lower at public institutions, the rate of growth in prices has been similar at private and public institutions. Between 1980 and 2015, real prices more than doubled.

OK, let’s step back.  Picture a typical government service.  The price: gratis.  The quality: mediocre.  Private competition, however, remains legal.  Should we expect the private part of the market to look just as it would under laissez-faire?

No way.  Unless the government rations the free mediocre product, consumers have virtually no reason to ever pay for products of mediocre or lower quality out of their own pockets.   At minimum, then, government’s gratis products kill private production of all products of equal or lower quality – a textbook case of predatory pricing.

That’s not all.  Gratis production also effectively kills private provision of products of moderately higher-than-mediocre quality.  After all, if you can get a C+ product for free, who wants to pay full price for a B- alternative?  With gratis public provision, private providers must convince consumers that the marginal quality improvement is worth the total price of the product.  A tall order.

What does this mean?  Well, if public schools add more low-value services, private schools must keep pace in order to compete.  If public schools add more sports, more specialized teachers, or more courses, private schools that fail to keep up will lose their customers.  The first rule of private competition against gratis government is: Always keep your product quality well above the government’s.  This remains true even if the government adds services that consumers value well below cost.  If you can get them for free from the government, why pay extra for a private school that refuses to offer them?

The lesson: When government supplies free (or highly subsidized) products, we should expect private suppliers to supply gold-plated versions of the standard government-issue.  As a result, their prices and costs will be closely synced.

There are admittedly some exceptions: If government is spending money for no gain at all, private competitors needn’t bother.  If government supplies numerous expensive low-value services, private competitors might decide to just outshine the government on other dimensions.  Most realistically, if government refuses to provide some cheap, highly-valued options (such as religious education), then private competitors can win customers by filling the gap.

Yet overall, when there is a dominant public sector with a private fringe, we should expect the Helland-Tabarrok pattern – without or without a Baumol effect.  Given the pathologies of the public sector, it’s nice to have a private option, but don’t get too excited.  The private options will generally be extravagant, because gratis government strangles budget-friendly alternatives.  Tragically, this in turn sustains the illusion that in the absence of government, only the rich would be able to afford whatever the government now provides.

P.S. Another reason to expect public and private education to closely resemble each other is that both are almost always non-profit.  Morally, yes, there is a major difference between public and private non-profits.  Economically, however, they’re very much alike, because both give managers flimsy incentives to raise value or cut costs.

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The Universal Basic Income: Newly Contentious

The Universal Basic Income (UBI) was the topic of my other “Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” presentation.  Here, at least, I can see the superficial appeal for the typical member of the Mont Pelerin Society.  Unlike the conventional welfare state, the UBI doesn’t try to micro-manage human behavior.  It doesn’t claim to know how anyone – no matter how poor – should live their lives.  It gives bureaucrats near-zero discretion.  And it preserves recipients’ marginal incentives to work.  The UBI gives money to everyone, then lets the free market work.

What do these arguments overlook?  For starters, since taxpayers have to support the UBI whether they like it or not, the moral presumption in favor of recipients’ “choice” is more than a little muddy.  Voluntary donors get to decide how their money gets spent; why shouldn’t involuntary donors have the same right?

On reflection, moreover, there are strong reasons for taxpayers to exercise this right.  Most obviously, because their first priority is to take care of children.  “You can’t use food stamps for alcohol” need not be paternalistic; maybe it’s just a pragmatic way to feed the hungry children of alcoholic parents.

Poor parenting aside, the very fact that an adult needs government help is good reason to question their personal responsibility.  If you want to sleep on my couch while you search for a job, I refuse to “just trust your best judgment” about how to get your life in order.  Anyone who wants my help has to strive to find a job, not sit around drinking my wine.  It’s hard to see why taxpayers should be more relaxed (though due to the tragedy of the fiscal commons, they almost always are).

The main reason why classical liberals smile upon the UBI, I fear, is its elegant simplicity.  If we adopt one straightforward poverty program, we can rid ourselves of all the rest.  Unfortunately, as my presentation explains, the UBI’s cost is exorbitant, the side effects are awful, and the moral justification is ultimately flimsy.  The right moderate reform for classical liberals to push is not the UBI, but Austerity for Liberty.

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Why is Immigration a “Contentious Issue in Classical Liberalism”?

“Contentious Issues in Classical Liberalism” was the theme of this year’s Mont Pelerin Society.  This gave me a chance to explore a major puzzle: Sociologically, immigration clearly deserves to be on the agenda.  After all, many people otherwise sympathetic to human freedom and free markets support even more immigration restrictions than we already have.  Intellectually, however, it’s hard to see why.

The plot thickens when you notice that pro-freedom immigration skeptics routinely use arguments that almost never use in any other context, starting with:

1. Collective ownership.  Yes, if countries are the collective property of their citizens, then they have a right to regulate immigration.  But this also implies nations’ right to regulate everything else, too!  You can’t live on my land without my consent, but neither can you open a store on my land without my consent, or even hire someone to work on my land for less than the minimum wage without my consent.

2. Collective guilt.  Yes, if e.g. foreign Muslims are collectively guilty for whatever wrongs foreign Muslims have done in the past, then immigration restrictions against Muslims would be justified.  But this also implies that other people can legitimately hold us collectively guilty for whatever wrongs “we’ve” done in the past.  So affirmative action, reparations for slavery and colonialism, returning land to American Indians, and much more are suddenly on the agenda.

3. Shocking anecdotes.  Yes, if we ought to take shocking anecdotes seriously, then any awful immigrant action on CNN justifies a major policy response.  But this also implies that shocking anecdotes about poverty, health care, worker safety, and the environment on CNN also justify major policy responses.

4. Popular support.  Yes, if “This is what citizens want, and they’re entitled to get their way,” then immigration restrictions easily pass muster.  But so do virtually all the policies classical liberals traditionally oppose, starting with protectionism and a bunch of price controls.

Unless you’re going to abandon the whole classical liberal framework, basic intellectual hygiene requires you to excise any argument along these lines.  What remains?  Only arguments claiming that the consequences of immigration are awful enough to overcome the standard classical liberal presumption against government action.

How does that approach fare?  See my full presentation to find out.  Bonus: A bunch of Zach Weinersmith cartoons!

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War for Poverty

When a country is mired in poverty, violent revolution is the most emotionally appealing remedy.  So cinematic.  Since the powers that be almost never agree, any call for violent revolution is, in practice, a call for civil war.  But how well does the “remedy” of civil war actually work?  So far, the very best treatment I’ve found is contained within Paul Collier’s The Bottom Billion:

Civil war is development in reverse.  It damages both the country itself and its neighbors.  Let’s start with the country itself.  Civil war tends to reduce growth by around 2.3% per year, so the typical seven-year war leaves a country around 15 percent poorer than it would have been…

Both economic losses and disease are highly persistent: they do not stop once the fighting stops.  Most of the costs of civil war, perhaps as much as half, accrue after the war is over.  Of course, sometimes the rebellion is worth it, with rebel victories ushering in an age of social justice, but this does not happen often.  Usually the political legacy is about as bad as the economic legacy – a deterioration in political rights.  A rebellion is an extremely unreliable way of bringing about positive change.  Rebel leaders who claim to have launched a civil war for the good of their country are usually deceiving themselves, others, or both.

Furthermore, civil war breeds civil war:

Civil wars are highly persistent.  The average international war, which is nasty enough, lasts about six months.  You can do a lot of damage in six months.  But the average civil war lasts more than ten times as long, even longer if you start off poor…

Having looked at why civil wars started and how long they lasted, we then looked at what happened when they were over.  As previously noted, the end of a war often is not the end of the conflict; once over, a conflict is alarmingly likely to restart.  Furthermore, the experience of having been through a civil war roughly doubles the risk of another conflict.  Only around half of the countries in which a conflict has ended manage to make it through a decade without relapsing into war.

Along the way, Collier also heaps amusing scorn on the Third World’s indigenous war-mongers and their credulous First World apologists:

Our work has proved controversial.  In part this is because the people attracted to the academic study of conflict tend to be politically engaged and are sympathetic to the acute grievances enunciated by various rebel movements, who often adopt extreme measures to oppose governments that may indeed be unsavory.  To such academics, the whole idea of investigating statistically whether there is a relationship between objective measures of grievance and a propensity to rebel is taken to be more or less an insult, since they know there is one.


[T]he rebel groups generate a discourse of grievance that feeds these concerns, in effect inviting fellow travelers to imagine themselves wearing bandoliers on the barricades.  Unfortunately, you simply can’t trust the rebel discourse of concern for social justice; what else do you expect them to say?

A calm look at the data shows that this skepticism is well-justified:

Genuine grievances should be addressed whether or not they provoke rebellion, yet all too often they are not redressed.  But the sad reality seems to be that grievances are pretty common.  Rebels usually have something to complain about, and if they don’t they make it up.  All too often the really disadvantaged are in no position to rebel; they just suffer quietly.

Peace lacks the romance of war, just as appeasement lacks the romance of rebellion.  Yet if you really want desperate countries to escape poverty, you should hew to the path of peace.  If appeasement is the price of peace, you should probably pay it.  Civil war is a viable – though high-risk – strategy for power-hungry leaders.  For countries, however, it is a path to wretched ruin.

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“Socialism”: The Provocative Equivocation

The socialists are back, but is it a big deal?  It’s tempting to say that it’s purely rhetorical.  Modern socialists don’t want to emulate the Soviet Union.  To them, socialism just means “Sweden,” right?  Even if their admiration for Sweden is unjustified, we’ve long known that the Western world contains millions of people who want their countries to be like Sweden.  Why should we care if Sweden-fans rebrand themselves as “socialists”?

My instinctive objection is that even using the term “socialism” is an affront to the many millions of living victims of Soviet-style totalitarian regimes.  Talking about “socialism” understandably horrifies them.  Since there are plenty of palatable synonyms for Swedish-type policies (starting even “Swedenism”!), selecting this particular label seems a breach of civility.

If this seems paranoid, what would you say about a new movement of self-styled “national socialists”?  Even if their policy positions were moderate, this brand needlessly terrifies lots of folks who have already suffered enough.

On reflection, however, this is a weak objection.  Yes, if a label’s connotations are – like “national socialism” – almost entirely horrible, then loudly embracing the label is uncivil.  “Socialism,” however, has long had a wide range of meanings.  Even during the height of Stalinism, plenty of self-styled “socialists” were avowedly anti-Communist.  The upshot: Even if you were a victim of Soviet oppression, assuming the worst when you hear the word “socialism” is hypersensitive.  And hypersensitivity is bad.

Yet there’s a much stronger reason to object to the socialist revival.  Namely: It’s far from clear that the latter-day socialists do mean Sweden.  While some (like John Marsh) plainly say so, others (like Elizabeth Bruenig) are coy indeed.  Which raises deeply troubling questions, starting with:

1. Are latter-day socialists unaware of the history of the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Given widespread historical ignorance and the youth of the new socialists, we can hardly rule this out.  A troubling thought; isn’t it negligent to champion a radical idea without investigating its history first?

2. Are latter-day socialists ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name?  Do they look on the Soviet Union as a noble experiment with unfortunate shortcomings?  How about Chavez’s Venezuela?

3. Do latter-day socialists think of Sweden as a starting point, and something more radical as the ultimate goal?  Are there outright crypto-communists among them?  If so, do their comrades know?  Care?

4. Do latter-day socialists realize that being coy raises the preceding concerns?  Do they care?  Or is the raising of these concerns a “feature, not a bug”?  I.e., they enjoy making people wonder if they’re secret Leninists?

What’s the truth?  While I don’t personally know any latter-day socialists well, I do read a lot of articles in The Nation, which publishes a wide range of modern socialists.  So here are my best guesses about the preceding possibilities.

1. Older socialists (age 50+) know a lot about the actual history of socialism.  The younger ones (age 40 and under), however, know little and care less.  They’re negligent romantics.

2. Most historically-literate socialists are indeed ambivalent about the totalitarian movement that shares their name.  Very few will defend Stalin, but they just can’t stay mad at Lenin, Castro, or Ho Chi Minh.  Even the historically-naive socialists feel pretty good about Cuba today and Venezuela in 2015.

3. Yes, most avowed socialists have a more radical ultimate goal than Sweden.  In our Capitalism-Socialism debate, even the reasonable John Marsh mused about a future that realized radical socialist dreams without degenerating into a typical socialist nightmare.  How extreme, then, are ultimate goals of the unreasonable socialists?  While I really don’t know, videos like this make me strongly suspect that Bernie Sanders is literally a crypto-communist.  Even if I’m wrong, how many latter-day socialists would care if Sanders was a crypto-communist?

4. Latter-day socialists really do enjoy making people wonder about their ultimate agenda.  When you read The Nation, for example, authors almost never specify exactly what policy should be.  Instead, they focus on radical movement in a desired direction, with minimal discussion of their ultimate objective.  In particular, they almost never say what would be “too far.”  Of course, this describes most political movements; they want to rally the troops, not provide blueprints of an ideal world.  But when you cultivate a “radical” image but withhold specifics, you should expect critics’ minds to go to dark places.  Rather than try to calm the critics, the latter-day socialists court their disapproval.  In fact, most seem to positively enjoy the imagined intellectual trauma they’re inflicting on the unbeliever.

On reflection, then, the return of the self-styled socialist is indeed a travesty.  The reason, though, is not that the word is offensive, but that it is deliberately confusing.  If you really thought Sweden was a model society, you would just praise Sweden.  The “socialist” label, in contrast, is a provocative equivocation.  Latter-day socialists adopt it because they would rather insinuate their possible support for totalitarian horrors than earnestly promote an intellectually defensible position.

To what end?  In modern parlance, the latter-day socialists could just be trolling.  This is bad enough, but some socialists probably sincerely believe what they’re insinuating.  Or worse.  If all you want is Swedish social democracy, making common cause with such socialists is a grave mistake.

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