I Have Government Derangement Syndrome

Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution makes a point I have been trying to communicate for some time now:

It's naive to only blame particular people (Bush, Cheney et al.) and
depressing when people at CT claim that if only "our guys" had been in
power everything would have been ok.  When you see the same behaviour
again and again you ought to look to systematic factors.  And even if
you do believe that it is all due to Bush, Cheney et al. it's not as if
these guys came to power randomly, they won twice.  The worst
get on top for a reason.  As a result, government ought to be designed
(on which see further below) so it works when the knaves are in power and not just when the angels govern.

I made a similar point in this post:

Over the past fifty years, a powerful driving force for statism in this
country has come from technocrats, mainly on the left, who felt that
the country would be better off if a few smart people (ie them) made
the important decisions and imposed them on the public at large, who
were too dumb to make quality decision for themselves.  People aren't
smart enough,they felt, to make medication risk trade-off decision for
themselves, so the FDA was created to tell them what procedures and
compounds they could and could not have access to.  People couldn't be
trusted to teach their kids the right things, so technocrats in the
left defended government-run schools and fought school choice at every
juncture.  People can't be trusted to save for their own retirement,
so  the government takes control with Social Security and the left
fights giving any control back to individuals.  The technocrats told us
what safety equipment our car had to have, what gas mileage it should
get, when we needed to where a helmet, what foods to eat, when we could
smoke, what wages we could and could not accept, what was and was not
acceptable speech on public college campuses, etc. etc....

the technocrats that built our regulatory state are starting to see the
danger of what they created.  A public school system was great as long
as it was teaching the right things and its indoctrinational excesses were in a leftish direction.
Now, however, we can see the panic.  The left is freaked that some red
state school districts may start teaching creationism or intelligent
design.  And you can hear the lament - how did we let Bush and these
conservative idiots take control of the beautiful machine we built?  My
answer is that you shouldn't have built the machine in the first place
- it always falls into the wrong hands.

I am particularly amazed of late at the popular leftish criticism of Bush that he was too slow after 9/11 (spending 10 extra minutes with the school kids), too slow during Katrina, and too slow entering the diplomatic fray in Lebanon.  I can't remember who, but someone lately was quoted publicly saying that they were frustrated with Bush taking vacations and that they would never vote for someone with a ranch.  Is that really the dual criticisms that people have of Bush?  That 1) he is evil and an idiot and 2) they want him to get involved faster and more aggressively in more types of problems?

Here's something everyone should know, which I have embodied in Coyote's Second Law (here's the first) which states:

Any person elected to government office has their effective IQ cut in half

I don't know if politicians wake up from this fog when they leave office or not.  I can easily imagine Bill Clinton, a man who is supposed to have a high out-of-public-office IQ, slapping his head and saying "did I really go running into Somalia and running right back out after the first casualties?' or maybe even better "jeez, I can't believe I turned down the chance to take Bin Laden into custody -- what was I thinking".  Whichever the case, governments are always stupid, even those made up of people provably of high IQ in their private lives.  Tabarrok has this humorous but depressing observation:

The Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons

Like Tabarrok, I think the bar has to be pretty high to send our military into battle, and I never thought the situation in Iraq justified the excursion.  However, perhaps differing from Tabarrok, I am sensitive to historic precedent and thus doubt that defense can always just end at our borders.  While I think the Bush administration is overly optimistic to think that Iraq will become a shining beacon of democracy that will help rally the democratic forces in neighboring countries, I also think Bush opponents are overly optimistic when they say that terrorists and Middle Eastern fascists will leave us alone as long as we just keep our distance.  There are too many historical reminders that the latter is not true.  Sometimes you do have to go over there to kick their ass before they come over here.  Afghanistan probably met this criteria, but I don't think Iraq did - Iraq feels more like the Gulf of Tonkin, a war certain people in power wanted to fight and for which they needed a public excuse.

All this means that I think that the number of times we need to go out and fight wars overseas is greater than zero and less than what we actually do.  I'm not smart enough, I guess, to make a clearer policy statement, but I would be really interested to ask all those who think they would have prevented Israel and its neighbors from going to war for the 47th time if only they had been in office what their coherent policy statement would be.


  1. Matthew:

    Mine is pretty clear, though I'm not sure you would agree. Mine is that war is only to save lives. And the number of lives saved has to be greater than the number taken. That all civilian lives are worth equally, whether they be from your own country or from the other. From there, that's the way you decide whether war is justified or not.

    As for stopping the Israeli/Lebanon war, that's of course not easy. The thrust of the problem is that the Hezbollah army is superior to the Lebanon army. So, I would have had a Lebanon-led coalition army (preferrably made up of middle-eastern nations, Jordan and Egypt come to mind) to break up Hezbollah. Also the use of covert operations is overlooked entirely too often. It's the best way to prevent casualties, even if it does require more time and work.

  2. BobH:

    But how do you know how many lives are going to be saved? Going to war in 1938 may well have saved millions of lives, but it also would have cost some. When it ended, all we would have known was the cost. Therefore, under your measuring stick, it would have been a very bad idea.

  3. Matthew:

    You don't know, of course. However you can estimate based on what knowledge you do have at the time. Simply taking out anyone perceived to be evil is going to end up taking a lot more lives in the long run. And that measurement is just as subjective as mine.

  4. BobH:

    >Simply taking out anyone perceived to be evil...

    Which no one is proposing.

    On what would your estimate have been based in 1938?

  5. Matt:

    "Mine is that war is only to save lives. And the number of lives saved has to be greater than the number taken. That all civilian lives are worth equally, whether they be from your own country or from the other. From there, that's the way you decide whether war is justified or not."

    So in other words, the Iraq war was perfectly justified? After all, we did successfully depose a regime that was slaughtering hundreds of thousands of people every year. The level of violence that imported insurgents have been able to mount against the people of Iraq and against our forces is far, far lower than the level that Saddam et al maintained on a very consistent basis throughout the Ba'ath party's period of dominance in Iraq.

    My standard is a bit higher than that. A war is justified when, and only when, it is the only way to prevent a greater injustice, and when the combined principle and collateral damage of the war itself are as low as can be managed under the circumstances at hand. These are the minimal criteria for a war to be moral, and while I'm not 100% convinced that the Iraq conflict meets them, I'm a long way from convinced that it doesn't. More to the point, the question of whether a war is prudent is dependent on whether our strategic interests are either more advanced or less retarded by the war than they would be by the best alternative option available...and the Iraq conflict is on much shakier ground there.