Sunday, August 06, 2006

War: The Paradigm Case of Government Failure

Alex Tabarrok makes an excellent and, to my mind, obviously correct point about the Iraq War:
In Fiasco, Thomas Ricks says the war on Iraq and subsequent occupation was ill-conceived, incompetently planned and poorly executed. I have no quarrel with that. What dismays me is that anyone expected any different. All wars are full of incompetence, mendacity, fear, and lies. War is big government, authoritarianism, central planning, command and control, and bureaucracy in its most naked form and on the largest scale. The Pentagon is the Post Office with nuclear weapons.
When I read that, it didn’t even occur to me that liberal anti-war types would object. But it should have. Henry Farrell of Crooked Timber takes Alex to task:
But to say that the incompetence with which the Iraq war was conducted was simply business as usual is not only to get Rumsfeld et al. off the hook for the quite specifically personal incompetence that they displayed and are still displaying. It’s to make a general claim that can’t be supported using the evidence that you claim is supporting it. An incompetently conducted war does not a general case against government make.
What follows in the comments section is an astonishing parade of libertarian-bashing and state-praising. (Including some who even defend the Post Office! Okay, fine, if you really think Snailmail is good government, substitute the DMV instead.) Alex responds in the comments and also in a second post at Marginal Revolution.

So what’s going on? Why are (some) liberals so anxious to dismantle Alex’s anti-war position? Their reaction becomes explicable once you realize that the left-wing explanation of government failure relies crucially on the Bad-Men-at-the-Top theory. To admit that the incentives of political actors – politicians, bureaucrats, and voters – are systematically flawed is to admit their own favorite big-government schemes could fail even if their guys were in charge. To avoid such an admission, the blame for failures in governance must be cast on specific personalities like the hated George W. Bush.

And to be sure, GWB has been a phenomenally bad leader. If someone else had been in charge, maybe things in Iraq might have turned out a little better. Or maybe we wouldn’t have invaded in the first place. So if Farrell’s point is merely that the current administration deserves to get served a big helping of spleen, sure, he’s right. But Alex said nothing to imply that Bush & Co. should get off the hook. He was making a broader point: that wars, whether Republican wars or Democratic ones (of which there have been plenty), go badly for a reason. That reason is one that leftists like Farrell are loath to admit, because it reflects poorly on big government in general.

UPDATE: Hello, MR readers! My response to Tyler's criticism is posted here.

12 comments:

Joe Libertarian said...

Nicely stated - liberals are fooling themselves if they think they could do it any better if they were running the show.

Whymrhymer said...

One comment in the original Marginal Revolution post, a comment by Grant Gould, explains nicely why the present administration has done it so badly and why the liberals could not, indeed, have done it any better. It also provides a retrospective to Viet Nam.

"This war," Gould states, "looks particularly fiasco-ish because unlike the World Wars, in which both sides were vast incompetent bureaucracies of slaughter, in this war only one side is. The insurgency is demonstrating non-bureaucratic warfare to us -- warfighting by actual individual intiative, unconstrained by central planning and its associated rigidities and ineffiencies . . ."

How can a war machine like ours fight a war like that against a force like that(?) is one question. Should we fight it(?) is quite another and perhaps more pertinent question.

Where does Viet Nam fit in? Aside from the obvious similarity between the un-uniformed Kong and the un-uniformed enemy in the Middle-East, it seems that our leaders should have, post-Viet Nam, either been smart enough to forsee our curent problems and turn its military into a more flexible fighting force or opt out of the invasion and find some other way to detect and defeat terrorism without those boots on the ground.

Einzige said...

Doesn't this post undermine your own case for voting?

Glen Whitman said...

How so?

Einzige said...

You say, "To admit that the incentives of political actors – politicians, bureaucrats, and voters – are systematically flawed is to admit their own favorite big-government schemes could fail even if their guys were in charge."

To me, this argument is just as valid when you replace "big-government" with "small-government" or even "make-government-smaller".

Perhaps you would disagree, but as I (and others) have argued, the empirical evidence seems against you.

Glen Whitman said...

Einzige -- I still don't get your point. Both of the posts you link are about rational ignorance and rational nonvoting, both of which contribute to the economic explanation of government failure. Do you think that undermines my argument in some way? My whole point was that war displays the key features of government failure.

(Just to be clear, my post about voting was not a general defense of voting, but a specific strategy, and justification thereof, for getting *libertarians* to vote.)

Einzige said...

I apologize for my lack of clarity. I freely admit that there is probably some fine distinction here that I am missing.

If government is doomed to fail regardless, since such seems to be an inescapable feature of government, then a "libertarian" strategy and justification for voting is just as much a chimera as a "left-wing liberal" strategy.

As you say, "[t]o avoid such an admission, the blame for failures in governance must be cast on specific personalities like the hated George W. Bush."

Are you now going to undermine your own argument and say "If only the libertarian candidate got into office..."?

Maybe your voting post was just about getting more libertarians to vote "to send a message." Certainly, that will make all the political actors' incentives line up right!

No doubt I am attacking a straw-man version of your argument. Unfortunately, though, I seem unable to put a finer point on it.

This is, of course, why I asked my original question.

Why, given that government seems inevitably doomed to fail, advocate voting as a libertarian strategy at all?

Anonymous said...

einzige: I think you may be missing the "big-government" modifier in the phrase "...their own big-government schemes could fail even if their guys were in charge." His point, as I read it, is that the philosophy undermining both parties - that war, as the epitome of big government, cannot be done without the massive negative consequences inherent in large government endeavors.

Your point seems to be oriented towards the assumption that he thinks ALL government is bad - I think that's where you miss the point. The "systematic flaws" he refers to are the ones which are not necessarily predominant in any government at all, but rather with any government unconstrained by a philosophy of minimal intervention and maximum liberty. Therefore, his position is not that government is "doomed to failure regardless", but rather that war in particular accentuates the weaknesses in big government, and therefore it's unreasonable to expect that such projects will come with anything less than massive negative consequences.

Of course, we can open a a whole 'nother can of worms and argue big gov. versus small gov., but I don't think that's what you were trying to argue. Your point (as I see it) is that his views on government are fundamentally inconsistent with voting/supporting any other form of government as all are "doomed to fail." Your inadvertent straw-man is "all government is bad", which you use in place of "big government is bad"; Glen's point is that war - conducted by big government - will always be full of "incompetence, mendacity, fear, and lies", as those are part and parcel of large bureaucracy.

Einzige said...

Well, no. I quite explicitly stated that you could replace the phrase "big government" with "small government" and the argument would still apply. I fail to see how a government's size dictates its incentive structures.

The "systematic flaws" he refers to are the ones which are not necessarily predominant in any government at all, but rather with any government unconstrained by a philosophy of minimal intervention and maximum liberty.

And this government of which you speak - the one that is (magically, I presume) constrained to maximum liberty - where is it?

Somewhere over the rainbow?

Tim said...

einzige, the point isn't that the Iraq war would have gone better with libertarians in charge. The point is that libertarians wouldn't have gotten us into the Iraq war in the first place.

To put it more broadly, a libertarian government would still screw up a lot of what it tried. However, it would try fewer things, and so hence the total amount of screwing up would occur.

Glen Whitman said...

Einzige -- Anonymous and Tim pretty much said what I would have said.

The problem afflicts any size government; but the bigger the government, the bigger the problem. So one way to minimize errors is to limit the size of government.

But if your objection is that libertarians, once in office, would get corrupted by power and start expanding the size of government... well, actually, I agree that's a danger. But I'd still rather have the not-yet-corrupted than the already-corrupted. And I'd rather have politicians who at least understand the poor incentives that surround them, rather than politicians filled with hubris about the capacities of the state.

Brian Macker said...

Whymrhymer,

"This war," Gould states, "looks particularly fiasco-ish because unlike the World Wars, in which both sides were vast incompetent bureaucracies of slaughter, in this war only one side is. The insurgency is demonstrating non-bureaucratic warfare to us -- warfighting by actual individual intiative, unconstrained by central planning and its associated rigidities and ineffiencies . . ."

Actually, in contra to what you though, I thought that was a particularly stupid comment. The "insurgency" doesn't have the same goals as the other side. Kind of easy to be "efficient" when you don't care whom the fuck you kill. Now if they were both pursuing the same goal then one could do an honest comparison of their efficiency. I suspect that if we didn’t give a damn about killing the citizens of Muslim countries we could be quite “efficient”.

Besides it's anti-factual. The US forces have been quite efficient at killing the terrorists and their sympathizers. The other side is getting their butts kicked so it really doesn’t matter how cheaply they work. Bringing a cheap plastic knife to a gun fight might be efficient by some metric but not any one that counts. Certainly this administration is working more efficiently than prior ones in this regard. Using multi-million dollar cruise missiles on tents as Clinton did certainly isn’t going to win the day.

The main reason some people think this war looks fiasco-ish is because our media is doing their darnedest to make it look that way. They didn’t do that during WWI and WWII. Perhaps in that way it is like Vietnam.