James Leroy Wilson's blog

Friday, September 22, 2006

Finding Some Good in the War

Over the past couple of days I've been reading bits and pieces of the work of the late economist Julian Simon. Seemingly the most optimistic of all economists, Simon had faith that human ingenuity overcomes the problem of scarcity. After all, whether or not there is enough oil for our lamps is not our main concern; what we really care about is having light in our homes. When one supply source appears to be diminishing or hard to get, we find other ways to get what we want. And what we want is not that supply source, but the benefits the supply source provides. Simon believed that, in general, human beings build more than they destroy. He wrote:
If humankind had not evolved patterns of behavior that increased rather than decreased the amounts of resources available to us, we would not still be here. If, as our numbers increased (or even as our numbers remained nearly stationary), our patterns had led to diminished supplies of plants and animals, less flint for tools, and disappearing wood for fires and construction, I would not be here to be writing these pages, and you would not be here to be reading them.
And though I have no evidence and feel no need to consult anthropologists on the matter, I'd bet that early tribes gave greater honor to persons in dry climates who tended to find water than to those who polluted water sources, and greater honor to
those who tended to find food effectively than to those who showed considerable ability to consume food supplies.

Our whole evolution up to this point shows that human groups spontaneously evolve patterns of behavior, as well as patterns of training people for that behavior, which tend on balance to lead people to create rather than destroy. Humans are, on net
balance, builders rather than destroyers. The evidence is clear: the civilization which our ancestors have bequeathed to us contains more created works than the civilization they were bequeathed.

In short, humankind has evolved into creators and problem-solvers. Our constructive behavior has counted for more than our using-up and destructive behavior, as seen in our increasing length of life and richness of consumption.

Part of that process is learning from past mistakes. The problems are always of the short term. As civilization progresses, parts of it die - sometimes through peaceful economic or cultural changes, other times through force. There is, after all, a signifcant segment of the population that mainly destroys rather than builds.

Human beings unfortunately only live in the short term, and must suffer through the losses and deaths even as tbey enjoy prosperity and growth. But the downturns can appear overwhelming. It often seems collapse of civilization, or the end of everything, is just around the corner. But it is really just the end of one phase, and the beginning of another.

The long-term trend is still toward the eradication of disease, the spread of prosperity, and the end of social injustices - even though things look very bleak for freedom-loving Americans right now. We must remember that good does emerge from bad.

What about Iraq, you may ask? What good could possibly emerge from the war? Well, I don't think anything good will happen for us, today. All options look terrible, both for Iraqis and for the U.S. Leaving aside the moral outrage of our aggression, from a purely Machiavellian viewpoint invading Iraq was insane. Not a "strategic miscalculation," but pure foolishness:

- Saddam's power was already contained by American air power and economic sanctions.
- Saddam, while brutal against political and ethnic rivals, did one thing very difficult to do in that country: he kept order.
- Saddam's regime helped maintain a balance of power in the region, as a check on Iranian power and influence.
- There never was any proof that Saddam had an operational WMD program; invading would be disastrous to American prestige, credibility, and diplomatic pull.

We're in, and the way out, while still the best and necessary option, is still a grim one. As Pat Buchanan says,
Terrorists could wind up with a safe haven in western Iraq not unlike Osama bin Laden's old base camp in Afghanistan pre-9/11.

The other potential consequences? The breakup of Iraq, a Shia-Sunni bloodbath spreading across the Middle East, the massacre of the men and women who cast their lot with America, a Turkish invasion of Kurdistan, an Islamic perception the United States had been routed and a Shia-dominated Iraq under the influence of Iran.

This would be a strategic disaster that would demoralize our few remaining friends in the region and embolden our enemies. It would be a victory for bin Laden, al-Qaida and Islamists greater than the expulsion of the Soviet Union from Afghanistan.

There are bad days ahead in any case. Their number and severity will depend on how soon we get out of Iraq and face them. The sooner, the better.

So, what good can come from all this? The good will be seen in other parts of the world, and in the future. Ronald Reagan said, "History teaches that war begins when governments believe the price of aggression is cheap." It was obviously the belief of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et. al. that the price of invading Iraq would be cheap. They were wrong. But from this, other countries are learning that war, particularly invasion and conquest, just isn't worth it. As Steve Sailer writes,
The perceived cost of holding a conquest has skyrocketed. There just aren't that many empty spots on the map anymore.
Moreover, the spread of the idea of nationalism from Europe to the rest of the world, replacing dynasticism as the reigning assumption, means that the kind of easy occupations that, say, the British enjoyed in India for so long just aren't feasible. If the masses assume that who rules them is none of their business, then it's pretty easy for an outsider to take over. But, nowadays, everybody believes that their rulers should be, more or less, from among them.

Further, countries that are advanced enough to enjoy the air supremacy that allows you to conquer another country are generally also so advanced that they don't have the stomach for a massive occupation of a foreign country that's not directly threatening them. To permanently crush a popular insurgency, you have to slaughter a lot of insurgents, and that's hard to do when the victims' relatives have video cameras to show the carnage on television around the world.

Of course, there will be plenty of opportunities to carry on the Great Game of States by other means. But the payoffs from war-by-other-means will be far less than in the days when a few hundred Conquistadors could conquer two empires.

Sailer writes earlier in his piece that "living space," harbors, agriculture, and minerals just aren't that important anymore - not anything for countries to fight over.

As countries get richer, the importance of any one resource, including land, falls, because rich countries get more from less. (That is something Julian Simon might have said, and probably did say). They do not need to take land by force just to survive. We've gone beyond that. And now the USA is finding out the costs of subjugating other peoples, the costs of occupation, are too high.

That is the "good" that comes from the Iraq War. It tells us, and the world, the foolishness of invading and occupying another country. There is nothing to be gained. If Julian Simon is right, and that we build more than we destroy, and produce more than we consume, the Iraq War will likely serve as a signal and a lesson for future generations. Because of the Iraq War, it is likely there will be fewer wars in the future. And that is the one good thing that could come from it.

1 comment:

  1. Good post. Though I think a good number of your premises are incorrect, your conclusions seem likely. I find it intersting that I would reach many of the same conclusions starting from wholly different premises. If I had to posit a reason for this, I suppose it would be that nothing in politics is stagnant and two different causes can have the same effect.