War and the Intellectuals

Apologies in advance for the epic-length post.

There’s been a fair bit of wailing and garment-rending about war on the op-ed pages.  In addition to the cloying and tiresome Mark Helprin piece to which David links below, E.J. Dionne, Glenn Greenwald, and Fred Hiatt have all touched on the subject in recent days.  One common theme is the idea that Americans are insulated from the costs and benefits of war, and that this is a problem.

To their credit, some of the writers offer proposals for redressing matters: Helprin suggests American citizens should force congressional declarations of war characterized by “extraordinary, penetrating debate” in order to ensure that decisions to go to war have been “ratified unambiguously by the American people through their constitutional and republican institutions.”  (Do we also owe the troops good decisions?)  Further, citizens must recognize that it is “unacceptable” to “starve the means to fight” in order to defray the costs of war.  “If the general population  must do with less, so be it, for the problem is only imagined.”

What planet does Helprin live on?  The ways in which citizens and legislators behave when it comes to war are shaped by the incentives each group faces.  Helprin – and the other writers – should try to think about those incentives if they actually care about solving these problems.

Why, for example, has the U.S. Congress, since its last declaration of war (against Romania during World War II), insisted on “delegating” the prerogative to go to war to the Executive in spite of its clear obligation under the U.S. Constitution?  Because it’s in their interests to do so.  In this way, Congresspeople can position themselves to take credit when wars go well but blame the Executive when they go badly.  The requirement that Congress declare war was designed in part to force the hand of the legislator, to put him on the record, in an effort to localize the costs and benefits of wars on those launching them.  But then Congress ingeniously figured out that it could shirk this responsibility by delegating authority up to the Executive, at which point it could claim credit for victories and point fingers after defeats.  (Recall the Democratic legislators who absurdly claimed of the Iraq war resolution that they didn’t think President Bush actually intended to use the congressional resolution to take the country to war…)

And what about the voters?  Greenwald writes that

One significant cause of America’s indifference to the wars we are waging is that those wars have virtually no effect on the overwhelming majority of Americans (at least no recognized effect), while they impose a huge cost on a tiny sliver of the population:  those who fight the wars and their families.

Rational choice theory has taken a beating in the wake of the financial meltdown, but it would be dumb to throw its central insights.  Helprin, Hiatt, Dionne, et al, should think about the views of a notional Rational Voter.  Why should he or she care enough about America’s wars to do something about them?

I care about U.S. foreign policy a lot, and I think it’s deeply mistaken and destructive.  But even I would have a hard time telling most utility-maximizing Americans why they should care enough about our military spending and our wars – rather than other political issues – to mobilize their elected officials to do something about them.  As the Beloved Founder of one of America’s most vital institutions has been known to remark, the U.S. tax code “treats us like so many gerbils. Do this and you’ll get some sugar water. Do that and you’ll get an electric shock.”

And it turns out people really like sugar water and hate electric shocks!  If you want a voter to respond, either zap him or give him a coke.  (Politicians seem to prefer the latter, as do voters.)  For most voters, the implications of the wars are neither refreshing and delicious nor directly painful.  Given this, how could war and peace possibly become as salient as other policies that directly impact people’s lives on a daily basis?  Unemployed?  Have a mortgage?  Taxes too high?  Poised to collect Social Security or Medicare?  Employed in or consuming health care or financial services?  Can the intellectuals above get their rhetoric cranked up high enough that they can make people put aside these sorts of direct material concerns in order to carry on a sustained and probing debate about foreign wars?

As this discussion demonstrates, the problem for non-interventionists is how to get voters to care enough about America’s crazy foreign policy to stop it.  Keep in mind that it’s unlikely that material constraints will force us to rein in our ambitions any time soon.  America is blessed by geography and an economy that seems impossible to defeat, despite our rulers’ best efforts.  Given the unlikelihood of severe costs like conquest or bankruptcy, in all likelihood the American Goliath will keep lumbering along.  And the pundits will keep carping.