Crawl Across the Ocean

Tuesday, November 09, 2010

70. War and Peace

Note: This post is the seventieth in a series about government and commercial ethics. Click here for the full listing of the series. The first post in the series has more detail on the book 'Systems of Survival' by Jane Jacobs which inspired this series.

Many years ago, I read 'Century Of War' by Gabriel Kolko. It's not actually about war itself, but rather about the impact of the war on the society that wages it. I don't remember any of the details of the book (it was many years ago), but I do remember coming away completely convinced of his argument that the wars led to a shift to more progressive policies. And I also remember not being nearly as clear about why war had that effect.

This post will look into that question, in a roundabout fashion, first returning to a story I related way back near the start of this series, "One of my childhood friends happened to have his birthday on the same day as Halloween. Naturally, a group trick or treat outing was incorporated as part of his birthday celebration. Afterwards, the group of us would pile into his bedroom and dump out our accumulated loot into a pile on the floor (one pile for each person - not one big pile). Note that at this point, the distribution of loot has been determined by the random allocations at each front door, and does not take into consideration each trick or treaters particular tastes. This raises the possibility of making trades that benefit all parties involved. For example, I always liked the Rockets and Mint Laura Secord bars the best, whereas others preferred items such as the Coffee Crisp that I had little interest in.

So the initial distribution was Pareto-inefficient in that changes could be made that would benefit people without making anyone else worse off.

So, naturally, we set about trying to achieve a Pareto optimal distribution of candy in a free wheeling round of candy exchange that would last until everyone was satisfied enough with their adjusted haul such that no further exchanges could be made that were agreeable to both parties."

Now, imagine if you were one of the trick or treaters, and you were about to embark on the candy exchange when your friend suggested that the two of you team up in order to trade more effectively. The immediate question that comes to my mind is, how would teaming up help? In fact, teaming up might well be harmful since if the two of us had to agree to trades together, that might mean that I have to compromise and trade for things we both like. If I love malted milk but my friend hates malted milk, then teaming up makes me less likely rather than more likely to get what I want. The more correlated our tastes are to one another, the less compromise and less sacrifice comes from teaming up, but why make any sacrifices at all, why not just have everyone remain as sole traders. And of course, that is what we did as kids.

Now, let's imagine that a couple of your friends haven't learned proper manners and they begin to violate commercial (trading) ethics by stealing candy and a fight breaks out, with everybody trying to grab candy from everybody else's pile. And further suppose that your best friend turns to you and offers to team up. In this situation, the benefits of teaming up are obvious. A two person force would be much more effective in a physical battle than two people fighting alone, especially if you and your friend are able to place your piles beside one another in order to form a more geographically contiguous territory to defend.

OK, another scenario. This time, you and your friends (let's say there are 5 of you in total) are getting along, but a couple of kids who are up to no good, start making trouble in your neighbourhood and come over and demand that you give them all your candy or they will beat you up. You figure that if all 5 of you stand together and fight, you can fight these older kids off, but if anyone gets scared and bails, you might well lose all your candy. In this situation, you need everyone to team together in an all or nothing battle.

So, let's say that you and your friends stick together and the older bullies are scared to attack you. So one of the bullies has an idea and makes the following offer, "The first one of you little punks to come over to our side gets an equal share of the candy after we beat up the rest of your friends." Now there is an extra incentive for one of your friends (or you) to betray the rest and side with the bullies. Strong bonds of loyalty will be required to keep the group together. A moral viewpoint that says this kind of trading, or selling out, is shameful behaviour wouldn't hurt either.

OK, final scenario, same as the last one, but this time, instead of the candy being divided relatively equally between you and your friends (as you might expect after a night of trick or treating together), let's say the candy is divided the same way that wealth is in the United States. So if you collected 100 candies in total, then one friend has 84 candies, another friend has 11, one friend has 4, the second last friend has 0.2 (one fifth of a pack of rockets, perhaps), and you have 0.1 candies (one measly rocket). Do you think the chances of someone selling out their friends to the bullies goes up in this scenario? I do. How much loyalty can the person with 0.1 candies really feel towards the 'friend' sitting across from them with 84?

In a situation where you need cooperation from everyone to succeed, then everyone has equal worth, since the withdrawal of any one person dooms the enterprise. And in a situation where people are tempted to defect, the more unequal the distribution of benefits, the greater the temptation to defect. The World Wars were just this sort of situation, and it's no surprise, looking at it this way, that they led to policies which tried to take care of everyone in society (more so than what came before, at any rate).

And now, 65 years since World War 2 ended and since any collective effort or sacrifice was needed in our society, we have settled into the mindset of candy traders, preferring private schools and health care to paying taxes for public services, driving our car exactly where we want to go, rather than compromising by riding transit, staying at home watching exactly what we want to watch rather than compromising by watching what others are watching as well, and bowling alone, rather than compromising by organizing our schedule around a time everyone can come.

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  • Kolko remarked that people everywhere at all times are basically apathetic, until it becomes more dangerous not to act than to act, such as in times of war. Those traumatized by war will organize under progressive policies. In a nutshell.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 1:48 PM  

  • Yeah, not very convincing is it?

    At least not to me, anyways.

    By Blogger Declan, at 7:07 AM  

  • Hello Declan

    War is alo seen as a time/reason for inequality of power, when (many) people have to be under the orders of others for the sake of the war.

    The book The Prestige Squeeze makes a case that as the inequality of incomes increased in Canada from the 1960s to the early 21C, the distribution of honour, social staus, became more equal, at least in everyone's view of their own status.

    Power is perhaps a third distribution, against whose inequality in war there is a backlash toward less inequality of incomes. Or to put it another way (low-ranking) people are given a dose of equality to make up for the liberty they had to sacrifice.

    Best Wishes,

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 6:42 PM  

  • Interesting, I'll have to look that book up.

    By Blogger Declan, at 9:41 PM  

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