Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Barack Obama, Supervillain

My younger son is an aspiring novelist; most of what he has been writing is set in a fictional world of superheroes and supervillains. Some of the villains are likable characters, which raises the question of in what sense they are evil. When I put the question to him in the context of the central character of his first novel, The Titanium Tyrant, who is both superintelligent and honorable, his response was that he was a villain because he did not mind killing innocent people in the process of his crimes.

It occurred to me that, by that definition, there are a lot of villains. Churchill and FDR were prepared to murder very large numbers of German civilians by mass bombing campaigns designed to kill as many, not as few, as possible. Obama has taken responsibility for drone strikes which, in the process of trying to kill terrorists, have clearly killed quite a lot of innocent civilians. In theory, we all believe that all lives matter, but in practice we divide people into our ingroup and everyone else and mostly ignore costs imposed on the latter. In the modern world, that largely means the division between our fellow citizens and foreigners.

It is not limited to national governments and warfare, although that’s the clearest example. U.S. immigration restrictions impose enormous costs on people who would like to come and are not allowed to. Most of those people are much poorer than most Americans. Yet Americans who regard themselves as favoring the poor, most obviously at the moment Bernie Sanders, feel no guilt at keeping foreigners desperately poor in order to keep American poor from getting, by world standards, a little less rich.

In the year 1000, Iceland faced a conflict between pagans and Christians. Before it was resolved by peaceful arbitration, there was a brief period when the two sides declared themselves out of law with each other. Put in modern terms, they were declaring Iceland two countries located on the same territory, each viewing the other as foreigners.

The Titanium Tyrant is out of law with the rest of us, loyal to his own people. By some standards that makes him a villain—but not obviously more of a villain than a lot of the people who many of us approve of.

26 Comments:

At 5:58 PM, November 11, 2015, Blogger Sound and Fury said...

I don't know for sure about the US, but the goal of the British bombing campaign in Germany was never to "kill as many people as possible". The objective of Area Bombing was to dehouse workers and dislocate infrastructure, thereby disrupting production of war materiel. (This policy was developed in early 1942 after it had been found that night bombers could not hit individual factories as had previously been targeted.) The civilian deaths were a side-effect, it being difficult (particularly with the poor bombing accuracy of the time) to destroy a city's war output without a lot of people getting caught in the fires. But the death toll was never an objective in itself; Bomber Command was trying to destroy the enemy's morale, and their will and capacity to wage war. This is not the same as attempting the systematic killing-off of the enemy.

Even the much-maligned Dresden raid in 1945 was in fact intended to create a vast body of refugees who would clog up the German transportation network and prevent reinforcements from reaching the Eastern Front. Thus, every person killed was one fewer evacuee to unwittingly contribute to the raid's central aim!

 
At 8:35 PM, November 11, 2015, Blogger Lliam said...

Your son's definition specified that the super villain was willing to kill innocents in the commission of crime. For that definition to extend to Churchill, Roosevelt or Obama, would you not first need to establish that the actions that led to the deaths of innocent civilians would be crimes even had they not caused innocent deaths?

 
At 9:14 PM, November 11, 2015, Blogger Roger said...

"U.S. immigration restrictions impose enormous costs on people who would like to come and are not allowed to."

This is like saying: Banks impose enormous costs on people who would like to be rich, but have no money.

 
At 10:09 PM, November 11, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with your view, as I understand it, that an activist foreign policy might work for America if we were competent to try it. On similar lines, mass immigration might work for America if the Democratic party did not want a large semi-legal helot class as clients, and if the Republican party did not want a large semi-legal helot class to keep wages down. Would you say my view of the Democratic and Republican parties is, for their cadres at least, inaccurate?

 
At 12:46 AM, November 12, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you

 
At 1:10 AM, November 12, 2015, Anonymous Max said...

Roger, I think in David's view immigration restrictions are like vandalism - it doesn't profit anyone. Property rights (at least) benefit people who own property.

 
At 2:28 AM, November 12, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Max

Surely vandalism benefits the vandal?

 
At 5:05 AM, November 12, 2015, Blogger Roger said...

Of course people benefit from immigration restrictions. That is why we have them.

 
At 7:47 AM, November 12, 2015, Blogger Gordon said...

Roger, there is a difference between money in banks and land within government borders. Bank robbers are taking money out of a bank, away from its rightful owners. Immigrants are not taking land outside of the borders, and they pay for the land they use. Small distinctions, but they make all the difference.

 
At 9:00 AM, November 12, 2015, Anonymous Greg said...

It is not about land but about welfare. Without welfare immigration would be only security issue but with it is sharing resources as well. Why migrants want to go to Germany and not stay in Slovenia? It is rhetorical question.

 
At 9:33 AM, November 12, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Roger

I think asking whether someone, anyone, benefits from a law, is a fairly low bar. If you're claiming that obviously immigration restrictions are a net good because they wouldn't exist otherwise, then I suggest you think through the implications of that view. Even the not-very-absurd ones are fairly absurd.

 
At 12:06 PM, November 12, 2015, Blogger Leonard said...

I'll second Roger. Imposing immigration restrictions is not "imposing a cost". It is imposing a restriction against gain. It is not hurting anyone; it is merely refusing to help them. I should think most libertarians would distinguish the two things. In other contexts, i.e. "should we reduce welfare", libertarians understand the distinction quite well.

 
At 12:15 PM, November 12, 2015, Blogger Roger said...

I do believe that immigration restrictions are a net good, and so does 90+% of the population. But that depends on how I balance costs and benefits, and some people may disagree.

Here I just made the weaker claim that a great many people benefit from immigration restrictions, and that is why we have them. I do not see how anyone can dispute that. Of all the candidates for President, for example, none of them advocate dropping all immigration restrictions.

 
At 2:11 PM, November 12, 2015, Blogger gurugeorge said...

Just as murder isn't just killing, so a villain isn't just someone who does collateral damage. It's not just the consequences that matter, but the intention behind what's done too. Classically, the villain is someone who doesn't mind collateral damage in the pursuit of self-enrichment and/or self-aggrandizement.

 
At 2:42 PM, November 12, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Roger, most economists disagree with you on that. That ought to make you at least consider how correct your assumption is.

 
At 3:46 PM, November 12, 2015, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Roger

I'm neither agreeing or disagreeing with you right now regarding whether immigration restrictions are a good thing. Just questioning your logic that they must be a good thing or otherwise they wouldn't exist. I don't think it makes sense to say that we have any law because of that law being a net positive. Law isn't determined by what would be good, but by what the political process produces. Many laws benefit a few people at the expense of everyone else; some laws probably benefit nobody and hurt everybody. The existence of a law seems to me extremely weak evidence for it being a good law. The most I would say is that it's evidence that it isn't so bad as to have caused the country to collapse, but that's not a very high boundary to meet.

 
At 9:58 AM, November 13, 2015, Blogger George Haley said...

'I don't know for sure about the US, but the goal of the British bombing campaign in Germany was never to "kill as many people as possible".'

It's Orwellian, I think, to refer to 'setting whole cities on fire every night' as 'an effort to disrupt production and reduce morale by dehousement.'

 
At 9:59 AM, November 13, 2015, Blogger George Haley said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

 
At 5:09 PM, November 13, 2015, Blogger Richard O. Hammer said...

Off-subject question for you, David. I would like to learn your view if this question attracts your curiosity. What does the record of the mixing of populations — Muslim with non-Muslim — suggest for the future possibility of peaceful mixing of such populations?

 
At 12:18 AM, November 14, 2015, Blogger Jonathan said...

Good post.

I'm not acquainted with the Titanium Tyrant, but I suggest a correction to the idea that "he was a villain because he did not mind killing innocent people in the process of his crimes."

By conventional judgment, what makes him a villain is the commission of crimes, and not (as you've pointed out) the killing of innocent people.

If you steal a bar of chocolate from a shop, you're a villain, albeit a small-time one. If you kill thousands of innocent people, you could be a villain or a respected hero, depending on the context and whether you broke any law.

Is there something wrong with conventional judgment? Moot point.

 
At 11:43 AM, November 14, 2015, Blogger Tibor said...

I think that if you are strictly utilitarian, you don't mind killing innocent people as long as it saves more innocent people. Even if you are not, killing x innocent people in the process of saving Y innocent people is acceptable to most people as long as Y is sufficiently large.

I should mention that I do not believe that this is the effect of drone strikers or probably even that of carpet bombings of Germany are such cases. The carpet bombings had a little effect on German morale...or perhaps even the opposite of the intended - if you are convinced your enemy wants to kill you and will not stop before he does, you are more willing to fight to your last breath. Drone strikes might produce more Islamists than they kill.

But if I believed that destroying the historical centres of many German cities and killing many civilians in those cities would lead to a quick surrender of Germans (not entirely impossible - were it not for Hitler's damned luck at surviving assassination attempts), I would condone to such methods. Of course, there is the danger of being overconfident about what the plan actually achieves and what was supposed to be the lesser evil often turns into just an evil.

 
At 8:32 AM, November 23, 2015, Anonymous Ross Levatter said...

Surely both you and your son are familiar with the character Ozymandias in The Watchmen...

 
At 4:28 AM, November 25, 2015, Blogger montestruc said...

The statements of all governments as to their motives for any given policy during a war should be taken with a large amount of skepticism. Said governments will state what makes them look good, not necessarally the truth.

Truth be told the Anglo American four engine long range high altitude bombing campaign was not cost-effective. As post war analysis showed conclusivly.

I will agree that the prime motivation of it was moral, aka terrorism. As in terrorize civil populations into rebellion against the government. Did not work at all. Only in the sense that Hirohito felt a strong moral obligation to protect the Japanese people did it work in the Pacific war.

Only the USA still employs heavy bombers (as in is building new ones), and only by being stelthed and using guided stand off munitions are they moderatly cost-effective.

The allies in WWII would have been vastly better served by building more fighter-bombers, and no Landcasters, B24s or B17s, other than in the maritime patrol role.

 
At 4:36 AM, November 25, 2015, Blogger montestruc said...

Not normally in any tangible way. Perhaps if the vandel has a reasonable expectation of being hired to repair the damage, or is vandalizing a competitor's business, but not otherwise. Especially if yo consider the risk of the vandal getting caught.

 
At 9:22 PM, November 26, 2015, Blogger cinc210 said...

Well, I think of both sides of the issue. What if Mexico was not next to the US but was like Chile no wealthier country next to it and it had to make it on its own. Chile had very low immigration to the US-Mexico has had high immigration. Mexico still has a 46 percent poverty rate while Chile is 8 percent. Sometimes if you leave your country and send remittances money back your country doesn't do the steps to make people less poor and you would not immigrant in the first place. This is why I also disagree with Donald Trump that wants to take back the factory jobs from Mexico like Ford. If more lower skilled factory jobs which are sometimes not even done by Americans like food processing and garment work go to Mexico, maybe some of the immigrants return even if they make less money since those that make Trump's hat make America Great are mainly Mexicans and Central Americans living in Calfiornia. Sanders like Trump wants to stopped trade deals against Mexico, China and whoever to prevent them from having the opportunity to developed like a Chile. In fact when the US cut off immirgration from Europe in the 1920's countries like Italy and Ireland developed better too than they did when they could go to the US and send back money like it was in the great immirgration period.

 
At 7:40 PM, December 04, 2015, Anonymous Sophie Grouchy said...

Depending on his age, your son may appreciate this:

http://mythcreants.com/blog/five-dualities-that-can-replace-good-and-evil/

 

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