Thursday, October 20, 2011

Drones, Geneva Convention, and Other Ambiguous Goods

"Any development that makes war appear to be easier or cheaper is dangerous and morally troubling. It lowers the political threshold of war. It threatens to weaken the moral presumption against the use of armed force." David Cortwright, writing at on drones.

It is a legitimate argument, but its application is wider than may be obvious. The Geneva Conventions, for instance, are designed to make war cheaper—not in dollars but in human costs. The pre-Napoleonic rules of parole, under which a prisoner of war could give his word not to try to escape and then spend his imprisonment in the town inn instead of the much less comfortable prison, or even give his word not to fight until exchanged and then be sent home, were designed to make war less costly. 

Any such change has two effects. One is to reduce the cost, the amount of damage to things that matter to human beings, including human beings themselves, of warfare, which is good. The other is to increase the amount of warfare, which is bad. There is no theoretical basis to say, in general, which effect is larger—it depends on  the elasticity of supply of war.

In my Law's Order, I discuss [search for the word "duress" in the chapter] the same issue in a different context—whether contracts made under duress ought to be enforceable. When the mugger threatens to kill you if you don't pay him a hundred dollars and you pay with a check,  should you be free to call up your bank and cancel payment once he is out of sight? Being able to pay  him means that when mugged you don't get killed for failure to offer your mugger enough to let you go. But it also means that mugging is more profitable, so more of it happens.

In that particular case, I am pretty sure that making the contract enforceable has, on net, negative consequences. But there is no good reason to suppose that the same is true for innovations, technological or otherwise, that make war less costly.


At 8:49 PM, October 20, 2011, Blogger Studio Hayek said...

Great post Dr. Friedman. Cheaper, more capable drones increase the likelihood that individuals and small groups will be able to afford drones, and thus make it more likely that individuals will be able to defend themselves from large governments.

Decades from now, humans may look back and see that drones gave individuals the positive freedom to check the power of government. I'm sure there are some freedom loving people working on drones that might one day decide to start building killer drones for wealthy individuals (to keep the IRS away) or to corporations who decide to create a seastead or free-zone on land. Those individuals may also decide to stop selling them to certain governments.

The drones are really scary, but put in the right hands they could increase liberty for individuals.

Governments may one day look back and say, "Shit we helped develop those drones and now individuals are using them against us."

I think capitalism will survive and governments will not.

By the way my copy of The Collected Stories of Vernor Vinge arrived today. Thanks for the recommendation.

At 9:25 PM, October 20, 2011, Anonymous Miko said...

I don't think that lowering the costs of war in human terms would lead to more war. The individuals fighting the war certainly care about the human costs, but I see no evidence that those perpetrating the war do. And since it's often the case that the individuals fighting the war have been coerced into doing so, it wouldn't follow that they would agitate for more wars simply because the human cost was lower to them.

As evidence for this position, I would point to the fact that the parole system you mention no longer exists, presumably because the governments in charge of the war forced people to return to war even if they had pledged not to return: a clear case of the government deciding that it values cannon fodder more than reducing human costs of war.

At 9:30 PM, October 20, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The purpose of the Geneva convention is to avoid another world war. So, despite the fact that war is more sanitized because of it, which makes war more likely, the expected cost of the alternative is too high to imagine.

With the increasing prevalence of drones and other robotic warfare, the human cost becomes almost negligible on one side, while the disconnect from reality becomes greater. This is bad, because we want to discourage armed conflict as much as possible, not make it more palatable. War without drones is preferable because when your own side is taking gruesome casualties, it becomes politically unpopular to engage in pointless war, and that is exactly what happened with Vietnam. It's far better for the world if we have to see our own troops horrifically mutilated on television, rather than what amounts to a very expensive video game.

At 12:32 AM, October 21, 2011, Blogger Peter said...

I'm not so sure the parole rule made war cheaper. Wouldn't it lower the salary of soldiers and thus make it possible for the warlords to hire more soldiers, making the total human suffering about equal?

At 8:12 AM, October 21, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"presumably because the governments in charge of the war forced people to return to war even if they had pledged not to return: a clear case of the government deciding that it values cannon fodder more than reducing human costs of war."

I don't think so--my understanding is that, for a long time, the parole promise was enforced by social pressure on the captured soldier by his own side. As best I recall, the system broke down during the Napoleonic wars, as a result of Napoleon deliberately gaming it when other governments were abiding by it.

At 8:14 AM, October 21, 2011, Blogger David Friedman said...

"The purpose of the Geneva convention is to avoid another world war."

I don't think so. The first two of the four treaties that make up the convention were agreed to prior to WWI. The purpose was and is to make war a little less terrible.

At 8:49 AM, October 21, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The first two of the four treaties that make up the convention were agreed to prior to WWI. The purpose was and is to make war a little less terrible.

Trying to redefine a widely-understood term to mean something new makes you sound like a libertarian.

The Geneva Convention is the collection of agreements of 1949, and is clearly unique in its purpose. There are a thousand years of treaties intended to make war "a little less terrible" and by glossing over that, you're minimizing the issues of the 20th century. If that's your intention, then fair enough.

At 9:16 AM, October 21, 2011, Blogger TheVidra said...

Anonymous doubted that "The first two of the four treaties that make up the [Geneva] convention were agreed to prior to WWI. The purpose was and is to make war a little less terrible."

In all fairness, Wikipedia (the mother of all resources, hehe) says: "The first three Geneva Conventions were revised and expanded in 1949, and the fourth was added at that time.
First Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field, 1864;
Second Geneva Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea, 1906;
Third Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War, 1929;
Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, 1949.
The whole set is referred to as the "Geneva Conventions of 1949" or simply the "Geneva Convention"".

At 9:45 AM, October 21, 2011, Anonymous Anonymous said...

TheVidra wrote: Anonymous doubted...

Since English isn't your first language, I can understand the confusion. I did not disagree with the fact that the first three Geneva Conventions were written prior to WWII. Making the Geneva Convention of 1949 out to be a minor revision is disingenuous. This is ridiculous.

At 11:44 AM, October 21, 2011, OpenID nilskp said...

Anonymous, perhaps you could explain what it is in the 4th Geneva convention that specifically addresses WW prevention?

At 3:45 PM, October 22, 2011, Blogger Ari T said...

Well written!

At 5:21 AM, October 23, 2011, Anonymous Nightrunner said...

'a prisoner of war could give his word'

The goal of war is largely plunder. If the parties have clear and compatible rules - ransom works. Lack of ransom does not get the war less likely - it just leads to atrocities.

At 12:32 AM, October 24, 2011, Blogger Mark Horning said...

Drones of course do not replace soldiers, they replace pilots. Compared to the cost of training a pilot, soldiers are considerably cheaper. Something missing in the analysis here.

At 5:36 AM, October 25, 2011, Blogger neil craig said...

In practice having laws on war does not seem it make war more common. The height of such era was from 1945 on and 18th C Europe (a reaction to the 30 years war).Neither have been particularly warlike, indeed the opposite.

I suggest 2 reasons. Firstly that we are not seeing cause and effect but common cause - when war is not seen as priftable (ie following the 30 years war example) there is pressure both to have less of it and to civilise it. The second, which I have suggested before in relation to the respect for the letter of international law throughout the cold war, is that when the laws of war are generally accepted everybody feels less threatened and therefore less likely to get their retaliation in first.

At 6:53 AM, October 26, 2011, Blogger Fearsome Pirate said...

You also have to quantify "more war," as "war" is not a base unit of measure. A war that lasts ten years, but only involves a few thousand fighting men, the destruction of small amounts of property, and a small fraction of a country's economic output, is not the same as a war that lasts four years, levels entire cities, kills millions of people, and consumes a double-digit fraction of a country's output.

At 8:22 PM, January 17, 2016, Blogger Jim Rose said...

Eric Posner has written extensively on the economics of the laws of war explained as self-enforcing strategies adopted by self-interested states.

In the case of drones, they actually reduce the risks of war.

A number of states try things on the assumption of the Western democracies are one willing to risk their blood and treasure. Edward Luttwak called it post-heroic warfare.

Drones allow you to punish aggression without risking troops on the ground and fight terrorism in a very effective way given the tendency of terrorists to use mobile phones and not turn their Twitter locator buttons off.


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