Friday, June 13, 2014

The Tangled Web of Foreign Policy

Has anyone commented on the fact that the recent events in Iraq make the U.S. and Iran de facto allies, both opposing a Sunni uprising? Or that the U.S. and the militants we oppose in Iraq are de facto allies against Assad's regime in Syria, a semi sort of maybe Shia regime supported by Iran?

When the militants steal military equipment the U.S. provided to the Iraqis to use it against the Iraqi government, that's just terrible. If, on the other hand, they steal it to use against Assad, ...  .


Onlooker said...

You make the mistake of thinking that principle is at the root of any government policy.

It's all just done with the goal of increasing/expanding the power and influence of government, and how much money can be sucked out of the treasury. Simple

jonabbey said...

Andrew Sullivan has been blogging on this topic a lot today.

Anonymous said...

Because stabilizing Iraq is a much higher priority for the U.S. than deposing Assad, the success of anti-Assad forces in Iraq is probably good news for Assad.

Saudi Arabia and the other gulf states that have been supporting the rebels will no doubt try to blame the U.S. for this mess...

RKN said...

Plus, imagine the confusion of your average tv-watching American, faced with the dizzying array of attributions being used, trying to figure out who to root for:

Freedon fighters; insurgents; rebels; anti-government forces; jihadis; separatists; al-Q-backed militants; terrorists; loyalists; unallied and unemployed pissed-off-young-men who'll shoot at anyone; etc. etc..

How is one supposed to get her moral bearings straight!

J.E.S. said...

Onlooker wrote:

"It's all just done with the goal of increasing/expanding the power and influence of government, and how much money can be sucked out of the treasury. Simple."

No, it's not that simple. Not everything can be reduced to a simplistic libertarian narrative. However misguided US foreign policy might sometimes be, there is a legitimate concern for the stability of the middle east.

Iraq is a country with its own set of problems, Syria is another. Some of the people/groups/ideologies who are "against" America's interests in Iraq might be "for" America's interests in Syria.

That's not evidence of hypocrisy, conspiracy, or any bad intent on the part of the US government. It's evidence that reality is complex.

David Friedman said...


Part of my implied point was that, because the relevant reality is complex and the U.S. government is not very competent and reflects a mix of motives, U.S. intervention in foreign conflicts is usually a bad idea. It's a point I explored at greater length in one chapter of my _Machinery of Freedom_, where I offered a practical rather than a moral case for a non-interventionist foreign policy.

Onlooker said...

Yeah, JES, you just keep believing the lines they're feeding you.

Power Child said...

...and this is why many people consider it best not to get tangled up in this mess of warring Muslim tribes. If there is a vital American interest there at all--and there may not be any--it is difficult to untangle it from the multitude of possible things to do that are counter to American interests. It's a great argument for isolationism, or at least isolationism outside of the West.

Anyway David, on an unrelated note, your oft-repeated saying that "No character survives contact with the plot" has been going around and around in my head today for whatever random reason, and it occurs to me I have no idea what it means even though you've explained it a number of times. Your explanation has just never done it for me, it seems. Do you mind taking another stab at it?

Fred Mangels said...

I'll admit to not following the Iraq thing very closely, but what I have read makes me disappointed, but not surprised, that CNN and the rest of the mainstream media haven't pointed out what David has: We seem to be saying AlQueda Iraq= Bad, AlQueda Syria= Good.

It's pretty obvious to me.

David Friedman said...

Power Child:

A novelist has a plot in mind. He creates characters. In order to make the story work, the characters have to act as those people would act. But the way those people would act may not fit the way the novelist originally intended the plot to go.

Real example, from my second novel (_Salamander_). The original plot hinged on a conflict between two mages, the good mage and the good bad mage. The latter was a brilliant but naive theorist who had come up with an idea for a new spell that he thought would do good things, but whose existence would actually have very bad effects.

Once I actually started writing the book, it became clear that my good bad mage would at some point realize he had made a mistake and change sides. He is well intentioned, he is very smart, so after other people have pointed out why his spell is a bad idea he will eventually realize they are right.

As the plot actually developed, the good mage became a secondary character, his daughter, a student at the college where the good bad mage is a professor, becomes a protagonist, as does the good bad mage, and the conflict ends up as the two of them, assisted by her father, first against a non-villain antagonist and then against a villain antagonist.

One result is an unplanned love story between the two protagonists, another a second and very different love story between the female protagonist's best friend and the antagonist. All of that developed out of how the characters, once constructed, would interact with each other.

I hope that makes my point clearer.

Power Child said...


Thanks, got it now.

Sorry for diving into an off-topic line of discussion here, but one thing this makes me realize is that you might say no plot survives contact with its characters: in your case at least, it was the plot that wound up changing.

Also, it's interesting how the plot and its subsequent revisions will also change the characters. After all, not only do we shape the events around us, but the events around us shape who we are to a considerable extent.

For example, your good bad mage probably would have wound up a different sort of person had he fought the good mage than he was after having fought the villain.

So, no character survives contact with the revised plot either!

Don't call me Janet said...

You're being naively cynical. People, even politicians and civil servants, do have moral motivations even if they are extremely talented at getting those morals to align with less noble interests. I feel your doing libertarian arguments a great disservice by characterising all government action as being a single minded attempt to expand state power: there are structural reasons why the individual people who operate states will tend to expand states but it's not their sole motivation.

A stable and West friendly middle-East is something most of us would consider very desirable from a moral stand point, seeing as we clearly have the best morals, so it's easy to see why people have become so genuinely invested.

The lack of clear leaders with an English speaking press office makes this stuff a nightmare for journos though. Silver linings.

Fred Mangels said...

"A stable and West friendly middle-East is something most of us would consider very desirable from a moral stand point...".

And we had a much more stable middle east before the U.S. got involved in it.

Robbo said...

Have you considered, pace Mencius Moldbug, that there are two, or maybe three, US foreign policies, run by State, DoD and the White House respectively ?

It is not that Iraq policy has been incoherent and cofused, it is that there has been a switch from DoD's policy to State's policy.

Anonymous said...

David, sorry to ask this here, but on your page regarding your debate with Jan Helfield.

You mention that states have built alot of nuclear weapons and used two of them, but surely they've used more than that, if we consider test explosions as well. (More than 2000 in total.)

Do you think nuclear testing (in the form of setting off nukes) would be more or less likely in an anarchist society?

Benjamin Cole said...

Lots of great blogging. Iraqistan? Even if you agree with goals and premises (I do not) the two wars have cost $6 trillion in outlays and incurred liabilities (the VA disability program has become a welfare scam, btw). Perhaps this is a reflectionbof Friedman's point: even if you want to "do good", doing so through a money-eating Rube Goldberg machine federal government is probably a bad idea.

David Friedman said...

Anonymous: I was only counting dropping bombs on people, not testing them.

I expect there would be less testing of nuclear weapons in a stateless society, but I'm not claiming that I can prove it.

Benjamin Cole said...

First timer here, so apologies if this is old ground:

A "stateless society"---would that in practice evolve into a globe of city-states? After all, roads, sewers and court systems etc are useful (and yes, could be financed through fees,and provided by private contractors).

The price signal does not protect the environment, including the air I involuntarily breath.

So some local government makes sense to me.

When I think of cities in the USA, I think of governments sucked dry of money by the federal government, but which still provide mediocre services (some exceptions, of course).

Freed of federal waste and overhead, I wonder if the world's cities could not become garden-spots....

David Friedman said...

Benjamin: You can find an account of the sort of stateless society I imagine, without territorial sovereigns, in my _Machinery of Freedom_ part III. The second edition is available as a free pdf from my web page:

Link at the top.

Anonymous said...

@Benjamin Cohen -

While completely gated city states could theoretically come into existence under a system where there is no national or regional government, it seems unlikely there would be sufficient demand to build such a city from scratch, and it seems even more unlikely that a sufficiently high number of people in preexisting cities (say, 75% of the population) would choose to recreate the state if society was able to get away from the statist paradigm in the first place.

Your question seems to be mainly about infrastructure, which I think is actually a rather trivial problem when talking about a libertarian society.

The funding mechanisms and the ownership model would probably turn out differently depending on the type of infrastructure. For example, it probably would make sense for residents of a residential street to collectively own their road and sewer system, as is the case in privately administered neighborhoods today (I'm avoiding the term 'gated community' because not all privately run neighborhoods are actually gated).

Mass transportation infrastructure -- whether arterial roads, expressways, subways, or railways -- would be funded through tolls/fares. Given that privately operated train systems and highways already exist today, we have good examples of how that can work. That said, private highways today are still policed by the state, which raises an interesting problem I don't hear asked or answered often: what about driver certification? Fortunately, I think there's an easy answer to that issue. It's in the interest of a highway's investors and customers to make sure all drivers have some kind of liability insurance. Thus, highways would likely require all users be insured. Without government tests and licensing, the onus would be on insurance companies to assess risk, not just on the basis of driving history and other statistical considerations, but also by conducting driver certification. The insurance companies that were most effective at assessing driving ability would be able to manage risk most effectively and therefore offer the most competitive prices for insurance. Thus, there would be a better incentive for good driver training and testing to take place than currently exists today.

Power Child said...

Since the discussion went there:

I think a libertarian stateless society would be a great place to be a scrappy young man or a powerful one in his prime, especially if he was also energetic and of keen intellect.

It would be a scary place to be a woman or a child, and it would be a rough, though often thrilling, place to be a teenager.

It would be a sad place to be elderly and decrepit, or mentally/physically disabled.

Various levels of support for libertarianism have always seemed to map pretty closely to the above, and I don't think you can blame propaganda for that.

Benjamin Cole said...

David Friedman and others---thanks filor your comments. I look forward to reading DDF's work.
A Smith---In a world w/o nations, I do not anticipate gated cities, though I think they would be very prosperous. Today the federal government sucks money out of cities for rural subsidies, administration and the warfare state. My local taxes are miniscule compared to the feder bite.
We don't need a national government anymore save for the fact there are other national governments in the world, some run by loonies..

Tibor said...

Power Child: Why do you think so? An even partial answer is fine as you made a lot of claims. I am particularly interested in why you think women and teenagers would be worse off.

TheVidra said...

Jefferson said that the US should stay out of entangled alliances, but he is the same one who went to war in North Africa to protect private US interests outside of the jurisdiction of the US. I'm going to be a devil's advocate now - but couldn't the same justification be used today? The US interferes in North Africa/Mideast to protect US citizens and interests in the region.

Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

On a high level, my answer is based on mapping typical preferences backwards, using the libertarians' own argument that people tend to know what is generally best for themselves.

Now on to the specifics. Keep in mind as I continue that I am talking about broad averages, not absolutes. Exceptions and overlaps of course abound, but basic patterns still predominate and that is what I am concerned with. Okay, so here goes:

Libertarianism generally and anarchism in particular are most popular among young sharp-minded men, and by comparison are dismally unpopular among everyone else. As I said, I don't think this is primarily because of statist propaganda, though such propaganda no doubt plays at least a small role, since intelligent men are also least susceptible to propaganda.

This suggests that intelligent men sense less of a need to band together, and conversely have less of an urge to give selflessly to strangers. They are protective of what is theirs (family, kin, property) but not of general classes of things (the vulnerable, for instance).

Women and children are especially vulnerable. Women are vulnerable primarily because, by the fact that they bear and do the bulk of raising of children, they are dependent upon others for some significant portion of their lives.

Children, meanwhile, are totally dependent upon adults for the duration of their time as children. (Childhood may in fact be defined by this total dependence.)

Women and children are also at a physical and mental disadvantage compared with men. The physical disadvantage needs no explanation, so here is what I mean by "mental disadvantage":

Children have less ability than adults to grasp complex nuanced ideas, they have less experience to draw upon, their time orientation is more short-term, and they have less general understanding. Children also are busy absorbing knowledge, and so they are lighter on analysis of it.

I of course do not mean to say women are generally less intelligent than men or anything of the sort. (Women do average about 3 IQ points below men for most of their lives, but this probably means more to people studying academic test scores than to people studying societal outcomes.) However, women's brains are wired differently than men, in a way that makes them less inclined to competition, risk-taking, and independence (both intellectual and social).

While in a stateless society there would likely be some private organizations to protect the vulnerable, the general climate would be much more meritocratic. In meritocracy the vulnerable and risk-averse do not rise to the top. They rely on those at the top to protect and support them.

Earlier I should have been more specific: women and children enjoying the protection and support of powerful men would do as well in a stateless society as said men. They're protected, after all.

But beta-women (i.e. women, and the children of women, who are unable to secure the protection and support of powerful men) would be at the mercy of everyone else. It's no doubt difficult being a homely, uninteresting woman in a society that lavishes coerced support upon you. Take away that coerced support and it becomes even worse.

What I have said here is not original to me, as I'm sure you're aware. But I do notice it ties in with something that has been said of old "patriarchal" institutions like heterosexual monogamy: they essentially protect women, children, and beta men at the expense of alpha men.

Tibor said...

Power Child:

First, thanks for an extensive reply.
Some comments:

1) I know a plenty of libertarians who I would not call exactly sharp minded and who I believe do not base their opinions on clever analysis anymore than other people. I do not dare to say if they are a minority or a majority, but I would suspect the latter - as with any other opinion again. Libertarians are probably on average younger than say conservatives, so is true of communists (at least in countries that have never in the recent history -i.e. never - been communist). Radical opinions are simply more prevalent among young people. The same goes (at least I think so) for why more libertarians are men. Again, men - young men in particular - are more likely to adopt radical opinions...I think that the reasons are the same as for why (young) men are more adventurous and less risk averse. So generally, I think you just observe men going to (any) extremes more often than women and the same goes for young vs. older people. The people who keep their radical opinions to middle age and later are those who are either fanatics who managed to isolate themselves from the world completely, or people who are actually clever and came up with good arguments for their position - and ultimately understand the position a lot better, including its limits, than most of the zealous youth.

Intelligent people in general are less susceptible to propaganda, but I'd say that young men (and women to a slightly lesser extent) are actually the group most easily influenced by it (almost all revolutions so far have used a lot of propaganda and nearly all of them heavily relied on force and anger of young men...same goes for wars).

As for banding together, again we have to differentiate between young men and smart young men. To say young men do not tend to band together is indefensible, it seems to me that the opposite is true, they do so more than anyone else. Maybe this is not true for the smarter guys, that I can't tell. Still, as for giving to strangers, I think it is the other way around. Women are often more concentrated on the small scale and more intensive social relationships, men invest in larger and shallower networks. It pays to give to strangers and be seen as a benefactor for one who wants to keep a huge network of acquaintances, it does less so for someone who cares mostly about what the people close to him think.

I guess this is long already, so let's divide it here and I will continue in the comment below.

Tibor said...

I also would not say that risk taking necessarily leads to being "at the top". And you can actually observe this with men. Men are more prone to risk than women. You have more men "at the top" in most disciplines than you have women. You have more men at the bottom as well. Most murderers, junkies or homeless are men. Many more men die in a work-related accident than women do. And so on.

Still, even if those who take risks are those who end up "at the top", what good is that in a society where those at the top actually have far less power than they have today (assuming it does not degenerate into an oligopoly of a very few huge agencies who then decide to reinstate the government...under their conditions)?

You are right that a woman (or anyone for that matter) who decides to stay at home and not to have (any kind of) wage paying job might be better off today, because her contribution to the system is zero, but she reaps some benefits (social security, some police protection and so on) which others are forced to pay. In a stateless society, that someone has to depend on a private charity that does the same thing voluntarily (which could lead to worse or better conditions for those who live off it compared to today, but almost definitely much stricter conditions of being eligible for such a support) or on a working partner/parent/other family member/friends...or find a job.

So I think your claim might be true if you replace "women" with people who "don't want to or are unable to work". And I would venture as far as to claim it really is just mainly the people who don't want to work as there are very few of the others while sadly today's social system seems to mostly support the first ones. It could be that a private charity where people actually care about how well spent the money is would help those who are unable to help themselves more than today's welfare programs (an example - in my country aspirin is subsidized, you pay about half its cost. Many people buy aspirin, that means a lot of votes. There are extremely expensive drugs which are used by a handful of very ill people which, although also mildly subsidized, still cost quite a fortune...but those people are few and typically have bigger concerns than voting). But I admit I am on a shaky ground here, I might as well be wrong on this one.

You are right that children are dependent on their parents. But what is different today? Children are not allowed to live on their own and while it may be true that sometimes children are rescued from abusive parents, at least in some of the cases this "help" might actually hurt the child (when the assessment of a social worker is bad...and there is little external incentive for them to do a good job). Also, some sort of an institution to fight child abuse could arise anyway. Today, when a child runs away from his parents, he is either returned back, or put to an institution with many parent-less children. You could have similar institutions, however with better incentives (as their funding would be voluntary and therefore dependent on their results) and let the children decide themselves whether they want to stay or not. In a way, children could that way be better protected from abuse. It might not, it is difficult to see what institutions exactly would arise. Still, most parents care for their children anyway and in those unfortunate cases when they don't I don't think the social workers do a very good job of fixing that. But I am biased and maybe don't see the good stuff as much as the bad stuff :)

Power Child said...

@Tibor Mach:

This has gotten quite long, so I'm not going to go through and respond to each of your points, but they are generally good and I agree with most of them. I don't think any of what you said utterly refutes or disrupts my high-level point, but it helps add fidelity to my detailed picture of who wins/loses in the Stateless Society scenario and why.

Tibor said...

Power Child: I did not claim anything like that :) I think your point may or may not be be valid but I think that if it is valid, it is valid in a more restricted area than your first post (at least the way I read it) suggests.

Tibor said...

By the way (more to the original topic):

There is supposedly an Iranian general (supposedly a very good one also) with some revolution guards in Baghdad helping the current Iraqi government with the counteroffensive. I think that now direct US intervention is unlikely. Why fight a war your enemy can fight for you. But perhaps it is more complicated.

Tibor said...

Power Child (if you're still reading this thread):

This is a "good" illustrative example of why I think the state protection of children from their parents often does the exact opposite. And while most parents love their children and therefore have a natural (indeed, even gene driven) incentive to look after them well, this is not true of the social workers. I don't mean to imply that none of them care (after all, field social work is probably not a job one chooses without at least some inner motivation and desire to help others), but their incentives are much weaker than those of the parents and perhaps if someone has been doing the job for 40 years, is burned out and looking forward to retirement, can care a lot less than at the start of a career.

Also, in this case I think there might be something to the "you selectively punish her 'cause she's black", even though mostly I am relatively skeptical to such claims.

Of course - this is one hyped up news story, not a statistic, so you would be right to point out that the story is not a very good argument by itself - which is why I said it was an illustrative example.