Preemptive war and decision under uncertainty

I’ve enjoyed John Quiggin’s discussion of decision making under uncertainty in the context of preemptive war. The whole discussion was triggered by Judge Posner’s first post on his weblog.

In response to Prof. Quiggin’s first post, I commented:

I hope you’ll elaborate on the second point about war being a negative sum game. Intuitively, this seems wrong. I would think it easy to construct an example, from history or otherwise, of a war with positive gains in sum. Off the cuff, imagine a war were the attacked lay down their arms without a shot fired. The victors march in, institute democracy, grow the economy and are adored by the conquered. Wouldn’t this ‘war’ be positive sum?

Also, your arguments on this point seem to just have the effect of increasing the costs as discussed in Posner’s post. You’ve discovered some ‘hidden costs’ in the Posnerian calculation. That’s fine. Realize those costs and then redo the calculation.

Later in the comment thread, I’m chided:

Will, that’s silly. Of course we can construct an imaginary example of a ‘win-win’ war; it’s just that the preconditions very rarely obtain in reality. The neocons are rightly considered fools for kidding themselves that Iraq was an exception.

If the past teaches us anything, it is that war tends towards ‘lose-lose’ with occasional ‘win-lose’. The likelihood of ‘lose-lose’ has to enter our prior calculations. And as others point out calculations geared to ‘win-lose’ ignore the welfare losses of the losers.

Yes, the example was silly, but it was meant to illustrate that some such war exists. We’re talking about imagining future states of the world such that we can create policy (waging war being a policy). To allow my example is to see what the “neocons” where up to when they were planning this war. They, and I, believe there is such a thing as a zero-sum or positive sum war. To dismiss the possiblity out of hand, is to miss the point and to misunderstand why we’re in Iraq.

He then made a second post, where he linked to a well written paper on the precautionary principle. I commented:

Thanks for the paper. For this budding economics student, the discussion of more and more general models of uncertainty was enlightning. I think I’ll print it out and use it as a cheat sheet.

Your analysis is VERY dependent on how the decesion maker determines which state of the world is “status quo” and what would be an “innovation”. Where you see preemptive war in Iraq as an uncertain innovation, Bush sees uncertainty in the status quo, i.e. an unknown (and unknowable?) connection between Saddam’s WMD and terrorist willing to use them. This would be analoguous to the “innovation” that you observe in the doubling of green house gas emmisions if we maintain the status quo.

Similarly, there is some fudgy-ness in the statement of the incompletness hypothesis. “Incomplete estimates will generally be over-optimistic.” Your over-optimism may be my over-pessimism.

I’m reminded of Rumsfeld’s famous line about unknown unknowables and some such. What rule of nature implies only bad stuff is more unknowable?

We’ll see if anyone responds.

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