Has the Human Cost of War Gotten Too Low?

File this under “counterintuitive things economists say.”

Has the cost of war gotten too low?  The United States has been at war for almost my whole life.  I was born in 1989.  In 1991, on my birthday, the Operation Desert Storm began.  Throughout the 90’s, the US was launching strikes on Iraq, Bosnia, and Africa.  In 2001, we invaded and occupied Afghanistan.  In 2003, we invaded and occupied Iraq.  In the 2010’s, we attacked Lybia, Yemen, multiple places in Africa, and now Syria.  I’m nearly 30 and the US has been at war in some capacity almost every year.

Last night (EDT), the US and allies launched a missile strike on Syria.  The French put out a video of the strikes presumably from a French warship (it’s the second video in the link.  I can’t link directly to the video because technology is hard).  What I notice in the video is computer screens.  Lots and lots of computer screens.  The launches are being made many miles from their targets.  To the extent the people attacking see their targets, it’s from drones.  They face no immediate danger nor immediate feedback of the carnage they wrought.  Just like when we watch an action movie and we don’t smell the horrors of the battlefield, neither do they.

US and Confederate General Robert E. Lee once said: “It is good war is so terrible, lest we grow fond of it.”  The burden of war was once shared by both sides.  On the battlefields of the Civil War, the World Wars, the Far East, the soldiers had to combat each other face to face.  Wave after wave of men crashed into each other in Fredericksburg.  The mud and creeks of Antietam flowed red with blood.  The soldiers of Normandy had to scale walls and engage in hand-to-hand combat.  There was a major human cost to war and the military leaders (with exceptions) were cautious about going to war.

But war has become less terrible.  We can strike at an enemy from the comfort of our beds.  Much of modern war is played like a video game.  This, in turn, reduces the cost of war; the aggressor no longer feels the pain if he can attack from thousands of miles away.  The comfort of the politician to wage war from the safety of his capital is now enjoyed by the soldier, too.  Yes, this means (initially) fewer deaths of servicemen, but will it also lead to more war?  If the US had to actually invade Syria, not be able to rely on missiles, would have the strike happened?  Will the use of drones, of long-range bombers, of other technological killers, create a perpetual war by reducing the human costs?  I suspect so.

So, let me ask the unpopular question: are wars too safe?

The Parable of the Two Shipmasters

A prudent ship captain his crew set sail for a multi-month journey.  In port, he makes sure he has enough supplies for his crew for the entire journey and then some (just to be safe).  While underway at sea, he checks the galley and finds that about half of his food stores are spoiled because there was some unforeseen blight in the crops he bought.  The captain gathers his crew together and says: “Mates, we have a problem.  Half of our food is gone.  Unfortunately, this means I must put you all on half rations for the remainder of our voyage.”  The crew, understandably, begins to grumble.  They enjoyed their rations and now there will be half?

“But sir!” cries one young sailor, “We were used to our old rations!  The life on the ship was fun.  We had beer and bread and meat.  It gave us strength and kept morale high.  Why must we be tortured so?”

“Because,” replied the captain, “otherwise we may not have enough food to survive our journey.  We are weeks from the closest port and these stores must last.  I promise it is better to have a dearth now than a famine later.”

The crew grumbles, but they comply.  Two months later, the ship arrives at its destination with the full complement of crew who are tired but alive.

At the same time as the above story, a second imprudent ship captain also buys the same amount of food for his journey of the same length.  While out at sea, he also suffers the blight and loses half his stores.  He gathers the crew around and says: “Mates, half our food stores are gone.  It looks like I may have to cut rations.”

“But sir!” another young sailor objects.  “Half rations are no good!  We won’t be merry!  Our lives will be tougher.  This is no good!”

“Agreed,” said the captain.  “The happiness of my crew must come first.  We should not have to suffer inconveniences.  Rations will not be cut!”  The crew cheers.

Two months later, a ghost ship drifts into the port full of emancipated men who have not eaten in over a month.  The few that survived resorted to eating whatever they could find, including each other when necessary.

The above parable is adapted from Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, in particular, Book IV Chapter V.  In times of scarcity, prices must rise in order to encourage conservation of resources (in this case, the price acts as the ship captain rationing food).  Prices rise through the acts of speculators buying goods in periods of relative plenty and selling in times of relative scarcity (thus the maxim “buy low sell high”).  It is obvious that the higher prices cause discomfort.  People eat less or less desirable things.  But the alternative to this discomfort is famine.  If prices are not allowed to adjust for whatever reason (the ship captain who keeps rations the same), then the resource is consumed too quickly and famine can quickly set in.  The discomfort is delayed to the future, but it is repaid with heavy interest.

Predatory Pricing, Tariffs, and the Second Law of Demand

Predatory pricing is a common justification for government intervention in a marker (predatory pricing is when a firm or government tries to gain monopoly power in a market by selling below cost, undercutting competitors and forcing them out, and then raising prices to a monopoly level.  For a great treatment of predatory pricing, see here).

On a recent Cafe Hayek post, Craig Walenta (friend of the blog) objected to a lack of concern vis-a-vis Chinese dumping thusly:

 Of course that which is seen, but that which is unseen are the incidental effects because this absolutely must be incorporated into your business judgment, or you’d just be a complete idiot, and you’re not going to have any sense of what the unseen is unless you actually own a business and talk to other business owners who will tell you that the general rule is that ‘if it can be done in China, EVEN IF IT CAN BE DONE HERE CHEAPER, don’t do it’ — indeed foreign and domestic favoritism clearly impacts businesses that have absolutely no relation to the favored industries in question.
Mr. Walenta’s concern is legitimate.  Why would business owners compete in a market if someone is going to undercut them?  There may be people who do not enter some industry for fear of competition.
But does that mean China can, once they receive monopoly power, can raise and keep prices high with the mere threat of undercutting prices again?  Not likely, because of the Second Law of Demand.
The Second Law of Demand is, to quote Armen Alchian and William Allen (Page 28):
[T]he longer the time allowed to adjust amount demand in response to a price change, the greater is the change in amount demanded, that is, the greater the elasticity…For example, if the price of water were doubled, consumption would immediately decrease some–but would decrease by a great deal more within a few months, after people had more economically made adjustment to their water-using equipment[.]
In other words, people initially make little adjustments to a rise in prices but the longer prices stay high, the bigger their adjustments become.  To stick with the water example, if the price of water spikes quickly, people may water their lawn less or wash their car less, but that’s about it.  If the price of water stays high, people may rip out their lawns and go for rock gardens (eg, Arizona), may shower together to save water, may move to disposable plates rather than washable dishware, etc.
To bring this back to China, if China were to gain a monopoly power and raise prices, even if they were to maintain their monopoly power with the mere threat of lower prices, it is unlikely they would succeed.  At first, they may be able to command monopoly prices, but the high price of steel will eventually force people into different areas: maybe more plastic is used for automobiles than steel.  Maybe wood and brick replace architectural steel.  Maybe some new metal alloy is created to replace steel, or there are shifts to titanium or something like that.  Maybe someone develops a super-lightweight but super-strong material that renders steel obsolete (like Kevlar for buildings).  It’s impossible to know what path things would take.  What we do know is the Law of Demand says that people will adjust, and thus it is highly improbable anyone who gains monopoly power through predatory pricing will be able to maintain monopoly profits.

Protectionism is Fueling Trade Deficits

The Jones Act, ostentatiously a protectionist piece of legislation, is unintentionally causing the trade deficit to increase.  The US is forced to look overseas for heating since shipping it internally is so expensive because of the Act.

The lesson to take away from this story is that controlling/regulating an economy is no straightforward act.  Passing protectionist legislation is no guarantee to reduce trade deficits, as we can see here.  Actions have unforeseen consequences, and can often result in the opposite of desired outcomes.  Economic activity is complex, and it is not merely a technological problem.

Different Rules for Different Worlds

It’s Christmas Time.  That magical time of year where friends get together, families visit, and, for a little while, all seems well.

But, as sure as Christmas time comes around, we also get economic defenses of Scrooge and calls for cash to be given rather than gifts.  From a mainstream economic point of view, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these articles.  However, they miss a larger point, a point once known to economists, but have since been forgotten (or trivialized): moral rules matter.

Humans, as social creatures, live in two worlds at once (to paraphrase Hayek).  We live in our personal worlds, which have their rules, and we live in the commercial/interpersonal world, which has its own set of rules.  We must move in between these worlds constantly and manage the two rule regimes.  What is appropriate in one world may not be appropriate in the other.

By way of example, imagine if a friend asked you for a ride somewhere.  It’d be frowned upon if you asked him for money (outside gas money or maybe tolls). However, for a taxi to do the same thing, you’d expect to pay and there’d be no impropriety. No one would accuse the taxi driver of inappropriate behavior and no disapprobation levied on him. However, for a friend to make a profit, it’d be inappropriate and he would be saddled with disapprobation (considered a bad friend, etc).  Asking for money would violate the rules in the personal world but not the interpersonal world.  To try to apply the rules of one to the other would be problematic.

We expect people to behave in certain ways.  The cold indifference Scrooge shows toward Cratchit elicits feelings of disapprobation, especially during Christmas.  We expect this time of year to bring about beneficence and we expect employers to treat their employees a certain way.  When the interpersonal rules are applied in this situation, they appear wholly inappropriate, at least within a certain level of propriety.   Further, Scrooge’s transformation at the end of A Christmas Carol is itself praiseworthy.  He becomes benevolent, which is virturous.

I hasten to point out that nothing Scrooge does, either before or after his transformation, is unjust.  Scrooge, at no time, violates any rules of justice: he does no harm to anyone.  But simply because an act is just does not mean it is praiseworthy.  As Adam Smith says, the rules of justice can be obeyed by sitting still and doing nothing; but that behavior is hardly grounds for any approbation.  Justice is a negative virtue; it only affects other people when ignored.  Benevolence and the other virtues are positive, and they can do real good through acting.  While Scrooge was surely just, he was hardly praiseworthy.

Another example of the difference between these two worlds is from cash as a Christmas gift.  Again, from a purely economic point of view, there is hardly anything to object to.  But we are not in the interpersonal world of economics, but rather the personal world, where different rules exist.  One of those rules is: you give gifts to those you love.  Money is unacceptable according to these rules.  Loved ones are expected to exchange thoughtful gifts, not cash.  Violations of those expectations lead to hurt feelings and disapprobation.

One of the things these economic models of gift-giving do not take into account is the moral currency from obeying the rules.  This is likely why an institution that is so inefficient on its face (gift-giving) has remained a tradition for centuries.

Humans are social creatures and we live in multiple worlds at once.  Using a set of behavior from one world as a role-model for the other is a poor choice.  We must consider what makes a person good and just.  And that is the role of moral philosophy.

What, Exactly, is Free Trade?

Calls for government intervention into the economy usually focus on some supposed deviation in the free market system: currency manipulation, tariffs by trading partners, taxation, etc.  As the argument goes, because these things deviate from the ideal assumptions of the model, some government intervention (usually in the form of retaliatory or punitive actions against their citizens) becomes necessary.

However, this form of argumentation represents a fundamental misunderstanding on what free trade is and is not, and more importantly the uses of economic models.  This post is an effort to clear up these misconceptions.

Free Trade is Not a Policy

The language surrounding is misleading, both by its advocates and its opponents.  Both coach free trade in terms of policy: “Government needs to do laissez-faire!” or “Government needs to reign in free trade!” or something like that.  Free trade, however, is not a policy.  One does not implement free trade.  A government can take action to promote free trade (reducing tariffs, cutting regulations, etc), but it cannot adopt a free trade policy per se.

Free trade is nothing more than allowing peaceful interactions between consenting individuals.  It requires no active government policy.  In a free trade society, any governmental role would be naturally be limited to a passive role of enforcing contracts and protecting rights (what Jim Buchanan calls the “Protective State“).

Furthermore, since free trade is no policy, it is not dependent upon the assumptions of the economic models to function (I will return to this point in the next section).  None of the arguments for free trade require perfect information, identical principles between buyers and sellers, known utility functions and universal preferences, etc.  Free trade is robust to deviations from the ideal; the system still works because it is a process, not a policy.  Deviations from the ideal, movements away from equilibrium, present opportunities for entrepreneurs to correct issues; the many plan for the many and do not require the guiding hand of government to correct for deviations.

Models as Analysis and as Policy Tools

Models serve two roles: first as a means of analysis and second as a means of directing policy.  In these two roles, the characteristics of the model matter.

An analytical model, which is the proper use of economic models, involve simplifying assumptions in order to explore (or “analyze”) a particular question.  By way of example, let’s look at minimum wage.  The question is: “What effects will minimum wage have?”  Through a set of assumptions contained in the supply and demand price theory model, we can make a pattern prediction: a binding minimum wage will cause a surplus of labor in the market.  We can make this pattern prediction because our model reasonably reflects reality, even though it has many simplifying assumptions which are, to be frank, unrealistic (for example, the model contains the assumption of “all else held equal,” a condition which never happens).  Our analytical models give us the tools to analyze.

Where the problem comes in is using an analytical model to guide policy (both free-market supporters and opponents make this mistake).  To guide policy, you need a descriptive model, not an analytical model.  In other words, you need a model that is descrptive of reality, not one that reflects reality.  When attempting to guide policy, this is where the assumptions of the model become important.  To impose an “optimal tariff,” you need to know the demand and supply curves (something which is unknowable), you need to know indifference curves and von Neumann-Morgenstern utility functions (which are unknowable), true relative prices and equilibrium, etc etc.  To paraphrase Hayek, to use these models to guide policy, you need to assume knowledge that the price system alone can actually give you!  When using models to guide policy, deviations from the model’s assumptions become critical!


Any good scientist needs to know the limitations of the tools he uses.  Price theory models are extremely helpful in providing a lens through which to analyze the world.  They allow us to make pattern predictions and conduct analysis.  What they do not allow us to do is to make point predictions and guide policy with any level of accuracy needed.  Anyone who pretends otherwise is operating under the pretense of knowledge; he is not acting as a scientist, but rather as a charlatan or a fool: a charlatan if he deliberately knows the limits of his models but pretends they are more accurate than they are and a fool is he believes his own models give him the ability to shape policy.

The Law of Demand in Action

On Monday, Virgina began imposing flexible tolls on the I-66 stretch between the Beltway and Washington, DC.  I-66 is one of the most congested roads in the nation during rush hour and the goal of these tolls was to have drivers look for alternative routes so that the interstate remained relatively free-flowing for those who needed to get into the city quicker.


Lo and behold, it worked:

Traffic moved smoothly throughout the morning, and WTOP’s traffic center reported that the number of drivers on I-66 declined compared to typical Monday morning volume.

“There were no delays inside the Beltway; that’s the point of congestion pricing — to keep the carpools and paying solo drivers moving. As demand goes up, the price does too,” said WTOP’s traffic reporter Dave Dildine.

VDOT reported that the average speed on I-66 during the morning rush hour was 57 mph, up from 37 mph at the same time a year ago.

The George Washington Parkway absorbed the brunt of the traffic, with Virginia Route 123 and U.S. 50 picking up extra drivers as well.

As price rises, quantity demanded falls as people seek substitutes.  Those who are willing to pay the higher price are those who value the resource most highly.

There has been a backlash, of course.  No one wants to pay a $40 toll one-way.  There have already been calls to cap the tolls.  How does the state respond?

“If we don’t get the tolling right, all we’re going to do is clog up those lanes again, and so that’s why the algorithm is multifaceted. It may change, we’ll study it. But in terms of moving traffic, it looks like it’s doing its job,” [Virginia Transportation Secretary] Aubrey Layne said.

“I know all the publicity is ‘Oh, $40,’ but the whole idea is for the person to make a rational decision. ‘Is it worth [it for] me to pay this to use it or is another method better?’ If you start limiting that, you impact the entire network,” Layne said of requests to cap tolls or make other dramatic changes.

Price goes up, quantity demanded falls.  You put a price ceiling on the market, you “impact the entire network.”

Good to see some Econ 101 knowledge on the part of the Transportation Secretary.