Monday, December 06, 2004

Becker on weapons and preventative war

The Gary Becker-Richard Posner blog is finally up and running. the first issue they deal with is the economics of preventative war. I had a problem with Becker's conclusion. He writes:
The degree of certainty required before preventive actions are justified has been considerably reduced below what it was in the past because the destructive power of weaponry has enormously increased. Perhaps most worrisome, the power of weapons continues to grow, and to become more easily accessible. Critics of preventive wars and other preventive actions against rogue states and terrorist groups ignore these major changes in weaponry and their availability. Democratic governments have to recognize that they no longer have the luxury of waiting to respond until they are attacked.
But "major changes in weaponry and their availability" is a factor that cuts both ways. Certainly, it raises the cost of not intervening when intervention is appropriate. But it equally raises the cost of intervening badly or at the wrong time. Thus it's not clear to me that this factor should make us more rather than less inclined to intervene. It simply raises the stakes.

Given that government does very few things well, has incentive problems, has information problems, and just generally tends to make a lot of mistakes, I don't trust that giving government more lattitude to intervene pre-emptively is likely in practice to eliminate old terrorists faster than it inspires new ones.

If intervention tends to create a net increase in terrorists and terrorism, the fact that the new terrorists can be more effective at a lower cost today than in times past should lead us to favor fewer and smaller interventions than before.

Kirk Parker correctly points out (in the comments to Becker's blog) that some changes in weaponry technology do weigh in favor of intervention. In particular, the fact that we have smaller and more precise weapons on our side means we can intervene with less collateral damage and lower risk of missing what we aim for. True. But Becker was referring to changes in the direction of "more destructive power" and greater "accessibility", which I read as the ability for non-state actors to whip up "WMDs" in a basement lab somewhere using money found under the couch cushions.


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