Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Cost of Conflict

There are two opposite opinions as to what the cost of violent conflict ought to be. One side holds that war or something like war is inevitable, and therefore that it is desirable that there be such a thing as "rules of war" which are designed to minimize the length of war, the damage done, and the impact on nonbelligerents. This idea is the inspiration for such things as the Geneva Convention. The opposite view is that the high cost of war itself is a major impediment to war, and that peace is only likely if each side of a potential conflict realizes that it will lose more than it can gain in the event of an actual outbreak of hostilities. This idea has led to, among other things, the doctrine of mutually assured destruction.

I think most people would agree that neither extreme is really satisfactory. What's missing is a moral dimension. It's true that the stronger side may back down from a potential conflict on the grounds that the costs of victory exceed the rewards, and most people would regard this as a good thing, but only when the stronger party is in some sense the aggressor. For something like MAD to work, there must be enough sense of agreement on moral questions that it is usually reasonably clear which side "ought" to back down. If it become simply a question of who "blinks" first, with the reward going to the more reckless player, eventually a conflict will come in which neither side will "blink" until it is too late.

Voting can be considered as a form of nearly costless battle, with all that implies: people attempt to enforce their will upon others in whatever asinine way that pops into their minds. My personal favorite example is the California ballot initiative banning horsemeat for human consumption. It doesn't do the horses any good. Retired horses are made into dog food, it's hard to see why being made into human food would be worse for them. Then again, the ban doesn't do any practical harm. Nobody in California was eating hoses pre-ban anyway. If the people advocating forbidding other people from eating horse knew they would have to personally enforce their ban with guns, the whole idea wouldn't even have come up for discussion. Of course, nobody would fight for the right of others to eat horse either, but I think people would fight to avoid a situation where a numerical majority could micromanage their lives in arbitrary ways, if the issue was put to them in such a straightforward way. As it was, of course, that wasn't at issue. As far as the state is concerned, the principle has been completely established that any law, no matter how intrusive or pointless, is valid so long is it is enacted by the proper procedure.

No comments: