Iraq and the Awesome Powers

Iraq and the Awesome Powers of Ideological Insulation — Much of my reading over the past year or so has centered on quirks of human reasoning. Though it is not exactly surprising to find out that our computational powers are limited, and that, instead of living up to Enlightenment ideals of capital 'R' Reason, we resort to to a kludgey toolkit of quick and dirty rules of thumb that work just well enough for Darwinian purposes, it is nevertheless humbling to understand in detail just how bad we are at thinking. This literature (bounded rationality, naturalized rationality, heuristics and biases, and so forth), once you get into it, will really erode your confidence in your ideological commitments.
The phenomenon of confirmation bias, for instance, is very robust, and very unsettling. Confirmation bias has to do with the way we seek and process information, and it works like a one-way ratchet, pushing us ever deeper into our intellectual commitments. We seek and relish every bit of data that seems to support our views, and avoid and rationalize every bit of data that undermines them. We don't do it on purpose. We just do it. Which is what makes it troubling. And what makes our ideological opponents seem so willfully blind.
So, believe it or not, this is a post about what I take to be the impending war on Iraq. The point is that after living in the literature of human fallibility for so long, I find that I cannot muster a position on the war that leaves my sense of intellectual honesty intact. In principle, I oppose war, since it involves killing people, consuming vast amounts of resources that could be put to use in the service of less grim satisfactions, and tends to erode our liberties. However, I also don't care to perish suddenly in a nuclear conflagration, or something equally horrible, precipitated by an ideology-mad, power-drunk, desperate dictator. What to do?
Here are the main arguments, for and against.
For: Hussein, has aided and is aiding the Al Qaeda murderers, and is developing WOMD that he may attempt to use against us. We need to punish him for his complicity, and secure our safety by effecting a “regime change” in Iraq.
Against: All the accusations against Hussein are mere rumors. And attacking Iraq may “destabilize” the whole region, and bring about even worse terroristic reprisals.
My problem: I have NO idea which is most likely to be true. My gut says prefer “against,” but I don't know that the Administration is feeding us sheer bullshit. Maybe they know something that they can't safely spell out. Or maybe not. I DON'T KNOW. And I don't know that invading Iraq will or won't have bad consequences. It could turn out that we end up in a winning war against the sundry forces of Muslim evil and wind up liberating millions, and ushering in a new era of peace on earth. Or we could fuck things up horribly and end up with a decimated Manhattan or, God forbid, a high radiation zone inside the Beltway. It seems to me that NO ONE has enough information to pin reliable probabilities on either of these or alternative scenarios. The people who don't like war will find what seems to them very persuasive reasons to oppose it, and those who are keen to kick ass will find deep cogency in arguments to the effect that we must do so. Myself, I can only maintain a very anxious agnosticism.
Such a stance is anxious because most of us prefer “cognitive closure,” that is, a sense of having a firm grasp on why things have and will happen, over “integrative complexity,” that is, a willingness to juggle and weigh contradictory explanations and arguments. In his paper, “Close-Call Counterfactuals and Belief-System Defenses: I Was Not Almost Wrong But I Was Almost Right,” political psychologist Phil Tetlock shows that experts in world politics, and especially those who preferred closure, were likely to reject close-call counterfactuals that challenged their explanations for the past, but would happily embrace them when they protected their predictions from refutation.
A close call counterfactual statement is a “what if”, like “The Nazis would have conquered the USSR had they invaded two months earlier.” This is all to say, that when we get it wrong, we're going to say, “Well, I WOULD have been right, if only so and so had done such and such,” and when we get it right, we won't accept “Well, I would have been WRONG, except for the fact that so and so did such and such.” Which is precisely the kind of asymmetry in the way we process information that locks us in to our prior commitments. We are almost impervious to refutation by events.
My guess is that, whatever the outcome in Iraq (good I hope!), almost no one's prior commitments will be dashed. Everyone will have been at least almost right, or, if right, so clearly right that they obviously weren't almost wrong.

Author: Will Wilkinson

Vice President for Research at the Niskanen Center

10 thoughts

  1. I suspect that Abizadeh is right that the standard liberal-democratic story about the conditions for the legitimate exercise of state coercion requires that foreigners be allowed to weigh in on policies that subject them to state force. I’m far from sure what I think about this as a practical matter, but I think he’s on to something important.
    Citizenship is the mechanism by which popular sovereignty is exercised. One does not “extend” or “respect” popular sovereignty by devaluing citizenship, one cuts popular sovereignty off from any serious moorings.
    And to return to what gives one the right to have a say, consumer sovereignty comes from “putting your money where your mouth is”. You get a say because you give something. Citizenship is at least the minimal implicit “giving” of living in the community, either by being born and raised there or by living there for the set period and swearing public allegiance. Having a say without anything to back it up at all except “I would like the decision to be different” is a massive devaluing of citizenship and the concept of a shared polity.

  2. Should Japanese voters have had a say in the US decision to declare war in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor? They were certainly going to be affected by the coercive actions of the US state.
    Obviously asking the Japanese voters what they thought was where one wants to take Arash Abizadeh’s argument, but how does one draw the line? The standard answer is citizenship: I am profoundly sceptical there is any better answer.

  3. I think the point the expansive immigrationists are missing is that privilege and responsibility necessarily go hand-in-hand. Foreigners are not accorded any privileges in crafting border policy because they have no enforceable responsibilities to contribute to the functioning of that particular body politic. It’s not just about sovereignty but about the duties of citizenship to contribute the the overall functioning of the republic; yes, I understand that many current residents lack there, but see my solution below.
    Let’s make a deal Will:
    I favor something called a head tax. This is a tax that is levied on every conceivable taxpayer, let’s say starting with the age of 16 and ending at the age of 70. Between the prime working years of 20 and 65 each person is required to pay, above and beyond current taxes, a flat rate of $5000/yr to reside in the US and to receive the protection of US law. Anyone unable or unwilling to pay, in full or part, this fee will be required to work for the government at a flat rate of $10/hr to make up the balance. This policy not only addresses the issue of non-citizen non-contribution but also of citizen non-contribution, which is currently a grave threat to the republic. The basis of political organization is general reciprocity, and the answer to your “tribalism” jab is to take away rights from currently existing putative citizens on the basis on non-contribution. How you like them apples? I can take the same premise as you and strip even current residents of the franchise.
    The problem is that different forms of life, including the human forms, have their own peculiar brands of justice and morality, and that often the epitome of justice to one is the epitome of injustice to that other. At that point, justice is simply what you can force down someone else’s throat.

  4. “Private ownership of land (and state-backed property rights) is justified because the system as a whole tends to leave people better off than does common ownership.”
    Great. Then a conservative immigration policy is justified because the system, as a whole, leads to a relatively ethnically homogeneous and high human capital population that promises long term political stability, functional institutions, high levels of social trust and altruism, low corruption, low levels of fear and predatory criminal behavior, lower inequality, and high standards of living.
    The United States and Canada have much higher standards of living than the racially mixed/ethnically heterogeneous Spanish and Portuguese descendant nations south of Texas. Importing the people of those nations is importing the social characteristics, lower human capital, and lower standard of living of those nations.
    Free movement of labor is fine given that there is a high degree of confidence that the itinerants leave when they are supposed to, and have a poor prospect to gain permanent citizenship for themselves and their children (and its attendant access to voting rights and social services).
    Porous immigration means a relatively small number of immigrants and their descendants benefit from the higher standard of living here at the expense of the living standards of the native population and their descendants.
    Tighter immigration means a relatively large number of world citizens and their descendants benefit from the higher world living standards that stem from the higher living standards of our native population and their descendants. This means a greater export of wealth, technology, science, culture, and ideas that benefit both the nation and the entire world than if our nation had lower human capital, less functional institutions, more civil strife, and lower economic development.

  5. It’s a backwards world in which non-citizens set the immigration policy for a people. Milton Friedman summed it up right when he said that open borders are incompatible with the welfare state. Since American democracy has lately transmogrified into organized theft/redistribution, importing millions of poor people has the inevitable effect higher taxes for the relatively small cohort of “the rich” against whomever politicians need to buy votes from.

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