When confusion abounds and a multitude of strident voices make the world into one giant cacophony, I retreat to the classics. No, not Shakespeare or Milton, though they too have their place. I’m thinking of the great theorists of war and international relations, the RAND Corporation and Hudson Institute conflict-resolution scholia: Albert and Rebecca Wohlstetter, Herman Kahn, and the great Thomas Schelling, author of The Strategy Of Conflict. I spent much of the weekend just behind us retracing that intellectual odyssey.
So it was a disappointment to confirm that these men, the most penetrating of our era’s analysts of adversarial relations, didn’t have an answer to the question that troubled me most: How does one deal rationally with an opponent whose non-negotiable desire is to work your destruction, and who’s willing to pay any price to do it?
Conflict-resolution analysts have always based their approaches on the classic, game-theoretic approaches pioneered by John Von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. These men, themselves mighty geniuses, built atop the economic understandings of David Ricardo and Vilfredo Pareto. The thinking of Ricardo, Pareto, and the rest of the scholium of classical economics took its founding insights from the father of all rational economic reasoning, Adam Smith.
From Smith to the great thinkers of RAND and Hudson, we can trace an unbroken chain of calm, reasoned analysis, all of which rested on a silent, indispensable postulate: For any given thing a contestant in a contest might want, there is a maximum price he’d be willing to pay, and no more.
Seems unassailable, doesn’t it? The contrary proposition would be that there’s someone willing to pay an infinite amount for some good. That would imply that he’d be willing to sacrifice his life, the lives of all his loved ones and friends, and everything else he could manipulate, to achieve some desideratum. Insane! Who would be left to enjoy whatever it was he had purchased?
Before Black Tuesday, no one would have entertained the notion.
Somewhere in my time closet, I have a button that says, “If you’re willing to die, you can do anything.” Perhaps that’s a bit of an overstatement, but it points up an unpleasant truth. The sacrifice of one’s own life, which has been called “the ultimate price,” will buy a lot of things that are available for no other currency. Yet the willingness to make that sacrifice contradicts the unspoken assumption of classical economics. It renders conventional methods of valuation, and the reasoning by which we use them, impotent.
The line of thought derived from Smith, whose fullest flowering arrived with Schelling, cannot cope with decisions that incorporate a willingness to pay an unbounded price.
It gets worse when we include the nature of the “purchase” being made by the terror masters of our time: the destruction of innocent others. I mean analytically worse. How do we reproduce, in terms accessible to the non-suicidal mind, the value a terrorist places on carnage dealt to innocent others? The best of us can barely comprehend the possibility of sacrificing our lives to protect a loved one. But to throw away life and all it holds out to us merely to visit horror upon people we don’t even know? From whose demise no good can flow?
That postulate of economic rationality is what makes it possible to think about conflict resolution at all. Once removed, even the brilliance of Thomas Schelling can’t cope with the results.
As David Friedman has noted, there are only three interpersonal modes: love, trade, and force. I might give you what you want out of personal affection. I might give it to you in trade for a consideration from you. Or you might take it from me by threatening me with death or injury. There are no other methods.
Conflict theory is premised on the postulate of economic rationality because, without it, its powers are blocked. No scheme of objective analysis can deal with the suppression of self-interest charcteristic of love, or with the inclusive nihilism of violent predation. The possibility of averting a war, or ending a war already in progress, by negotiation rests on the premise that the potential combatants want something for which they’d be willing to put up their swords, if they could get it some less costly way.
It’s a knowledge suffused with sorrow, for it implies that there can be no peace with the Islamist radicals, nor with the Palestinian irredentists whose terror campaign seeks the destruction of Israel. There can only be victory or death.
With regard to the looming conflict with Saddam Hussein, I have previously characterized that particular dictator as rationally evil. That is, he is unwilling to pay more than some maximum price for what he wants, though he often contrives to transfer that price onto others’ shoulders. What will determine whether we depose him by force, given that he can’t prevent it once we’ve committed to it, will be whether the cost of buying us off is within that maximum.
But sometimes price is a multi-dimensional commodity, spread out over space and time and bound in chains of consequence. Hussein, being rational, wants first and foremost to live, and after that to gain in wealth and power. Should the other malevolent forces of his region, some of which are irrationally evil, put their own knives to his throat, and threaten to topple him themselves should he accommodate the United States too dramatically, he might find his back against the wall in the ultimate “no-win scenario,” where the only choice remaining is at whose hands he’d prefer to die. At that point, his bank having been broken in advance, a tide of destruction would be inevitable.
And all the genius of three centuries’ worth of economists and political scientists will not avail any of us against that tide. It will be victory or death.