November 02, 2015

The Great War: the Value of Remembering it As it Really Was

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In the spring of 2013, the British government was considering how the nation should remember the centenary of the Great War. At that time Jeremy Corbyn made some remarks on the subject, and in April the Communist Party uploaded them to Youtube. His words would no doubt have lingered in obscurity, were it not that in September this year the same Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of Britain's Labour Party. This weekend his remarks of more than two years ago were brought under critical scrutiny. What attracted the ire of the Sunday columnists was the following words:

Keir Hardie ... was a great opponent of the first world war and next year the government is apparenlty proposing to spend shedloads of money commemorating the first world war. I'm not quite sure what there is to commemorate other than the mass slaughter of millions of young men and women, mainly men, on the western front and all the other places.

As an economic historian I was more interested in what came next:

And it was a war of the declining empires, and anyone who's read or even dipped into Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century, written post-world war, that presaged the whole first world war as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets and that's essentially what the first world war was.

My notes. "The declining empires": I'm not sure what that can mean, for in 1914 the major empires were surely at their highest moment. "Hobson's great work of the early part of the twentieth century." This is most likely a reference to J. A. Hobson work on "imperialism." Hobson (1902) argued that the capitalist industrial economies of the time suffered from underconsumption, because the big companies were raising productivity while pushing down wages. As a result, there was not enough purchasing power to buy all the output, which was accumulating as surplus capital. Faced with too much capital, Hobson argued, the capitalists solved the problem by exporting it to poorer countries. Having done that, they needed to protect their investments by bringing the poorer countries under colonial administration. So, this was a a theory of imperialism. Being published in 1902, Hobson's book was not "written post-world war" because the world war was yet to come. And it did not presage the coming war "as a war between monopolies fighting it out for markets"; that idea came along later, when the war was already in progress, and belongs to Lenin (1916). While Hobson did not predict the Great War, he did draw a clear link from imperialism to nationalism, and he opposed the war when it came.

How does the Hobson-Lenin view of the Great War stand up today? Not well. Here are two problems:

Problem #1. The surplus of capital does not explain imperialism. In the words of Gareth Austin (2014: 309):

the major outflows of capital from the leading imperial powers, Britain and France, went not to their new colonies but to countries which were either the more autonomous of their existing colonies (such as Australia) or were former colonies (the United States), former colonies of another European country (as with Argentina), or had never been colonized (Russia). Decisively, several of the expansionist imperial powers of the period were themselves net importers of capital: the United States, Japan, Portugal, and Italy.

Problem #2. The protection of business interests abroad does not explain the outbreak of the Great War. Richard Hamilton and Holger Herwig (2004) reviewed the evidence, country by country. In every case, including specifically Austria-Hungary, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, they found that the business constituency was excluded from the decisions that led to war. Had the business leaders been consulted, they would have opposed war. (This would also have been true in Russia, a case that Hamilton and Herwig do not consider.) They conclude (p. 247):

Economic leaders were not present in decision-making circles in July 1914. And, just as important, their urgent demands to avoid war were given no serious attention. It is an unexpected lesson because many intellectuals give much emphasis to the power of big business. The logic is easy: industrialists and bankers have immense resources; anxious and deferential politicians, supposedly, must respond to their demands. But the realities were quite different. At one point a German banker, Arthur von Gwinner, “had the audacity to point out Germany’s dire financial straits” to Wilhelm II. The monarch’s reply: “That makes no difference to me.”

In remembering the Great War, we should be careful to remember it as it really was. War did not break out in 1914, as Jeremy Corbyn seems to think, because of a money-making war machine, or because commercial interests were manipulating politics behind the scenes.

The Great War broke out because secretive, unaccountable rulers in Vienna, Berlin, and St Petersburg decided on it (I wrote about this in more detail in Harrison 2014). They feared the consequences but decided on war regardless because they believed the national interest would be better served by risking it in aggression than by remaining at peace. They believed this based on a nationalist, militarist, and aristocratic view of the national interest, in which profit and commercial advantage played no role. They decided on war in July 1914, and not in any previous crisis, because in previous crises they had been divided. They came together in July 1914 because this was a moment when Anglo-French deterrence failed, and this reduced their fear of the consequences of aggression below some critical threshold.

Thus two deeper causes lay behind the Great War. One was the ability of autocratic rulers to plan aggressive war in secret, ignoring public opinion, or taking it into account only to manipulate it. The other was the failure of the democracies to deter the aggressors. These lessons are still of value today. But to value such lessons you first need a desire to learn about what actually happened. And a political leader who bases his entire understanding of the Great War on a book published in 1902 seems to have missed that desire to learn.


  • Austin, Gareth. 2014. "Capitalism and the Colonies." In The Cambridge History of Capitalism, vol. 2: 301-347. Edited by Larry Neal and Jeffrey G. Williamson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Hamilton, Richard F., and Holger H. Herwig. 2004. "On the Origins of the Catastrophe." In Decisions for war, 1914–1917, pp 225–252. Edited by Hamilton and Herwig. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2014. "Myths of the Great War." CAGE Working Paper no. 188. University of Warwick, Department of Economics. Available at
  • Hobson, J. A. 1902. Imperialism: A Study. New York. Available online.
  • Lenin, V. I. 1916. Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Petrograd. Available online.

October 29, 2015

The KGB Ran the World's Largest Programme for Individual Behaviour Modification

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Just forty years ago this week, on 31 October 1975, KGB chairman Yurii Andropov made a “top secret” report to the members of the Central Committee of the ruling Soviet Communist Party. Andropov had a simple message: In the war on anti-Soviet activity, he said, we are winning.

Andropov began by pointing to a steep decline in the number of prosecutions for state crimes such as treason and anti-Soviet agitation—from more than 1,300 a year at the end of the 1950s to less than half that number in the early 1970s. But what factors were driving this success? Andropov proposed four explanations:

The further reinforcement of the moral-political unity of our society; the growth of political consciousness of Soviet people; the correct penal policy of the Soviet state; and the dominant role of preventive-warning work to deter criminality (my emphasis).

In Andropov’s analysis, behind the decline in crimes committed lay an increase in crimes prevented. Andropov went on to show that the KGB was issuing preventive warnings to tens of thousands of people each year. These warnings were issued to people who, failing to conform to the many requirements of an obedient, conformist Soviet citizen, had crossed the line in some small way. The warning was intended to be helpful: to stop them from going on to some more heinous violation that would end badly. Moreover, these warnings were outstandingly effective. Out of the 120,000 that received such a warning between 1967 and 1974, Andropov reported, just 150, or barely more than one per thousand, were subsequently brought to court charged with a state crime. In short, prevention worked.

The KGB programme of preventive warnings is the subject of a new paper I will present to a conference in November called If You Do Not Change Your Behaviour: Managing Threats to State Security in Lithuania under Soviet Rule. The paper is based on microfilm records held by the Hoover Institution's Library & Archives. In the paper, I report work in progress on preventive warnings and their history, application, scope, and effectiveness. I suggest that the KGB's use of preventive warnings was "the largest and most effective programme for personally targeted behaviour modification anywhere in the world at that time outside school and college."

(Note. I believe that must be the case. Stalin did not use preventive warnings; his remedy for enemies, including "potential" and "unconscious" enemies, was to remove them. The Chinese did not use the KGB method as far as I am aware, because they lacked the capacity it required, and they relied on mass struggle to align behaviour, not personal threats or suasion. And I cannot think that there was another large population on which a similar method was practised. Capitalist advertising does not count; at this time it was not personally targeted, and besides it did not threaten anyone with the consequences of failure to respond. If you know differently, however, contact me.)

What explains the effectiveness of a KGB preventive warning? In the paper I suggest that fear was the key. The tone of the preventive warning was intended to be friendly, even helpful. But the common element at the core of every warning discussion was an unambiguous threat: "If you do not change your behavioiur, there will be more serious consequences." Every person who received such a warning knew that the KGB had unlimited authority to translate these words into actions that could affect every aspect of the subject's life and their family members' lives, from residence and employment to education, promotion, the chance to travel abroad, and personal liberty.

At the same time, there is a puzzle. While the KGB issued preventive warnings to hundreds of thousands, the Soviet Union was a country of hundreds of millions. The KGB did not have the capacity to warn off more than a tiny minority. In the paper I consider how it was possible for the KGB's treatment of this tiny minority to exert a calming influence on the whole of society, and I show that KGB leaders consciously exploited the wider effect.

Just ten years after Andropov's victory speech, it all began to fall apart. After 1985, because of Gorbachev's new policies, people ceased to fear the KGB. For the tiny minority that would be first to express dissent, fear was the key. The removal of fear released their inhibitions, and this precipitated a tidal wave of change that overwhelmed the Soviet state.

September 02, 2015

World War II: China's Losses in a Grim Perspective

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Today is the seventieth anniversary of Japan's surrender in 1945, marking the end of World War II. It seems timely to give some thought to the impact of Japan's war on China. Where does World War II rank in the disasters that befell China in the twentieth century?

Japan attacked China twice, the first time in 1931 by occupying Manchuria (the modern provinces of Heilongjian, Jilin, and Liaoning), the second time in 1937 by launching all-out war to conquer China and turn the whole country into a Japanese colony. For this reason, 1937 is usually taken as the outbreak of World War II in Asia.

In 1946 China's Nationalists estimated China's war deaths from 1937 to 1945 at 12.8 million (the figure is given by Sally Paine, The Wars for Asia, Cambridge University Press 2012, p. 214). Since China's total population was around 500 million at that time, the loss was enough to slow the population's natural increase, although not to reverse it.

For China, however, World War II was nested in another war, the Civil War of the Nationalists against the Communists. This war began in 1927 and continued until the Communist victory in 1949. The intensity of the Civil War was highly variable. During much of World War II, for example, the Nationalists were fighting the Japanese while the Communists sat it out, protected by secret agreements between the Soviet and Japanese governments. Then, after Japan's defeat, the Civil War resumed. There are no firm figures for China's total of war deaths over the 22 years from 1927 to 1949, that is, in the Civil War, the loss of Manchuria, and World War II, but 20 million is a not unreasonable number.

Once World War II was over, most economies recovered quickly. That's roughly what you'd expect when war demands are relaxed, peacetime social norms and legal guarantees are restored, and trade is allowed to recover. China's postwar recovery could not begin until 1949. In the 1950s China's economic recovery was rapid at first.

In 1958, however, China's Communist Party led by Mao Zedong accelerated national economic mobilization into a vast "Great Leap Forward," which forced the farmers into people's communes and set out to industrialize the country overnight. The outcome was a famine that, according to Yang Jisheng's Tombstone (Allen Lane 2012: chapter 11), killed around 36 million people in three years. Losing 12 million people a year for three years was more than enough to offset the population's natural increase, causing the population to decline absolutely.

So there it is. World War II cost China around 12.8 million lives over eight years -- between one fifth and one quarter of all premature deaths in the war worldwide. This was a shocking outcome and a terrible tragedy. But compared with the Great Leap Forward, which took 36 million lives in 3 years, it is not even close.

In every year between 1959 and 1961 China lost as many people as in all the years of World War II. The famine caused by its own government in peacetime was worse than the war against Japan.

August 29, 2015

Jeremy Corbyn and the Uninvited Guest

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Note: When I published this column yesterday for the first time, I referred to "Robin Corbyn." Goodness knows where that came from. One of the disadvantages of writing a blog is that there is no editor to stop you and tell you not to be so bloody stupid. So, my readers have to do it instead. I have corrected my mistake. I thank those that brought it to my attention. I apologize to Jeremy Corbyn, and also to all the Robin Corbyns, wherever they may be.

Away from England's shores, I have watched Labour's leadership contest at a distance and, so far, in silence. But I will be home imminently, and the prospect has given me words. They came to me as I read Jeremy Corbyn's recent remarks concerning the situation on Ukraine's borders, reported by Laura Hughes in the Telegraph. In these remarks, Corbyn set out to clarify exactly what he does and does not believe.

First, what Corbyn does not believe. He does not believe (or at least, he rejected the suggestion that he believes) that NATO is to blame for Russia's aggression against Ukraine. When asked, he replied:

I didn't say that, come on I've never said that.

Second, what Corbyn does believe. He believes that Russian aggression against Ukraine is a tit-for-tat response in a game in which NATO was first mover. He went on:

So please, the point I am making is that if Nato sets itself an open target of expansion, the Russian military then say to their leaders 'we've have (sic) to expand to counteract Nato'.

If you take this sentence as it was intended, as the essence of Corbyn's thinking about Ukraine, it crystallizes a particular model of international relations. To show you how the model works, I'll have to put some words in Corbyn's mouth, so he might perfectly well turn around and say "I didn't say that." And that would be true. However, in order for him to say what he did say, and believe in what he said, there are certain things he must also believe because, if he did not believe them, what he said would make no sense. These things are what I mean by the Corbyn model of international relations. I'll write them down as four propositions.

Proposition no. 1. International relations is a game. That is, all the players are engaged in an interactive relationship that requires each of them to calculate their best move based on what they expect others to do, so the first problem of each is to understand the others. This is clear from Jeremy Corbyn's clearly expressed desire that we (or specifically NATO) should first understand Russia. I want to say that this is an excellent start. A multi-player game is exactly the right way to conceptualize the problem of international relations. Of course this is the only a start. The next thing is to identify the players correctly.

Proposition no. 2. Only great powers are players. In the game of international relations as Jeremy Corbyn sees it, there are only great powers or great-power alliances. Small countries exist, but they do as they are told. I base this on Corbyn's view of the Ukraine crisis, which he describes as arising from the interaction of Russia and NATO, and no one else. On his interpretation, NATO expansion is a process in which the smaller countries that have joined or might wish to join NATO have no agency. Ukraine itself is only a place where the game is being played. He implies, by not saying anythhing else, that Ukraine's politicians and people are just doing the will of NATO, on one hand, or Russia, on the other.

A particular view of NATO's past enlargement is also implied. At the beginning of the 1990s, Russia's western neighbours, were suddenly freed from the constraints of Soviet rule and obligations to the Warsaw Pact. Until that time, they could not make sovereign decisions over their own security. When they could, they chose NATO and begged to be admitted to NATO membership as soon as possible. In the short run, at least, the applicants confronted NATO with increased defensive obligations out of proportion to the assets they placed on the table, so NATO responded with understandable reluctance. In the end, however, it was politically impossible to refuse them. In the Corbyn model, this is described as "NATO expansion," a process driven by NATO, and aimed at Russia, one in which the security aspirations and sovereign decisions of the small countries on Russia's borders had no weight.

Although the Corbyn model correctly presents international relations as a game, the game it imagines is far too simple; it is not just NATO against Russia. The model does not try to understand the smaller countries that are in Russia's neighbourhood.

Proposition no. 3. Understanding ourselves. According to Jeremy Corbyn, NATO has an "open target of expansion." Again, this oversimplifies. Under Article 10, NATO has an "open door." The door is open, but not all may pass. Two conditions are required. Applicants must be willing. And all the existing NATO member states must also be willing, because the treaty explicitly requires their "unanimous agreement." Thus, it is not just NATO that must have the "target of expansion" but enlargement must be based on the sovereign will of every one of the NATO member states and each one of the applicant members.

On this score, too, the Corbyn model is too simple; it does not try to understand the relationship between NATO and its sovereign members. The small countries of Europe do not do what NATO tells them; it is the other way around.

Proposition no. 4. Understanding others. Jeremy Corbyn suggests that Russia has agency, but not initiative; its leaders act only in response to NATO moves. This is clearly wrong; it is the common desire of the many small countries bordering Russia to move out of alignment with Russia to which Russian leaders are now responding. Indeed they are trying to reverse it. But even this is not the root of the problem. The root cause is Russia's past treatment of its neighbours, a historic pattern to which Russian leaders are now reverting.

Proposition no. 5. Understanding others (again). Jeremy Corbyn imagines that Russia's leaders listen to (and take) the instruction of their military. I have no idea if they do that or not. The reason I have no idea is because decision-making at the heart of Russia politics is secret. However, there is no evidence in support of Corbyn's assumption from the accounts of Russian decision making that we have. Take the Russian invasion of Crimea as an example. On 15 March 2015, Reuters reportedthe words of Russian President Vladimir Putin:

Of course it wasn't immediately understandable (what the reaction would be to Crimea's annexation). Therefore, in the first stages, I had to orient our armed forces. Not just orient, but give direct orders.

Putin was asked if he had been prepared to put Russia's nuclear forces on alert. He said:

We were ready to do it.

This does not sound as if Russian leaders were taking military instruction, but again, I repeat, we do not know, and Jeremy Corbyn cannot know, because these matters are secret. Here the Corbyn model claims to know more than it can know.

It might seem that the Corbyn model of international relations is not fit for purpose. But this depends on what that purpose is. If its purpose was to predict and thereby to guide action, then it would fail because it does not recognize the limits of its understanding of the world we live in and in which we must make our way.

More probably, the purpose of the Corbyn model is not predictive, but moralistic, that is, to justify a preconceived moral stance. For this it works very well. That moral stance holds that NATO is an aggressive, militaristic alliance, and that Russian aggression against Ukraine is, at worst, on the same level as NATO's aggression against Russia. It is aggression against Ukraine when Russia sponsors separatism, invades, confiscates territory,and kidnaps and imprisons or kills Ukrainian citizens. In the Corbyn model, it is aggression against Russia when small countries with close experience of domination by Moscow seek to join an alliance that might protect them.

In this equation an invited guest and a thief in the night are considered to be one and the same. NATO is the invited guest. For most Central and East Europeans the Soviet Union after 1945 was an uninvited guest. The Red Army arrived and never left. With it came closed borders, a political monopoly, forced ideological conformity, and a secret police. In Ukraine today, Russia is again an uninvited guest. In the moral equation of Jeremy Corbyn, the open and voluntary invitation that leads to NATO enlargement is treated as the same.

We have just marked the anniversary of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. After the event, Warsaw Pact leaders claimed that their troops entered the sovereign territory of a member state in response to the Czechoslovak party leaders' plea for help to restore order. In reality, the Czechoslovak leaders had issued no such invitation. On the contrary, the occupation forces immediately detained the leaders and abducted them to Moscow. But the story gave rise to a joke.


What are 600,000 Soviet soldiers doing in Czechoslovakia?


They're looking for the man who invited them in.

July 13, 2015

Leading the Seminar: A Battlefield Approach

A colleague at the beginning of a university career in another country wrote to me:

What is the purpose and structure of the seminar in your experience? What is the role of the student, and what is the role of the teacher?

As this is one of the most difficult questions I've ever been asked, it took me some time to work out a reply. Of course there is an simple answer: The point is to develop an atmosphere in which all students arrive at the seminar well prepared to discuss the topic and answer and debate your questions. Each one is willing to both listen to others and speak up themselves, so that there is a lively and equal exchange. At the end, everyone has learned from each other and so acquired deeper insights into the subject.

It's simple to write. The difficult thing is to make it happen. When I started to try to explain that, the effort made me think about what Clausewitz wrote on war:

Everything is very simple in War, but the simplest thing is difficult.

This analogy is not accidental. For me, a good metaphor for the problem of the seminar is the problem of the military unit. How do you get soldiers to behave like heroes: to lead the attack, to expose themselves to danger, to give their all to the success of the mission, and not to shirk or run away, even when no one is watching them? It is true that no one joins an army without expecting at some point to have to go into combat. And everyone in the army appreciates the commitment of their comrades to fight together and not run away, and understands that they should match the discipline that others show. Nonetheless, each soldier would prefer not to have to kill or be killed in the next 5 minutes. This is the problem. Left to itself, without leadership, such a unit will lapse into military passivity. Let someone else do the fighting.

In the same way, every student goes to college in order to learn, and that includes preparing for seminars and taking part and speaking up in the seminar. Every student benefits from their peers’ advance preparation and participation, and understands that s/he should also prepare and contribute. Nonetheless, when faced with preparing for the seminar or going to a party, each student can prefer to go to the party. When the tutor asks a question, each student can prefer that someone else should give the answer. The outcome is a silent conspiracy in favour of collective silence, in which a student who speaks up and answers your question is a social deviant. Then, the only person left who can answer your question is you, the tutor.

In the worst case, the silent conspiracy is binding. The students are silent in the face of questions. Because they are silent, you (the tutor) fill the silence by giving a lecture that gives the answers. Students learn quickly. They learn to expect that you will answer your own questions and you will use the seminar to give a lecture. Therefore, they do not prepare. Because they do not prepare, they have nothing to say when you ask questions, and there is silence unless you fill the silence by giving the lecture. When you ask a question, meet with silence, and answer it yourself, the silent conspiracy has won.

To beat the conspiracy and overcome the silence requires leadership. Thus a tutor is a leader in the same way that leadership is required to send a military unit into battle.

Here are various strategies that I have used to lead a class at various times, with my notes on pluses and minuses. None of them is a perfect or complete answer. At various points we find that the analogy between the classroom and the battlefield breaks down. The casualties do not bleed, although they can desert. Also, when I say I have used these strategies, I do not mean that I am a superior practitioner. Far from it.

The absent tutor

Each week, pose a question. Leave the room, saying that you will return in half an hour, and you expect that the students will have agreed on an answer and who will present it. The first time you do this, the students will be shocked. SHOCKED! How can you be doing your job if you are not in the room? Plus: The students have no option but to contribute. They cannot rely on you to fill the silence; they must rely on themselves. This is already an important lesson. It is like training the soldiers to use initiative and fight in a self-reliant way. Minus: If the discussion is incompletely prepared or informed or goes off track, you are not there to correct it. Here the analogy between the scholarly discussion and the military mission hits one of its limits. When you send a military unit into the night to capture a bridge, in the morning they and you will know with certainty whether the mission was achieved. When the mission is to deepen understanding of the causes of the Great Depression, the success of the mission may not be clear until much later, and it is all too tempting for everyone to applaud poor performance. Another minus: If the tutor is absent, you do not learn about individual strengths and weaknesses because you do not see them.

The student presentation

Each week one student must prepare a presentation, followed by questions and answers. Plus: the silence is broken. Minus: only one student prepares anything; the rest are released from any obligation. If the student presentation is of poor quality, it is difficult to retrieve the situation without causing them to lose face. Again, here, students are not like soldiers. The sergeant-major can bawl out an incompetent private. In the seminar room, every student is entitled to retain their dignity.

The group presentation

Each week a sub-group of students must prepare a presentation. Plus: This widens the circle of students who are drawn into preparation, and they must learn to work as a team by dividing the work of preparation among themselves. Minus: Each member of the team may become familiar with only a part of the problem. There is some evidence that sub-groups of students who know each other and collaborate with each other, and so rely on each other to fill gaps in individual learning, will learn less well than if they were forced to learn individually, in a self-reliant way. [Problem: This is something that I saw quite recently. I tried to find the evidence again and link to it, and I failed. Can anyone help?] Again, if the student presentation is of poor quality, it is difficult to retrieve the situation.

Fighting from house to house

In this approach we treat the classroom like a city that must be occupied from house to house. Every building must be seized and inspected and its occupants interrogated and verified. Pose a question directly to one student, chosen randomly. If they can’t answer it, put it to another. Go around the room, student by student, until the question is answered. Offer hints if necessary but do NOT answer the question yourself on any account; if you do, you have lost this game forever. Once you have received an answer, don’t stop, but continue around the room, student by student, checking their understanding: Do you understand? Do you agree? Do you have any uncertainty or different views? (Of course uncertainty and differences are permitted, but they must be brought out and disclosed.) Having been right around the room, pose the next question to some other student. Continue like this throughout the seminar. Plus: This forces every student to speak or admit ignorance, and there is nowhere to hide. In some settings this has been my favourite method. Every student has to arrive as fully prepared as they can be. Again there is no hiding place. It seems like a tough approach, but your students presumably want to learn and nobody told them it would be easy. Minus: It is psychologically demanding; you cannot do this if you want everyone to like you. It may not work in a large class, or if the atmosphere is impersonal or intimidating. It helps tremendously if you learn every student’s name (but you can do this gradually; you just get every student to give their name before answering, and you try to guess their name first). With more than a dozen students it is hard to give attention to each in turn. If students give a wrong answer you must never, never make fun of it or let them feel stupid by criticizing them directly. Instead, you have to help them work out what they got wrong or did not know, by giving a hint or by reminding them of some supporting fact or by asking another question. The important thing is that students must learn that it is worse to be silent than to speak up and make a mistake.

The battlefield is not for the faint hearted. A surprising thing about the battlefield is that, given decent leadership, people who would otherwise seem to be quite ordinary can rise to the occasion and show themselves to be outstandingly brave.

July 06, 2015

Russia's Leaders: Thieves versus Policemen

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Yevgeniy Primakov, who has died aged 85, was briefly Russia's prime minister under President Boris Yeltsin. Primakov's early career followed a classic Soviet trajectory: a specialist and postgraduate researcher in foreign afffairs, he became a foreign correspondent, a collaborator with the KGB's foreign service, and an Academician. After the conservatives' failed coup in 1991 he became the last first deputy head of the KGB and then the first head of the SVR, Russia's new foreign intelligence service.

I was in Moscow in September 1998 when President Yeltsin appointed Primakov prime minister. Primakov took the place of Viktor Chernomyrdin, the founder of Gazprom, who presided over a notoriously corrupt administration. In the company of friends I asked:

Well, what would you rather: to be governed by a thief or a policeman?

Without pausing for thought my friends responded with one voice:

A thief!

Why? (I asked).

When it's a thief, at least you know what they're up to.

Primakov did not last long in office. A few months later he was succeeded as prime minister by Vladimir Putin. A few months after that, the same Putin succeeded Yeltsin as President of Russia.

As time passed I often remembered this conversation, especially when I had to think about corruption and the rule of law.

Eventually I decided that my initial question was probably based on an error. In law-governed societies, the distinction between thieves and policemen is clear: thieves break the law and policemen enforce it. But there are lots of places around the world, including Russia, where the rule of law does not fully apply. In such situations the lines between thief and policeman become blurred to the point where it's hard to tell them apart.

When personal safety is at risk and property rights are not secure, thieves take on some of the functions of policemen because they need to protect their ill-gotten gains from robbery by others, or they find they can augment their gains by selling "protection" to others. And policemen become thieves by stealing from ordinary citizens while selling exemption from the law to their political masters and criminal friends.

Russia today is a mixed picture. I'm sure there are some honest policemen and honest politicians. But for such people it will be a struggle to survive and a danger to rise too high.

May 26, 2015

Violence or Morality: How Should We Think About Radicalization?

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Our society is worried about radicalization. What is radicalization? Apparently it is all about violence. According to the UK government's Prevent strategy (2011), "radicalisation is driven by an ideology which sanctions the use of violence." According to the more recent Tackling extremism in the UK (2013) "we must confront the poisonous extremist ideology that can lead people to violence."

Is violence the key? I’m sceptical. Our society is not non-violent. We have armed forces. Most of us are proud of what our soldiers do. Most city centres see minor violence in most weeks of the year—something we are not proud of. Our police forces suppress civil disorder, using violence if necessary (although we expect them to use this violence within the law). We have armed forces that go about the world equipped for violence on a vast scale (although their most important mission is to prevent violence). We’re proud of what our soldiers do. On relevant anniversaries we celebrate, perhaps quietly, our victories in past wars. In church on Sundays some of us sing: “Onward Christian soldiers.”

If we condemn radicalization on the grounds that it sanctions the use of violence for political or religious ends, surely we are hypocrites. We trip ourselves up over simple things like tolerance and openness. Apparently, British society is open and tolerant. But there are limits, so we wish to close our ears to radical messages and we will be intolerant of intolerance.

Detecting radicalization is also a worry. Apparently there are lots of possible signs of radicalization, and at the same time none of them is effective. When I searched yesterday (25 May 2015) for "signs of radicalization" Google came up with “About 240,000 results (0.58 seconds).” Items 1 to 7 and 9 told me that lots of experts are very sure what we should look for:

Know the telltale signs of radicalization - The Province
The Province
Nov 25, 2014 - A couple of dozen school kids from Richmond joined together in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside last week to hand out sandwiches to the ...

Colin Kenny: 10 signs that someone is being radicalized
Times Colonist
Dec 14, 2014 - Colin Kenny If there were doubts remaining that Canada has a serious problem with domestic radicalization to violence, the events of this past ...

Opinion: Recognizing the warning signs of radicalization ... › ... › Quebec › World
Montreal Gazette
Jan 5, 2015 - If there were any doubts among Canadians that this country has a problem with domestic radicalization, the events of last year most surely ...

10 Signs Someone Is Becoming Radicalized to Violence ...
Dec 22, 2014 - If there were any doubts remaining in the minds of Canadians that this country has a serious problem with domestic radicalization to violence, ...

The DOJ to train community leaders to spot 'radicals'
The Week
... National Counterterrorism Center that will train "community leaders" like teachers and social workers to monitor their communities for signs of radicalization.

Canada AM: Radicalization warning signs | CTV News
CTV News
Chris Boudreau, Damion Clairmont's mother, reacts to a suspected terror attack in Quebec and reflects on how her son became radicalized.

[PDF]Radicalization of Youth as a Growing Concern for Counter ...
by M Bizina - ‎Cited by 2 - ‎Related articles
comprehensive approach to the problem of radicalization, including community ..... training to be able to gauge early signs of radicalization in the community.

External Signs of Radicalization and Jihadist Militancy - ISN
Mar 3, 2007 - This paper examines the external signs of jihadist radicalization.

Worryingly, items 8 and 10 suggest that we don’t know what to look for after all.

Family Of Gunman In Tunisia Museum Attack Saw No Signs ...
The Huffington Post
Family Of Gunman In Tunisia Museum Attack Saw No Signs Of Radicalization. Reuters. Posted: 03/20/2015 11:14 am EDT Updated: 05/20/2015 5:59 am EDT ...

Jihadi John's former Jewish teacher saw no signs of ... › Ynetnews › News
Mar 3, 2015 - Former head teacher Jo Shuter says no sign of radicalization for ... had spotted signs of radicalization they would have done something about it.

It seems that that our concept of “radicalization to violence” has become ever more complicated. It has become ever more complicated because it does not work. It does not work because it is misconceived.

Many people think of radicalization partly as a choice over lifestyle, partly as a choice over means. Lifestyle involves dress, community, and observance. Violence is the means. Yes, these may well be somewhere in the process. But at the root of radicalization is a moral choice, which we mistakenly ignore.

What is the moral choice underlying radicalization? It is a specific preference for limited morality over universal morality.

All moralities tend to have common features: they prohibit killing, stealing, and dishonouring other members of the community. They demand that, in our own choices, we give weight to the interests of others within the same community. They differ in the breadth of the community that benefits from these injunctions. A limited morality protects a limited community. The limit might be fixed by family relationship, or social class, or nation, or religion. Those beyond the limit are strangers, and strangers have no protection. In contrast, a universal morality extends protection to all others, including strangers.

Thus a universal morality requires us to give the same respect to everyone; they are morally equal to us, even when we have never met them and have no prior knowledge of them, when they do not look or sound like us and do not worship as we do. A universal morality might not require us to give other kinds of equality to strangers, such as civic equality, political equality, or financial equality. But it demands that in making our own choices we should always consider the interests of strangers and give them some weight.

A universal morality is not necessarily non-violent and does not preclude the use of violence against strangers. It does impose strict conditions on the use of violence, specifying the actions by strangers—and not only strangers—that can incur a violent response, such as aggression against us. It imposes strict limits on violence against strangers—and not only strangers—such as those written into the international laws of war.

The moral rights of a stranger can have painful implications. If someone close to us unjustly violates the rights of a stranger, a universal morality requires us to vindicate the stranger, even if our relative or neighbour is thereby exposed to a social penalty. A British court will imprison one British citizen for assaulting a refugee, and extradite another to stand trial for a crime committed against foreigners in a foreign country. In contrast a limited morality is more comfortable. It allows us to ignore the interests of strangers and requires us defend the relative or neighbour who has wronged the stranger.

Terrorists who attack civilians and those who sympathise with them or support them invariably see themselves as moral people. They feel they have just grievances and that their grievances justify attacking innocent people. Their morality allows them to define their victims as strangers who are outside the community within which moral rules apply. In their morality, strangers have no entitlement to moral protection. Thus terrorists live within a moral comfort zone. Outside the zone they will freely hurt and kill people who are not of their nation, or not of their religion, or not of their sect, and they will feel no guilt because in their view such people have no rights.

When children and young people are attracted to Hamas or Islamic State the important thing is not the violence these organizations use. Our own society is not non-violent. Many childhood games involve battles between soldiers, between kingdoms, and between interstellar civilizations. This does not turn children towards terrorism. What turns children towards terrorism is being reared in a limited morality that gives strangers no moral weight and tolerates unlimited violence against them.

A universal morality is one of the sources, perhaps the most important source, of the openness, tolerance, and freedoms that British society can celebrate and aspire to, even if we do not always live up to it. A universal morality allows us to live with strangers, learn from strangers, trade with them and travel peacefully among them. It is the great gift to us of the culture that grew up around the north and east Mediterranean two thousand years ago.

A universal morality that gives moral equality to strangers can be hard to live up to. To live up to it, we must defend it. And to defend it we must first recognize it and affirm it for what it is.

May 14, 2015

Terrorism: A Career Choice?

Writing about web page

Recently the Warwick PPE programme (that's Philosophy, Politics, and Economics) put on an event for school students. The idea was to show what each of the three disciplines--Philosophy, Politics, and Economics--can contribute on a topic of current importance. It turned out that philosophy is good at trying to understand the concept of terrorism, and the study of politics helps us to understand how western politics have influenced our concepts of terrorism. I decided to talk about why young people choose to become terrorists in terms of the economics of career choice. Here, roughly, is what I said.

Right now you are probably getting a lot of advice about career choices, so I am going to talk about terrorism as a career choice--the sort of choice that has been made recently by a number of young British people who have gone to Syria to join ISIS. First of all, what is a terrorist? Someone who kills or injures civilians with a particular purpose: to create a violent spectacle, and so to spread terror beyond the immediate victims. The motivation is political: to support political demands--maybe. I say "maybe" because for reasons that will become clear I am less certain on this point.

Where is the economic aspect of terrorism? Terrorists seem to belong to the world of politics. What do they have to do with economics? For today, the point is that the decision to become a terrorist is an occupational choice. To become a terrorist is costly. There are also benefits – but what are they? The choice can be understood using concepts from economics such as cost, benefits, and rational decision making.

Is terrorism a choice (1)?

A first step is to establish that becoming a terrorist is indeed a choice. Do people choose terrorism or are they driven into it by despair (or by voices in their heads)? My answer is that they choose.

How to we know this? From two things. One is that far more people support terrorism than take part in it. Across societies and over time support for terrorism is rarely a majority point of view, but around the world supporters do come in significant numbers that amount to sizeable minorities:

Support for suicide terrorism across countries and time

This table (from PewResearchCenter 2013) shows that support among Muslims for suicide terrorism is highly variable--widespread in some places, quite infrequent in others. (In most countries it shows a tendency to dwindle over the period shown.) But it is worth bearing in mind that the first three countries shown in the table are among the most populous on earth: Pakistan, Indonesia, and Nigeria together account for more than 600 million people. If you apply the percentages for 2013 to the working-age populations (aged 15 to 64) of the 11 countries in the table, you come up with at least 50 million sympathizers. So, support for terrorism is shown by sizeable minorities.

In contrast, those who choose a career in terrorism are tiny minorities. In 2013 there were perhaps as many as 250,000 international terrorists worldwide. I base that on a rough count of members of groups aiming to attack the United States (from U.S. State Department 2014). This is a tiny number. Among 4.3 billion people of working age in the world it is one 1 in 18,000. In the Middle East and North Africa, active terrorists number perhaps 150,000. Relative to the MENA working-age population that is one in 1,500. In short, many people sympathize with terrorists, but hardly anyone becomes one.

Is terrorism a choice (2)?

If fewer people choose to become terrorists than express support for it, the next thing to ask is whether the participants have truly had the opportunity to choose. Do they have the competence to choose? Do they have alternatives from which to choose? To both questions the answer is: Yes. These people are not driven by crazy inner urges they cannot control; study after study has shown that most are psychologically normal (starting from Merari 1998). Moreover these people do not lack alternatives. In every society the people with fewest choices are women, the elderly, the poor, and the uneducated. But the typical terrorist is male, young, relatively affluent, and relatively educated (e.g. Krueger and Maleckova 2003). These are people with more choices, not fewer. They are not compelled by their circumstances.

Is terrorism a rational choice?

So, terrorism is a career choice. Is it a rational choice? Economic thinking revolves around the idea of people as rational actors. A rational actor isn’t a good or bad person, just a person whose behaviour follows a consistent logic. A rational actor should compare expected marginal private benefits with marginal private opportunity costs. The word "marginal" emphasizes that each person should ask: What difference will my choice make? The word "private" means: the difference to me. Then, the rational person will choose the option that yields the largest net gain to him or her. The gain does not have to be monetary; it will come in any form that the person concerned values.

Choosing terrorism: marginal costs?

What if the option to be considered is “terrorist”? The young person can make a list of marginal costs and benefits, just like a list of "for" and "against." The marginal costs associated with becoming a terrorist are many and large. You have to make the effort to research the groups that are willing to recruit you and work out the differences among them in order to seek to join one of them (in economics that is called a matching problem: there has to be the right match between the group and you). This effort is a cost. You have to learn occupational skills such as violence and concealment. Learning is costly too. You have to make efforts to adopt and live a new social identity, becoming a warrior or martyr.

Any career choice is likely to present analogous costs of matching, training, and developing a new professional identity. The costs of choosing terrorism that would not arise with other choices are that you have to abandon your home, your family, and a peaceful way of life in order to risk death. And, if you survive, and decide that you made a mistake, there may be no going back. These are all things that go under "against."

Choosing terrorism: marginal benefits?

So the costs are many and large. What goes under "for"? What are the benefits that terrorists seek from their career choice?

One benefit you might think of (assuming these are indeed benefits to you) would be to achieve the declared goals of the group: usually, to unify the homeland, or to drive out foreigners, or to establish religious order. But the economist rules this one out on several grounds, each of which should be decisive on its own. First, on average, attacking civilians does not achieve declared goals (Jones and Libicki 2008; Abrahms 2011). In other words, terrorism is counterproductive.

This is not all. Even if terrorism were productive, one person more or less would make no difference, so the marginal gain from your personal participation is inevitably less than the private marginal cost that you will bear. Finally, terrorists often turn out to be quite uninformed about their own group's declared goals (and not only that; they are usually also fairly clueless about world politics and religion). For all these reasons we cannot put much weight on claims, often made many years later, that "I joined the IRA to bring about a united Ireland" (for example).

Note. A listener reminded me: Maybe people join in terrorism out of anger at Western actions. I understand, and we'll come to the beliefs that are required for participation in terrorism. But all the evidence (Abrahms 2011 again) suggests that international terrorism against civilians moves public opinion to the right and increases the likelihood of Western cross-border intervention against terrorists. In other words, again, it's counterproductive. Even Osama bin Laden could see that. When you see people persisting in very costly courses of action and the actions are known to be counter-productive, you have to ask: Why?

But … But what other benefits might there be? A clue lies in the fact that, while psychologically normal, terrorists are often excluded or isolated (e.g. Pedahzur 2005): they are young unmarried men, or young women who were prematurely widowed, or poorly assimilated migrants. Correspondingly, Max Abrahms has argued, what terrorists value above all is the comradeship and supportive ties they find in the organization they joined.

Here are some examples (from Abrahms 2008). Among 516 Guantanamo Bay detainees, knowing an al-Qaida member was a significantly better predictor than belief in jihad. Among 1,100 detained members of the Kurdish PKK, respondents were ten times more likely to say they were attracted to join “because their friends were members” than by political ideology. There are related findings from Europe based on study of the IRA, ETA, RAF, and Red Brigades.

Moreover, terrorist groups are well placed to supply intense comradeship. They provide shared dangers and extreme experiences that cannot be shared with outsiders.

So terrorism is like ... ?

This suggests a more general model for terrorism. What benefits do young people seek from work? To some, salary and prospects matter most. For others, most important is the kind of work. Suppose you want excitement and risk; you don't want work that is routine or desk-bound. Suppose you want teamwork and comradeship, not isolation. Suppose you want the opportunity for acknowledgement of your personal role; you don't want to disappear into an anonymous mass.

If you are that sort of person, you might consider competitive team sports, or becoming an outdoor adventure leader, or joining the emergency services, for example the fire brigades. Or ... you might become a terrorist.

Radicalization and beliefs

So far I've said nothing about beliefs. Yet in choosing terrorism beliefs do play a role. For only a tiny minority chooses terrorism. Most young people do not want to kill others in order to share excitement and form bonds of affection with co-workers. What can overcome this natural reluctance? Here is where beliefs matter.

As an economist, I note that beliefs shape rational choice. You cannot make a rational career choice without beliefs. Here is a minimum set of beliefs that seem to matter for young people who choose terrorism. There is the choice of identity: the very concept of self-interest is predicated on the existence of a "self" that answers the question: Who am I? (as argued by Harrison 2006). For those that choose terrorism the answer is apparently: —I am a warrior (or: —I am a martyr). Sometimes the choice of identity is fuelled by anger. But this choice alone is not sufficient; you can be a soldier or a martyr without directing your rage against innocent people.

There is also a matter of values: Specifically, when I choose how to behave in society, how much weight should I give the interests of other people, compared to my own self-interest? Here the critical answer is: —People who don’t share my beliefs have no right to be considered and don’t deserve to live. This, and only this, makes it OK for the soldier to kill them.

When some young people look for others with whom they can form social bonds, these beliefs can tip the rational choice towards terrorist groups. So to adopt these two beliefs, the identity of the soldier and the exclusion of others from the right to exist based on different beliefs or culture, must be decisive in what some authorities now call "radicalization."


  • Abrahms, Max. 2008. What Terrorists Really Want: Terrorist Motives and Counterterrorism Strategy. International Security, Vol. 32, No. 4 (Spring 2008), pp. 78–105.
  • Abrahms, Max. 2011. Does Terrorism Really Work? Evolution in the Conventional Wisdom since 9/11. Defence and Peace Economics, 22:6, 583-594.
  • Harrison, Mark. 2006. An Economist Looks at Suicide Terrorism. World Economics 7:3, pp. 1-15.
  • Jones, Seth G., and Martin C. Libicki. 2008. How Terrorist Groups End: Lessons for Countering Al Qa’ida. RAND Corporation: Santa Monica.
  • Krueger, Alan B., and Jitka Malečková. 2003. "Education, Poverty and Terrorism: Is There a Causal Connection?" Journal of Economic Perspectives, 17(4): 119-144.
  • Merari, Ariel. 1998. “The Readiness to Kill and Die: Suicidal Terrorism in the Middle East.” In Origins of Terrorism: Psychologies, Ideologies, Theologies, States of Mind, 192-207. Edited by Walter Reich. Second edition, Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center and Johns Hopkins University Press.
  • Pedahzur, Ami. 2005. Suicide Terrorism. Cambridge: Polity.
  • PewResearchCenter. 2013. Muslim Publics Share Concerns About Extremist Groups. Pew Research Center Global Attitudes Project. Washington, D.C.
  • U.S. State Department. 2014. Country Reports on Terrorism, 2013. Bureau of Counterterrorism.

May 08, 2015

Violent Borders: Will There be Another Great War?

Writing about web page

This column first appeared (in Russian) in the opinion section of RBC-TV, a Russian business television channel, on 8 May 2015.

This week we remember the worst war in history. But we remember the war differently. Russians remember the war that began in June 1941 when Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Most other Europeans (including Poles and many Ukrainians) remember the war that began in September 1939 when Germany and the Soviet Union joined to destroy Poland. The Americans remember the war that began in December 1941 with Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor. The Chinese remember the onset of Japan’s all-out war at the Marco Polo Bridge in 1937.

Many separate wars came together to make World War II. All of them were fought over territory. These wars began because various rulers did not accept the borders that existed and they did not accept the existence of the independent states on their borders. They used violence to change borders and destroy neighbouring states. When they did this, they justified their violence based on the memory of past wars and grandiose concepts of national unification and international justice.

Will there be another Great War? We should hope not, because another Great War would be fought with nuclear weapons and would kill tens or hundreds of millions of people.

A reason to be hopeful is that war is never unavoidable. War is a choice made by people, not a result of impersonal forces that we cannot control. Most differences between countries can be negotiated without fighting. However, claims on territory and threats to national survival are the most difficult demands to negotiate, and this is why they easily lead to violence.

In today’s world there are several places where border conflicts could provide the spark for a wider war. Most obvious is the Middle Eastern and North African region. Small wars have raged there in the recent past and several are raging there now. Israel’s existence has been contested since 1948. The borders of Libya, Iraq, and Syria are being redrawn by force. Access to nuclear weapons is currently restricted to Israel, but could spread and probably is spreading as I write.

But the whole of the Middle East and North Africa includes only 350 million people. More than twice as many people, 750 million, live in Europe. There is war in Europe because Russia has unilaterally seized the territory of Crimea and is fuelling conflict in Eastern Ukraine. The effects have spread beyond Ukraine. Russian actions have raised tension with all the bordering states that have Russian speaking minorities, including some that are NATO members. Russia is rearming and mobilizing its military forces. Russian administration spokesmen speak freely of nuclear alerts and nuclear threats.

Looking to the future, we should all worry about East Asia, home to 1.5 billion people. There China is building national power through economic growth and rearmament. China is also redrawing the map of the South China Sea, and this is leading to border disputes with Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia. Given China’s size and Japan’s low military profile, the only counterweight to Chinese expansion is the U.S. Navy, and this increases the scope for a future nuclear confrontation. While Japan keeps a low profile is low, its relations with China are poisoned by nationalist reinterpretations of World War II on both sides.

In all of these regions there are territorial claims and disputed borders, with the potential to draw in nuclear powers on both sides of the conflict.

Can we learn from our past wars so as to avoid the future wars that we fear? Yes. The first lesson of a thousand years of European history is the value of stable borders. Eurasia stretches for ten thousand miles without natural frontiers. When states formed in Eurasia they had no clear territorial limits, and they fought each other continuously for territory.

The idea of sovereign states that respect others’ borders and leave each other in peace is usually identified with the Peace of Westphalia (1648). But in 1648 this idea was only a theory. The practice of mutually assured borders is much more recent. The European Union is a practical embodiment of mutually assured borders; this is reflected in the fact that France and Germany no longer fight each other and the smaller states around them also live in peace.

Russia has always been at the focus of European wars. The Correlates of War dataset on Militarized Interstate Disputes counts 3,168 conflicts from 1870 to 2001 that involved displays or uses of force among pairs of countries. The same dataset also registers the country that originated each disputes. Over 131 years Russia (the USSR from 1917 to 1991) originated 219 disputes, more than any other country. Note that this is not about capitalism versus communism; Russia's leading position was the same both before and after the Revolution. The United States came only in second place, initiating 161 conflicts. Other leading contenders were China (third with 151), the UK (fourth with 119), Iran (fifth with 112), and Germany (sixth with 102).

How did Russia come to occupy this leading position? Russia is immense, and size predisposes a country to throw its weight around. Russia has a long border with many neighbours, giving many opportunities for conflicts to arise. And authoritarian states are less restrained than democracies in deciding over war and peace. Russia's political system has always been authoritarian, except for a few years before and after the end of communism, when Russia's borders were able to change peacefully.

Russians have suffered terribly from the territorial disputes of past centuries. When the Soviet Union broke up, Russia's new borders were drawn for the most part peacefully. This was a tremendously hopeful omen for Russia's future. Particularly important were the assurances given to Ukraine in 1994: Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons and in return the US, UK, and Russia guaranteed Ukraine's borders. The promise was that Europe would no longer suffer from territorial wars. Instead, Europe’s borders could be used for peaceful trade and tourism.

Russia, of all countries, has most to lose from returning Europe to the poisoned era of conflicted borders and perpetual insecurity. The best way for Russians to commemorate the end of World War II is to return to the rule of law for resolving its dispute with Ukraine. In questions of borders and territorial claims the rule of law should have priority over all other considerations, including ethnic solidarity, the rights of self-determination, and the political flavour of this or that government. That is the most fitting tribute to the memory of the tens of millions of war dead.

March 23, 2015

Group, then Threaten: How Bad Ideas Move Millions

Writing about web page

I've been thinking: What is it that enables a bad idea suddenly to spread across millions of people? Here are some of the things I have in mind:

  • In France the National Front is reported as leading all other parties in current opinion polls, having won barely 10 percent of the vote in the 2007 presidential election.
  • In January's general election, nearly 40 percent of Greek voters supported Syriza, compared wtih fewer than 5 percent as recently as 2009.
  • Since narrowly rejecting indendence in last year's referendum, Scotland's voters have rallied to the Scottish National Party, support for which is now reported at over than 40 percent compared with less than 20 percent at the last general election.
  • Most spectacularly, more than 80 per cent of Russians are regularly reported as thinking Vladimir Putin is doing a great job as their president, compared with around 60 percent two years ago.

I am hardly the first to ask this question. There is plenty of research (e.g. de Bromhead et al. 2013) on the economic conditions that foster political extremism, for example. But how do we get from economic conditions to wrong persuasion, exactly? There is the famous Goebbels quote about the "big lie," which is fine as far as it goes but always makes me think: surely there's more to it than this?

If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.

But it can't be true of all lies. Don't some lies work better than others? What is it that defines the ones that work? My best answer so far to this question is an analogy, which I know is less than proof. But it's a thought-provoking analogy; see what you think.

Last year some behavioural scientists (Strõmbom et al. 2014) finally explained how to herd sheep. There is a sheepdog, instructed by a shepherd, that does the running around. It turns out that there are just two stages. First, the dog must gather the sheep in a single compact group. Once that is done, the second step is to threaten the group from one side; as a group, the sheep will move away from the threat in the opposite direction. That's all there is to it.

The reason why the first step must come first is also of interest: If the dog threatens the sheep without first gathering them in a group, they will scatter in all directions, and that's not what the shepherd wants.

Anyway, there's the answer: Group, then threaten.

People are not sheep, and this is only an analogy. Nonetheless you probably already worked out how I would read this. The shepherds are the political leaders. The dogs that run around for them are the campaign managers and activists. The human equivalent of gathering sheep in a group is to polarize people around an identity that defines an in-group and an out-group. So Scots (as opposed to the English), Greeks (as opposed to the Germans), Russian speakers (as opposed to the rest). Group them, then threaten them, and they will move.

To see how the threat sets the group in motion we need one more thing, an insight from Ed Glaeser. Glaeser (2005) wanted to explain the conditions under which politicians become merchants of hate. He began with a community that has suffered some kind of collective setback. When that happens, people demand an explanation: Who has done this to us? "Us" means the in-group. Political entrepreneurs, he argued, will compete to supply satisfying stories. Often the most satisfying account is one that blames the in-group's misfortune on the alleged past crimes of some out-group: the English, the bankers, the Muslims, the Jews, or the West.

Not only past crimes, however; Glaeser uses the phrase "past and future crimes." In other words, he maintains, politicians often transform these stories into powerful threats by giving them a predictive slant: This is what they, the enemy, have done to us in the past and this is what they will do again if we don't mobilize to stop them first.

Remember: Group, then threaten. The result is mobilization.


Mark Harrison writes about economics, public policy, and international affairs. He is a Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick. He is also a research fellow of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, the Centre for Russian and East European Studies at the University of Birmingham, and the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace at Stanford University.

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