12 August 2006

War and asymmetric incentives

We are not quite rational about war. We regard its opposite, peace, as an ideal: as unattainable as it is desirable; something to be worshipped from afar, and something that will never actually happen. War appears to many of us, as it did to the ancient Greeks, to be part of the natural order of things.

Perhaps our inbuilt expectation of a never-ending succession of wars is why we don't take efforts to stop it very seriously. Sure, we have international bodies ostensibly committed to peace-building, and we have countless well-meaning dedicated individuals working behind the scenes trying to prevent or defuse armed conflict. It's not obvious but thankfully their efforts helping reduce the numbers of people killed in armed conflict, as I have blogged before.

But the potential for catastrophe is rising with nuclear proliferation, and it would seem worthwhile trying a new approach. The resources going into conflict prevention are derisory when we look at some of our other expenditures. Why is that? I suspect it's because the achievement of peace is either a national or international government initiative, or because the non-governmental organisations involved are essentially charitable organisations. They cannot be seen to pay very large salaries to their personnel. While these bodies unquestionably attract some of the best and brightest, as well as the most altruistic, these heroic men and women in turn cannot deploy the resources they might need.

The contrast with the private sector is striking. Large corporations operate in an environment in which if they are not efficient they go under; efficiency here doesn't always measure how much output they can generate per unit input.
Particularly for the largest corporations it can describe how effective they are in lobbying government for special favours, such as trade barriers. Nonetheless, their achievement in rewarding their shareholders, performing all the tasks necessary for such unglamorous goals as exchanging warehouses full of toilet rolls for cash, is impressive. Would they be as effective if they faced the same rewards on offer as government employees or NGOs? I think not.

So why don't we channel some of these incentives into the achievement of public goals, such as world peace? Not just the avoidance of armed conflict, but the avoidance of its preconditions. The asymmetry between the incentives on offer to the public and private sectors is as marked as that between their efficiency in achieving their objectives. There is no inevitability about such a disparity. It's mainly historical accident that some hugely important tasks, such as peace-building, impeding trade, building roads educating children are largely the responsibility of government; while others, such as distributing food, printing books or making computers, are mainly carried out by private corporations. There's no need to perpetuate this state of affairs.

A Social Policy Bond regime targeting world peace, broadly defined so as to include secure borders, reduced threat levels etc, could combine the efficiency of the private sector with the needs and goals of ordinary members of the public - those who don't benefit from armed conflict. It wouldn't assume that the idealists and ideologues, the politicians, the generals, and the men of religion are the best people to bring peace to the world. But neither would it assume that none of them have any contribution to make. A bond regime would not represent a single way of ending violent political conflict, but rather it would be a way of stimulating solutions to war that does not prejudge its causes.

As an aside, and to put things into perspective:
...two bringers of mass death were at work in 1918.... By late October the influenza pandemic was killing 7000 people in Britain every week and in all it claimed over 500,000 American lives, exceeding US deaths in battle in the two World Wars, Korea, and Vietnam put together. WOrldwide fatalities far exceeded combat deaths in the [First World] War and may have topped 30 million. David Stevenson, 1914-1918: The History of The First World War (page 498).

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